What is Consilience?

Consilience is the fusion of different domains of human experience that reveals that how we think, is not how is commonly believed. It allows us to understand ourselves, and those around us, in new ways.

Consilience is a new way of understanding everything from the bottom up — revealing the overlap of different domains of human existence.

Consilience is an all-embracing perspective that acknowledges the value in the many ways of understanding things, including: the scientific; the historical; the artistic and the spiritual. Consilience takes us both higher, so we understand the power of ideas, and deeper, so we see how things work at the level of neurons in our brain and body, and how our ways of thinking come into existence, and change our behavior.

Consilience is a word that was invented in 1840 by the polymath, father of the philosophy of science and longtime Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell. It is the growing together or convergence of different domains of knowledge.   

When Whewell coined the word the disciplines of physics, chemistry and natural history were disconnected. At that time Newton’s laws of motion had nothing much to do with Antoine Lavoisier’s list of 33 chemical elements or Darwin’s musings about the evolution of organisms. 

The term was revived when the Harvard professor, Edward O. Wilson, an expert on social insects, published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in 1998. He envisaged that the flourishing disciplines of evolutionary biology, paleontology, neurophysiology and genetics would enable scientists to understand the humanities and social sciences. 

Consilience Has Arrived

We have collectively achieved consilience but it has come about in ways that were not anticipated by Wilson. The puzzle of consilience is being solved because of advances in many diverse fields. 

Foremost is the fast-growing branch of knowledge made up of overlapping concepts including: complexity, deterministic chaos, universality, fractals, criticality, catastrophes, dynamical, adaptive, cellular automata, and emergent systems. For simplicity we refer to these as complex-criticality

The field of complex-criticality shows that biological systems and everything else in the universe can be derived from simple mathematical rules. Previously it was believed that in order to create something that is complex, like the human brain, it would require a complex master plan. It is now apparent that things that are complex and well-organized can emerge from simple instructions. 

Stephen Wolfram has recently launched an audacious project to find the fundamental theory of physics from the bottom up using simple algorithms. This initiative is already showing promise.    

Another development is artificial intelligence and machine learning. Previously it was thought that a computer needed sophisticated algorithms to be smart. Computers now easily outplay humans at games like chess and it is routine for computers to make sense of large datasets through self-teaching.

The combination of complex-criticality and artificial intelligence has triggered a monumental paradigm shift that has turned science on its head. We can now see that the universe is built from the bottom upwards and it does not conform to top-down categorizations, nor is the universe governed by scientific laws.

Physics, chemistry and biology have merged together. Scientists routinely probe the workings of cells and observe how the molecules replicate and how the energy of the sun is captured by plants and utilized in the cells of organisms. There is much to be discovered but the gaps are closing. 

The field of genetics has revealed the surprise that the genes of human beings are 99 percent identical to chimpanzees and that animals that look completely different are genetically similar to humans – remarkably so. 

Advances in the fields of embryology and cell biology allow us to see how our bodies grow and along with developments in the cognitive sciences the picture of how our brains work is coming into focus.

This picture is illuminated through the work of anthropologists, ethologists, primatologists and ecologists who have uncovered details about how our social dispositions and language capabilities evolved. 

Geologists, paleontologists, archeologists and climate scientists have provided details about the course of evolution over long timescales and how climate change has played a significant role.   

Rapid advances in many fields are revealing how the human brain works and it is nothing like how the mainstream academic community had imagined.  

Consciousness and How the Brain Works is no Longer a Mystery

Now we can see how the brain works and it is unlike a computer that processes and stores non-material information. The brain is instead a completely physical, complex-critical system, that works in-the-moment.   

Consciousness has long been thought of as a mystery but it is now apparent that it started evolving hundreds of millions of years ago for reasons that are essential and straightforward. 

The notion that the brain is a modular device has been laid to rest. Different domains of our lives such as scientific thinking, creativity, music, literature and spirituality that are often thought of as unrelated to each other share common neuronal mechanisms. 

At the level of neurons the different domains of our existence come together. With consilience the hard edges we perceive between science, the arts, politics and our day-to-day interactions dissolve. 

Through an understanding of the human brain we can reveal its limitations and quirks that are otherwise invisible. 

Consilience is Anti Theory 

Consilience pushes beyond scientific ways of thinking and the constraints of words. It is founded on observations of reality, without regard for the boundaries between academic disciplines and their attendant loyalties. 

It enables us to discuss the challenges confronting society with a new level of confidence. 

There have been dramatic advances in mathematics, embryology, cell biology and genetics.
Different disciplines have grown together. Physics, chemistry and biology are now indivisible.
Advances in diverse fields have for the first time enabled us to see how the brain works and understand human society at deeper levels.