Science vs. Joinence
Fragmentation of knowledge has gotten us into a mess; unifying it might get us out.
One of the first things that comes to mind when we think about science is the dizzying array of specialities into which it is divided: physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, sociology, psychology, etc. Any given field is itself sub-divided into myriad sub-disciplines: physics, for instance, into classical mechanics, thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, particle physics, astrophysics, cosmology, optics, general relativity, statistical mechanics, and so on. Each sub-discipline is then further sub-sub-divided: astrophysics, for example, being separated into stellar astrophysics, planetary science, nebular astronomy, supernovae, exoplanets, stellar populations, extragalactic astronomy, and cosmology. The pattern of differentiation then continues to further sub-sub-sub-divisions: to take extragalactic astronomy, we can separate it out into the study of spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies, irregular galaxies, active galaxies, colliding galaxies, galaxies at low and high redshift, stellar halos, dark matter halos, satellite galaxies, and globular clusters.
At a certain level this is unavoidable. Our universe is incredibly vast and complex, and making a close study of any part of it requires as a necessary step that part to be isolated and classified, that its unique attributes be made more visible. It's for the same reason that human language benefits from a large and specific vocabulary, which enables distinct objects and concepts to be recognized and manipulated.
This tendency towards an ever more granular perception of reality carries with it the danger of myopia: by becoming too focused on the texture of the bark, we miss the tree entirely, and can forget the forest even exists. You see this a lot with professional scientists, who are so immersed in their particular research interest that they have a difficult time drawing connections with other knowledge domains. It's especially a problem for young scientists, who often struggle when asked to explain why anyone should care about their research: having spent years with their eye at the microscope, so to speak, they have lost all conception of how to pull back and see beyond the microorganisms on the slide. I'm not just talking about a lack of ability to draw connections with distant fields, either: it's frequently the case that young researchers, and many older ones for that matter, are unaware of connections to immediately adjacent sub-sub-disciplines. I've met scientists whose work is so focused on a single exemplary object that they have a hard time even drawing connections to objects of the same class.
This tendency seems to be implicit in the word 'science' itself. If we trace the origins of the term back, we find it has had approximately its modern meaning - a body of knowledge, expertise - since Roman times. Before that, it seems to have been related to the Latin verb scindere, to cut or separate, via the Proto-Indo-European root *skei- of the same meaning. From the latter we also obtain schism, schizo-, and, amusingly, shit, as well as all of the words containing science such as conscience, prescience, omniscience, etc. There's a deep connection between knowing and dividing. We see this intuition in Genesis, where it is Adam's special power to name the creatures of the Earth, and thereby provide them with their unique identities.
Contemporary scientific practice puts a strong emphasis on analysis as a key cognitive tool. Tracing back the origins of this word reveals its Greek meaning to be literally a breaking up or loosening, essentially a decomposing of a phenomenon into its constituent parts. This word too has a Proto-Indo-European root, *leu- (to loosen, divide, cut apart), which more or less carries the identical meaning of the Greek lyein (unfasten) from which the latter half of analysis is derived (the first part, ana, means up or toward, and has essentially the same form and meaning in PIE).
Somewhat remarkably, one almost never comes across the word synthesis in modern science, save when used to describe e.g. the manufacture of a chemical compound. Synthesis is the mirror image of analysis, literally a putting-together (Greek syn, together, via PIE *ksun-, with; Greek thesis, a proposition, via PIE *dhe-, to set or to put).
From a neurological perspective, the functions of analysis and synthesis respectively map more or less to the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain1. The left hemisphere breaks our perception of reality into distinct parts, the better to focus on the parts of interest in order to acquire or manipulate them. The right hemisphere assembles the parts into a whole, the better to perceive their inter-relationships and the better to avoid being taken surprise by blind spots; or, perhaps better stated, the right hemisphere perceives the whole as a first step, and then fits the parts within it.
Crucially, analysis is only one step in the process required to comprehend reality. If it is not completed by synthesis, no comprehension is possible. That's how you get over-specialized scientists whose attention is so locked-in to their particular obsession that they become the human equivalent of paperclip maximizers, analyzing for the sake of analyzing with no real idea of why they're analyzing what they're analyzing and no ability to explain the purpose of analyzing beyond that analyzing what they analyze is what they analyze.
