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April 24, 2002

(22,300 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE

THE NEW HUMANISTS BY JOHN BROCKMAN


[Copyright © Tobias Everke]

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today's intellectual action.

They are the new humanists.

JOHN BROCKMAN is publisher and editor of Edge. His most recent book (as editor) is The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century.


THE REALITY CLUB

Responses to "The New Humanists" from John Horgan, Daniel C. Dennett, Timothy Taylor. Alison Gopnik, Carlo Rovelli, Robert R. Provine, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Michael Shermer, Piet Hut, Joseph LeDoux, Chris Anderson, George Dyson, Kenneth Ford, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Reuben Hersh, Keith Devlin, James O'Donnell, Clifford Pickover, Nicholas Humphrey


THE THIRD CULTURE

THE NEW HUMANISTS

By John Brockman

In 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forward the following argument:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person today. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Ten years later, that fossil culture is in decline, replaced by the emergent “third culture” of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures—that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. This new culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, have taken the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

A Great Intellectual Hunger

Advances in science are being debated and propagated by the scientists of the third culture, who share their work and ideas not just with each other but with a newly educated public through their books. Staying with the basics, focusing on the real world, they have led us into one of the most dazzling periods of intellectual activity in human history, one in which their achievements are affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. The emergence of this activity is evidence of a great intellectual hunger, a desire for the new and important ideas that drive our times. Educated people are willing to make the effort to learn about these new ideas. Book review editors, television news executives, professionals, university administrators are discovering the empirical world on their own. They are reading and learning about revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others.


One Intellectual Whole

Around the fifteenth century, the word "humanism" was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist. Michelangelo was an even greater artist and engineer. These men were intellectually holistic giants. To them the idea of embracing humanism while remaining ignorant of the latest scientific and technological achievements would have been incomprehensible. The time has come to reestablish that holistic definition.

In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world—of having a unity in which scholarship includes science and technology just as it includes literature and art—the official culture kicked them out. The traditional humanities scholar looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product—the fine print. The elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum, and out of the minds of many young people, who abandoned true humanistic inquiry in their early twenties and turned themselves into the authoritarian voice of the establishment.

Thus, as we enter the most exciting and turbulent intellectual times in the past five hundred years, the traditional humanities academicians—by dismissing and ignoring science instead of learning it—have so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action. One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; "social constructionist" literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of evolutionary biology and too lazy to look up the statistics on risk.

And one is amazed that for others still mired in the old establishment culture, intellectual debate continues to center on such matters as who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century. This is not to suggest that studying history is a waste of time. History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: history of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the world in between?

A fundamental distinction exists between the literature of science and those disciplines in which the writing is most often concerned with exegesis of some earlier writer. In too many university courses, most of the examination questions are about what one or another earlier authority thought. The subjects are self-referential. Yes, there is a history of science, but it is a field in its own right, quite separate from science itself. An examination in science is a set of questions on the real stuff, as it were, rather than what our predecessors thought. Unlike those disciplines in which there is no expectation of systematic progress and in which one reflects on and recycles the ideas of earlier thinkers, science moves on; it is a wide-open system. Meanwhile, the traditional humanities establishment continues its exhaustive insular hermeneutics, indulging itself in cultural pessimism, clinging to its fashionably glum outlook on world events.

Cultural Pessimism

"We live in an era in which pessimism has become the norm," writes Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Herman, who coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues that the decline of the West, with its view of our "sick society," has become the dominant theme in intellectual discourse, to the point where the very idea of civilization has changed. He writes:

This new order might take the shape of the Unabomber's radical environmental utopia. It might also be Nietzsche's Overman, or Hitler's Aryan National Socialism, or Marcuse's utopian union of technology and Eros, or Frantz Fanon's revolutionary fellahin. Its carriers might be the ecologist's "friends of the earth," or the multiculturalist's "persons of color," or the radical feminist's New Amazons, or Robert Bly's New Men. The particular shape of the new order will vary according to taste; however, its most important virtue will be its totally non-, or even anti-Western character. In the end, what matters to the cultural pessimist is less what is going to be created than what is going to be destroyed—namely, our "sick" modern society.

....the sowing of despair and self doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance—even when it is directly contradicted by our own reality.

