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October 09, 2004

What is consilience?

I was shocked in the polls below that nearly half of you did not know what consilience was (or what it's supposed to be). A few years back E.O. Wilson wrote a book titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Wilson is basically making a plea for the interdisciplinary spirit, though definitely with imperialistic intent on subsuming the social 'sciences' into biology. The standard paradigm can be expressed in the old joke:

Biologists defer to chemists.
Chemists defer to physicists.
Physicists defer to mathematicians.
And mathematicians to God.

(I remember a molecular genetics seminar I took in college where the professor pointed to us biochemistry majors and told us that we should make sure that he "stay's 'honest'")

Wilson is promoting a metaphysical project that is rewarming the spirit, if not substance, of logical positivism. It is offered with emotion and sincerity, and I think some humanists responded to his intellectual aggression with more gravity and seriousness than they should have. Nonetheless, disciplines exist for a reason, and even the natural sciences are segregated in various domains (that is, natural science is broken into the major fields, biology, chemistry, geology and physics, each field has subfields, like organismic vs. molecular biology, and each subfield has specialty areas, like ecology vs. physiology).

My sentiment in favor of the consiliated spirit is two fold.

1) I want to introduce humanists to the power of organismic biology. That's why I write entries like Up from ignorance, I like to think that I know enough about science and history that I can make a plausible case for the utility of the former in the service of the latter without being too imperialistic.

2) Many of my scientific friends are gratuitously uninformed in areas like history and philosophy. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if scientists remained ensconsed in their own sealed intellectual world, but so many of them open their mouths about all sorts of topics, and wed conventional stupidity to scientific conceit. Linus Pauling wouldn't have had so much cachet as a peace activist if he hadn't been the greatest chemist of this century (the only winner in a science and peace Nobel).

My "project," to use a over-inflated characterization of spending a lot of my free time spilling characters on screen, is simply a form of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" essay (Snow was a writer by profession and a physicist by training). Even if the aim toward a reductionist merging of science & the humanities is bound to fail, I believe that the potential cross-fertilizations that emerge as byproducts are worth it. I do believe that should be very cautious of deriving ought from is, but our wariness needs to informed by the traditional conceptions of what both ought and is are known to be! (while scientists often get pinned with the 'naturallistic fallacy,' what about the 'normative fallacy,' where some humanists assume that there is no intersection between the sets of ought and is, so they ought to make no effort to allow for the constraints of reality, that is, even if is does not dictate ought, it can help in reducing the constellations of oughts that the human mind can concoct)

Related: When I had lunch with Zizka a few weeks ago, he proposed that we simply have three fields of study, that is, majors. Literature, philosophy and history. You can imagine what traditional disciplines would be slotted into each, and even if the concept is too radical, I think it is reflective of a strain of thought that despairs of the alphabet soup of intellectual fiefdoms that have proliferated in the past generation. Instead of being intellectual hubs and points of transition and synthesis, interdisciplinary studies have become the new fortified ivory citadels of our age, atop their hills overlooking their fields and extracting their rents.

Posted by razib at 11:20 AM