C P Snow and the Second Law of Thermodynamics Essay
C P Snow and the Second Law of Thermodynamics
The scientist and the literary intellectual represent two cultures that are drifting apart from each other to such an extent that each is becoming increasing ignorant of and alien to the other, and because they must represent a body of knowledge as a whole, the consequence is that, though specialization, both the scientist and the intellectual are becoming effectively ignorant. Analysis: Though C P Snow claims to be speaking from a common ground between the two cultures that he envisages, I would argue that he is squarely placed in the scientific camp, and is by no means an intellectual.
The manner in which he describes the rift between the two cultures has a distinct whiff of “shallow optimism” about it, which is the intellectual trait of the scientist. He advocates a simple dialogue between the two camps, which is very much reminiscent of Enlightenment thinking, which, before the advent of modern science, maintained that scientific education was the key to overcoming all social ills, and dialogue is but a means to educate each other.
Snow is right in thinking that the two camps had grown apart unawares, and that at one time the cultured man endeavored to keep abreast of knowledge as a whole. But a fundamental point seems to escape him, and that is that modern science entails specialization, and neither does he suspect that it could be the root of the problem. While he acknowledges the existence of specialization in science, he tries to make out that it need not be divisive. His advocacy is of a holistic understanding, and on the strength of this plea he wants to effect a negotiation between the two camps.
“Don’t carry your specializations too far,” he seems to be saying to both the scientists and the intellectuals, “because both the arts and the sciences are important, and one is in danger of becoming ignorant if one loses complete touch with any one of them. ” The propositional content of his plea is correct, but the mistake is to sound it on the platform of modern science, which is divisive in its fundamental aspect. If one is committed to the scientific outlook one must live with specialization. We can take his example about the literary intellectual knowing the second law of thermodynamics as a testing point.
He thinks that literary intellectual should at least know this law, which is accepted among physicists as being fundamentally significant. The equivalent feat of for a physicist would be of having read a play by Shakespeare, he suggests. But concentrating on the first point, why should one know the second law of thermodynamics if one will never question its validity? Science functions by constant questioning, and no scientist is ever trained to carry absolute dictates about with him. A literary intellectual may come to it in two ways.
He may absorb it as in inviolable dictate, in which case it would not be science at all. Or he may come to it with the proper outlook of the scientist, which is the questioning one. If on the second trajectory, he may either be captivated by the question, or he may deem it not worth his while. If he is captivated, and he remains honest to his intellectual proclivities, then he cannot but pursue the question further, to the detriment of usual literary occupation. But it is more likely that he deems it not worth his while, in which case he returns to the field in which he is proficient and interested.
And in due course, through neglect, he forgets how to state the scientific principle at all. If the last is the most natural and likeliest outcome, there is little point in pushing the second law of thermodynamics to the literary man. He has arrived at the status quo of not knowing the law at all, because that is the most natural state of affairs for him. In his situation he has better things to occupy himself with. For Snow to suggest that he ought to know the second law smacks of the arrogance of science, which is an arrogance rooted in naive optimism.
Then again, a scientist should only be expected to enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, but certainly not to analyze it. Literary understanding calls for a profound understanding of human nature, which is certainly not part of the equipment of the scientist, who is trained to detect only empirical evidence. To tell a scientist to analyze King Lear would only confuse him, and if he tried too hard it would blunt his scientific perception. Snow would be better advised to consider the underlying philosophy of science, rather than external practice of the separate disciplines.
It is a tacit understanding among members of the scientific society (of which literary intellectual are a part) that each practice his own specialization. Only the fruits are to be enjoyed by all, and this is the true egalitarian dimension of atomized science. The notion of “progress” comes from the understanding that the fruits of specialization confer on all, and it is this notion of progress that binds all members of scientific society. In its original conception modern science was defined as an egalitarianism of knowledge, and apparent loss of this is what Snow is lamenting.
But such egalitarianism has not disappeared; it has only become impractical for a single person to keep up with the expanding body of knowledge. But more important than knowledge sharing is the philosophy that underpins it, and this philosophy still unites the particle physicist and the Shakespeare man. In calling for a new, and strained, egalitarianism of knowledge, Snow is only betraying his naivete of the world, which is the characteristic naivete of the scientist daring to speak on the humanities. Works Cited Snow, Charles Percy. The Two Cultures. Ed. Stefan Collini. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.