Files from the Academic Fringe: Pt. 1 — Scientism

E.O. Wilson and friends

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
— David Hume

E.O. Wilson and friends

E.O. Wilson and friends

Pariahs make for enjoyable company. I’ve always run with the wild-eyed wayfarers who bark and snarl at edge of the herd, often at the risk of being trampled. That includes bespectacled eggheads who think the unthinkable.

While doing some spring cleaning recently, I came across a stack of notepads which accompanied me to the academic fringe back in 2012. While my neighbors stocked up on beans and bullets—or magic Mayan crystals—I was burning gas and brain cells in search of seekers who say “fuck the consensus!” Well, I found them.

What sort of people openly defy accepted dogmas? Who are the loons gathered under the banners of Scientism, Creationism, Racism, and Skepticism?

This four-part series documents my perspective as a lurking outsider among in-crowds on the outskirts of academia. We begin at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, which hosted the Consilience Conference.

It takes nerve to proclaim that nucleotides and neural patterns will answer the ultimate questions in life. Christian fundamentalists attack the notion, as do Muslims, Marxists, and lit professors (each for their own reasons). Despite faint protests by local churches, this disturbing idea was batted back and forth for three days as I sat in my squeaky wooden seat, scribbling notes next to Scientism’s finest minds.

It was April 2012. Spring was in full bloom. The dusty old auditorium was filled with prominent anthropologists and geneticists, ecologists and neurologists, and one stunning engineer. They all sang the same chorus, first intoned by the godfather of Evo Psych himself, E.O. Wilson:

“[E]volutionary biology encompasses the social sciences and the humanities and thus unifies knowledge about human behavior and culture.”

Everyone sang in harmony, that is, except one feisty Italian philosopher who beat his drum as he pleased.

I’d only found out about the event at the last minute, and left Nashville some time after 2 AM to arrive just in time for hot coffee and cold muffins. To my surprise, Massimo Pigliucci came and sat down at my table. It was a weird coincidence. More than ten years earlier, this biologist turned philosopher was a central figure in The Rationalists of East Tennessee, which met near Knoxville’s Sunsphere on Sunday mornings. I attended fairly frequently, telling friends I was going to First Atheist Church.

In those days Pigliucci was infamous for his outspoken criticism of Creationists and their Seven Day spiel. He was a wise-cracking Euro who, having tumbled into the trenches of biblical literalism, was unwilling to let fools remain comfortable in their superstitions. Predictably, he pissed off a lot of Southern Baptists.

The conference’s honoree, E.O. Wilson, had provoked a much larger firestorm decades earlier. He began his career as an entomologist, obsessed with the ultimate conformist organism: ants. Wilson’s scope was much broader than bugs, however. In 1975 he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which framed human characteristics such as altruism, aggression, and sexual behavior in terms of genetically inherited survival mechanisms. Darwin is in the details.

The academic left was appalled by Wilson’s vision of shaved apes tossing turds around a concrete jungle. As if in defiance of irony, angry mobs of unshaven “progressives” descended on Wilson like a pack of Pan troglodytes, calling the professor a “misogynist” and a “racist” for applying neo-Darwinian principles to unequally endowed human populations. One heckler even doused him with a pitcher of water at an AAAS conference, about which Wilson bragged:

“I believe…I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea.”

Today, Wilson’s contribution to evolutionary theory has gained consensus in many intellectual circles. The popular media have generally embraced evolutionary psychology—albeit with politically correct omissions—as a groovy new way to trip on sex, drugs, and neurological God modules. ‘Cause we’re just, like, apes in an antfarm or whatever?

E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge made him a rock star among scientists who dig Scientism. The manifesto proposes the ultimate synthesis of science and the humanities. Instead of academic turf wars between hostile departments, there should be an orgy of information exchange. Take a guess as to who’ll be hitting it from on top.

The reasoning behind Consilience goes like this:

Math determines physics, which determine chemistry, which determines biology, which determines neurological activity, which determines psychology, which determines religion, art, politics, and all the glories and blunders of human history. Knowledge is power. If scientists can calculate and manipulate the basic laws of human nature—and with diligence, the rest of the known Universe—why shouldn’t artists and prophets just bend over and let the Devil take the hindmost?

Welcome to Wilson’s world.

Imagine that every dream which bubbles to the surface of human consciousness—every love poem, prophecy, or vivid hallucination—is immediately caught in the web of scientific inquiry. These sacred visions are then picked apart, analyzed, and deposited into the great Database of Approximate Omniscience, for what ultimate use we do not yet know.

