Don't mention the ethics word;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
I SPENT a week over Christmas in the Lake District. The bad weather forced me to do what I wanted to do anyway. I sat by the fire reading books, drinking wine (in the evening, at least) and occasionally looking out to watch the rain falling into the grey lake.

This being the National Year of Reading, I'll you what I read. I rushed through, on the edge of my seat, the latest sordid thriller from Minette Walters. Then I turned to the only serious book I had with me.

I bought Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge by Edward O Wilson in a fit of spontaneity during the autumn - even though I couldn't understand the title.

It turns out to be a remarkable book. Edward O Wilson is one of the world's leading biologists and has just retired after a spectacular career at Harvard University. He is an unrepentant believer in science and the extraordinary gains it has made in the past 300 years. Consilience, I discovered, is the idea that, across all disciplines, there is a common groundwork of explanation waiting to be discovered. As Wilson puts it: "The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena ... are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible ... to the laws of physics."

He proceeds to show how this has proved true in recent generations across biology and chemistry as well as physics. He then argues that it will ultimately prove true across psychology, economics, the social sciences and the humanities too.

He is scornful of the post-modernist faddism of social science. Post modernism, in his view, is the ultimate polar antithesis of the Enlightenment. "(Whereas) Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything ... post modernists believe we can know nothing."

Post-modernists deny the existence of objective truth, he says, and suggest that there are only subjective versions of it constructed by prevailing groups.

One result of this trend in the social sciences is that all cultures and all opinions are considered to be of equal value since there is no means of judging between them. Yet, he argues, "pre-scientific cultures are wrong, always wrong, because the world (as revealed by scientific discovery over the past 300 years) is too remote from ordinary experience to be merely imagined".

But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that he rejects the importance of imagination. Far from it. His argument is that the most important scientific theories are the product of imagination but, he stresses, it is "informed imagination" that brings about the great leap forward. Once these leaps have been made, it takes years of painstaking experimentation to see if theories such as relativity turn out to be true in the real universe.

Having spent most of the book in enthusiastic praise of the march of science, especially in genetics, his concluding discussion of the next 50 years made sobering reading (helpful after the Christmas wine).

Environmentally, humanity is careering towards a brick wall, he argues, and those who believe that science will somehow turn up the solutions in the next generation are deluding themselves.

More soberingly still, he suggests we will shortly enter an era when we can determine not only our environment but our genetic evolution. As he puts it, "homo sapiens I is about to decommission natural selection".

And how does he suggest we deal with these extraordinary responsibilities?

Economics does not hold the answers: "The single greatest intellectual obstacle to environmental realism is the myopia of most professional economists". The answer, he says, is "synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom".

In short, it's all about ethics. But last time I mentioned that word in public, I generated more controversy than I bargained for so I shall move swiftly to my final piece of holiday reading, the most profound of all.

Charles Williams's masterly biography of the great Don Bradman explains why Australia keep beating England at cricket. I won't tell you how except to say that it has nothing to do with ethics. Or Kent.

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