I’m reminiscing about science’s glory days after reading an edgy biography of Stephen Hawking. Were they good or bad? I can’t make up my mind. I’m referring to the 1990s when scientific arrogance was pervasive. Hawking and other physicists convinced us that they were on the cusp of a “theory of everything” that would solve the puzzle of existence, as journalist Charles Seife recounts in Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity. It would explain why something exists rather than nothing, and why that something is the way it is.
In this column, I’ll look at a related but equally ambitious claim: that science will absorb other ways of understanding the world, such as the arts, humanities, and religion. Nonscientific ways of knowing will not necessarily disappear, but they will become more congruent with science, our ultimate source of truth. Biologist Edward Wilson, one of our finest scientist-writers, is the most eloquent proponent of this viewpoint.
Wilson predicts that science will soon produce such a compelling, complete theory of nature, including human nature, that “the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them” in his 1998 bestseller Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Wilson coined the term “consilience” to describe this unification of knowledge, which is an old term for “coming together” or “converging.” Consilience will help us grasp “who we are and why we are here,” as Wilson puts it, resolving our long-standing identity crisis.
Wilson dismisses philosophers’ warnings about drawing “ought” from “is,” insisting that moral principles can be derived from science. Science may both illuminate and provide moral advice by illuminating our moral impulses and feelings, such as our affection for others who share our DNA. Wilson wants us to share his wish to conserve nature in all of its wild variety, which he sees as an ethical duty, thus this relationship between science and ethics is critical.
You would question, at first appearance, who could object to this vision. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all agree on a comprehensive worldview that is based on science and tells us how to act individually and collectively? Many researchers share Wilson’s desire for a fusion of science and alternative ways of dealing with reality. The Consilience Project was founded by a group of enthusiasts with the goal of “developing a body of social theory and analysis that explains and finds solutions to the specific difficulties we confront today.” Clint Margrave, a poet, and novelist penned an excellent defense of consilience for Quillette last year, adding that he “frequently draws inspiration from science.”
Another proponent of consilience is a psychologist and megapundit Steven Pinker, who hailed Wilson’s “excellent” work in 1998 and called for science-humanities convergence in his 2018 bestseller Enlightenment Now. Wilson and Pinker have a significant stylistic difference. Pinker chastises “postmodern” humanities scholars who question science’s impartiality and authority, but Wilson extends an olive branch to them. Postmodernists are accused of “defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and smothering political correctness,” according to Pinker.
The lure of consilience is so strong that it’s worth revisiting. Consilience creates two major concerns: (1) Can it be done? (2) Is it a good idea? First and foremost, consider the feasibility. As Wilson points out, physics has been a particularly powerful unifier in recent decades, showing that the heavens and the earth are formed of the same stuff and are governed by the same forces. Physicists are now looking for a single theory that combines general relativity, which defines gravity, and quantum field theory, which explains electromagnetic and nuclear forces. This is Steven Weinberg’s “final theory” and Hawking’s “theory of everything.”
Wilson expected physicists to find a theory of everything shortly when he wrote in 1998, but they appear to be further away than ever. Worse, they still can’t agree on the definition of quantum mechanics. There are more interpretations of quantum mechanics now than ever, as science writer Philip Ball points out in his 2018 book Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew about Quantum Physics Is Different.
The same can be said of scientific attempts to explain the gap between matter and thought. Researchers in the 1990s thought it was still possible to figure out how physical processes in the brain and other systems generate awareness. Since then, there has been a paradigm shift in mind-body studies, with theorists espousing a dizzying array of models including quantum mechanics, information theory, and Bayesian mathematics. Some academics believe that awareness pervades all matter, a view known as panpsychism; others believe that consciousness is an “illusion,” and that the so-called hard problem of consciousness is a pseudo-problem.
Even within Wilson’s discipline of evolutionary biology, there are schisms. Wilson claims in Consilience and elsewhere that natural selection encourages qualities at the level of tribes and other groups, and that evolution may have endowed us with a proclivity for religion, war, and other social behaviors in this way. Other notable Darwinists, such as Richard Dawkins and Robert Trivers, oppose group selection, claiming that natural selection only occurs at the level of individual creatures and even genes.
