The best way to make sense of the world is through the convergence of multiple perspectives.
“You must be ever vigilant to discover the unifying Truth behind all the scintillating variety.”
-Sathya Sai Baba
—Consilience is the convergence of multiple perspectives upon Truth.
—Subjective Reality is a product of Consilience of the Senses.
—If we can reconcile all points of view from Philosophical, Spiritual, Scientific, Artistic, and Religious perspectives, we will arrive much closer to the Truth than if we consider only one.
I. The Blind Men and the Elephant
In the parable, originating from the Indian subcontinent, dating back to the 1st millennium BC, a group of blind men comes across an elephant, something which none of them have ever encountered before. Each of them attempts to figure out what the mysterious thing is, by reaching out and placing their hands upon it.
The first man feels the trunk and says, “It’s a snake!” The second wraps his arms around a leg and says, “It’s a tree!” The third pats the elephant’s broadside and declares, “It’s a stone wall!” The fourth grabs a tusk and says, “It’s a spear!” The fifth grabs an ear and says, “It’s a fan!” The sixth yanks the tail and says, “It’s a rope!”
Confounded by their lack of agreement, each man accuses the other of lying, and a fistfight ensues. “These hands don’t lie, and neither do I!” each insist as they lay blow after blow on one another, the six of them rolling around in a violent, tangled mess. Frightened by the commotion, the elephant rears up and comes down on the blind men, stomping them to death beneath his enormous feet.
I made up that last part—where they all die—but I think it’s an appropriate addition: this kind of disagreement, throughout history, has proven fatal.
None of the blind men were lying. They all formulated reasonable theories about what they were perceiving, shared those theories openly and honestly with one another, and yet they failed to grasp the overarching Truth that would unite their perspectives into a Whole. Instead, they bickered, things became violent, and people died.
We’re like the blind men. We do not see the elephant—the totality—obscured by its many expressions and interpretations. We’re so focused on the tree that we cannot see the forest. We’re so focused on the wave, that we cannot see the ocean. We are quick to assume that what we see is simply what is. But really, we’re on our knees, looking at the World through a keyhole.
If we can admit our blindness to one another, we can unite under the common goal of Truth, and rather than come to blows, make progress in unraveling the great mysteries of the Universe through the coming together of multiple perspectives. If we refuse, we’re doomed to perpetually entangle ourselves in a flurry of fists and headlocks and, eventually, get stomped to death by forces we cannot understand.
II. Consilience is Truth through Multiple Perspectives
Consilience is Latin for jumping together. It is the unification of multiple perspectives to more effectively ascertain the Truth of a matter. It is a process of synthesis, by which the Truth is constructed from multiple, independent sources of information. The term usually refers to the coming together of multiple fields of inquiry, but the concept can be extended to things much more basic than that.
For instance, if you hear a strange noise, and I hear a strange noise, we can be confident that there actually was a strange noise—our perspectives are in agreement; the Truth of the matter seems clear. Contrastingly, if you hear a strange noise, and I hear nothing, we might decide that you’re just imagining things—our perspectives are not in agreement; the Truth of the matter is unclear.
If three of us are out on a trail and none of us have watches, one of us might ask, “How long do you think we’ve been hiking?” If all three of us estimate that it’s been about an hour, our perspectives are in agreement—the Truth of the matter seems clear. Contrastingly, if one of us estimates one hour, one of us estimates thirty minutes, and one of us estimates two hours, our perspectives are not in agreement—the Truth of the matter is unclear, and we might feel confused about how long we’ve been hiking.
If we wake up after a night of partying, we might be worried that we got too drunk and made a fool of ourselves. So we ask five of our friends, “Was I out of control last night? Did I embarrass myself?” If all five say—“Oh not at all! You were fine.”—we might sigh in relief. Phew. I’m glad to hear that. The Truth seems clear. Contrastingly, if two of our friends say, “You were fine!”; two of our friends say, “You were really out of control and it was unacceptable.”; and our last friend says, “What party?”; the Truth might be unclear. Was I out of control? Are two of my friends not being honest with me? Or are my other two friends just being judgmental?
Each individual in these examples represents one perspective, one source of information, once instance of a Truth. The more these instances overlap, the more certain we feel of what the Truth is. The more they diverge, the less certain we feel about what’s true. The sources of information, obviously, don’t necessarily have to be other individuals—we get our information by more than just word of mouth.
