Invalid Criticisms of consilience
Many people haven’t heard of consilience. It’s explained in this excellent book:
And it’s about: The Unity of Knowledge.
i.e., Science, Social Science, and the Arts / Humanities.
But – many Romantics, and, say, Postmodernists, Continental Philosophers, and Post-Structuralists – who apparently, do not understand how creativity works, often have a very negative `knee-jerk, emotional reaction’ to the whole idea. (Maybe, it threatens the very core of their identity, or, something.)
In fact they often: freak right out…
Typically, they haven’t actually read any of it (i.e. consilient literature), so, then, using arguments from ignorance – they usually try and imagine, or assume, or jump to incorrect conclusions about what it must be like, and then – they criticize, that…
Which is, frankly: a huge waste of time…
i.e. You can look at the theory of consilience (Wilson 1998) rationally, via logic and critical discernment – or, you might also look at it illogically, and might use emotion-based, and fallacious, illogical, and irrational thinking, and may leap to many false conclusions, based on a bare minimum of – or even – no evidence.
Some people do abandon rationality, and get all emotional about it.(See Tooby & Cosmides, on: What Emotions Are. Emotions actually short-circuit thinking and rationality, unfortunately.)
Another great book on all that (`intuitive/emotional – versus – rational/logical thinking), is, this one:
And also – this one:
So – some common misunderstandings about consilience include, that it’s: `reductionist’.
And here is a diagram from the above (Buss 2012):
So – if this is you, (and you are mistakenly criticizing consilience) then, what you currently fail (or perhaps, steadfastly refuse) to understand, is:
Science is both `reductionist’ and `expansionist’ at the same time. …
That’s how knowledge works.
ie – Firstly, examining the smaller (component) parts of artifacts, or of systems, is: reducing it.
Then, reassembling those parts (noting also in Systems Theory, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, aka `emergence’) is: expanding it.The point is – you may well dissect a frog (or – a novel, or a movie, or a work of literature, or a philosophy, or a scientific theory, or a song) to find out: How it works.
e.g. The parts of a system:
But, then – the idea is: to put it back together again – and see how it works. Noting: emergence.
And – the even bigger point is: To do all this – To be able to do it all, better.
i.e. So that, we can all build a better frog, or – a better novel, or movie, or song, or painting, or: anything.
Or – if we aren’t doing the building / engineering, then at least we can benefit from someone else doing it.
But – some people really don’t like this idea.
(Of: using Science, to examine The Arts. Or, of the unification of knowledge.)
In fact, at the risk of making these anti-consilient people even angrier (if that is even possible) – let me draw a parallel in Biology…
There’s a thing called a stickleback fish. Also known as, a `tittlebat’.
There’s also a thing called Tinbergen’s Hierarchy. Nobel prize-winner Nikolaas Tinbergen is one of the founding fathers of Evolutionary Psychology. Among other things, he studied male stickleback fish, to examine their habits, or, their evolutionary psychology.
And part of it, is, like this:The trouble is, some people – when they first learn of consilience, react, pretty much, just like a stickleback fish.
They often start throwing around nonsensical – and invalid – `criticisms’ of consilience
(i.e. The truth is, Consilience is just: using Science and Systems Theory / Cybernetics (and Complexity Theory) to examine, analyze and better understand, The Arts).
And, three very typical and predictable reactions from anti-consilient scholars, are, as follows.
(1) “You can’t use Science to examine The Arts! That’s reductionist-! “
(2) “You can’t use Science to examine The Arts! That’s determinist-! “
(3) “You can’t use Science to examine the Arts! That’s scientism-! “
(4) “You can’t use Science to examine the Arts! That’s positivism-! “
So – let’s examine all these automatic (or `knee-jerk’) response-mechanisms, in turn:
(1) “You can’t use Science to examine The Arts! That’s reductionist-! “
No, it isn’t – see the diagram below.
As a remedy for this sort of misunderstanding, please read Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Wilson 1998).
Even start with Chapter Ten, i.e., `The Arts and Their Interpretation’.
A salient quote, from that excellent work:
`When of high quality, criticism can be as inspired and idiosyncratic as the work it addresses. Further, as I now hope to show, it can also be part of science, and science part of it.
Interpretation will be the more powerful when braided together from history, biography, personal confession – and science.
The profane word [i.e., science] now having been spoken on hallowed ground, a quick disclaimer is in order.
While it is true that science advances by reducing phenomena to their working – by dissecting brains into neurons, for example, and neurons into molecules – it does not aim to diminish the integrity of the whole.