Lack of synthesis is also how you end up with absurd situations such as biologists continuing to insist on a mechanical-materialist conception of organisms almost a century after a mechanical conception of reality has been largely abandoned by the physicists who originated the machine model of nature in the first place. It's also how you get the extremely dangerous phenomenon of an entire class of intellectuals who can remain stubbornly blind to the economic, political, and historical context in which the coronavirus epidemic and the power grab and mass medical experimentation that it was used to justify took place. It's how a worldview in which everything is fractured coincidence, random events of no particular relation, can take hold ... and how masses of coincidence theorists can scream conspiracy theorist! at those who perceive obvious patterns in world politics.
It isn't really correct to state that analysis is completed by synthesis; one could equally well start the perceptual loop with synthesis. The two form a continuous process; if one is neglected the cycle is broken and alethiological thought becomes impossible. Analysis enables us to break a phenomenon down into chunks that are manageable by our limited mortal reason; synthesis takes the conclusions of analysis, asks if they are consistent with everything else we know, and if they are, asks what further possibilities we might infer from connecting those conclusions to other knowledge; and these possibilities are then handed off for further analysis.
Over-emphasis on analysis has produced the fragmentary archipelago of the contemporary sciences, where what is well-established, common knowledge in one field is either considered nonsense or simply unknown in another. It is at least partly responsible for the disappearance of the polymath as a common figure in intellectual circles2. It was not long ago that scholars would so often make important contributions in political philosophy, ecology, botany, physics, and poetry, for instance, that to do so was almost unremarkable. Scientists in the 19th century were advised to work on anything other than what they'd examined in their doctoral dissertation. I do not think it is accidental that the most important scientific strides were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Renaissance man was still something of the norm. Science from about the 1950s on has been largely an elaboration on the work that came before; look back to papers of that era, and one will find many of the same issues being debated, having remained unresolved since that time. The measurements are more precise, the models more elaborate, but the underlying ideas are more or less the same.
The great task that lies before science in the 21st century is not to conduct yet more analysis, not to merely measure the same things at slightly higher precision or propose elaborations of existing models to salvage old theories. It is to unify the fields of knowledge, to draw connections between them. This may be the only way out of the replication crisis. With the scientific literature having become filled with nonsense built upon nonsense, cleaning house requires a new clarity of thought, and that clarity is best achieved by a long project of synthesis. Determining whether a given result or model or theory should be rejected or not is a difficult proposition when so much of the literature one would use to test it against is hopelessly polluted by flawed work. By looking for agreement between unrelated fields, and doing so in a dialectical process that simultaneously tests each field against every other, that which is inconsistent with reality should become steadily more apparent.
There's an analogy to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which essentially states that within any logical system it is possible to formulate a statement that cannot be proved either true or false. In language (which isn't precisely a logical system but stay with me) an example of such a statement can take the form "Everything I say is a lie." If the statement is true, then logically it must be a lie; but if it is a lie, logically it cannot be true. The only way to escape such traps is to shift into another logical system, in which the contradiction does not exist, and resolve it there. In similar fashion, irresolvable issues within a given field of knowledge may be resolved by looking at them through the lens of other other fields.
Doing this will require a fundamentally new way of doing science, and of thinking about science. The temples of academia are almost certainly not the right venue for such a project to flourish. For all the enthusiasm about interdisciplinarity, university faculties tend towards the hermetically sealed: getting professors in the same department to work together is difficult enough; collaboration between departments is vanishingly rare. The very geography of universities, with different departments housed in different buildings, is a barrier3.
The language of science is also a barrier. The leaden, anonymized jargonese of the contemporary scientific literature is often almost impenetrable to scientists from different fields, let alone to the public4. A prose style emphasizing readability and clarity, in which scientists use the personal, active voice and communicate with a more relaxed, human language that freely employs humour and metaphor, is far better suited to enabling a broad readership to grasp a document's meaning.