Wilson and company made it sound fantastic. During more charming moments, the creaky university auditorium had the feel of an old church. I usually turn to scientists for a sober perspective, but these guys were intoxicating.

During his keynote address, E.O. Wilson claimed that universal wisdom will only be obtained if organized religions give up, or at least “tone down,” their creation myths. Ultimately, the human need for religion—and truth—could now be fulfilled by the scientific worldview, particularly evolutionary narratives.

And the crowd went wild.

* * *

Between lectures I kept seeing a tiny Mennonite in a big black bonnet weaving through the swarms of coffee-starved academics. I approached her to ask her opinion, half-expecting the pre-industrial outfit to be a joke. It wasn’t. She was a full-blown Mennonite who’d traveled hundreds of miles to learn more about morality and evolution.

“That trip must have taken forever in a horse-drawn buggy,” I remarked. She laughed. I cracked a few more jokes, mostly at the expense of these godless machine-dwellers.

“Be careful, Joseph,” she said with an ominous smile. “I think thee are a truth-teller. It may get thee into trouble.”

To my surprise, her religious sensibilities weren’t at all threatened by the event’s Scientistic tone. If God is greater than the facts of science, why should He worry about what scientists say? My new friend had caught some dirty looks from the eggheads in attendance, though. I guess nothing riles the nerd herd like orthodox religion.

Every speaker who touched on spirituality seemed to take it for granted that otherworldly experiences are nothing more than a perceptual glitch. Divinity is an illusion; Consilience holds scientific analysis to be the highest authority. It bothered me back then, and it bothers me now. Darwin is a patron saint in my personal cathedral, but some of his totalitarian acolytes make my skin crawl.

Massimo Pigliucci had his qualms, too, but for reasons more reasonable than mine. Standing in front of E.O. Wilson’s passionate supporters, Pigliucci hacked into Consilience with his Italian accent and sharp philosophical knives. With the professor’s approval, I paraphrase:

Consilience rests on the faith that higher orders can be deduced from lower orders, such as predicting future brushstrokes from an artist’s brain waves. But science is limited to the tools of deduction and induction, and powerful as they may be, neither will lead to absolute truth.

Mathematics—the engine of science—is a form of logical deduction. Citing Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Pigliucci argued that there is no internal justification for mathematically derived theories. To deduce facts from a premise, one must assume the premise is true. Take this premise, for example:

All philosophers get off on goading an audience. Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher. Therefore Massimo gets off on goading an audience.

To accept the last statement through pure logic, we must first assume that all philosophers are prone to pissing on parades. Logic cannot prove its own premise. Deductive reasoning is a serpent sucking his own tail.

Induction has the advantage of empirical evidence, but according to Hume’s Problem of Induction, this isn’t enough. To draw a conclusion from a collection of facts, one must assume that there are no undiscovered facts which contradict that conclusion, and that previously observed facts will remain the same over time. To extend my example:

Every philosopher we know gets off on goading an audience. We therefore conclude all philosophers get off on goading an audience.

But it’s possible that crowd-pleasing philosophers exist somewhere; or that a contrary philosopher will lose his taste for provocation. We can never be sure we have all the facts. Inductive reasoning is a woman trapped in a frat house who believes that all dudes are bros.

Since science is ultimately grounded in deductive and inductive reasoning, Pigliucci concludes, the scientific method will never arrive at absolute truth despite its obvious power. Certainty is impossible. Therefore Wilson’s ambition to unify all knowledge is futile, or as Massimo put it: “greedy reductionism.”

The crowd hissed and grumbled throughout Pigliucci’s talk. A few challengers quivered with rage during the Q&A. Judging by the the devilish grin on Massimo’s face, I can safely conclude that this philosopher gets off on goading an audience.

I enjoyed a few drinks with Pigliucci at the reception, where a surprisingly hot academic kept throwing herself at his… philosophical mind. I left the Consilience Conference reassured of two things:

First, even the most dispassionate intellectuals crave the warm resonance of group consciousness. Whether people gather around a microscope or a Eucharist, the herd instinct always manifests—which is great news for shepherds!

And second, mammalian females tend to admire any wolf who tears into the herd—which is great news for wolves!

© Joseph Allen

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a writer and fellow primate who wonders why we came down from the trees. A lifelong student of religion and science, he's also kept his hands dirty as a land surveyor, communal farm hand, kitchen servant, and for over a decade, by climbing steel as an entertainment rigger. His work appears in various outlets from left to right because he prefers liberty to security.

Daily interjections: @EvoPsychosis

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