The goal of Enlightenment thinkers from Francis Bacon to the Marquis de Condorcet was to free the human mind from superstition and error by basing all inquiry and knowledge on a sound empirical, rational basis. That dream ended with the Romantic rebellion and its reliance on emotion and has since been complicated by the knowledge explosion and the fragmentation of academic specialties.
In CONSILIENCE: THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE, Edward O. Wilson attempts to resurrect the Enlightenment dream of unifying all knowledge (consilience) and argues that such a goal is not only attainable but essential to survival. His argument begins by noting that considerable degrees of consilience have already been achieved in the natural sciences both through methodologies (reductionism and mathematical modeling) and in cross-disciplinary studies such as biochemistry and neurobiology. The next great challenge is to extend this unifying drive to the social sciences and the humanities.
Wilson’s program is no dilettantish exercise. He severely chastises the social sciences for their unscientific methods, folk psychology, and inadequate theories. Similarly, he finds the humanities crippled by postmodern skepticism that disclaims the possibility of knowledge and reduces even scientific truth to mere “constructs.” In Wilson’s view, both humanists and social scientists need to abandon their inadequate methods for a more rigorous, scientific approach that relies on...
Edward O. Wilson’s latest book borrows its title and central term “consilience” from the nineteenth century writer William Whewell. He prefers this term over such alternatives as “coherence” because it is less ambiguous; by it, he means “the intrinsic unity of knowledge”—not merely in the natural sciences but in all branches of learning, from physics and chemistry to the social sciences and the humanities, including ethics and religion. At present, consilience is an assumption, a working hypothesis, that has proven itself in the natural sciences, “from quantum physics to the brain sciences and evolutionary biology,” and that is beginning to make itself felt in the interdisciplinary study of the human brain being carried out by biologists and psychologists. Much of Wilson’s book is devoted to arguing that this assumption is being proven true across more and more disciplines and hence should be pursued as a goal in areas currently considered vastly different from and perhaps even hostile to the natural sciences.
After defining his terms and setting his goal, Wilson begins his argument by surveying the goals and methods of the Enlightenment, that period in Western intellectual history beginning (according to Wilson) with Francis Bacon’s insistence on inductive reasoning and ending symbolically with the death of the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) in a filthy prison cell, victim of the Reign of Terror. The goals of the Enlightenment were to free men’s minds from superstition and to pursue knowledge in all of its forms with objectivity and rigor. The methods that proved most successful were scientific reductionism (dividing the subject of inquiry into smaller and smaller constituent parts) and mathematical modeling. Sir Isaac Newton’s studies in light and gravity are among the highest achievements of Enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment ideal of scientific objectivity and the unity of all learning was overthrown by the Romantic Revolt and its emphasis on subjectivity and feeling, the mystical and ineffable. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Wordsworth, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe engineered the split that still exists between the sciences and humanities, what C. P. Snow called, “the two cultures.” Its most extreme manifestation is postmodernism, with its insistence upon knowledge as a mere “construct,” having no objective validity or verifiability.
Much of Wilson’s survey of the Enlightenment and its aftermath will be familiar to readers of Jacob Bronowski and James Burke—or to viewers of their respective television series. Few readers will object to Wilson’s overview of the history of science or to his biologist’s perspective on the evolution of the human brain and its improbable but real abilities to do science. But Wilson unabashedly asserts that science produces genuine knowledge (not merely momentarily accepted constructs), that its history is a story of progress (a very unfashionable word), and that its methods can lead to objective truth: “Criteria of objective truth might be attainable through empirical investigation. The key lies in clarifying the still poorly understood operations composing the mind and in improving the piecemeal approach science has taken to its material properties.”
Wilson attempts to show how the quest for consilience through the understanding of the workings of the mind can shed light on dreams—the basis of both creative and insane thought. Rejecting Sigmund Freud, Wilson outlines the physiology of dreaming and attempts to show how an understanding of the brain’s chemistry can shed light on this universal phenomenon. Key to his claims for consilience is the belief that if we understand the workings of the mind, we will have found the vital link between all forms of knowledge, for the mind is the seat of all we know and can know. Here, Wilson’s argument becomes (for the layman at least) technical and hard to follow. His description of what is currently known about how the brain works is as clear as could be expected, but it is still not easy for the neophyte to digest. Most readers will have to take it on faith that Wilson’s description is accurate. Perhaps the most interesting and revealing part of this discussion is Wilson’s explication of the place of feeling in thought, his meditations on the self, and his argument for the existence of free will.
Another central step on the road to consilience is the place where Apollo meets Dionysus—at the intersection of reason and feeling, science and art. The polarization of these two impulses leads to the perpetual war of nature versus nurture, a conflict that Wilson resolves by arguing that the two are not opposites but complements. He calls this the “gene-culture coevolution,” meaning that human evolution has helped to direct culture and that culture, in turn, has helped to direct evolution. This is a record that science has only begun to trace. The basic unit of genetically based culture Wilson calls a “meme.” It is the central concept in linking science and the humanities. Since we cannot perform controlled experiments on humans, and because only a few genes that affect behavior have been identified, at the moment we must work within...