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RS63 - Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Release date: June 17, 2012

Will all knowledge eventually be united? And what does that even mean, anyway? In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia explore the topic of consilience, or the "unity of knowledge," a concept popularized by biologist and theorizer E. O. Wilson. Along the way they discuss whether all phenomena can be explained in terms of physics, the importance of precise language, and the seductive dangers of the "deepity."

Julia's picks: MeasureOfDoubt videos and Predictions from Philosophy? 
Massimo's pick: 10 Facts about Portable Electronics and Airplanes

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge
Report from the Consilience conference

Reader Comments (7)

Julia, I'm puzzled by your credence in Bostrom. I've seen your thinking on the Anthropic Principle change from a frequentist critique voiced in an earlier episode to now a Bayesian acceptance of the notion. Nor do I think it a laughing matter or accident that your podcast on the Simulation Argument ended with a chagrinned defense of Intelligent Design.

You studied Statistics, so it's a little alarming to me that you are not being more critical in your thinking about the connection between a probability and reality. I would ask you to consider the consequences of your credence. To say that there is a 20% chance of Intelligent Design is to give up the ghost. Do you think Creationists are going to feel 80% defeated by this assertion?

And consider for a moment how self-defeating Bostrom is being. His stated goal is to have Philosophy take peer status with Science, while he simultaneously undermines Scientific Naturalism and, on a pure PR level, fills the stereotypical role of Thales falling down a well, as he concludes that it is more likely that the world is about to end than not (because the number of humans who have existed is a large number but not a really, really large number) or that we might be simulations of a post-human God because it seems likely that our descendants (or somebody else’s) will be really good at and interested in simulating universes.

Bostrom is like Zeno. He's got logical formulations which appear internally consistent, but are obviously wrong. While we had to wait for the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus to answer Zeno, we didn’t have to take his paradox literally until then. Rocks still made their way to the ground, and, on a gut level, it was clear that while an infinite series seems infinite in one sense, it must add up to something finite. Zeno was taking a mostly reality overlapping model and stretching it to the point where it no longer mapped the world. At this point, one should suspect one’s model, not one’s reality.

Bostrom, on the other hand, doesn’t even allow that he is trucking in paradox. True, he’s in good company. I suspect the error he is making is akin to those made in similar applications of probability to reality, like Boltzmann's Brains and Schrodinger's Cat. I’m guessing that a full understanding of the arrow of time and causality are essential. I would urge you to get Sean Carroll to weigh in on the topic. He’s practiced in thinking about the implications of reversibility. In particular, Bostrom seems to be saying (simulation argument) that a probability about the condition of our descendents has an existential value for us today. How is this not a time travel paradox? Similarly with the Anthropic Principal, he asserts that our existence today causes initial conditions at the beginning of time. I think Bostrom is over-committed to reversibility and time independent causality. I think science will eventually show that causality and time are congruent and, thanks to gravity, fundamental parts of the universe. Probability will be found to be not objective descriptions of possible outcomes, but frame-dependent (perspectival) descriptions of local conditions. But I’m in over my head here.

All I’m saying is: Please examine your priors on this topic.

June 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Shure

Nice touch on the horizontal-strong/vertical-weak claim analysis. Think that the solution to the vertical problem is to extend QM 'up'. There are probably ways to approach this, revolving around separating meaning that is extracted from esthetics, social milieus, etc from the physical bits.

Sociology is the fascinating one for me. Say two people are close together for long periods of time, a married couple. Well the empirical evidence is that the physical attraction dissipates - always -, the folk wisdom is that they begin to physically look alike, (would love to see what a happily married couple looked like after celebrating their 500th wedding anniversary - maybe we could not tell them apart, or their bodies would have begun to fuse) . What this tells me is that the law of attraction and repulsion has an effect, one that can be empirically tested.

The other bit that can contribute to an understanding of consilience Is the concept of power. Viewed as a magnitude, assigned at any of these vertical levels, it can be used to explain an entity's place in its environment, in human cases we can separate people into Attackers - verbal people who can strike up conversation easily and thus control 1:1 human interaction, and Defenders, those who who are more apt to respond in conversation, and generally are more comfortable avoiding interactions in the first place. But both groups have some measure of influence or power, given a magnitude, we start getting close to some sort of old-fashioned Western science that provides results and may even be used to predict stuff.

