Friday, 3 February 2012

The End – or the Start – of Ignorance

E.O. Wilson is just the latest biologist to try turning the base metal of scientific induction into the spun gold of existential truth. What is the allure of religious certainty for these folks, and why they can’t heed the lessons of their own discipline?

I’ve made  the observation before that scientists - especially biologists - make lousy philosophers, and it doesn’t take long for Professor E. O. Wilson - one of evolutionary biology’s most prominent lights - to place himself squarely in that camp.

“No one should suppose,” he asserts, “that objective truth is impossible to attain, even when the most committed philosophers urge us to acknowledge that incapacity. In particular it is too early for scientists, the foot soldiers of epistemology, to yield ground so vital to their mission. ... No intellectual vision is more important and daunting than that of objective truth based on scientific understanding.”

On the other hand not long afterwards, apparently without intending the irony with which the statement overflows, he says, “People are innate romantics, they desperately need myth and dogma.”

None more so, it would seem, that philosophising evolutionary biologists. 

Wilson’s Consilience is a long essay on objective truth that - per the above quotation, gratuitously misunderstands what epistemology even is, whilst at the same time failing to mention (except in passing) any of its most important contributors - the likes of Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Quine, Rorty or even dear old Popper. Instead, Wilson characterises objections to his extreme reductionism as “leftist” thought including - and I quote - “Afrocentrism, ‘critical’ (i.e., socialist) science, deep ecology, ecofeminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Latourian sociology of science and neo-Marxism.”

Ad hominem derision is about the level of engagement you’ll get, and the only concession - a self-styled “salute” to the postmodernists - is “their ideas are like sparks from firework explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects.” You could formulate a more patronising disposition, I suppose, but it would take some work.

“You could formulate a more patronising disposition, I suppose, but it would take some work.”

What is extraordinary is that of all scientists, a biologist should be so insensitive to the contingency of knowledge, as this is the exact lesson evolutionary theory teaches: it’s not the perfect solution that survives, but the most effective. There is no “ideal organism”.

In support of his own case, Wilson refers at some length to the chimerical nature of consciousness (taking Daniel Dennett’s not uncontroversial account more or less as read). But there is a direct analogy here: Dennett’s model of consciousness stands in the same relation to the material brain as Wilson’s consilience stands to the physical universe. Dennett says consciousness is an illusion - a trick of the mind, if you like (and rather wilfully double-parks the difficult question “a trick on whom?”).

But by extension, could not consilience also be a trick of the mind? Things look like they’re ordered, consistent and universal because that’s how we’re wired to see them. Our evolutionary development (fully contingent and path-dependent, as even Wilson would agree) has built a sensory apparatus which filters the information in the world in a way which is ever-more effective.  That’s the clever trick of evolutionary development. If it is of adaptive benefit to apprehend “the world” as a consistent, coherent whole, then as long as that coherent whole accounts effectively for our physiologically meaningful experiences, then its relation to “the truth” is really beside the point.

When I run to catch a cricket ball on the boundary no part of my brain solves differential equations to catch it (I don’t have nearly enough information to do that), and no immutable, unseen cosmic machine calculates those equations to plot its trajectory either. Our mathematical model is a clever proxy, and we shouldn’t be blinded by its elegance or apparent accuracy (though, in point of fact, practically it isn’t that accurate) into assuming it somehow reveals an ineffable truth. This isn’t a new or especially controversial objection, by the way: this was one of David Hume’s main insights - an Enlightenment piece of enlightenment, if you will. As a matter of logic, there must be alternate ways of describing the same phenomena, and if you allow yourself to implement different rules to solve the puzzle, the set of coherent alternative solutions is infinite.

“It is extraordinary that a biologist should be so insensitive to the contingency of knowledge, it being the exact lesson of evolutionary theory.” 

So our self-congratulation at the cleverness of the model we have arrived at (and, sure, it is very clever) shouldn’t be overdone. It isn’t the “truth” - it’s an effective proxy, and there is a world of difference between the two. And there are uncomfortable consequences of taking the apparently harmless step of conflating them.

For one thing, “consilience” tends to dissuade inquiry: if we believe we have settled on an ineffable truth, then further discussion can only confuse and endanger our grip on it. It also gives us immutable grounds for arbitrating against those who hold an “incorrect” view. That is, to hold forth a theory which is inconsistent with the mainstream “consiliated” view is wasteful and given it has the potential to lead us away from the “true” path, may legitimately be suppressed.

You can see this style of reasoning being employed by two groups already: militant religious fundamentalists, and militant atheists. Neither is prepared to countenance the pluralistic, pragmatic (and blindingly obvious) view that there are not just many different *ways* of looking at the world but many different *reasons* for doing so, and each has its own satisfaction criteria. While these opposing fundamentalists go hammer and tongs against each other, their similarities are greater than their differences, and their greatest similarity is that neither fully comprehends, and as a consequence neither takes seriously, the challenge of the “postmodern” strands of thought against which they’re aligned.

Hence, someone like Wilson can have the hubris to say things like: “Yet I think it is fair to say that enough is known to justify confidence in the principle of universal rational consilience across all the natural sciences”

Try telling that to Kurt Gödel or Bertrand Russell, let alone Richard Rorty or Jacques Derrida.