Introducing Synthesis: the Science and Philosophy of Everything

23 12 2010

There’s an academic discipline missing. Terrible oversight. About time we put it right. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call it ‘Synthesis,’ although you can call it whatever you like. In essence, it’s the science and philosophy of everything. All at once.

The interrelation of only a few academic disciplines.

Synthesis is a massively interdisciplinary meta-discipline that seeks to weave together all other fields into a single, holistic tapestry, and which serves to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction between disparate academic disciplines with a vision to share insights and open new avenues of enquiry.

Why do we need Synthesis?

There’s no question that increasing academic specialisation has been a growing trend over the past couple of centuries. Specialisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the only way we can hope to tackle the deep and complex problems that occur at the fringes of our understanding of the natural world. But there’s an increasing awareness that having dozens – if not hundreds – of siloed disciplines, each with their own language, methodology, sharp boundaries and cadre of specialists, makes fruitful conversation between disparate disciplines more difficult.

Yet, each of these disciplines is attempting to explain some facet of the very same world.

In response to this problem we’ve seen a growth in emphasis on interdisciplinary research in recent years. However – as anyone who has attempted to engage in interdisciplinary research can tell you – it’s plagued with difficulties, ranging from the cultural, the institutional and the brute fact that time spent attempting to collaborate with researchers unrelated to your field is time not spent publishing in career-advancing high impact specialist journals.

That’s why Synthesis isn’t just another call for more of the same. Unlike traditional interdisciplinary research, which tends to be bilateral, with individual programmes cobbled together on an ad hoc basis and coordinated by the researchers themselves, Synthesis is its own discipline, one that takes a massively multilateral approach, with an established methodological framework and specialised practitioners who know how to work with researchers and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, while leaving the researchers free to do the research they do best: their specialist research.

And because Synthesis is its own discipline, with its own specialist generalists, it’s not up to researchers to have to reinvent the wheel, and retranslate the jargon, every time they want to cross disciplinary boundaries.

Where interdisciplinary research today is bilateral, Synthesis is the UN of cross collaborative research.

Synthesis is also about weaving together all avenues of human enquiry into a single tapestry to describe the natural world. Given the staggering amounts of effort that have gone into understanding the minutiae of various facets of the world, it’s quite astounding that no-one has attempted to draw them together, and to see what kind of picture of the world emerges.

Synthesis itself is a branch of philosophy – philosophy already being a meta-discipline that sits above all others – and it puts to use many of the tools already developed in philosophy to understand the nature of enquiry, of knowledge and of the scientific method.

Synthesists themselves are trained not to be experts in all things – such a pursuit would be folly – but to be trained in communicating with experts in a wide range of fields. They would have a working knowledge of the methodology and language of multiple disciplines, and have tools that enable them to uncover underlying regularities and common problems that they can share with other disciplines.

They would also be trained in how to bring researchers from disparate disciplines together, how to facilitate communication between them, how to direct new research programmes, and how to synthesise new results and disseminate them as broadly as possible to all interested parties.

I see the meta-discipline of Synthesis as having four main pillars:

1) Methodological: developing tools for massively interdisciplinary study

  • Facilitating interdisciplinary research through symposia, conferences, journals and as active intermediaries
  • Providing tools for communication between disciplines
  • Sharing techniques, technologies and methodologies between disciplines
  • Sharing findings and solutions to problems between disciplines
  • Suggesting new avenues of investigation, new questions to be asked and new problems to be solved

2) Substantive: building a holistic picture of the natural world

  • Building a coherent, holistic picture of the natural world that incorporates the findings of all academic disciplines
  • Discovering underlying regularities and patterns that occur in multiple disciplines

3) Philosophical: exploring the nature of specialised and interdisciplinary research

  • Investigating how disciplines interrelate
  • Looking at the nature of reality and our modes of explanation of reality
  • Looking at the nature of the tools and methodologies being used
  • Investigating the nature of academic specialisation and its effects on academia
  • Producing a taxonomy of disciplines and note how they interrelate

4) Educational: training Synthesists

  • Providing them a working knowledge of multiple disciplines (i.e. understanding what they say, if not to do what they do)
  • Giving them an understanding of the language and tools used by those disciplines
  • Teaching them how to facilitate interactions between various disciplines
  • Giving generalists and polymaths a home in academia

That’s the gist of Synthesis: the academic meta-discipline that we forgot to create. Until now.

I’ve spent the last 18 months talking to scientists, philosophers and laypeople about the idea, and I’ve only had nods of agreement and encouraging comments. So it’s time to move things forward.

The idea is still in its embryonic stages, and I encourage discussion about how Synthesis could work, what challenges it faces, and even whether it’s the best approach to encouraging the weaving together of all our various endeavours directed at understanding the natural world.

