Essay 06 - Against Unity

 12 October 2000 


What is the old saying? "A rose by any other name is still a rose," I think. And yet, it is very confusing to call it by any other name, in most circumstances. For that reason, we speak the same (rather than billions of) languages. We read our dictionaries, translate works consistently, and generally share knowledge.

That's what E.O. Wilson argues, anyway. I don't doubt that given a choice as to whether or not we should speak just one, single language, he would take English, Latin, Esperanto, or what have you and be done with it. He argues that we do the very same with the sciences. With only our one language, however, would we see the world in as many ways? Had Latin forever held its place as the single educated language, would the works of Shakespeare hold their power?

In his excellent article, Against Unity, Richard Rorty argues that the sciences, each holding their own unique viewpoint on the world, should not be made to speak each other's languages. Like the countless styles and types of artwork, though forced to share a common base, each can offer surprising insight into the world they try to describe. Perhaps the basic physical laws of the universe bind all the sciences. If Wilson is correct, they do, and eventually we will use these most basic of terms to describe-very accurately-the same things that these sciences describe in other terms today. Whatever Wilson may think, however, we are not close to being able to do so today, and any such attempt would yield only limited success, if it yielded any useful results at all.

Even if we could describe the world at all levels in the same basic language, it would not be reason for us to give up the descriptions we have today. Take, for instance, the computer program I use to write this: we can describe its every action at many varying levels, the most basic of which is simply ones and zeroes streaming, one after another. Those bits, however, are all but useless. Writing, I think in terms of buttons, windows, toolbars and letters. Creating the program involved considering it as logical problems and data structures. Any interpretation of the world only holds so much usefulness.

As our sciences and most other areas of study or advancement have developed over time, each of them have created their own ways of looking at the same universe, and each of these viewpoints arose for certain, valid reasons. Wilson may be correct in saying that we eventually will be able to explain the world in one language, our ones and zeroes, but never will that be the only language we use. And for that, I am glad.


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