Who knows what

For decades the sciences and the humanities have fought for knowledge supremacy. Both sides are wrong-headed

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Wassily Kandinsky Composition VIII July 1923. Oil on canvas. 140 x 201cm. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012

Wassily Kandinsky Composition VIII. July 1923. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012

Massimo Pigliucci is chair of the philosophy department at CUNY-Lehman and the author of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life.

Whenever we try to make an inventory of humankind’s store of knowledge, we stumble into an ongoing battle between what CP Snow called ‘the two cultures’. On one side are the humanities, on the other are the sciences (natural and physical), with social science and philosophy caught somewhere in the middle. This is more than a turf dispute among academics. It strikes at the core of what we mean by human knowledge.

Snow brought this debate into the open with his essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. He started his career as a scientist and then moved to the humanities, where he was dismayed at the attitudes of his new colleagues. ‘A good many times,’ he wrote, ‘I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’

That was more than half a century ago. If anything, the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do. The feminist philosopher Harding once boasted: ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorising itself'. That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon.

In order to satirise this kind of pretentiousness, in 1996 the physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal Social Text. He called it ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. There is no such thing as a hermeneutics of quantum gravity, transformative or not, and the paper consisted entirely of calculated nonsense. Nevertheless, the journal published it. The moral, Sokal concluded, was that postmodern writing on science depended on ‘radical-sounding assertions’ that can be given ‘two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true’.

Truth be told we don't know whether the laws that control the behaviour of quarks scale up to the level of societies and galaxies

Blame for the culture wars doesn’t lay squarely on the shoulders of humanists, however. Scientists have employed their own overblown rhetoric to aggrandise their doings and dismiss what they haven’t read or understood. Their target, interestingly, is often philosophy. Stephen Hawking began his 2010 book The Grand Design by declaring philosophy dead — though he neglected to provide evidence or argument for such a startling conclusion. Earlier this year, the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss told The Atlantic magazine that philosophy ‘reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke: those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym. And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever’.

To begin with, it is fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists, so by Krauss’s own reasoning both fields are irrelevant to everybody else (they aren’t, of course). Secondly, Krauss, and Hawking for that matter, seem to miss the fact that the business of philosophy is not to solve scientific problems — we’ve got science for that. Objecting to philosophy on these grounds is like complaining that historians of science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history? And as the philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), a book that has been very popular among scientists: ‘There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination’. Whether or not they realise it, Hawking and Krauss need philosophy as a background condition for what they do.

Perhaps the most ambitious contemporary attempt at reconfiguring the relationship between the sciences and the humanities comes from the biologist EO Wilson. In his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, he proposed nothing less than to explain the whole of human experience in terms of the natural sciences. Beginning with the premise that we are biological beings, he attempted to make sense of society, the arts, ethics and religion in terms of our evolutionary heritage. ‘I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning,’ he wrote. ‘I discovered evolution. Suddenly — that is not too strong a word — I saw the world in a wholly new way’.

Wilson claims that we can engage in a process of ‘consilience’ that leads to an intellectually and aesthetically satisfactory unity of knowledge. Here is how he defines two versions of consilience: ‘To dissect a phenomenon into its elements ... is consilience by reduction. To reconstitute it, and especially to predict with knowledge gained by reduction how nature assembled it in the first place, is consilience by synthesis’.

Despite the unfamiliar name, this is actually a standard approach in the natural sciences, and it goes back to Descartes. In order to understand a complex problem, we break it down into smaller chunks, get a grasp on those, and then put the whole thing back together. The strategy is called reductionism and it has been highly successful in fundamental physics, though its success has been more limited in biology and other natural sciences. The overall image that Wilson seems to have in mind is of a downward spiral wherein complex aspects of human culture — literature, for example — are understood first in terms of the social sciences (sociology, psychology), and then more mechanistically by the biological sciences (neurobiology, evolutionary biology), before finally being reduced to physics. After all, everything is made of quarks (or strings), isn’t it?

Before we can see where Wilson and his followers go wrong, we need to make a distinction between two meanings of reductionism. There is ontological reduction, which has to do with what exists, and epistemic reduction, which has to do with what we know. The first one is the idea that the bottom level of reality (say, quarks, or strings) is causally sufficient to account for everything else (atoms, cells, you and me, planets, galaxies and so forth). Epistemic reductionism, on the other hand, claims that knowledge of the bottom level is sufficient to reconstruct knowledge of everything else. It holds that we will eventually be able to derive a quantum mechanical theory of planetary motions and of the genius of Shakespeare.

