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M A R C H  1 9 9 8

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

by Edward O. Wilson

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.


Constructing a cohent whole IN contrast to widespread opinion, I believe that the Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries got it mostly right. The assumptions they made about a lawful material world, the intrinsic unity of knowledge, and the potential for indefinite human progress are the ones we still take most readily to heart, suffer without, and find maximally rewarding as we learn more and more about the circumstances of our lives. The greatest enterprise of the mind always has been and always will be the attempt to link the sciences and the humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and the resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.

The key to unification is consilience. I prefer this word to "coherence," because its rarity has preserved its precision, whereas "coherence" has several possible meanings. William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience -- literally a "jumping together" of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He wrote, "The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs."
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Go to part two of this article.


Consilience can be established or refuted only by methods developed in the natural sciences -- in an effort, I hasten to add, not led by scientists, or frozen in mathematical abstraction, but consistent with the habits of thought that have worked so well in exploring the material universe.

The belief in the possibility of consilience beyond science and across the great branches of learning is a metaphysical world view, and a minority one at that, shared by only a few scientists and philosophers. Consilience cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests, at least not any yet conceived. Its best support is no more than an extrapolation from the consistent past success of the natural sciences. Its surest test will be its effectiveness in the social sciences and the humanities. The strongest appeal of consilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, if even only modest success is achieved, a better understanding of the human condition.

To illustrate the claim just made, think of two intersecting perpendicular lines, and picture the quadrants thus created. Label one quadrant "environmental policy," one "ethics," one "biology," and one "social science."

example 1

We already think of these four domains as closely connected, so rational inquiry in one informs reasoning in the other three. Yet each undeniably stands apart in the contemporary academic mind. Each has its own practitioners, language, modes of analysis, and standards of validation. The result is confusion -- and confusion was correctly identified by Francis Bacon, four centuries ago, as the direst of errors, which "occurs wherever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another."

Next imagine a series of concentric circles around the point of intersection.

example 2

As we cross the circles inward toward the point at which the quadrants meet, we find ourselves in an increasingly unstable and disorienting region. The ring closest to the intersection, where most real-world problems exist, is the one in which fundamental analysis is most needed. Yet virtually no maps exist; few concepts and words serve to guide us. Only in imagination can we travel clockwise from the recognition of environmental problems and the need for soundly based policy to the selection of solutions based on moral reasoning to the biological foundations of that reasoning to a grasp of social institutions as the products of biology, environment, and history -- and thence back to environmental policy.

Consider this example. Governments everywhere are at a loss regarding the best policy for regulating the dwindling forest reserves of the world. Few ethical guidelines have been established from which agreement might be reached, and those are based on an insufficient knowledge of ecology. Even if adequate scientific knowledge were available, we would have little basis for the long-term valuation of forests. The economics of sustainable yield is still a primitive art, and the psychological benefits of natural ecosystems are almost wholly unexplored.

Looking for the spirit of the Enlightenment The time has come to achieve the tour of such domains in reality. This is not an idle exercise for the delectation of intellectuals. The ease with which the educated public, not just intellectuals and political leaders, can think around these and similar circuits, starting at any point and moving in any direction, will determine how wisely public policy is chosen.

To ask if consilience can be gained in the domains of the innermost circles, such that sound judgment will flow easily from one discipline to another, is equivalent to asking whether, in the gathering of disciplines, specialists can ever reach agreement on a common body of abstract principles and evidential proof. I think they can. Trust in consilience is the foundation of the natural sciences. For the material world, at least, the momentum is overwhelmingly toward conceptual unity. Disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences are disappearing, in favor of shifting hybrid disciplines in which consilience is implicit. They reach across many levels of complexity, from chemical physics and physical chemistry to molecular genetics, chemical ecology, and ecological genetics. None of the new specialties is considered more than a focus of research. Each is an industry of fresh ideas and advancing technology.

TERROR AND THE ENLIGHTENMENT

THE dream of intellectual unity was a product of the Enlightenment, an Icarian flight of the mind that spanned the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A vision of secular knowledge in the service of human rights and human progress, it was the West's greatest contribution to civilization. It launched the modern era for the whole world; we are all its legatees. Then -- astonishingly -- it failed.