Key to this cultural pessimism is a belief in the myth of the noble savage—that before we had science and technology, people lived in ecological harmony and bliss. Quite the opposite is the case.

In Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World, Oliver Bennett, the director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, pushes matters a step further when he writes that "the intellectual judgments on which cultural pessimism rests are inflected by that same complex of biological, psychological and sociological factors that are linked to the incidence of some forms of depression and anxiety." He wonders whether the intellectuals of the postmodern world would benefit from antidepressants ("Schopenhauer on Prozac would perhaps have produced a different philosophical system").

That the greatest change continues to be the rate of change must be hard to deal with, if you're still looking at the world through the eyes of Spengler and Nietzsche. In their almost religious devotion to a pessimistic worldview, the academic humanists cannot acknowledge that thoughtful people can have positive ideas. Within their own circles, they have, until recently, gotten away with it. The romantic emoting of a culturally pessimistic worldview has been intellectually approved. The world of the professional pessimists is a closed system, a culture of previous "isms" that turn on themselves and endlessly cycle. How many times have you seen the name of an academic humanist icon in a newspaper or magazine article and immediately stopped reading? You know what's coming. Why waste the time?

The Double Optimism of Science

As a counternarrative to this cultural pessimism, consider the double optimism of science.

The first optimism of the science-based thinkers is conceptual: the more science they do, the more there is to do. Scientists are constantly acquiring and processing new information. This is the reality of Moore's Law—just as there has been a doubling of computer processing power every eighteen months for the past twenty years, so too do scientists acquire information exponentially. They can't help but be optimistic.

The second level of optimism concerns the content of science. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Because the findings of science are not mere matters of opinion, they sweep past systems of thought based only on opinion. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and better questions, better put. They are questions phrased to elicit answers; the scientists find the answers, and move on.

Scientists debate continually, and reality is the check. They may have egos as large as those possessed by the iconic figures of the academic humanities, but they handle their hubris in a very different way. They can be moved by arguments, because they work in an empirical world of facts, a world based on reality. There are no fixed, unalterable positions.

Unlike the humanities academicians, who talk about each other, scientists talk about the universe. Moreover, conceptually there's not much difference between the style of thinking of a cosmologist trying to understand the physical world by studying the origins of atoms, stars, and galaxies and an evolutionary biologist trying to understand the emergence of complex systems from simple beginnings or trying to see patterns in nature. As exercises, these entail the same mixture of observation, theoretical modeling, computer simulation, and so on, as in most other scientific fields. The worlds of science are convergent. The frame of reference is shared across their disciplines.

Scientists As Both Creators and Critics

A significant aspect of the third culture is that scientists are both the creators and the critics of the scientific enterprise. Ideas come from scientists, who also criticize each other's ideas. Through the process of creativity and criticism and debates, scientists decide which ideas get weeded out and which become part of the consensus that leads to the next stage. All scientists are involved in coming up with new ideas and engaged in the critique of existing ideas, whereas in literature and the other arts the creators and the critics are, with few exceptions, two distinct sets of people.

Creativity in both the humanities and the sciences involves the same thought processes, but science understands that work becomes part of a common body of knowledge. It doesn't matter who had the ideas in the first place. Most scientific developments emerge when the time is right—a new experiment, a new discovery, a new paradox. Science is a combination of creative insights and robust criticism. This process gets rid of the failures and refines and improves the surviving ideas. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. As an activity, as a state of mind, it is fundamentally optimistic.

The Horizon Grows

Science is still near the beginning. As the frontiers advance, the horizon gets wider and comes into focus. And these advances have changed the way we see our place in nature. The idea that we are an integral part of this universe—a universe governed by physical and mathematical laws that our brains are attuned to understand—causes us to see our place in the unfolding of natural history differently. We have come to realize, through developments in astronomy and cosmology, that we are still quite near the beginning. The history of creation has been enormously expanded—from six thousand years back to the twelve or thirteen billion years of big bang cosmology. But the future has expanded even more—perhaps to infinity. In the seventeenth century, people not only believed in that constricted past but thought that history was near its end: the apocalypse was coming.

