On the Pseudoproblem of Interdisciplinarity

Don Howard

This essay is dedicated to two extraordinary individuals whose leadership made possible the growth of institutions fostering interdisciplinarity, institutions crucial to my career:

Frederick B. Dutton (1906-1995), chemist, science educator, and founding dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University, 1967.
John D. (“Jack”) Reilly (1942-2014) engineer, businessman, and founding donor of the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame, 1985.

From the beginning of my life in the academy, back in the 1960s, I have heard again, and again, and again the complaint that the modern university and other institutions of research and intellection erect too many barriers to inter-, trans-, and cross-disciplinary interaction. Specialization and fragmentation are portrayed as the cause of a great cultural crisis. It is said that they encourage the development of science and technology bereft of value and of philosophy and theology ignorant of the way the world really works. We are warned that they have engendered a deep spiritual crisis of modernity as the human soul, itself, is fractured. It is argued that breaching disciplinary walls is necessary for solving many of the problems that humankind faces, like anthropogenic climate change, the threat of artificial intelligence run amok, and endemic poverty and disease in less developed parts of the world, but that the “silo” structure of the modern academy stands in the way.

On the other hand, from the beginning of my life in the academy, I have been deeply puzzled by all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth. Those in this chorus of lament seem to inhabit an intellectual and institutional landscape remarkably different from the one in which I learned and now live. Of course I’ve encountered obstacles to collaboration across boundaries, but the world as I see it is one in which those obstacles are usually little more than annoyances, impediments easily overcome with a bit of effort. The world as I see it is one in which transgressing boundaries is commonplace and often richly rewarded. I’m left wondering how my experience can have been so different from that of the complainers.

Fred Dutton 2
Frederick B. Dutton (1906-1995). Founding Dean of Michigan State’s Lyman Briggs College.

Let me begin by acknowledging that mine might be an unusual perspective. My home discipline of the history and philosophy of science is radically interdisciplinary in construction and function, and has been so since its inception more than one-hundred and fifty years ago. My still more local niches of the philosophical foundations of physics and technology ethics are, likewise, radically interdisciplinary, and have been so from the very beginning. My first degree was in physics, pursued within the designedly interdisciplinary, undergraduate, residential science studies college, Lyman Briggs College, at Michigan State University. My postgraduate degrees are both in philosophy, from a philosophy department at Boston University where, in the 1970s, advanced course work in the sciences was strongly reinforced and where three of my philosophy faculty had cross appointments in physics, one of them, Robert Cohen, having chaired both departments. I live today between the worlds of physics and philosophy. My tenure is in philosophy, but I am a Fellow of the American Physical Society, where I have held and hold important leadership responsibilities. And I have directed, at Notre Dame, both the History and Philosophy of Science Graduate Program and the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values, the name of which bespeaks the interdisciplinary ambitions with which it was built thirty years ago and which it has achieved, many times over.

Jack Reilly (1942-2014). Founding donor of Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values

Well and good, you say, but surely yours is an exceptional case. To which I respond: No, it is not. Remember that I am, among other things, a historian of science. When I survey the history of the map of the disciplines from the founding of the modern university in the nineteenth century to the present, what I see is not a static but a highly dynamic landscape, with lots of seismic and tectonic activity. Disciplines come and disciplines go. Some disciplines bifurcate or trifurcate. Philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy were commonly one department in the late-nineteenth century. Some disciplines merge or birth hybrid offspring. The great revolution in the biosciences in the twentieth century came about through the creation of wholly new fields, like biophysics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Especially at the allegedly impermeable boundaries of the disciplines, lots of smart, creative, entrepreneurial types crafted and today still craft exciting, new, intellectual formations, such as digital humanities, network analysis, bioinformatics, and big data analytics, which latter is reshaping everything from genomics to national security and medical discovery. Just last fall, I learned of a new field of “biomechatronics” – a synthesis of biomechanics, robotics, prosthetics, and artificial intelligence – with its own new center at MIT. Here at my own university, I have watched a civil engineering department become a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Science. I have witnessed the creation of remarkable new, purposely interdisciplinary centers, such as the Wireless Institute, the Environmental Change Initiative, the Energy Center, the Center for Nano Science and Technology, and the Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics Initiative. Nor is this a uniquely Notre Dame phenomenon, some special fruit of our being a Catholic institution. No, it is the norm at all of the better institutions. Thus, at the University of South Carolina, two of my philosophy friends have served as assistant director of USC’s world-class Nano Center. And, more than a few years ago, Arizona State University simply blew up the old departmental structure, replacing it with topically-focused “Schools” of this and that, which explains how a sociologist can be the director of ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology.

