Consilience and Ultimate Meaning:
Reflections on E.O. Wilson's Search for the Unity of Knowledge

Issue # 11 of DIALOGOS: 
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

(First Posted Oct. 5, 1998, most recent update 2/2/99)

Richard W. Kropf, editor

Since its beginning in October of 1996, this journal has been sought to bring together the insights of science, philosophy, and theology in an effort to foster greater understanding and coherence between these disciples. Since then, probably no other book has appeared that addresses this same challenge more directly, at least from a scientist's point of view, than Edward O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York, Knopf, 1998). The following review essay will serve, it is hoped, as the beginning of continued a DIALOGOS conversation based on this book.


In his latest book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, (New York, Knopf, 1998) Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson seeks to extend his efforts far beyond those proposed by his groundbreaking 1975 work Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press) -- which itself was considered a very bold proposition at the time. While that earlier work sought to heal the division that still exists between the "hard science" of biology and the "soft sciences" like sociology and psychology, this work proposes to unify all knowledge, including even the fine arts, under the canons of science, which Wilson suggests, especially when it comes to the task of determining "where we came from and why we are here", might be seen as "religion liberated and writ large." (page 6)

Not that this hasn't been tried before. In this attempt, Wilson harks back to the efforts of the Ionian philosophers of ancient Greece to discover the ultimate reality, followed by a fast-forward to the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment and their attempts to sum up all human knowledge in an orderly fashion, who if not quite so ambitious as to expect to explain all reality, sought to reproduce an updated version of renaissance man. Either way, one great problem soon arises. As the sheer bulk of scientific knowledge increases, so does the need for specialization, with the resulting fragmentation of human knowledge, so much so that even the top-rated universities of the world have become at most a collection of specialists who "know more and more about less and less" and who are increasingly unable to intelligently communicate with other scholars except those who share the same narrowly defined specialty. It is this situation that Wilson most of all wishes to remedy, with evolutionary theory, a virtual "Ariadne's Thread", providing the only scientifically plausible connection between the ever-growing mountains of data, the mere foothills of which could otherwise prove overwhelming to the mere taxonomist.

Of course, this discipline-bridging effort isn't new. Even Darwin himself tried his hand at it, speculating on the biological underpinning of human moral instincts, only to be followed by a host of others, ranging from those, who like Wilson, have attempted to carry on Darwin's venture into sociology, psychology, and a few other disciplines, to the full-blown evolutionary theorists and philosophers, each of whom seemed to have his own agenda or overriding vision of the purpose of human life. So what would seem to distinguish Wilson's aim in this latest book is not simply to extend the approach of his earlier effort to all aspects of human knowledge, not on the basis of some grand philosophical theory, but strictly in terms of the empirical evidence. Even more, he remains confident that "good science" -- that which follows the stipulations of scientific methodology, with its insistence on repeatability, economy, mensuration (i.e., measurability), heuristics (the ability to forecast) -- will almost inevitably lead to consilience, which he defines as being not just coherence between one branch of science and another, but as an "interlocking of causal explanation across disciplines."

Certainly this is a laudable aim. But is it possible? Although Wilson argues for many other cross-disciplinary possibilities, those which seem to most preoccupy him are nearly all involved with the seat of all our knowledge, hence the mystery of the human mind. For a biologist, of course, this means we must begin with a study of the brain and its neural networks. Only from that sure footing in the hard sciences can we proceed with any confidence into the soft sciences be they sociology, psychology, or even economics. All this seems reasonable, but when extended even further, into the humanities, the arts, or even religion and ethics, does it even come close to being adequate?

Nowhere does this question of the adequacy of Wilson's methodology become more critical than when he attempts to deal with the mystery or problem of free will. While Wilson ingeniously suggests that "confidence in free will is a biological adaptation" that "in every operational sense applies to the knowable self", that nevertheless we must realize that this sense of freedom can be traced back to "the principles of mathematical chaos" where "[the] noisy legions of cells ... bombarded at every instant by outside stimuli ... entrain a cascade of microscopic episodes leading to new neural patterns." In other words, if I read him correctly, on the microscopic level, we can say with great scientific confidence -- although the complexities involved will probably forever elude full human analysis -- that our freedom is, in at its very root, determined by chance. Nevertheless, Wilson insists that it is not contradictory to say that "in organismic time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will." Any loss of this conviction would be fatal for the human race. (See pages 118-20.)

