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With Heart and Mind

Friday May 14, 1999

Trinity Western University


"Integration--Consilience or Concinnity."


by R. Sutcliffe, TWU
rsutc@twu.ca

Abstract

Philosopher Edward O. Wilson, in his controversial "Consilience—The Unity of Knowledge", has much to say that supports familiar Christian views on interdisciplinary integration.

However, in so doing, he attempts to incorporate all the knowable under empiricism, with evolution the sole explanatory technique. The connectivity of knowledge self organizes, in the same manner as life itself, and naturalistic, autonomous evolution needs only to be recognized and cooperated with to produce the comprehensive integration of knowledge he terms "consilience".

This presentation reviews the arguments for comprehensive integration, but advances a contrasting Christian view, that as all knowledge was designed by the Creator as a connected, discoverable, integrated whole, it is already a "concinnity"; empiricism is insufficient, and evolutionary hypotheses unnecessary to explain or to do integration.


About the Author


Rick Sutcliffe is Professor of Mathematics and Computing Science at Trinity Western University, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1983, following twelve years as a high school teacher in Langley. He is currently also the Acting Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Applied Sciences. His research interests are in Computing Languages, Software Engineering, and ethical and social issues in technology.


Outline

1. Introduction

2. Wilson's Case for Integration

3. Further Arguments for Integration

4. Wilson's Consilience

5. Transcendence and Revelation

6. Concinnity

7. Conclusions


Key definitions

Integration is the process of decompartmentalizing, connecting, and generalizing beliefs, knowledge, experience, and relationships, thus showing that what appear to be fragments are actually a contiguous whole.


The process of consilience is the next step in human evolution--the cataloging, validation, integration and subsumption of all knowing under the empirical.

Concinnity is the skillful and harmonious unity, aesthetic beauty, and rational organization of creation's design. We do faith-informed integration among disciplines in order to discover God's concinnity and glorify Him for it.


Introduction

It is not often that books about ideas become best sellers. One that did a few years ago was Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind". More recently, Biologist-Philosopher Edward O. Wilson has seen his new book "Consilience--The Unity of Knowledge" also go through rapid multiple printings.

Wilson's ideas have been controversial for decades, and will undoubtedly remain so. For instance, he is commonly castigated by feminists for what they call sexist views, which are a consequence of his belief that genetics determines not only physical characteristics but also social behaviour and culture (his heavily criticized "sociobiology" of the seventies now dressed up in new clothes). He gets no better press from his scholarly peers today, yet his ideas obviously receive wide circulation. He strikes a chord; people perceive some truth in this new work--why?


Wilson's Case for Integration

Wilson argues that all knowledge can have links developed among its various branches. Christians might say there is nothing controversial with that; we've been advocating both integration of faith and discipline and interdisciplinarity for a long time.

To travel with Wilson and use one of his own examples, environmental policy, ethics, social science, and biology are indeed linked, and the results of investigations in any one field inform those in all the others. Philosophy is inextricably intertwined with the sciences, economic and political policies with technology, the arts with social behaviour as well as technique. Many such chains can be forged, and as he puts it:

"Most of the issues that vex humanity daily--ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several persistently before us--cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is... Wilson: Consilience--The Unity of Knowledge, p. 13

This, according to him, was not only the view of the Enlightenment, it is the only correct way to approach knowledge. He presses for merging the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, the arts, religion, and ethics, using arguments similar to those familiar to readers of modern works advocating such integration.


Further Arguments for Integration

Moreover, the modern computing and information sciences have already become a kind of interdisciplinary glue linking, informing, and energizing all else. Information and the communication channels it travels upon are as indispensable for modern academics as for the broader society.

Christians go further, asserting that faith informs all thinking, that finding truth is coming to know something of God, and that investigating and applying true ideas and techniques subject to His will glorifies Him.

What is more, it should even be apparent that integrative thinking and action are necessary for today's citizens. The specialization and compartmentalization that of necessity characterized the machine age, will not be dominant features of the Fourth Civilization (once it is mature) or at least will be very much muted. Instead, far more people will be required by their work to be generalists, and by the nature of society to be more flexible thinkers, constant self re-educators, good researchers, and better communicators.

Beyond that, it is my contention that all aspects of knowledge, understanding, behaviour, emotion, and being (the four-fold model of the human) are interwoven (the principle of connectedness), even though they have not always been perceived as such in the past.

Academics of the industrial age, and in particular its latter-day postmodernists, first constructed artificial specialist boundaries so as to better manage the whole of knowledge. Eventually, they deconstructed the lot into a series of apparently disconnected and supposedly meaningless fragments. However, the present perceived lack of connectivity is an illusion fostered by the inability of any single industrial age person to deal with the vast quantities of material, diverse forms of experiences, and different modes of learning. Computing and information technology have now removed such limitations and enable all forms of knowledge to be examined and assessed for interconnections.

