Saturday, October 04, 2008

E. O. Wilson's Religion of Consilience

I am now re-reading Edward O. Wilson's Consilience in preparation for leading a discussion of it at a Liberty Fund conference. It's good to look back at the book now that 10 years have passed since its publication.

Wilson argues that the final aim of all science is the complete unification of knowledge, which he calls "consilience," based on the idea that everything in the universe is governed by laws of nature that can be known by science. The problem, of course, is overcoming the divisions between the fragmented disciplines in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Wilson lays out a program for using the biology of human nature to unify those disciplines. Obviously, this vision has influenced my arguments for a "Darwinian liberal education."

But while I generally agree with Wilson, his book raises questions that he does not resolve to my satisfaction. I see six big questions.

1. Does consilience rest on strong reductionism or emergent complexity?

2. Does consilience rest on religious belief?

3. Can there be a science of historical contingency, including the historical contingencies of human culture?

4. Can the natural sciences fully explain human self-consciousness?

5. Can the natural sciences fully explain human deliberate choice?

6. Can science explain human life without relying on the common-sense human experience embodied in "folk psychology"? Or does a science of human nature arise from a refinement of common sense?

As I have written in Darwinian Conservatism and in some previous blogs--here and here--I think Wilson should look to emergent complexity rather than strong reductionism as the ground for consilience.

In the future, I might have something to say about the last four questions. But here I will comment briefly on the second question, which concerns the place of religion in Wilson's work. (In my references to the book, I will give the page numbers from both the hardbound and the paperback editions.)

At the beginning of his book, Wilson indicates that as a young man, he turned away from his Southern Baptist rearing when he turned towards evolutionary science. Throughout this book--as well as many of his other writings--he seems to reject any kind of religious belief as contrary to science. But he also repeatedly speaks of science as either founded on religious beliefs or satisfying religious longings. Consequently, he leaves the reader with a sense of ambivalence about whether science and religion are compatible or not. To some extent, this looks like his own personal struggle. But it also seems to point to a fundamental question about the relationship between modern science and religion--particularly, biblical religion.

Wilson speaks of the belief in the unity of knowledge as "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws" (4). He also speaks of the belief in consilience as a "trust" or "faith" or "metaphysical world view" (9-10, 45/49). But then he also denies that science is a "belief system" (45/49).

He also speaks of science as "religion liberated and writ large," as "another way of satisfying religious hunger," because it "aims to save the spirit" by allowing us to "understand who we are and why we are here" (6).

More specifically, Wilson endorses Joseph Needham's conclusion that the Chinese did not experience a scientific revolution like that of the Western world because they did not have a biblical religious belief that the universe was created by a Divine Mind, and thus that the universe was governed by general laws that could be known by reason (31/33).

Wilson also agrees with Eugene Wigner that the mathematical order in the universe is mysterious, miraculous, and beyond any rational explanation (48-49/52-53).

We wonder, then, whether modern science rests on a biblical faith that the universe is intelligible because it is the product of a rational Creator.

In a dialogue between a transcendentalist and an empiricist, the transcendentalist asks, Where do the laws of nature come from if not from the Creator? Why is there something, why not nothing? Wilson seems to concede this point as indicating the need for at least a "cosmological God" who would be the First Cause. But Wilson still rejects any "biological God" who would intervene in evolutionary history or in human life (241/263).

This would explain why Wilson identifies himself as a deist, but not as a theist Questions about ultimate causes push us back to some first uncaused cause. We cannot comprehend or test the character of that First Cause. But it seems to be presupposed in our scientific assumption of the intelligibility of the universe as governed by natural laws.

Wilson also insists on the importance of maintaining sacred ceremonies and sacred phrases (like "under God" and "so help me God") because of their emotional power (247/270-71).

In fact, Wilson seems to believe that religious belief is instilled in human nature by evolutionary history. "The idea of the mystical union is an authentic part of the human spirit" (261/285). "The human mind evolved to believe in the gods" (262/286). Because of that, Wilson wants to appeal to those religious instincts through his evolutionary science--"the true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic" (265/289).

At the end of his On Human Nature, Wilson wrote that the science of the future should construct "the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed."

Contrary to those like Richard Dawkins, who scorn religion as opposed to science, Wilson suggests that at some fundamental level science and religion come together. First, questions of ultimate explanation point to at least some deistic conception of God as First Cause. Second, evolved human nature shows a religious hunger that is satisfied by the scientific desire for understanding the order and meaning of the whole.

I am on Wilson's side rather than that of Dawkins. That's why I have argued for the desire for religious understanding as one of the 20 natural human desires.

I have written many posts on issues of science and religion. Two can be found here and .here.


John Lynch said...


I look forward to discussing all of this with you at the end of the week in Indianapolis. So I'm going to say nothing now :)

Anonymous said...

I think Wilson should look to emergent complexity rather than strong reductionism as the ground for consilience.

Wilson does say that the leaders of tomorrow will have to be primarily great at synthesis between disparate branches of knowledge, if I'm not mistaken.

Your teacher said...

Right on! I've been thinking about these things for a while. I'm heartened that you provide the seeds of a scientific analysis of religion that doesn't wind up in a Dawkinsian fruitless castigation of it and recognizes the crucial role it plays in human life. Awesome, also that you point to emergence as a more inclusive and sophisticated model of analysis than reductionism.
I don't know, though, if this really justifies a "conservatism" arising from a "spontaneous order of instincts and habits" unless you are willing to also say "instinct" and "habit" are more important than reason and deliberation ("rational planning")in human nature. Is animus against "the left" an important motivation for you? O guess that's one place we'd disagree, as a "leftist" myself! I'm also a bit wary of making leaps between nature and human social life as unproblematically as you do! Given these provisos, your posts are way stimulating! Thanks!

Larry Arnhart said...

As I have argued in other posts, I see social order as manifesting three levels of order--nature, custom, and judgment. Rational planning is constrained by human nature and customary tradition. To seek human perfectibility through rational planning unconstrained by nature and custom is the mistake of the utopian left.

Your teacher said...

Agreed! As are the hopes of Wilson in somehow, if I understand his _On Human Nature, of fashioning a materialistic "mythology" that would replace traditional religion and "guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed." I don't know about you but this sounds like more "rational planning" and perhaps even totalitarian!

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, I agree. Wilson's talk about contriving a new mythology of evolution to replace traditional religion sounds silly to me. I see this as Wilson's Nietzschean side. My posts on Nietzsche's religious longings elaborate this point.