I’ll be starting a reading group focused on interdisciplinary research and Synthesis in Sydney in 2011, and I’ll endeavour to share the results of this group as widely as possible with any interested parties. I’m also hoping to present a paper or two at various conferences in 2011 to foster discussion of the idea.

If anyone is interested in Synthesis, or starts a group discussing it anywhere in the world, please let me know, as I’d love to hear as many viewpoints and ideas as possible to make this work.

It’s about time we had a philosophy and science of everything. Let’s make it happen.

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11 responses

23 12 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, Simon Backburn’s presentation in “The Great Debate: Can Science Tell us Right From Wrong?” (link below) seems to me a prime example of our long standing need for a discipline of Synthesis.

I understand Simon Blackburn to be making the point that “virtually all philosophies of mind” classify as fundamentally different kinds of ideas with different functions our beliefs about the world and our desires as to how the world ‘ought’ to be. Therefore, facts and values are fundamentally different kinds of things and understanding facts does not help us understand values.

His (paraphrased) statement: “Therefore … understanding facts does not help us understand values” does not follow if there are facts that answer the question “Why do people have the moral values they do?” If there actually is, as I claim, a single underlying function for virtually all past and present cultural moralities, then knowing the single underlying function of all past and present cultural moralities could help us quite a bit to understand moral values.

However, I see no chance that anyone siloed in moral philosophy could ever uncover a universal underlying function for our diverse, contradictory, and sometimes bizarre cultural moral standards. First, they lack the tools (game theory and evolutionary theory) needed to do the work. Second, their normal methodologies and conclusions are based on ‘moral foundational premises’ and ‘clear definitions’, not data. Many moral philosophers appear proudly “data-independent”.

I understand there are lots of people in game theory and evolutionary theory who would agree that it was uncontroversial that there is a universal underlying function for moral behavior. I expect though, that any of them suggesting such a function had moral significance would be drowned in waves of scorn from the philosophy department.

A Synthesis discipline could have been helping this process along.

24 12 2010
Vincent

Synthesis is not the same as everything. Synthesis can only comprise that which can be synthesised. Everything is everything, including things that can’t be reconciled with other things, are not part of any science, haven’t been recognised as academic disciplines, cannot easily be shared or discussed.

Scientists in talking about Everything are laying claim to more than they can lay their hands on, in a sort of hubris with which they attempt to celebrate the death of religion and superstition. More humility would be more truly scientific

24 12 2010
Tim Dean

@Mark

Indeed, I think one of the examples of the success of broad interdisciplinary study is in recent work in morality, which sees moral philosophy, moral psychology, evolution, game theory, political psychology, anthropology and neuropsych (among others) combine to give a more comprehensive understanding of moral phenomena than we’ve ever seen before.

@Vincent

Not sure where you got the idea that I’ve equated Synthesis with everything, or suggested that science can/does talk about everything.

With Synthesis I’m not just talking about science, but the humanities, philosophy, art, engineering, plumbing etc – basically all fields of human enquiry that relate to the natural world. If it’s possible for humans to ruminate on it, then it’s possible to weave it in to Synthesis. There might be things beyond the purview of human endeavour, and those things will be beyond Synthesis too. But they don’t concern me as much as the things we can attempt to understand, and the need to understand them better.

25 12 2010
Vincent

I get the idea that you’ve equated synthesis with everything from the title of your post; and also your first paragraph.

You say that “if it is possible for humans to ruminate on it, then it’s possible to weave it into Synthesis”. I’m not sure if this is an article of faith, or a declaration of brute-force intent – “we’ll weave it into Synthesis at whatever cost to the integrity of the individual topic”. So for example, we’ll weave the subjectively-experienced feeling of “goodwill to all men”, especially prevalent at Christmas, with some theory connected with the natural world.

I fear that something precious will get lost in this attempt at synthesis. Things which resist theory and classification will be disregarded or denied. And I cannot see the point of synthesis anyway.

25 12 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, in the same event as I linked to, Patricia Churchland, who was head of the philosophy department for a time at UC San Diego but now focuses on neurobiology, did talk about neurobiology helping us understand, at some distant date as I understood it, why people have the values they do. Aside from her (and perhaps yourself) I am not aware of anyone who might be called a professional philosopher who endorses the view that you and I largely share about the importance of the interdisciplinary study of moral behavior and in particular the importance of game theory and evolution.

The professional philosophers I am aware of speak consistently with Simon Blackburn who is having none of it. Can you suggest other professional philosophers who might be sympathetic to the idea that science may make important contributions to understanding moral behavior?

In other words, it seems to me that “one of the examples of the success of broad interdisciplinary study is in recent work in morality” would not be agreed with by virtually all professional philosophers.

I am very interested in what any professional philosophers who might be sympathetic to our positions have to say. Thanks for any suggestions.

25 12 2010
Tim Dean

@Vincent

I’d encourage you to read the entire post and not dwell on the introduction. You’ll see I’m not actually advancing any epistemic or metaphysical thesis about what we can know or ought to study. I’m suggesting that the existing academic disciplines (scientific and non-scientific) would benefit from better interrelation, and that can be achieved through a specialist discipline to do just that.

