Read Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson Free Online
Book Title: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge|
Date of issue: March 17th 1998
ISBN 13: 9780679450771
The author of the book: Edward O. Wilson
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 22.29 MB
Read full description of the books Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:At first, I wasn't sure I liked Consilience. E.O. Wilson is frank about his disdain for philosophy, a literary genre I enjoy, and it seemed to me that he might be one of those brash scientists who writes off everything that isn't science as old-fashioned nonsense. I suppose that characterization isn't entirely unfair; but Wilson has thought about it a lot and makes the case in a nuanced and interesting way. At the very least, he presents a useful target for the philosopher who wants to defend his subject from the attacks of reductionism and scientism. Refute Wilson, and you'll find most of the other guys easy.
"Reductionism" is often presented as a bad thing, but Wilson spends a large part of the book arguing that when correctly used it isn't just good, it's indispensible. A distinguished biologist born in 1929, he watched from the front row as quantum mechanics reduced chemistry to physics, then as DNA reduced biology to chemistry. He knows the details and is well aware of the problems involved. Of course each level of structure is hard to describe usefully in terms of the one below. Of course the higher level always presents emergent phenomena that hardly even seem to make sense at the lower level (you don't discuss software bugs in terms of the motion of electrons). But at the same time, the coherence - or, as he likes to say, consilience - of the different levels adds enormous power. It may at first seem out of the question to think about the behavior of living creatures as a chemical process. But once you've invested the necessary person-millennia of work and sequenced the human genome, it no longer comes across as ridiculous. There are pieces of DNA, that create proteins, that have effects on the body. You can trace all the links and conclude that a specific piece of molecular structure causes a specific disease; then you can design gene therapies to attack that disease.
The reductionist program has been stunningly effective in all the hard sciences. Geologists use physics to quantify the mechanisms of plate tectonics, cosmologists to explain the history and structure of the whole universe. Wilson's central claim in this book is that we now have to take the next step and extend it to the soft sciences. Economics, ethical philosophy and literary theory are all products of human thought, and are typically analyzed as depending only on human thought. But human thought depends on the human brain, which belongs to the realm of biology. There must be a bridge which goes from biology, through neuropsychology, to ethics: it must in principle be possible to analyse ethical behavior as a biological phenomenon. Wilson is an expert on ants; he gives detailed examples of how the program works there, and how the behavior of ant society can be broken down into the study of the chemicals individual ants use to communicate with each other. Of course, human society is enormously more complex. But just because the task is very difficult, there's no reason to give up and say it's impossible. In 1916, the reduction of biology to chemistry would have seemed at least as difficult. A century later, DNA splicing is mainstream technology.
The most surprising thing about the book is that one expects Wilson's underlying message to be cold and inhuman, but as it approached the final chapters I found the exact opposite was true. Critical decisions in the world are usually made by politicians who have received their training in the humanities, in disciplines that are not grounded in the empirical sciences. They are as a result cut off from the underlying biological reality, from empirical understanding of living creatures as they really are. As Hume pointed out over two centuries ago, conventional ethical reasoning is grounded in abstractions that have only a tenuous connection to the feelings of real people. In the same way, modern economics models human agents in terms of simplistic folk psychology, assumptions about "rational decision-making" that have little to do with the way people actually think. There is even less attempt made to model the complex ecosystems in which these humans are embedded. It's not hard to believe that some of the very bad decisions made by politicians and economists are due to the conceptual isolation in which they have placed themselves.
I find it difficult to make up my mind about Consilience. There is something naively utopian about it, and I am not sure that it will necessarily be a good thing to continue extending the empirical reductionist program until it reaches the human sciences. Maybe it will help us better see ourselves as part of the world's biosphere and stop destroying it; unfortunately, it seems at least as likely that it will just give the ruling elite more efficient ways to manipulate us. But there's no doubt that the book's worth reading. This should measurably change your view of the big picture.
Read information about the authorEdward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist, researcher, theorist, and author. His biological specialty is myrmecology, a branch of entomology. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular-humanist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters. He is Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
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