Sunday, November 19, 2006

Consilience

"Philosophers are beginning to like it—it's something for them to do. They've been sort of flopping around since the failure of positivism."
Edward O. Wilson, in an interview with Seed Magazine (November 2006).

The article from which this quote was grabbed is about Wilson's latest book, The Creation, and the rift between science and religion. The book itself is Wilson's attempt to draw the two worlds together in a truce for the sake of humanity's progress, and more specifically to garner attention towards saving the Earth, rather than wasting breath on an argument that goes nowhere. This article is one in a series that spans newspapers and magazines—including Wired's "The Church of the Non-Believers"—that cover a series of books published this fall written by top scientists and philosophers on the subject of fundamentalist values overtaking scientific reason. The authors of these books include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and of course Edward O. Wilson.

The quote above is a reference to the central idea of his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that all fields of knowledge and scientific inquiry are intrinsically linked by a set of fundamental rules implicit to all fields. His remark is in reference to the fact that, after decades of these fields dividing and splintering, there is recent synthesis and convergence where certain fields jut against one another. As members of one field identify similar ideas found in others, they initiate an exchange with their newfound colleagues, which include bridging gaps in each other’s knowledge and linguistic blending.

But doing so is a tedious process. Although the semantic content of related fields develops often along parallel routes, occasionally crossing paths, the syntactical elements progress divergently from the outset, and researchers find themselves unable to communicate effectively with cousins hailing from those neighboring fields. Wilson’s comment hits squarely upon the utility of philosophy emerging in the modern world.

Philosophers have a new task: as catalysts of fusion, to combine the reactant disciplines of science and merge them together into novel, nascent branches of inquiry. Science becomes fragmented as scientists delve deeper into the disparate wells of knowledge, but the philosopher may quickly traverse the many beaten paths, picking up the shards along the way. To fit them together is to fill in the semantic gaps of each domain—and in doing so there occurs a reformulation of content in a new syntax adaptable to the various extant fields, thereby joining them in linguistic solidarity.

PS: For the text of a discussion between E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett, click here.

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