the tragic triangle of the three cultures

In 1959, C.P. Snow delivered a lecture called The Two Cultures, about a vexing divide that he saw in the academic circles of Oxford and Cambridge in the middle of the 20th Century. Snow was a rare bird, as a professional scientist who was also an esteemed novelist. Although the two cultures he describes are often cast as “sciences” against the “humanities,” Snow noted that both regarded themselves as “intellectuals.” One set of his colleagues explored the mysteries of human nature through literature, visual arts, music, politics, and economics. The other set explored the most fundamental aspects of the world in physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Neither was superior to the other, though both harbored the belief that they were. Both were engaged in the deepest exploration of creativity and experience, but abjectly illiterate across the cultural divide. These two cultures would sit at the same dinner table, and their misunderstanding of each other was so extreme that they could not understand each other even when they were agreeing.

This recent “Mundia & Modia” essay reads as a distillation of The Two Cultures, giving the name “Mundia” to the culture that reasons from immutable facts about the world, and “Modia” to the culture that centers on relationships between people. The message is so similar to that of The Two Cultures that I can almost recommend this short essay as a replacement for the longer lecture. The essay lacks the evocative detail of the lecture, but it is also free of the lecture’s jargon, less bound to a particular place in time, and unburdened by mid-century nationalistic baggage, which was nearly unavoidable in Snow’s time. I like the descriptions of Mundia and Modia because the boundaries are formed by how members of a culture make meaning about life. Your culture isn’t where you live or where you’re from, it’s not what you wear or eat, it’s not who you admire or hate. Culture is how you make sense of your place in the world.

Snow’s world was in the precious context of intellectual elites, and was distorted by fashionable stereotypes. But he does muse about another culture that seems outside of both Mundia and Modia. For lack of a better term, he calls it a culture of “technology.” This was near the dawn of the Information Age, at a time when the transistor had recently been invented and hardly commercialized. Yet he was prescient in identifying a culture that seemed based in something more than immutable facts about the natural world, and something beyond the relationships between humans. A generation ago, a futurist organization described its view of this third culture, but that came only one generation after the Snow lecture – another entire generation has passed since then. We have much more information that allows us to clearly understand and define the boundaries between cultures.

3 cultures

Belief, Humanity, and Knowledge – these are all highly loaded terms, and prefixes like “pro-” and “anti-” are bullets in our rhetorical guns. The very first thing to understand about this Three Cultures Thesis is that none of the cultures is superior to the others. Instead, we recognize that each culture is certain of its own superiority, while completely unable to demonstrate that superiority across cultural boundaries because of the way each of them reasons against or with the others.

In each culture, there is a first value (“pro-“) that is at the center of all reasoning within the culture, and there is a second value (“anti-“) that is the most important challenge to that first value. Although the term “anti-” denotes that second value, this doesn’t mean that the culture is always against the second value – only (and always) when the second value comes in conflict with the first. The triangle is completed by noting that the rationale for the first value is always rooted in a third value (“rationale”), which is the way a culture justifies its first value.

Each culture is interlocked with the other two cultures in relationships that are at once antagonistic and attractive. It’s tragic, really: Your biggest enemies want to be friends with you, while you want to be friends with others whose central motivation is inimical to yours.

THE CULTURE OF BELIEF

Culture of Belief: pro-belief

The Culture of Belief includes all people whose central reasoning is based on believing in something above all else. God and Country are obvious examples, but there are many other subcultures of belief that are not about religion or nationalism. People can believe in capitalism with similar fervor, or socialism, or art, or love or sex. Some of the greatest accomplishments in human history have been achieved from Belief subcultures, as well as some of the greatest atrocities. Nothing is stronger than belief, in that it really cannot be defeated until the believer stops believing, and nothing can stop a true believer from believing.

Culture of Belief: anti-knowledge

The most important challenges to Belief come from knowledge. But knowledge is ultimately irrelevant to belief: When you believe in something, you know it is true in a way that requires no further proof, in part because knowledge is inherently unreliable and limited. Anything that is honestly presented as fact must also be open to re-examination, because an openness to new information is a hallmark of knowledge. The few facts that can be established as immutable and universal can easily be dismissed as limited, since the only way to achieve an unchanging, universal fact is to define the universe in a static and bounded way. If you believe that the universe is infinite and that everything changes, you know that no knowledge can endure forever. Beliefs, however, have endured as long as humanity, and always will.

Culture of Belief: human rationale

Why should anyone bother believing in anything? Most adherents to any belief will insist that their devotion serves the dual purpose of advancing the belief as well as the prospects for humanity. People don’t kill in the name of God – or capitalism, or communism, or any ideology – because they hate people. Instead, adherents to a Belief culture will insist that the belief is in the best interests of humanity. They believe that humanity cannot prosper without Belief, so anyone who would be human must adopt this belief. Conversely, anyone who doesn’t adopt the belief is missing what it takes to fully achieve the best of humanity. When push comes to shove, Believers will choose the eternal interests of the Belief over the short-term interests of humans – because those interests must necessarily only be short term if they are not in service of the Belief.

