Reading Log: Consilience, Chapter nine

[Update: I finished reading this book. Read the post here.]

I finally finished the ninth chapter of Consilience, in which EO Wilson discusses the social sciences, which should correctly, he says, be the ones referred to as the ‘hard sciences,’ because they require expanding upon the relatively simple natural sciences and applying them on a broader scale. While neuroscience and neurobiology require chemistry and physics to understand the functions of the brain, psychology requires a student to understand all of them. Economics requires yet another level of understanding and application.

Unfortunately, Wilson says, this consilient approach is not often taken. The social sciences instead tend to divorce themselves from other disciplines, especially the natural sciences, rather than see themselves as extensions of the same pool of knowledge. Partly they over-simplify due to the practical difficulty of the problem. For example, economists base their models on simplified human behavior (such principles as self-interest, and rational decision-making) because incorporating more complex human behavior is dauntingly difficult. But instead of being used as a stepping stone, these short-sighted approaches are now fundamentally ingrained into the social sciences.

Wilson is very critical in this chapter. The social sciences are lagging behind due to their self-imposed isolation and could greatly benefit by re-uniting with the natural sciences  –disciplines that, because they are so much easier, have developed faster and created effective processes and methods. While many individuals or groups do move in this direction (he uses Amartya Sen’s name as an example!), their path is unnecessarily difficult because such ideas are not fundamental to their disciplines.

Wilson is also very optimistic. The micro-to-macro approach and others he talks about are very difficult in application, and many argue are completely impossible with our current resources. But by restructuring through consilience, Wilson is confident we can benefit immediately and then continue to benefit as resources such as computational power grow.

The next chapter, Chapter Ten, is called “The Arts and Their Interpretation.”


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