Consilience

2005-04-10

I've started reading Edward O. Wilson's book Consilience. Wilson cites William Whewell as the thinker who coined the term "consilience", which literally means a "jumping together" of facts or inductions from different disciplines (according to J.S. Mill in his Utilitarianism, each result thus assists in "corroborating and verifying the other"). The OED quotes Whewell as follows (The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), II 230):

Accordingly the cases in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains. And, as I shall have occasion to refer to this particular feature in their evidence, I will take the liberty of describing it by a particular phrase; and I will term it the Consilience of Inductions.

Wilson further quotes Whewell as follows:

The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.

Wilson proposes an updated Enlightenment project of intellectual synthesis that would build the consilience of knowledge across disciplines (and not just the hard sciences, but the social sciences and humanities as well), along the lines of Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna. And he writes as follows regarding the relationship between this project and the tradition of philosophical investigation:

Philosophy plays a vital role in intellectual synthesis, and it keeps us alive to the power and continuity of thought through the centuries. It also peers into the future to give shape to the unknown -- and that has always been its vocation of choice. One of its most distinguished practitioners, Alexander Rosenberg, has recently argued that philosophy in fact addresses just two issues: the questions that the sciences -- physical, biological, and social -- cannot answer, and the reasons for that incapacity. "Now of course," he concludes, "there may not be any questions that the sciences cannot answer eventually, in the long run, when all the facts are in, but certainly there are questions that the sciences cannot answer yet." This assessment is admirably clear and honest and convincing. It neglects, however, the obvious fact that scientists are equally qualified to judge what remains to be discovered, and why. There has never been a better time for collaboration between scientists and philosophers, especially where they meet in the borderlands between biology, the social sciences, and the humanities. We are approaching a new age of synthesis, when the testing of consilience is the greatest of all intellectual challenges. Philosophy, the contemplation of the unknown, is a shrinking dominion. We have the common goal of turning as much philosophy as possible into science.

To which I say: Hear, Hear! I've been thinking along similar lines since 1998 (when Wilson's book was published -- I'm not sure why I haven't read it until now) and probably much earlier given that I was reading Hao Wang's work on phenography in 1987 or so. In all likelihood, the new way to philosophize will mean overcoming philosophy rather than extending its life.


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