Consilience & Ultimate Meaning

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, ilson 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.

Richard W. Kropf 10/5/98

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