A realization that time may well be endless leads us to a new view of the human species—as not being in any sense the culmination but perhaps a fairly early stage of the process of evolution. We arrive at this concept through detailed observation and analysis, through science-based thinking; it allows us to see life playing an ever greater role in the future of the universe.

Scientia

Many people, even many scientists, have a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.

Just as science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—has encroached on areas (such as psychology) formerly considered to belong to the humanities, science is also encroaching on the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great men in history, or the structure of DNA. Humanities scholars and historians who spurn it condemn themselves to second-rate status and produce unreliable results.

But this doesn't have to be the case. There are encouraging signs that the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, they believe that there is a real world and that their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, conformity with empirical facts. They do not defer to intellectual authorities: Anyone's ideas can be challenged, and understanding progresses and knowledge accumulates through such challenges. They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics—a whole panoply of humanist concerns—need to take the sciences into account.

Connections do exist: our arts, our philosophies, our literature are the product of human minds interacting with one another, and the human mind is a product of the human brain, which is organized in part by the human genome and evolved by the physical processes of evolution. Like scientists, the science-based humanities scholars are intellectually eclectic, seeking ideas from a variety of sources and adopting the ones that prove their worth, rather than working within "systems" or "schools." As such they are not Marxist scholars, or Freudian scholars, or Catholic scholars. They think like scientists, know science, and easily communicate with scientists; their principal difference from scientists is in the subject matter they write about, not their intellectual style. Science and science-based thinking among enlightened humanities scholars are now part of public culture.

One Culture, the Third Culture

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today's intellectual action.

They are the new humanists.


THE REALITY CLUB

Responses to "The New Humanists" from John Horgan, Daniel C. Dennett, Timothy Taylor. Alison Gopnik, Carlo Rovelli, Robert R. Provine, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier, Michael Shermer, Piet Hut, Joseph LeDoux, Chris Anderson, George Dyson, Kenneth Ford, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Douglas Rushkoff, Howard Rheingold, Reuben Hersh, Keith Devlin, James O'Donnell, Clifford Pickover, Nicholas Humphrey



From: John Horgan
Date:
4.20.02

John, if your essay was meant to provoke, it obviously succeeded. But it really works more as a kind of Nike ad for science than a serious analysis of science's relation to the humanities or culture as a whole. It reminds me of Wired rhetoric, pre-Nasdaq crash, or of the jacket copy for books about the Santa Fe Institute in its giddy early days. Science rules!

You are brave indeed to resurrect this kind of scientistic triumphalism now that the e-business bubble has burst and the world is roiling with conflicts that science has little or no hope of illuminating, let alone ameliorating.

A few more cantankerous thoughts:

You say scientists confront the "real world," as opposed to these humanist ignorami. I wish you had named names, so we could judge if your targets match your cartoon description. But let's take Judith Butler, who does deconstruction of sexual identity and is a favorite whipping girl of those bemoaning the decadence of the humanities. I would submit that she's far more engaged with reality—our human reality—than string theorists or inflationary cosmologists.

Certainly some science trade books, such as Ed Wilson's latest, Future of Life, address issues that should concern any thoughtful person. But tell me, John, is there any science book as important for someone today to read as, say, Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations?

And lots of popular trade books in science are peddling sci-fi escapism, geared especially toward socially awkward adolescent males. What does Lee Smolin's evolutionary cosmology have to do with the real world, honestly, or Ray Kurzweil's fantasies about what it would be like to be transformed into pure software?

I'm a science geek, so I find this sort of stuff entertaining, when well done, but I certainly can't blame others who have no taste for it. Let's face it, trade science books are best understood as a minuscule sub-niche of the entertainment industry. If people would rather read about Virginia Woolf's sex life—or watch "Friends," for that matter—than wrestling with Brief History of Time or Origins of Order, I don't think they should have to feel like second-class citizens.

I agree with you that we would all be better off if more people were scientifically literate. But to me, scientific literacy does not mean getting all excited over the latest scientific "breakthrough," whether brane theory or monoclonal antibodies or nanotech. It means knowing enough to distinguish genuine advances from the hype surrounding Prozac or evolutionary psychology or Star Wars or gene therapy.