On the contrary, synthesis of the elements to re-create their original assembly is the other half of scientific procedure.
In fact, it is the ultimate goal of science.
Nor is there any reason to suppose that the arts will decline as science flourishes.’
(Wilson 1998, p. 230 – bold emphasis mine)
Likewise, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995) the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Professor Daniel C Dennett also addresses “reductionism” more generally:
`Who’s Afraid of Reductionism?
“Reductionism is a dirty word, and a kind of `holistier than thou’ self-righteousness has become fashionable” (Dawkins, 1982, p113.)
The term that is most often bandied about in these conflicts, typically as a term of abuse, is `reductionism’…
But like most terms of abuse, `reductionism’ has no fixed meaning.
The central image is of somebody claiming that one science “reduces” to another: that chemistry reduces to physics, that biology reduces to chemistry, that the social sciences reduce to biology, for instance… Probably nobody is a reductionist in the preposterous sense, and everybody should be a reductionist in the bland sense, so the “charge” of reductionism is too vague to merit a response.
If somebody says to you “But that’s so reductionistic!” you would do well to respond “That’s such a quaint, old-fashioned complaint! What on Earth did you have in mind?”’
(Dennett 1995, pp. 80-1 – bold emphasis mine)
Dennett also cites Hofstadter (1979), Williams (1985), Dawkins (1986), and Weinberg (1992) for elucidations of reductionism that enable better understandings of why some reductionism is indeed useful, and not harmful (Dennett 1995, p. 81). Indeed, without some form of reductionism, there is no theory, of: anything.
At the same time, as Dennett (1995) notes:
`Darwin’s dangerous idea is reductionism incarnate, promising to unite and explain just about everything in one magnificent vision.
Its being the idea of an algorithmic process makes it all the more powerful, since the substrate neutrality it thereby possesses permits us to consider its application to just about anything.’
(Dennett, 1995, p. 82 – bold emphasis mine)
Also – in On The Origin Of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, (Boyd 2009) Professor Brian Boyd also addresses the label of `reductionism’ that is sometimes (erroneously) levelled at the evolutionary (and consilient) perspective on literature:
`I recall a colleague asking, as academics do: “What are you working on?” “I’m trying to figure out,” I answered, “an evolutionary – Darwinian – approach to fiction.” Not waiting to hear more, he shut down his face and the conversation: “That must be very reductive.”
“No, not reductive, but expansive,” I might otherwise have answered: extending the historical context from decades to millions of years, and increasing the historical precision, from decades down to the moment of choice.
An evolutionary understanding of human nature has begun to reshape psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, economics, history, political studies, linguistics, law, and religion. Can it also help explain even art, even human minds at their freest and most inventive?
In art, as in so much else we had thought uniquely human, like tool-using or tool-making, counting or culture, we have begun to find precursors elsewhere in nature.
But can evolution account even for the one human art with no known precedent, the art of fiction? Can it show why, in a world of necessity, we choose to spend so much time caught up in stories that both teller and told know never happened and never will?
I want to show that it can, in ways far less reductive than much recent literary scholarship, in ways both wider in scope and finer in detail.’
(Boyd 2009, pp. 1-2 – bold emphasis mine)
Also here’s a good short quote from Boyd (2009):
`An evolutionary explanation of human behaviour does not involve genetic determinism.’ (Boyd 2009, 11)
In summary, anyone who finds the consilient biocultural approach `reductionist’ may also benefit from reading the 35 works, listed online, here.
i.e. …You may perhaps be unaware of, your own knowledge gaps… In Evolutionary Epistemology, this is called `unrecognized ignorance’ – and can lead to all sorts of fallacies, and, leaping to very false conclusions, and to getting very angry indeed, at: your own incorrect assumptions.
Another typical knee-jerk reaction to consilience is:
(2) “You can’t use Science to examine The Arts! That’s determinist-! “
No, it isn’t.
Nothing in the Universe is determinist. – If you think it is, you don’t understand probability, and agency-and-structure, and free will.
Way back in 1987, James Gleick in Chaos (1987, 2011) made a relevant point about `determinism’:
`The most passionate advocates of the new science [of Chaos Theory] go so far as to say that twentieth-century science will be remembered for just three things: relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos.
Chaos, they contend, has become the century’s third great revolution in the physical sciences. Like the first two revolutions, chaos cuts away at the tenets of Newton’s physics.
As one physicist put it: “Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process; and chaos eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability”.’
