Rethinking CP Snow’s Debate on THE TWO CULTURES

S. N  “Chubby” Arseculeratne whose choice of title was  The stuff of history and the stuff of science; a re-consideration of C. P. Snow’s debate on The Two Cultures”

I am basing my comments on the topic of the ongoing debate – Did Jesus live in India ? There were earlier books on this topic by Holger Kersten (Jesus lived in India, The original Jesus,  books by Fida Hassnain (A search for the Historical Jesus) and Elizabeth Clare Prophet (The lost years of Jesus). Commentaries by Bhante Dhammika (Australia), Kamal Wickremasinghe (KW), and V. J. M. de Silva were published in The Island. Tissa Devendra (10 January 2016, The Island) made legitimate comments on the proper styles of academic debate, commenting on KW’s tirade. The Jesus Conspiracy, also by Holger Kersten, dealt with the provenance of The Turin Shroud that is claimed to have covered the body of Jesus when it was taken down after his Crucifixion.

The points that I deal with are not the validity or historicity of the claims on either side of this debate, but firstly the differences in approach between writers in the Humanities, and those in the hard sciences, in their respective tasks. I then consider some reasons for the persistence of this debate on The Two Cultures.

Diogenes the Greek philosopher, we are told, spent his life-time searching for the Truth, as do the scientists who study Nature, while the Humanist or writer in the Arts and literary fields make their mark by the breadth of their imagination and ideation on supposed facts. This essay is a commentary on this divide. This cultural debate was initiated by C. P. Snow in Britain in his essay on The Two Cultures (the Arts and the Humanities and the Sciences); Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar considered it a futile debate. Yet his debate appears to be alive, to judge from the recent newspaper (The Island) articles on the question Did Jesus live in India.? First a brief review of the theses in these writings. Kersten, Hassnain and Prophet gave evidence of the years Jesus spent in India. Bhante (monk) Dhammika from Australia countered this thesis with other evidence to show that this story is a myth.

Some statements that imply that a gulf exists between these two areas of Snow’s discourse can now be considered. Our eminent scientist, the late Professor K. N. Seneviratne said in his lecture, “Some central concepts in the philosophy of science”: Why does an apple fall when it leaves the tree? That question has been answered by the tradition of Aristotle. It is in the very nature of apples to fall down…. It is not merely apples that fall, but all earthy things…it emphasizes the first major concept of the whole basis of scientific thought”. The scientist deals with incontrovertible facts like the falling apple, but differences may arise in their interpretation; for example, the Fred Hoyle-Chandra Wickremasinghe theory on the origin of life on earth.

On this cultural divide, Snow (1965) thought poorly of a person, who couldn’t recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics while he equated this ignorance with that of a person on the other side of this divide who has not read a work by Shakespeare. R. W. Livingstone on the side of literature wrote in his book “Education and the spirit of the Age (1973): “What do we miss when we analyse perfectly a poem, an historical event, a human character, a flower, a piece of music, a work of art, and stop there, resting content in our analysis?”. Livingstone argued from the literary viewpoint: “Natural science seems so all-embracing, that we do not notice that vast regions of life – and these the most important – do not come within its view, and a mind dominated by it would naturally be inclined to ignore or under-estimate them. It has little to say about those creations of the human spirit which alone are immortal, great literature or great art. When we read Homer or Dante or Shakespeare, listen to a symphony of Beethoven, gaze at the Parthenon or the paintings in the Sistine Chapel, natural science has little light to throw on what we feel or why we feel it…. It is dumb if we ask it to explain the greatest human works or emotions or experiences”.  Sir James Frazer, an author in the Humanities, and author of The Golden Bough, named the British Association for the Advancement of Science, The British Ass. The most telling comment on this divide is by Arthur Koestler (1964): “In the index to the six hundred odd pages of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of Historyabridged version, the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton do not occur”.

On a visit to the Hong Kong Gallery of Chinese art, I read the following view of a 17th century Chinese artist: “It matters little if the works are marvelous and sublime, or neither”- Ho Lu Kwong.  The artists and writers preferred to write when they felt like writing, a sort of sociological catharsis.  – “During those chaotic interim years” (Quing and early republican years)  “joining the civil service became first an impossible dream and then a contemptible career for many literati who preferred to direct their efforts to art and scholarship instead”.  “In the late Ming period with corruption rife in the civil service many men of insight decided to shun officialdom  and devote themselves to writing  and artistic creation instead.

As I wrote earlier, the Humanist or writer in the Arts makes his mark by the breadth of his imagination. The problem of what is written also afflicts, apparently wise people, who try to write learned essays. We also find a good example of contestable comments by writers in the Humanities – reputed Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote (quoted by The London Telegraph):- “Africa has no known history until the arrival of the white man”. The Telegraph commented on “The manuscripts, a fabulous record of one of Africa’s greatest civilizations. What the Timbuktoo manuscripts disprove is the old European idea that Africans are incapable of intellectual work, – of reading, writing and scholarly endeavour”.

Next we have Graham Greene’s novel Odd Man Out, where there were as many versions of what happened at a crime as there were correspondents to report on it. My host in Hong Kong added the example of the Japanese film Rashomon, of Kurosawa, also a fiction, that portrayed the same elasticity of opinions on a scene of rape and murder.  So while Kurosawa meditated on the nature of Truth, where do we plebian readers of news-print stand?

While the stuff of  history provides data for intellectual or political debate, objective Science however also permits of fascinating fictional projections – What if a second Big Bang occurs?, What if the human brain had lesser or greater control from the primitive Thalamus on higher centres of thinking? (see Janus, by Arthur Koestler).

We should also remember that mis-constructions of historical data are potent causes of international strife, for example the distorted views of Adolph Hitler after World War I that led him to start World War II.

Finally, I must refer to Tissa Devendra’s useful  comments (The Island, 10 Jan. 2016) on acceptable standards of academic debate which writers, however many axes they have to wield, must abide by.

This essay’s topics The Stuff of History and The Two Cultures are Included in this author’s forthcoming book (I think, therefore I am – Rene Descartes). 


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