EO Wilson, Consilience, 2

Second post about Edward O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

(first post)

Chapter 2, “The Great Branches of Learning”, seems a bit off the mark since it doesn’t address those branches directly.

Wilson says the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries got it mostly right, and he defines ‘consilience’ quoting William Whewell: “literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.”

He gives an example of how environmental policy, ethics, biology, and social science all meet at some common center, yet have separate methods and terminologies. Yet there’s nothing in principle that should separate them into inseparable disciplines.

He realizes he will be accused of reductionism, of ‘scientism’… to which he pleads guilty guilty guilty!

Philosophy, he suggests, has just two issues concerning science: the questions that science can’t answer, and the reasons it can’t answer them, p11.7

But he anticipates that cultural issues will eventually be enlightened by science, including the humanities, and the creative arts.

A big problem toward this goal is that universities have abandoned the idea of any kind of common understanding — there are fewer required courses, less and less presumed shared understanding, or general understanding of scientific issues. The same is true among lawmakers, pundits, the media 13.8. Yet he’s sure the long-term trend toward unification is inevitable.

Chapter 3, “The Enlightenment”, is much more interesting. I’ve read enough glosses on the history of science, of the scientific revolution and the enlightenment, to have a general idea of how those ideas mattered, and who the general players were. Wilson’s take is to emphasize how the Enlightenment *failed*, which he illustrates with an account of the life of the Marquis de Condorcet (whom I’ve encountered in not one but two other books read this past year — those by Jordan Ellenberg and Chris Mooney).

Condorcet was a brilliant mathematician, who applied his ideas to political theories, but he took up politics, chose the wrong side, and was condemned to prison where he died. He believed in the Enlightenment idea of laws of physics and perhaps of society, thus the idea of a perfectible society.

Wilson suggests that the ideas of social perfection aligned to tyrants who attempted to enforce social perfect to the point of condemning and executing naysayers — including, collaterally, Condorcet. Followed by what became the French revolution, and then the many tyrants of the 20th century.

I don’t think that Wilson implies that the scientific ideals of the Enlightenment — he considers Francis Bacon at length, and Descartes, and Newton — directly influenced those tyrants. But he does suggests that the Enlightenment ideals failed to satisfy issues about culture, in particular about human nature, and the failure to identify a basis for morality. At the same time, the idea of social perfection was seen by some as a trap, or an upset to the natural order: thus the beginning of stories about monsters, threats to the natural order that must be defeated. (A central SF theme, I think, especially about the ‘thriller’ genre.)

And then came the Romantic revolution, with emphasis more on naturalism and metaphysics, a trend Wilson follows all the way to the professional specificity of scientists, to the 20th century idea of artists to be unique rather than part of any tradition, to the late 20th century ideas of multi-culturalism, post-modernism, and deconstructionism.

Wilson identifies a central flaw of the Enlightenment scientists and intellectuals, who were deists:

The fatal flaw in deism is thus not rational at all, but emotional. Pure reason is unappealing because it is bloodless. Ceremonies stripped of sacred mystery lose their emotional force, because celebrants need to defer to a higher power in order to consummate their instinct for tribal loyalty. In times of danger and tragedy especially, unreasoning ceremony is everything. There is no substitute for surrender to an infallible and benevolent being, the commitment called salvation. And no substitute for formal recognition of an immortal life force, the leap of faith called transcendence. It follows that most people would very much like science to prove the existence of God but not to take the measure of His capacity.

Later, Wilson considers post-modernist views all the way to Michel Foucault, and opines, “To the extent that philosophical positions both confuse and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong.” But at the end of this history, Wilson is optimistic:

Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we might wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand one another very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains.

Here I will note that ideas that I’ve only become aware of in recent years — the idea of the human mind being optimized not for perception of reality, but for survival; the emphasis of *narrative*; and so on — are clearly identified in this 18 year old book. The ideas aren’t that new, though they have become clarified in recent years. In fact, Wilson describes how Francis Bacon, way back in the early 17th century, understood aspects of what we now call psychology — he used *stories* to put forth his ideas! (p26b). And he warned against various “idols of the mind”, 27t — idols of the mind, the marketplace — clear foreshadowing of the numerous mental biases identified by psychologists in the past couple decades.

Wilson concludes by granting that postmodernist ideas are like fireworks — most of them will burn out quickly, but a few might illuminate something interesting. And they cannot help but strengthen the traditional ideas they critique, which must endure that criticism. And if somehow they bring the whole grand scheme of modern science down — then we will start over. Because we must, we must understand.

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