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.

Science and Values – 1. The Challenge for the Philosopher

Don Howard

Science, by which I mean also the technologies that flow from and inform it, is a form of social practice. It has evolved distinct institutions and a distinct sociology. It has accumulated and refined an array of formal techniques and instrumental means for knowledge production and certification. That it is also socially embedded, affected by and affecting every aspect of human life, is a trivial truth. The only question, albeit a large one, is, “How?” By what means, in which respects, and to what extent does science change our world and does the world change science? Some changes are obvious, as with the accelerating transformation of material culture effected by science, and changes in our understanding of self, the worlds our selves inhabit, their relation to one another, and the relation of both to nature and spirit. Other changes, and the manner of the change, are less so, as with the content and modes of production of scientific knowledge. Does it make a difference when science is done in a democracy? Does it make a difference when research is funded by the private sector rather than the state? Is science neutral, objective, and above the fray? Understanding how science affects and is affected by its surround is necessary if we wish to effect intelligent control over science and the part of human life that it touches, which is well nigh the whole of the human experience.

Philosophers of science are supposed to understand the structure, methods, and interpretation of science. But apart from modest progress on the formal side and a few helpful insights in the foundations of some individual sciences, philosophy’s record from the early twentieth century has been, until late, rather spotty. In the main, when it comes to all but the more formal questions, philosophers of science have handed the task to their colleagues in history and sociology. History has given good service. Fans of technical history of science have been a tad disappointed in recent decades, but otherwise the history of science is a thriving field, with an expanding scope and a healthy plurality of approaches. Historians have taught us much about how science works and how it lives in its many contexts. But history remains, for the most part, a descriptive, narrative, or hermeneutic enterprise, deliberately eschewing critique and normativity. We may argue about how good a job the sociologists have done since the advent of the “strong programme” (“strong” = context shapes the content of science, not just its aims and institutions) some thirty plus years ago. Instead let’s thank them for forcing everyone to take the question of context seriously and for unsettling our lazy assumptions about the distinctive superiority of science among other social practices, its objectivity, and its social detachment. Subversion of prejudice is a form of critique, but sociology of science, like history of science, remains a largely descriptive, not critical enterprise.

Which brings us back to the challenge for the philosophers of science, my native tribe. Until late, we have struggled to say much that is helpful about the embedding of science in society because we were in thrall to an ideology of value neutrality and the social detachment of science, wrongly think these to be necessary conditions for scientific objectivity. We used to credit logical positivism for this deep insight into objectivity, citing Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the “context of justification” and the “context of discovery,” the latter being the dustbin into which history, sociology, and all interesting questions about context were cast, the former being the sandbox in which elite philosophers of science alone were allowed to play. Now we regard such dogma not as insight, but as blindness, and the newer historiography explains it as not just the conclusion of a bad argument but as the discipline’s defensive response to political persecution before (Hitler) and after (Joe McCarthy) the Second World War. Weak inductive evidence for the new historiography is afforded by the fact that, curiously, philosophers of science began to overcome their fear of values talk at about the same time that the Berlin Wall came down.

Today, one is happy to report, everyone is eager to get on the science and values bandwagon. There are conferences, books, anthologies, special issues of journals, albeit, as yet, no prizes. Philosophers of science are eager to learn about science policy. They now invite historians and sociologists to their meetings, and they try hard to be respectful, even as they struggle to figure out exactly how empirical evidence bearing on the actual practice of science is supposed to inform their philosophers’ questions. But that is precisely the problem, for what the philosophy of science still lacks are tools for theorizing the manner and consequences of the social embedding of science.

This is not for want of trying. Our feminist colleagues have been at it for thirty or more years. They have taught us a lot about episodes where science has been more deeply affected by its social embedding – read now its “gendering” – than many of us had or wanted to think. Among them there is a proliferation of analytical frameworks, from feminist empiricism to standpoint theory, difference feminism, and postmodernist feminism, each of which has taught us new ways to query once-settled pieties. Phil Kitcher is probably the most prominent philosopher of science otherwise to have taken the plunge, borrowing ideas from John Rawls to think about the place of science in democracy while holding onto what some think are rather shopworn notions of truth and realism (perhaps also a shopworn notion of democracy). Most interesting to me are those projects that mine the past for fresh insights on science, values, and social embedding, as with Heather Douglas’s re-reading of Richard Rudner, Tom Uebel’s rehabilitation of Otto Neurath, and Matt Brown’s resuscitation of John Dewey (more on all of which anon). New theoretical ideas emerge, thus, from attentive history that is more than mere antiquarianism and rational reconstruction.

Lots of commotion. Still we lack, by my lights, the kinds of theoretical tools needed to answer the “How?” question posed above: “By what means, in which respects, and to what extent does science change our world and does the world change science?” We need a theory of science that integrates the history, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and even biology of science and scientists into a comprehensive project. In its critical and reformist aspects this theory of science must learn to be normative not just after the fashion of the inductive logician but also in the way of the political theorist and the moral theorist. Promotion of the common good should be the guiding principle. And it would be fun it if could even be a bit utopian.

The next post will set us on our way with a more specific list of necessary conditions for the possibility of such a theory of science.