post by Bill Gardner
Neal Gabler in The New York Times:
Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world... It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock — to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief.
This just seems wrong. Here are some enormous ideas that are transforming our culture:
- Physics. E.g., the multiple universe ideas canvassed in Brian Greene's most recent book.
- Climate science. Lovelock, the global warming scientists. There is a bigger practical question than the fate of the climate?
- Neuroscience, and in particular the neurobiology of emotion.
- Artificial Intelligence. The internet, and Google, and so on are a series of experiments that escaped from a lab.
- Statistics. The widespread availability of analytical tools, skills, and data means that many people are acquiring an empirical mindset through learning by doing.
- Social evolution. Dawkins, of course, but also the many more recent theorists who are advancing evolutionary explanations of social cooperation.
- Moral and political philosophy. Parfit says we are just starting to understand how these work in a post-theistic world, and he is right.
- Applied economics. Health economics, the economics of poverty, growth, and development.
You will have noticed that I am citing disciplines instead of authors. There is a long term shift toward a scientific and engineering culture. This means that ideas are being attacked in a disciplined, serious, and cumulative way by specialists. These specialists, however, are connected to broader communities of discussion; in part through traditional media, and increasingly by the social software that Gabler disdains. Through that diffusion, that are catalyzing the kinds of intellectual shifts that structure and shape the way in which collectively we interpret our experience and our world.