Charting the Transdisciplinary Space through Spinoza’s God and Nâgârjuna’s Úûnyatâ

Charting the Transdisciplinary Space through Spinoza’s God and Nâgârjuna’s Úûnyatâ

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Specializations abound in the world today. This can be seen everywhere from the way an office is structured into departments and subdepartments to a hospital with a large number of specialists for presumably every type of illness. It is clear to see the advantages of specialization. On the one hand, a human being does not have enough time and energy to be good at everything. Anybody who attempts to be very proficient in more than one rather narrow area is either out of touch with reality or hopelessly utopian. We are all aware of the necessity of the modern world that appears to make specialization a necessity. Increased complexity in every aspect of life, so we appear to be told, makes it the case that each one person cannot do well in more than one particular area. People seem to be encouraged to look deeper, searching more more magnified view of ever smaller area, and to perform extremely well in that small area. Hence we have a picture of a shopkeeper who specializes in one particular product, or a merchant who sells only few kinds of goods. We find all sorts of businesses springing up to cater to all sorts of esoteric demands.

Perhaps one area where specialization is the most visible is in the academia. Specialization in the business world is clearly there, but that deals more with specialization of skills and habits rather than on deciding which putative area of reality one should be focusing on. In the business world, the specialization is that of what you do best. A person who is good at selling one thing rarely attempts to sell another, completely different thing. However, in the academia things are quite different. Here the focus is not so much on different types of skills as much as the subject matter on which the academic skills are being put to work. In the academic specialization, there is an added concern, one about knowledge. One does not merely claim expertise due to one’s skills, habits, or one’s own network; on the contrary one is claiming that one is ‘knowledgeable’ in this or that particular area of the world. One may choose to study crabs, and another studies shrimps, while another studies their habitats in a particular locale. This kind of specialization is very well known and is now ingrained in most education and research institutions. The basic, underlying idea, of course, is that reality is such a hugely complex field and it is not possible to gain knowledge about any particular area of it except through increased specialization. One simply does not have the time or the leisure, or the capability to study everything at the same time.

Proliferation of knowledge in the last century has further produced a plethora of academic specializations each aiming at taking care of an ever smaller chunk of putative reality and developing ever more refined tool to do it. Academic specialization is a result of the idea of division of labor that ran parallel with industrial development that started in the late nineteenth century and continued until today. It is obvious how specialization carries advantages in many ways. With limited time and resources, it is not possible to excel in more than a small part of the whole, and in order to increase the depth of what is being studied, it has seemed to become necessary that more specialization is required. It seems that in order to go deeper and gain more knowledge at anything, one needs to delve into ever smaller bit, zooming in on it and analyzing it to finer details. In this atmosphere, the thinking is that the big picture—how every specific things all hang together—is left alone and somehow is believed to emerge spontaneously from the juxtapositions of these smaller bits.

What I aim to do in this paper is to investigate this phenomenon. I would like to argue that specialization does indeed have its place, but it cannot function well as a means to respond to the vastly complex reality that we are facing in the world today. Academic discliplines arose as a response to the general worldview that favored further specialization. An obvious example was the assembly line factory. We are in a need for the ‘transdisciplinary space.’ However, what that term actually means and how to achieve that is much a matter of debate and discussion. I would like to argue further that insights obtained from two philosophers who hailed from very different times and contexts, Spinoza and Nāgārjuna, could lead us a long way toward realizing the goal of charting the transdisciplinary space. However, before embarking on studying the thoughts of these two philosophers, one would like to know how in fact can the so-called transdisciplinary space be achieved. A more basic question is: What actually is the transdisciplinary space?

Afterwards I will present a map to navigate this transdisciplinary space through the teachings of two prominent philosophers from East and West, i.e., Nāgārjuna and Spinoza. I will try to show that their insights help us a good deal in our attempt to find out how the space is going to be successfully navigated. Both Spinoza and Nāgārjuna are deeply religious philosophers and their insights provide us with a needed viewpoint where religion does indeed play a significant role in today’s knowledge enterprise. Then, I will conclude on how the insights from these two philosophers could help us with understanding how we are to investigate the multifaced dimensions that emerge from the interaction between science and religion.

Disciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity

The rise of different academic discplines to be managed by different academic ‘departments’ was a rather recent phenomenon. It emerged in tandem with the rise of university as a part of modern industrial society in Europe nineteenth century, and was then copied firstly by the US and then the rest of the world. The medieval university, places like Oxford or Sorbonne, did have some form of specialization; there were traditionally four ‘faculties,’ namely law, medicine, theology and philosophy. But these were distinguished more by the subject matter rather than by different ‘methodologies.’ In fact there were much interaction between the different faculties, as texts from philosophy, such as Aristotle’s were used as a basis for medical teaching, and so on. These four medieval faculties, then, shared a common set of canonical works, and as such as they were much more similar with one another, than in our modern times when law and medicine, for example, are so far removed from each other that it’s not possible for a student in one field to use results from one field to illuminate the other. However, in the medieval time, law and medicine shared much more in common; the most notable difference from the modern time is that studying law and medicine in ancient and medicine times looked a lot like each other. Both relied on ancient texts and shared common philosophical background. It is also this same core background that was also shared by philosophy and theology. Traditionally philosophy consisted of what colleges and universities today call “arts and sciences,” that is, knowledge that is supposed to be for its own sake, where as the other three were more applications of the knowledge gained from philosophy.

Even though the medieval disciplines were different from one another, that does not mean that they could be regarded as “different academic disciplines” in today’s term. As most studies consisted of reading and commenting on texts, these different disciplines then were much alike and what distinguished them from one another was not the fact that there were separate methods of studying the phenomena as is the case with today’s academic disciplines. The real difference in methodology came to the fore when Aristotle’s and the Biblical texts were put aside as a means to study the natural phenomena, to be replaced by the “Book of Nature,” to be read and commented on through empirical methods of observation and taking careful notes. The rise of modern science, together with the works of Galileo, Kepler and Newton, contributed to the separation of academic disciplines from one another, especially as this new method of studying ‘natural philosophy’ came about. However, the university largely resisted this new method of studying throughout Europe, and it’s only in the nineteenth century that the university finally rid itself of its medieval legacy and embraced the new science into its curricula.

What I would like to emphasize from this very schematic history of university and knowledge production in Europe was that the rise of academic disciplines as we know them today is largely a legacy of the rise of modern science as a definitive feature of modern society. Employing careful observation, quantitative methods, theoretical hypothesization and testing, the methodology of modern science developed itself in contrast to the old way of reading and commenting on texts. And I would venture to say here that this is precisely when the ‘real’ difference between academic displines emerged. On the one hand, there is the natural science, with its new methodology; on the other there are the discplines which carried over form older times, such as philosophy and theology. The age-old dispute concerning the authority of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle (who was known throughout the Middle Ages as simply “the Philosopher”) and the Bible became rather arcane and fell out of favor as students and scholars preferred to leave the issue aside and instead became more interested in finding out how the knowledge gained from the new methodology could help navigate the sea more precisely (in order to search for new markets and new sites for resources), as well as predict and control the natural phenomena more powerfully. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the rise of modern science in seventeenth century Europe took place hand in hand with the emergence of Europe as the world power, finally eclipsing China as the world’s most productive and technologically advanced nation in the nineteenth century. What is noticeable is that the rise of modern science and its novel methodology became emulated throughout the world, as other countries and cultures scrambled for the way to counteract the overweening European power.

Hence it would not be too far fetched to say that the methodology of modern science was large responsible for the creation of the new type of disciplinarity, where the difference does not lie merely at the surface as was the case with the medieval university. A clear indication of this can be seen in what C. P. Snow observed as “the two cultures” of humanistic and scientific disciplines.1 According to Snow, science and the humanities have drifted away so far apart that it is not often possible for practitioners in the two fields to communicate, and the difference appears to be irrevocable. Within the same university the scientists and the humanists stay physically close to each other, yet they seldom talk and seldom learn about what each other is doing. And when they do talk with each other, the tone tends to be quite antagonistic, as both sides tend to accuse the other of all sorts of things. Those in the academia might well remember that a few years ago there was a big furor starting from this mistrust between scientists and humanists. Alan Sokal, a noted physicist, wrote a hoax article and was accepted for publication by a famous journal in literary theory.2 Later Sokal exposed the hoax and the academic world erupted in controversies and accusations. We do not have time or space in this paper to go any deeper in the Sokal affair, but it shows quite clearly how the disciplinary split between the science and the humanistic discplines led to such widespread mistrust and misunderstanding and mud slingings on both sides.