How are we doing in the millennia-long quest for absolute and objective truth? Not so well, it seems

The notion of ontological reductionism is widely accepted in physics and in certain philosophical quarters, though there really isn’t any compelling evidence one way or the other. Truth be told, we don’t know whether the laws that control the behaviour of quarks scale up to the level of societies and galaxies, or whether large complex systems exhibit novel behaviour that can’t be reduced to lower ontological levels. I am, therefore, agnostic about ontological reductionism. Fortunately for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. The real game lies in the other direction.

Epistemic reductionism is obviously false. We do not have — nor are we ever likely to have — a quantum mechanical theory of planets or of human behaviour. Even if possible in principle, such a theory would be too complicated to compute or to understand. Chemistry might have become a branch of physics via a successful reduction, and neurobiology certainly informs psychology. But not even the most ardent physicist would attempt to produce an explanation of, say, ecosystems in terms of subatomic particles. The impossibility of this sort of epistemic reductionism therefore puts one significant constraint on Wilson-type consilience. The big question, then, is how far we can push the programme.

Let’s begin in the obvious place. If culture has to be understood in terms of biology, then genes must have quite a bit to do with it. Wilson, however, is too sophisticated to fall into straightforward genetic determinism. Instead he tells us: ‘Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the regularities of sensory perception and mental development that animate and channel the acquisition of culture’. As it happens, I have worked on epigenetics. The word actually refers to all the molecular processes that mediate the effects of genes during plant and animal development. The problem from Wilson’s point of view is this: biologists don’t know what ‘epigenetic rules’ are. They don’t know how to quantify them or how to study them. For explanatory purposes, they are vacuous.

Wilson’s next move is to invoke Richard Dawkins’s idea of ‘memes’, or units of cultural evolution. If culture is made of discrete units that can replicate in the environment of human society, perhaps there is a way to bring evolutionary theory to bear directly on culture. Instead of genes (or epigenes), we apply Darwinian principles to memes. Unfortunately for consilience, the research programme of memetics is in big trouble. Scientists and philosophers have cast doubt on the usefulness, even the coherence, of the very concept. As my evolutionary biology colleague Jerry Coyne has said, it is ‘completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread’. We don’t know how to define memes in a way that is operationally useful to the practicing scientist, we don’t know why some memes are successful and others not, and we have no clue as to the physical substrate, if any, of which memes are made. Tellingly, the Journal of Memetics closed a few years ago for lack of submissions.

None of the above, of course, is to say that biology is irrelevant to human culture. We are indeed biological entities, so lots of what we do is connected with food, sex and social status. But we are also physical entities, and humanity has found cultural ways to exploit or get around physics. We built aeroplanes to fly despite the limitations imposed by gravity, and we invented endless variations on the basic biological themes, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Picasso’s paintings. In each case, the supposedly fundamental sciences give us only a very partial picture of the whole.

If we take the idea of unity of knowledge seriously, there are some broad categories of inquiry that we should try to integrate into our picture. This turns out to be harder than we might think. Take mathematics and logic. Wilson is keen on these disciplines. ‘The dream of objective truth peaked,’ he writes, ‘with logical positivism’ — that is, with a philosophical movement of the 1920s and ’30s that attempted to capture the essence of scientific statements using logic. Mathematics, too, is central to his scheme. Because of its effectiveness in the natural sciences, it ‘seems to point arrowlike toward the ultimate goal of objective truth’.

Let’s leave aside the pretty well-established fact that human beings aren’t in the business of ‘ultimate objective truth’. When we come down to it, is scientific knowledge the same kind of thing as mathematical-logical knowledge? They are, I think, quite different. Look at what counts as a ‘fact’ in science: for instance the statement that there are four natural satellites of Jupiter that can be seen through small telescopes from Earth. These satellites were discovered by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, and represented the first example of a solar-like system within our own Sun-centred one. Indeed, Galilei used this as a major reason to take seriously the then-highly controversial Copernican theory.

By contrast, take a mathematical ‘fact’, such as the demonstration of the Pythagorean theorem. Or a logical fact, such as a truth table that tells you the conditions under which particular combinations of premises yield true or false conclusions according to the rules of deduction. These two latter sorts of knowledge do resemble one another in certain ways; some philosophers regard mathematics as a type of logical system. Yet neither looks anything like a fact as it is understood in the natural sciences. Therefore, ‘unifying knowledge’ in this area looks like an empty aim: all we can say is that we have natural sciences over here and maths over there, and that the latter is often useful (for reasons that are not at all clear, by the way) to the former.

Let’s consider yet another type of fact, more germane to the project of reducing the humanities to the sciences. I happen to have a strong conviction that the music of Ludwig van Beethoven is better than that of Britney Spears. To me, that’s an aesthetic fact. I hope it’s also clear that this is a ‘fact’ (based on my ‘knowledge’ of music) that has a different structure and content from both logical-mathematical and natural-scientific facts. Indeed, it isn’t a fact at all: it’s an aesthetic judgment, one to which I have a strong emotional attachment.

