Mass-producing Hansons

Last weekend I got to meet Robin Hanson unexpectedly as he was passing through Sweden on a lecture tour. I snagged an invitation to what I thought was going to be a lecture but instead turned out to be five people conversing around a table. Feeling like the fifth wheel I still took part.

My lasting impression is that Hanson is a very impressive person indeed. Me and the other youngsters were treated to a discussion on brain emulations and artificial intelligence in a tempo oscillating between brisk and furious. Most of the times I’d managed to render a decently intelligent question or counterpoint in my second language we’d already moved on to a different topic. Talking to him is probably one of the more rewarding ways to make yourself feel stupid.

One thing discussed was how his book The Age of Em is unique in its scope and detail and will likely remain so for quite some time, the reason being that it draws on such a particular combination of fields and bodies of knowledge that only a few people in the world has what it takes to write something like it.

The Age of Em is an unusual book.

This is a problem. There are many experts on particular things; lots of PhD:s are awarded every year, every week, every day, indicating that a lot of people acquire deep knowledge all the time. But only a small set achieve depth in more than one field. Hanson, for instance, has degrees in physics, philosophy and social science plus experience as a researcher in economics, physics and artificial intelligence. This makes it possible for him to construct new, unusual ideas that wouldn’t be conceiveable and realizable for most other scholars.

I think we ought to try to create such people more deliberately. As in, there should be academic fields that are just combinations of other ones. They’d need an institutional support structure — their own departments, professorships, career paths, journals, conferences etc. in order to ensure a steady production of new recruits. This would have additional benefits like making existing fields less crowded.

Unfortunately, the way universities are structured makes this difficult. The typical university is quasi-feudal in its hierarchical yet decentralized power structure; the department pattern more cladistic than networked. Individuals with diverse interests exist, but they have to find a home in a particular department and this isn’t conducive to building truly new bodies of knowledge[1]. It requires exceptional and motivated people and even when they’re there the institutional infrastructure needed to build upon their work isn’t.

In other words, the way academic fields persist and propagate themselves is not ideal for generating new ideas (at least not new paradigms). They reproduce like primitive organisms by splitting or budding, only rarely by the more powerful sexual method[2].

What crossovers do occur aren’t typically half-and-half sexual unions. It’s closer to the way bacteria exchange DNA: a piece of one’s strand gets injected into another. This happens when, say, economics reaches into psychology and picks some stuff out to make behavioral economics, or when computer science grabs hold of language as a study object and makes computational linguistics. Reversing the agency direction, neuroscience and evolutionary biology both try to “stick their strands” into psychology (who’s already got a high-drama on again/off again relationship with sociology).

I suspect true symmetry on the individual level (not just fields coming together in a project, book or center — but in people) is necessary for balanced and fertile unions. Otherwise we’ll just get minor grafts or hamfisted attempts at colonization.

Sometimes a multidisciplinary field forms around the study of a particular thing or practice, where several other fields have something useful to contribute[3]. E.g. architecture involves both structural engineering and art history; management involves sociology, law and economics; rhetoric involves language, logic, psychology and sociology.

The problem with this is that imported tools and ideas will get domesticated. Over time, an originally eclectic field will have its separate parts fused together, edges worn down. It’ll get its own taken-for-granted dogmas, unconscious assumptions and blind spots. When a paradigm matures parental ties are severed, internal tensions relieved and we’re back where we started. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a good thing — it gives us new fields. What it doesn’t do is give us the continuing capacity to integrate disparate knowledge.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote in Science in the Modern World:

Another great fact confronting the modern world is the discovery of the method of training professionals, who specialize in particular regions of thought and thereby progressively add to the sum of knowledge within their respective limitations of subject. /…/ The modern chemist is likely to be weak in zoology, weaker still in his general knowledge of Elizabethan drama, and completely ignorant of the principles of rhythm in English versification. It is probably safe to ignore his knowledge of ancient history. Of course I am speaking of general tendencies; for chemists are no worse than engineers, or mathematicians, or classical scholars. Effective knowledge is professionalized knowledge, supported by a restricted acquaintance with useful subjects subservient to it.

This situation has its dangers. It produces minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. Now to be mentally in a groove is to live in contemplating a given set of abstractions. The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is paid. But there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life. Thus in the modern world, the celibacy of the medieval learned class has been replaced by a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts. /…/

The dangers arising from this aspect of professionalism are great, particularly in our democratic societies. The directive force of reason is weakened. The leading intellects lack balance. They see this set of circumstances, or that set; but not both sets together. The task of coordination is left to those who lack either the force or the character to succeed in some definite career. In short, the specialized functions of the community are performed better and more progressively, but their generalized direction lacks vision.

It’s too much to ask that everyone should know everything about everything[4], but maybe we can do little bit better.

I suspect that if we want to encourage true interdisciplinary insight and the unique competences that come with it, ”combined” fields would need to remain combined and not fuse into monoliths. We should have departments and professors in ”economics and physics”, ”geology and classics”, ”molecular biology and art history” or ”music and computer science” that you could only get into by studying both fields separately first (but after that there’d be a stable career path, for incentive reasons). Actually experiencing the dissonance is probably key.

I remember an old seminar article (that I can’t find now… grr) about how being an immigrant can make you more creative as it means you have to internalize two different cultures (the majority’s and your own). You’ll notice similarities and differences, commonalities and contingencies. See what others don’t. I want to reproduce and mass-produce this experience[5] in an academic context.


[1] There are other structural problems, as Hanson writes.

[2] There are some examples, like cybernetics (kind of dead at this point), and cliodynamics (difficulty gaining traction), but for such ideas to thrive there need to be institutional support for creating them, maintaining them, and also maintaining the creation process itself.

[3] I don’t have a neat reproductive metaphor for this, sorry.

[4]  I get upset by this fact at times. That the sum total of all knowledge human civilisation has access to is not available in the head of any human at any time (and therefore so much insight fails to be present where and when it would be helpful) really bothers me.

[5] I also want intellectual messes cleaned up, because I hate mess. I said in my last post about science and social constructivism that when something is covered by two or more academic fields with different interests, habits and methodologies the accounts tend to not form a coherent whole but instead cause chafing and confused, counterproductive conflict (of course, I found out that Hanson has already written about something like this).

Assuming that each paradigm (like scientific realism and constructivism) has at least some useful insight, a full account of [thing] must integrate previously incommensurable knowledge. Someone doing so (this would be erisologists’ specialty) would perform a valuable service — but there is no process in place for it. Philosophy exists, true, but I don’t think it’s focused on doing this as much as it should be, presumably because philosophers study philosophy instead of everything else, which would probably be the best way to do good philosophy.


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