Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Review - Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Philosophers and scientists don’t get along. A postgraduate philosopher once advised me not to invite any physics students to a party I was helping to organise. Apparently we don’t get along with their kind. Combined Studies undergraduates who read philosophy and a science-based subject are fine but biologists, chemists, geologists, pharmacologists, and other advocates of the natural sciences are not to be fraternised with. It’s like the Capulets and the Montagues.

From the philosopher’s point of view, scientists are too attached to their precious scientific method. Since philosophers posit ontology beyond the empirical, science appears too tied down to only one possible level of reality. What if empiricism isn’t true? What if there are entities (abstract objects, mental states, possibilia) that cannot be detected empirically? I can’t speak for scientists but I imagine that they view philosophers as too vague. Philosophers spend too much time analysing language, debating semantics (literally), and questioning common-sense opinions. Philosophy isn’t rigorous and objective: it’s vague and differs from person to person.

Hence the feud.

Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, argues for consilience: the ““jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” The aim of the aptly-titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is admirable: to bring together the divergent disciplines of human knowledge so that humanity might at long last come to some level of understanding about the world. He aims to unite the Sciences and the Humanities: to weave together the disparate strands of art, history, sociology, biology, physics, literature, philosophy, psychology, chemistry, mathematics, and ethics. It’s a bold aim but it makes sense. How can we ever hope to come to some final understanding if we’re all off working in different places with different ideas? Synthesis is required. Even if the Ultimate Grand Unified Theory is impossible, as the postmodernists or the continental philosophers would have it, the aim itself is noble and meaningful. I share Professor Wilson’s aim and for my part I have just about finished a dissertation on how philosophical method should be adjusted to give it more of an empirical bent.

That said, there is still a long way to go. Although Professor Wilson’s aims are pure, his actual ideas for consilience leave something to desired. His plans for consilience consist of him offering the use of his scientific method to the social sciences and the arts. Francis Bacon’s method is heralded as the ultimate conceptual tool. To a paranoid philosopher, it reads like Science will be launching an invasion into Humanities’ sovereign territory: Science will be taking over the job of explaining economics, society, morality, musical appreciation, and everything else. Philosophers are still upset that the study of the mind was stolen from us by empirical psychology and so alarm bells start ringing for the philosopher reading Consilience when it seems as though science wants to usurp all the questions which are traditionally our domain. Though the scientific method has yielded practical benefits and proven its explanatory power, it is not the be all and end all of conceptual theorising. Over the past century, philosophy has developed powerful systems of formal logic; deductive, inductive, and modal, whereas scientific method is only inductive. Consilience will only be achieved by combining these methods along with the methods of the social sciences and the arts. There needs to be free exchange of information.

How else could philosophy help the efforts of the sciences? To give one specific example, in Chapter 11 Wilson refers to the lack of meaning and ennui that a person feels when faced with stark scientific empiricism rather than religious transcendentalism – feelings Sartre referred to as anguish, abandonment and despair. Philosophy can fill that void. Various philosophies have been developed to deal with the vacuum of meaning created by a secular view of the universe: existentialism, Kantian morality, Humean morality, Nietzsche’s optimistic nihilism. Apart from providing meaning, philosophy offers general theoretical insights that science lacks. Philosophy teaches two things: deconstruction of theories and the perceiving of connections between theories. Science is well practiced at the first - reductionism. But, due to the high level of specialisation in individual scientific research, scientists tend to be bad at seeing the ‘big picture’. Philosophers can provide much-needed synthesis to the discoveries of scientific analysis.

Right now Science and the Humanities live in separate houses across the road from each other. It would be beneficial for both of us if we lived and worked together. But Science can’t expect the Humanities to share a house if Science keeps some of its rooms locked. Science and the Humanities need to co-operate and share: that means that the Humanities will have to unlock some of those rooms and probe the metaphysical underpinnings and failings of Science’s precious method. If consilience is going to work, compromises will have to be made on both sides. I imagine this will be difficult for academics – some of the most stubborn, insular groups of people on the planet – but it’s the only way we’ll ever reach any approximation of Ultimate Grand Unified Theory.

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