Longing for Unified Knowledge
Ivan M. Havel, CTS Prague
Half a century ago, Erwin Schroedinger, one of the main contributors to modern physics, made a remark that is even more valid now than it was in his time1). It aptly characterizes the inherent epistemological dilemma of contemporary science. Noting that we have
“inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge,”
“But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it.”
Trends towards unification have a complex history of waxing and waning and of partial victories over the inherent tendency of the sciences to over-specialize and diverge from each other. Ever since the seventies we have encountered a renaissance of attempts at universality. This time around, it shows an enhanced emphasis on everything complex and, furthermore, on the concept of complexity itself. The whole institute, devoted to promoting the science of complexity, was established in Santa Fe. There, zealous scientists - mathematicians, physicists, biologists, economists, astronomers and information scientists - search for a common language and shared concepts. Similar institutes and efforts may be found today in an ever-increasing number of places in the U.S. and Europe.
Are we any closer to the ideal of unified knowledge?
Let us return to 1954 when four scientists, a biologist, an economist, a physiologist and a mathematician spent some time together in a research center in Palo Alto, California. One of them was Ludwig von Bertalanffy. There they developed among them a stimulating resonance across disciplines, and in recognition of its importance they established the Society for Research of General Systems. It was the era of cybernetics, structuralism and information theory, a time pregnant with cross-fertilization, interconnections, and cross-breeding of scientific disciplines. Let us take note of the four tasks advanced by the four originators of the system movement2):
1. To investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models from various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another;
2. To encourage development of adequate theoretical models in fields which lack them;
3. To minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields; and
4. To promote the unity of science through improving communication among specialists.
While reading the above formulations a while ago, something began to bother me. As they are written, they are identical to the contemporary concepts of those efforts which are timely and necessary in order to develop future science emerging from the status quo of our knowledge, fragmented as it is into an unmanageable diversity of separate disciplines. Identical proclamations are abundant and they resound proudly in many research teams, centers and institutes around the globe. How is it possible that only today we strive to achieve something which is essentially identical to a 40-year-old statement? How come 40 years were not enough to transform the statement into a generally accepted, ordinary, and every-day method of scientific inquiry?
In his famous lecture in 1959 Charles Percy Snow identified “two cultures”, namely those of the natural scientists (exemplified by physicists) and of the literary intellectuals (as he called them, exemplified by writers and literary critiques). He pointed to the polarity of these two groups, lack of common understanding, respect, and interest. His principal aim at that time was to call for a greater emphasis on natural sciences in higher education and to celebrate the scientific revolution as the best possible solution to the social problems of the world3). Now, forty years after Snow's influential talk and the following controversy, the most interesting thing to be observed is how much the spectrum of issues, and the intellectual climate as a whole, has changed since that time. This is very well analyzed by Stefan Collini in his extensive introduction to a recent edition of Snow's essay4).
Among the issues, I would like to concentrate mainly on one, namely what Collini mentions as “the changing map of disciplines”5). Instead of one gap between the Snowian two cultures there are many gaps today, smaller or larger, between many different disciplines and sub-disciplines. Moreover, there are various forms of interdisciplinary endeavour. Still, according to Collini, there is “something distinctive shared by those activities which are referred to as 'the sciences', and not characteristic of those designated 'the humanities'.
Talking about a “map” of disciplines suggests a convenient spatial metaphor. We can meaningfully ask, avoiding many technicalities, about the way that the “landscape of human knowledge” is structured. Terms like “gap”, “overlap”, “distance” etc. have an obvious visualization (Fig. 1). The manifold of disciplines as we know it is intuitively broken into clusters of specialities with gaps between disciplines. The ideal of the post-Enlightenment attitude is what J. T. Klein calls “the fish-scale model of omniscience”6) (Fig. 2). Acceptance of this model has naturally led to various attempts at unification.
There is an inherent relationship between size of the gaps between disciplines and the “depth” into which particular disciplines are drilling. To simplify the matter let us distinguish three different levels of depth of knowledge (or research) – (Fig. 3). The first, surface level is accessible to the general public, (usually) taught in lower-grade schools and popularized in the general media. The second, intermediate level corresponds to the general knowledge of a particular field or area on the university level and shared by researchers of various sub-specializations and (hopefully) by specialists in neigbouring disciplines. Finally the third, deep level, accessible to a very limited community of specialists, is where the most advanced research in particular specialization is pursued.