THE CULTURE OF HUMANITY

Culture of Humanity – pro-human

The Culture of Humanity is centered in the common interests of all humanity. Humans by their own definition are the source of compassion, kindness, and really all of the things that are truly worthy, which is to say worthy of being human. That either sounds lovely to you or comes across as fatuous tautology, which is a fancy way of calling hippie-dippie bullshit. Again, the Culture of Humanity is no guarantee of good works or bad. Some our greatest leaders have been centered in humanity, and some who espouse human values have become terrorists in the eyes of the world. As is the case with Belief, no one is always right or always wrong just from the fact of membership in Humanity.

Culture of Humanity – anti-belief

No matter how much any Belief appears to be grounded in a rationale to benefit humanity, Believers must always make a dividing line between themselves and non-believers. And non-believers are, by definition in the eyes of Believers, not fully realizing their humanity. It’s a very short step from there to regarding non-believers as less human, and less worthy. In this way, Belief is the most important challenge to Humanity, which recognizes no boundaries between humans that can justify differing valuations of essential human worth. Humanity sees Belief as inevitably leading to bloodshed because Belief fails to put humanity first.

Culture of Humanity – knowledge rationale

Isn’t the Culture of Humanity merely a belief that humans are the most important value? No, because Humanists reason from knowledge to arrive at their culture. (The term “humanist” has been used in various ways for centuries. In that tradition, I’m using “Humanist” here in a way that aligns with some but not all of the history of the word.) Knowledge is impermanent and limited, except for this one fact: we are all humans. That fact is irrefutable, though the chain of reasoning from there to require that we all be treated as humans has many weak links. Nevertheless, Humanists use the techniques of Knowledge, not Belief, to make the case for compassion, kindness, and mindfulness.

THE CULTURE OF KNOWLEDGE

Culture of Knowledge – pro-knowledge

The greatest accomplishments of our species have come through the accumulation, examination, curation, distribution, and application of knowledge. The Culture of Knowledge values knowledge above all other values because without knowledge, we would be little more than vulnerable and rather pathetic animals. So knowledge is not just instrumental to our flourishing, it is itself the most important thing to flourish. Everything else is ephemeral or retrograde. Beliefs become superstition and ignorance. Humanity is largely violent, brutal, and selfish. Knowledge is the path to a better life.

Culture of Knowledge – anti-human

Knowledge is the highest value in part because it’s the greatest expression of human ability. Knowledge rises above the temporary concerns of humans in their current form. Given a choice to advance humanity or advance knowledge, there can be no acceptable choice other than to pick knowledge, because what makes us human is our knowledge, so advancing knowledge is advancing the best of our humanity. If other aspects of humanity must be shed in order to continue to advance knowledge, then that’s a small price to pay for the prize of keeping the best of what being human is about. Beliefs that oppose knowledge are not a true threat to knowledge. Only a definition of “human” that doesn’t put knowledge first is a threat – in this way, Knowledge is anti-human.

Culture of Knowledge – belief rationale

Ultimately, choosing Knowledge as the highest of all values is a kind of belief, though it is not within the culture of Belief. In a sense, the value of Humanity is a belief, and of course so is any Belief. But Knowledge is the most demonstrably powerful belief because by definition, applied knowledge always has observable results in the physical world. Proof of the existence of Knowledge is evident everywhere; proof of the existence of God is not only lacking, but unnecessary according to the very belief in God. Belief in the value of Knowledge does not require faith, as the rules of evidence are stated within the belief. This makes Knowledge stand outside of all other beliefs, but nevertheless the choice of Knowledge as the highest value is rooted in belief.

CONSEQUENCES AND CONTEXT

This Three Cultures Thesis explains many otherwise curious contradictions: divisions in progressive politics, Austrian vs Keynesian economics, environmentalists vs ecofascists, American patriotism vs exceptionalism, and differing reactions to pandemic plans. These will have to be the subjects of other essays, which I may attempt depending on how long the current pandemic lasts.

At least one future essay will cover the context of these cultural divisions, as I believe that this thesis is important in a much larger context. In fact, the only reason I wrote this post is so that I could write a later post explaining why this all matters. All of the above is really just a prelude to pick up from the very last lines of Snow’s lecture:

“The danger is, we have been brought up to think as though we had all the time in the world. We have very little time. So little that I dare not guess at it.”

That was over sixty years ago. We have so little time left that we have no choice but to try to guess at it.

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