Why would evolution produce brains such as Andrew Wiles’s, capable of solving Fermat’s last theorem?

Now, I do not doubt that my ability to make aesthetic judgments in general is influenced by the kind of biological being that I am. I need to have a particular type of auditory system even to hear Beethoven and Spears, and that system presumably accounts for why musicians rarely produce pieces outside a certain range of sound frequencies. Still, it seems hard to deny that my particular judgment about Beethoven versus Spears is primarily the result of my culture and psychology and upbringing. People in different times and cultures, or with different temperaments, have disagreed and will disagree with me — and they might feel just as strongly about their tastes as I do about mine (of course, they would be ‘wrong’). Clearly, there are aspects of human culture in which the very notion of ‘objective and ultimate truth’ is a category mistake.

Let’s set aside the goal of unifying all knowledge. How are we doing in the millennia-long quest for absolute and objective truth? Not so well, it seems, and that is largely because of the devastating contributions of a few philosophers and logicians, particularly David Hume, Bertrand Russell and Kurt Gödel.

In the 18th century, Hume formulated what is now known as the problem of induction. He noted that both in science and everyday experience we use a type of reasoning that philosophers call induction, which consists in generalising from examples. Hume also pointed out that we do not seem to have a logical justification for the inductive process itself. Why then do we believe that inductive reasoning is reliable? The answer is that it has worked so far. Ah, but to say so is to deploy inductive reasoning to justify inductive reasoning, which seems circular. Plenty of philosophers have tried to solve the problem of induction without success: we do not have an independent, rational justification for the most common type of reasoning employed by laypeople and professional scientists. Hume didn’t say that we should therefore all quit and go home in desperation. Indeed, we don’t have an alternative but to keep using induction. But it ought to be a sobering thought that our empirical knowledge is based on no solid foundation other than that ‘it works’.

What about maths and logic? At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of logicians, mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics were trying to establish firm logical foundations for mathematics and similar formal systems. The most famous such attempt was made by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, and it resulted in their Principia Mathematica (1910-13), one of the most impenetrable reads of all time. It failed.

A few years later the logician Kurt Gödel explained why. His two ‘incompleteness theorems’ proved — logically — that any sufficiently complex mathematical or logical system will contain truths that cannot be proven from within that system. Russell conceded this fatal blow to his enterprise, as well as the larger moral that we have to be content with unprovable truths even in mathematics. If we add to Gödel’s results the well-known fact that logical proofs and mathematical theorems have to start from assumptions (or axioms) that are themselves unprovable (or, in the case of some deductive reasoning like syllogisms, are derived from empirical observations and generalisation — ie, from induction), it seems that the quest for true and objective knowledge is revealed as a mirage.

At this point one might wonder what exactly is at stake here. Why are Wilson and his followers in search of a unified theory of everything, a single way to understand human knowledge? Wilson gives the answer explicitly in his book, and I think it also applies implicitly to some of his fellow travellers, for instance the physicist Steven Weinberg in his book Dreams of a Final Theory (1992). The motive is philosophical. More specifically, it is aesthetic. Some scientists really value simplicity and elegance of explanations, and use these criteria in evaluating of the relative worth of different theories. Wilson calls this ‘the Ionian enchantment’, and names the first chapter of Consilience accordingly. But the irony here is obvious. Neither simplicity nor elegance are empirical concepts: they are philosophical judgments. There is no reason to believe a priori that the universe can be explained by simple and elegant theories, and indeed the historical record of physics includes several instances when the simplest of competing theories turned out to be wrong.

Enough with the demolition project. Is it possible to reconstruct something like Wilson’s consilience, but in a more reasonable manner? Think about visual art. Its history includes prehistoric cave paintings, Michelangelo, Picasso, and contemporary abstraction. It is reasonable to think that science — perhaps a combination of evolutionary biology and cognitive science — can tell us something about why our ancestors started painting to begin with, as well as why we like certain types of patterns: symmetrical figures, for instance, and repetitions of a certain degree of complexity. Yet these sorts of explanations massively underdetermine the variety of ways of doing visual art, both across centuries and across cultures. Picasso’s cubism is not about symmetry, for instance; indeed, it’s about breaking symmetry. And it is hard to imagine an explanation of the rise of, say, the Impressionist movement that doesn’t invoke the specific cultural circumstances of late 19th century France, and the biographies and psychologies of individual artists.