Given the prospect of renewed convergence of the disciplines, it is of surpassing importance to understand both the essential nature of the Enlightenment and the weaknesses that brought it down. Both can be said to have been embodied in the life of the Marquis de Condorcet. No single event better marks the end of the Enlightenment than his death, on March 29, 1794. The circumstances were exquisitely ironic. Condorcet has been called the prophet of the Laws of Progress. By virtue of his towering intellect and visionary political leadership, he seemed destined to emerge from the French Revolution as the Jefferson of France. But in late 1793 and early 1794, as he was composing the ultimate Enlightenment blueprint, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, he was instead a fugitive from the law, liable to a sentence of death by representatives of the cause he had so faithfully served. His crime was political: He was perceived to be a Girondist, a member of a faction found too moderate -- too reasonable -- by the radical Jacobins. Worse, he had criticized the constitution drawn up by the Jacobin-dominated National Convention. He died on the floor of a cell in the jail at Bourg-la-Reine, after being imprisoned by villagers who had captured him on the run. They would certainly have turned him over to the Paris authorities for trial. The cause of death is unknown. Suicide was ruled out at the time, but poison, which he carried with him, is nevertheless a possibility; so is trauma or heart attack. At least he was spared the guillotine.

The French Revolution drew its intellectual strength from men and women like Condorcet. It was readied by the growth of educational opportunity and then fired by the idea of the universal rights of man. Yet as the Enlightenment seemed about to achieve political fruition in Europe, something went terribly wrong. What seemed at first to be minor inconsistencies widened into catastrophic failures. Thirty years earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, had introduced the idea that was later to inspire the rallying slogan of the Revolution: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." But he had also invented the fateful abstraction of the "general will" to achieve these goals. The general will, he wrote, is the rule of justice agreed upon by assemblies of free people whose interest is only to serve the welfare of the society and of each person in it. When achieved, it forms a sovereign contract that is "always constant, unalterable, and pure." "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole." Those who do not conform to the general will, Rousseau continued, are deviants subject to necessary force by the assembly. A truly egalitarian democracy cannot be achieved in any other way.

Robespierre, who led the Reign of Terror that overtook the Revolution in 1793, grasped this logic all too well. He and his fellow Jacobins understood Rousseau's necessary force to include summary condemnations and executions of all those who opposed the new order. Some 300,000 nobles, priests, political dissidents, and other troublemakers were imprisoned, and 17,000 died within the year. In Robespierre's universe the goals of the Jacobins were noble and pure. They were, as he serenely wrote in February of 1794 (shortly before he himself was guillotined), "the peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, the rule of that eternal justice whose laws have been engraved ... upon the hearts of men, even upon the heart of the slave who knows them not and of the tyrant who denies them."

Thus took form the easy cohabitation of egalitarian ideology and savage coercion that was to plague the next two centuries. The decline of the Enlightenment was hastened not just by tyrants who used it for justification but by rising and often valid intellectual opposition. Its dream of a world made orderly and fulfilling by free intellect had seemed at first indestructible, the instinctive goal of all men. The movement gave rise to the modern intellectual tradition of the West and much of its culture. Its creators, among the greatest scholars since Plato and Aristotle, showed what the human mind can accomplish. Isaiah Berlin, one of their most perceptive historians, praised them justly as follows: "The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind." But they reached too far, and their best efforts were not enough to create the sustained endeavor their vision foretold.

THE PERIL OF PERFECTIBILITY

THIS, then, was the problem. Although reason supposedly was the defining trait of the human species, and needed only a little more cultivation to flower universally, it fell short. Humanity was not paying attention. Humanity thought otherwise. The causes of the Enlightenment's decline, which persist today, illuminate the labyrinthine wellsprings of human motivation. It is worth asking, particularly in this winter of our cultural discontent, whether the original spirit of the Enlightenment -- confidence, optimism, eyes to the horizon -- can be regained. And to ask in honest opposition, Should it be regained, or did it possess in its first conception, as some have suggested, a dark-angelic flaw? Might its idealism have contributed to the Terror, which foreshadowed the horrendous dream of the totalitarian state? If knowledge can be consolidated, so might the "perfect" society be designed -- one culture, one science -- whether fascist, communist, or theocratic.

