Monday, October 10, 2011

Consilient Connections

In our essay on Edward Wilson’s book Consilience (1998), we distinguished, perhaps somewhat clumsily, between strong consilience (putatively Whewellian, based upon shared patterns in distant phenomena) and weak consilience (a carryall term for the various senses in which Wilson seems to use the word, ranging from reductionistic explanation to mere compatibility).  Stepping back from the particularities of that particular book, we’ll hone these categories further.

(A)  vertical consilience

This is the standard hierarchy model, the various scientific disciplines all stacked pancake-fashion. 

The basic divisions of biology are, from top to bottom, as follows:  evolutionary biology, ecology, organismic biology, cellular biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 83

The descent could be continued:  … chemistry, physics…, with various possible sub-levels in each of these: thus,  the behavior of atomic nuclei explained by the nature of nucleons, and these in turn  by quarks.

Indeed, the professor goes on (both upwards and downwards):

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 … to the laws of physics.
-- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 266

Reduction consists in explaining phenomena on level n+1  via those on level n -- thus, the valence properties of atoms, in chemistry, as a function of the electron-shell structure, in atomic physics.  The ‘lower-down’ the discipline, the more fundamental (I guess ecologists didn’t get to vote).
(Not in substance, but in psycho-aesthatics, that dreamy vision is reminiscent -- horizontally -- of its zoological analogue, the Great Chain of Being.)

An example:

Daniel Dennett champions a sort of biological Principle of Plenitude (reminiscent of the Landscape in recent physics), and opines:
It does put a difficult burden of proof on anyone who thinks that there are laws of biology  over and above the laws of mathematics and physics.
-- Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), p. 122

In support, he adduces Dawkins’ assertion that “Dollo’s Law” of evolution  follows straightforwardly from the laws of probability, as does the Hardy-Weinberg law (which neither Hardy nor Weinberg  ever meant to deny).
Note:  Just on whom the burden of proof falls, in scientific squabbles, tends to be a subjective matter.  One might imagine that, in this place, biologists can justifiably go about their business as they have always done, discovering such regularities and structures and functions and they can, without being put to the extraordinary test, obviously quite outside their attainments, not merely of dissolving such laws by deriving them from physics (obviously the writ of the physicist), but of somehow proving that no physicist, present or future, could ever do so.

(B) horizontal consilience

This shall refer to beguiling isomorphisms or unexpected shared formal features across disciplines, with neither being privileged:  a harmony rather than an explicandum and an explicans.

Since (A) is the usual stuff of science, we’ll say little or nothing more about this,  other than to remark that it is more the mark of writing about science, than of the day-to-day practice of scientists, who largely operate within their own stratum.

Now (B) is less familiar, and more in keeping with the imagistic resonances of the very word consilience.  It is in the realm of ontological spooky-action-at-a-distance, of holism, of synthesis, synesthesia, synchronicity, and syn- everthing-else.

What follows is less an essay than an in-progress post-it board,  with purported examples of this intriguing category as I come across them.

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Cross-disciplinary isomorphisms are fun to hunt for, harder to find.

Muller’s discovery … was that genes are artificially mutable.  It was like Ernest Rutherford’s discovery … that atomic elements were transmutable.
--Matt Ridley, Genome (1999).

These are not really much alike at all.  Rutherford’s discovery was that -- contrary to the alchemical program -- atomic elements were spontaneously mutable.   O.t.o.h., genes as well are prone to spontaneous mutation.   The mechanisms are of course quite different;  the resonance is primarily sociological -- though valuable for  all that.


Gödel’s proof that there are bound to be undecidable statements in arithmetic  has its companion piece in physics  in Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle.
W.V.O. Quine, “On What There Is”, reprinted in From a Logical Point of View (1953, 1961)

This is the sort of epiphany that is likely to strike the inquiring layman (or late-night bull sessions of sophomores), though the exquisitely understated metaphor of 'companion piece' is quite characteristic of Quine rather than of heavy-breathing system-builders like Wilson or Dennett.   I doubt there is any real formal connection;  the harmony (and perhaps this is all that Quine meant) lies in public perception, which has also latched onto a kindred misunderstanding of Einstein,  to come up with the executive-summary:  “It’s all so indeterminate, so uncertain, so relative, so undecidable.”

I was about to point out one considerable difference:  that, unlike the case of Gödelian incompleteness,  which is a restriction on what we can show, Heisenberg Uncertainty -- sometimes phrased as a restriction on what we can know -- is no mere epistemological limitation:  it can actually create particles.  (… inhales deeply;  holds it in his lungs; light-bulb!)  But wait !-- Incompleteness too can play a creative role.  It is a limitation on what we can show (in a given formal system), but not on what we can know (via some meta-maneuver).  There are propositions neither provable nor disprovable  which, if they could be shown to be unprovable,  would have to be … true.  (Because, if false, there would be a finite counter-example.)  . . .    (Farrrrrr  out .... )

The problem is, virtually all of us are laymen outside of one field, and often enough  narrow specialists in that one, so that valid horizontal consilience is going to be difficult to establish.

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Our evolutionist authors distinguish between modular and holistic heredity:

All systems of unlimited heredity will turn out to be modular.  This statement is true  not only of the genetic system based on DNA, but also of the only other natural system of unlimited heredity known to us, human language.
J. Maynard Smith & E. Szathmáry, The Origins of Life (1999), p. 9

Bingo!  Cf. the historical connection between philologic and biologic evolutionary taxonomy. 
Cf. indeed Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871):  "The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same.”

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Lee Smolin:  Universes undergo a sort of mitosis, and evolve via ‘cosmological natural selection’.

Angelology is epistemologically conservative by comparison with that sort of thing -- but hey, have a ball.

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Richard Dawkins:  Memes are like genes.

Not, note, built up of genes, like chromosomes.  Rather:  both entities  lead somewhat parallel lives, each in its own realm.  Quite like the Men and the Jinn.

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Not only across disciplines, but even within a discipline,  does the notion of horizontal consilience make sense.

One reason for discussing events as different as the origin of the genetic code, of sex, and of language  in a single book, is that we think that there are similarities between the different transitions, so that understanding one of them  may shed light on the others.
J. Maynard Smith & E. Szathmáry, The Origins of Life (1999), p. 19

In mathematics, intra-disciplinary cross-similarities between specialties  are so rich as to characterize the modern state of the field.  Accordingly, the matter is discussed separately here:


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