Imagine an extraterrestrial biologist Ph.D. candidate who receives regular samples of Earth’s species. In each shipment, she receives a single living ant. She studies it carefully and thinks she understands it completely: every molecular pathway, every gene, metabolism, and behavior. She dissects the next and receives the next shipment. After several years, she submits her research to her committee and prepares for her career as a myrmecologist. She puzzles over how such a simple creature with only 100,000 neurons, nearly blind, can survive in a world of any complexity. During her doomed defense, her shrewd committee chair asks her, “Have you tried putting a thousand ants together, or a billion?” “Why should I? I know every possible thing about every possible kind of ant on Earth.” “You may learn something new.” Boiling with resentment, she concedes and, after two more arduous years (equalling quite possibly several millennia on Earth) of research and many more ant abductions, she writes a new dissertation titled “Anthills: the organisms we almost missed.”

Emergence describes a common phenomenon taking place at many levels in nature: when simple objects interact in large numbers, they produce new behaviors that defy straightforward inference from the properties of the simple objects. Hegel described emergence in his dialectics as the Law of Transformation: quantitative developments lead to qualitative changes. John Stuart Mill in his System of Logic described the limitations of logic when pressed against emergent processes: one cannot use logic to predict what will happen if many components interact at a larger scale.

Although I don’t claim substantial expertise on epistemology, consilience or unity of all knowledge has always appealed to me. I have never empathized with physicists who disparage biology as a “soft science” that cannot reveal any real laws of nature or biologists who think of anthropology, economics, or sociology as mere philosophy or poetic musings. As for philosophy and poetic musings, I also find a place in the unified fabric of knowledge.

Emergence separates and unites sciences. For a physicist, the entire universe comprises nothing but innumerable elementary particles interacting ceaselessly. Her perfect knowledge of these particles does not mean that she knows anything of chemistry. The laws of chemistry arise as the result of emergence. Biology, in turn, describes the laws of life, which emerge from chemistry. Psychology and cognitive sciences describe laws that emerge from biology. Sociology, economics, political science, and macrohistory again capture regularities that do not directly derive from cognitive sciences, separated from them by emergence.

Separated by emergence, natural phenomena and scientific disciplines may appear convincingly unrelated. Most of us cannot comprehend life as emergence from inorganic chemistry. Most do not accept consciousness as emergence from living cells. Most have a hard time conceiving of society emergence from individual behaviors, preferring to believe in governed or conspiratorial mechanisms. Emergentism seems too difficult for most of us to accept.

“Consilience” by Edward Wilson argues convincingly for unity of natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and philosophy with numerous supporting examples. As a biologist, Wilson views the world from an uncommon intellectual vantage point. Biologists routinely relate their subject back to chemistry and physics and forward to psychology and anthropology. To them, the unity of knowledge becomes experiential.

For a long time, chemists have proudly professed their discipline as the unifying science bringing together biology and physics. As the scientific method proliferates into social sciences, will neuroscience increasingly contribute to the unification of knowledge by joining “sciences of the soul” with biology?

Anthropologist Ernest Becker dedicated his life to validating a simple hypothesis: awareness of one’s death collectively drives a vast majority of social phenomena across all humans societies.

Becker’s lifelong project, the 1974 treatise “The Denial of Death” presented incredibly thorough evidence (psychiatric, sociological, anthropological, and historical) that, in order to function, humans must either deny death or adopt a system of cosmic heroism.

Becker starts from a simple syllogism:

  1. As any higher animal, man possesses powerful innate instincts to preserve his own life
  2. Unlike any other animal, man comes to realize inevitability of his own death
  3. 1 and 2 combine to produce debilitating persistent uniquely human angst that he seeks to relieve

Humans go to great lengths to deny their mortality. In most societies, physiological functions such as excretion and sex have become shameful because they equate us with mortal animals and finite unstable physical matter. I particularly enjoyed the citation of a tribe whose members did not publicly recognize the practice of defecation. They used anal plugs at all times and defecated only in secret. [TODO: look up tribe]. Man must explain his biologically motivated actions in terms of more significant cosmic events to deny death. Romantic love, for example, helps us conceive of sex and procreation as a cosmic force beyond ourselves.

Becker goes on to explain that more than our finiteness, we fear our insignificance. Therefore, humans have developed systems of heroism (Becker’s term for significance). Such a system of significance must provide two essential elements:

  1. a structure or endeavor that provides a sense perpetuity and/or cosmic significance
  2. a role for the person in which she can apply herself within that system

People may construct such systems deliberately or such systems may emerge and evolve spontaneously over time fueled by common anxieties.

Becker’s well illustrated examples of such systems included pursuit of wealth and consumerism, patriotism, Nazism, Communism, religions, science, art, and political power, among others. Anything that threatens our system of significance we call evil. Cues and emblems associated with our systems of cosmic significance give us a rush of euphoria and we will defend them to the death of others, ourselves, and our loved ones.

A person who does not adopt such a system commonly experiences social death — loss of meaning, feeling, and motivation, or aggression to make oneself meaningful at any cost (e.g. mass shootings).

War and genocide owe their existence to conflicting systems of significance.

A person’s system of significance may become more valuable to him or her than their own life or the lives of countless others. An attempt to deconstruct such a system by argument and reason, no matter how substantial, will meet the most vehement resistance.

Many crusaders for reason such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins attempt to convince people by evidence and reason of the deceptions in their faiths in mythological gods. Yet they seem oblivious to the life-sustaining role that these systems play for their adherents. Educators would better serve the public by building up systems of significance that fulfill their two roles while leaving behind violent irrational systems of significance.

To my greatest delight, I recently discovered a documentary (wikipedia) based on Becker’s work. The following preview provides a glimpse:

“Flight from death” succinctly captures the essence of Becker’s work although without the hundreds of examples and references in his books. Even after reading several of Becker’s books (“The Denial of Death”, “Escape from evil”, “The birth and death of meaning”), the movie still made an unexpectedly resonant impression on me.

Both the book and the movie get somewhat dire in the middle. If you realize that constructs that give you a sense of belonging and purpose, do so only to help you subconsciously overcome your sense of insignificance, how should one exist? But the book and the movie both provide an optimistic outlook. Accepting one’s physical nature, vulnerable body, physiology, sexuality, mortality, and finiteness, free from systems of significance that lie and kill, one can find or make more transcendent, genuine, universal, and cognizant life.

Somewhat metaphorically, Ernest Becker died at age 49 just before the publication of “The Denial of Death.” Sam Keen recounts with great emotion and compassion his last interview with the dying philosopher:

Becker’s writings inevitably lead to introspection. Which model do you follow? Do you simply deny death and your insignificance? Or have you adopted or created a system of cosmic significance for yourself? How did you choose your system? How does it motivate you? Does it ever fail to give you meaning?