We find a similar situation with maths. It is plausible that our ability to count and do simple arithmetic gave us an evolutionary advantage and was therefore the result of natural selection. (Notice, however, that this is a speculative argument: we don’t have access to the kind of evidence needed to test the hypothesis.) But what on earth is the possible adaptive value of highly abstract mathematics? Why would evolution produce brains such as Andrew Wiles’s, capable of solving Fermat’s last theorem? Biology sets the background conditions for such feats of human ingenuity, since a brain of a particular type is necessary to accomplish them. But biology by itself has little else to say about how some human cultures took a historical path that ended up producing a small group of often socially awkward people who devote their lives to solving abstruse mathematical problems.

Or, finally, take morality, perhaps the most important aspect of what it means to be human. Much has been written on the evolutionary origins of morality, and many good and plausible ideas have been proposed. Our moral sense might well have originated in the context of social life as intelligent primates: other social primates do show behaviours consistent with the basic building blocks of morality such as fairness toward other members of the group, even when they aren’t kin. But it is a very long way from that to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism. These works and concepts were possible because we are biological beings of a certain kind. Nevertheless, we need to take cultural history, psychology and philosophy seriously in order to account for them.

Here’s a final thought. Wilson’s project depends on the assumption that there is such a thing as human knowledge as a unifiable category. For him, disciplinary boundaries are accidents of history that need to be eliminated. But what if they helped to explain some further fact? An intriguing view has been proposed in different contexts by the linguist Noam Chomsky, in his Reflections on Language (1975), and the philosopher Colin McGinn, in The Problem of Consciousness (1991). The basic idea is to take seriously the fact that human brains evolved to solve the problems of life on the savannah during the Pleistocene, not to discover the ultimate nature of reality. From this perspective, it is delightfully surprising that we learn as much as science lets us and ponder as much as philosophy allows. All the same, we know that there are limits to the power of the human mind: just try to memorise a sequence of a million digits. Perhaps some of the disciplinary boundaries that have evolved over the centuries reflect our epistemic limitations.

Seen this way, the differences between philosophy, biology, physics, the social sciences and so on might not be the result of the arbitrary caprice of academic administrators and faculty; they might instead reflect a natural way in which human beings understand the world and their role in it. There might be better ways to organise our knowledge in some absolute sense, but perhaps what we have come up with is something that works well for us, as biological-cultural beings with a certain history.

This isn’t a suggestion to give up, much less a mystical injunction to go ‘beyond science’. There is nothing beyond science. But there is important stuff before it: there are human emotions, expressed by literature, music and the visual arts; there is culture; there is history. The best understanding of the whole shebang that humanity can hope for will involve a continuous dialogue between all our various disciplines. This is a more humble take on human knowledge than the quest for consilience, but it is one that, ironically, is more in synch with what the natural sciences tell us about being human.

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Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/jules.evans.7 Jules Evans

    Great piece, thank you. One point I'd query: 'human brains evolved to solve the problems of life on the savannah during the Pleistocene'. But are they still evolving and changing to solve the problems of life in general? Look, for example, at how IQ scores have risen by 3-5 points every decade over the last century. I think evolutionary psychology is often too pessimistic and backward-looking. We're not in the Pleistocene anymore, our brains have changed a lot in the last century (let alone the last several millennia).

    Also the departmental and cultural division between the sciences and humanities seem a very recent part of our evolution (last 300 years) so I don't see why we need to accept it. You yourself seem a wonderful example of someone who manages to bridge both those cultures - could we re-structure our education systems to produce more Massimos??

    • Ryan

      "IQ scores have risen by 3-5 points every decade"

      What? By definition this cannot happen as IQ scores are normalized around 100, which is both the mean and median. If there is an IQ test designed (and capable) to examine changes in cognitive ability over time and between cultures, I have yet to hear of it.

      "Our brains have changed a lot in the last century"

      Again, another unsubstantiated claim. If you have evidence for this, I would love to see it. I can't see how such evolution can occur without extreme environmental influences and my understanding is that nearly any individual in the developed world has the potential to have children. I would even go as far as to suggest that we are getting less intelligent, as all trends indicate more intelligent and educated individuals reproduce less. Recall that evolution is a product of natural selection.

      • Releler
        • Ryan

          Would you mind pointing out where I was incorrect? IQ scores are maintained with a mean and median at 100 points. Obviously, scores on past tests are going to increase among future generations as education improves (and other factors). This effect may also be due to poor construct validity of IQ tests.

      • Gilbert Haisman

        IQ scores have shot up but that does not mean intelligence has risen with them. IQ does not even TRY to tell us how much intelligence we have, in the way that rulers tell us how much height we have, IQ aims, instead, to tell us how we compare to other people on a scale to do with our current ability to handle cognitive complexity. (And IQ is surprisingly good at doing this, except when it isn't.) Now, we know that people whose IQ was (say) 100 in the quite recent past would now, as a group, rate about 70 if they came back to life to sit the test today. If IQ actually measured how much 'intelligence' they have, then most of them would have been mentally-retarded, which is clearly not the case. However, we are better than them when it comes to some purposes we now invest our intelligence (and knowledge) in. Those purposes include abstract thinking, as indicated by the rocketing scores on subtests within IQ that are designed to measure that type of mental competence.

