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Say it ain’t so, E.O.!

By July 6, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

It’s one thing to see a genius be wrong – there can be honor in that.  It’s another to see them be absurd.

I was already skeptical about a column I was reading in the New York Times when I came across this howler in the third paragraph:

“Scientific knowledge (measured by numbers of scientists and scientific journals) in particular has been doubling every 10 to 20 years for over a century.”

This is the kind of thing someone says when they aren’t paying attention, and probably haven’t been for years.

The notion that scientific knowledge can be adequately measured by the number of scientists and the amount they publish is laughable on its face.  Who would ever write that in the New York Times?  Did twice as many alchemists writing twice as much about alchemy mean that the total sum of alchemical knowledge doubled between 1550 and 1585?  Does the fact that the number of television channels multiplied by 100 in the 1990s mean watching TV was 100 times better?  Do twice as many laws being interpreted by twice as many lawyers, who go to twice as many law schools, mean the legal system is twice as advanced?

More subtly, and more pernicious, is the idea that “knowledge” is even something quantifiable enough to “double.”

Sure you can say “he knows twice as much as he used to,” but it only makes sense as a metaphor.  You can memorize twice as many vocabulary words, or facts – but that’s not the same as “knowledge” doubling – particularly when you consider that knowing something isn’t just retention, but understanding.  How can understanding be said to “double” in any literal sense?   Worse, understanding often is best expressed by the ability to weed out bad hypotheses and blatant falsehoods – and therefore to have fewer examples of higher quality.  So someone who has more knowledge might actually have fewer facts on hand.  If I memorize twice as many mathematical formulas I don’t really understand as someone who can work out mathematical concepts using basic principles, do I know double the math he does?  Of course not.  Knowledge doesn’t work that way.

The attempt to make it do so … particularly when absolutely no one would argue with the idea that scientific knowledge has been advancing significantly over the centuries, which is all that was really meant … speaks ill for the quality of thinker behind the words.  It’s an unforced error, a Freudian slip that shows the wheels are already close to falling off.

So I was horrified when I came to the end and read the author’s name:  “Edward O. Wilson.”

It’s like seeing Michael Jordon  spraining his ankle after missing a dunk.  It’s like discovering that Steve Jobs secretly designed the Drudge Report.  E.O. Wilson is one of the great geniuses of our time, one of the most significant figures in biology since Darwin, and a major influence on everything we know in the life sciences today.

And yet … here he is, writing blather in the New York Times.  And not just insignificant blather – this wasn’t just a quick aside that has no impact on the larger point he’s trying to make.  The article (“The Riddle of the Human Species”) was about the idea that the humanities and sciences have to merge in order to come to a better understanding of the reason we humans are as we are:  so the nature of knowledge, how we know it when we see it and how we advance it, are fairly central to the issue he’s addressing.

I want to avert my eyes, but I can’t turn away.  It’s that kind of train wreck.

It’s also been a long time coming.  In 1998 Wilson published a book called “Consilience,” which was on exactly this subject and has been a hobby horse of his ever since.  The idea in “Consillience” is that all knowledge is actually one thing – that the different branches of knowledge like physics and literary criticism – are in fact part of the same underlying system, which is rooted in biology.  It has to be, because everything we know is filtered through the human biological system – or even emerges from it.  Hence our understanding of physical laws comes out of our biological capacities to experience them, just as mathematics rests on our neuro-biological perceptions, and literary aesthetics are the result of neuro-chemical responses to texts.  By bringing these fields together through the lens of biology we can achieve the unity of knowledge – consilience – and finally go about the business of understanding everything.

It’s a good book as far as poor theses go, but it is wrong headed.  (You can read Niles Eldrige and Stephen J. Gould’s two-part assessment here)  Wilson is fundamentally an enlightenment thinker, by which I don’t mean he doesn’t know about or understand quantum mechanics (it wouldn’t surprise me if he understands the particulars better than I do) or modern statistical theory, or anything else.  The man’s a genius.

But what he refuses to accept, conceptually, is the messiness of it all:  that some areas of knowledge don’t segue naturally into others;  that human understanding is subjective in a way that does not reduce to objective components;  that paradox may be fundamental to the universe.  He is an enlightenment thinker in his belief that everything that can be known will slot nicely together into an unbroken chain of synthesis, that will be objectively real, without contradiction or kink, and emerge out of the basics of biology.

He is, in short, a true believer with a theory of everything.  And believers in a theory of everything, however brilliant, have a bad habit of getting caught not just on thin ice but on purely conceptual ice that offers no evidence for its existence.  Not out on a limb but on an abstraction of a limb.

That’s what we have here.  A brilliant mind trying to squeeze the universe into his aesthetic system.  One in which all knowledge will come together perfectly because there aren’t different kinds of knowledge or ways of knowing, there’s just “knowledge,” which can even be measured by the number of scientific journals published over a decade.

It’s what we all do, to some extent:  geniuses are just more ambitious.  They’ve accomplished so much viewing the world through their particular lens that eventually they think they see the perfect clockwork of the universe reflected in it.

It never works out, of course.  The universe’s most terrible secret isn’t that it’s not a clockwork:  it’s that it’s a clockwork, and a particle, and a story, and a wave, and a symphony, all at once, and that none of these things reduce to each other.

I am increasingly convinced that epistemology is really an aesthetic concern.  But then I’m a storyteller at heart – so I would, which is exactly my point.

The universe is knowable, but the way E.O. Wilson (who has been right about so many things) tries to know it only makes sense if you ignore the man, his curtain, and the entire emerald city, in favor of measuring the space between bricks on the Yellow Brick Road.

That’s absurd