Although I find this an attractive theory myself (see Dialogos Issue #4 ) I wonder how many will be comfortable with it? I ask this question because I suspect that unless the reader can accept such a paradox, his or her discomfort will become even more acute when it comes to Wilson's next-to-last chapter on "Ethics and Religion" where, as he says, he "puts all his cards on the table." So although he begins this chapter with a somewhat contrived debate between "theistic transcendentalist" and a "skeptical empiricist" (himself), here again, much as he does with the question of free will, he would seem to want to have it both ways. Thus he ends up admitting a certain evolutionary advantage to transcendental beliefs yet at the same time holds to his convictions that all this, be it moral codes, claims of revelation, as well as all claims of mystical experience, will eventually be explainable in much the same strictly empirical terms as our experience of free will. Yet, somehow, the sense of transcendent foundations for religion and ethics, as well as the possibility of a transcendent future must in some way remain. Just as a pessimistic fatalism would be deadly for human evolution unless counterbalanced by a belief in human freedom, so too a life without a sense of ultimate meaning.

All of which brings us "To What End?" (the title of the last chapter of Wilson's book). Although Wilson's analysis of the grim ecological choices facing us are highly sobering, one can only wonder why they appear here, and not earlier in the book, perhaps at the very beginning as the prime example of where fragmented thinking has led us. The reason that the subject comes up here, I suspect, is that for Wilson, like for many others, ecological concerns have become the ethical expression of the new religion, the particular permutation of that "ultimate concern" that theologian Paul Tillich once used to describe faith. But this is where Wilson's own "empiricism" -- which he expounds in contrast to his nostalgic but somewhat unflattering characterization of his own religious past -- seems to have failed him. Lamenting the demise of the confidence once supplied by the old faiths, he calls for a "new sacred story" yet predicts the "secularization" not only of the human epic but of religion itself. But need it be so?

I think not. Wilson has already admitted (in the previous chapter) that in light of the findings of astrophysics he finds himself leaning toward a kind of "deism", flavored perhaps with bit of "process theology" and culminating with its scientific complement in some all-embracing "Theory of Everything". Does not all this (if not dismissed so quickly, almost as a kind of afterthought) contain some promise of something more? If astrophysics seems to be leading us back more and more towards ultimately theological questions, then logic would also appear to lead us to the conclusion that there may be a theos behind or beneath or more importantly, (especially in light of predictions of an "open" universe) beyond it all. Yet Wilson remains skeptical, even pessimistic.

But suppose if one were to take an approach to this ultimate question quite similar to that taken by Wilson regarding the problem or mystery of free will. For example, suppose we were to maintain, strictly on the empirical level of the "hard" sciences, that the universe appears to be entirely self-explanatory and self-sufficient, still, might we not also admit a kind of mysterious or uncanny congruence of "coincidences" that taken all together suggest that there is something more at work here, some kind of plan or intentionality, not unlike that which we experience as human subjects, as "persons" possessing free will? If so, then it would seem to be the same kind of intuition that figures in the debate over some kind of "anthropic principle" at work in the universe, or alternately, what surfaces in the beliefs of some "deep ecologists" regarding a so- called "Gaia theory" or what others, following the lead of Adam Smith, might speak of it as "an invisible hand" guiding the outcome of things.

But could there not be even more in the parallel than just a comparative application of levels of perception? Might there not be a real consilience or causal connection between the differing levels that are perceived? Take again the case of human freedom. One might ask as to how or even where free choice might operate if the universe were constructed entirely according to a cosmic blueprint that allowed for no randomness or variation. Even more, how could we conceive of the evolution of free beings like ourselves except through a natural process that balances quantum uncertainty with statistical probability, or which mitigates genotypical predictability with an almost infinite variety of individual traits? All told, there would seem to be more than just a literary paradox in Sartre's complaint that "we are condemned to be free"!

Similarly, might there not be more than just contrasting or opposing views regarding the origin and evolution of the universe? Need a purely mechanistic explanation on the level of empirical science necessarily be seen as a contradiction of a deistic or even outright theistic view of evolution as suggested by some forms of the anthropic principle -- especially, if on the one hand, contemporary cosmology seems to be raising theological questions (see especially issue #9 of Dialogos ), while on the other hand, theological problems, like those raised by theodicy or the problem of evil in the world seem to be driven more and more toward evolutionary perspectives? If so, then I would suggest that rather than undercutting belief in transcendence, empirical science, rightly understood, can end up reinforcing it. Contrary to Einstein's fear of the uncertainty principle destroying his faith in Spinozan deism ("I cannot believe God plays dice with the universe") there are others (like the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin) who have felt quite comfortable with a God who "plays creatively with chance."

