One of E. O. Wilson’s “big ideas” was “Consilience,” which he defines as,
A “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.
Wilson always envisioned this “jumping together” taking place across two broad categories of disciplines; science and the humanities. The idea seems reasonable. Certainly, philosophers would do well to take it seriously. If they did, they might actually make themselves useful. Instead, today we find them ensconced in a thick fog of jargon, producing mountains of papers that are only intelligible to other philosophers, but whose value and relevance to the rest of us is vanishingly small.
However, Wilson had a much grander task in mind for Consilience than that. It would render the humanities capable of accomplishing something that he deemed impossible for the sciences. It would enable them to build a unicorn!
Well, not actually a unicorn, but something just as imaginary; a universal morality that Wilson always carefully refrained from calling a “transcendental,” or objective morality, but one that, for all practical purposes, would be exactly that. Wilson was a brilliant man, but it’s no exaggeration to say that, in assigning this quest for the Holy Grail to the humanities, he wandered off into an intellectual swamp. Consider, for example, the following passage from his “The Origins of Creativity.”
Americans are often reminded that research and development in basic science are good for the nation. That is obviously true. But it is equally true for the humanities, all across their domain from philosophy and jurisprudence to literature and history. They preserve our values. They turn us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens. They make clear why we abide by law built upon moral precepts and do not depend on inspired leadership by autocratic rulers.
If this passage had been published in 1960, it may only have seemed a bit quaint. However, the book actually appeared in 2017 at a time when the Left, broadly construed, had assumed a dominant role in the humanities, at least as far as academia is concerned, and was doing the very opposite of “turning us into patriots and not just cooperating citizens.” The idea that they were producing moral precepts that the rest of us were likely to abide by was a pipe dream. It was then and is now not just quaint, but ridiculous.
In spite of that, as the following passage from the same book makes clear, Wilson still fondly imagined that the humanities would not only find this moral Holy Grail, but that they alone were capable of it.
The human enterprise has been to dominate Earth and everything on it, while remaining constrained by a swarm of competing nations, organized religions, and other selfish collectivities, most of whom are blind to the common good of the species and planet. The humanities alone can correct this imperfection. Being focused on aesthetics and value, they have the power to swerve the moral trajectory into a new mode of reasoning, one that embraces scientific and technological knowledge.
If we’re speaking of the scientific knowledge that those of us who carry an X and a Y chromosome are males, and those who carry two X chromosomes are female, that’s not exactly what’s happening. How did someone as smart as Wilson manage to come up with such nonsense? He certainly had no illusions about the origins of morality. In that regard, his opinions were entirely Darwinian. In “Consilience” he writes,
In simplest terms, the option of ethical foundation is as follows:
I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not,
I believe that moral values come from humans alone; God is a separate issue.
Then, to all appearances, Wilson plants himself firmly in the latter category, in the process suggesting something to the philosophers with which I wholeheartedly agree:
The time has come to turn the card face up. Ethicists, scholars who specialize in moral reasoning, are not prone to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics, or to admit fallibility. Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point, and it could be wrong. Ethicists instead favor a fretful passage from the particular into the ambiguous, or the reverse, vagueness into hard cases. I suspect that almost all are transcendentalists at heart, but they rarely say so in simple declarative sentences. One cannot blame them very much; it is difficult to explain the ineffable, and the evidently do not wish to suffer the indignity of having their personal beliefs clearly understood. So by and large they steer around the foundation issue altogether.
Precisely! With rare exceptions, that is exactly how the philosophers handle morality today. Just read their journals! One typically finds them insisting on some highly nuanced and abstruse moral innovation as if we are supposed to trust them on this because they are self-declared “experts.” In general, no authority, no basis for the legitimacy, and no foundation is ever given for these newly concocted ethical truisms. Wilson then lays his cards on the table:
That said, I will of course try to be plain about my own position: I am an empiricist… The same evidence, I believe, favors a purely material origin of ethics, and it meets the criterion of consilience. Causal explanations of brain activity and evolution, while imperfect, already cover the most facts known about moral behavior with the greatest accuracy and the smallest number of freestanding assumptions.
