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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Wilson, Consilience, and Postmodernsim

Very interesting article Back From Chaos by Edward O. Wilson on postmodernism that chronicles the rise and fall of the Enlightenment project of bringing together all of human knowledge. Of course he views the increasing specialization of knowledge and the crumbling of a liberal education as an impediment to solving pressing issues of the day and looks for consilience (a term coined in the 1840s that means "a jumping together" and the title of one of Wilson's books) to address the problem through reductionism to a materialist core leaving only natural science and the creative arts as branches of human knowledge. In this view all other pursuits in the humanities can be reduced to brain chemistry.

Although I don't subscribe to his reductionist views, he provides a succint definition and good arguments in attacking postmodernism (although he is willing to tolerate it as a form of dissent that sharpens rationalism). For example:

'If these premises are correct, it follows that one culture is as good as any other in the expression of truth and morality, each in its own special way. Political multiculturalism is justified; each ethnic group and sexual preference in the community has equal validity and deserves communal support and mandated representation in educational agendas—that is, again, if the premises are correct. And they must be correct, say their promoters, because to suggest otherwise is bigotry, which is a cardinal sin. Cardinal, that is, if we agree to waive in this one instance the postmodernist prohibition against universal truth, and all agree to agree for the common good. Thus Rousseau redivivus."

And I think he accurately locates the fall of the Enlightenment in the Jacobin Terror. However, he doesn't note how enlightnement principles survived in America largely because their basis in America was not on the "general will" of Rousseau that leads to mob rule but rather the "all men are created equal" of Jefferson that leads to accountability.

Interestingly, when Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionist and agnostic died in May of 2002, he was working on a book that was recently published called The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magisters Pox. Towards the end of the book he reviews Wilson's Consilience. Gould rejects Wilson's strict reductionism which preaches that all knowledge can be reduced to a materialist core and that hence the arts, religon, poetry etc. can ultimately be grounded in brain chemistry. Gould rejects this notion on two grounds 1) Emergence - the idea that whole is not the sum of the parts and so complex constructs can't be fully explained by understanding lower-level consituents, and 2) Contingency - he views the development of these more complex systems as having a strong historical component so that even if an understanding of first principles were available, you could not explain the "how" of their development.

The most interesting and sad part though is that he says very strongly that a total materialist philosphy cannot explain the "ought" but only the "is" or morals and ethics (sounding very much like C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity). He calls it our "moral sense" which Lewis would call our God-given sense of the divine or the Tao. Sadly, Gould then admits that though he has struggled with this issue his entire life, he has no resolution regarding the origin of "moral sense". He therefore seems to have died a true agnostic when in fact unlike so many atheists he saw the flaw of reductionism and materialism but couldn't find his way to the alternative.