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Consilience Among All the Sciences

“Consilience” according to Webster, is “a leaping together”. Biologist E. O. Wilson's book by that title (Wilson 1998) attempted a grand synthesis, or “leaping together” of our current state of knowledge by “linking facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork for explanation” and a prediction of where we are headed. Wilson believes that “the Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries got it mostly right the first time. The assumptions they made of a lawful material world, the intrinsic unity of knowledge, and the potential of indefinite human progress are the ones we still take most readily into our hearts, suffer without, and find maximally rewarding through intellectual advance. The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship. The propositions of the original Enlightenment are increasingly favored by objective evidence, especially from the natural sciences” (p. 8). Wilson takes an unabashedly logical positivist and reductionist approach to science and to consilience, arguing that: “The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics” (p. 266). Deconstructionists and post-modernists, in this view, are merely gadflys who are nonetheless useful in order to keep the “real” scientists honest.

While there is probably broad agreement that integrating the currently fragmented sciences and humanities is a good idea, many will disagree with Wilson's neoEnlightenment, reductionist prescription. The problem is that the type of consilience envisioned by Wilson would not be a real “leaping together” of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Rather, it would be a total takeover by the natural sciences and the reductionist approach in general. There are, however, several well-known problems with the strict reductionist approach to science (Williams 1997), and several of its contradictions show up in Wilson's view of consilence.

Wilson recognizes that the real issue in achieving consilience is one of scaling

– how do we transfer understanding across the multitude of spatial and temporal scales from quarks to the universe and everything in between. But he seems to fall back on the overly simplistic reductionist approach to doing this – that if we understand phenomena at their most detailed scale we can simply “add up” in linear fashion from there to get the behavior at larger scales. While stating that “The greatest challenge today, not just in cell biology and ecology but in all of science, is the accurate and complete description of complex systems” (p. 85), he puts aside some of the main findings from the study of complex systems – that scaling in adaptive, living systems is neither linear nor easy, and that “emergent properties,” which are unpredictable from the smaller scale alone, are important. While acknowledging on the one hand that analysis and synthesis, reductionism and wholism, are as inseparable as breathing out and breathing in, Wilson glosses over the difficulty of actually doing the synthesis in complex adaptive systems and the necessity of studying and understanding phenomena at multiple scales simultaneously, rather than reducing them to the laws of physics.

The consilience we are really searching for, I believe, is a more balanced and pluralistic kind of “leaping together,” one in which the natural and social sciences and the humanities all contribute equitably. A science that is truly transdisciplinary and multiscale, rather than either reductionistic or wholistic, is, in fact, evolving, but I think it will be much more sophisticated and multifaceted in its view of the complex world in which we live, the nature of “truth” and the potential for human “progress” than the Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could ever have imagined. The remainder of this paper attempts to flesh out what this new transdisciplinary future for the reintegrated natural and social sciences might look like.

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