Essay Review

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 298 pages, plus notes and index.

Thomas D. Pearson*

The University of Texas-Pan American
Edinburg, Texas 78539

From  Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 51 (September 1999): 181.

If there is anything Edward O. Wilson is not shy of, it is self-awareness. He launches his discussion in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge with a chapter on "The Ionian Enchantment," a paean to the ancient and remarkable investigations of the natural world undertaken by Thales, Anaximander, and others in the sixth century BC. What is remarkable about those pioneers was their insight about the unity of reality. Everything that exists, they concluded, was reducible to a single substance, and so there must also be a single mode of genuine knowledge: one primordial natural substance to be known, and one primordial system for understanding the world to go with it.

This is what Wilson calls "consilience," a term used to describe the unity of the sciences, grounded in a fundamental belief that "the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws" (p. 4). Wilson readily acknowledges his awareness that he stands in a long line of natural philosophers who pledge allegiance to a radically reductionist model of inquiry and explanation, a genealogy that stretches back through the modern Enlightenment, through a pair of Bacons and the medieval Enlightenment, and ultimately to the Ionian enchanters themselves. It is a tradition that dies hard.

Indeed, I was reminded of a more recent manifestation of this reductionist heritage as I read Consilience. In 1963, Hans Reichenbach, a pillar of the logical positivist community, authored The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, a rigorous manifesto detailing a "rise" that would not be followed by a "fall." Reichenbach was convinced that the scientific methodology of positivism would ultimately lead to the truth about the natural world. And the final truth about that truth was the realization that all reality and all knowledge are fully unified.

Although stripped of the positivist penchant for linguistic and logical analysis, Consilience bears a strikingóand eerieóresemblance to The Rise of Scientific Philosophy. Reichenbach does not hesitate to reach into the realms of social theory and ethics as natural (and logical) extensions of scientific knowledge. Neither does Wilson. Every generation, it seems, is prone to produce a scientific synthesizer, a descendant of the Ionians, a speculator with a basket into which all the eggs may be put.

Wilson is famously known as the author of texts on sociobiology and on ants. He is a dedicated evolutionist, and Consilience is, by any standard, an ambitious and brilliant work, an attempt to deepen the philosophical foundations of evolutionary theory. Folks like Philip Johnson might well regard this as naturalism run amok, but that is not its most interesting liability.

Wilsonís ideology of speculative naturalism has received most of the attention from reviewers thus far, an understandable development in the current climate of re-appraisal of naturalistic claims in science. But the question of "the unity of knowledge" is at least as imposing, and is the more troubling philosophically. By first claiming, in the spirit of the Ionians, that all knowledge is reducible to a single domain, Wilson is able to structure his book in a progression that takes in physics, chemistry, and biology; then the social sciences, followed by the arts and humanities; and finally embraces ethics and religion. Whatever can be known about any of these fields carries implications for all the others. This is so because investigation in all these domains is governed by the same methodology. At this point, Wilson relies on his speculative naturalism as the means for defining the basis and thrust of this common methodology.

This methodology is not always easy to formulate, as evidenced by Wilsonís frequent recurrence to metaphor and myth in describing it. He portrays consilience by recounting the fable of Ariadneís Thread (p. 66), the story of Theseus groping through the Cretan labyrinth, able to find his way out of the maze by unraveling a ball of thread given him by the goddess Ariadne.

The labyrinth Ö is a fitting mythic image of the uncharted material world in which humanity was born and which it forever             struggles to understand. Consilience among the branches of learning is the Ariadneís thread needed to traverse it. Theseus is humanity, the Minotaur our own dangerous irrationality. Near the entrance of the labyrinth of empirical knowledge is physics, comprising one gallery, then a few branching galleries that all searchers undertaking the journey must follow. In the deep interior is a nebula of pathways through the social sciences, humanities, art, and religion. If the thread of connecting causal explanations has been well laid, it is nonetheless possible to follow any pathway quickly in reverse, back through the behavioral sciences to biology, chemistry, and finally physics (p. 67).

A prime example of Wilsonís approach can be found in his invocation of epigenetic rules (p. 150 ff.). What are these things? The phrase is borrowed from the philosophical term "epiphenomenal," which refers to mental or spiritual entities which are dependent on prior material substances for their existence. For instance, in the current parlance employed by some in cognitive science, consciousness is an "epiphenomenon" of brain activity. So, it seems, epigenetic rules are those natural regularities directing the dynamics of genetic activity. We cannot see these rules, of course, but we can see the effects of the rules at work, as they produce the regular patterns expressed by genetic functioning.