Massimo, would love to hear your take on "America the Philosophical" in today's NY Time Book Review. And not just because it had Hume in paragraph 1. Good fare for a Galef-Pigliucci podcast or some other presentation.

Aaron, Bostrom's arguments are compelling in a temporally one-way world. We do not yet have a good understanding of how precognition works, only tantalizing reports from many that it is a raw and immediate experience. Given that it makes all the sense in the world, wish it was taken more seriously, perhaps via an information-only approach, i.e. jettisoning any or all commonly held 'truths'

June 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Schreier

I was a bit surprised not to hear anything about the concept of 'emergent property' in this podcast. It seems to me quite central to any discussion of the unity of knowledge, regardless of whether or not the book you were reviewing mentioned it.

An emergent property is any property of a system not possessed by any of its component parts. For example, the height of a person is not a property of any individual cell in the body. Similarly, molecules have chemical properties not possessed by any of their component atoms. And so on. You were this close to it and yet it was never addressed.

This is an ontological layering of the world which makes sensible a layered approach to knowledge.

Another book on the topic of the unity of knowledge may have yielded a quite different discussion in this respect. For example 'Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge' by the great Mario Bunge. Or his two volume 'Philosophy of science' which goes to great depth and details on the meaning of the term 'explanation' (amongst many other gems).

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJean-Rene David

Ooops. I confused Bostrom with Joshua Knobe when I said his goal is to "have Philosophy take peer status with Science." Not sure this helps Bostrom that much, in my book. He's still engaging in apologetics. Seriously. I think the ontological argument, Zeno's Paradox, The Cogito, Boltzmann's Brains, Ancestor Simulation Argument -- all these armchair exploits run aground in the same way. Julia, if you aren't brought to Jesus by the Ontological Argument, why do you go there with the simulation argument? It's the same argument gussied up. "If we can conceive of a being that is greater than all others..." Is equal to "If we can place a likelihood on the idea of future beings having immense simulations abilities..." Massimo, in RS 46, speaking on the Simulation Argument you said, "There are so many things wrong with that argument, it's not even funny." "I love it when philosophers... start an argument by saying, 'there is no reason to believe that x is not true.' Well, since you are making an extraordinary better aught give us the reasons why we should believe or even entertain that claim." Also: "I don't even think it's reasonable." Then: "there is a difference between something not being reasonable and being impossible. Impossible is a high standard." Then, Massimo, you rightly connect his argument to time travel paradox. Yes! It's exactly a time travel paradox. How can we calculate a probability about our current situation based on a probability about how things might be in the future?

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Shure

Might not the value of (the weak version of) conciliance be to weed out doctrinaire approaches like postmodernism as inconsistent with the unity of knowledge?

January 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony Houston

I realize Wilson created the concept but I found Fred Bookstein's treatment to be the most illuminating about what consilience should be. Bookstein's take is from a biologist's point of view:

"To be a biologist is to accept the constraints on speculative thought (Fleck's 1935 'social construction of scientific facts') by a recurrent attention to both these aspects of our quantitative reasoning: the insistence on consilience across levels, from the molecular through the bioenergetic or ecosystemic; but also the insistence on strong inference, the rejection of mere null hypothesis testing in favor of data that actually support one meaningful hypohtesis over many others. It is this creative tension that renders quantification in biology so interesting." Bookstein, How quantification persuades when it persuades.

That is, the idea of an objective unification is meaningless unless one means by it, a social construction of scientific facts. Consilience, to me, starts with the belief that natural phenomena are real, that it is so. If it is so, then it should be measurable by all different methods and they should all point to the same thing. This would create a unity about that which requires explaining and what counts as an explanation. It also settles conflicts about the problem of induction by replacing it with the concept of an inference to the best explanation, which is sometimes called induction and not its own thing. Also, what is meant by 'being explained', 'knowledge' and 'meaning' become clear when that context is structured as a Peircean abduction.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Rhee
If we do reduce all of art, literature, cuisine, music, sports, pastimes, film, dance, architecture, and other aesthetic pursuits to simple biology, will we also have include psychology? So many of our tastes and preferences arise from learning from experience, and not from some genetic basis.
January 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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