On Specialization and Interdisciplinarity
Over the past few decades a number of ideas that I call “big picture research programs” have appeared — big history, astrobiology, the overview effect, existential risk, SETI, the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox, the Anthropocene. Many of these are neither “sciences” nor “disciplines” in the conventional sense, but they represent the effort of scientists and philosophers to recover a comprehensive approach to knowledge in the wake of scientific specialization since the scientific revolution.
Is it possible to constitute a new science at this late date in the development of science? And is it possible to constitute a “big picture” discipline that takes in a wider scope rather than narrowing the scope of inquiry, as we find in specialization? What does it mean to create a “big picture” research program, and how is this big picture related to specialization? Thinking about these questions I wrote about the possibility of “big picture” disciplines a few years ago in Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?
I have come to realize that the problem of big picture sciences is isolatable from the problem of specialization and interdisciplinarity, as big picture disciplines, when they appear, effectively constitute new specialist disciplines. Moreover, I also came to realize the limits of what can be accomplished by interdisciplinary sciences, which I wrote about in The Limits of Interdisciplinarity. Science has experienced its rapid growth since the scientific revolution partly precisely because of specialization and the use of scientific abstractions specific to a given discipline — abstractions that are not as effective in other disciplines, which must severally converge on their own optimal abstractions. Specialization, too, has its limitations, but the limitations of specialization and the limitations of interdisciplinarity are complementary, so that each may inform the other; it is not a matter of the inevitable influence in a single direction of one approach upon the other.
The growth of science and of scientific knowledge has usually meant the fissioning of science into ever more specialized disciplines, so that not only are there divisions between biology, geology, physics, astronomy, and so on, but also an increasing number of divisions within each of these specializations, so that within biology there is limnology, virology, mycology, and so on, and within mycology are the further specializations of lichenology, mycotoxicology, and paleomycology. On this basis we could predict that a science of paleolichenology will be formulated at some point, and that there may well be further specializations within paleolichenology (for example, specializing in different periods of paleohistory). We have not yet encountered the limits of the progressive division of the sciences into narrower specializations, and we do not know if there is a limit.
While it is easy to muse about the possibility of a ultimate, final science that will collect all the special sciences together into one, great interdisciplinary whole, it is unlikely that this state of affairs will ever come about. Or, rather, if it does come about, it would be the end of science and the end of scientific inquiry; the final form of science would mean there would be no more growth of science or scientific knowledge.
Just as science forges ahead through inductive generalization, despite the philosophical problems that beset the model of inductive knowledge, and we must assume that the future will be at least somewhat like the past, because, without this assumption, we would have to abandon our efforts to expand our knowledge, and take refuge in either quietism or nihilism. We can take this same view of the overall structure of science, allowing more and narrower specializations to grow like weeds, because this has been the pattern of inquiry that has yielded results in the past. And the flowering of specialization calls forth in turn a response.
Even as science fissions into ever more narrowly defined specializations, the need is felt for a more comprehensive approach to knowledge, and attempts are made to join together several narrow specializations into inter-disciplinary sciences. Newly formed inter-disciplinary sciences in their turn constitute new special sciences, so that science on the whole takes on a reticulate structure in which there are sciences fissioning into narrower disciplines at the same time as multiple specializations are being collected into inter-disciplinary sciences. A bird’s eye view of all these interconnecting disciplines might be called reticulate science.
Not all novel scientific disciplines are narrower specializations within existing disciplines; in some cases it is not clear whether a novel science is a narrower specialization within, or a more comprehensive extension of, the science from which it has been derived. Is astrobiology a specialization within biology, or is it a more comprehensive discipline that includes traditional biology together with non-biological knowledge? Charles S. Cockell gave this definition:
“…astrobiology is the interdisciplinary science that sits at the interface between biological sciences, earth sciences and space sciences — exploring questions that seek to understand the phenomenon of life in its wide universal environment.”
Thus Cockell defines astrobiology in terms of its interdisciplinarity, which both draws together the work of many special sciences while directing them toward a novel epistemic imperative.
If astrobiology is the intersection of biology, earth sciences, and space sciences, does this make it more or less comprehensive than traditional biology? Is big history a specialization within history, or is it a more comprehensive discipline derived from history, but which transcends history? Is big history a more comprehensive conception of history than traditional history? Does it represent a more comprehensive conception of knowledge? Is the concept of the Anthropocene contained with geological chronology, or must it also draw from biology and even the humanities? Is the Drake equation part of SETI, part of big history, part of astrobiology, or does it (or ought it to) stand on its own?
One might speak of a class of sciences that are, at once, both derivative of earlier models while expanding and extending the scope of these models. Analogous to astrobiology, big history appears to be derived from earlier history — a daughter discipline of history, as it were — but it is also an extension of history, not only in terms of methods of research and kinds of evidence employed, but also in terms of synthesizing the growing natural histories of the natural sciences with human history into a seamless whole. And in placing human history in the context of natural history, we can extend our research from the past into the future, insofar as the predictive power of the sciences extends. This makes big history a new science that embraces the whole of time.
But insofar as any of these big picture research programs I have noted above are integral with the sciences, will their growth follow the pattern of the growth of the sciences? Will these research programs and existing antecedents within science be so fused that the fate of one is also the fate of the other? And what is the fate of science that is to be shared by novel disciplines?
One could speculate that the ultimate story of science will be to take the form of disciplines fissioning into ever narrower specializations, each confined within its disciplinary silo, terminating in isolated and virtually inapplicable knowledge. Alternatively, an age of fissioning could be followed by an age of gathering specializations together again into one grand inter-disciplinary body of knowledge, so that science rediscovers the unity that it knew before fragmenting into specialization. This is the hope mentioned above of a final form of science, which strikes me as being as sterile as its dialectical complement of isolated and inapplicable specialization.
Science, however, need not necessarily terminate in either of these antithetical scenarios. Science may also continue to add to and to complexify its reticulate structures, mediating specialization and comprehensivity, embodying both narrowly specialized knowledge and broad overviews that reveal the deep connections between specialized bodies of knowledge. This is now the future that I expect of science, with new specializations continuing to appear, at the same time as new interdisciplinary efforts appear, and the whole of science being characterized by the interweaving of overviews and specialization, with no final form, but an ongoing process of inquiry from ever new perspectives.