Within each of these new formations a new disciplinarity emerges, of course. But that is right and good, for the word, “discipline,” denotes both an institutional structure and standards of rigor and quality within a field. It’s a good thing that we don’t give the amateurs a vote. There are better and worse ways of knowledge making – we philosophers of science have spent decades articulating that point. While most opinions deserve our respect, and while “outsiders” can sometimes reshape a whole field (think of Luis Alvarez, iridium, and the Cretaceous extinction), that is the exception, not the norm. Those willing to do the hard work of mastering techniques and knowledge bases should be and are welcome, as when my Doktorvater, Abner Shimony, added to his Yale philosophy Ph.D. a Princeton physics Ph.D. under the direction of Eugene Wigner and went on to create the exciting and hugely important field of experimental tests of Bell’s theorem, straddling the division between experimental physics and philosophy.

But right there is the key insight. Hard work. It takes hard work. I know a theologian who has co-authored world-class experimental physics papers, and a student of Schrödinger’s who went on to be one of the world’s most important voices on science and theology. What they had in common was that they devoted years to mastering the other relevant discipline before daring to think and work on both sides of the fence. As it happens, I also know some world-famous physicists who have caused only embarrassment when they tried to refashion themselves as theologians, and world famous theologians who caused equal embarrassment when they pretended to find in contemporary physics the explanation of theological mysteries. And the problem in those cases was, precisely, that the individuals in question didn’t do the hard work to master the other field.

Years ago I was fond of joking that the call for interdisciplinarity was really just a plea to be allowed to do badly in two fields what one perhaps couldn’t even do well in one. That might be a slightly uncharitable way to put the point, because we rightly celebrate interests that stretch beyond one’s home domain and we rightly encourage dialogue of all kinds. Moreover, we rightly strive to create more flexible and accommodating administrative structures, as with the Arizona State experiment. But the real problem of interdisciplinarity is, in most cases, that of a lack of effort or of talent, a failure to do what needs to be done to earn the respect of one’s colleagues in other fields, respect born out of study and demonstrated achievement. I’m sorry to be so harsh, but too many of the complainers are just lazy dilettantes. Hard working, smart folk see barriers as just bumps in the road on the way to the construction of richly interdisciplinary research careers, educational programs, professional associations, and whatever else is needed to get the job done. Confronted by a befuddled dean or a reluctant provost, they don’t stop, they accelerate.

History teaches us another lesson. It teaches us that what always plays the leading role in disciplinary change are the problems, themselves. Many of the most interesting problems grow up at the interfaces between different fields. Thus, as I explain to my students, the quantum revolution had its start at the end of the nineteenth century, when theoretical physicists began to pay attention to exciting new work on precision measurements in industrial labs. It was the engineers and the materials scientists whose work first alerted the theorists to the problem of anomalous specific heats and to the curious features of the black-body radiation spectrum. In Germany, in the 1870s, the government created the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt [Imperial Physical-Technical Institute] specifically as a space in which such collaborations between industrial and academic scientists and engineers could flourish. That was a very smart move. And it teaches us that nimble and flexible administrative structures are needed in order to make it possible for the problems to play the leading role. “Aha!” say the whiners, “that’s just the point. University administrations are inflexible.” Well, if that’s so, then please explain how it’s possible that, ever since the birth of the modern university, all of the wonderful experiments in boundary busting adduced in this short essay (and many more besides) could have occurred. They occurred when university presidents, agency directors, and program managers rightly said to people proposing new centers and labs, “convince me,” and then the champions of the new did the hard work to do just that.

Adapted from remarks delivered at the conference: Transcending Orthodoxies: “Re-examining Academic Freedom in Religiously-Affiliated Colleges and Universities,” University of Notre Dame, October 29-November 1, 2015.