What prospect is there for consilience between, say, quantum chromodynamics and queer theory, if scientists can’t even achieve it within certain fields? (Physicist-philosopher Karen Barad finds resonances between physics and gender politics in her interesting 2007 book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning; nonetheless, Barad’s book epitomizes the kind of postmodern interpretation Wilson and Pinker decry.) If convergence toward a consensus is what consilience entails, science is going away from it.
So, at least for the time being, consilience does not appear to be a viable option. Is it desirable to be conciliatory? Although I’ve always questioned that it could happen, I used to believe that it should. If humanity can agree on a single, reasonable worldview, we may be able to solve our common issues more effectively, such as climate change, inequality, pandemics, and militarism. We could also eliminate harmful beliefs, such as the belief that God favors some people over others, or that racial and sexual inequity, as well as conflict, are unavoidable outcomes of our genetics.
I also saw theoretical diversity, or pluralism, as a sign of failure; the abundance of “solutions” to the mind-body problem, like the abundance of cancer therapies, meant that none of them works very well. Pluralism, on the other hand, is gradually becoming beneficial, if not required, an antidote to our desire for certainty. When it comes to our notions about who we are, can be, and should be, pluralism is extremely crucial. If we commit to a single self-concept, we risk restricting our ability to reinvent ourselves and find new ways to thrive.
Wilson recognizes that consilience is a reductionist endeavor that will exclude many different perspectives on the universe. Consider how he handles mystical visions, in which we appear to see realities that are ordinarily buried beneath the surface. These encounters, in my opinion, rub our faces in the unfathomable strangeness of existence, which transcends all our understanding and ways of communication. Mystical experiences should “forbid a premature close of our accounts with reality,” as William James writes in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Wilson isn’t convinced. He believes that mystical experiences can be explained by physiological mechanisms. In Consilience, he focuses on Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian shaman-artist whose paintings show magical, jungly experiences induced by ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea brewed from two Amazonian plants (which I happen to have taken). The snakes that slither across Amaringo’s paintings are attributed to natural selection, which implanted in our forefathers an adaptive fear of snakes; it’s no surprise that snakes appear in many religious myths, such as the biblical story of Eden.
Ayahuasca also contains psychoactive substances, including the powerful psychedelic dimethyltryptamine, which are similar to those that cause dreams, which are caused by the “editing of information in the memory banks of the brain” that occurs when we sleep, according to Wilson. The brain urgently strives to assemble these nightly neuronal discharges into “coherent narratives,” which we experience as dreams, even though they are “arbitrary in content,” that is, meaningless.
Wilson uses evolutionary biology, psychology, and neurochemistry to “explain” Amaringo’s visions. This is a brilliant illustration of what my favorite philosopher and a staunch supporter of pluralism, Paul Feyerabend, calls “the tyranny of truth.” Wilson pushes his materialistic, secular worldview on the shaman, and he devalues ayahuasca visions. While Wilson praises biological diversity, he shows little regard for human belief variation.
Wilson is a courteous, courtly gentleman both on and off the page. However, his consilience endeavor is motivated by scientism or an overabundance of faith in science. (Wilson and Pinker both use the term scientism, and they probably think the statement “excessive confidence in science” is an oxymoron.) Scientists should quit fantasizing about conquering all human civilization and achieving something similar to omniscience, given the failure to establish consilience in physics and biology, not to mention the replication crises and other issues. In a nutshell, scientists should be more humble.
Wilson, ironically, questioned the value of final knowledge early in his career. Wilson foreshadows the concepts of Consilience in his 1975 classic Sociobiology, anticipating that evolutionary theory and genetics will soon engulf the social sciences and humanities. Wilson, on the other hand, is not overjoyed by the possibility. When we can explain ourselves in “mechanistic terms,” he adds, “the consequence may be difficult to accept”; we may find ourselves “divested of illusions,” as Camus phrased it.
Wilson didn’t have to be concerned. Scientific omniscience appears to be less likely than ever before, and humans are far too diverse, inventive, and contradictory to accept any single worldview. We shall never stop arguing about who we are and renewing ourselves, inspired by mysticism, the arts, and science. Is consensuality a negative idea that we’d be better off avoiding? I’m not sure I’d go that far. Consilience, the dream of total knowledge, can serve as a valuable goad to the imagination, just like utopia, another outcome of our desire for perfection, as long as we regard it as an unattainable ideal. Let’s just hope we never believe we’ve arrived.