Today, across the English-speaking world, there is a cultural phenomenon known as consilience, a cultural wave of coming together, we are all connected, enthusiasm. Our communication devices, from cell phones, texting and tweeting, video cameras, iPods, and computers, to the idea of a networked world, wired and wireless are all expressions of it. Our lives are said to be “entangled” and “intersecting”, our work is “integrated”, and phrases like “living social” and “Animal Planet, surprisingly human” evokes a sense of togetherness and the oneness of life. Our current mythology also reinforces this idea as in “use the force” (of the universe) of Star Wars fame and themes of connectedness and continuity in the more recent Cloud Atlas film.
The term seems to have been first used in 1840 by William Whewell, a philosopher and historian of science. From Volume Two of the second edition of his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences founded upon their History, the concept is:
The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an induction, obtained from another class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the theory in which it occurs (1847, II, p.469).
He also emphasized the surprise factor in consilience; serendipity in the coming together to two inductions. Without the surprise factor, we just call it interdisciplinary work.
The word languished in academic circles until 1998 when Edward O. Wilson published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in which he outlines his dream of a unity of knowledge. To him the world is orderly, to be explained by a small number of natural laws. The strangeness of the universe is connected and, through consilience, understandable. Studying disciplines as separate pieces does not provide a unified and balanced perspective, but consilience does. Lastly, the greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and will always be the attempted linkage of science and the humanities, the unity of knowledge. Order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon for all of us. Wilson uses consilience to mean interdisciplinary work.
Of course, I think his idea is silly; it reeks of utopian science, the belief that all life can be explained by a handful of theorems. In addition, to achieve this, we humans must be reduced to packets of atoms to find our similarities. The vision is very Christian: we are invited to return to the Garden of Eden, eat apples from the Tree of Knowledge, and not be punished for it.
Unity of Knowledge? I consider it an insult to humanity.
Wilson road a popularity wave of consilience, see the Google Ngram below.
Today, we have many folks using the term in a multitude of ways: Consilient Technologies, Consilient Restaurants, Consilience Software Inc., Consilience Energy Management, Consilience Energy Advisory Group, and The Consilience Group, a journal called Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development , a blog named Consilient Interest, and a jazz band, the Vinson Valega Trio, which released an album in 2004 titled Consilience, suggesting a consilience of musicians.
There is a winery producing Concilience Wines and the a non-profit Consilience Productions, which proclaims on their Facebook page to be a non-profit organization that promotes a "dialogue beyond music" in order to “increase civic engagement”.
You get the picture—it is now popular to have consilience or being seeking it.
Contrary to Wilson’s vision, popular consilience is not about total unification of knowledge based on elitist science. It is more about people coming together to accomplish certain tasks, collaborating for mutual benefit. It is old-fashioned mutualism and some of it is activist, seeking democratic social reform and civic engagement. On Tumblr is a talk show described as “Consilience with Pete and Charlie is a podcast about the intersection of science and the humanities after all the lights start blinking and the cars crash into each other and everyone is screaming but no one is hurt because they were all wearing seatbelts” (http://peteandcharlie.tumblr.com/). An example of satire is artist Larry Bryson (http://www.larrybrysonarts.com/) who has a painting called “Reigning Freedom” that he made for a Pence Art Gallery (Davis, California) art show on Consilience. The painting depicts a man on a donkey traversing a barren landscape. In the sky headed for the person is a rocket. Thus, it is a consilience of rocket and target, as political commentary. Radical popular consilience wants to improve economic inequality and tear down walls of authority. One person with the twitter name “@ConsilienceDVO” (https://twitter.com/ConsilienceDVO), and whose avatar is the Anonymous facemask, has the motto: “Make no mistake. It's not revenge the people are after. It's a reckoning...” It reminds us that conciliation, reconciliation, reckoning, and consilience appear to have related etymologies.
These popular manifestations take us far from Wilson’s utopian dream. Wilson’s success is also likely his undoing. While he preached the abstract glory of unified knowledge, what most people heard was their desire for visceral connectedness and meaningful interactions.