Consilience and Ethics

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In his 1998 book, Consilience, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson explores the concept of unifications in knowledge. He examines the idea that synthesizing approaches and insights from the humanities and sciences can open powerful new windows to contemporary problems. “Ongoing fragmentation[s] of knowledge,” he writes, “are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.”

How can we bring this idea of consilience to bear on our thinking about climate change and other ecological issues—and why should we think about doing so? The why is easy to answer. Climate change and similar phenomena are so complex and multi-faceted that no single discipline on its own can engage them in their entirety. We need to find ways of working with knowledge from many different disciplines at the same time. But this is more complex than it sounds. The diversity of assumptions and approaches between disciplines is often so great—even before we factor in the complexity inherent in ecological problems—that it’s hard, or even impossible, to think in a comprehensive way about how their insights can be threaded together.

More fundamentally, some suspect that this complexity is so great that it “breaks” our thinking entirely—in other words, it’s so foreign to any one of our individual discipline’s paradigms that it’s hard to comprehend using those paradigms at all. For example, literary theorist Timothy Morton in his book Hyperobjects has proposed that climate change is (you guessed it) a “hyperobject”: an entity “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that [it] defeat[s] traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Hyperobjects are hard to engage with in thought because they force together epistemological/methodological questions (about how we know things, and the tools we use to know them) with ontological questions (about what things are in the first place).

In Reason in a Dark Time, the philosopher Dale Jamieson develops a great thought experiment for bringing this state of affairs into relief in the context of ethics. It involves a series of increasingly complicated bicycle thefts. In the first, a man called Jack, acting intentionally and alone, steals Jill’s bike off her front porch. In the second, Jack steals a part of Jill’s bike—say her front wheel—after which a bunch of strangers each steal other parts, so Jill ends up with no bike. The scenarios get more and more involved, until the last, in which Jack and a group of strangers, each acting independently, at different times and in different places, somehow cause events that ultimately mean Jill (who’s alive years later in another part of the world) can’t even have a bicycle.

For Jamieson, while the first scenario is “a paradigm of an act that is morally suspect,” while the final complex chain of events that results in the fact that in the future Jill cannot have a bicycle is not an act for which anyone is morally responsible. Conventional understandings of causality, agency, and responsibility don’t help us very much in trying to think ethically about hyperobjects at such massive spatiotemporal scales.

The problem, of course, is that ecological problems like climate change look and feel a lot like the latter scenario. We believe—or want to believe—that they have an ethical or moral dimension: that there is something about them which, if we could articulate it correctly, gives us compelling justifications to act differently, or think differently, or be differently in our relations with other communities and with the broader world. But how do we “evoke” (to borrow a word from physicist Lee Smolin) or develop conceptual resources powerful enough to do justice to these intuitions?

As I see it, this is where the concept of consilience becomes useful. Consider: two of the key features of Morton’s “hyperobjects” and of Jamieson’s thought experiment are causality and scale. Ecological problems like climate change are so hard for us to confront because, first of all, they involve chains of causality that are far more diffuse and complex—perhaps even different in kind— than those we’re used to studying in the natural sciences; and second of all, they involve spatiotemporal scales far beyond those our ethical frameworks have evolved to deal with.

There are, presumably, a variety of different historical explanations for this state of affairs. The sciences abhor recourse to ideas about causality that aren’t “X causes Y,” billiard-ball, non-teleological causality because history is littered with examples of other discourses (e.g., religion) using such ideas about causality to make untestable and anti-democratic claims. Ethics is hard pressed to deal with planetary spatial scales and geological timescales because ethical concepts have evolved at the scale of everyday, individual human lives. If we put the explanatory question aside for a moment, though, what follows from the impasse we find ourselves in? What can, and should, we do, in order to move beyond it, and to better engage with ecological problems in intellectual terms? How can we remedy these limitations in our ways of seeing and thinking?

I’m interested in the possibilities that arise if we confront this state of affairs as a failure of imagination—an understandable failure, but a failure nonetheless. If our intellectual capacities function like figurative muscles, how can we strengthen them and make them more supple, so they can better help us in engaging ecological problems?

Consider the following, by way of provocation. Let’s ask what intellectual possibilities might open up if we asked ethics and philosophy to look to science and its resources for understanding scale, and then asked the sciences to look to philosophy for its resources for understanding causality.

First, let’s think through scale. The humanities, as their name implies, have done the majority of their work at the human scale, meaning that their suppleness decreases as they’re asked to consider scales of space and time far above or below this scale: at the levels of galaxies and atomic interactions, light-years and picoseconds. History, anthropology, and political theory think in terms of human, generational, or sometimes population life spans, but (with some notable exceptions) generally struggle to grapple meaningfully with cosmological or subatomic contexts.

The sciences, by contrast, are at home in scales large and small. Physics has developed powerful conceptual frameworks for thinking about interactions at scales from the subatomic to the cosmological. Mathematics, logic, and information theory have developed abilities to abstract away from the particulars of everyday experience into the general, formal realms of system, process, and pattern. Biology, palaeontology, and ecology have developed powerful languages for describing evolution in living and non-living processes over geological time.

Second, let’s think through causality. If the sciences are capacious at a broad range of scales, they’re much less comfortable with entertaining ideas about causality that stray too far from the billiard-ball causality with which they’re familiar. No cautious scientist would deign to propose that some phenomena under study should be explained by anything other than elements that, ultimately, are reducible to a causal chain in the form A (an object precedent in time) causes B (subsequent in time) causes C (final in time).

The same reluctance has not hindered the humanities. Philosophy has a long and distinguished tradition of reflection upon kinds of cause, right back to Aristotle and his notion of the four causes, material, formal, efficient, and final. History and sociology weave narratives that make use of causalities in culture, ideas, and the symbolic, which are not easily reduced to billiard-ball causality. Anthropology and literary theory have huge bodies of work deconstructing oppositions between causes and effects, pasts and futures, actions and reactions.

If we look around, we can find fantastic and thought-provoking instances of work on both sides of the divide that has turned its eyes towards its counterparts. To give just three examples: David Christian’s Maps of Time, for example, develops a narrative of human history in the context of geological time, and in so doing, avails itself of frameworks involving complexity and entropy that are not available to human-scale historical analyses. Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature synthesizes biological and semiotic frameworks to provide an account of how living processes might emerge from, and then become irreducible to, non-living ones. Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude uses problems from contemporary science to re-animate discussions about being and knowledge. None of these works is uncontroversial amongst traditionalists in its own discipline: but in the light of the intellectual rearrangements needed to engage ecological problems, perhaps this is part of the point.

Intellectual projects and frameworks like these give me hope for the ways in which consilience might help reinvigorate the frameworks we use for engaging with ecological problems. Will looking to the sciences help ethics move beyond its notions of individual moral responsibility in human-scale time? Will looking to philosophy help the sciences develop perspectives on the normative implications of their work? We live in exciting times for cross-border forays and—let us hope—for the gradual weakening of those borders as our collective intellectual journeys move forward.

  • Ben Mylius

    A young leader in the international ecological jurisprudence movement, Ben Mylius is the winner of several of Australia's most prestigious postgraduate scholarships for international study, including a 2014 John Monash Award, the 2014 George Murray Scholarship, and the 2015 South Australian Law Foundation Fellowship. He is currently completing a Fellowship at Yale Law School, having completed his Yale LLM in early 2015.

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