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Fundamental errors
Friday, 12 August 2011
I read E. O. Wilson's "Consilience" yesterday - at first glance, it seems to be an interesting take on the state of knowledge in the world today and how we might get around the fragmented nature of contemporary academia. However, despite the professed confidence of Wilson on his theory of Consilience, there are major, major problems with the theory that one must keep in mind when reading about it. I am especially infuriated by his comment on philosophy, and as a philosophy major, it is my foremost duty to defend my discipline against misguided scientific infringements such as his, and this post is my response, both emotional and intellectual, to his arrogance and naivety.

"Consilience is the key to unification (of knowledge)... literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation" (8). Clearly, his vision of Consilience and the attempted grand unification of knowledge is based firmly upon science. In his view, the primary purpose of knowledge is explanatory and descriptive. By grounding the knowledge upon the sciences, he hopes that the humanities can benefit equally by attaining a deterministic basis by which one may say "I know". This is in opposition to the current fluxation of humanistic studies - and also for inter-disciplinary studies where his theory of Consilience seems to be most focused upon.

However, according to his own admission, the belief in consilience suffers from the following flaws. It is not yet science; it is a metaphysical world view, shared by only a few scientists and philosophers; it cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any empirical tests; its best support is an extrapolation of the consistent past successes of natural sciences. Hence, Consilience fails by any scientific or even logical standards.

Philosophers also criticise his theory as "conflation, simplism, ontological reductionism, (and) scientism" (11). These are all fair criticisms, once you look deeply enough into the terminology of the critics. Below, I elaborate on how some of these criticisms may be framed:

Conflation - he intends to use science as a theoretical basis not only for the sciences, but also for philosophy and the humanities. The only reason one may provide is that science has so far proved to be the superior paradigm, and that this should be extended to the rest on the basis of intellectual authority. This is obviously false. The humanities operate on a completely different theoretical basis from the sciences by virtue of their subject matter. Wilson explained Consilience as the linking of various disciplines by the coincidences of Induction, but if so, his vision of unity of knowledge is superficial at best, artificial at worst. Yet, he argues for the disappearance of disciplinary boundaries despite providing no solid, common conceptual basis for linking all knowledge together, aside from Induction.

Simplism - Wilson suffers from the amateur's mistake of oversimplification, and overgeneralisation. Consilience works only if one assumes a common theoretical basis for all knowledge, and that all bodies of knowledge can be compatibly fused with the sciences. Both assumptions are highly doubtful. By simplifying the intellectual difficulties and ignoring the issues involved in the nature of knowledge itself, he is able to provide some examples of Consilience at work - examples that, I must say, are framed specifically for his purposes. For example, on page 9, he provides the example of overlaps in environmental policy, ethics, social science and biology, which he presents as equal and distinct disciplines in themselves. However, the comparisons of these four disciplines only makes sense when the overlap of ethics, social sciences and biology lies directly ON environmental policy, in which case environmental policy is a discipline whose body of knowledge depends on the other three. His example clearly fails in this case.

Scientism - According to Bernard Williams, scientism is the idea that "science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, indepedent of perspective... science leaves no room for an independent philosophical enterprise". However, that "science describing the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective" leads to "science leaving no room for an independent philosophical enterprise", is not obvious. It is true only if we assume that the aims of an independent philosophical enterprise is to describe the world as it is in itself. While Wilson does not actually say outright that philosophy has become outmoded, he claims that scientists are equally qualified to do what philosophers are doing. This is certainly true insofar as scientists performing armchair philosophy is concerned, but not true in the manner he seems to imply - that philosophy itself will become part of the sciences.

The way he has gone about making his case is not particularly encouraging. The above criticisms have shown that his theory fails by the standards of philosophical debate. Now, instead of even trying to understand his critics, Wilson simply labels them as "a few professional philosophers" sepaking in "their language", and by the use of semantic smokescreen and personal attacks, avoids the issue entirely, saying "let us move on, thus" (11). In other words, knowing the problems his theory faces, he arrogantly charges head on with his flag of scientism, blindly leading his followers down the road of ignorance.

