“Not Really A Philosopher”

“Not Really A Philosopher”

Chris Eliasmith holds a Canada Research Chair in theoretical neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. He has a joint appointment in philosophy and systems design engineering. He also holds an appointment in computer science there. Over at the Ideas Can blog he discusses the challenges of interdisciplinary work. He says:

Not really a philosopher. And not really an engineer… or a neuroscientist, computer scientist, or psychologist.  Instead, I am someone really interested in how the brain works—all of it, at all levels of description.  Brain function is tackled by many disciplines, and there is no good reason to think that only one discipline has all the answers.  So, to me, disciplines are just a structure set up to help govern and categorize academia.

His research group recently won the Polayni Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He continues:

In my acceptance speech, I noted that I was likely the first philosopher to win the award.  But really, that was a way of pointing out that NSERC had chosen not a discipline, but a result.  If anything, what surprised and impressed me the most about getting the award was how the panel ignored disciplinary boundaries.  For much of my career, that has definitely not been the case. 
More typically, publishing, teaching, and doing research across disciplines causes administrative headaches: multiple deans and chairs to convince to support your work; not belonging to a specific faculty; evaluators counting various contributions very differently.  In this era of big, complex research problems, it seems that multidisciplinary research should be encouraged, if not become the norm.  Universities can organize research along challenges, not disciplines: global warming; digital media; brain studies; human environments.

In the case of brain studies, such a structure would more easily allow philosophical insights to guide neuroscientific research; engineering methods to help explain biological phenomena; and psychological surprises to be examined through the lens of computer science.  Ultimately, our best theories will draw on all of these contributions. I am certain the same could be said for making progress on any of the greatest challenges we face as a society.

Drawing on many sources of knowledge to solve a difficult problem seems too obvious a strategy to mention.  Nevertheless, it needs saying because it strains against standard institutional structures.  My faculty appointment has been a ‘special case’ from the beginning. Perhaps giving multidisciplinary research the structures it can thrive under will allow special cases to become the norm.

The whole post is here. Discussion of the rewards and difficulties of interdisciplinary work, its relation to the profession of philosophy, and related subjects, is welcome.

(image: detail of “Bombing Babylon” by Julie Mehretu)

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