However we favour breadth of knowledge and bridges over gaps, we cannot object to any specialized deep-level research where one cannot and perhaps should not expect full understanding between scholars of different disciplines (or of different topics within the same discipline).
On the other hand, very few deep-level scholars are able to translate their subjects all the way into the first, surface level. (This level is, indeed, extremely important to disseminating knowledge to the wider public. By dissemination I do not mean the sort of popularization based just on simplification of the matter and listing final results since the proper basis of effective popularization lies in the fact that everybody possesses to some extent the researcher's spirit of inquiry and shares with him his amazement in the world and his longing to understand it. Shared language is not sufficient, what is really needed is to open people's eyes.)
What remains is the intermediate level. I believe that in order for scholars of different disciplines to interact and unify their efforts they have to shift to a language at an appropriate intermediate level, perhaps first after developing such a language. (By 'language' I do not mean just a vocabulary but the whole framework of mutual understanding.) An interaction of this sort should be given the greatest support, in particular when it spans over the gap between the sciences and the humanities. In the current policies of grant agencies this is very rarely the case.
The lack of will to find a common language at the intermediate level between the sciences and humanities is illustrated in the recent controversy called the “Sokal Affair”. Alan D. Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, greatly disappointed with the currently fashionable postmodernist, poststructuralist, social-constructivist and feminist criticism of Western thought, produced a parody on that type of discourse. His text, a mixture of truths (about physics), half-truths, quarter-truths, falsehoods, and meaningless sentences, for instance
”[…] as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination [of mathematics] is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic[…]. Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics“
was unrecognized as such and accepted for publication in a prestigious journal of cultural studies.7) I do not intend to analyze the pros and cons of such ways of criticizing methods of another discipline. One thing is apparent, however. On both sides of the subsequent debate one can easily observe a lack of will to see the world through the eyes of another culture (in Snow's sense). In other words: what is missing is a common language.
The language barrier is only one obstacle, the most salient one, on the path to unified knowledge. There are other obstacles, too. One is mentioned by Schroedinger in the above quotation. How could we possibly engage in a unification when “it has become next to impossible for a single mind to command fully more than a small specialized portion” of the whole? The more devoted a specialist is to one discipline the less willing he is to study another discipline; simply because of his doubts that he would ever manage to become more than a dilettante in it (after all he well knows how long it took him to become an expert in his own discipline). Yet the ideal of “interdisciplinarity” in its traditional sense assumes that a researcher acquires expertise in several disciplines at the same time - precisely something that is nowadays almost impossible (except for a few geniuses). This requirement was often taken rather lightly in practice which earned, among some, a certain disrespect for the very concept of interdisciplinarity.
Moreover, the researches are always inclined to duly delineate their subject of study in order that their work has a clear direction. This is quite understandable but at the same time it often leads to separation from the original motives. Contrary to them, it often results in establishing just another specialized discipline, with its own technical jargon, research topics, and institutions.
Take for example the above-mentioned system movement. It seems to me (I may be mistaken) that system scientists gradually drifted away from the four proclaimed goals by developing their own specific subject of study (if nothing else, then the very concept of a “system”. By doing so, system science has become a science on something, a discipline like any other. Its action can easily be justified: after all, any respectable scientific discipline must concern itself with a subject. Similar to the situation in other disciplines, the development of a separate subject of study by system science resulted in its isolation from other fields, in development of its own technical jargon hardly comprehensible to its neighbors, and, finally and inevitably, in the emergence of its own university departments, study programs, research projects, conferences, technical journals and learned societies.
Unquestionably, as a separate discipline, system science had enjoyed great success; that aspect is, however, extraneous to my present focus. Let us note something else: nowhere in the four original goals quoted above is specified any subject of inquiry (even the word “system” is not mentioned). The proclaimed approach had never been meant to yield another science (understand: science on something). It was meant to be a “collective effort to resonate across the borders of disciplines”. Such effort deserves a name. Let us call it the “transdisciplinary” approach.