The Enlightenment itself, however, was never a unified movement. It was less a determined, swift river than a lacework of deltaic streams working their way along twisted channels. By the time of the French Revolution it was very old. It emerged from the Scientific Revolution during the early seventeenth century and attained its greatest influence in the European academy during the eighteenth. Its originators often clashed over fundamental issues. Most engaged from time to time in absurd digressions and speculations, such as looking for hidden codes in the Bible and for the anatomical seat of the soul. The overlap of their opinions was nevertheless extensive and clear and well reasoned enough to bear this simple characterization: They shared a passion to demystify the world and free the mind from the impersonal forces that imprison it.

They were driven by the thrill of discovery. They agreed on the power of science to reveal an orderly, understandable universe and thereby lay an enduring base for free rational discourse. They thought that the perfection of the celestial bodies discovered by astronomy and physics could serve as a model for human society. They believed in the unity of all knowledge, individual human rights, natural law, and indefinite human progress. They tried to avoid metaphysics even as the flaws in and incompleteness of their explanations forced them to practice it. They resisted organized religion. They despised revelation and dogma. They endorsed, or at least tolerated, the state as a contrivance required for civil order. They believed that education and right reason would enormously benefit humanity. A few, like Condorcet, thought that human beings were perfectible and capable of shaping and administering a political utopia.

FRANCIS BACON AND GOD'S MACHINE

SCIENCE was the engine of the Enlightenment. The more scientifically disposed Enlightenment authors agreed that the cosmos is an orderly material construct governed by exact laws. It can be broken down into entities that can be measured and arranged in hierarchies, such as societies, which are made up of persons, whose brains consist of nerves, which in turn are composed of atoms. In principle, at least, the atoms can be reassembled into nerves, the nerves into brains, and the persons into societies, with the whole understood as a system of mechanisms and forces. If one insists on a divine intervention, the Enlightenment philosophers maintained, one should think of the world as God's machine. The conceptual constraints that cloud our vision of the physical world can be eased for the betterment of humanity in every sphere. Thus Condorcet, in an era still unburdened by the ballast of complicating fact, called for the illumination of the moral and political sciences by the "torch of analysis."

The grand architect of this dream was not Condorcet, or any of the other philosophes who expressed it so well, but Francis Bacon. Among the Enlightenment founders, he is the one who most endures in spirit, informing us across four centuries that we must understand nature, both around us and within ourselves, in order to set humanity on the course of self-improvement. We must do it knowing that our destiny is in our own hands and that denial of the dream will lead back to barbarism. In his scholarship Bacon questioned the solidity of classical "delicate" learning -- those medieval forms based on ancient texts and logical expatiation. He spurned reliance on ordinary scholastic philosophy, calling for a study of nature and the human condition on their own terms and without artifice. He observed that because "the mind, hastily and without choice, imbibes and treasures up the first notices of things, from whence all the rest proceed, errors must forever prevail, and remain uncorrected." Thus knowledge is not well constructed but "resembles a magnificent structure that has no foundation."

Bacon's pyramid of disciplines By reflecting on all possible methods of investigation available to his imagination, Bacon concluded that the best among them for accurate thought was induction -- the gathering of large numbers of facts and the detection of patterns. In order to obtain maximum objectivity, we must entertain only a minimum of preconceptions. Bacon proclaimed a pyramid of disciplines, with natural history forming the base, physics above and subsuming it, and metaphysics at the peak, explaining everything below -- though perhaps in powers and forms beyond the grasp of man.

He was neither a gifted scientist ("I can not thridd needles so well") nor trained in mathematics, but he was a brilliant thinker, who founded the philosophy of science. A Renaissance man, he took, in his famous phrase, all knowledge to be his province. Then he stepped forward into the Enlightenment as the first taxonomist and master purveyor of the scientific method.

Bacon defined science broadly to include a foreshadowing of the social sciences and parts of the humanities. The repeated testing of knowledge by experiment, he insisted, is the cutting edge of learning. But to him "experiment" meant more than controlled manipulations in the manner of modern science. It was all the ways in which humanity brings change into the world through information, agriculture, and industry. He believed the great branches of learning to be open-ended and constantly evolving, but he nonetheless wrote eloquently on his belief in the underlying unity of knowledge. He rejected the sharp divisions among the disciplines that had prevailed since Aristotle.

Bacon elaborated on but did not invent the method of induction as a counterpoint to classical and medieval deduction. Still, he deserves the title Father of Induction, on which much of his fame rested in later centuries. The procedure he favored was much more than merely making factual generalizations -- such as, to use a modern example, "Ninety percent of plant species have flowers that are yellow, red, or white, and are visited by insects." Rather, he said, start with such an unbiased description of phenomena. Collect their common traits into an intermediate level of generality. Then proceed to higher levels of generality -- such as, "Flowers have evolved colors and anatomy designed to attract certain kinds of insects, and these are the creatures that exclusively pollinate them." Bacon's reasoning was an improvement over the traditional methods of description and classification prevailing during the Renaissance, but it anticipated little of the methods of concept formation, competing hypotheses, and theory that form the core of modern science.

In psychology, and particularly in the nature of creativity, Bacon cast his vision furthest ahead. Although he did not use the word (it was not coined until 1653), he understood the critical importance of psychology in scientific research and all other forms of scholarship. He had a deep intuition for the mental processes of discovery. He understood the means by which those processes are best systematized and most persuasively transmitted. "The human understanding," he wrote, "is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called 'sciences as one would.'" He did not mean by this to distort perception of the real world by interposing a prism of emotion. Reality ought still to be embraced directly and reported without flinching. But it is also best delivered the same way it was discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions.

I do not wish, by ranking Francis Bacon so high, to portray him as a thoroughly modern man. He was far from that. His friend William Harvey, a physician and a real scientist who made a fundamental discovery, the circulation of the blood, noted drily that Bacon wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor. His phrases make splendid marble inscriptions and commencement flourishes. The unity of knowledge he conceived is remote from the present-day concept of consilience, far from the deliberate, systematic linkage of cause and effect across the disciplines. His stress lay instead on the common means of inductive inquiry that might optimally serve all the branches of learning. He searched for the techniques that best convey the knowledge gained, and to that end he argued for the full employment of the humanities, including art and fiction, as the best means for developing and expressing science. Science, as he broadly defined it, should be poetry, and poetry science. That, at least, has a pleasingly modern ring.

Bacon's philosophy raised the sights of a small but influential public. It helped to prime the Scientific Revolution, which was to blossom spectacularly in the decades ahead. To this day his vision remains at the heart of the scientific-technological ethic. He was a magnificent figure, standing alone by necessity of circumstance, who achieved that affecting combination of humility and innocent arrogance present only in the greatest scholars.

DESCARTES AND THE THREE COORDINATES

ALL histories that live in our hearts are peopled by archetypes in mythic narratives. This, I believe, is part of Francis Bacon's appeal and the reason that his fame endures. In the tableau of the Enlightenment, Bacon is the herald of adventure. A new world is waiting, he announced; let us begin the long and difficult march into its unmapped terrain. René Descartes, the founder of algebraic geometry and modern philosophy, and France's pre-eminent scholar of all time, is the mentor in the narrative. Like Bacon before him, he summoned scholars to the scientific enterprise; among them came the young Isaac Newton. Descartes showed how to do science with the aid of precise deduction, cutting to the quick of each phenomenon and skeletonizing it. The world is three-dimensional, he explained, so let our perception of it be framed in three coordinates. Today they are called Cartesian coordinates. With them the length, breadth, and height of any object can be exactly specified and subjected to mathematical operations to explore the object's essential qualities. Descartes accomplished this step in elementary form by reformulating algebraic notation so that it could be used to solve complex problems of geometry and, further, to explore realms of mathematics beyond the visual realm of three-dimensional space.

Descartes's overarching vision was of knowledge as a system of interconnected truths that can ultimately be abstracted into mathematics. It all came to him, he said, through a series of dreams in November of 1619, when somehow, in a flurry of symbols (thunderclaps, books, an evil spirit, a delicious melon), he perceived that the universe is both rational and united throughout by cause and effect. He believed that this conception could be applied everywhere from physics to medicine -- hence biology -- and even to moral reasoning. In this respect he laid the groundwork for the belief in the unity of learning that was to influence Enlightenment thought profoundly in the eighteenth century.