So if Wilson is correct about the relationship between determinism and free will, might there not also be a similar relationship between the mechanism of evolution, with its interplay of chance and necessity, and the existence of another, higher, transcending purpose or meaning, not just one that we humans create, but an end or purpose that was there from the from the very beginning? I believe so and hope that Wilson might agree. Otherwise I'm afraid that his new "liberated" religion of science will be hardly "writ large" enough.

R.W.Kropf 10/5/98

For further discussion centered around this book, see The Atlantic Monthy interview with E.O. Wilson, as well as The Wilson Quarterly (no relation) sponsored debate, especially the article "Against Unity" by philosopher Richard Rorty.

Some comments from Hugo Blasdel -- who has a doctorate in architecture using research methods from mathematical psychology:

While science can provide (at least provisionally) facts, it cannot provide purpose. E.O. Wilson’s science in Consilience is no exception. I do not want to counter any of the well-deserved praise the book has received. I do however have a sense of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” with the book in the end falling short of its implied reach. One might say, quoting appropriate authority, that life’s purpose is to “have life and have it more abundantly”, but that, and any, purpose comes from a shared perception outside of science.

Any use of science to accomplish some goal, normally called engineering, is predicated on having explicit (or implied) goals. Having the human genome gives us the backbone of the nature side of the nature/nurture and allows us to explore more fully and clearly the nurture side, but that does not say to what end. The genome will indeed support knowledge of the relationship of man to society, arts, and religion, removing some things from the realm of mystery, but it does not touch central mysteries of “why” and “now what.”

Consilience somewhat belies its intent (showing common theoretical models) with regard to complex (or chaotic) systems. Randomness in input through a complex system is said to allow room for free will, freeing us from determinism. Chris Langton of the Sante Fe Institute puts the contrary “The edge of chaos is where information gets its foot in the door of the physical world, where it gets the upper hand over energy.” It is in the face of randomness, the mind (or s/Spirit, or just life) exercises its dominion over the world to make a new order. Life, and life through s/Spirit, makes “information” (meaning) out of the raw “data” of its inputs including as input the paradigms, theories, and facts of science. The science suggested in Consilience can help us cherish the diversity of purpose while finding more in common as the variations due to nature and nurture are identified. The ability of the science of complex systems to find common paradigm across biology, computing, chemistry, sociology, and physics is not of interest to Professor Wilson, who has seen it all in biology “But as an evolutionary biologist familiar with genetics, I have learned little from them” (page 89). While that is unarguable, the paradigms may be useful to those unschooled in the mysteries and legends of evolutionary biology. I would have expected him to be more, well, conciliatory.

Life, and choice, rest in several implementations of adaptive order over chaos, the ordering of chaotic chemical reactions in a cell which allows life at that level to persist. At a second level the ordering of vast numbers of cells into a creature that exhibits more complex behavior to maintain life but with consistency that preserves the whole so that it can persist and breed. The third level brings neurons and complex processing of complex information to aid in survival, and before we can talk about it we are at a fourth level of language and asynchronous behaviors (information stored for delivery later). Each level builds on the prior although the behavior emergent is not directly derived from it or even predictable. There is a nagging thought that the net is not larger than life but naturally (at the level of information), and gradually, organizing us all in a manner quite unlike Wilson’s ants. The net may be in concert with the same larger-than-life (as we know it) purpose as those ants, creating an integrative entity, but this phenomenology seems not in the realm of sociobiology however driven it may be by the many individual decisions of its surfers. Outside of Consilience and science, we may even find that things organize themselves and find purpose drawn not out of the past or controlled by the present, but drawn by a future that we cannot see clearly but can approach as heuristically(learning by doing) as we have been doing (See John F. Haught, CTNS Bulletin, Winter 1998).

By emphasizing the genome and common paradigms, Wilson may be missing what is common to life and its enterprise which I call the “generic heuristic”, which is simply “try again”. An aspect of this process, for life and its abundance, is that small changes do not make big differences but that living systems are self-stabilizing and self-improving. Life tames chaos, within limits. The genome, art, science and theology are buckets for putting the resulting bits. In this sense theology, treated all to lightly by Wilson as contingent, is the highest expression of shared goals, carefully expressed so as to preclude no good or favor any wrong. Theology draws on the sciences to consider goals and to avoid considering contingencies as ultimate, but in dealing with science, theology, and any humanity expressing purpose, [theology] is at no risk of being another discipline merged in consilience. Science, even Wilson’s marvelously integrated science, is a metaphorical donut to theology’s (w)hole, the better the defined the surroundings, the more apparent the boundary and the clearer the need for a ultimate core. 
(With the permission of
Hugo G. Blasdel-- who retains the right to publish his remarks in whole or part, elsewhere)

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