(Gleick 1987, pp. 5-6 – bold emphasis mine)
So, probability, rather than deterministic predictability, is a characteristic of: all evolution.
Also in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (Buss 2005), Tooby and Cosmides also make a very important clarification on `determinism’:
`The Twin Fallacies of Genetic Determinism and Environmental Determinism – Traditional researchers hold a series of beliefs that are widely accepted and that sound eminently reasonable but are based on a series of fallacies about how development works. The first belief is that some behaviours are genetically determined whereas others are environmentally determined.
The second is that evolutionary psychology deals only with behavior that is genetically determined, not the much larger set of behaviours that is environmentally determined.
These beliefs are wrong for many reasons… Evolution acts through genes, but it acts on the relationship between the genes and the environment, choreographing their interaction to cause evolved design. Genes are the so-called units of selection, so they are indeed something that evolves. But every time one gene is selected over another, one design for a developmental program is selected as well.
(We all start as a single cell – brainless, limbless, gutless. Every cell and organ system subsequently develops from that cell, nonrandomly climbing toward specific organizational forms despite the onslaughts of entropy. For manifest organization to occur, there must be naturally selected processes that cause this to happen: developmental processes).’
(Tooby & Cosmides in Buss 2005, pp. 34-5)
Also in Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (Buss 2012), Buss notes:
`Common misunderstandings about evolutionary theory –
The theory of evolution by selection, although elegant in its simplicity, generates a number of common misunderstandings (Confer et al, 2010)… Even professors and researchers in the field sometimes get mired in these misunderstandings.
Misunderstanding 1. Human behaviour is genetically determined…
[end of p17]
Misunderstanding 2. If it’s evolutionary, we can’t change it…
Misunderstanding 3. Current mechanisms are optimally designed…
[end of p18]
Contrary to these misunderstandings, evolutionary theory does not imply genetic determinism. It does not imply that we are powerless to change things. it does not mean that our existing adaptations are optimally designed.’
I recommend reading the full book (Buss 2012), to more fully understand what Evolutionary Psychology actually is.
Also, if you think things are determinist, you perhaps don’t understand much about: Creativity.
And – the third (also, very silly) objection to consilience is:
(3) “You can’t use Science to examine the Arts! That’s scientism-! “
No. `Scientism’ is a word that some people use, when they don’t understand: What Science is.
If this is you, then I recommend you read Popper’s All Life Is Problem Solving (1999).
And so – with Tinbergen’s Hierarchy (1951) above, in mind – below is a diagram of some typical reactions…
(It is somewhat spectacular, to see the level of primal response (i.e., `fight or flight’) in, for example, commenter “Damon” on this blog-post.)
So, may I present – `Velikovsky’s Hierarchy of: Post-Structuralists’ Response Mechanisms, on detecting Evocriticism in own Territory’:..
Yet another typical knee-jerk reaction to consilience is:
(4) “You can’t use Science to examine The Arts! That’s positivism-! “
No, it isn’t. It’s post-positivist critical realism, a la Sir Karl Popper.
See this short post on: Post-Positivist Critical Realism which explains the difference.
Also – Popper, himself, was never a `positivist’.
Importantly, it should be noted that despite his repeated refutations and clarifications, Popper notably is very often misunderstood – and therefore mistakenly labelled – as, a `logical positivist’, and/or a `positivist’:
`Many philosophers and sociologists in Germany who know my work only by hearsay describe me as a `positivist’ because my first book – which as a matter of fact, sharply criticized the positivism of the Vienna Circle – appeared in a series of volumes published by this same Vienna Circle. In that context, to be a `positivist’ is tantamount to being an opponent of all philosophical speculation and especially an opponent of realism.’
Popper in fact used critical rationalism as the term to describe his own philosophical position (Popper & Bartley 1993, pp. 32,3); however as Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd (2014), the world expert on Nabokov, and a longtime Popper biographer has also noted, the term `critical rationalism’ is pleonastic, given that `rationalism’ in Popper’s terms means: openness to criticism. Therefore, as Boyd suggests, possibly a more appropriate term for Popper’s philosophical approach is creative rationalism (Boyd 2014).
Because – in Popper’s own words, from Realism and the Aim of Science [1983, 1993]:
`I see science very differently. As to its authority, or confirmation, or probability, I believe that it is nil; it is all guesswork, doxa rather than episteme. And probability theory even ‘confirms’ me in this, by attributing zero probability to universal theories.
But seen as the result of human endeavour, of human dreams, hopes, passions, and most of all, as the result of the most admirable union of creative imagination and rational critical thought, I should like to write ‘Science’ with the biggest capital ‘S’ to be found in the printer’s upper case.