Descartes insisted that systematic doubt was the first principle of learning. By his light, all knowledge was to be laid out and tested on the iron frame of logic. He allowed himself only one undeniable premise, captured in the celebrated phrase "Cogito ergo sum" -- "I think, therefore I am." The system of Cartesian doubt, which still thrives in modern science, is one in which all assumptions that can be are systematically eliminated, so as to leave only one set of axioms on which rational thought can be based and experiments can be rigorously designed.

Poetic science Descartes nonetheless made a fundamental concession to metaphysics. A lifelong Catholic, he believed in God as a perfect being, manifested by the power of the idea of such a being in his own mind. That given, he went on to argue for the complete separation of mind and matter. The stratagem freed him to put spirit aside and concentrate on matter as pure mechanism. In works published over the years 1637-1649 Descartes introduced reductionism, the study of the world as an assemblage of physical parts that can be broken down and analyzed separately. Reductionism and analytic mathematical modeling were destined to become the most powerful intellectual instruments of modern science. (The year 1642 was a signal one in the history of ideas: with Descartes's Meditationes de Prima Philosophia just published and his Principia Philosophiae soon to follow, Galileo died and Newton was born.)

As Enlightenment history unfolded, Isaac Newton came to rank with Galileo as the most influential of the heroes who answered Bacon's call. A restless seeker of horizons, stunningly resourceful, he invented calculus before Gottfried Leibniz, whose notation was nevertheless clearer and is the one used today. In company with analytic geometry, calculus proved to be one of the two crucial mathematical techniques in physics and, later, chemistry, biology, and economics.

In 1684 Newton formulated the mass and distance laws of gravity, and in 1687 the three laws of motion. With these mathematical formulations he achieved the first great breakthrough in modern science. He showed that the planetary orbits postulated by Copernicus and proved elliptical by Kepler could be predicted from the first principles of mechanics. His laws were exact and equally applicable to all inanimate matter, from the solar system down to grains of sand -- and, of course, to the falling apple that had triggered his thinking on the subject twenty years previously (apparently a true story). The universe, he said, is not just orderly but also intelligible. At least part of God's grand design could be written with a few lines on a piece of paper.

The laws of gravity and motion were a powerful beginning. And they started Enlightenment scholars thinking, Why not a Newtonian solution to the affairs of men? The idea grew into one of the mainstays of the Enlightenment agenda. As late as 1835 Adolphe Quételet was proposing "social physics" as the basis of the discipline soon to be named sociology. Auguste Comte, his contemporary, believed a true social science to be inevitable. "Men," he said, echoing Condorcet, "are not allowed to think freely about chemistry and biology, so why should they be allowed to think freely about political philosophy?" People, after all, are just extremely complicated machines. Why shouldn't their behavior and social institutions conform to certain still-undefined natural laws?

Given its unbroken string of successes during the next three centuries, reductionism may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge of the physical world, but it was not so easy to grasp at the dawn of science. Western science took the lead in the world largely because it cultivated reductionism and physical law to expand the understanding of space and time beyond that attainable by the unaided senses. The advance, however, carried humanity's self-image ever further from its perception of the remainder of the universe, and as a consequence the full reality of the universe seemed to grow progressively more alien. The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in so doing they revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. Theoretical physics and molecular biology are acquired tastes. The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind. This is the cardinal tenet of scientific understanding: Our species and its ways of thinking are a product of evolution, not the purpose of evolution.

THE CASE FOR DEISM

WE now pass to the final archetype of the epic tableau, the keepers of the innermost room. The more radical Enlightenment writers, alert to the implications of scientific materialism, moved to reassess God himself. They imagined a Creator obedient to his own natural laws -- the belief known as deism. They disputed the theism of Judeo-Christianity, whose divinity is both omnipotent and personally interested in human beings, and they rejected the nonmaterial worlds of heaven and hell. At the same time, few dared go the whole route and embrace atheism, which seemed to imply cosmic meaninglessness and risked outraging the pious. So by and large they took a middle position. God the Creator exists, they conceded, but He is allowed only the entities and processes manifest in his own handiwork.

