Transdisciplinarity as a path opening process

21 May 2013      Interview      Maya Rupprechter-Minwary      no responses

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As a distinguished cognitive scientist and researcher, Rafael Núñez relies on transdisciplinary methods to facilitate and enrich his research projects. He gives us an insider’s perspective on the benefits and challenges of incorporating transdisciplinary techniques in academia.

Specialization is a signature of the modern world. Education and research, as well as the institutions and funding agencies that support them, are immersed in environments with highly specialized disciplines. Rafael NBut research would become more creative and efficient if people and institutions were to pursue genuine transdisciplinary efforts, says Rafael Núñez, an internationally renowned scholar, director of the Embodied Cognition Lab at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and founding co-director of the Fields Cognitive Science Network for the Empirical Study of Mathematics and How it is Learned — housed in the prestigious Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences in Toronto, Canada.

Drawing from his extended experience in inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary research, Núñez, who investigates the bodily basis of human abstraction, sat down with transArts to discuss how transdisciplinary collaboration works. The UCSD Professor of Cognitive Science has written books and journal articles, many of which have been the product of transdisciplinary efforts.

Collaborating with people from different fields using a variety of methods has allowed Núñez and his team to obtain groundbreaking results in the study of human imagination and conceptual systems. Using fieldwork, linguistic and gestural data from the Aymara culture of the Andes and the indigenous Yupno group from Papua New Guinea, he and his colleagues have been able to demonstrate that the everyday conceptualization of time is not something innately determined in the human brain, but shaped by bodily grounded experiences, ecological conditions, and cultural practices. Moreover, building from techniques in cognitive linguistics, Núñez — in collaboration with George Lakoff, a distinguished linguist from the University of California, Berkeley — proposed a new theoretical framework for investigating the foundations of mathematics as a human conceptual system. The research program was initially launched in 2000 with their high-profiled book, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. It is now pursued using a variety of research methods from fieldwork, to psycholinguistic experiments, to neuroscience.

“When doing scientific research we may have this well-defined scientific method prescribing how to proceed step by step, but the truth is that when we investigate complex phenomena in real-world settings, like the human mind, we always have to come up with new ideas and methods!” Núñez says.

“And for that, we need people with different training and perspectives who are used to doing things out of the box, out of our usual little places.”

Núñez recalls the time when he was studying psychology in his native country, Chile, and wanted to study big questions such as: What is the mind? What is mathematics? Are all these questions connected?

“It was when I was studying mathematics that I realized that it was quite an amazing conceptual system,” Núñez explains. “On the one hand, it’s very efficient, very elaborate, very objective looking, and at the same time, very weird and strange. It has all of these things that look kind of arbitrary, like the multiplication of two negative numbers yielding a positive result, or that the empty set is a subset of every set,” Núñez continues. “But why are those statements true? Very soon I started to wonder about the nature of these ideas, because they don’t seem to correlate to anything in the natural world.”

Núñez pursued psychology and mathematics, although he soon came to realize that these fields, independently, were not sufficient for approaching the questions he was interested in.

“I started feeling that psychology wasn’t enough, in a certain way, because its subject matter tends to be more about the behavior of individuals,” Núñez clarifies. “A lot of the things I was interested in had to do with cultural facts, historical developments in mathematical ideas, language and linguistic patterns, notations and so on, which aren’t a priority in psychology proper, not to mention all the biological and neurological underpinnings of all of these phenomena. Very soon, I realized that in order to begin to understand the nature of mathematics, I needed to get a sense of how all of these domains interact with each other.”

Núñez eventually went on to pursue cognitive science: the transdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and a subject that combines many of his interests. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg, Switzerland, Núñez spent his post-doctoral training, supported by the SNF, at the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI) at Stanford University.

Indeed, Núñez’s experience in transdisciplinary work has been rich and full of adventures. It has brought him to different parts of the world, and allowed him to join forces with diverse groups of people from mathematicians, to neuroscientists, to psychologists and to performing artists. From our conversation with Núñez, we get the impression that the production of knowledge is catalyzed by genuine collaborative work and by creating the institutional conditions for this to happen. Auspiciously, this image may soon become the standard.

FAQ session with Rafael Núñez continues on page > 2 > 3

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