Science and literature can speak the same language

When we see sociology and chemistry as vocabularies, we perceive that they are methods, not subjects, of investigation.

Paul Kalanithi argues that the great divide between science and literature is false.

As a teenager with literary aspirations in Kingman AZ, Kalanithi read what sounds like an awful book. Still, Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler JSPS, loaned him by a girlfriend, offered the astounding realization that the mind was simply a function of the brain. 'Of course, it must be true,' he writes. 'What were our brains doing, otherwise?' The revelation turned his mind to neuroscience. At Stanford University he added, to his list of literature classes, courses in biology.

Though Kalanithi went on to complete graduate studies in English literature, ever present on his mind were the physiological systems, sturdy and fallible, that undergirded meaning. He writes, 'There must be a way … that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.'

What does he do by referring to languages rather than fields? Well, even while admitting how the humanities are positioned against the sciences, he planes smooth the friction of their edges. This might be to the credit of the philosopher Richard Rorty, under whose tutelage the young Kalanithi began to see academic disciplines not as separate regions but separate vocabularies. When we see sociology and chemistry as vocabularies, we perceive that they are methods, not subjects, of investigation. Under unified examination across literature, the humanities, and the hard sciences: consciousness, living, the world.

Excerpted from The Millions.