  • old_timer_37

    I'm reminded of the old story of the 12 blind men carefully groping different parts of an elephant and each claiming that his conclusions described the elephant. I'd take the story a step further. Science is the 12 blind men groping the elephant of reality and describing it by feel. Social science is another group of blind humans describing the elephant by its odors. Neither group is wrong, except those individuals who that claim the sense of touch or the sense of smell is all that matters. Both senses contribute to a better understanding.
    Neither group, however, can "see" the elephant because of the limitations of human brains. Could they "see" the elephant, their understanding would still be improved by including feel and smell, and probably by many other senses and mental capacities we've yet to imagine or possess. To me, that's good news. We and our progeny can continue to evolve and to excite ourselves with discovery, probably until our species extinguishes itself.

    • TomJV

      Sandra Harding no?

  • Mikey McGovern

    "That
    was more than half a century ago. If anything, the situation has got worse.
    Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist, deconstructionist and radical feminist
    authors (the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra
    Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense about science, clearly without
    understanding what scientists actually do. The feminist philosopher Harding
    once boasted: ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams we ever imagined we would
    have to reinvent both science and theorising itself'. That’s a striking claim
    given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist science. The last time
    I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon."

    I am really distraught by
    the chauvinism evidenced by this clumsy dismissal of work associated with a
    field known as Science and Technology Studies (STS). While the critique is not
    carried through in the essay, further consideration shows that it does
    injustice to the author's argument for appreciation of difference over
    consilience.

    First of all, the dig at Sandra Harding is ill-conceived and
    offensive. Anyone with a properly managed Oedipal complex can come to appreciate
    that Feminist Science Studies does not seek to produce results but re-situate
    knowledge in our given cultural-biological context, and maybe move the former
    part of the pairing to a more morally tenable place. Perhaps we needn't
    chastise those whose critiques engage with how science figures certain beings
    in our certain history; is that not a dialogue as meaningful to the human
    project as, say, the moral discourse introduced by Nichomachean Ethics?

    Even in
    considering the laughable faults of scientific generalization and grand
    theories of everything (more laughable than one might find Derrida because he
    presents us with the obstacle of actually understanding him in the first place)
    the author attempts no more than to vindicate his own particular form of
    philosophy. In claiming that scientists objecting to philosophy on grounds of
    irrelevance “is like complaining that historians of science haven’t solved
    a single puzzle in theoretical physics” the author flatly contradicts his own
    criticism of Sandra Harding.

    Of course the business of philosophy is not to
    solve scientific problems. Neither is the business of STS (hence my frustration
    when the author smugly points out that there are "no uniquely feminist energy sources on the horizon"); it is
    an attempt to take them seriously as facts of life that structure our politics,
    culture, and assumptions of value.

    Secondly, Bruno Latour has done more to the end
    of explaining science in practice than any scientist I have read because he
    takes more seriously than anyone the very “doing” of science. Philosophers are
    offended by the (whimsical) notion of objects having agency (as I myself once
    was) but that is missing the entire point of the turn to practice. It is not a
    way of dethroning science as an enterprise like any other, merely governed by
    management practices, but of highlighting the "before" that reflects
    what type of beings we are that are capable of having anything as great as
    science. I will go just a bit further to assert that this type of inquiry is
    more than a "before": it is also a 'within'.

    Can Actor-Network Theory contribute to science?
    Probably not, but it most certainly can affect the conditions of its
    possibility by calling into question the practical networks that allow for
    scientific knowledge to be discovered. For example, there are many ANT-informed
    accounts of patent wars structuring biotechnology and hence the market of tools
    that aid in the furthering of biological science. The dissemination of
    information is regulated within a global economy and treating scientific
    knowledge as if floating in the heavens above the messiness of material
    exchange is a politically irresponsible stance that does nothing to the end of
    furthering science as a potential force of global equality and progression.
    This, in essence, is my ultimate problem with antediluvian questions about
    ultimate human meaning in science that clog the arteries of public science
    writing.

    Thirdly, the Sokal affair is perhaps the
    lowest-hanging (and rotting) fruit of all science/humanities debates and I am
    certain that the author could provide an educated audience with a more erudite
    example. To my limited knowledge, there aren't any that have stirred quite as
    much controversy which makes for a difficult rhetorical situation, but given
    the inherent signposting of the hotly contested ground dealt with in the
    article I am less than sympathetic.

