Saturday, June 2, 2012

Truly Interdisciplinary? On Science and Humanities

To be "interdisciplinary" has been a catchword for well over a decade in the academic world; grants are based upon it, jobs increasingly rely upon it, and, who knows, perhaps the future of the university will be based upon it.  It can lead to provocative (yet unlikely and perhaps silly) proposals, but also genuine collaboration.  Sometimes "interdisciplinary" isn't very much so:  it is often the confluence of people in different departments on their own side of the humanities/sciences divide.  The question remains how sciences and humanities can learn from one another in a mutually beneficial dialogue? 

E.O. Wilson suggests that we have a common basis in story--whether you are a novelist or a physicist, you are essentially telling a story.  You may use a different set of vocabulary, different degrees of metaphor (although Lakoff and Johnson might say that all our language is essentially metaphoric), but we want to tell a story.  The best scholars throughout the university's divisions are the ones who can do this with the most creativity:
Since the fading of the original Enlightenment during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stubborn impasse has existed in the consilience of the humanities and natural sciences. One way to break it is to collate the creative process and writing styles of literature and scientific research. This might not prove so difficult as it first seems. Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story. There is an imagined denouement, and perhaps a start, and a selection of bits and pieces that might fit in between. In works of literature and science alike, any part can be changed, causing a ripple among the other parts, some of which are discarded and new ones added. The surviving fragments are variously joined and separated, and moved about as the story forms. One scenario emerges, then another. The scenarios, whether literary or scientific in nature, compete. Words and sentences (or equations or experiments) are tried. Early on an end to all the imagining is conceived. It seems a wondrous denouement (or scientific breakthrough). But is it the best, is it true? To bring the end safely home is the goal of the creative mind. Whatever that might be, wherever located, however expressed, it begins as a phantom that might up until the last moment fade and be replaced. Inexpressible thoughts flit along the edges. As the best fragments solidify, they are put in place and moved about, and the story grows and reaches its inspired end. Flannery O’Connor asked, correctly, for all of us, literary authors and scientists, “How can I know what I mean until I see what I say?” The novelist says, “Does that work?,” and the scientist says, “Could that possibly be true?”
I know that's true with me.  I never know what I'm going to conclude at the end of writing my research on the history of religion in antiquity until I actually write it.  Perhaps historians of religion qua exegetes (so literary interpreters) like myself are somewhere in between "does that work?" and "could that possibly be true?"  We are allowed to let the pen flow with much greater style than perhaps a scientist, perhaps less than a novelist, so long as the passage isn't overly purple, and we respond to arguments that are the most creative as well as factually plausible.  E.O. Wilson, however, seeks to understand the evolutionary development of aesthetics and cognitive developments, but, admits, there could be help from the humanities to help scientists understand their own judgements are often social and aesthetic in nature, responding to disciplinary linguistic conventions and social pressures for recognition.

In addition to telling a story, we are united by our common curiosity, and a broader sense of wonder.  I sense that curiosity leading into wonder when reading Darwin's Origin of Species--the final pages are, in fact, quite beautiful.  I sense it when I read the ancient cosmogonies.  Perhaps many of us have lost that awe and wonder, but the most creative in our professions seem to have kept a spark of it.  Here's to the "dreamers of dreams."

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