Consilience : the unity of knowledge

by Edward O. Wilson

Hardcover, 1998




New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1998.


Biologist Wilson, considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, argues for the fundamental unity of all knowledge, that everything in our world is organized in terms of a small number of fundamental natural laws. Wilson, the pioneer of sociobiology and biodiversity, now once again breaks out of the conventions of current thinking. He shows how and why our explosive rise in intellectual mastery of the truths of our universe has its roots in the ancient Greek concept of an intrinsic orderliness that governs our cosmos--a vision that found its apogee in the Age of Enlightenment, then gradually was lost in the increasing fragmentation and specialization of knowledge in the last two centuries. Drawing on the physical sciences and biology, anthropology, psychology, religion, philosophy, and the arts, Professor Wilson shows why the goals of the original Enlightenment are reappearing on the frontiers of science and humanistic scholarship.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ElectricRay
I've made the observation before that scientists - especially biologists - tend to make lousy philosophers, and it doesn't take long to see Professor E. O. Wilson - one of evolutionary biology's most prominent lights - places himself squarely in that camp. "No one should suppose," he asserts, "that objective truth is impossible to attain, even when the most committed philosophers urge us to acknowledge that incapacity. In particular it is too early for scientists, the foot soldiers of epistemology, to yield ground so vital to their mission. ... No intellectual vision is more important and daunting than that of objective truth based on scientific understanding."

On the other hand, and (as far as I can tell) without intending the irony with which the statement overflows, not long afterwards he says, "People are innate romantics, they desperately need myth and dogma."

None more so, it would seem, that philosophising evolutionary biologists. Wilson's Consilience is a long essay on objective truth that - per the above quotation, gratuitously misunderstands what epistemology even is, whilst at the same time failing to mention (except in passing) any of its most important contributors - the likes of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Quine, Rorty or even dear old Popper. Instead, Wilson characterises objections to his extreme reductionism as "leftist" thought including - and I quote - "Afrocentrism, 'critical' (i.e., socialist) science, deep ecology, ecofeminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Latourian sociology of science and neo-Marxism." Horrified enough yet?

That's about the level of engagement you'll get, and the only concession - a self-styled "salute" to the postmodernists - is "their ideas are like sparks from firework explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects."

You could formulate a more patronising disposition, I suppose, but it would take some work.

What is extraordinary is that of all scientists, a biologist should be so insensitive to the contingency of knowledge, as this is the exact lesson evolutionary theory teaches: it's not the perfect solution that survives, but the most effective. There is no "ideal organism".

In support of his own case, Wilson refers at some length to the chimerical nature of consciousness (taking Daniel Dennett's not uncontroversial account more or less as read). But there is a direct analogy here: Dennett's model of "consciousness" stands in the same relation to the material brain as Wilson's "consilience" stands to the physical universe. Dennett says consciousness is an illusion - a trick of the mind, if you like (and rather wilfully double-parks the difficult question "a trick on whom?").

But by extension, could not consilience also be a trick of the mind? Things look like they're ordered, consistent, universal, *because that's how we're wired to see them*. Our evolutionary development (fully contingent and path-dependent, as even Wilson would agree) has built a sensory apparatus which filters the information in the world in a way which is ever-more effective (that's the clever trick of evolutionary development). If it is of adaptive benefit to apprehend "the world" as a consistent, coherent whole, then as long as that coherent whole accounts effectively for our physiologically meaningful experiences, then its relation to "the truth" is really beside the point.

When I run to catch a cricket ball on the boundary no part of my brain solves differential equations to catch it (I don't have nearly enough information to do that), and no immutable, unseen cosmic machine calculates those equations to plot its trajectory either. Our mathematical model is a clever proxy, and we shouldn't be blinded by its elegance or apparent accuracy (though, in point of fact, practically it isn't that accurate) into assuming it somehow reveals an ineffable truth. This isn't a new or especially controversial objection, by the way: this was one of David Hume's main insights - an Enlightenment piece of enlightenment, if you will. As a matter of logic, there must be alternate ways of describing the same phenomena, and if you allow yourself to implement different rules to solve the puzzle, the set of coherent alternative solutions is infinite.

So our self congratulation at the cleverness of the model we have arrived at (and, sure, it is very clever) shouldn't be overdone. It isn't the "truth" - it's an effective proxy, and there is a world of difference between the two. And there are uncomfortable consequences of taking the apparently harmless step of conflating them.

For one thing, "consilience" tends to dissuade inquiry: if we believe we have settled on an ineffable truth, then further discussion can only confuse and endanger our grip on it. It also gives us immutable grounds for arbitrating against those who hold an "incorrect" view. That is, to hold forth a theory which is inconsistent with the mainstream "consiliated" view is wasteful and given it has the potential to lead us *away* from the "true" path, may legitimately be suppressed.

You can see this style of reasoning being employed by two groups already: militant religious fundamentalists, and militant atheists. Neither is prepared to countenance the pluralistic, pragmatic (and blindingly obvious) view that there are not just many different *ways* of looking at the world but many different *reasons* for doing so, and each has its own satisfaction criteria. While these opposing fundamentalists go hammer and tongs against each other, their similarities are greater than their differences, and their greatest similarity is that neither fully comprehends, and as a consequence neither takes seriously, the challenge of the "postmodern" strands of thought against which they're aligned.

