Monday, October 3, 2011


The unity of science consists  alone  in its method, not in its material.
-- Karl Pearson

The unity of science is a pipe-dream.
-- Ian Hacking

The learnèd world  for long has yearned,  that all knowledge might be uniformly regimented beneath the broad skirts of science -- typically led by whatever was in fashion at the time.  For a while, it was Newton.  Thus,

Hume prided himself on doing for psychology  what Newton had done for physics.  He offers a (vacuous) theory of the association of ideas  as the counterpart to the theory of gravitation.
-- Anthony Kenny, The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy (1994).

In the 1920s, Otto Neurath headed up the influential Unified Science movement, which set the intellectual tone for a whole generation.
Subsequently, various technical developments have proved alluring to architects of airborne palaces -- computers in particular. As, “Hey, maybe the mind is just a Turing machine !  Tape goes to the left, goes to the right, scribble, erase,  and, bingo!,  you get Hamlet and the Credo.”  This eructation was dignified with the title of “machine-state functionalism”.

In our day, in the English-speaking world, the lodestone is Darwin.

In a lengthy work  unfortunately titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett effectively claims skeleton-key status for Darwinism, comparing it to “universal acid:  it eats through just about every traditional concept”, including in cosmology and psychology.  A clear-headed corrective to his claims, from the ever-trenchant H. Allen Orr, may be read here:

~     ~     ~

And then Edward O. Wilson weighs in, with his much-talked-about book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).   Wilson is the man to beat, when it comes to ants;  has he likewise managed to outline a Theory of Everything?   The dust jacket is certain that he has:  “nothing less than a daring challenge to the prevailing world-view ... a grand, coherent conception,  encompassing the sciences, the arts, ethics and religion” burbles Gerald Holton on the back cover, and Jared Diamond proclaims the eminent ant-man “one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers”.
Well, a man is not on his oath, in jacket copy.   Let us see whether the accomplishment matches the hype.

Wilson borrows the word from an 1840 work by William Whewell, which states:
The consilience of inductions takes place when an induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an induction, obtained from another different class.  This consilience is a test of the truth of the theory in which it occurs.

Wilson comments: “Consilience is the key to unification.  I prefer this word over “coherence” because its rarity has preserved its precision.”  (p.8)
That is a common and valid reason for philosophical neologism (since the word consilience had become obsolete, Wilson effectively re-introduced it).  The word is not, however, used with much precision in this book -- at least, it does not truly preserve whatever meaning Whewell may have had in mind (his own wording is none too precise.)

Consilience -- It is a lovely word, rhyming with brilliance and resilience.  Wilson trots it out from time to time, rather like those “station identification” messages required by the FCC;  but over the whole course of the book, it seems to do no actual work.   As he himself suggests, it is roughly a synonym of coherence -- which would seem to be setting the bar pretty low.    

As Wiki  puts it:  “Wilson's concept is a much broader notion of consilience than that of Whewell, who was merely pointing out that generalizations invented to account for one set of phenomena often account for others as well.”  But broader is a nice way of saying diluted, weakened. --  In terms of ambition, however, Wilson’s consilience is a stronger program, in that it aims to rope in the humanities as well; but it can hope to do this only at the expense of diluting the proposed commonality.

For sheer emptiness, it touches bottom on page 117:

But surely, skeptics will say, that is impossible.  Scientific fact and art can never be translated  one into the other.  Such a response is indeed the conventional wisdom.  But I believe it is wrong.  The crucial link exists:  The common property of science and art  is the transmission of information.

Omigosh,  we didn’t we think of that before ?!?  All-kina stuffs uses information!! -- Or rather, “the information”, in the unidiomatic jargon being peddled by James Gleick’s recent (and similarly overambitious) book. -- In point of fact, there is more commonality between a sermon and a sex pheromone, since both, in addition to transmitting information, exhort. --

Or again:  We may regard elephants and chimps as simply alternate aspects of a single superorganism, since both may be seen as machines for processing peanuts into poop.
Or again, p. 219.  He quotes with approval: “Edward Rothstein, a critic trained in both mathematics and music, compares their creative processes”:

We begin with objects that look dissimilar.  We compare, find patterns, analogies with what we already know.  We distance ourselves and create abstractions…

I’d be prepared to concede (and the suggestion is intriguing) that, at a high and abstract level, there are similarities between the appreciation of … well, certain types of music (not “Who Let the Dogs Out”) and mathematics.  But surely the creative processes are quite different.   The description above (which does rather sound like a mathematician’s work)  is itself already such an abstraction, that it rings less like an analysis, than like a really terrific pick-up line  for naive and impressionable co-eds.

(There is a wonderful app, by the bye, for mathifying, or at least patternizing, our musical appreciation:
An animated graphic showing interval type

Disney did something similar at the beginning of “Fantasia”, but this display is more precise and structured, and ultimately just as evocative as the artistic impressionism.)