Since the beginning of the significant split between the academic disciplines, more and more disciplines emerged in the past two or three centuries. Physics became an autonomous discipline and broke away from philosophy when its quantitative methodology was well accepted and systematically formulated. Then followed chemistry and biology. One only needs to look at any standard textbooks on history of science to see how these scientific disciplines emerged out of philosophy, which of course was regarded as the Queen of the Sciences, but was left with very little to work on nowadays as the substantive disciplines have all broken away. In the late nineteenth century, psychology broke away. The reason why the study of the mind became autonomous rather late, and much later than the study of the natural phenomena, was that the publicly quantifiable and objectively verfiable method of studying the mind was developed much later. And it took a major turnin how to think about the human mind in order for psychology to develop itself. Instead of thinking of the mind as immaterial, the mind was then brought to the natural world and made amenable to quantitative and observational study. In short, the mind was made part of the modern scientific world, and with that way of thinking modern psychology was born.

Physics, chemistry, biology and psychology are all natural scientific disciplines. There were also concerns on how to understand the social phenomena, and the rise of modern social scientific disciplines took place in roughly the same typical pattern as do the scientific ones. Sociology became an autonomous discipline when an empirical and publicly verifiable method of study human society became accepted, so were anthropology and economics. The story is actually a familiar one. What these stories of the rise of nos established academic disciplines share in common is that a way was found to study a section of the phenomenon in the scientific way (observational, publicly verifiable, based on testable theories and hypotheses). Economics took place as a discipline when it was recognized that it was indeed possible to postulate about the behaviors of human beings when they engage in economic activities such as producing, selling, buying, bargaining, and so on. In fact it was found that it was even possible to subsume these behaviors under supposedly universal laws, and these laws derive their “universality” only under the assumption that human beings always act in order to maximize their self interests. Without this assumption economics breaks down, unless a way is found to explain away behaviors that do not fit the norm such as altruism and charity so that they are in the end motivated by self interest. The idea is that, in order for economics to become an exact science, its theories need to be subsumable under universal laws. These laws are laid upon the basis which is largely unquestioned and would appear to be extremely peculiar to the medieval or the ancient mentalities. Suppose one would be arguing with Aristotle that the real human nature is to maximize his or her individual interest, no doubt Aristotle would find that argument ridiculous, if not altogether wrong. For Aristotle would presumably be thinking that it is the nature of human being to realize their full potential, what it is exactly to be a human being, and not an animal, and to maximize one’s self interest does not seem to distinguish a human being from other animals. If rationality were conceived as ability to figure out how one’s narrow self interests could be maximized, then a mouse could even be said to be rational in this regard, as it ‘knows’ how to maximize its interest too (such as it may k ow how to get the shortest route to its food, and so on).

What has been outlined so far was the emergence of the today established disciplines out of philosophy, which used to be the cradle for all of them. After this big split, there occurred many further differentiations within one particular discipline. What is interesting is that this differentiation of academic disciplines into further and further specializations in a way reflects and is reflected by the way the university, as the embodiment of knowledge structure, is organized and structured. Let me take my own university as an example. Chulalongkorn University was founded in 1917 as a commemoration of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who ruled Siam (as the country was known then) from 1868 to 1910. The university was formed out of the previously existing Royal Pages School, which was earlier founded by King Chulalongkorn to train royal pages to work in the palace and to work in the newly formed bureaucracy. In order for Siam to fend itself from the threats posted by the European colonialists in the late nineteenth century, it had to have a clearly defined state working under the same assumptions as do the European countries. All the autonomous principalities which then existed according to the old way of tribute relationship with the Siamese king needed to be put under the full control of Bangkok as part of the Siamese state itself. In order for this to work a functioning bureaucracy was essential, and this was the motivation for the Royal Pages School and afterwards Chulalongkorn University. Hence the relation between the modern bureaucracy and my university was evident from the beginning.

The link between bureaucracy and the university does not in fact lie within the purposes of establishing the university only. Even the university itself became part of the bureaucracy it was intended to produce the personnel to serve. And as the bureaucracy always has a tendency to departmentalize and subdepartmentalize, so is the university. The bureaucratic organization tends to divide itself into departments and divisions in order to increase efficiency. It is believed that the specialized division within the organization will perform better than the non-specializing one. With specialized departments and divisions one can bring in expertise whose job is to function well within the narrow domain of a department. Hence the organization tends to divide itself into personnel departments, finance departments and so on. And it is quite well known that in a large bureaucratic organization there is always the tendency to divide further into subdepartments and sub-subdepartments and so on. Perhaps a real motivation behind these creations of further subdivisions is that budget is made not to the result of the works that have been performed, but directly to the agencies or the departments and subdepartments. So the only way an agency can get more funding is not for it to claim better results, but to claim more work, which can be verified only by employing more people and establishing more subdivisions.

