Supertheories and Consilience from Alchemy to Electromagnetism
Abstract. Many of us—though not all—believe that good scientific theories are ones that simultaneously explain disparate phenomena. The theory of evolution in Biology, general equilibrium in Economics, and electroweak theory in Physics have all been favored for this property, and the Santa Fe Institute is sometimes rumored to be looking for a unified theory of complex systems. There is no obvious reason why the world should work this way, of course: the best science could well be domain local, a view sometimes found among linguists and anthropologists. We must thus regard unification as an epistemic norm, not a given. When examined from the outside, it is of mysterious origin. It is not to be found in the origin texts of the scientific revolution: Francis Bacon’s introduction of the scientific method in the New Organon is positively hostile to the idea, and it only becomes explicit in 1843 when William named it “consilience”. An analysis of the five thousands articles published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Europe’s first scientific journal, between 1666 and 1867, shows that norms of consilience rose gradually, and inexorably, over the course of two centuries of investigation. Explicit selection for consilience begins in the 1700s, around the time of Ben Franklin’s kite experiments, and by the mid-1800s, we see the emergence of supertheories: ideas like electromagnetism and the wave theory of light that break prior pairwise consilience to accrue links and co-explain a much wider range of phenomena than ever seen before.