    In fact, if anything, the debate produced more
    crosstalk between science and the humanities such that the scenario of C.P.
    Snow that begins the piece would hardly be one that would characterize
    humanities departments today. So what if Lacan’s use of topology is
    problematic? Now we have English Literature grad students who want to
    understand Mathematics. Call it dilettantism, but as with any party with
    unfamiliar guests the biggest obstacle is initiating discussion at all. That’s
    when dilettantism works.

    One last little concern: this article is tagged
    by the publisher with 'emergence'--a concept that actually has purchase across
    many disciplines (physics, biology, anthropology, to name a few)--yet it does
    not discuss it as such. Emergent systems in the life sciences is certainly a
    subject in which the author has much expertise, though I understand a lengthy
    explanation would distract from the point of the article. Still, worth thinking
    through.

    That being said, the
    article does well in curtailing third-culture dogmatism to
    demonstrate how difference can, in fact, be understood as a positive
    fact--morally and epistemically (by this I mean as something not amenable to
    reduction, i.e. in contradistinction to positivism searching for unity beneath
    difference). My criticisms are inspired by my concern for the fact that STS as
    a discipline has so much to learn from and share with the history and
    philosophy of science and to have writers associated with STS criticized by
    noted philosophers of science takes us further from this.

    • JERRY

      This is as good example as any of what physiognomy of nonsense looks like

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.mcgovern.does.not.care.for.this.website Mikey McGovern

    "That was more than half a century ago. If anything,
    the situation has got worse. Throughout the 1990s, postmodernist,
    deconstructionist and radical feminist authors (the likes of Michel Foucault,
    Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) wrote all sorts of nonsense
    about science, clearly without understanding what scientists actually do. The
    feminist philosopher Harding once boasted: ‘I doubt that in our wildest dreams
    we ever imagined we would have to reinvent both science and theorising itself'.
    That’s a striking claim given the dearth of novel results arising from feminist
    science. The last time I checked, there were no uniquely feminist energy
    sources on the horizon."

    I am really distraught by the chauvinism evidenced by this
    clumsy dismissal of work associated with a field known as Science and
    Technology Studies (STS). While the critique is not carried through in the
    essay, further consideration shows that it does injustice to the author's
    argument for appreciation of difference over consilience.

    First of all, the dig at Sandra Harding is ill-conceived and
    offensive. Anyone with a properly managed Oedipal complex can come to
    appreciate that Feminist Science Studies does not seek to produce results but
    re-situate knowledge in our given cultural-biological context, and maybe move
    the former part of the pairing to a more morally tenable place. Perhaps we
    needn't chastise those whose critiques engage with how science figures certain
    beings in our certain history; is that not a dialogue as meaningful to the
    human project as, say, the moral discourse introduced by Nichomachean Ethics?

    Even in considering the laughable faults of scientific
    generalization and grand theories of everything (more laughable than one might
    find Derrida because he presents us with the obstacle of actually understanding
    him in the first place) the author attempts no more than to vindicate his own
    particular form of philosophy. In claiming that scientists objecting to
    philosophy on grounds of irrelevance “is like complaining that historians of
    science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics” the author
    flatly contradicts his own criticism of Sandra Harding.

    Of course the business of philosophy is not to solve
    scientific problems. Neither is the business of STS (hence my frustration when
    the author smugly points out that there are "no uniquely feminist energy
    sources on the horizon"); it is an attempt to take them seriously as facts
    of life that structure our politics, culture, and assumptions of value.

    Secondly, Bruno Latour has done more to the end of
    explaining science in practice than any scientist I have read because he takes
    more seriously than anyone the very “doing” of science. Philosophers are
    offended by the (whimsical) notion of objects having agency (as I myself once
    was) but that is missing the entire point of the turn to practice. It is not a
    way of dethroning science as an enterprise like any other, merely governed by
    management practices, but of highlighting the "before" that reflects
    what type of beings we are that are capable of having anything as great as
    science. I will go just a bit further to assert that this type of inquiry is
    more than a "before": it is also a 'within'.

    Can Actor-Network Theory contribute to science? Probably
    not, but it most certainly can affect the conditions of its possibility by
    calling into question the practical networks that allow for scientific
    knowledge to be discovered. For example, there are many ANT-informed accounts
    of patent wars structuring biotechnology and hence the market of tools that aid
    in the furthering of biological science. The dissemination of information is
    regulated within a global economy and treating scientific knowledge as if floating
    in the heavens above the messiness of material exchange is a politically
    irresponsible stance that does nothing to the end of furthering science as a
    potential force of global equality and progression. This, in essence, is my
    ultimate problem with antediluvian questions about ultimate human meaning in
    science that clog the arteries of public science writing.