If we’re meeting friends to go camping, and they tell us the campsite is 150 miles away from the city, Google Maps tells us the campsite is 149.3 miles away from the city, and the odometer on the car measures 149.4 miles during our drive to the campsite—we assert a Truth: that the campsite is about 150 miles away from the city. All three independent sources of measurement are in agreement—they converge upon a Truth. Contrastingly, if our friends told us the campsite was 110 miles away, google maps said 187.2 miles, the odometer on the car measured 50 miles—those sources would not be in agreement, and we would feel very confused; the truth of the matter would be unclear.
In televised sports, like soccer, baseball, basketball, and football, certain plays, or contact between players, or contact between players and the ball, can be incredibly important to the outcome of the game, but can also be incredibly difficult to interpret or understand. A football is launched from the quarterback into a flailing mass of gigantic men who collapse into a pile of appendages. Wait, what just happened? Where did the ball go? Did he catch it?Which player made that painful yelping sound? The audience doesn’t understand what happened and, often, neither does the referee in charge of making the call.
We want to know the Truth of the matter and, to accomplish this, we utilize multiple perspectives in the form of multiple referees and multiple camera angles. A replay from one camera angle might not shed any light on the matter. Two camera angles and we have a pretty good idea of what actually happened, but there still might be room for confusion. Three or more camera angles should remove all doubt—seeing the event from many different perspectives makes the Truth of the matter clear. The audience is satisfied, the referee is satisfied, everybody knows what’s going on, the game runs smoothly.
If we’re trying to understand the various forces that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire, one book might leave us feeling uncertain. Ten books will be more likely to help us build an accurate psychological model of what happened. Twenty books, a dozen documentaries, and we might call ourselves well-informed, and feel confident that we understand the Truth of the matter. More perspectives, more certainty.
If six ancient historians, none of whom interacted with one another, all claim that Julius Caesar seized power in Rome in 49 BCE, this is strong evidence that the event probably occurred at that time, even if each historian is only semi-reliable.
The existence of a major religion devoted to the teachings of a carpenter from Galilee named Jesus might be strong evidence that the teacher was a real person, who actually lived 2000 years ago. If we compare the stories of Jesus from the Bible with the historical accounts of Jesus from the Jewish historian Josephus (37 - c. 100 CE) and the Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56 - c. 120 CE)—two unrelated historians with zero ties to Christianity—we’re getting multiple perspectives on the matter. It seems likely that a spiritual leader named Jesus actually lived 2000 years ago and died by crucifixion.
(Ω) Consilience is Truth by the convergence of multiple perspectives. The more unrelated, independent perspectives we have that instantiate a certain proposition, the more likely it is for that proposition to be True. Whether it’s troubleshooting a problem with a team of co-workers, getting a second or third opinion from multiple doctors, confirming historical or scientific fact through multiple sources, or better understanding the creative process through learning an instrument, painting, and writing—the more perspectives we have, the closer we are to the Truth.
III. Subjective Reality is the Product of Consilience by the Senses
Our Reality is constructed out of a Consilience mechanism. At the most fundamental level, our senses work together to establish the Truth of our environment. There’s a reason we have five senses: five points of triangulation by which we cross-check our subjective model of Reality gives us a high degree of certainty about what is happening around us.
Like the Blind Men and the Elephant, none of our five senses tell the entire, overarching story of Reality—the simply tell us one interpretation. Smell only picks up one aspect of Reality, the same way one blind man only picks up the elephant’s ear. Is he wrong when he describes what he feels? No, what he feels is actually there—it’s actually part of the elephant—but it does not capture the totality of the elephant. Understanding the part is not the same as understanding the Whole. His Truth is only a partial Truth.
Vision, touch, taste, hearing, and smell are all interpretations of the same Material Reality, but they are qualitatively different—they exist in separate realms. If someone was born without the capacity for vision, we wouldn’t be able to describe what vision was, in terms of smell or taste, and have them understand what we mean. If someone was born without the capacity for hearing, we couldn’t write out a description that would make them understand the experience of what it’s like to hear. Though they might be able to rationally understand the concept of music, they would never understand what it’s like to actually listen to music.
In a totally contrived, impossible, hypothetical scenario where five individuals only experience one of the five senses, each might insist that their interpretation of Reality is the one True Reality—Reality is a collection of smells, or a collection of tastes, or a collection of sounds. None of them would be incorrect in their interpretation—Reality issmells, and tastes, and sounds. They would only be incorrect in assuming that their interpretation is the only interpretation.
