Not really a philosopher

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Chris Eliasmith, University of Waterloo

Chris Eliasmith, Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, is professor with a joint appointment in Philosophy and Systems Design Engineering and cross-appointment to Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. He is Director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience. He was awarded the NSERC John C. Polanyi Award for his work developing a computer model of the human brain. We have invited Professor Eliasmith to share his thoughts on interdisciplinary approaches to research. Here is what he wrote:

Not really a philosopher.

And not really an engineer... or a neuroscientist, computer scientist, or psychologist.  Instead, I am someone really interested in how the brain works—all of it, at all levels of description.  Brain function is tackled by many disciplines, and there is no good reason to think that only one discipline has all the answers.  So, to me, disciplines are just a structure set up to help govern and categorize academia.
Ignoring disciplines has actually paid off in my case.  My group was recently recognized for our work building what is currently the world's largest functional brain model.  Recently, we were excited to receive NSERC’s Polayni Award, which "honours an individual or team whose Canadian-based research has led to a recent outstanding advance in the natural sciences or engineering." 

 In my acceptance speech, I noted that I was likely the first philosopher to win the award.  But really, that was a way of pointing out that NSERC had chosen not a discipline, but a result.  If anything, what surprised and impressed me the most about getting the award was how the panel ignored disciplinary boundaries.  For much of my career, that has definitely not been the case. 
More typically, publishing, teaching, and doing research across disciplines causes administrative headaches: multiple deans and chairs to convince to support your work; not belonging to a specific faculty; evaluators counting various contributions very differently.  In this era of big, complex research problems, it seems that multidisciplinary research should be encouraged, if not become the norm.  Universities can organize research along challenges, not disciplines: global warming; digital media; brain studies; human environments.
In the case of brain studies, such a structure would more easily allow philosophical insights to guide neuroscientific research; engineering methods to help explain biological phenomena; and psychological surprises to be examined through the lens of computer science.  Ultimately, our best theories will draw on all of these contributions. I am certain the same could be said for making progress on any of the greatest challenges we face as a society. 
Drawing on many sources of knowledge to solve a difficult problem seems too obvious a strategy to mention.  Nevertheless, it needs saying because it strains against standard institutional structures.  My faculty appointment has been a ‘special case’ from the beginning. Perhaps giving multidisciplinary research the structures it can thrive under will allow special cases to become the norm.  Until then, I remain perfectly happy not really being anything at all.


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