How Interdisciplinarity Both Produces and Limits Human Knowledge

By Joanna Sowińska

Human knowledge can be defined as the assimilation of information achieved through discoveries, analysis, interpretations, and the confirmation of theories. The acquisition of knowledge starts with human senses, such as imagination, faith, reason or instinct. These contribute information to develop academic disciplines such as mathematics, the arts, physics and history. Human beings subsequently multiply knowledge through the fuse of academic disciplines. It can be also argued that interdisciplinarity, the fusing of academic studies, may also become too broad and imprecise. In fact, when sources of information are multiple, the overlap of contrasting information from diverging fields of study can generate unreliable conclusions. This in turn demonstrates the limitations in the ways humans produce knowledge. In this article, what is considered are instances of both: the ways interdisciplinarity contributed to the formation of knowledge and when by contrast, it created intellectual paradoxes. 

In the 19th century, medicine underwent an evolution as a result of the progress made in two related fields, biology and organic chemistry. Although the origins of medicine date back to around 2110 years BC, it largely consisted of the use of medicinal plants, such as myrrh or opium. Of course, without any knowledge concerning molecules, ancient civilizations were unaware of the toxic effects some plants could have on the human body. Therefore, important discoveries in organic chemistry immensely contributed to previously acquired knowledge on biological plants and their medical properties. Since then, biology and chemistry are non-excludable. The importance of chemistry in biology can be pointed out in numerous instances. An example is Thalidomide, also known as Immunoprin, a medicine commercialized in 1957. Its purpose was to diminish morning sickness during pregnancy. The medication was effective for nausea and already used in around fifty countries. However, in 1961, a patient complained of the harmful effects Thalidomide had on her health, which led to a broader investigation. Scientists proved that the use of the medication caused birth defects in around 15,000 fetuses. Medicine had existed for centuries but was purely based on biological knowledge, preventing people from understanding the further consequences of consuming drugs. Since chemistry is tightly linked to biology, scientists could see on a molecular level which components caused fetal developmental defects. This case showed the need for both disciplines in medical studies, as the combined research of plants and biological components essential to chemistry allows scientists to ensure that medication is safe and without long lasting negative effects. 

Optical illusions were created by uniting maths and art. They can be defined as two-dimensional representations such as pictures or images that appear different from reality because of defaults in the human visual system. The human eye is adapted to a three-dimensional perception of the environment and looking at flat surfaces such as pictures can sometimes be misleading. In these aspects, maths and art go hand in hand to demonstrate the extent to which illusionism can be logically unpacked and explained. If we take the illusion of the café wall hereunder as an example, we can observe that it consists of a repetitive checkered motif in which the rows, separated by a thin grey line, are slightly staggered. The lines between the segments appear to follow different angles, but, as a matter of fact, they are all parallel. The information gathered by the eye is processed mentally which creates a perception that does not match the true image. This example shows that limitations of the human visual system. With the use of mathematics, however, we are able to prove that the lines are all drawn at an angle of 90° from the side, which means they are parallel. Both mathematics and artistry create and explain the illusion, therefore these disciplines contribute to the understanding of how illusions can sometimes trick us. 

Café wall illusion – by Richard Gregory (1973)

In some cases, the intertwining of academic disciplines and sources of knowledge can be paradoxical. The “Schrodinger cat” experiment was a hypothetical experiment by Erwin Schrodinger, a physicist who worked on probabilities. The experimental paradigm was luckily only visualized, as it might have posed some concerning ethical issues. In the imagined experiment, a cat is put into a closed and opaque box containing two things: a flask with liquid poison and a radioactive object. The flask is set under a mechanism that will cause it to break and consequently release the poison if radioactivity is detected. The poison would immediately kill the cat. Following purely mathematical reasoning, Schrodinger claimed that there is a 50% chance that the mechanism would detect the radioactive object and a 50% chance that it would not. This means that the probability that the cat would survive is also 50%. 

However, Schrodinger’s theory says that as long as we are unable to see what is in the box, the state of the cat cannot be determined, thus the cat is both dead and alive at the same time in our mind. In this case, mathematics was used with deductive reasoning for the probability of the cat to die. On the other hand, human sciences, such as philosophy, tell us that unless we open the box and determine the final state of the cat, probabilities are meaningless. We can only imagine if the cat is dead or not; the experiment therefore only works as long as the box remains closed. This example shows that depending on which reasoning we follow, namely the mathematical or philosophical logic, our interpretation of the world differs. In this case, the intertwining of qualitative and quantitative disciplines produces differing conclusions and does not lead to one truth. 

A visualization of the “Schrodinger cat” experiment


Another example that shows controversies between differing approaches in academic disciplines is Trisha Marshall’s story. This 28-year-old woman had a severe drug addiction while being pregnant. On 19th April 1993, she planned to rob a disabled man’s apartment. During that night, Trisha Marshall was shot in the skull and doctors later declared her braindead. Moreover,  her blood contained considerate amounts of alcohol and cocaine that may have caused injuries to the baby. Trisha Marshall’s companion, the father of the child, requested that the hospital keep her alive under a respirator until the baby could be safely born. The costs of this body-maintenance were tremendously high and one could question whether saving the baby was a reasonable decision; the baby could suffer from mental and physical underdevelopment due to the drugs and the money could be potentially used to save other healthy children. 

In this case, again, the overlap of academic disciplines made the debate a lengthy one in which it was morally inconceivable to take the wrong decision. Medicine played an important role in doctors’ reasoning as they hypothesized that the baby may be born mentally or physically unhealthy and that it would be better not to take the risk but to save the money. On the other hand, human rights as an incremental principle of law questioned whether switching off the respirator and killing the baby, who may or may not be born with health issues, would be ethical. It was thus extremely complicated to make a decision as human emotions always account as a factor in decision making. The ethics committee eventually decided to keep Trisha’s body under the respirator, which turned out to be a thoughtful decision as the baby was born without health complications. Nevertheless, the discussions that took place because of the overlap of academic fields led to a controversy that almost produced an irrevocable decision. 

In a nutshell, this article explores the means through which knowledge is obtained and reflects upon its sources. At its basis are human senses, such as intuition, faith, imagination which fostered academic disciplines and thus, contributed to human knowledge. The use of different academic disciplines to explain the world’s realities can be a compelling tool, such as in the case of optical illusions. In some instances, however, the fuse of academic disciplines outlines the limitations of human knowledge. This limitation can be seen in the contradicting mathematical and philosophical conclusions of the “Schrodinger cat” experiment. On a more positive note, one can argue that the use of quantitative and qualitative approaches to describe the world enlarges human analysis skills and open roads to new alternatives to produce knowledge. 

Edited by Tom van der Meij, Artwork by Oscar Laviolette