Luckily, our Mind is designed to unite all five interpretations of our environment into one Whole—we know that the Universe is not constructed out of smells because we can also see, hear, touch, and taste things. We know those things are just an interpretation of the Universe—a partial Truth—and not the Universe itself. We unite the five interpretations using a Consilient mechanism, which convergences the multiple perspectives to produce Subjective Reality. Our senses come together to tell us the Truth of what’s out there, where we are, who we are, and what we’re doing.
If we see a rose, smell the rose, and touch the rose, that’s three overlapping perspectives which converge upon a Truth. We say, “That’s a rose. The rose exists.” Contrastingly if we simply smell a rose, but cannot see or touch one, that’s only one perspective that instantiates a Truth—there’s no convergence of perspectives. “Where is that smell coming from? Is it a perfume? Is there a rose garden nearby? I don’t see anything…” Without Consilience, we’re not convinced of the rose’s existence.
If we hear a cat meow, see a cat five feet away from us, reach out and pet the cat, smell the cat, and—if we’re feeling adventurous—lick the cat, that’s five confirmations—Yep. That’s a cat, alright. Contrastingly, if we hear a cat, but cannot see, touch, smell, or taste the cat anywhere, we remain open to doubt. “Hmmm… Where is that sound coming from? Maybe I’m imagining things.”
Similarly, if we see a cat, but when we reach out to pet the cat we cannot feel anything, this would freak us out. Why? Because our Reality is constructed out of Consilience—if our senses appear to be in disagreement with each other, the Truth of Experience itself is called into question, and Reality appears to break down. The divergence of perspectives—a lack of sensory Consilience—is not something we’re programmed for, and can be a confusing and terrifying experience.
(Ω) We are built to experience a Consilient Reality, one where multiple perspectives are constantly checking in with one another to confirm or deny what is real. Though we have access to many tools by which we construct a cohesive model of Reality, we must understand that what we experience is a reduced, approximated interpretation—we do not perceive the totality of the Universe. Our models of it are, at best, a map of Manhattan drawn on a napkin with crayon—we hardly even know what we’re looking at.
Does the chair I’m sitting on exist? Yes, I think I can be sure of that. Can I sit back on that chair and watch sub-atomic particles interact at the quantum level? No, I’m not capable of that level of perception. Can I understand what it’s like to be a bat, who sees nothing but hears everything? Not really. Though I can access many perspectives, it’s still not enough to perceive all of Existence—it’s not even remotely close.
Though the blind men access a leg, or a tail, or a tusk, it’s not enough to grasp the elephant.
IV. Science is to Religion, as Vision is to Touch
Biology, anthropology, psychology, physiology, geology, astronomy, physics, mathematics, sociology, history, philosophy, spirituality, religion, esotericism, mythology, drama, prose, poetry, visual art, music, and so on, and so on, are all endeavors in the pursuit of Truth. They all represent a different expression or interpretation of Reality. Consulting all of these endeavors would represent a Consilience approach to understanding Existence: multiple perspectives that can converge upon a unified Truth—a Whole. They are many. They are One.
I’m going to reduce those fields of inquiry down and focus on three, overly generalized Truth-seeking endeavors: Science, Art, and Religion. I’m not saying that encompasses everything, it’s just for illustrative purposes.
Each pursuit is a blind man, laying his hands on part of an elephant. The experience of the tail, the tusk, or the ear is Truth—they are real interpretations of what’s actually there—but they do not grasp the totality of the elephant. They are incomplete, partial Truths—not wrong, just limited.
Let’s imagine that Science, Art, and Religion are like Vision, Hearing, and Touch. All are an interpretation of Reality, but they are qualitatively very different in their mechanism and approach. To ask the pitch of what you see, the color of what you touch, the temperature of what you hear, is an incoherent proposition. Sure, we can make synesthetic descriptions of things—That cheddar is sharp. Those guitar strings sound bright. That orange shirt is a bit loud.—but we cannot truly experience the color red through touching an apple; we cannot smell a rose by looking at it.
The individual born blind insists that the Universe is all whistles, claps, vibrations, and hums. The individual born deaf insists the Universe is light, vibrancy, complexion, and shapes. The individual born blind and deaf insists the Universe is all heat, friction, texture, and caress. They’re all completely different interpretations of Reality and, yet, they’re all correct—what they perceive is Reality; just not total Reality.
