Consilience is a paradigm that opens up liberating new ways to think about everything relating to science and the natural world, including human behavior. It is more challenging to undergo than other paradigm shifts because it concerns the human brain, which we use to understand — everything.
LET US SAY THERE ARE THREE SPECKS. We can understand them in different ways.
A writer might describe them poetically as being like pollen grains glinting in the rising sun. A painter may represent them in a picture with bright splashes of color.
A chemist could describe them as a specific collection of atoms, and a physicist would define them by measuring various properties, such as their mass and temperature. The relationship of the three specks to each other and to their container can be described mathematically by using equations such as the inverse-square law and Boyle’s law.
Another way to understand these three specks would be to recount their history from moments after the big bang, documenting every step until each was emitted from a volcano and swept up by the wind, and eventually coming to our attention.
The three specks could also be apprehended as having religious and spiritual significance. Can our mortal souls ever understand the symbolism of this trinity and its origins in deep time?
We might also consider the etymology of the word speck, which originated in the Old English word spic, meaning “bacon fat.” We need not restrict ourselves to English; we can look at the differences in how other cultures might term the tiny objects, including grain, motas, fleck, пятнышки, ספּעק, 斑点, флек.
We could ask who owns them, or what is their legal status and economic value. As a business person I might consider how to brand the specks: creating a trademark such as “Trion,” figuring out a consumer benefit such as everlasting health, packaging them with others, selling them profitably and living happily ever after.
Consilience is an all-embracing perspective that acknowledges the value in each of the many ways of understanding things. However, consilience takes us both higher — so we understand the power of ideas — and deeper — so we see how things work at the level of neurons in our brain and body, and how our ways of thinking come into existence and change our behavior.
Many years ago when I started on the path of writing this book, I thought consilience could be understood from a purely scientific standpoint. My reasoning went like this: frontline researchers have discovered many of the details about how animal nervous systems work. They have also deciphered many of the facts about the genetics and biochemistry of cells. Researchers in diverse fields continue to discover details about human evolution. When these facts are arranged logically, it becomes evident how the human mind works and how distinctions between different aspects of human existence overlap. It is then a manageable step to see that apparently unrelated subjects, such as science, religion, sports and the arts, share the same neuronal mechanisms and are deeply intertwined.
This straightforward matter-of-fact way of understanding the human mind has been enabled by a stream of intellectual progress that has gathered momentum over the past two decades. Mathematicians and computer scientists have pioneered techniques that show how complex things can emerge from simple repeated steps. These insights show that functional and beautiful things can self-organize, creating themselves. This has opened a door to new ways of understanding everything in the universe.
Previously, the presumption was that complex things, such as the human mind, required correspondingly complex theories to describe how they operate. It is now evident that complex things can come into existence simply, and it is possible to figure out the steps that have led to their current form. This new way of thinking about everything is bottom-up, flipping our understanding of the physical world and, in the process, revealing that scientific modes of thinking — founded on categorizations and theories — are not optimal for understanding the peculiarities of human behavior.
Over the past few decades, without being conscious of it, my mode of thinking has flipped. Previously, whenever I tried to explain the scientific facts about the human mind, I encountered difficulties getting my point across. Now, I realize that it is my perspective that has changed and I think about many things, including science, differently than everyone else.
As we go through life, we build up patterns of understanding and, naturally enough, we become attached to our own way of thinking. Consilience offers a completely different way of comprehending nature and human behavior, an approach that demands we think differently.
Here is an anecdote to convey what I mean. As a young boy I was an introvert and, along with my playful cat, Tipsy, I would disappear for hours into my bedroom, where books lined the walls. I read voraciously, trying to understand basic scientific ideas, and I would marvel at the wonders of nature as I leafed through pages of National Geographic. I would explore drops of pond water with a microscope, intrigued by how the almost invisible hairs on little creatures propelled them through the water. And I was the proud owner of a dissection kit given to me by my grandfather, who was a veterinary surgeon and parasitologist in Africa.
That part is actually true, now the anecdote becomes imaginary. My parents, who were also scientifically inclined, set me the task of figuring out how the world worked, then shut my bedroom door, instructing me to come out only when the job was done.
Using ideas in all the books and the technologies in the room, I came up with insights that, at least to my satisfaction, explained how people think. Excitedly, I called out to my parents to come and look at my discoveries. When they opened the door, what did they see?
They might expect to see the pre-existing items in the room, including the books, arranged in a way that explained my new ideas. Perhaps the ideas would be expressed as mathematical formulas or diagrams on a poster or be presented in an intelligent essay.
But when they opened the door, they saw I had taken all the items in the room, including every word from all the books, plus the sheets, curtains, furniture, even the cat, and cut everything into the tiniest pieces. They would be greeted with a room full to the ceiling with nothing they recognized. It would be neither granular nor fluffy nor paste-like. It would be an amorphous gray-brown mass.