Hence, someone like Wilson can have the hubris to say things like: "Yet I think it is fair to say that enough is known to justify confidence in the principle of universal rational consilience across all the natural sciences"

Try telling that to Kurt Goedel or Bertrand Russell, let alone Richard Rorty or Jacques Derrida.
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LibraryThing member sharder
EO Wilson argues that social sciences and humanities should work towards consilience with natural sciences. I agree totally with this point of view, but I do not find his version very new or informed. From a philosophical viewpoint it is a bit 'pedestrian', reductionist, rather than materialistic. Reading the last chapter, you get the suspicion that the whole book is really a ecologically minded biologist, who wants to debunk economical theory.… (more)
LibraryThing member TimothyBurke
I'm in love with the premise of this book, which is that humanists, social scientists and natural scientists need to work harder to connect or unify knowledge, to recapture the mood of Enlightenment-era inquiry.

Too bad Wilson doesn't believe in his own premise. If this is unification of knowledge, it's the same kind of unification that Hitler pursued with the Sudenteland, not consilience but conquest. Wilson is intellectually lazy in his engagement with the humanities. There's nothing wrong with a reasoned critique of various trends in humanistic theory or scholarship, but Wilson doesn't bother to do much more than simply assert the validity not just of science but of a very particular set of intellectual projects within the sciences while throwing a few armchair, shop-worn dismissals at critical theory, humanistic knowledge and the like.

The obligation to literacy in other intellectual traditions besides one's own flows both ways, at least if consilience (and conciliation) are the goal. It's perfectly possible to override hermeneutics with cogntivism or evolutionary psychology, for example, but not just by fiat. Wilson sets his own declared cause back a few paces with this book, and what should be an exciting reading experience is instead an aggravating one.
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LibraryThing member Ibreak4books
I have just recently re-read this book and this time around I appreciate Mr. Wilson's thoroughly logical attempts to make sense of our increasingly illogical world. I was especially interested in his ideas about Postmodernism--and it's belief that we each have a separate unique reality--destroying the ability of art to connect people to larger, inately human, archetypes. To me, this would explain the world gone mad on religion: we are searching for archetypes.… (more)
LibraryThing member Yiggy
Consilience was a great read I thought. Wilson gives a brief account of the history of consiliatory thought and then begins taking each area of the humanities head on. In dicussing recent movements and ideas and biology, Wilson sketches out what we know about the mind and how he sees biology linking together with higher social phenomena in the long-run. In doing so all topics are approached, from economics and art to religion and literature. Wilson closes the book with a plea to end petty squabbling between sciences and humanities and to put the culture wars away in order to solve the more important problems of the day. His last chapter outlines the global warming crisis (as of 1998) and makes a call for all sides to come together in order to save "The Creation" as he refers to it. Wilson's prose is elegant and moving at times and his explanations and metaphors are apt.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jewsbury
This book is a lecture on the unity and connectivity of all academic knowledge. In many ways this is a subterranean idea – only half appreciated by most people who have detailed knowledge of a small number of fields. Hence in our fractured world, this book promotes conciliation as well as consilience. It also involves a cry for greater knowledge of science by everyone.

Wilson, a theoretical biologist, makes several assertions: science is driven by curiosity not politics; significant progress is measured by advances in theoretical understanding; biology is more complex than physics; the physical sciences are materialistic and the most basic; and there must be laws of complexity to explain evolutionary development.

He then decides that: all science is materialistic; minds are consequences of informational processes within material brains; our brain structures and capabilities are relics of the Stone Age; and free will is an illusion.

It is an entertaining and thought provoking book – a pleasure to read. Yet a non-scientist might fail to distinguish between plausible and deductive conclusions.
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LibraryThing member brleach
A few promising moments, but most of the time it is either trite or based on a fundamentally misguided understanding of the topics he's addressing.
LibraryThing member mkjones
The enlightenment reborn! Literately written and persuasively argued, the author informs you why science is the best way to explain everything, from the natural sciences (where it's doing just fine), to the social sciences, arts and humanities, and finally to morality and religion. Reduction and synthesis both abound in this epistemologically monistic vision of the world.… (more)
LibraryThing member osprey
A elegantly written book that challenges the artificial barriers we've erected to separate categories of knowledge. Among the many entertaining segments in the book, Wilson takes on the post-modernists with gusto and clarity.
LibraryThing member develynlibrary
A highly philosophical book about the unity of all things- how physics at the most basic sense gives rise to chemistry which results in life and at the most general level, art and emotion. Wilson can be a bit boring at times, philosophizing for pages and pages, but overall it is a very good book.
LibraryThing member JBD1
One of my very favorite books. Wilson argues that scholars ought to work harder to bridge the gaps between the humanities and scientific disciplines.
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
Oops.  Started reading, found I was nodding my head... yup, not only do I already agree with the theme of the book, but I've heard enough of the argument before, and besides the book was written going on two decades ago.  Oh well.  There are other fish in the pond...
LibraryThing member librisissimo
Didn't impress me; read it too long ago to note details here.
LibraryThing member justine
Not an easy read, but an interesting concept. I'm not sure if I buy it, but the area of thought: where science meets the broader humanities is fascinating.



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