Adopting a more informal, poetic linguistic style has another advantage, for the mind of the author: it engages the right hemisphere of the brain, thereby altering one's mode of thought and encouraging precisely the mindset best suited to synthesis. It turns out that this was well understood in the era of the natural philosophers. In the comments under my most recent piece comparing the closed community of the academy to the emerging open network model of independent scholars, a reader left the following remarks, which are interesting to enough to quote at length:
During the scientific revolution in the 17th c. there was a very strong emphasis on clarity and directness, especially amongst the crowd involved in the Royal Society. Clarity was identified with honesty and reliability. This was contrasted with the old style of the Scholastics, who preferred gaseous and flowery language. Thomas Hobbes (England's premier physicist before Newton came along) was particularly strong on this point.
Your comment about humour hit the mark. Francis Bacon keenly appreciated the value of humour in rigorous philosophy. The Enlightenment's premier encyclopediast Pierre Bayle (according to Voltaire he was the first man to write a book that could teach anyone to think for themselves) recommended that scholars "sport with the Muses" (lighten up and adopt a playful attitude while they pursue knowledge)
How you write affects how you think. I've observed this myself by dumping text into a Myers-Briggs text analyzer. My professional scientific writing, along with the essays I've posted here, all come out as high INTJ (typically greater than 95%). On the other hand, creative writing projects - poems and stories and the like - are reliably diagnosed as INFP. Whether those are accurate personality types or not5, the reliable difference in results points to my having two different personalities depending on which part of my brain is more engaged.
A grand project of knowledge synthesis is different enough in character from how we usually think about science to raise the question (you knew I'd say this) about whether we need a different word for it. As a term, science has already become woefully imprecise, designating as it does a body of knowledge, a way of thinking about knowledge, an array of methodologies for gathering knowledge, and a set of institutions, all of which are jumbled together in the popular (and the educated) mind in a such a way as to make clear thinking about them difficult. Worse, it's been so deeply corrupted by political influence that every time someone says that something is 'scientific', we must immediately wonder in what sense the term is being used. For now, we've been reduced to distinguishing between science and THE SCIENCE™!, a formulation which really only works in text and even then is clumsy at best.
'Science' has its roots in the metaphor of cutting or separating, and this hidden metaphor inflects the way we think about knowledge: how we organize it, and how we go about accessing it. Since the intention is to do the opposite and bring things together, we can look to the appropriate Proto-Indo-European roots: *leig-, to tie or bind, from which we get allegiance, league, and religion; and *yeung-, to join, from which conjugal, joust, yoga, jugular, and join (obviously) are derived. Drawing on the second root, one possibility that suggests itself is joinence, which by happy coincidence is similar to the French joiance, festivity or elation, and carries to the English ear the simultaneous connotations of join and joy, thereby emphasizing the playfulness that should characterize a vast consilience of knowledge, in contrast to the humourless sobriety with which we associate science.
Whether a new word is needed or not, and if so whether my own suggestion is adopted, it seems clear that the Tower of Babel is crumbling. The architects, engineers, and masons building it have lost the ability to speak to one another; with their lines of communication cut off, their coordination falls apart; one part of the building is erected, only to collapse under a weak foundation; another is repaired, only for it to be crushed by the falling buttresses of an arch that hadn't been properly built; a necessary passage is cut between two chambers, undermining a tower that was thrown up without regard to the requirement that the severed chambers be mutually accessible.
If we're to make sense of the world, and build something that can endure, the confusion of tongues must end. Truth is unitary; knowledge is only knowledge if it fits into the whole without contradiction; and thought that does not situate its objects within their full and proper context is merely solipsistic delusion.
The academic pressure to publish as many articles as possible has also driven that dynamic, since the time it takes to master an unfamiliar field is time spent not pumping out additional papers in one's original field.
If you escaped university after finishing a Bachelor's degree, you might not realize this, as you probably took classes in buildings across campus from professors from a variety of fields. If you went on to grad school, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's possible to spend several years at a university and never set foot in any building but the one housing one's own department.
This is largely responsible for one of the dirty little secrets of modern science: "I read the paper" usually means only that the abstract was scanned, the figures glanced at, and the conclusions quickly reviewed. Deep reading of the literature is extremely rare. To be fair, the sheer volume of it makes this impossible; but the low quality of much of it and the terrible prose in which it's written also makes it unrewarding and dull.
I'm at least as skeptical of Myers-Briggs as I am of natal chart astrology, and frankly I prefer astrology. It's more fun.