They cried out, “What have you done? Where are all the books? Where are the ideas and what in god’s name have you done with Tipsy?”
I replied, “I found that the words we all use have meanings that get in the way of us being able to see clearly, so I hacked everything apart to their primal elements. Even the cat was confusing, so I deconstructed it.”
Loving parents as they were, they tried to make sense of this destruction: “Why have you been so irresponsible? What on earth is the purpose?”
We cannot communicate with each other without using words, but I have found that words sometimes group complex ideas together in ways that bias our thinking. For instance, we readily understand a word such as “science,” but it encapsulates many different subdisciplines and ideas. Furthermore, the word represents the work of many practitioners who are deeply engaged in their research and proud of what they do.
In this book, when I explore the limits of science — specifically, the point where scientific perspectives get in the way of understanding human beings — you may interpret this exploration as an attack on scientific methodologies and ethics, but this is far from my intention. Similarly, I question the usual interpretation of words such as “brain” and “thinking,” and point out how their meanings impede our understanding of how they work.
The words we use are woven into a cloth of understanding. To understand the human mind, we have to look at the matter from new vantage points, ones that cut the threads we have grown accustomed to. Experts in particular are loath to reweave what they have come to know.
To try to understand the human brain and society with a bottom-up perspective, we need to arrange our thoughts in a new way. To sum it up, consilience is a new paradigm. “Paradigm” is a word that became popular in the 1960s after the physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He described how science was not just a stepwise process of making discoveries, like completing a jigsaw puzzle according to the picture on the front of the box, but periodically, when scientists have difficulty fitting the pieces together, it becomes necessary to find a larger box featuring a different picture.
Kuhn described the classic example of a paradigm shift that happened in 1543 when Copernicus showed that the earth was moving around the sun, thus overturning 1,400 years of certainty that the earth was the center of the universe. It is almost impossible to transport ourselves back to that time to grasp the magnitude of the mental shift. After all, it was common sense to believe that the earth doesn’t move. People could look down and feel the ground beneath their feet to establish that as a fact. At the time of Copernicus, everyone in the Western world knew that God created Earth as the center of all things — there was no other credible explanation for how things had come into being. To be told that the earth was in fact whizzing around the sun did not make any sense at all. The Copernican Revolution completely changed the way people felt about themselves and their place in the universe. It turned their reality upside down.
Thomas Kuhn’s book itself caused a paradigm shift in how science was viewed. He showed that science is not progressing to a point where all the pieces of the cosmic puzzle are filled in, but instead is moving away from points of ignorance, sometimes through the painful destruction of well-established theories. He quoted the physicist Max Planck, who remarked in his Scientific Autobiography that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” To sum up, scientists don’t easily change their minds.
Kuhn’s finely argued book used the word “paradigm” in 21 different ways, so it was easy to misinterpret the point he was making. In the hippie spirit of the 1960s, the idea ignited revolutions of all sorts: cultural, political and musical. Paradigm shifts go far beyond the invention of new cultural movements. New paradigms change the structure of how we think and have not occurred often throughout history. When they do, they bulldoze old ways of thinking and lead to the creation of new explanatory landscapes.
Paradigm changes related to the motion of the earth and the nature of science are challenging to comprehend. To grasp the paradigm shift of consilience is even more challenging because the brain is implicated — and, as such, relates to everything we perceive, think, communicate and do. Consilience is about everything we care about.
This change in paradigm is illustrated by the definition of “consilience” itself. It would be psychologically satisfying to be able to define it as follows: Consilience is the fusion of different disciplines that enables us to understand the human brain and explain both the achievements of human society and its iniquities, allowing us to move forward more productively, both individually and collectively. An understanding of consilience, however, requires a corresponding understanding that the meanings of the words result from our social interactions and are constantly in flux. Therefore, consilience is best comprehended as a process toward improved understanding that can never be boxed in with a tight definition.
Consilience fosters a new mental landscape and creates new ways of seeing things. It cannot be fully comprehended by academic patterns of thinking alone; instead, it needs to build off one’s own personal experiences. To help you understand consilience, we need to embark on a journey toward discovering its meaning and implications together. I’ll use anecdotes about my personal struggle to reconcile different domains of my life, and I’ll be forthright about how my perspectives have evolved and the uncomfortable mental unraveling I underwent.
Consilience is a perspective that is personal, social and intellectual. In my case, it has resulted in me thinking differently about everything — particularly the behavior of people. Initially, my changing viewpoint was disquieting. Subsequently, it has allowed me to organize my thoughts so I can express myself more clearly. It has become easier for me to recognize the limits of my own, and other people’s, understanding. While I have a new confidence in what I understand, I have become certain that undue confidence in expert knowledge is rarely, if ever, justified.
