STEPHEN JAY GOULD ON CONSILIENCE
In his essay collection, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, Stephen Jay Gould characterizes (2003: 216) E. O. Wilson’s knowledge unification agenda as “a chain of reductionism.” For Gould, Wilson’s “firm belief” is being “proclaimed as a metaphysical assumption” rather than “proven scientific reality.” Gould is disconcerted that Wilson’s reductive approach appears to be:
poised to make its boldest move upward—starting with (and fundamentally encouraged by) our startling initial successes in beginning to understand the workings of the human brain, and then moving through the social sciences and eventually, and ultimately into the traditional humanities of arts, ethics, and even parts of religion.
Gould (2003: 191) cannot endorse what he sees as Wilson’s
attempts to break the most complex phenomenology (of living things and social systems) into constituent units, all ultimately subject to explanation by the unifying physical laws regulating these basic components.
Gould is mindful of the inherent complexities, unpredictabilities and uncertainties pertaining to the human arena. He reminds us (2003: 194) that “[b]iology is almost unimaginably more complex than physics, and the arts equivalently more complex than biology.” For Gould “is easier to go backward through the branching corridors than to go forward,” Gould (2003: 202) is convinced that any reductionist ambitions are thwarted by “emergence, or the entry of novel explanatory rules in complex systems,” and “contingency,” the ubiquity of “unique historical ‘accidents’ that cannot in principle be predicted, but that remain fully accessible to factual explanation after their occurrence.”
Gould drives his point home with explicit reference to ethics:
We can surely determine that a majority of human societies have preferred one moral code over another, and we may even be able to devise a satisfactory evolutionary explanation for the decision. But the magisterium of ethics asks a very different primary question, unaddressed (and unaddressable) by such interesting and important factual data: What moral code ought we follow? What ethical duties define a life well lived?