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.
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.