My career has been in branding and marketing communication: typically viewed as divorced from the frontlines of scientific research. However, another way to look at the situation is that companies are petri dishes of human interactions and their markets are living laboratories of human behavior. Businesses are groups of people that intersect with other social groups that practice science and engineering — as well as the many other groups that play a part in our lives.
The genesis of consilience, for me, originated in musings about how to close gaps in evolutionary theory. When we observe an animal trait, such as a giraffe’s long neck, it is easy to envision why it evolved. A longer neck enables adult giraffes to feed on leaves in trees that are out of reach of other herbivores. The developmental mechanisms that give rise to the giraffe’s long neck are relatively straightforward. The genes that control the cells in the growing baby giraffe’s neck cause the cells to replicate a few more times than those of its shorter-necked forebears — in a manner similar to the mechanisms commonly observed in all plants and animals where structures grow large and tall.
Likewise, it is easy to envision why traits such as human intelligence evolved: clever humans survive better than those less intelligent. But the developmental mechanisms at the level of cells in a baby’s developing nervous system are not so easy to puzzle out. There is a vacuum in scientific knowledge, often unacknowledged, about the causal steps between the genetic code and how the cells in the growing body give rise to traits such as intelligence and social behavior.
The genetic mechanisms that give rise to human traits that evolved over the past few million years — an eyeblink during the timescale of evolution — such as our abilities to communicate and adhere to moral behavior, are unfathomable. By adopting a bottom-up vantage point and, instead of explaining traits that are significant to us, simply looking at the biological mechanisms at work in each of the cells, another picture comes into focus. Free of preconceptions it becomes possible to make sense of the ways that babies grow, learn language, and become adults, and then how groups of individuals work and cooperate with one another. With a bottom-up perspective, the dizzyingly idiosyncratic behavior of humans becomes less perplexing.
This book describes this new bottom-up way of looking at the world and explains how it enables us to see the similarities and connections between different domains of our lives that previously appeared to be disconnected. You will see that I don’t stay within the confines of specific disciplines, but rather weave interconnections among topics ranging from human biology to sociology, politics, art, history, religion, and current pressing issues in the Western world.
The text is dense with ideas, and perhaps you’ll want to ponder the points that resonate and explore them more deeply by using Google. Following is a summary of the overall content of the book and how the ideas are organized in three interlinked trajectories: first, my personal journey; second, an account of the scientific discoveries that reveal new ways of seeing; and third, a sweeping narrative of the human search for understanding and social well-being.
My business experiences are where we start. In the first three chapters I describe how the day-to-day practice of sales and marketing does not mesh with what’s described in textbooks that relate to human behavior. I explain a key feature of our neural systems: that they are goal-directed. Recognizing there is always a “point” allows us to make sense of how humans communicate, understand and behave.
In chapters 4–5, I describe how frontline science researchers have revealed how neural systems work, but at the same time unrecognized ideologies of science have held back our understanding. I introduce a challenging concept: consilience, which enables new ways of thinking about everything in the universe and the human body. Top-down methods of understanding using categories and theories are contrasted with bottom-up methods that are developmental and historical.
In chapters 6–11, I explain many topics of scientific research related to the human body: how every cell in the body knows its role; what consciousness is and how it evolved; how the brain works, including how we move, orient, see and hear. These chapters provide the scientific underpinning for controversial subjects explored later in the book.
In chapter 12, I describe how the brain makes sense of the complexity of human experience. I focus on the nature of words and highlight how they impede deep understanding.
In chapters 13–14, I illustrate how we learn to communicate and that speech evolved in lockstep with our ability to work in groups.
In chapters 15–18, I explain the neural mechanisms related to our social capacities; how the brain is inherently tribal, and how that leads to violence characteristic of human history; how our tribal nature along with our need to have a point lead us to oversimplify complex matters and “pointify” them into ideologies. I outline three tribal journeys of Western society that account for the deep rifts in political views witnessed today.
In chapters 19–21, I describe how stressors, particularly in early adulthood, can lead to epiphanies or tragedies, and how landscapes of ideas take form.
In chapters 22–25, I explain how the idea of consilience originated and how a chasm formed between the sciences and the humanities. I spell out six artifacts of thinking that impede our ability to understand. Then I venture into the dynamics of academia to illustrate how tribal divisions and anger have been amplified.
In chapters 25–27, I use the ideas of consilience to critique ideas of the natural sciences, which opens the door to the value of spiritual and religious practices. The Judeo-Christian genesis is recounted from a historical and political perspective.
In chapters 28–30, I deconstruct the current concern about climate change; offer some thoughts about education, particularly the importance of cultivating skills; and then suggest that each of us follow our own path to wisdom.
This book is particularly attentive to issues facing the Western world. In chapter 31, however, I introduce the significance of Eastern perspectives, and how certain aspects can help us regain strength and optimism.
The last chapter advances a novel way to conceptualize human beings, one that contrasts with the accounts in textbooks. An honest understanding of human nature will help us — individually and collectively — live together productively.