Saturday, November 20, 2010

Inter-disciplinary studies require great discipline

"The problem with a lot of multi-disciplinary studies is that they do not show a lot of discipline."
I am told this was said by Michael Fisher, a famous theoretical physicist, who at one time was a Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics at Cornell University.

As someone who works at the interface of chemistry and physics, and has an interest in the dialogue between science and theology I see this problem of lack of discipline more often than I would like.

It is fascinating to find connections and parallels between concepts, phenomena, and ideas which at first may appear different and unconnected. But when are these good and helpful? When are they just silly and misleading?

It should always be born in mind that correlation does not equal causality. Rich people eat more fresh tomatoes than poor people but this is not what makes them rich!

Here are a few examples of attempted connections that I find weak:

In the classic art history textbook Gardner's Art through the Ages it is argued that it is no accident that early in the twentieth century two revolutionary new ways of looking at the world developed: the cubism of Picasso and the relativity of Einstein.

Chaos theory and postmodern literary criticism are both concerned with instability and "nonlinearity". Much of this "connection" was made by Katherine Hayles in her book, Chaos Bound. It was widely acclaimed in literary circles but panned in Higher Superstition by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt.

The attempt of Sir Roger Penrose in The Emperor's New Mind to make connections between consciousness, intractable computations, the quantum measurement problem, and quantum gravity.

So caution is in order. What criteria should we use for judging success?
I am not sure, but one is that at least one of the two disciplines should be enriched by interaction with the other.

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