Book Review: Consilience

Consilience: The Unity of KnowledgeConsilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson

In May 2001 Wendell Berry published Life is a Miracle. He wrote it as a response to Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson. Having an affinity for Wendell Berry’s writing, I read Life is a Miracle several years ago. Then this fall I read Alister McGrath’s The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. McGrath also takes issue with Consilience because of Wilson’s conclusion that ethics and morality can be explained by evolution.

In our current cultural environment many of us carry out our intellectual transactions in the safety of communities of like-minded people. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but since two writers whom I respect took issue with the same book by the same author, I thought I should investigate for myself.

Wilson writes for an educated audience. His writing is, nonetheless, approachable and clear.

The theses with which Berry and McGrath take issue are not hard to find in Consilience. According to Wilson, science is capable of telling us everything we need to know. There is no need for intervention by supernatural forces. All supernatural thinking is “ignorance-based metaphysics” which will retreat “like a vampire before the lifted cross” when presented with “objective truth.” (p. 62)

Of particular interest to theists, specifically Christians who espouse young-earth creation, is Wilson’s take on this doctrine. It must be said that he speaks of the Christian’s God with respect. “Perhaps God did create all organisms,including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, He also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magisterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky.” (p, 129–130)

Going farther on the subject of God and God’s involvement in human affairs, Wilson observes “God may exist, He may be delighted in what we are up to on this minor planet, but His fine hand is not needed to explain the biosphere.” (p. 198) It’s interesting that this quote is in a chapter on the social sciences, and in a section on economics.

Wilson uses “empiricism” to refer to a world view that understands the world solely in terms of what is observable. “Transcendentalism” allows the intervention of forces outside of what can be observed with senses extended by technology. “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.” (p. 240).

The final chapter, “To What End,” includes what seems to be a summary statement: “What are we? Where do we come from, How show we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltations, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. Still encumbered by precepts based on Iron-Age folk knowledge, it is unable to assimilate the great sweep of the real world now open for examination.” (p. 269) Ouch.

Finally, this: “The legacy of the Enlightenment is the believe that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. That self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause and effect.” (p. 297). That speaks of a hubris that has gotten humanity into trouble since its appearance in the biosphere.

I am thankful for E.O. Wilson and for his challenges to the hardened dogmas of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged. I am also grateful for the work of writers such as Wendell Berry and Alister McGrath, who have provided alternative narratives that include the work of a just and loving God.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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