Abstract mushrooms and reduced cows

When you look at a mushroom, what do you see? You might be attracted by its colourful hood, or by its smell. Or you may think of mushrooms in garlic butter. When I look at a mushroom, I see the fruit body of a basidiomycete. This is because mushrooms are currently a research topic for me. And whilst I see the same object as you, I have a slightly different reaction to it.

What exactly makes scientific research different from everyday experience? When we research an object (whether that is an inanimate object, a living organism, a society or a work of art), we stop looking at it as an individual whole and focus on a particular aspect of it. This process is called abstraction. Which aspect we choose to study depends on our discipline. Take a cow, for example. A chemist might be interested in analysing the chemical composition of its milk. A biologist may focus on how the milk nourishes its calf. An archaeologist could study how cattle became domesticated and people started to drink milk. An economist could be interested in milk or cattle prices. Each discipline starts with the whole cow, then abstracts from all its complex features to home in on whichever part of the cow it can study with the particular tools and theories that are characteristic of that particular discipline.

While each discipline provides a valuable insight, none of the disciplines on their own can produce a full understanding of all the complexity of the world around us. But why is this so important? As we have seen in last week’s post on the Fall, one of the ways in which the Fall affects our research is through idolatrous worldviews. Idolatry is taking something other than God to be ultimate, to be that which everything else depends on, whether that involves direct worship or not. These worldviews go beyond abstraction to reduction. For example, we could reduce the cow and say it’s nothing but a collection of molecules that interact in a certain way. Nothing but matter. However, it is not possible to do this coherently. For example, when we think or speak about ‘molecules’, this already implies that we could count these molecules (a numerical aspect). The molecules are identifiable and distinguishable (a logical aspect). The molecules interact (a kinetic aspect). And so forth. Aspects cannot exist on their own. They are interdependent.

As Christians, we confess that God is the Creator of all that is. From this starting point, research is still about abstraction and focus. But we should be careful that it does not fall into reduction. And we should be open to the enriching voices of other disciplines, which help us to have a fuller appreciation of the rich complexity of God’s creation. So that through our research, and through the academic endeavour as a whole, we bring glory to the Maker of it all.


Thanks for that potted summary.
One important point to note is that while “none of the disciplines on their own can produce a full understanding of all the complexity of the world around us” neither can all the disciplines taken together. If we were to aggregate all the insights from all the disciplines concerning a cow, we would not have a cow, or a comprehensive, complete knowledge of a cow, but only an aggregate of research. The real cow eludes even the accumulated wisdom of all scholarly disciplines. That is a “given” from the hand of God from which each discipline starts, but they never return to the actual cow. That can be known only from direct experience of the whole living animal, and this is something that the disciplines cannot achieve. They are secondary to the primary reality: the cow as created by God and given to us to experience as a cow.

Thanks for your comment Chris. I fully agree! Scholarship is a very particular way of experiencing the cow, and by no means the only way.
The disciplines always abstract from the direct experience so they can focus on a particular aspect, a kind of ‘zooming in’. I suppose what I was trying to point out is that each discipline on its own can only have a very limited understanding of the cow, and if we focus on only one discipline we run the risk of overlooking many fascinating and important aspects of the cow. So each discipline also needs to ‘zoom out’ again and be open to what other disciplines have to contribute. Regardless of all the academic talk about interdisciplinarity, this doesn’t happen enough in my opinion.

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