And I’m not sure why you think something precious will get lost. Synthesis doesn’t demand any change to the way academic disciplines currently work, it simply adds another layer. If something is lost in a world with Synthesis, it’s already lost in a world without it.

@Mark

There are several academic philosophers who embrace a multidisciplinary view of morality and who value the input of empirical study. Check out Richard Joyce, Joshua Greene, Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett, David Sloan Wilson, Jon Haidt (psychologist, but still…) and Joshua Knobe. There are others – not heaps, but a growing number. And, encouragingly, there are several postgrads and recent PhDs in Australia who are looking at morality and who take evolution seriously. It’s the way of the future, I tells ya.

26 12 2010
Mark Sloan

Tim, perhaps our differences regarding whether there are significant numbers of professional moral philosophers who have “multidisciplinary view(s) of morality and who value the input of empirical study” are that you see the glass as half full and I see it as 99.9% empty. I do see your point that all these people ARE trying to do the right thing with regard to bringing the methods of science to bear on understanding morality.

Perhaps I am just more disappointed in the conclusions to date and the direction their work is going.

I don’t see Richard Joyce and Michael Ruse as really helping (they have misunderstood reality in my opinion) when they proclaim that morality, respectively, is a ‘useful fiction’ or an ‘illusion’.

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who is still trying to explain morality, as I understood him to be doing at least a few years ago, in terms of reproductive fitness of our ancestors. His books are delightful. However, his focus on reproductive fitness in our ancestors misses the point. To understand morality, we have to go beyond reproductive fitness and answer the question “Why did acting ‘morally’ increase the reproductive fitness of our ancestors?” Answering that question, I think, reveals that morality is neither a useful fiction or an illusion, but lies in the fundamental nature of the universe as revealed by game theory. Morality is as real as mathematics is.

We do agree that “It’s the way of the future, I tells ya”. I am just impatient because what morality ‘is’ seems pretty obvious.

26 12 2010
Tim Dean

Mark, perhaps that is the source of our difference. I long ago became resigned to the fact that the vast majority of philosophers disagree with me about almost everything. I’m used to it now.

As for Ruse and Joyce – I don’t think their position is as far from yours as you think. The ‘illusion’ they refer to is the impression we have that morality is objective and real. Instead they think it’s constructed to promote prosocial behaviour. I’m cool with that.

And sure, the facts about how it came to be, and about the problems of encouraging prosocial behaviour that are to be solved, are as real as any scientific fact, but the reality they doubt is the magical ought, not the descriptive stuff.

There is one chap who had a paper in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy recently who did argue that we evolved a faculty that was capable of appreciating the facts of morality in the same way that evolution apparently equipped us with a mind capable of appreciating the facts of mathematics. I’ll dig it up. It might be closer to your position than Ruse/Joyce/mine.

27 12 2010
Mark Sloan

I knew that Joyce and Ruse were describing ‘magic oughts’ as useful fictions and illusions and, of course, I am in full agreement. I criticize their silence (so far as I know) concerning the existence of culturally useful moral wisdom from science – though I would be delighted to find that I am wrong about them being silent on what I see as a critically important topic.

I had a look at their website and the Australasian Journal of Philosophy seems to have a more practical bent than many other philosophy journals. I could not find the paper you mentioned.

Returning to your synthesis project, perhaps because he is a professor of economics, you did not mention Herbert Gintis among those working on the unification of moral philosophy and science (and in Gintis’ case specifically economics). Of everyone I have read, he is the closest to working on “synthesis” as you describe it and the closest to my own views about the relationship of moral philosophy to science. It may be an overstatement to say he talks about “moral philosophy”. With regard to moral philosophy he mainly just talks about altruism and cooperation. Perhaps he largely avoids talking about “morality” because, like others working in science, he doesn’t think the resulting harassment is worth the possible benefits.

On the very small chance you are not familiar with Gintis, here is his useful website with a lot of publications for download:

http://people.umass.edu/gintis/

Also, my 99.9% empty glass of moral philosophers accepting that science may have important things to say about morality probably overstates my case. I had noticed that Australia seems over-represented in moral philosophers who are “seeing the light”.

3 01 2011
Hvad skal vi med videnskabelige blogs? | Tænketanken

[…] Endelig finder jeg at der er en befriende tendens til, at bloggeren træder et skridt væk fra sit egentlige forskningsområde, og kommer med mere overordnede betragtninger, som indskriver det snævre forskningsområde i en større sammenhæng. Herved medvirker de videnskabelige blogs til at give det overblik der ofte mangler: Vi drukner i detaljerede specialstudier, men mangler de overordnede synteser (jvf. Introducing Synthesis: the Science and Philosophy of Everything). […]

3 08 2013
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