On May 15th, together with the geneticist dr Paweł Golik I've moderated a session dedicated to the idea of the unity of knowledge as expressed in Edward O. Wilson's new book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). At least Wilson's chapter was the suggested reading, even if we quickly went beyond, seeing the obvious shortcomings of his vision, firstly for his striking lack of intellectual sophistication. Against his belief in the reductionist paradigm of formulating basic laws of nature (such as equations looking nice on a T-shirt), another point of view, issued from social sciences, must be brought about: this is so called Thorngate's impostulate of theoretical simplicity (or postulate of commensurate complexity). "In order to increase both generality and accuracy, the complexity of our theories must necessarily be increased", Thorngate claims, and I believe to find a great illustration of this postulate in the finest part of the humanities. Wilson, who just throws all Derrida to the dustbin in the span of a single paragraph, seems unable to grasp such subtleties.
Complexity is undoubtedly the motto of the day. Certain ideas Wilson mentions (in this book and elsewhere) may offer in fact a consistent basis for new humanities, also in my own theoretical perspective. First of all, I believe the theory of complex systems is a great field to which I myself belong with my vision of transculture. I gladly admit the concept of culture as a tool of survival, as much as the idea of continuity between cultures of the animal world and the human ones - a continuity split apart by the emergence of new levels of complexity. The birth of language - as well as two other symbolic systems: the music/dance complex, and the visual arts - opened a field for a further linear increase of complexity, preparing another emergence, a passage into a new level of complexity: that of a global system of interacting cultures.
The evolutionary perspective on cultural matters opens yet another set of questions: the understanding of cultures - and, if we want to use the term, civilizations - as homeostatic systems suspended between continuity and repetition, and, on the other hand, adaptability and change. What is the survival of the fittest in the world of competing cultures? Is treating them as super-organisms - or perhaps as a specific kind of super-ecosystems - something more than a mere metaphor?
I think this question opens a special field of reflection in globalization studies. Human cultures face a stage of increased facility of horizontal transfer: not only transfer of contents and symbolic forms from one culture to another, but also transfer of human individuals from one culture to another. In other words, we benefit from an increased facility of abandoning obsolete cultural forms. The accelerated extinction of cultures that marked the colonial period since its beginnings in the 15th and the 16th century has been often bitterly regretted. But what does this process mean and imply, when it becomes an expression not of symbolic violence, but of free choice and human spontaneity breaking through repetition into radical innovation? In contemporary world, I wouldn't speak any longer about cultural extinction. I would speak about an unprecedented acceleration of cultural evolution. Against all those who preach the necessity of revitalizing cultures, languages and other forms of human symbolic activity. The horizontal transfer of memes between cultures accelerates the evolution as much as does the horizontal transfer between bacterias that become resistant to antibiotics at such an exasperating pace. In both cases, for good and for bad, the phenomenon increases homeostatic and resilient properties of the systems. But once again, what is the heuristic value of such a comparison between cultural and bacterial forms of life?
Let's come back to the main idea of the seminar. At least in my mind, the idea of the unity of knowledge inevitably brings about the association with Islam and the strong presupposition of essential identity of Creation and Revelation. The whole question of lacking or deficient or problematic unity of knowledge is far from universal. Quite the contrary, I see it as eminently characteristic for the European civilization issued from Christianity. The whole question appeared in the consequence of a certain intervention of Paul in Athens, who presented the Christianity as a radical rupture in relation to pagan science and wisdom. Curiously, the Church Fathers were the first ones to capture the essence of the scientific attitude and to oppose it frontally to the immutability of the Christian revelation. Behind the famous interrogation of Tertullian ("What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?") there is a kind of mental exasperation of late Antiquity with the ever-shifting proceedings of philosophical reflection. Human science, as a constant procession of doubt, hypothesis and refutation, appears as a mere "writing on water", contrasted with immutability of truths revealed by God. The same state of mind, and the same longing for reassuring stability, is strikingly contemporary.
This move has never been repeated in Islam. Coming from the desert peripheries of the Mediterranean world, it avidly adopted the scientific heritage of the Antiquity, hardly ever finding any reason of clash between it and the new monotheistic system. These historical facts are often ignored. Yet it is through the Arabs that a substantial part of the ancient heritage has reached us, and quite a lot of things have been added in the process of transmission. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, science didn't start neither with Newton nor with Galileo. What is more, I believe this essential unity of Creation and Revelation (treating the physical reality as an utmost testimony of God constantly revealing Himself in and through the universe, and its study as an act of religious contemplation) is once again productive nowadays, or starts to be. No discussion on the contemporary globalized science is possible without taking Islam for a factor in the equation.
Yet the golden age of the Islamic science eclipsed somewhere around 1400 AD. If one considers the general panorama of the last few centuries, the productivity of the Western world has been unique and beyond comparison with any other cultural area. I'm inclined to believe that this unique phenomenon wouldn't be possible without the deep fissure splitting it apart, and its agonistic dimension. Once again, the theory of complexity offers a handy metaphor for both things: the Islamic world might have come too close to the perfect order of a crystalline structure; the Western world oscillates on the productive brink of chaos, partially kept in a scientific order, and permanently unbalanced by the forces that never put up with science. Too much unity of knowledge, I suppose, may spoil the scientific broth.
Wilson himself is a good example of this, after all. Would he ever write all these things we have been busy reading, if he had no intent of writing against an adversary stance? To put it in simple terms, is Wilson imaginable without the creationists? This agonistic dimension of his intervention becomes particularly clear when he is read in the context of the Polish academia: the accidents of History made us all educated in the dogmas of "the materialistic world view". This is why we feel so clearly how American, and how hemmed by his American polemics he is.