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Paul Grobstein's picture

A methodology for trandisciplinary work, con.

After rereading this, particularly the second part on "methodology," I realized there is a personal/background story that I left out, and that probably needs to be included for the theoretical issues to make sense.  Here the missing pieces ...

I've told a number of people, colleagues/friends/family members, about our project and, pretty uniformly, get back the questions "I don't quite understand what you're doing" and, with even more doubt/skepticism, "how do you do THAT?"  Its a quite different response from what it would be if I had said "We're trying to better understand the brain by building computer models of it" or "We're looking into the origins of modern Catholic thought by studying early Christian communities" or "we're trying to get a better handle on Moby Dick by relating it to other contemporaneous novels."  Any or all of these might have elicited a polite "how interesting."  The skepticism I've met with is quite different. 

I think one reason for the difference is the scope of what we are trying to do.  Its all right for teenagers to have conversations about how to account for .... everything.  But grownups?  with PhD's?  Aren't they supposed to have grown beyond that?  ... to be working on something that may be incomprehensible but is at least (or appears at least) to be well-defined and narrowly focused?  It all reminds me of when I was a college student, and I tried to find a faculty advisor who would sponsor me in an independent major on "human knowledge."  Faculty member after faculty member patted me on the head and said "You can't do that."  We'll see.

I think though that it is the issue of methodology as much as the issue of scope that makes people (at least the ones I've talked to) skeptical of what we're about, and may make us uncertain about it as well.  Hence the concern above for methodology.  Others may not know exactly how peering through a microscope might contribute to better understanding cancer, but they've learned to accept on faith that that might be so.  The same is true for the other examples mentioned and myriad additional ones, not only in the minds of other people but in our own.  We, and others, may not know exactly how the method can actually advance the inquiry, but we know what people will be DOING, what the observations will be and more or less what will be the accepted methods for identifying and making use of them.  There is, if no clear indication of how it will serve any given purpose, at least a clear methodology.

I think we can do better, and that's what I was trying to begin sketching above.  Our purpose is to find new and better ways of thinking about things on a more global scale, and our method is to extract from particular existing lines of inquiry the more global ways of thinking that are inherent in them, to notice patterns and conflicts in those more global ways of thinking, and to come up with new more global ways of thinking that  emerge from reflecting on those patterns and conflicts.  The method, it seems to me, fits nicely the purpose.  

What are we doing?  Trying to come up with ways of making sense of the world that don't have the problems of existing ways of making sense of the world.  How are we doing it?  What are our observations, and our methods for making use of them?  Our observations are characterizations of how other people make sense of the world, and we use them to see what new ways of making sense of the world we can conceive at more global scales that might open interesting new lines of exploration at more local and more global scales. 

Will those answers make my colleagues/friends/family less skeptical?  Probably not immediately, but perhaps as we fill in with some examples.  And maybe, if all goes well, they'll come to see this sort of "academic" activity as not something whose significance they have to talk on faith but  as something that has detectable meaning for their own lives.  We'll see.

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