Science is not only, like art and literature, an adventure of the human spirit, but it is among the creative arts perhaps the most human: full of human failings and shortsightedness, it shows those flashes of insight which open our eyes to the wonders of the world and of the human spirit.
But this is not all. Science is the direct result of that most human of all human endeavours – to liberate ourselves.’
Anyone who mistakenly thinks `Popper was a positivist!’ can even read Wikipedia and will discover (Wikipedia is not exactly a scholarly academic resource, but, often reflects `general knowledge’ or `the common understanding’…) Even Wikipedia (as @ January 2015) states:
Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. … If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.
However, the claim that Popper was a positivist is a common misunderstanding that Popper himself termed the “Popper legend.”
In fact, he developed his beliefs in stark opposition to and as a criticism of positivism and held that scientific theories talk about how the world really is, not, as positivists claim, about phenomena or observations experienced by scientists.
In the same vein, continental philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Jürgen Habermas regarded Popper as a positivist because of his alleged devotion to a unified science. However, this was also part of the “Popper legend”; Popper had in fact been the foremost critic of this doctrine of the Vienna Circle, critiquing it, for instance, in his Conjectures and Refutations. ‘
(Source: Wikipedia, of all places)
So, for anyone new to consilience, rather than getting all emotional (note: Evolutionary Psychology shows emotions are short-circuits for thinking) and – jumping to lots of incorrect conclusions about what it all is – I’d suggest, actually reading Consilience (Wilson 1998) – and then, all of these books:
StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities
And also in particular, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Dennett 1995).
And also – all of these books too, on Evocriticism.
And even read this article (on The Millions), for an introduction to the subject of Evocriticism (or, literary Darwinism).
(And, note just how many of the Comments on that post on The Millions are: exactly the above, predictable responses – rather like, a stickleback fish…!)
To understand Evocriticism, and consilience, see also, the excellent articles:
Mulligan, K, Simons, P & Smith, B (2006), ‘What’s Wrong with Contemporary Philosophy?’, Topoi, vol. 25, no. 1-2, pp. 63-7. (This article gives Continental Philosophy a good old-fashioned: demolishing.)
Carroll, J (2008), ‘Rejoinder to Responses – “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” (target article to which scholars and scientists were invited to respond).’, Style, vol. 42, no. 2 & 3, pp. 103-35. (This excellent article corrects many common misunderstandings of consilience, and evocriticism.)
Boyd, B 2006, ‘Theory is Dead – Like a Zombie’, Philosophy and Literature, vol. 30, pp. 289-98. (This excellent article also demolishes “Theory”, which is, mostly: Continental Philosophy, and `postmodernism’.)
In 2013, for Scientific Study of Literature Vol 3:1, Professors Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall and Joseph Carroll were also invited to contribute the three `manifestoes’ for evolutionary literary study, namely:
‘What’s Your Problem? And How Might We Deepen It?’ (Boyd 2013);
`Toward consilience, not literary Darwinism’ (Gottschall 2013);
`A Rationale for Evolutionary Studies of Literature’ (Carroll 2013).
These three articles (above) are short, and also, excellent.
Creativity scholar, Arthur Koestler’s (1967) and also the biologist Walter Garstang (1922)’s evolutionary spiral of culture clearly demonstrate, how (and partly, why) this situation with “Theory” (and `Postmodernism’) has occurred, in terms of Evolutionary Epistemology, and why Consilience and Evocriticism have now evolved, partly as a realist reaction against the anti-realism of so-called (postmodernist) “Theory”.
See: `The evolutionary spiral of ideas (or, memes, or units of culture)’, here:
There is also a book chapter here:
Criticisms of `Anti-Consilience’
Similar (and/or identical) arguments to Carroll’s (Evolution and Literary Theory 1995) against many specific views, arguments and assertions made within postmodernist so-called `Theory’ are also convincingly made in these excellent works:
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Sokal & Bricmont 1998) [aka Intellectual Impostures, in the UK]
Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (Gross & Levitt 1994),
Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Eds: Bordwell & Carroll 1996)
The Trouble With Theory: The Educational Costs of Postmodernism (Kitching 2008)
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Pinker 2003)
As E O Wilson states in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998):
`Human nature exists, and it is both deep and highly structured.
If that much is granted, the relation of science to interpretation of the arts can be made clearer, as follows.
Interpretation has multiple dimensions, namely history, biography, linguistics, and aesthetic judgment. At the foundation of them all lie the material processes of the human mind.’