The new agers have one thing right: Everything really is connected to everything else. Most generally, Fourth Civilization thinking starts with the following:

Integration is the process of decompartmentalizing, connecting, and generalizing beliefs, knowledge, experience, and relationships, thus showing that what appear to be fragments are actually a contiguous whole.

The essential idea behind Fourth Civilization integration is that its new information paradigms and technologies enable a more wholistic approach to being, knowing, feeling, and relating. Not only can each of these be broadened, enhanced, and de-specialized, but they can be better interconnected with one another, or decompartmentalized. The process is one of re-conceptualizing knowledge as a whole from its postmodern fragments.


Wilson's Consilience

On what grounds then do we depart radically from Wilson? He calls the empirical process of joining knowledge together by the linkage of facts and fact-based theories "consilience," and views the ability for some fact or idea to become a part of the whole in this specific way to be the only possible test of its validity. To Wilson, if something is not scientifically integrable with the whole, it is not knowledge.

Central to Wilson's thesis is that knowledge can only be unified by evolution, and that the empiricism of the natural scientist is the sole valid means by which anything--including ethics, sociology, economics, art and religion--can be understood. In all realms, humans are, believe, emote, act, think, and perceive as they do--according to Wilson--solely because they have evolved to do so down through the millennia in a self-organizing and entirely autonomous fashion. They need only understand what they have evolved into, and they will know everything else as a by-product. His faith is that the scientific method in general, and evolutionary biology in particular, will ultimately explain all else. Not only is life evolving according to the non-intentional principles of natural selection, but so is the unity of knowledge. We need only recognize and cooperate with evolution and all communication-inhibiting barriers between disciplines will vanish as everything knowable becomes absorbed by science. As he puts it:

"Once we get over the shock of discovering that the universe was not made with us in mind, all the meaning that the brain can master, and all the emotions it can bear, and all the shared adventure we may wish to enjoy, can be found by deciphering the hereditary orderliness that has borne our species through geological time, and stamped it with the residues of deep history. Reason will be advanced to new levels, and emotions played in potentially infinite patterns. The true will be sorted from the false, and we will understand each other very well, the more quickly because we are all of the same species and possess biologically similar brains." Wilson: Consilience--The Unity of Knowledge, p. 43

Thus, Wilson's consilience is a sweepingly general process by which autonomously evolved humankind builds an understanding of its own past and future using natural selection. It is a rational and empirical joining of knowledge to demonstrate truth by virtue of its unity under the rubric of evolution. Anything that cannot be conciliated empirically is not knowledge; indeed it may not be anything. Wilson's view could be summarized:

The process of consilience is the next step in human evolution--the cataloging, validation, integration and subsumption of all knowing under the empirical.

However compelling to some secularists in the sciences, Wilson's frank advocacy for a revival of logical positivism hinges on several critical presuppositions, none of which are provable by empirical methods. Here are some of them:

1. That self-directing evolution as a total explanation for the origin and development of the universe and all life forms is not just an organizing paradigm, but a historical fact, even though unverifiable,

2. That a transcendental creator-God not only can be dispensed with as a hypothesis, but that Wilson can himself positively and definitively assert that no such being exists,

3. That the empiricism successfully employed so far to describe and organize certain classes of facts and theories will eventually become capable of explaining ultimate meaning as well, even though it has never before been capable of this,

4. That the mind can be completely understood by empirical description of the brain, and

5. That religion itself is an evolved internalized mechanism growing out of the survival value of ethical behaviour.


Transcendence and Revelation

However, an almighty God who created the universe as a thing apart from Himself could only be known if He chose to reveal Himself in the context of that universe. Lacking such action, physical methods could never uncover one who exists outside the universe He created. Thus, a failure to find Him with the methods of the physical universe is not evidence God does not exist; it only reflects on the incapacity of the human senses to judge and measure one Who transcends those faculties by virtue of being their creator. To be sure, some of the creator's qualities might be dimly inferred from the fallen and broken physical world, but He personally could not be deduced, reduced, or described unless we could or He would reach beyond the barrier between physical and spiritual realms. That is, in promoting what amounts to an aggressive atheism as the conciliator of all knowledge, Mr. Wilson makes himself (or the scientific community informed by his philosophy) the very absolute arbiter of ultimate truth whose existence he denies--and does so in areas not knowable by him in the exclusive manner he proposes for discovering that truth.


