The whole process spraying seems caught up in an endless spiral. Since DDT was released for civilian use, a process of escalation has been going on in which ever more toxic materials must be found. This has happened because insects, in a triumphant vindication of Darwin’s principle of the survival of the fittest, have evolved super races immune to the particular insecticide used, hence a deadlier one has always had to be developed—and then a deadlier one than that. It has happened also because...destructive insects often undergo a “flareback,” or resurgence, after spraying, in numbers greater than before. Thus the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.
Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm—substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals, and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.--Rachel Carson (1962) Silent Spring. [A version of this material also appeared in the June 16, 1962, issue of the New Yorker.]
Synthetic philosophy is the enterprise of bringing together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). It may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences or a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy. I am not going to define a complex system, but I operationalize it by suggesting it is, in turn, studied by multiple sciences. (One can also have a science of complex systems.)
Synthetic philosophy, which shares kinship with what was once known as 'natural philosophy,' is made possible by, and a response to, the intellectual division of labor within and among the scientific disciplines. It is, thus, a modern phenomenon of the last two centuries. Not unlike other Enlightenment thinkers, Adam Smith saw the need for such a philosophy in light of the increasing division of labor in the sciences; but the demarcation between philosophy and science and the disciplining of sciences are nineteenth century phenomena. (I believe Spencer coined the term.)
I call it 'synthetic' in order to distinguish it from so-called analytic philosophy. This is not to deny that there have been analytic philosophers -- Neurath, in particular, springs to mind -- that saw the need for a philosophical response and task (i.e., orchestration, or a unified common language) to increasing scientific specialization. But analytic philosophy tends to favor decomposition. Of course, today analytic philosophers are primarily focused on argument, the resolution of apparent dilemma's (tri-lemmas, paradoxes) which can be represented by argument, or conceptual clarification (by offering distinctions, necessary/sufficient conditions), or the analysis of language, a special special science, etc. (The previous two sentences are not meant to be exhaustive.) Some synthetic philosophers -- Daniel C. Dennett [recall the posts [here and here] on his From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds], Peter Godfrey Smith [recall this post on his Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life. [Emphasis in original--ES], etc. -- are trained in and admired by analytic philosophy, and may contribute to philosophical sub-fields (e.g., philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, philosophy of science, etc.).
The previous three paragraphs were prompted by a chance encounter with Rachel Carson's (1962) Silent Spring, which was sold as a cheap paperback, 'modern classic' in a general bookstore. I had somehow managed to ignore the book during the half-century festivities a few years ago. My ignorance reveals a personal imperfection: a lack of serious engagement with environmental thought (and so passing over environmental ethics courses), something I hope to rectify. But it is also an institutional defect: in my training as philosopher of science I did not encounter Carson's work, which -- as is well known helped found the modern environmental movement -- on each page draws on amazing number of different sciences (not just physics, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and medicine, but also entomology, botany, ecology, zoology, crop-management, forestry, fisheries, oceanography, etc.) and integrates these with issues in public health and public policy. She also anticipates discussions of inductive risk, the use of precautionary principles, the (statistical) interaction of what are taken to be isolated effects/phenomena, the use of natural experiments, the problem of scaling up results obtained in the laboratory, the problems of bias (in sponsored research), etc.
I suspect the absence of Carson in my education can be explained on sociological grounds: generalist philosophers of science were busy with analyzing the practice of science (looking for quasi-topic neutral accounts of explanation, unification, understanding, models, evidence, mechanisms, etc.), while philosophers of the special sciences were busy looking at distinctive features of particular sciences. (In recent times, philosophers of science also run simulations, do experiments, etc.) Obviously, this is a bit caricature and there were important synthetic philosophers that were read widely (e.g., Marjorie Grene, David Hull, Bill Wimsatt, etc.). There are, of course, philosophers of science that engage with Carson's work (notably Susan Sterrett); I am not claiming originality here.
Among many other clear-sighted insights, it is especially notable that half a decade before the public choice theorist, Gordon Tullock, works out the idea of rent-seeking, Carson has firm grip on the concept and practice. Her pages are filled with governmental agencies recklessly and expensively promoting practices that will profit private interests at the expense of the public's. In fact, she has excellent grasp of the mechanisms by which tackling externalities from the top down tends to create worse externalities (see the 'resurgence' in the quote above). Even today, her work is refreshing because it cuts across the endless debate among proponents of state vs market. (She was a trained aquatic biologist, but had worked in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries), and some of the best passages in the book are about bureaucratic functioning.
The passage quoted above comes from near the start of the book.+ It hints at the riches contained in the book. Carson uses Darwinian style reasoning throughout the argument and an ecological interpretation of Darwin's theory integrates the many strands of the argument. The historian in me also enjoyed how she develops and applies a (rather ancient and now dated) 'balance of nature' theory. (Our age prefers more dynamic, chaotic, and punctuated equilibria systems.)
The key point, and this runs through all her arguments, is that many well-intended large-scale interventions generate unintended and often counterproductive consequences. She thinks these consequences are often foreseeable to informed bystanders if one were willing to leave one's intellectual silo or think through the ecological situation. (This is exactly how, on my interpretation, Adam Smith understands his invisible hand.) That is, a certain kind of generalist -- the synthetic philosopher -- may well foresee outcomes that the specialist is trained to ignore.* The synthetic philosopher can call attention to a wider array of strategies that cross specializations. More important, she can draw attention to the wider salience of a phenomenon that a specialist may miss. That is, while speculation and informed guesses cannot be avoided in synthetic philosophy, it can also produce a species of understanding, if not knowledge, distinct, as it were, from the parts from which it is composed.
I do not mean to suggest that Carson is only or best understood as a synthetic philosopher (her work makes no effort to insert itself in the history of philosophy). Her book is also a species of activist science, public philosophy, a call to arms, etc. But Silent Spring very nicely instantiates the kind. It's also filled with arguments so it's not like the philosophy boundary police should be on its guard. But in virtue of engaging in synthetic philosophy, and integrating the details of diverse scientific insights, she also demands the reader to widen her scope and confront fundamental issues for mankind as a whole:
For mankind as a whole, a possession infinitely more valuable than individual life is our genetic heritage, our link with past and future. Shaped through aeons of evolution, our genes not only make us what we are, but hold in their minute beings the future--be it one of promise of threat. Yet genetic deterioration through man-made agents is the menace of our time, 'the last and greatest danger to our civilization.'
+Critics of Carson contend that she wished to abolish DDT. But the details of her argument(s) reveal that she wished to promote the responsible use thereof.
*I am not claiming that only a synthetic philosopher can foresee such outcomes. Carson herself drew on a whole range of supportive, scientific informers.