Monday, September 13

The consilience of inductions takes place when one class of facts coincides with an induction obtained from another different class.

The other night while we were waiting in a small-town bar for Shawn Cole to start playing, John loaned me a paperback copy of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by Edward O. Wilson. I'm maybe halfway through the book, and so far impressed. Wilson writes with both clarity and directness about the idea that all human knowledge is fundamentally interconnected, and that the sciences and humanities must needs evolve towards a corresponding unity.

I think Consilience lays out a set of ideas that it's important for those of us outside the hard sciences (that is, nearly everyone) to be aware of. I felt the same way about Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which now strikes me as defining an idea of history consilient with evolutionary biology, geology, and anthropology.

I am not by any reasonable definition a practitioner of science. Nor am I waving the flag for a pure philosophical materialism, untainted by the language or expectations of transcendence and mysticism. These conditions (or confessions) notwithstanding, I think that if we want to understand the world, it is necessary to enter into, struggle with, and make use of the deep insights science has been building.

(To be more specific, it matters for historians, poets, politicians, voters, teachers, designers, engineers, journalists, and architects to understand or try understanding: That people come from a long evolutionary process which optimized them for an environment most of us no longer live in. That the same process, roughly speaking, produced clams, kiwi birds, and Donald Trump. That human brains are not dollops of infinitely malleable gunk, any more than whole human bodies are, and that the same pressures shaped both. That language does not come from textbooks. That our instincts will sometimes betray us utterly. That we have instincts. That, freed of all confusion, each discrete true thing would accord with all of the others.)