We live in a time when the appreciation of interdisciplinary cooperation is becoming rare. Two trends seem to underlie this: reductionism, and hyper-specialization.
Regarding hyper-specialization, most of us have had the experience, indeed the frustration, of going to a doctor with a problem, only to be referred to three different specialists. I recently took a fall. Now in the “old days” of my youth, I’d go to Dr. Williams. And he’d take an x-ray, (right in the office), tell me if I had a break or a sprain, hand me an ace bandage (if it was a sprain), tell me to take aspirin to reduce the swelling and say, “Take it easy, no more flag football for you this season.”
Recently I took a bad fall and the Dr. said, off to the radiologist with you. And, after that, off to the orthopedists. But at the orthopedist I was amazed to discover that there were different departments. So I had to see one doctor for my knee, and another for my ankle. There was yet a third, for the hand. Wowza.
Now, I’m not against specialization per se, but it does seem amazing to me that if I ask my pulmonary doctor a general medical question, she might just shrug, and say, you’d have to ask an endocrinologist. Now either she doesn’t know and has slipped away from basic medical knowledge, or she fears lawsuits.
But the bigger problem occurs when one doctor treats you for say, asthma by using steroids. Then the next doctor says you are getting fat and I’m going to put you on blood pressure meds. But you’re getting fat because of the steroids. And then the Blood pressure meds have other side effects, say depression, that a third specialist starts to treat. And the psychotropic drugs also contribute to weight gain, which worsens the pressure, and also brings on the diabetes, and in walks the endocrinologist with another cocktail of meds with other side effects. And the question is, who has the big picture in mind? Are all the specialists working at cross-purposes?
Well, you get the point. Now I am not telling a personal story here, my own doctor is quite good, but I have sure seen more than a few family members and parishioners running the medical gauntlet and it gets crazy after awhile.
But this is the first way that interdisciplinary approaches suffer in the modern age: hyper-specialization. It is not a mere problem in medicine but in many areas, including theology. Specialist loose sight of the bigger picture.
A second way is the modern tendency of reductionism. This is most evident in the modern problem of “scientism,” the view that the physical sciences alone describe reality, and amount to a whole explanation for any question. Why do we get depressed? Brain chemistry. Really, is that all? Where does consciousness and self awareness come from? Brain chemistry. Is that all? Does God exist? Of course not! Science cannot measure or account for your deity, therefore “it” does not exist. Where does everything come from? We don’t know yet, because science can’t tell us. But one day science will have the answer, and then we will know.
This is reductionism. In this case it is the reduction of all experienced reality to the physical, the material, and the insistence that the physical sciences are all that are needed to account for everything. Surely the physical world is an important reference, but to wholly deny metaphysical reality and metaphysical concepts such as justice, our sense of the eternal, and so forth is reductionist. To dismiss as valid philosophy, theology, literature, and the arts as having any real value in providing answers to deep and mysterious human experiences is reductionist. Religionists too who reject science or show unreasonable hostility to its discoveries are also guilty of reductionism.
It was not always so. In fact, modern science was largely born in and of the worlds of philosophy and religion. The fundamental religious insight that reality is intelligible (because an intelligent being (God) thought it into existence), provided the confidence that we could wrest meaning out of matter. The careful system of thinking that theology and philosophy developed for centuries, provided the road map for critical thinking so central to the scientific method. The religious and theological notion of God as a law giver also provided the framework for discovering God’s law, not merely in pages of the Bible, but in what he created. Science and its methods emerged from these worlds and insights.
As science has blossomed, it too can and does bless theology and philosophy. It confirms order and law and has given a deeper appreciation for just how deep, right to the atomic level, order exists in great complexity. It’s current theories confirm that the universe had a beginning, or at least an expansion from what some call singularity. Science’s amazing discoveries are a great source of wonder and awe for believers.
Literature and science also interact in a kind of two way street. Not only do many modern writers make use of science to weave their works, but science and technology too benefit from the imagination at work in literature, especially science fiction. Many modern inventions such as flight, space travel, cell phones etc., all began in the human minds and fantasies of writers and artists, who themselves were influenced by science and technology.
This is the interdisciplinary progress, dependance and mutual appreciation that seems to be breaking down a bit today, due to reductionism and hyper-specialization. Self enclosed worlds are far less enriching and imaginative, far less inventive and holistic.
In the video below is a remarkable story of how Galileo opened the door to modern physics by wrestling with the questions raised in a literary work of speculative theology written in his day: Dante’s Inferno (part of the Divine Comedy). The video explains in detail how he, meditating on the careful descriptions of Hell in the work gained insight in the interrelationship between math and physical form (proportion). From this meditation was born, at least in it infancy what we call physics today.
Enjoy the video and behold what gifts an interdisciplinary approach and interdisciplinary appreciation and respect critique can being forth. Could or would physics exist today without theology and literature. Perhaps. But the fact is, it does NOT exist apart from those fonts, and did in fact emerge from a wonderful interaction of science, math, literature and theology.
The title I gave this post “How physics came from hell” is playful and designed to attract readers. But the fact is, it did not come from Hell. It came from science, math, literature, theology, philosophy and many other interdisciplinary sources. For those who like to think of Galileo only in terms of the conflict of science and theology, perhaps there is a little more to the story and perhaps the true picture is a little more complicated that the simple (reductionist) portrait of modern times.
Enjoy this informative video: