Monday, December 25, 2006

On the Side of the Apes

One of the chief culprits in the theft of "human nature", according to Garber, is Edward. O. Wilson. I wanted to like his recent book, Consilience, if only out of perversity: it was trashed by the philosophically informed reviewers.

The principal complaint is that Wilson never explains what "consilience", or the unity of knowledge, is supposed to be. Hints vary from the agreeably bland – the different branches of human learning had better be consistent with one another – to the dramatic: nothing of explanatory value is lost if we appeal to "only one class of explanation", the kind that invokes the laws of physics. As the commentators note, ontological reduction may be supported by the history of science; the redundancy of explanations framed in unreduced vocabularies is not. Wilson's pivotal step is an unexamined inference from the former to the latter.

The failure to think about the point of consilience in anything by the vaguest terms, as the synthesis of a worldview, lies behind most of the bad theorizing that occupies the rest of the book. For instance:
Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imagination of sensory impressions. […] Who or what in the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. Consciousness is the virtual world composed by the scenarios.
Wilson's completion of the Enlightenment project in the philosophy of mind looks suspiciously similar to the bundle of ideas that appeared at its beginning. Even if we set aside the long history of refutations, it is hard to think of a good question to which this might be the answer.

Elsewhere, the question is made tolerably clear, at the cost of changing the subject. Thus, the alleged consilience of art and science rests on an evolutionary account of human creativity – as though the deepest problem of interpretation were the novelist's worst friend: "Where do you get your ideas?"

The answer, not surprisingly, is that "[artistic] inspiration […] rises from the artesian wells of human nature." What doesn't? The controversial claim is not that our capacities were shaped by evolution, but that they come in relatively focused packages or dispositions, tied to specific behaviours, and that they are always or mostly adaptive. Wilson insists on the more ambitious theory, of fixed "epigenetic rules", modeled on the case of incest-avoidance, and extended to the power of reason itself:
I suggest that rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules.
There is only one exception:
The human mind evolved to believe in gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not under-written by genetic algorithms. […] The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another.
No wonder Wilson is keen to unify everything under the banner of science: it is the sole capacity of the human mind that is not hopelessly trapped in the Pleistocene.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wilson is not a philosopher. And he was almost 70 when he wrote Consilience.

Given these two things, what else but a lot of *bad theorizing* could have one expected, in good faith, to find in that book?

I confess that Consilience provoked pity in me. I quite agree with the complaints you voice apropos; but, for myself, I'd rather pass by this book in silence.

9:33 AM  

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