Concinnity

Thus, there is plenty of space for an opposing view, and the obvious candidate is design--a position on origins that must be taken by Christians, and is by many other religions as well. To us, knowledge is, after all, seamless--not because it happens to have become self-woven with the thread of human evolution, but because it derives from an integral God whose creation has always been a well-designed whole, and which in turn can only be perceived accurately as such--not in limited and isolated fragments. Our world is one because its creator made and keeps it that way. "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Col 1:17 (NIV)

In this view, it is not the process (consilience-integration) of building the whole from parts that ought to be the primary focus of our attention. Integration of parts is not the end of an independent evolution of fragmented knowledge, but a means to discover and demonstrate that all creation was from the beginning well-designed intentional, and an integral, finished, elegant whole intended to glorify its creator. An improved definition is appropriate at this point:

Concinnity is the skillful and harmonious unity, aesthetic beauty, and rational organization of creation's design. We do faith-informed integration among disciplines in order to discover God's concinnity and glorify Him for it.


Thus, while "consilience" is a process of pulling (literally "jumping") together pieces of empirical knowledge into a coherently evolved whole, "concinnity" describes the beauteously well-expressed design of creation that humankind can (at least in part) discover by virtue of having been made in the image of the creator and so having the capacity of thinking some of His thoughts after Him, even though only He can fully perceive the physical realm. Further, while Wilson's humanistic consilience limits itself to the empirical and has no referents external to humankind, the creator's concinnity necessarily includes the entirety of the spiritual or metaphysical realm as well.

The two positions differ sharply on whether integration is an end in itself (consilience) or a means to the end of discovering a pre-existing design (concinnity). They agree, however, that knowledge, understanding, behaviour, emotion, and being need to be seen as inextricably interwoven, either because they were made that way (concinnity) or because it is expedient and interesting to construct them that way (consilience).


Conclusions

Consilience is an significant book--perhaps one of the most important of the decade. Despite the unrepentant political incorrectness that will garner him the continued scorn of liberals, it will surely be looked to as advancing the cause of scientism and the claim of the positivists to be able to incorporate all knowledge in the scientific.

It also throws down the gauntlet to Christianity, and on several counts. Wilson says "The most dangerous of devotions, in my opinion, is the one endemic to Christianity: I was not born to be of this world." (Consilience p. 247) After ritually casting the usual blame for war on Christianity, he goes on to assert that it too is the product of naturalistic evolution (by giving preferential survival value to tribal members with common beliefs) and to grandly claim that "empiricism...has destroyed the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the centre of the universe." (ibid p248) He is confident that everything called transcendent has no existence other than as a conveniently evolved cultural value, and ought to be dispensed with. His statement on human autonomy is flatly uncompromising:

"Homo Sapiens" like the rest of life, was self-assembled. So here we are, no one having guided us to this condition, no one looking over our shoulder, our future entirely up to us." (ibid p297)

We need to be concerned with Wilson's vision on several counts. First, as secular critic Michael Ruse points out, Wilson's sweeping attempt to collect everything under empiricism amounts to creating a religion himself. Far from explaining God away, Wilson only succeeds in fashioning a new deity in his own image--the mystical, ephemeral, omnipotent, omnipresent wraith of evolution. Second, though Wilson professes in passing to be benignly tolerant toward misled transcendentalists, he is actually sharply hostile, especially to Christianity. He does not appear to want to coexist with, and certainly not to absorb spiritual ideas into his consilience, but rather to banish them from human thinking completely and permanently. Third, and consequently, this book is a rallying point for an aggressive new positivism, one that would not just explain knowledge by evolution, but in the process obliterate all that is not, by his standards, part of science.

Interesting though his comments on integration may therefore seem to us, there is no place for Christians in the world as Wilson re-creates it. We have been down such dark roads before. The self-evolved, self-perfected final result of such philosophies is not a pleasing unity, a kind utopia, a beneficent tolerance, but an arbitrary superman intent on the destruction of "lesser" beings.

Our task as Christian academics is not to cooperate with purposeless evolution of the unity of knowledge, but to reassemble in a new era the post-modernist fragmented perceptions left behind by the failures of the last one, and so to see the unity of knowledge as something that has always been there, designed a concinnity by God Almighty, a thing of beauty to discover--not to make us proud in self satisfaction for our works, but to make us humble before the creator whom we were made to serve with heart and soul, mind and body.


Bibliography

Bibby, Reginald W. Fragmented Gods--The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada. Toronto: Irwin, 1987.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987

Denning, Peter J. and Metcalfe, Robert M. Beyond Calculation--The Next Fifty Years of Computing. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997

Kaku, Michio. Visions--How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century New York: Doubleday, 1997

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions--Vol 2 No 2 in The International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (Second Ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience--The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Ruse, Michael, http: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--a Review <http://www.counterbalance.org/metaforum> (#054) 1999 05 12

Sutcliffe, Richard J. Educating Christian Men and Women for the Fourth Civilization: The Necessity of Integrating Heart and Soul, Mind and Body--for the With Heart and Mind Conference of Christian higher education. Ontario Bible College May 30, 1997

Walsh, Brian J. and Middleton, J. Richard. The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1984

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