The implications of such a statement are seemingly obvious. If morality exists by virtue of evolved behavioral traits, then no matter how powerfully we feel that good and evil must be real, existing independently of what anyone happens to think about them, they simply are not real. Human beings may be powerfully inclined to believe they are real, but they aren’t. They are subjective constructs in the minds of individuals. Because they are constructed in the minds of intelligent beings in an environment utterly unlike the one in which the mental traits that are their root cause evolved, it is predictable that their exact details will vary radically from one individual to another, and that is exactly what we see in fact.
Unfortunately, we must have a morality because it is our nature to have one, and we are not smart enough to get along without one. However, it can never be more than a crutch for regulating our social behavior. It must always be kept in mind that the emotions it must be based on evolved eons ago. They may have been adaptive then, but blindly responding to them today could be extremely dangerous. With that in mind, it seems expedient to keep whatever morality we come up with as simple as possible, while keeping the emotions it is based on, as Wilson puts it, on a “short leash.”
It seems that Prof. Wilson had something quite different in mind. Reading on in “Consilience,” we come across the following remarkable passages:
The general empiricist principle takes this form: Strong innate feeling and historical experience cause certain actions to be preferred; We have experienced them, and weighted their consequences, and agree to conform with codes that express them. Let us take an oath upon the codes, invest our personal honor in them, and suffer punishment for their violation… Ought is not the translation of human nature but of the public will, which can be made increasingly wise and stable through the understanding of the needs and pitfalls of human nature.
In other words, the empiricist Ought is not derived top down from a God after the manner of the transcendentalists, but bottom up, from innate human nature. Oddly enough, even though Wilson concedes that this Ought is a human mental construct, he has invested it with all the trappings of the transcendental Ought, complete with appeals to oaths, personal honor, and the “public will” to prop it up. In effect, he has now brought us full circle, back to the never, never land of “moral truth,” “moral duties,” and “moral progress.” If there is any ambiguity about the matter, the following passage dispels it:
For if ought is not is, what is? To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts. They are unlikely to be ethereal messages outside humanity awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be physical products of the brain and culture.
Amazing! Just like that, Wilson has hopped over Hume’s is/ought chasm and resurrected the Ought unicorn. Instead of building his unicorn from the top down, he’s built it from the bottom up, but it’s still there. Rephrasing his question as “For if a unicorn is not is, what is?”, the answer is quite simple; There are no unicorns! Wilson’s Ought is just as imaginary as that mythical beast, whether its based on human nature or derived from God. The humanities are assigned the formidable task of supplying us with this nonexistent Ought via the magical powers of Consilience.
There’s no surprise here, really. As I’ve often documented on this blog, virtually every behavioral scientist, psychologist, or philosopher who writes about the innate wellsprings of morality in evolved human nature can commonly be found a few scribblings later hurling down moralistic anathemas on some unsuspecting villain. They do this with complete disregard of the fact that, absent objective good and evil, their behavior is completely self-contradictory and illogical. Wilson, brilliant as he was, was no exception. Chalk it up to the power of human nature.
Given the current state of the humanities, I would estimate that the probability is zero that the scales will fall from the eyes of their various practitioners any time in the foreseeable future, causing them to embrace science as set forth in Wilson’s “Consilience” and then proceed to concoct a brand-new morality that is so compelling that the rest of us will stand in line to swear oaths and devote our personal honor to it.
There is no one and nothing out there to assign us a purpose or a goal in life. Each of us must do that for ourselves. I suggest that, whatever goals you choose, you take into account the facts about what human morality is and why it exists when deciding how to achieve those goals. Whatever they are, I suspect that waiting around for the humanities to supply you with a moral code will not be a useful strategy for achieving them. I’m certainly not holding my breath.