E.O. Wilson as Epistemologist (Part Two)

by Randall Honold

Last week I wrote about a “put up or shut up” request made of me after labeling E.O. Wilson an “unrepentant epistemologist” in a public forum.  At the close of my post I promised some thoughts next week (i.e., now) about how object-oriented ontology motivated my exclamation. In the meantime Steven Craig Hickman posted a reply on his Noir Realismblog. And after I wrote that post I discovered a piece on Aeon Magazineby Massimo Pigliucci critiquing Wilson’s idea of “consilience” (the most succinct definition of which is “unified learning”¹). I’ll fold in responses to Hickman and Pigliucci in what follows.

In fact, the three issues I wanted to look at through OOO glasses are ones that Hickman raised: Wilson as moralist, Wilson as scientist, and the implications of naturalistic epistemology.

I agree with Hickman that Wilson’s discussion of epigenetics is a good place to find his epistemology.  But I don’t see the distinction he does in Wilson between epistemology and morality (“…Wilson’s philosophical naturalism is grounded not in epistemology but in a deeply moralist scientific humanism…”) Following Wilson, they have to be consilient, naturally – they’re two aspects of the same system. Whether or not consilience is possible, though, is an open question, one that Pagliucci takes up. He opts to follow the tradition that offers an internal critique of absolute knowledge (Hume, Russell, Gödel) rather than an external critique (Foucault, Derrida, Latour, Harding), concurring that consilience, as a kind of absolute knowledge, is structurally impossible. But then in his concluding paragraph he writes:

This isn’t a suggestion to give up, much less a mystical injunction to go ‘beyond science’. There is nothing beyond science. But there is important stuff before it: there are human emotions, expressed by literature, music and the visual arts; there is culture; there is history. The best understanding of the whole shebang that humanity can hope for will involve a continuous dialogue between all our various disciplines. This is a more humble take on human knowledge than the quest for consilience, but it is one that, ironically, is more in synch with what the natural sciences tell us about being human.

I have no idea what the difference is between ‘beyond’ and ‘before’ science. Pagliucci ends up in a Goldilocks position: mysticism is too little, consilience is too big, but dialogue is just right. And the commitment to the primacy of scientific knowledge stays, like a security blanket. Dividing the world into what we can know and cannot know is our default, natural, position. But isn’t what we think is natural what we ought to question first and always? While I agree with Hickman that epistemology isn’t something Wilson reflects upon, that’s still where I’m “attacking” him. (I certainly don’t have the chops to critique Wilson’s science. And I hope this doesn’t come across as a game of “gotcha!”) Ordinarily, who cares what someone’s epistemology is? Some of my best friends are epistemologists of different colors. Wilson, however, ups the ante: consilience is the thread that ties together by nature his empirically-informed epistemology, biology, morality, and futurology. The last discourse is the most important for me, here. When Wilson, one of the most respected scientists alive, calls for consilience as a means to address climate change, I have to take that proposal seriously. More seriously than a friend’s recommendation of acupuncture for my sore neck, for example, even though she is an expert acupuncturist. This is because climate change is a lot more important than my aching neck, objectively. The force of the argument to deploy consilience on climate change has to be measured by how many objects it brings to bear in the deployment. (The same goes for my pain in the neck, actually.) Wilson dismisses everything but science in his assertion that science is the only way to yoke all other disciplines to the task of reversing climate change. On the other hand, if OOO attempts to bring all objects to bear, isn’t this already – in principle – a more progressive alternative?

No OOO’er I’ve read discounts the value of science or any other intellectual endeavor on principle, the way, say, scientists like Wilson dismiss philosophy and religion, or (speaking for my tribe) many phenomenologists will dismiss technoscience or Marxists will dismiss, well, anything other than the Marxian critique. Following Graham Harman, what’s the difference if objects are overmined by scientism or undermined by scientific data? In both – ostensibly opposite – scenarios, objects are slighted and their messiness is cleaned up. Recall the second of Harman’s two basic principles of OOO: “These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.” The reason why promoters of consilience and interdisciplinary dialogue haven’t effected the changes they desire might not be because the rest of us aren’t getting on board enthusiastically enough. Maybe it’s because objects themselves collectively resist our modernist attempts to yoke them. As objects and their relations (which include humans and societies) become ever more complex, we respond by wanting to simplify even more, to discover the epigenetic rules for everything, as it were. I have no way of knowing if OOO’s keeping of all things in play, were it to become a new intellectual default position, would help us shape better futures. It seems, at least, to offer a way of respecting science without that becoming scientism, of seeking knowledge without needing to ground it in a universalizing method.

¹ Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), page 1.



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5 responses to “E.O. Wilson as Epistemologist (Part Two)

  1. Just a note… It’s not that I deny that Wilson is an epistemological naturalist, it’s more to the that Wilson shares the view of Patricia Churchland, that we simply don’t have enough scientific knowledge yet to pronounce any final epistemological claims about truth or reality. Epistemology is an empirical domain; the discovery of the nature of truth awaits the “facts” and the facts are just not in yet. This is Wilson’s holding more to the base of his scientific humanism and its tenants than to some philosophical quandary over knowlege and its justification.

    Otherwise I would like to see you shed light on naturalistic epistemology with an OOO critique, that might be interesting to see. I see a hint at it here. Obviously the base premise within Harman’s OOO is the full deployment of objects in the universe, and their ability to be withdrawn from all relation. He’s a substantial formalist (i.e., substantial forms the condition of his ontological arguments) in theory and praxis. Being a monist and materialist I’ve studied Harman’s dualistic (even quadruple) schemes and admire his tenacity, yet am still not convinced by their explanatory power. Yet, its a viable path. I wish you good stead as you explore it within a critical framework as it seems this is something you are intending in this set of articles.

    • Sorry for typos:

      1. It’s not that I deny that Wilson is an epistemological naturalist, it’s more to the [point] that Wilson shares the view of Patricia Churchland, that we simply don’t have enough scientific knowledge yet to pronounce any final epistemological claims about truth or reality.
      2. (i.e., substantial forms [form] the condition of his ontological arguments)

    • Randall

      Yeah, I’m not sure what’s all at stake with the different versions of materialism. Levi Bryant has weighed in recently with some interesting posts in this regard (re: naturalism). I’m happy to take my time wading through it all. I’ll keep tabs on what you’re up to on your blog. Thanks, r

  2. cskolnik

    Readers might also appreciate this Isabelle Stengers talk:

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