The Frontal Cortex

Consilience?

In the new Seed, there’s an excellent profile of E.O. Wilson, and his recent attempt to get evangelicals to embrace environmentalism. Good luck, Professor Wilson.

I have a single (and very minor) quibble with the article, and it’s a common enough mistake. Simply put, I think the reporter misunderstands what Wilson’s Consilience was all about:

In 1998, Wilson came out with Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, an attempt to demonstrate that all knowledge is intrinsically linked, both within the sciences and the humanities. Reduced to such a summary it can seem obvious, but the idea of consilience is radical. Wilson’s vision imagines absolute unity through a glorious and harmonious logic between fields as seemingly disassociated as musicology and neuroscience, physics and consciousness, genetics and culture.

Well, that’s what Consilience should have been about. But it isn’t. Instead of “gloriously unifying” the sciences and the humanities, Wilson simply tries to get the sciences to swallow the humanities whole. He doesn’t want a cultural dialogue, he wants a one way monologue, in which science explains, well, everything. For Wilson, if it isn’t science, then it’s merely entertainment (or latent superstition), and it would be better served if it was described in the reductionist terms of modern science. Here is Wilson summarizing his own thesis:

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.

This ideology is technically true but, in the end, rather meaningless. No serious person denies the reality of gravity or the achievements of reductionism. What Wilson forgets, however, is that not every question is best answered in terms of quantum mechanics or cellular biology. When some things are broken apart, they are just broken. The fact is, there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth. Physics is useful for describing quarks and galaxies, neuroscience is useful for describing the brain, and art is useful for describing our actual experience. While these levels are obviously interconnected, they are also autonomous: art (and most of the humanities) are not reducible into physics. (As Robert Frost wrote, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”) This is what a true consilience should be about. It should be a celebration of pluralism.

P.S. I discuss these issues at length in my forthcoming book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist. For those interested, the late, great, Stephen Jay Gould artfully critiques Wilson’s Consilience in The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. In typical Gouldian fashion, he begins his critique by investigating the original meaning of “consilience,” as coined by William Whewell. (Yes, that’s the same Victorian who also coined the word “scientist”. This Third Culture thing has been around for a while.)

Comments

  1. #1 Alan
    October 13, 2006

    Hmph. While I don’t think Wilson’s Consilience is very tenable (I agree that it denigrates the humanities), I also don’t know how your approach would alter what we already have. If science and art deal with the different layers of reality, then is a consilience even possible? Or are our two cultures just destined to always live apart, like they are now?

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