Science or Literature: What’s the Difference?


It is a question that not only high school graduates ask themselves when they have to choose their future: Are you from science or literature? it is also heard in many professional fields.

The short answer would be that some strive to explain physical and natural phenomena and others to understand what human beings do. Both are ways of understanding the world in which we live and they intend, with that knowledge, to do things that improve the quality of life: from a tunnel through a mountain, to composing a beautiful song that brightens the day. Or from making a vaccine against a pandemic, to proposing solutions to political conflicts.

This duality, although it was born in the 19th century, is traced back to classical antiquity. Let us remember that the origin of the European university is found in the medieval studia generalia . For example, the Studium Generale de Palencia , which was the first university in Spain, was born in 1212. These general studies were centers sponsored by popes, kings or emperors, where teaching based on the seven liberal arts was taught . On the one hand, grammar, dialectics (or logic) and rhetoric ( trivium ), which lay the foundations of human communication. On the other hand, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music ( quadrivium), which develop numerical relationships in space and time. Those who wanted to, could continue in a higher faculty (law, medicine or theology) where they were empowered to practice the profession.

Although there is no semantic relationship between the terms universitas (association, consortium) and universale , the European university had a universal vocation from its inception. In fact, thanks to the fact that the language of instruction was Latin, and it was equally foreign to everyone, the students had very varied geographical and linguistic origins. In addition, the graduates obtained a licentia ubique terrarum that empowered them to practice their profession anywhere.

The studia generalia were permeated with a strong theological component, but this was weakened when the Lutheran Reformation unveiled other ways of looking at and understanding the world. Likewise, the vindication of vernacular languages ​​as valid languages ​​for knowledge relegated Latin, and caused the homogenization in the cultural origin of the students.

The renunciation of Catholic and Protestant religious fundamentalisms ( Lutheran University of Halle (1694) ) favored the scientific discoveries and technological advance of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Throughout the 19th century, the German university model prevailed in the world. Curricula were secularized and approaches of a more philosophical nature gave way to verifiable knowledge and experimentation. Few defended the usefulness of a liberal arts training for a society that was industrializing and technifying so rapidly. The universalist vision of the university and also of the global knowledge that it should provide to its students was cracked.

Where does the difference lie?

Broadly speaking, the distinction is the same as that between predictive analysis and the art of interpreting meanings. The same that exists between an analysis that aspires to find recurring causalities in physical-natural processes to predict a result, and an interpretation that aspires to find trends of meaning in human events to understand social processes. In other words: between explaining why a stone falls and understanding why someone throws it.

This contrast influences the type of data needed to understand one event (the crash) or another (the launch). In the techniques used to collect and make data speak , and tell what and why what happens. In the ability to predict ( science ) or foresee ( letters ) what may happen and, if necessary, propose a solution.

There is a fundamental aspect that differentiates both ways of knowing. It’s about the context; that is, of when and where things happen. In the case of science , the context is more or less controllable and the delimitation of the variables depends on the technological and financial capacities; there are the laboratory experiments as evidence. However, in the lyrics the context is absolutely uncontrollable; there are the polls to prove it.

While the sciences investigate causal relationships that respond to physical-natural laws that transcend space-time, the relationships that study letters are of significance and meaning; that we know of, they do not respond to any transcendent law or principle.

That is to say, while the former are necessary and occur whenever the appropriate circumstances occur – which explains this blind faith in the asepsis of algorithms – they respond to factors that always depend on their historical context and, therefore, demand a thought. based on interpretive intuition. There is a mixed science like economics that – everyone knows – is an excellent way of explaining crises once they have happened.

Thus, the possibility of controlling the context is essential to understand the contrast between science and literature and the disparate theoretical-methodological problems they face. If the context can be controlled – covered with variables -, the same event can be reproduced as many times as the budget allows, as well as contrasting and verifying all the possibilities and answers.

If the context cannot be controlled, then the same event cannot be reproduced , so it is only possible to study it while it happens and, comparing it with a similar one, find some trend that helps to better understand the general process. For this reason, while the sciences can aspire to an evaluative objectivity, the letters must aspire to honesty as the maximum value.

However, reality shows that the border is not so clear. Many researches have one foot in each mode. There are countless examples that show that the effectiveness of an excellent vaccine or a promising territorial development or regional pacification plan always depends on debates about what is just, what is desirable or what is legitimate; that is, of contextualized human actions and decisions.

False beliefs

The false belief in the scientific superiority and greater usefulness of one way of knowing over the other has only caused a deafness that has not benefited anyone. Thinkers such as Charles Snow in his conference The two cultures (1959), Edgar Morin with the development of complex thought (1982) or Basarab Nicolescu and transdisciplinarity (1996), have denounced the disciplinary compartmentalization of knowledge and claim the need to reconnect both modes to understand holistically the intricate density of reality.

What are you most interested in knowing, why did the stone fall or why was it thrown? In an interrelated, uncertain and information-saturated world, the correct answer should not be other than both .

For this reason, although the ontological difference cannot disappear, we must try to eliminate it from the academic curricula.

Author Bio: Antonio Miguel Nogués is Professor of Social Anthropology at Miguel Hernández University