On the other hand – below is an example of a book that promotes `Theory’, not realizing that it is, as Boyd (2006) notes: dead like a zombie.
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Culler 2011)
I do not recommend reading, or believing things in this book, by Culler – unless of course, you want to be wrong about a lot of things.
Here is what Dennett noted, way back in 1998:
`Harvey Blume: Analytic philosophy has always been influenced by science. That seems to be true of your thought as well.
Daniel C Dennett: Analytic philosophy certainly aspires to the sorts of objectivity and opportunities for confirmation and refutation that science does. One of the things analytic philosophy always held against various continental schools was that they seemed to be doing something more like verbal ballet.
My view of science is very much an enlightenment view. Aside from minor disagreements, it’s pretty close to [E. O.]Wilson’s view in Consilience.
That’s not an accident. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it.
Much of what is said about science as an objective, progressive, best-ever technology for getting at the truth I simply think is right, and I believe people who think otherwise are deeply mistaken.’
(Dennett, 1998, online)
There are many more useful links, along similar lines at:
StoryAlity#129 – Post-Modernist `Theory’ is dead as disco
(P.S. You don’t have to like it. It just has to be true!)
And finally – (and – sadly) here is what many older scholars do, when presented with Consilience:
Unfortunately, given Evolution, this (the above behaviour) can lead to – this:
Here also, are some particularly-bad (i.e. especially invalid) criticisms of consilience:
– King, M 2013, ‘Against Consilience: Outsider Scholarship and the Isthmus Theory of Knowledge Domains’, Integral Review, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 123-44. (This article is: particularly nonsensical.)
– Goodheart, Seamon & Spolsky in the special double-issue of Style (2008), ie: in response to Carroll, J 2008, ‘”An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” (target article to which scholars and scientists were invited to respond).’, Style, vol. 42, no. 2 & 3, pp. 103-35.
– Menand, Louis. `Dangers Within and Without’ Profession, 2005. (In this article, Menand famously – or, notoriously – called consilience “a bargain with the devil” (see: Menand 2005, p. 14)).
– Dubreuil, Laurent. `On Experimental Criticism: Cognition, Evolution, and Literary Theory.’ Diacritics 39.1 (2009): 3–23.
– Maureen Mullarkey’s review of The Art Instinct: http://denisdutton.com/weekly_standard_review.htm
(a surname too good to be true)
– And, the 4 essays in The New Atlantis (2013):
`Biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers are increasingly looking to Darwinian explanations for the universal features of human nature and society — from art to morality, from war to politics. In this symposium, four authors examine the merits and shortcomings of these evolutionary theories. Randal R. Hendrickson reviews Steven Pinker’s latest book on the decline of violence and questions Pinker’s uncritical faith in reason. Micah Mattix (below) looks at recent books that seek to account for art and aesthetics in evolutionary terms. Whitley Kaufman challenges E. O. Wilson’s attempts to ground ethics in evolutionary biology. And Peter Augustine Lawler argues that evolutionary psychology, rightly understood, reinforces the conservative lesson that we are not merely autonomous individuals but also social and relational beings.‘
As I say, for anyone unfamiliar with consilience, I would suggest reading all the works, listed at:
Also if you are a poststructuralist, Continental Theorist, or postmodernist, you may be ignorant of Systems & Complexity Theory. Here are some good posts on all of that.
On Systems Theory and Evolution
- StoryAlity #70 – Key Concepts in Systems Theory, Cybernetics & Evolution
- StoryAlity #70B – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Capra & Luisi 2014)
- StoryAlity #70C – Systems Philosophy (Laszlo 1972)
- StoryAlity #70C2 – General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice (Skyttner 2005)
- StoryAlity #70D – The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi 1993)
- StoryAlity #70E – On Human Nature – and Evolutionary Psychology
In terms of values, I also firmly believe it is both unethical and immoral to continue being wrong when you know you are wrong. In short, postmodernism is not just wrong, it is evil. The world needs its problems solved.
Creativity is problem-solving. If you are wasting everyone’s time talking (postmodernist) nonsense, you are actually using valuable resources (e.g., time, money, academic positions, academic journal column-inches and so on) that could instead be used by someone who is actually, honestly, trying to solve real-world problems.
Also take a look at this:
– Comments, always welcome.
PS – This is useful too:
Please try to stick to the top rung, if possible!
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
For all the above references, see the 50 works listed at: Consilience and Creativity.
See also, in particular, the book chapter:
Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.’ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.