Lastly, Wilson comments that "trust in consilience is the foundation of the natural sciences" (10). Unfortunately for him, Newton did not need to know anything outside of physics and mathematics in creating his three laws of motion. You do not need consilience, or even the attitude of consilience (if that is his intention) to do science. Even today, practicising scientists can be so specialised that some hardly look beyond their individual subject matter. Rather, trust in consilience is the foundation of HIS metaphysical world view of the natural sciences, "shared only by a few scientists and philosophers".

To conclude, Wilson's entire argument is almost completely based on the premise that one should have "trust in consilience", because "intellectually it rings true". One may discover a remarkable coincidence in his argumentative approach with that favoured by religious fundamentalists - in his case, Consilience is his religion, and he is its pastor. He is overconfident and arrogant (which is forgivable), and philosophically naive and childish (which is unforgiveable in an academic of his stature), backed by the seemingly indestructible edifice called the sciences, unperturbedly imposing his vision upon the rest of academia. With that, I beg everyone to read Wilson with extreme caution.

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Theoretical art
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
“Life,” he said, “life – that’s the great, essential thing. You’ve got to get life into your art, otherwise it’s nothing. And life only comes out of life, out of passion and feeling; it can’t come out of theories. That’s the stupidity of all this about art for art’s sake and the aesthetic emotions and purely formal values and all that. It’s only the formal relations that matter; one subject is just as good as another – that’s the theory. You’ve got to look at the pictures of the people who put it into practice to see that it won’t do. Life comes out of life. You must paint with passion, and the passion will stimulate your intellect to create the right formal relations. And to paint with passion, you must paint things that passionately interest you, moving things, human things. Nobody, except a mystical pantheist, like Van Gogh, can seriously be as much interested in napkins, apples and bottles as in his lover’s face, or the resurrection, or the destiny of man.”

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Votes do not matter
Saturday, 30 April 2011
It’s a strange phenomenon to observe that people my age, who were usually apathetic, get so excited over Singapore’s elections this year. Perhaps it is true that election have become more exciting, with much more competition than before between the opposition parties and the incumbent, but this argument ignores the problem that a single vote almost definitely makes little to no difference to the overall results.

Out of the entire population in Singapore, 2,311,582 people are eligible for voting in the 27 constituencies available. That rounds off to maybe 85,600 votes determining the outcome of any one district election. The fact is that the chance of your vote changing the fate of either the PAP or the opposition in that one district is about 0.001%, let alone whether it will ascertain if the PAP loses its status as the incumbent party. The chances of any one vote making a significant difference has about as much probability of anyone winning a lottery. This is sufficient to prove that the vote, on an individual scale, makes no difference at all. (Imagine the situation in, say, India?)

Why then do people vote if their vote has negligible meaning to it? I believe that the act of voting, and people’s rationale for doing so, boils down to two social phenomena. It is both a social ritual and a social delusion by the state.

It seems to me that the vote as a ritual is an affirmation of the coming-to-age, as well as an affirmation of citizenship to the country. The importance of the “coming-of-age” as a social celebration should not be underestimated: people congratulate friends for their twenty-first birthday as though it is uniquely different from other birthdays. Meeting this boundary is supposed to be a major landmark in your life, since it legally allows you to watch R21 shows, as well as to vote. More importantly, this boundary marks the final restriction that separates teenagers from adults, the first being 16 (consensual sex, NC16 shows) and 18 (drinking, driving). The 21st birthday is hence the social age of adulthood, and voting is an affirmation of that status. As to voting as an affirmation of citizenship, perhaps that is true especially in the post-colonial era, when people succeeded in winning independence from the British. For the first time, they were able to vote, to choose the government that are made up of their own people, instead of being led by foreigners. However, it is my opinion that the former has grown significantly in importance as compared to the latter. An affirmation of citizenship is theoretically more plausible an explanation of the vote only when nationalism is the ideological trend in the country. As time goes by and the new generation of citizens takes over who did not have to fight for their citizenship, “affirmation of citizensip” reduces in importance as compared to “affirmation of coming-of-age”. This implies that the collective meaning of the vote changes over time, which this argument has perhaps inductively proved.