Likewise, Science, Art, and Religion are different interpretations of Reality and, yet, they’re all correct. The confusion lies in that each interpretation is incomplete, only partof the Truth, and, accordingly, they must be interpreted as such.
Science is the pursuit of a certain kind of Truth—the Truth of what is, the Truth of what exists, the Truth of Material Reality. Science, collectively, is an attempt to map out the Universe, to figure out what Material Reality is made of and how it interacts with itself. It pursues Truth by forming theories, vigorously conducting experiments, and observing the results of those experiments to systematically map out what is, what exists, and how it works. Whatever theories appear correct are retained, whatever theories appear false are discarded, and by this mechanism, the Truth of Material Reality emerges over time.
Art pursues a different Truth—the Truth of what we experience, how we feel, what it’s liketo exist, the Truth of Subjective Reality. This aim is less explicit, less consciously understood, than the aim of scientific pursuit. We’re not exactly sure what we’re doing when we create something, when we paint something, when we sing a song, when we write poetry. We’re just expressing ourselves in a way that feels meaningful—in a way that feels True. If that Art resonates with an observer, an audience, it must also speak to some kind of Truth within their experience. Over time—through a similar, though less deliberate, mechanism to scientific pursuit—Art that is ‘correct’ is retained, Art that is ‘incorrect’ is discarded, and the Truth of Subjective Reality emerges in the form of popular, critically acclaimed, or ‘successful’ Art (whatever that might mean).
The collection of artistic endeavors that stand the test of time, that remain popular over decades, centuries, even millennia, do so because there’s something True about them. That doesn’t necessarily mean their deep or good (it would depend on your definition), only that they speak to something True about our experience (perhaps that humans are shallow). We draw a map of the Subjective Experience through each instance of creation, and that map evolves over time to resemble an accurate depiction of what it’s like to exist, by retaining what feels true to the observer and discarding what does not.
The collective artistic endeavor of humanity is not an interpretation of Reality that behaves by the same rules, or adheres to the same rational scrutiny, that Science does. That’s because Art is a different realm of Truth, a different expression of Reality. Art is an experience; the wood, canvas, and paint are the materials—they don’t become Art until they’re assorted into the correct configuration to aesthetically please us. Even then, a scientific analysis of a painting might program a computer to show you images ‘related’ to the painting—but that material analysis cannot tell you what it’s like to experience beauty.
Because the experience of beauty cannot be touched or accurately measured, to say it is not real, or does not exist is a misconception a what the terms real and exist even mean. The experience of beauty and emotion are, obviously, not materially real in the same sense that energy and matter are, but to say they don’t exist is to apply a scientific interpretation of Material Reality to the artistic interpretation of Subjective Experience. That kind of conflation hinders our understanding of Reality—it obscures the Truth.
Religion pursues yet another Truth, related to Art (they are both humanities, after all)—the Truth of right and wrong, the Truth of how one should live, or something resembling (what I am calling) Spiritual Truth, Truth of Self, or Ultimate Truth. The aim is, again, less explicit, less consciously understood, than the aim of scientific pursuit. We’re not exactly sure what we’re doing when we seek guidance, ask for forgiveness, seek out answers to the mysteries of life, when we pursue the Truth of where we should go or what we should do. We don’t think of certain explanations as being Supernatural, or certain practices being aimed at Conquering the Unknown, we just gravitate towards whatever improves our lives, whatever lifts us up.
When a given teacher speaks certain lessons, offers certain guidance, explores certain wisdoms, develops certain practices—and those practices resonate with our Being—those spiritual devices must speak to some kind of Truth within us. And when they objectively succeed in assisting us in getting a grip on our morality, our anxiety, our path, our purpose—especially on a grand scale with many, many people—those spiritual devices must be True, in some sense. They work.
The religious or spiritual interpretation of Reality is one of action. It is an interpretation of what one should do or how one should live. It is a moral perspective on Existence. It is not an interpretation that behaves by the same mechanism or adheres to the same rules as Science does. Religion is a different realm of Truth, a different expression of Truth, and to assess religious interpretations of Reality the same way we interpret scientific interpretations is to conflate those two realms.
To say that morality, or purpose, or the feelings of inner peace or spiritual connection with the Universe are, in some sense not real, or do not exist is a misconception. The notions that we should treat all Life as divine, or that all Beings are deserving of love and kindness cannot, obviously, be nailed down as scientific Truth the same way we nail down physics.
You think we have a responsibility to bring Goodness into the World? Prove it!