Deistic belief, by persisting in attenuated form to this day, has given scientists a license to search for God. More precisely, it has prompted a small number to make a partial sketch of Him (Her? It? Them?), derived from their professional meditations.
From the archives:

  • "Can We Be Good Without God?" by Glenn Tinder (December, 1989)
    "Many of the virtues of liberal democracy, such as a belief in the dignity and equality of all people, have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. Can such values survive without these particular roots? An essay on the political meaning of Christianity."

  • "What College Did to My Religion," by Philip E. Wentworth (June, 1932)
    "When I entered Harvard in the fall of 1924, I was not only a Christian, I was also an avowed candidate for the ministry. Then for four years I underwent a process of mental readjustment which shook my little world to its foundations. Through it all only one thing was clear to me: if I could reconcile religion with intelligence, I knew that I could go on into my chosen career fortified by the experience; if I could not, every consideration of honor would compel me to make other plans. In the end I gave up the ministry."

  • "Universities and Religious Indifference," by Bernard Iddings Bell (September, 1932)
    "There are those who remember, with more than a little distress, how the Middle Ages ignored one of the modes of experience, the scientific, to its great deprivation. Bowing religion out, as of no possible validity, seems also a little supercilious, and dangerous."


  • Few scientists and philosophers, however, let alone religious thinkers, take scientific theology very seriously. A more coherent and interesting approach, possibly within the reach of theoretical physics, is to try to answer the following question: Is a universe of discrete material particles possible only with one specific set of natural laws and parameter values? In other words, does the human imagination, which can conceive of other laws and values, thereby exceed possible existence? Any act of Creation may be only a subset of the universes we can imagine. On this point Einstein is said to have remarked to his assistant Ernst Straus, in a moment of neo-deistic reflection, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world." That line of reasoning can be extended rather mystically to formulate the "anthropic principle," which asserts that the laws of nature, in our universe at least, had to be set a certain precise way so as to allow the creation of beings able to ask about the laws of nature. Did Someone decide to do it that way?

    The Enlightenment's down side The dispute between Enlightenment deism and theology can be summarized as follows. The traditional theism of Christianity is rooted in both reason and revelation, the two conceivable sources of knowledge. According to this view, reason and revelation cannot be in conflict, because in areas of opposition, revelation is given the higher role -- as the Inquisition reminded Galileo in Rome when he was offered a choice between orthodoxy and pain. In contrast, deism grants reason the edge, and insists that theists justify revelation with the use of reason.

    Traditional theologians of the eighteenth century, faced with the Enlightenment challenge, refused to yield an inch of ground. Christian faith, they argued, cannot submit itself to the debasing test of rationality. Deep truths exist that are beyond the grasp of the unaided human mind, and God will reveal them to our understanding when and by whatever means He chooses.

    Given the centrality of religion in everyday life, the stand of the theists against reason seemed ... well, reasonable. Eighteenth-century believers saw no difficulty in conducting their lives by both ratiocination and revelation. The theologians won the argument simply because they saw no compelling reason to adopt a new metaphysics. For the first time, the Enlightenment visibly stumbled.

    The fatal flaw in deism is thus not rational at all but emotional. Pure reason is unappealing because it is bloodless. Ceremonies stripped of sacred mystery lose their emotional force, because celebrants need to defer to a higher power in order to consummate their instinct for tribal loyalty. In times of danger and tragedy especially, unreasoning ceremony is everything. Rationalism provides no substitute for surrender to an infallible and benevolent being, or for the leap of faith called transcendence. Most people, one imagines, would very much like science to prove the existence of God but not to take the measure of his capacity.

    Deism and science also failed to systematize ethics. The Enlightenment promise of an objective basis for moral reasoning could not be kept. If an immutable secular field of ethical premises exists, the human intellect during the Enlightenment seemed too weak and shifting to locate it. So theologians and philosophers stuck to their original positions, either by deferring to religious authority or by articulating subjectively perceived natural rights. No logical alternative seemed open to them. The millennium-old rules sacralized by religion seemed to work, more or less. One can defer reflection on the celestial spheres indefinitely, but daily matters of life and death require moral decisiveness.


    The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    Edward O. Wilson is the Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard University. Two of his books have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category: On Human Nature (1978) and The Ants (1990). Wilson's article in this issue is taken from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which is to be published next month by Knopf.

    Illustrations by Etienne Delessert

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; March 1998; Back From Chaos; Volume 281, No. 3; pages 41 - 62.

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