Consilience




Two of my students are interviewing for Cambridge shortly and I have been asked to consider what they might be invited to discuss when faced with an admissions tutor. The mind goes blank on such occasions, and it was only afterwards that I began to formulate a few ideas.

Every potential university student should be able to come up with some kind of coherent answer to the following question: “What is the relationship between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?In the light of recent healthcare legislation in the US, the question is particularly prescient since the interaction between social expediency and technological demand is likely to cost a hideously inflated sum of money. Thus, not only university students but Barack Obama and every other political leader should have an answer. Most of the issues that vex humanity – ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, the environment, endemic poverty, healthcare and carbon footprints, cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideology or religion or commanded by myopic response to immediate need. Yet, the majority of our political leaders are trained exclusively in law, the social sciences or  humanities, and have little or no knowledge of natural science. The same is true for the so-called intellectuals, the pundits, columnists, the media interrogators, and think-tank gurus who often do little more than talk about the analysis of the analysis of technology. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes even correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is often fragmented and lopsided.
The brighter students that I teach should be helped to understand that, in the twenty-first century, the world will not be run by those possessing merely information. Access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while becoming less costly. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on HDTV and laptops. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis, or the new buzzword, consilience – the ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by linking fact and interdisciplinary theory to create common groundwork. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.  The image is of John Robinson’s sculpture ‘Consilience’.

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2 thoughts on “Consilience

  1. We are indeed “drowning in information, while starving for wisdom” however, the trend to synthesize, syncretize, or to espouse consilience may get us in more trouble. The flood of “information” is relentless, endless, and unstoppable. The sheer volume of data, stats, tidbits, factoids, trivia and truth make it virtually impossible to sift, sort, or reflect on what is coming through the pipeline in a way which permits real 'knowledge' as a guaranteed outcome.
    I agree with you in principle… but when the majority synthesizes fact and fiction (practices consilience?) with depressing regularity, what you get is not wisdom, but urban legends, rumors, twisted “science” and decisions based on a shaky foundation. Mixing metaphors, a few pearls and a lot of muck. That won't help us at all.

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  2. Consilience is undemocratic. If universally practised, nothing would ever get done – as the Swiss political system amply demonstrates. If delegated consilient activity could be managed, we might all make appropriate decisions.

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