When the university itself became bureaucratic since its inception, as is the case with Chulalongkorn, the division naturally mirrors that of the bureaucratic organization. That is to say, the emphasis is not always on the quality of work performed, but on the quantity. This perhaps is an explanation why Chulalongkorn University has one of the highest teacher per student ratio in the world at 1 teacher for 8 students. The university has been employing a disproportionately large number of faculty members when compared to the number of its students because it has been always subdividing. These were only four faculties when the university was established, and today there are more than thirty and each faculty has set up its own departments, centers, new degree programs, in order to attract more funding. Another aspect of the mirroring between the bureaucracy and the university is in the nature of academic disciplines itself. As bureaucracies tend to subdivide, so do the disciplines. The rationale is the same. Bureaucracies subdivide because they believe that more work will be done that way, and academic disciplines also subdivide because they think there more work which cannot be done unless the field is further divided so that more people, each specializing in each of the subdivisions, could be brought to work on them.

However, it has become increasingly evident that this way of academic specialization is no longer able to answer to the needs of people and societies any longer. When academic disciplines go their own way in delving deeper and deeper in their own domains, they all branch out and go their separate ways. It is necessary that when each member of a group is equipped with a tool to enable them to zoom in on particular spots, they will each branch out and sooner or later will lose touch with each other completely. In biology, one may choose to study insects and another spiders, but when there are more insects to be studied the one who studies them finds that it is necessary for them to choose a particular species of insect, and so on; while the other who chose to study spiders do the same thing. Sooner or later the two biologists lose touch with each other. And this is only within the same academic discipline. One can then imagine what it would be like for, say, a historian of economic life in early Song dynasty and an entomologist specializing in life cycle of a butterfly species on an island south of Thailand to talk to each other and try to understand each other.

It is ironic that increased complexity would demand a rethink of specialization, but the picture of each knowledge seeker going out her own way digging her own way and branching out from her colleagues is no longer tenable. The reason is that it is impossible to get all the depths there are in all corners this way; zooming in on particular spots invariably means one is losing out on the whole picture. Today’s reality, with greater interconnectedness due to communication technologies and other means, is vastly more complex than the one studied by scientists in the late nineteenth century when the idea of specialization took hold. Nonetheless it is well documented that the world in the early part of the twenty-first century demands that one gets the big picture—how everything is related to everything else. This complexity does not merely need collaborative efforts among different disciplines, but there is also a need for a transdisciplinary endeavor which means going beyond disciplinary boundaries altogether.

It has to be made clear the different meanings of interdisciplinarity’ and ‘transdisciplinarity.’ What distinguishes one from the other is that the former still retains the disciplinary boundary, whereas in the latter such a boundary is totally neglected, ‘superseded,’ as Hegel would say. In the interdisciplinary collaboration, academics from various disciplines still retain their disciplinary identity. It is, furthermore, clear that the complexity of today’s problems demand transdisciplinary collaboration, and not merely interdisciplinary one. This is because the problem as I have described stems from the inadequacies of the standard methodology of each academic discipline, so if these disciplines come to collaborate without thereby losing its methodological identity, then nothing much is accomplished. In transdisciplinary collaboration, it would be incorrect to say that all disciplinary identities would totally disappear. That is not the case in the Hegelian synthesis. On the contrary, the identities of the differing parties are still there, only that they are somehow subsumed and transformed under the emergence of the new entity. The boundaries that separate one discipline from another break down, fusing them together in such a way that a new way that is capable of solving the problem or of providing a novel way to understand things emerges. Suppose a philosopher is working with a medical scientist, the philosopher is still the philosopher in that she still has with her the whole vocabulary of philosophy, which she brings to bear on problems that intersect with that of the medical professor. The medical professor, likewise, comes to the collaborative group in her function as the medical scientist. It is expected that the members of the group have to defer to her expert viewpoint as a medical doctor, in perhaps the same way as the group is expected (though usually a bit less) to defer to the opinion and judgement of the philosopher. On the contrary, in the transdisciplinary activity, there is no talk about who is the philosopher or who is the medical scientist, or who is in fact any professional in any field. Instead of different disciplines joining together for a common purpose, these disciplines are then fused together, each losing its identity but each contributing to the emergence of a totally new entity. This is reminiscent of Hegel’s idea of the Dialectic, i.e., the emergence of the synthesis out of the conflicts between the the thesis and its negative counterpart the antithesis. In such a collaboration, the medical doctor ceases to be the medical doctor; the philosopher ceases to be the philosopher. But each contributes in her own way the common goal of the group. This is a central concern of this paper and I shall obviously return to this again after elaborating the conceptual tools from Nāgārjuna and Spinoza and how their teachings are relevant.

