Consilience

William Whewell (1794-1866) was an accomplished polymath; his research included oceanology, mechanics, economics, and physics. He was also a poet and served as an Anglican priest. And he had a knack for coining new words.

Sometimes, he explained, disparate pieces of evidence “jump together” from across branches of science. If your physics discovery blatantly contradicts strong evidence from chemistry and biology, you have a serious dilemma on your hands – but when your physics harmoniously align with chemistry and biology, a beautiful validation occurs. “I will take the liberty of describing it by a particular phrase,” wrote Whewell, calling it the “Consilience of Inductions.”1

The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.

Different kinds of inquiries into the natural world ought to provide results that are more or less unified. Whether you measure the distance between your home and office by an odometer in your car, a pedometer on your hip, GPS coordinates, or even lengths of tape, all the results should be fairly consistent with one another. If there is a lack of consilience between the measurements, you will rightly question the variance.

When the “facts” do not corroborate with each other, we have good reason to be suspicious of factuality.

Edward Wilson (b. 1929) argues that we need to look for consilience not only in the natural sciences, but across all disciplines of knowledge. Consider these four fields of research: environmental policy, ethics, social science, and biology. When you look at that list, intuition demonstrates how all four domains are interconnected. However, in the world of academics, these four pursuits are unique, highly specialized domains, each with “its own practitioners, language, modes of analysis, and standards of validation.” Consilience is what happens when the quadrants meet to inform and learn from one another.2

Physics emerges into chemistry
Chemistry emerges into biology
Biology emerges into psychology
Psychology emerges into sociology
Sociology emerges into economics, politics, history, and technology

Consilience hints at the presence of a unified theory, perhaps an equation upon which everything ultimately rests. It seems everything is made of other things: nucleon → atoms→ molecules → cells → tissue → organs → organisms → psychologies → social systems → societies → global system.

So an interesting question to ponder the next time you are awake at 3am: when do molecules become political?


  1. Whewell, William. (1847[1840]) Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences. Founded Upon Their History. London: John W. Parker. p. 65 

  2. Wilson, Edward O. (1999[1998]). Consilience: the unity of knowledge. New York: Vintage Books. p. 9 


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Consilience' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 25, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17065
Additional reference and meta data:
This page a subsection of 'Ant Colonies vs Combustion Engines' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript.

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