We cannot prove the spiritual experience through the language of chemistry, nor can we measure virtue and vice the same way we measure temperature and mass, but to say the concepts don’t exist is to apply a scientific interpretation of Material Reality to the religious interpretation of a moral existence. That kind of conflation can do some serious damage to our interpretive structure of Reality.
With vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, we only converge the different realms of perception into a unified, coherent Subjective Experience through a Consilient mechanism which, luckily, our Mind carries out automatically. Five qualitatively different interpretations of our external environment work together as a unified Whole. They don’t battle for dominance, as if they can’t all possibly be true, as if there can be only one interpretation of Reality:
The Universe is sweet, sour, and savory! There is nothing else!
Likewise, Science, Art, and Religion give us a larger, all-encompassing understanding of what is real, but only if these different perspectives are interpreted correctly. Unfortunately, we do not have a cultural Mega-Mind that performs this Consilient mechanism for us, automatically. Instead, we have to do the tedious work of figuring out how we might converge these various expressions of Truth into a unified Whole.
Star Wars is a work of Art. It does not exist materially. It exists in the Mind when the material information is projected onto a screen and interpreted by the brain. A scientific analysis may provide us with the sequence of bits that are encoded onto the Star Wars DVD, but it will not tell us what it’s like to be captivated by a heroic adventure through a vibrant sci-fi universe. Both interpretations—of Material Reality and Subjective Reality—are useful, both are correct, both paint a more accurate picture of what’s real than simply choosing one or the other.
The Bible is a religious text. Its teachings provide an interpretive moral map, made up of stories, poems, and historical accounts, that one may utilize to improve their Existence and follow a higher path. A biblical interpretation of the origin of the Universe may provide us with an ancient, poetic, phenomenological take on where we came from—insight into what it was like to live thousands of years ago and ponder the past—but it will not tell us literally, materially the events surrounding the origin of the Universe, the Big Bang, and the 14 billion years of cosmological evolution that lead up to where we are now. No one should interpret the bible as being a scientific interpretation of Reality. No one should interpret the scientific description of the Big Bang as being a moral claim. Both perspectives are useful, both are correct, but only if interpreted correctly.
(Ω) I’m not saying that the realm of Science cannot make ethical or moral claims. I’m also not saying that Religion cannot make statements about the physical or material nature of the Universe—it’s the exact opposite. These realms are inextricably linked, intertwined with one another, bleeding into one another, always. We should not underscore their divisions, but rather recognize that they are one in the same—different faces of the same Mountain.
Reality is not a meaningless World of objects. Nor is Reality purely an arena of sensation, where feeling good is all there is. Nor is Reality only a place of good versus evil. “What exists?” is not the same question as “What does it feel like to exist?” Which is not the same question as “What should I do about it?”
If we pretend only one of these questions is valid, sooner or later, we’re going to hit a dead-end. If we can entertain all three, sincerely, diligently, the spiritual road is open to us.
Consilience is the convergence of multiple perspectives upon Truth. When we take on all perspectives, we may get overwhelmed. Why can’t there just be one answer? We may gravitate towards a single interpretation of Reality, reducing all other interpretations out of our awareness. This might make us feel better, but it’s only a partial Truth, and, accordingly, it fails to explain every aspect of Existence. When we’re in a desperate situation, and need that one interpretation to lift us up, it may collapse on top of us instead.
When our one interpretation gets blown up by another interpretation (like Science might do to Religion, or Politics might do to Science), we may throw our hands up and say, “I guess no interpretation of Reality can be trusted, I’m exhausted trying to sort it all out, so I adopt the simplest, most convenient interpretation there is: there is no Truth and life is meaningless.” But that’s giving up pretty easily.
If we can work a little harder, pick up the Magic Sword, and set out to Conquer the Great Unknown, we can sort through the mysteries of interpretation one piece at a time, eventually constructing a model of Reality that successfully unifies all perspectives into a Whole.
Like blind men in a fistfight, the antagonisms between different belief systems are nothing more than a failure to elevate one’s perspective, to climb higher on the Mountain and get a better view of what’s really going on. If we consider ourselves Truth-seekers, if we’re sincere about the spiritual path, then before we throw a punch, we’ll do our best to figure out why our blind companions do not feel what we feel, cannot fathom what we fathom, and rather than accuse them of deception, stupidity, or evil, stand on each other’s shoulders, pull one another up, and, together, ride that elephant off into the sunset.