The Unity of Knowledge

I had a discussion with a friend (who probably reads this blog at least occasionally) about what my town needs more of. The discussion probably represents our views on what the nation and/or churches need more of too. She thought the town (which is Southern/conservative sometimes masquerading as academic) would be better with more charismatic influence- more spirit. I thought the town would be better with a heavier dose of rationality and thought. The last book I read- and how much I liked it- is really a testament to my way of thinking.

Edward O. Wilson is one of those scientists who probably will (or at least should) get a Nobel Prize in the next few years. He gained his fame as an entomologist (he studies ants) by largely inventing the fields of population biology and sociobiology, and making great contributions to biodiversity, ethology, evolutionary biology, and lots of other -ologies. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is an intellectual tour de force in which Wilson attempts to show the ways in which all fields of human knowledge are related and interdependent.

His argument is largely for synthesis- fields should recognize that they are all based in physical reality and should therefore be grounded in the physical sciences in some fashion. All chemistry is based on physics, all biology is based on chemistry, all psychology on biology, all anthropology on psychology, all politics and economics and history on anthropology, and all the arts are grounded in the realities of human experience.

Freudian psychology, for example, is not consilient (or reconcilable) with the rest of reality because it is based on speculation, which though it freed man from previous theological understandings of human psychic reality, was no more based on the chemical nature of thought processes than astrology. The only limitation in making connections between our mental experiences and the billions of neurons from which they emerge is time.

For instance, a thousand years ago, mind-body duality made perfect sense; consciousness was seen as separate from physical existence, and likely to continue even after the destruction of the physical body. A hundred years ago depression and schizophrenia were blamed on sin, or demon possession. Today we understand that these disorders emerge due to physical and chemical imbalances. I call that progress! Wilson also gives striking summaries of current scientific research on the physical bases of dreams, consciousness, and spirituality. Future research can only serve to further elucidate the physical reality in which all thought and spirit is grounded.

In Consilience, Wilson has rediscovered the Enlightenment spirit, eloquently researching and glorifying the ways in which man continues to liberate himself from ignorance through the pursuit of knowledge. Man is in a sense the first truly free species, developing consciousness to the point where humanity first realized its own existence (with consciousness), its own transcendence (with spirituality), and its own origin (with evolution). Finally, and continually, humanity has learned to overcome its own limitations. Our narrow biological achievements will continue to be enhanced through technology, and our narrow perceptive faculties will continue to be enhanced by science and its instruments.


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