It is a necessary condition that a successful democracy must ensure that its population believes that the vote matters, since a democracy in which no one believes in voting will inevitably fails by definition. The state has two powers by which it may ensure votes from the populace: by enforcing the vote by law, and by making full use of rhetoric. The former requires no discussion. However, the latter is a much more interesting issue to discuss. The power of rhetoric is extremely important in swaying votes in any democracy. Witness, for example, Barack Obama’s successful campaigning that led to a landslide victory for his party. For an older example, Pericles of Athens dominated Athenian politics for thirty years by his sheer force of presence, to the point that Athens then was known as Periclean Athens, even though Athens features perhaps the most authentically democratic system in history. Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade, to sway their minds to the cause of the rhetorician, either through actions or speech. Even today, in an age when most do not actually hear or see rhetoric in first person, the effect trickles down by hearsay and rumours. Perhaps third parties such as online forums and newspapers and friends contribute by amplifying this trickle-down effect of rhetoric. Ultimately, people vote for the parties they feel they want to vote for, and it is very rarely a rational decision. Moreover, I am of the opinion that people who vote “rationally” actually reason in favour of their prejudiced choices. People who are swayed by the rhetoric of any one party into voting for them implicitly accepts that voting matters, which plays directly into the needs of the state as a whole. All who want to vote are deluded by the state, through rhetoric, into believing that their vote matters. When it has such a high probability that it does not, then this belief is as good as faith.

It seems clear that the only people who do not believe that votes matter are those who are forced to vote by law, and even then, they vote based on what rhetoric they hear of by happenstance. There are no non-prejudiced voters: in the vote, all are forced to take sides, unless one wishes to forfeit the possibility of voting in the future, by not voting at all. However, most people do vote, and very willingly too. I contend that it is a combination of “vote as ritual” and rhetoric that predisposes people towards voting, and subsequently becoming an underlying basis for any possible interest in elections. As an unexamined prejudice, it is then justified post-hoc by the illusion that the individual vote matters.

Disclaimer: The author is providing an explanatory theory, but not a normative theory about voting. The author is not saying that one should not vote, but rather arguing that the voting mentality is based on the illusion that votes are significant. He is part of the Aljunied GRC, and is voting because he is forced to, and because he dislikes PAP and just happens to like a speech of Sylvia Lim’s.

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Architecture of ideas
Thursday, 14 April 2011
A system of thought, like a house with brick and mortar, has a foundation and a superstructure. It is the superstructure which attracts more attention, applause or censure. The foundation remains unnoticed. Yet it is the foundation which hides the secret sources of nourishment of the entire structure. This foundation consists of a group of basic concepts and assumptions which the thinker brings into play. The greatness of a thinker lies in the originality and strength of these concepts and assumptions. The mediocre build on nothing new.

- J. N. Mohanty

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Sunday, 3 April 2011
Title: A Celebration of Reason
Speech by Williams, a leading Rationalist intellectual. Year 2324AD.

“We gather here, my dear friends, to celebrate life. Now, before the festivities commence, let us question what life essentially is. Just what we are celebrating here tonight?

“Look at those poor artists, poets, musicians and mystics! ‘Oh, what joy life is! Each day brings so much excitement that it is worth living! Each morning, when one beholds the glory of the rising sun, the sight of it will bring tears to the eyes, the beauty of it does move us so!’ So says the sentimentalists, but we all know what unfortunate, uncertain and fickle creatures they are. If emotions are the sole basis of a worthy life, then life will clearly lack foundation, for emotions change so rapidly! Such is the stupendous illogicality of their enterprise!

“Enough of these emotions! Begone with them! Friends: my fellow scientists, technicians, rationalists, philosophers – we are true humans! Without our reasoned foundations, life has no value, no meaning. Where can there be certainty and constancy without the use of reason? Only in science and mathematics do we see eternal, empirical, and undoubtedly true principles, devoid of the mysticism and illogicality of religion, and the indecisiveness of flighty emotions! This is what life ought to be centred around – truth, and nothing but the truth! Yea, even at the risk of mechanising life, this is what makes it worth living, worth celebrating, and worth enjoying!”

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Chua Yi Jonathan
39th Student Councillor

note de prise!
My posts are usually regarding philosophy in some way or another, and I encourage discussions=D Post comments if you have alternate/similar viewpoints!

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