Consilience

2008/01/14

Boundaries between sciences and humanitarian disciplines exist only in part thanks to objective qualitative differences between the phenomena that they study and methods employed by their practitioners. No reason should convince us to respect these boundaries. New disciplines and approaches prove most useful when they breach these mostly artifactual boundaries. In many ways the language we speak defines our vision and prevents communication with someone studying the same subject using a different language.

Let me give you an example. In the middle of the 19th century few disciplines seemed as disparate as psychiatry and anatomy. Theodor Meynert, an Austrian anatomist, spent the early part of his career dissecting the brains of deceased patients at the Vienna Asylum. Through this experience, he came to appreciate the significance of anatomy in diagnosing mental disease and argued that psychiatry should become a branch of neuropathology, a controversial position at the time. He became the founder of the brain psychiatry movement. His 1874 treatise Psychiatry: Diseases of the Forebrain became a textbook in both neuroanatomy and clinical psychiatry. Neurobiology today owes much to Meynert’s anatomic methods. Using Meynert’s techniques and observations, his student Carl Wernicke formulated the disconnection theory of aphasia and modern theories of regional and hemispheric specialization of the brain.

Meynert’s most acclaimed student, Sigmund Freud, fully immersed in his teacher’s mindset, recognized the organic origin of the mind. Daunted perhaps by the complexity and crudeness of the physiological approach to the mind, Freud shied away from physiology and developed his psychoanalysis — an abstract dead-end discipline that has never passed the muster of empirical proof or brought about any effective treatment.

Meynert coined the term Ego denoting the totality of structural connectivity patterns in the brain formed and honed by the experiences specific to the individual. This conception of the psychological personality remains coherent with modern neuroscience research, over a century later. Freud’s redefined ego, super-ego, and id remain abstract 19th-century ideas.

What lesson do we learn from this? Insistence on the unity of knowledge, or consilience, and disregard for constructed barriers will always push our understanding forward. Another lesson: doing so may not make you more famous than someone who will help you blame your problems on your mother.

What boundaries will we disregard tomorrow? How about the boundaries between arts, literature, engineering, science, ethics, and philosophy. Let’s recognize and understand the tools that each employ and apply them in every unlikeliest permutation.

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7 Responses to “Consilience”

  1. B.R. Says:

    The question that has been on my mind recently is just how the boundaries between different disciplines shift and what it is that prompts that very shifting.
    Might I ask to host this entry on my blog as well. Since your previous post attracted much interest, I think a ‘part deux’ would be a good move.

  2. B.R. Says:

    I posted a comment from Rebecca just now.
    Just added a link to your blog so readers can reach you directly. Thanks.

  3. B.R. Says:

    Are you calling psychoanalysis a pseudo-science b/c Freud refused to subject his ideas to the scientific method?
    Not that I’m a proponent of Freud, far from it actually, but couldn’t one learn something from his professional choices, i.e., he came from ‘science’ and later made a decision to shift/move/[progress?] to a (modern) Humanities-type framework….?

  4. B.R. Says:

    Readers should be able to reach you on their own now.
    I also linked you to my ‘blogs roll’ as well.

    Rebecca’s comment.
    The ancients were not aware of [boundaries], why should we limit ourselves?”
    I don’t think we should. There’s nothing about the ontology of cognition, at least I don’t think so, that lends itself to this particular ‘interpretation.’
    I enjoyed your phrasing a good deal. Thank you.
    Rebecca

  5. Andy Says:

    Boundaries between disciplines need to [re-]gain their pre-20-th century fluidity. If we want to make progress in our respective fields, we need to be aware of what other disciplines are doing and, more importantly, how they are going about cognition.

  6. Dimitri Says:

    Andy, do you think boundaries lost their fluidity only in the 20th century? What do you think precipitated this crystallization?

  7. Dimitri Says:

    Bri, yes, by definition, ideas are scientific if they lend themselves to empirical verification. It’s not a value judgment. Freud never bothered but made a lot of claims about the nature of the mind.


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