January 29, 2003

   The Unity of Knowledge
   by Edward O. Wilson                    NATURE_OF_THE_WALLS

Here E.O. Wilson argues for his notion of "Consilience",
some sort of convergence between the sciences and the
humanities, a bridge between the two cultures.
Shortly after beginning this book,
a sinking feeling sank in... "oh
no, not nature-nurture again".

To me the odd word "Consilience"
suggests a conciliation. I was
expecting a program for blending
together the "two cultures" into
one, perhaps a call for rigor
in the humanities, and for
the intuitive in the sciences.

Instead Wilson appears
to be out to make the
humanities obsolete.

       He wants to play the
       Science Wars to win.           A scientist strikes back against
                                      the pomo infidels who dared
His route of attack is                suggest that science was just
to find a way to reduce               another form of literature,
"mind" to it's physical               subservient to critical theory.
substrate, to pin down
biological determinants               Some day soon, all your pathetic
for human nature.                     ramblings about cultural relativism
                                      will drown under the mighty tidal
He claims that we're                  wave of my evolutionary biology.
well on the way to                    Take that!
developing a true
science of mind, a
revolution that will    DOWN_TO_THE_BOTTOM
essentially expand
the dominion of
biology to fill much
of the territory we
currently think of as
belonging to the               A popular approach
humanities.                    these days.

                               are others:        Consider the possibility
                                                  that Mind emerges out of
                        Consider the line         a swirl of complexity
                        Roger Penrose has         and network effects that
                        been taking...            has less to do with the
     MIND_PENROSE                                 nature of the widgets
                          Loosely: he             attached together than
                          argues that             the sheer number of
That's in "The            human brains may        them, the sheer density
Emperor's New Mind"       be odd quantum          of different possible
and it's sequel,          entanglement            interconnections between
"The Emperor Strikes      devices that            them.
for--", I mean            will resist
"Shadows of the           computational           It seems likely to me that
Mind".                    emulation (at           you could know precisely
                          least with the          how neurons work, and still
                          traditional             not understand what goes on
                          Turing                  inside a brain, any more
                          Machines).              than our knowledge of the
                                                  behavior of gas molecules
                                                  gives us long-term
                                                  weather predictions.

   Now myself, I've long                     flows out       The extreme form
   been inclined toward                      of the          of this belief
   some form of "maybe                       swirl of        expects human
   we're not smart enough                    neural          scale artificial
   to understand things                      complexity,     intelligence to
   as smart as we are".                      like            emerge the moment
                                             hurricanes      we've got
If you expect     You might                  out of the      machines with a
neurobiology      call this                  jet-stream.     sufficient number
to grow into      "the Goedel                                of transistors in
something         Handwave".             like purple         them.
subsuming the                            rhetorical
humanities you                           flourishes out
have to                                  of the doomed
explicitly                               void
reject that
notion of
limits on
                                                      Actually, Wilson does
And as far as I can tell                              talk about complexity
the people who do reject                              theory a little bit
it are just doing so on                               (e.g. Stuart Kauffman).
                                                      He treats it only as
  Human reason is destined                            an as yet failed path
  to conquer all realms,                              to consilience.
  including itself. Any
  other notion is a sign
  of some quaint
  irrational need to
  believe that humanity
  transcends the merely
  physical. Heh, you must
  be one of those silly
  mystics, vitalists,
      Wilson condescendingly
      chides Penrose in a footnote:
      the people actually *working*
      in the field see no need to
      postulate complicated quantum
      effects to understand neural
      function. *sniff*

      But they do not, as of
      yet actually understand         The burden of proof lies
      neural function, at             on the side proposing a
      least not in the kind           complication, but the
      of extreme detail that          simplest explanation is
      Wilson seems to expect.         not best unless it really
                                      *is* an explanation.

                                      "As simple as possible,
                                      but no simpler."

 Now, speaking
 of Penrose:

 His books are superb
 models of reasonable
 argument. He lays out
 the case as well as
 he can, supports it
 with what facts and
 theories he can
 marshal, and *never*
 overreaches. The gaps      Few people find the
 are never papered          arguments in "The
 over with rhetoric,        Emperor's New Mind"
 inconvenient points        totally convincing,
 are never swept under      but no one walks away
 the rug.                   unimpressed. Even the
                            people who disagree
                            tend to recommend it.

 is not a book
 deserving of
 such praise.

    Wilson always comes on like a Reasonable Guy:
    There is some evidence which (Wilson says)
    points toward a certain conclusion.  Now it is
    certainly true (Wilson magnanimously concedes)
    this or that is not *really* established, and
    there's a *slight* possibility that Wilson is
    completely wrong.  But he feels *certain* that
    this gap in our knowledge is about to leap'd over
    by the tremendous momentum of the juggernaut
    of biological progress.

    You can trust him, he's a Scientist.

                       And thereafter, he acts like the
                       point has been dealt with, and
                       his version of "consilience" is a
                       near certainty.

                                       I have *no* sympathy for
                                       this kind of rhetorical
                                       dodge.  You don't discuss a
                                       counter-argument just to
Notable for a book                     genuflect to your critics,
arguing genetic                        you're really supposed to
determinism: there                     deal with it in some way,
are very few mentions                  you're supposed to show
of racism or social                    some sign that you've
darwinism.  He mentions                absorbed that there is
the book "The Bell                     another plausible way of
Curve" at one point,                   looking at the material,
but doesn't provide                    and despite the Reasonable
a clue as to what                      Scientist pose, Wilson
he thinks of it.                       often strikes me as a
There's a couple of ways
you deal with taking an                   "Artistic inspiration common
unpopular line: one is to                 to everyone in varying degree
admit that it's unpopular,                rise from the artesian wells
explain why you think it's                of human nature.  Its
unpopular, and suggest that               creations are meant to be
it's been unfairly judged.                delivered directly to the
                                          sensibilities of the beholder
The other method is to try                without analytic explanation.
to sweep the issue under                  Creativity is therefore
the rug, touch on the                     humanistic in the fullest
unpopularity only lightly                 sense.  Works of enduring
and suggest that your                     value are those truest to
position is not the same as               these origins.  It follows
that unpopular one.                       that even the greatest works
                                          of art might be understood
Distance yourself from it by              fundamentally with knowledge
choosing a new name for your              of the biologically evolved
ideas without the negative                epigenetic rules that guided
connotations of the old (I'm              them."    p.213
not a "genetic determinist",
I'm a "consilient synthesist"!).

   I don't have a lot of sympathy
   for that rhetorical dodge either.