Spinoza and Nāgārjuna

What I want to say is that academic specialization as traditionally understood goes hand in hand with the needs of a particular time and place in human history. If we look back toward the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it would be very difficult to imagine how it would be otherwise than the adoption of modern bureaucratic methods to solve the problems that were there at that time. Each method has its own use at its own place, time and context. This is also another lesson from Hegel. However, the world in the early twenty-first century is vastly different from that of the late nineteenth, or even the later twentieth century, so we are in need of another way to look at and comprehend reality than is available to us in the last century.

In the Ethics, Spinoza shows that God is identical to Nature, and in fact to everything in the universe, which is in fact an attribute of Him. In other words, in Spinoza’s vision everything is God and is in God at the same time; everything is one and the same in one aspect and there are infinite variety of infinitely many things at the same time. In Spinoza’s words: “No attribute of a substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that the substance can be divided.”3 This means that there is only one thing. The substance here means God Himself, which for Spinoza is one and the same with reality. God appears at once as one entity and as infinitely many aspects of it. Both subject and object are only aspects of God; hence they are fundamentally one and the same. Minds and bodies are thus essentially the same; it is only through our finite minds that these are conceived as separate entities. In another Proposition (P15), he says “Whatever exists is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.”4 Since the substance or God (which is the same) cannot be divided and since anything that exists exists in God, everything is in God and is part of God.

Let us look more closely at the key passage in the Ethics:

P12 No attribute of a substance can be truly conceived from which is follows that the substance can be divided.

Dem.: For the parts into which a substance so conceived would be divided either will retain the nature of the substance or wil not. If the first ([S: viz. They retain the nature of the substance], then (by P8) each part will have to be infinite, and (by P7) its own cause, and (by P5) each part will have to consist of a different attribute. And so many substances will be able to be formed from one, which is absurd (by P6). Furthermore, the parts (by P2) would have nothing in common with their whole, and the whole (by D4 and P10) could both be and be conceived without its parts, which is absurd, as no one will be able to doubt.5

The gist of Proposition 12 here is that there is only one thing and that thing is not divided. If the one Substance can be divided into parts, which retain its original nature. That is if the parts are each individual substances, then as Spinoza has earlier argued each part would be then infinite, self causing and possessing different attributes or properties, all of which are contrary to the nature of substance. But if the parts do not have the characteristics of Substance, then the parts do not have the characteristics that the whole has, which is also contradictory. To put it in other words, for Spinoza God or Nature is the one Substance, and it cannot be divided because if it were, then each of the parts would then be an individual substance. As Spinoza has earlier argued that a substance is self causing and is infinite, then there cannot be more than one substance. On the other hand, if the parts do not have these characteristics then they would not actually be parts of the Substance because they do not have the characteristics of the whole. The picture here is that of the whole Nature, which is considered as only one and cannot be separated in such a way that the resulting parts do not belong to each other in any way. For Spinoza that is contrary to reason. The apparent fact that there are many things in the world only reflects the different attributes that Substance has. The facts that people are different, that mountains and lakes are not the same, etc., are only apparent rather than real. All things do indeed belong to Nature in such a way that they are no parts. On the contrary they are in a sense Substance itself.

Spinoza continues the same line in Proposition 14:

P14 Except God , no substance can be or be conceived.
Dem.: Since God is an absolutely infinite being, of whom no attribute which expresses an essence of substance can be denied (by D6), and he necesarily exists (by P11), if there were any substance except God, it would have to be explained through some attribute of God, and so two substances of the same attribute would exist, which (by P5) is absurd. And so except God, no substance can be or, consequently, be conceived. For if it could be conceived, it would have to be conceived as existing. But this by the first part of