Back From Chaos

Enlightenment thinkers knew a lot about everything, today's specialists know a lot about a little, and postmodernists doubt that we can know anything at all. One of the century's most important scientists argues, against fashion, that we can know what we need to know, and that we will discover underlying all forms of knowledge a fundamental unity.

IF contemporary scholars work to encourage the consilience of knowledge, I believe, the enterprises of culture will eventually devolve into science -- by which I mean the natural sciences -- and the humanities, particularly the creative arts. These domains will continue to be the two great branches of learning in the twenty-first century. Social science will split within each of its disciplines, a process already rancorously begun, with one part folding into or becoming continuous with biology, and the other fusing with the humanities. Its disciplines will continue to exist but in radically altered form. In the process the humanities, embracing philosophy, history, moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.

The confidence of natural scientists, I grant, often seems overweening. Science offers the boldest metaphysics of the age: the faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, thereby plunging repeatedly into new terrain, the world will somehow become clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense.

In his 1941 classic Man on His Nature, the British neurobiologist Charles Sherrington spoke of the brain as an "enchanted loom," perpetually weaving a picture of the external world, tearing down and reweaving, inventing other worlds, creating a miniature universe. The communal mind of literate societies -- world culture -- is an immensely larger loom. Through science it has gained the power to map external reality far beyond the reach of a single mind, and in the arts it finds the means to construct narratives, images, and rhythms immeasurably more diverse than the products of any solitary genius. The loom is the same for both enterprises, for science and for the arts, and there is a general explanation of its origin and nature and thence of the human condition.

In education the search for consilience is the way to renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts. During the past thirty years the ideal of the unity of learning, bequeathed to us by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, has been largely abandoned. With rare exceptions American colleges and universities have dissolved their curricula into a slurry of minor disciplines and specialized courses. While the average number of undergraduate courses per institution has doubled, the percentage of mandatory courses in general education has dropped by more than half. Science was sequestered at the same time; as I write, only a third of colleges and universities require students to take at least one course in the natural sciences. The trend cannot be reversed by force-feeding students with some of this and some of that across the branches of learning; true reform will aim at the consilience of science with the social sciences and the humanities in scholarship and teaching. Every college student should be able to answer this question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare?

Every public intellectual or political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before Congress has important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily -- ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environmental destruction, and endemic poverty, to cite several of the most persistent -- can be solved only by integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that from the social sciences and the humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as it appears through the lens of ideology and religious dogma, or as a myopic response solely to immediate need. Yet the vast majority of our political leaders are trained primarily or exclusively in the social sciences and the humanities, and have little or no knowledge of the natural sciences. The same is true of public intellectuals, columnists, media interrogators, and think-tank gurus. The best of their analyses are careful and responsible, and sometimes correct, but the substantive base of their wisdom is fragmented and lopsided.

A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces; the consilience among them must be pursued. Such unification will be difficult to achieve. But I think it is inevitable. Intellectually it rings true, and it gratifies impulses that arise from the admirable side of human nature. To the extent that the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase. They will do so because of, not despite, the underlying cohesion achieved. The enterprise is important for yet another reason: It gives purpose to intellect. It promises that order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon. Inevitably, I think, we will accept the adventure, go there, and find what we need to know.

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