However, there is another way of reading Whewell’s definition, which, whether or not Whewell himself meant it this way, leads to a more interesting notion, which we may call strong consilience.   This thesis, I shall argue, is exciting, though false; whereas the watered-down weak consilience is little more than consistency, and thus is uninteresting even if true.

[Note:   I have only just this minute stumbled upon the fact that H. Allen Orr has already written a (typically incisive) review of Consilience as well. That man is hard to top, whenever he opens his mouth about something.  So out of respect for the reader’s time, I must in all candor now urge you to cease reading this one, and go read Orr instead:

If, after you have savored and assimilated what Orr has to say (and which, fwiw, I heartily endorse), you still have appetite left for some leftovers, you may return to the present on-going essay.

Orr himself, incidentally, writing with Jerry Coyne, downplays consilience even within biology, in that the essential species concept is itself not tightly unified:

Because we rejected ecological differentiation as part of the Biological Species Concept in sexually reproducing groups, we obviously endorse the use of different species concepts in different groups.  We do not consider this pluralism to be a weakness of the BSC.  Because the causes of discreteness may well differ among taxa, so may the concepts appropriate to addressing the species problem.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 52 ]

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am William Whewell, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

(To resume...)  ]

So, let us see if we can force an interpretation on Whewell’s words which will lead to something interesting.

An “induction”, whatever exactly that may be, is not a fact, but an orderly pattern of facts.   So let us by fiat define  strong consilience thus: 
actual isomorphism (or at least homomorphism) between established aspects of different disciplines. 

The model for what we have in mind  is the collection of surprising and delightful structural coincidences within and between mathematics and various parts of (originally) mostly physics, known under the slogan of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.  (You can consult Wigner’s original essay of that title here.)  And since Wigner wrote, the essence of the history of mathematics over this past half-century or more, has been an efflorescing of consilience in just this neo-Whewellian sense:  subfield after subfield  turn out to be deeply interlinked.  It is a breathtaking tale (and has, incidentally -- see below -- nothing whatever to do with the thesis of Reductionism).

There have also been some remarkable recent examples of consilience between math and physics:  cases in which mathematicians, burrowing from (as it were) the east coast, and physicists, burrowing from (so to speak) the west, suddenly met in the middle.  Celebrated cases include:  fibre bundles (math) and gauge theories (physics); zeros of the Riemann zeta-function (math) and atomic energy levels  (physics).  These results are, I suspect, among the most important of the past century (as much as to say:  of the past two millennia), and the best thing would be for us all to quit our day-jobs and join mountaintop monasteries set up specially to study these matters.  (While not omitting matins;  first things first.)

Mathematics itself might be defined as the science of matching patterns;  so there is a certain appropriateness that it serves as a link between such superficially disparate phenomena as the pattern of spots on a leopard and the subject of reaction-diffusion equations (pioneered by none other than Alan Turing), or floret patterns and Fibonacci series.  An absorbing book on this subject is Life’s other secret (bad title, good book), by Ian Stewart, 1998.

“Strong Program” publications, that go way beyond such vacuous ecumenism, include the Encyclopedia of Unified Science (Vienna Circle).

[A more careful consideration of this kind of consilience  is available here.]
~     ~     ~

There are times when Wilson does seem to be talking about something like strong consilience  (p. 125):

The natural sciences have constructed a webwork of causal explanation  that runs all the way from quantum physics  to the brain sciences and evolutionary biology.

Yet at other times  (p. 229), consilient seems no more than a ten-dollar synonym for consistent:
The biological origin of the arts is a working hypothesis, dependent on the reality of the epigenetic rules … It is meant to be testable, vulnerable, and consilient with the rest of biology.

Which is to say:  When attempting to demonstrate that various foul-smelling chemicals lead directly to the Goldberg Variations  and  Paradise Lost, you’re not allowed to actually falsify the basic biological facts.

~      ~      ~

Wilson never explicitly defines the characteristics of consilience once and for all -- which is fine;  it’s more a term to guide the thoughts along.   I use “minimalism” in a similar way, in these essays:  connotation accretes to the term in the course of investigation.  And a connotation that accretes to Wilson’s term  is that of hierarchy:  which has indeed characterized biology ever since Linnaeus, and in ever richer ways since, but which seems a very odd fit for, say, mathematics or art.  P. 182:

The crucial difference between the two domains is consilience:  the medical sciences have it and the social sciences do not.  Medical scientists build upon a coherent foundation of molecular and cell biology.  They pursue elements of health and illness  all the way down to the level of biophysical chemistry. … Social scientists  by and large  spurn the idea of the hierarchical ordering of knowledge…

Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate,p. 26) quotes from anthropologist Leslie White  the sort of statement that apparently drove the worthy Wilson u-batz:

The culture process [is] sui generis;  culture is explainable in terms of culture.

Not, note, even in terms of psychology;  let alone physics.

