Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

An Information Ontology

I do not ascribe to a materialist ontology nor an idealist one, but rather, an ontology of information. In other words, I take the following from John 1:1 seriously:

en arche hn o logos
“the foundation of all things is information”

Admittedly, this is a definition that comes about in light of information theory — but if you truly understand both what information is, and all the meanings of logos, you can see that “information” is a good translation of “logos.” Certainly a far, far, far, far, far better choice than “word,” which is such a peripheral meaning of logos as to be almost completely inaccurate. When we “Logos,” we communicate information one to another, process that information, and pass on that information. All things are information at different levels of complexity — information processors, which all communicate different kinds of information at different levels. For biological organisms, the vehicle of communication tends to be chemical, though also photons and sound waves. Humans communicate using more complex information-carriers, particularly through grammatical, syntactical language. If we look at the ways to define information — as a noun, it is that which is without form; as a verb, it is that which gives form to another. Thus, pure information is that which is without form, which gives form.

“The foundation of all things was information, and the information was 1) to the advantage of 2) at, near, by 3) to, towards, with, with regard to (the word translated as “with”) God, and God was information.”

That is the most literal translation of John 1:1 I can render. The story of the universe is one of foundation on information, and the increasing complexity of that information over time in the universe. Atoms have less complex forms of information than do chemicals and especially chemical cycles and systems. Biology is a set of highly complex chemical systems. The human brain is a highly complex neural system in complex interaction with other humans through complex social systems. That information is communicated through language, which itself must be highly complex in order to communicate most efficiently. God is the most complex of the universe, and thus has all the information. This is how God is both the Alpha (the inform information that gives form at the beginning of the universe) and the Omega (the most complex, most informed).

All the other theories I use in my philosophy — evolutionary theory, game theory, chaos theory, complexity theory, emergence theory, etc. — explain the ways in which information interacts to create more complex things and how those complex things engage in complex interactions. Information theory is the foundation of all these things. Information is the foundation of all things.

Five Models for Thinking

In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates say that he likes dividing things up into categories because it aides in thinking. He also tells us that, like a good butcher, we need to make sure we are making the cuts at the natural joints; otherwise, we just make a mess of things. Nietzsche came along 2300 years later to remind us that conceptual categories are, ultimately, artificial, and that we need to challenge them periodically, and remember that the divisions among things are not really so clear-cut.

That having been said, let me lay out several models I am using that determine my thinking.

1) Information Theory. I support an ontology of information. If something is inform, it has no form. If something informs, it gives form. Thus, information is that which is without form, yet gives form. All things in the universe are information, and the universe itself began as information and continues to exist as information.

2) Chaos Theory, Bios Theory, Constructal Theory and Fractal Geometry. All things in the universe are self-similar regardless of scale, in several different fractal geometries. They exhibit order and disorder simultaneously around strange attractors. Bios theory is similar to chaos theory, but explains creativity in the universe as a product of bipolar feedback (simultaneous negative and positive feedback)–that is, it explains how systems find new strange attractors.

3) Self-Organization and Spontaneous Order. When objects can interact, they will, and when they do, they will give rise to order spontaneously. That order can range from the simple order of a salt crystal to the complex liquid crystal order of a living cell. Complex order requires an understanding of network theory as well.

4) Emergence. All laws of the universe evolved from separate entities interacting to give rise to those laws. These laws act as strange attractors. The result is a new entity the properties of which cannot be predicts from the underlying interactions.

5) Nested Hierarchies. Everything in the universe evolved into its level of complexity from lower levels of complexity. Biology evolved from chemistry which evolved from quantum physics (atoms), and atoms evolved from quantum strings. New levels of complexity arise naturally from lower levels of complexity as the entities of that lower level interact as a complex, dynamic system.

The idea of nested hierarchies comes in several flavors:

1) The physical model exemplified by J.T. Fraser‘s umwelt theory of time. With his model, the timeless level of pure chaos evolved into the probablistic time of quantum physics, whihc evolved into the deterministic time of chemistry (Newtonian physics), which evolved into the weakly forward direction of biotemporality (biological time), which evolved into the strongly forward direction of nootemporality (human time). Each level contains more and more time. And, I would argue, each new level becomes increasingly fractal in nature.

2) The human cognitive and social model developed by Clare Graves. With his model, the pure survialism of animal life evolved into the weak communitarian structures of tribalism, which evolved into the weak individualism of Achilles-type heroism/belief in power gods, which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of authoritarian-religious systems (like Medieval Christianity of modern-day Islam), which evolved into the stronger individualism of the capitalist/scientific social system (the Modern Era in Europe and America), which evolved into the stronger communitarianism of secular egalitarianism (Marxism/Communism, environmentalism, postmodernism), which evolved into integralism, which recognizes the value of each of the lower levels (lower in the sense of being less complex, as each level is more complex than the lower levels), which evolved into holism, which attempts to more smoothly unify all the lower levels. The last two levels recognize the value of complex, fluid, nested hierarchies, as opposed to the egalitarian level, which rejects all hierarchies, and the authoritarian level, which tries to impose rigid hierarchies on everyone.

To have an even more integrationist way of thinking, we cannot forget these four things: I-we-it-its : individualism-communitarianism-traditional science-systems science. And these must be fully integrated into the two forms of nested hierarchy mentioned above (as those two ideas must themselves be integrated).

These are a few of the models with which I am thinking. Actually, these are really just a single model with which I’m thinking. The model itself exhibits all the qualities listed above. You will also find useful elements of my thinking in catastrophe theory (due to its relation to emergence), and the ideas of both negative and positive feedback (and the bipolar feedback of Bios theory, of course). Negative feedback is equilibrium thinking, but positive feedback results in waves such as boom-bust cycle and the cycles described by cliodynamics. And be sure to read up on complexity as well. Knowing what models I’m using should help to make sense of much of what I have said and will say from now on in the blog.