Since the term is established, allow me to expand on its definition. We can differentiate between three different ways that disciplines can interact, cooperate, or even fuse. The ways differ, e.g., in the extent of required expertise in other specializations, in mutual trust of scholars of different participating disciplines, and in agreement on a common language.
A multidisciplinary theme, problem or study should imply something which necessitates a collaboration of several or many disciplines; these, however, do not have to mingle or even fuse together (Fig. 4). It is enough when researchers in one discipline are aware of the existence and advances of others. Examples of multidisciplinary subjects: Earth, health, nature, society, mind.
In contrast, an interdisciplinary (in the narrower sense) field or study should imply anything which emerges at the borderline, in between or at the overlap of (typically two) pre-existing disciplines (Fig. 5). Examples: biochemistry, psycholinguistics, sociobiology, astrobotanics.
Finally, by the term transdisciplinary we may call insights, motives, themes, principles, concepts and ideas which each appears again and again in a number (typically in many) of disciplines and perhaps even transcending them, repeatedly, in many shapes, forms and variations (Fig. 6). (Indirectly, we also label transdisciplinary the study of such themes.) Examples: feed-back, information, representation, comay call insights, motives, themes, principles, concepts and ideas which each appears again and again in a number (typically in many) of disciplines and perhaps even transcending them,
Many of the new directions and movements in the last half of the century, from cybernetics on the one side to the science of complexity on the other side, are in their essence transdisciplinary. It is quite characteristic that they all lean strongly towards mathematical abstraction. That is certainly not surprising in view of the fact that mathematics is an idealized and thus an ideal connection between specific disciplines - hence, in a sense, it is the ultimate consummation of a transdisciplinary way of thinking. It should be underlined, however, that in some sense only; precisely because of its abstract nature, mathematics actually distances itself from natural reality.
Three mentioned programs, independently of their prefixes, “inter”, “multi”, or “trans”, are all counter-balanced by the tendency of knowledge to be fragmented into isolated, mutually divergent disciplines and specializations. The transdisciplinary approach, in particular in its mathematical consummation, leads to corosion of the boundaries between the disciplines by unifying their subjects. The interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, on the other hand, leads more to gluing disciplines into larger compounds. If the apex of transdisciplinarity is mathematics then the apex of multidisciplinarity is natural philosophy. It learns from and feeds itself on many different areas while fully recognizing their ties to reality. In this sense philosophy is the opposite pole to mathematics. (As it sometimes happens, the opposite poles may be close to each other -just note that many famous philosophers started as mathematicians.)
Let us consider the question of whether we can engage in transdisciplinary research at all when it is so hard to overcome the fear of dilettantism. The call for improved communication among specialists would fail miserably if scholars were expected to learn first yet another specialized discipline.
I would like to suggest a small proposal. What about locking up a few top scholars from different disciplines (perhaps from the sciences as well as humanities) in an inaccessible tower for a certain period of time - certainly not a few days only, more preferably for a few months. Let them freely think and chat among themselves while protected from the distractions and demands of their peers. They will soon learn to understand each other's language. I bet that they would soon achieve a resonance of shared motives, themes, principles, concepts and ideas.
Perhaps the story of the tower of Babel could be played in reverse.
Perhaps nothing specific, new or revolutionary would be gained by the resonance achieved by our locked-up scientists. Upon release from the tower, they would return to the safety of their familiar disciplines, where they used to be at home. That does not matter, however. I am sure that they would take with them something: an experience and a lesson which they would hardly ever forget. Who knows, maybe it would even be better that way. Better than if they actually discovered something specific, new and revolutionary, that would give rise to “Another Big Discipline” with its own university departments, study programs, research projects, conferences, technical journals and learned societies.
1 E. Schr�dinger, What is life. Cambridge University Press, 1992 (1944), p. 1. 2 G. J. Klir, Facets of Systems Science. Plenum Press, New York 1991, p. 33. 3 C. P. Snow, Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 1993 (1959). 4 S. Collini, ibid., pp. vii-lxxi. 5 Ibid. pp. xliii-lxi.; 6 J. T. Klein, Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Wayne State University Press, Detroit 1990, Fig. 6. 7 A. Sokal, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text, Nos 46-47, Spring-Summer 1996