As such, these epigenetic rules are the result of our inferences about what must be case, if we are to account for the regularities we notice. Not surprisingly, all the usual complaints now promptly emerge. There is no way to test for these epigenetic rules; they cannot be verified or falsified; they are simply presumed, as antecedent conditions for making sense of the world around us. Nonetheless, the governance of epigenetic rules is wide and firm. Their sovereignty ranges, according to Wilson, from the lowest level of molecular operation in organisms to highest levels of cultural achievement, moral reflection and religious sentiment. Since the epigenetic rules explain so much in the natural sciences, and since all that we can know about everything is essentially unified, these epigenetic rules must provide the explanatory agency by which everything can be understood.

Like Reichenbach before him, "everything," for Wilson, includes ethics and religion. Reichenbach would have relegated ethics to some sort of emotivist scheme. Wilson reduces it to the brain in action, favoring "a purely material origin of ethics" (p. 241). He chides most ethicists as "transcendentalists at heart" (p. 240); poor fellas, they donít have their feet firmly planted in the neural networks, where they belong. Wilson does admit that he inclines toward deism, a stance that he suspects may ultimately be validated or not by the material evidence, in good consilient fashion.

So far, so bad; at least for those pledged to some form of theism. Doesnít Wilson get it? His reliance on the apparatus of things like epigenetic rules are a faith-claim, no different in epistemic character from the theistís claims in favor of, say, intelligent design or progressive creation. Why prefer epigenetic rules over divine providence? Itís all a matter of faith. When it comes to the broad assumptions underlying the scientific enterprise, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Except for one thing. Wilson and his robust evolutionary faith, and the theist with her commitment to Godís creative sovereignty, share a large patch of common ground. Their arguments are over whether natural processes are due to an intelligent, purposeful creator, or to a vast and lengthy cycle of self- governing embryonic development; naturalism vs. supernaturalism. But both agree that all our knowledge of the natural world is congruent, and susceptible to a tidy integration. All truth is Godís truth; or conversely, all truth is natureís truth. For all the squabbling over entrenched naturalistic presuppositions in scienceóand it is important squabblingó there is a broad agreement from theists and non-theists alike on the unified character of our knowledge of reality. Any theist, in fact, could have written a book entitled, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

But why? Why assume that all human knowledge of the natural, social and phenomenal worlds must be unified? What would our accounts of the world be like if we did not reflexively begin our inquiries with the assumption that everything flows from a single fount?

We have an example of what those accounts might look like. That example comes from Aristotle. His own method was straightforwardly empirical, but allowed room for metaphysical foundations for explaining nature. He was rigorous in inspecting the physical evidence, but relaxed enough to entertain the existence and activity in the cosmos of God (and gods). And he certainly did not think that all human knowledge was unified because it originated in some common source. Biology had its own point of departure for scientific inquiry. So too with the physical sciences, and logic, and metaphysics, and ethics, and politics, and poetry. Each of those fields has its own object of scrutiny, and there is no reason at all to presuppose that the manner of investigating those objects must proceed on the further assumption that, in the end, they are all connected. If our scientific inquiries move us along trajectories for which we can locate no obvious point of convergence, in what way does that jeopardize the inquiries themselves?

Indeed, why should the theist conclude that all things emanate from Godís creative activity, and are unified thereby? After all, philosophers have for a long time been worrying over the problem of evil, and theists have been at pains to distance God from the existence of evil in the world. God made the world good; it is human beings who wreak the havoc. In providing an explanation of evil, then, do we trace it back to God? Or does our inquiry into evil focus on the human propensity for allowing evil to flourish? Is our knowledge of God ultimately unified with our knowledge of evil? Is our knowledge of evil ultimately unifiedómeaning that it conforms to the same methodological templateówith our knowledge of economics, or our knowledge of baking bread, or our knowledge of playing bridge, or our knowledge of how to catch a fly ball to deep center field? Why suppose that all these diverse ways of knowing are ultimately tethered in one spot?

Well, Wilson just does suppose so, as do a great many Christians. The Christianís commitment to the unity of knowledge is no different from Wilsonís; the difference lies in Wilsonís speculative naturalism and the Christianís belief in Godís creative sovereignty, as specific mechanisms for systematically integrating the knowledge. Wilson exhibits in Consilience his self-awareness that he has succumbed to the recurring rage for methodological reductionism. Are those Christians who wish to argue against Wilsonís naturalism also aware of their own surrender to reductionism, so new and yet so ancient?

It is not only Wilson and his friends who have been enchanted by the Ionians. Many theists are also in thrall to Thales.