If being hierarchical is a requirement for being consilient, then indeed the term in this sense is more substantive than it seemed when the author proclaimed that simply using “information” would suffice.  And accordingly it becomes more falsifiable (philosophically, this is a good thing), but also (though I won’t argue the point further) in the case of many quite respectable spheres of activity, false (not so good).

~      ~      ~

Wilson’s penultimate chapter is titled “Ethics and Religion”.   Its motto (p. 238) is:

Moral reasoning, I believe, is  at every level  intrinsically consilient with the natural sciences.

Now -- those of you who have followed this blog (in particular my intemperate trashing of morally reductionist neuroscientists), no doubt expect, that at this point I shall undergo the Incredible Hulk transformation and start blasting-out one of my patented rants  against atheists (for Wilson manfully avows himself, not really an atheist, but an a-theist, a non-theist), Nominalists (Wilson is, in general, not that), and Donald Trump (so far as I know, Wilson has never even met the man).  Well, not a bit of it.
First of all, because I myself do not pretend to really understand moral reasoning.  Logic, yes, given the premises;  but ahh, the premises !  But more important, because Edward O. Wilson is a remarkably genial and congenial companion;  and one who, given his deeply Christian upbringing, truly understands what it’s all about, even if he has reached different conclusions from those of his Protestant evangelical tutors (as have I).  Furthermore, it would seem that both the present and the previous Pope would agree with that statement.

He clarifies:
The split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists.  It is between transcendentalists [dbj:  cf. Realists], those who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind,  and empiricists [dbj: cf. Nominalists], who think them contrivances of the mind.  The choice between religious or nonreligious conviction  and the choice between ethically transcendentalist or empiricst conviction  are cross-cutting decisions made in metaphysical thought.

Absolutely true.  There is, of course, a question about how non-theistic and indeed non-deistic transcendental moral schemes are grounded, but that does not invalidate the logical point made here.

As Charles C. Gillispie puts it in his generous review:

Put baldly, this sounds like arid monistic materialism. Wilson does not put it baldly. He brings to his subject a disarming mixture of personal modesty and intellectual rigor. His reading is wide and his learning extensive. He writes as well of arts and letters as he does of science. It is difficult to think of a finer evocation of Milton's genius than Wilson’s passage on Satan’s invasion of the garden of Eden.

(Um, well, actually, not so much:  C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost.  Still, Wilson’s own tribute is very creditable indeed, for a myrmecologist.)

He adds:
There is no question in his mind but that conveying the essence of truth and beauty pertains to the arts.

You (as Sarah Palin would put it) betcha !  But -- contrary to the effusions of certain journalistic science-pornographers, “conveying the essence of beauty” is not, in fact, the brief of science.
~      ~      ~

The latter part of the book contains rather general sociopolitical discussions:  which, at his own assessment that the social sciences are lamentably unconsilient, means that we stray fairly far from genuinely scientific or Whewellian concerns. 
Despite the fact that his overarching project is ambitious (or made to sound so), Wilson himself is a becomingly modest man.  He even cops to a probably spurious potential charge, granting a “whiff of brimstone in the consilient world view, and a seeming touch of Faust to those committed to its humanistic core.”  Specifically, he points to the spectre of human genetic engineering:  “How much should people be allowed to mutate themselves and their desendants?”  The spectre is quite real, the charge being spurious only if laid at the door of a Whewellian philosophy of science.   What eventually -- or not-so-eventually -- comes to pass, will depend, neither on philosophy nor on theoretical science, but on what is fashionable and funded in places like Singapore and Hong Kong.  It is quite possible that, within the lifetime of some of you, you will witness a Wellsian world of Eloi and Morlocks.   Institutionally, not much stands in the way of this but the Historical Church.

~     ~      ~     ~     ~

This may be a tad off-topic but... The Atlantic Monthly has just published a very nice article on Professor Wilson's current activities.  Of particular interest to myself was reference to an article that Wilson recently co-authored with Martin Nowak, a splendid mathematical biologist whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making at a conference he organized at the Princeton IAS, described in "Follia Linguistica" (in: Princeton Follies;  to appear).

~      ~      ~

Russell Standish, a mathematician, cites the work of his chatmate, one Bruno:

His conclusion is, instead of psychology being reducible to, or indeed emerging from the laws of physics, the fundamental laws of physics are in fact a conseuence of the properties of machine psychology.  This is indeed a revolutionary reversal of the traditional ontology of these subjects.
Russell Standish, Theory of Nothing (2006; 2nd edn. 2011), p. 129

Such a view is certainly consilient, though it stands Wilsonian consilience on its head, along with common sense.  And Standish embraces it thus (solecistically):  “I agree with this fundamental tenant.”  By that he means tenet;  but “machine psychology” is no typo -- sic, as it stands -- albeit it would make about as much sense to derive the laws of physics rather from marine psychology :  We are all but the dreams of porpoises …

[Update 16 III 2012] A striven-for consilience of art criticism and neuroscience:

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