This is the 4th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History .
At one time it was thought that “Theology is the mother of all sciences” since all sciences were in search of truth and thus flowed from theology, the study of the revelation of truth. But then in the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment science divorced itself from religion and sought truth not in divine revelation but in the empirical world alone. Science came to believe that the only truth worth seeking and the only real knowledge was empirical truth. All truth was thought to be in the material world. Even the truths of philosophy and the humanities was pushed aside. There was no meaning to being human since there was nothing beyond the empirical world.
Obviously the thinking of atheistic science was in direct conflict with the notion of religion that there is more to the universe than the empirical world. Today, there is debate not only between science and religion but within science as to whether consciousness and free will are just illusions created by biochemistry or whether they exist and cannot be fully accounted for by pure materialism. Even some atheists and scientist now acknowledge there are “forces” at work in the universe and within humans that may not be merely chemical reactions. The arts too and the humanities also raise questions and doubts as to whether atheistic empiricism can in fact answer all the questions we can raise in the universe. [See for example my blog series that began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self in which Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY challenge the assumption that humans do not have free will. Both authors are scientists who accept evolution and Darwinian claims but admit conscience and free will are real forces at work in the empirical world.]
While E.O. Wilson is negative toward religion and philosophy, he does in his book throw a bone to art.
Picasso expressed the same idea summarily: “Art is the lie that helps us to see the truth.” (Kindle Loc. 4484-85)
“The successful scientist,” waxes Wilson, adding a little charm to what some might say is an otherwise inhuman way of conceiving truth, “thinks like a poet but works like a bookkeeper” (Kindle 4452). But in the end for all the intelligence, cleverness and inventiveness of the human mind, Wilson sees humanity as basically not in any meaningful way different from the flow of lava, the fluttering of a leave in the wind, or the weight of a rock. There is no free will, and even consciousness may be an illusion of biochemistry.
But Wilson wants to be clear he does embrace the notion that the only truth worth knowing or that can be known is empirical truth.
“Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together. Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just “another way of knowing” as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith.” (Kindle Loc. 4742-46)
Interestingly though in Wilson’s writing he allows plenty of room for uncertainty – within the evolutionary worldview there is a lot that is currently not known or which can and will be changed by future discoveries. But for all that uncertainty, Wilson has no doubt that religion has nothing to offer in terms of knowledge. However, of science and scientists, he recognizes there is a very human element which exerts great force on how science is done.
“Science grows in a manner not well appreciated by nonscientists: it is guided as much by peer approval as by the truth of its technical claims. Reputation is the silver and gold of scientific careers. Scientists could say, as did James Cagney upon receiving an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, ‘In this business you’re only as good as the other fellow thinks you are.’” (Kindle Loc. 4453-56)
Returning to literary thinking (and Wilson is a good writer), he notes:
“What counts in science is the importance of the discovery. What matters in literature is the originality and power of the metaphor” (Kindle Loc. 4467-68).
So we do have non-materialistic forces at work in science: peer approval, reputation, significance. These are not forces easily measured in a scientific way, and yet according to Wilson they are important to the scientific enterprise.
Theoretical Physicist Carlo Rovelli says:
“Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking, at the present level of knowledge…. It’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure, but because they are the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques.”
It is a different way of knowing then theology or revelation.