    Thirdly, the Sokal affair is perhaps the lowest-hanging (and
    rotting) fruit of all science/humanities debates and I am certain that the author
    could provide an educated audience with a more erudite example. To my limited
    knowledge, there aren't any that have stirred quite as much controversy which
    makes for a difficult rhetorical situation, but given the inherent signposting
    of the hotly contested ground dealt with in the article I am less than
    sympathetic.

    In fact, if anything, the debate produced more crosstalk
    between science and the humanities such that the scenario of C.P. Snow that
    begins the piece would hardly be one that would characterize humanities
    departments today. So what if Lacan’s use of topology is problematic? Now we
    have English Literature grad students who want to understand Mathematics. Call
    it dilettantism, but as with any party with unfamiliar guests the biggest
    obstacle is initiating discussion at all. That’s when dilettantism works.

    One last little concern: this article is tagged by the
    publisher with 'emergence'--a concept that actually has purchase across many
    disciplines (physics, biology, anthropology, to name a few)--yet it does not
    discuss it as such. Emergent systems in the life sciences is certainly a
    subject in which the author has much expertise, though I understand a lengthy
    explanation would distract from the point of the article. Still, worth thinking
    through.

    That being said, the article does well in curtailing
    third-culture dogmatism to demonstrate how difference can, in fact, be
    understood as a positive fact--morally and epistemically (by this I mean as
    something not amenable to reduction, i.e. in contradistinction to positivism
    searching for unity beneath difference). My criticisms are inspired by my
    concern for the fact that STS as a discipline has so much to learn from and
    share with the history and philosophy of science and to have writers associated
    with STS criticized by noted philosophers of science takes us further from
    this.

    • http://profiles.google.com/michael.ziser Michael Ziser

      Everything I would have said and then some. I actually ended up agreeing with the conclusions of this piece, though I nearly stopped reading at the ignorant paragraph you cite in your comment. It is a pity that so many pop-academic journalists feel compelled to go through a ritual slaughtering of figures like Foucault, Derrida, Harding, and Latour even when they clearly have not read and comprehended their work. The fashion to trash these scholars is as strong now as the fashion to name-drop them ever was.

  • HSL

    I came here to defend poor Bruno Latour from your depredations; perhaps you should read him, he does more for the connection between science and the humanities than this article could dream of.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695107061 Dylan Nickelson

      Here's a lesson in inference (I'll assume that your comment is genuine):

      From the author's dismissal of Latour one can not infer that the author hasn't read Latour. Nor can one infer that the author hasn't understood Latour.

      Sorry to break it to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001027236509 Roy Niles

    Inductive reasoning works because the laws that regulate the universe are probabilistic, as well they must be in an indeterminate system that has evolved over its infinite past to offer highly probable "lawful" results predictably. In other words it operates with strategic "intelligence" just as its biological progeny must do. The author here has tried to solve our natural problems without any reference to nature's ostensible purposes. But natural laws do nothing if not serve purposes, so every little "fact" he presents has that part missing.
    I wrote a book that quarrels with Dr. Wilson in a number of areas referenced here, which basically deals with nature's strategies, assuming that they ARE purposively intelligent (and no deities needed). Maybe you'll find some answers there that are missing here and maybe not.

  • allenesterson

    Mikey McGovern writes: "Anyone with a properly
    managed Oedipal complex can come to appreciate that Feminist Science Studies
    does not seek to produce results but re-situate knowledge in our given
    cultural-biological context..."

    A properly managed Oedipal
    complex? How would one recognise such a phenomenon?

    • Tim

      That's when you just rough dad up & indulge in a bit of light petting with mum.

  • Platt Holden

    The author touched on that which unifies all knowledge when he acknowledged the universal reality of "aesthetic judgments." Even though such judgments vary from person to person as a "result of culture, psychology and upbringing," there is no difference in the judging when the judging is independent of the things judged. One cannot deny the unifying reality of values for such denial appeals to the value of truth.

  • Peter

    I am not sure what it means to say "there is nothing beyond science." The language of before and after seems forced. I think it would be more meaningful to say that there is "important stuff" that is outside the horizon of science. Indeed, the most important stuff.

    • Al_de_Baran

      Agreed, and this is where Massimo can't quite relinquish his "science warrior" persona. A more accurate statement than "there is nothing beyond science" would be "I [the author] am not personally aware of, or able to imagine, anything beyond science."

      In this context, I recall the title of an old Eno album, "Before and After Science". It is interesting to try to imagine what might come after science, and perhaps instructive to ponder why most have so much difficulty doing so.

  • http://www.facebook.com/priss.morningmist Snapperhead Soup

    Theory of Everything is 'shit happens'.

  • Led

    Perhaps we
    needn't chastise those whose critiques engage with how science figures certain
    beings in our certain history; is that not a dialogue as meaningful to the
    human project as, say, the moral discourse introduced by Nichomachean Ethics?

    No.

  • E. R. Green

    In its origins and roots the word 'philosophy', and its practice, meant literally 'the love of wisdom'. How can that be dead? Who either (a) doesn't currently and openly love wisdom {whatever that might mean}, or (b) wishes there was more wisdom around to love?

  • Pulseguy

    All learning is constrained by how our minds function. Thoughts form in eight stages. These eight stages, and the rubrics that follow, determine how we learn about anything.

    Understand these eight stages and ultimately learning will fall into defined categories. If one understands these then, in theory, a breakthrough in biology can be organized into one rubric or another, and then 'translated' into sociology, or chemistry.

    Understanding the mind, and how thought forms, becomes a Philosopher's Stone for all learning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Smith/100000161720441 Daniel Smith

    The so called battle for "knowledge supremacy" your argument is predicated upon is a fiction.

  • Ronald Green

    It is refreshing to read an article that goes against the fad of universalism, inherent within the de rigeur nod towards Eastern philosophy. The notion of universal consciousness that works its way through new age, secretism and a host of commonality themes is so ubiquitous that even hints of criticism are frowned upon. There are different approaches to "life", and once we recognise this as legitimate, we will be able to progress.

  • http://twitter.com/DublinSoil Liam Heneghan
  • Dave Rockwell

    Absolute and objective truth... the perfect object of desire for our minds, whose primary function, and addiction, has always been solving problems. The Philosopher's Stone, the Key that was lost, and so forth. What would it be like if we achieved it? Something, I think, like the idea of 'heaven': eternal, unchanging, static, with only one emotion, which is the same as no emotion; all desire satisfied and gone forever, nothing for the questing mind to do with itself. Luckily we shall never achieve either heaven or absolute truth; they are just the illusory rabbit dragged in front of the greyhounds. The process, the race and the exploration - that is all that matters. Light without darkness has no meaning.

  • drokhole

    "...indeed the historical record of physics includes several instances when the simplest of competing theories turned out to be wrong."

    Was just curious about some of the examples of this happening. I'm not too well-versed on the history of the field. Thanks.

  • Dina Strange

    So, what was the point?

  • fuckedupmemes

    I had no idea about the existence of such a journal (Journal of Memetics)

    Btw, "Language" (linguistics / languages / words) is for me a very good example of a memetic evolutionary process

  • Robert McMahon

    I loved this, though I found a sentence in the last paragraph problematic: "There is nothing beyond science." Surely there is plenty beyond science; science just hasn't gotten to it yet.

  • johnLK

    Interesting essay. My comments will avoid "consilience" since I haven't read it.

    1. CP Snow's essay is garbage; the title sounds good, but the content stinks. It's all about how we have to catch the Russians in math and science. It may be famous, but its vacuous. More relevant and interesting is the recent debate between Steven Pinker and Wieseltier. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114754/steven-pinker-leon-wieseltier-debate-science-vs-humanities

    2. I don't think your division of reductionism is the important distinction. The reductionist argument is "LaPlace's Demon". That a super intelligent demon, who knew the current state of every particle in the universe could predict the future of the universe at all levels. This does not mean the, say, earth science is not science because we cannot, at this point, reduce it to particle physics. The generalizations that it uses are very useful rules of thumb, that don't require LaPlace's demon. An on up the natural science ladder.

    3. As Chalmers and Searle and especially Dilthy point out, there are two kinds of facts in the universe: facts of nature and facts of the mind. The gap between facts of nature and mental objects (consciousness) is, in Chalmer's words, the hard problem. Going from neurons to conscious objects is the gap that we have no idea how to reduce, not even a plan. What confuses people (me, for example) is that you can do science in each domain and even across domains. Psychology is clearly a science, but its objects of study are objects of the mind. And we can do excellent correlations studying the relations between firing of neurons and objects of the mind, but these are just correlations. There is no reductive explanation, at present, in how natural facts (neurons) create mind facts.

    4. What really destroys the reductionist approach is that the facts of nature require facts of the mind. Concepts above the level of sub-atomic particles are mind facts. Concepts such as thermodynamics and love are mind facts. As Plato seemed to understand in the myth of the cave, we only understand nature thru the mind. This does not mean that nature does not exist — I certainly think and hope it does — but we only know it thru a mind filter.

    5. I suspect (without reading it) that Wilson is way off base. He doesn't account for the hard problem.

    ----
    note added later. Just realized that this was published in 2012, before the Pinker-Wieseltier debate.

    -----
    Part of Dilthy: https://www.dropbox.com/s/m9n10em17gakx9a/article%20on%20Dilthey.pdf

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