Science has enriched modern life in countless ways, both materially and intellectually. But our infatuation with scientific and technological progress for their own sake has also had adverse consequences: pollution, weapons of mass destruction, you know the old bugaboos. And great harm was committed in the last century because people got carried away by such pseudo-scientific fads such as Marxism, social Darwinism, eugenics and psychopharmacology. History teaches us that science is limited in what it can do for us. This is realism, not pessimism. And the last thing we need nowadays is another ideology or faith.

Best wishes, and thanks for getting my adrenaline going.

JOHN HORGAN is a freelance writer and author of The Undiscovered Mind. [more....]



From: Daniel C. Dennett
Date:
4.20.02

I'm happy to join in the Third Culture victory dance, and I agree with most of what you have to say in your essay, but I also share some of the misgivings expressed, and would like to add a few of my own.

As Nick Humphrey urges, you should drop the paranoia. You've-we've-won. And as usual, there's a danger of squandering the spoils, and ignoring some of the problems created or exacerbated by victory. As Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi notes, many of the problems in the humanities these days are due to misplaced science-envy, misbegotten attempts to make the humanities more like the natural sciences. And as Marc Hauser says, your essay does contain some self-congratulatory caricatures.

Contrary to what you say, there are "systems" and "schools" in science every bit as ruthless in the suppression of heresy as their counterparts in the humanities. Science abounds in received doctrines and authorities that one questions at the risk of being branded a fool or worse, and for every young humanities scholar writing fashionably formulaic drivel about one deservedly obscure poet or critic or another, there are several young scientists uncritically doing cookbook science filling in the blanks of data tables that nobody will ever care to consult. I'm told that "Sturgeon's Law" is that 95% of everything is crap, and while I would be inclined to adjust that percentage to about 50% (I'm a softie, I guess) so far as I can see, the percentage—whatever it is—is not markedly lower in neuroscience than it is in literary theory. Don't make the mistake of comparing some of the best examples on one side with some of the worst on the other. Hebb's rule, that if it isn't worth doing, it isn't worth doing well, could put a lot of scientists out of work along with their makework colleagues in the humanities.

A comment about misleading labels, which have been around for centuries: The seven "liberal arts," with their quadrivium and trivium, have been mispigeonholing thinkers since medieval times. The sciences/humanities division is a more recent taxonomy that is only marginally more useful. Indeed, the term "humanist" is an uneasy compromise at best.

Many years ago, the National Endowment for the Humanities had to come up with a term to refer to its clientele, and it chose what I think was a neologism at the time, "academic humanist," to refer to those professors and researchers in literature, history, and philosophy departments, along with "humanistic" psychologists and "cultural" anthropologists and the like. The idea was to exclude artists (NEA, not NEH) but not art historians, fossil-hunters (physical anthropologists) but not rite-interpreters and archaeologists, etc. So it's a grab-bag formed by excluding the "hard" sciences and the performing, creating arts—leaving mainly, the "humanities" departments in colleges and universities.

Obviously the term has hardly anything to do with Renaissance Humanism or with the secular humanism so feared by the religious right. Perhaps the confusions sown by these overlapping terms makes "New Humanists" a gratuitously contentious label. But perhaps not. The term reminds me of a remark made by a wonderful physics teacher I had in high school: "Science taught right is one of the humanities!" What that teacher had in mind is exactly what you are celebrating in your essay: the deep appreciation of how scientific thinking enriches our perspectives on the world we live in–all our perspectives, not just our narrowly scientific interests.

But it's a two way-street. When scientists decide to "settle" the hard questions of ethics and meaning, for instance, they usually manage to make fools of themselves, for a simple reason: they are smart but ignorant. The reason that philosophers spend so much of their time and energy raking over the history of the field is that the history of philosophy consists, in large measure, of very tempting mistakes, and the only way to avoid making them again and again and again is to study how the great thinkers of the past got snared by them.

Scientists who think their up-to-date scientific knowledge renders them immune to the illusions that lured Aristotle and Hume and Kant and the others into such difficulties are in for a rude awakening. One of the ignoble pleasures provided to philosophers by the current wave of enthusiastic scientist/authors offering their shoot-from-the-hip solutions to the problem of consciousness, for instance, is watching all the eminent pratfalls. The hard part is to keep from saying "we told you so." Intrepid poaching is to be applauded, and some of the best ideas I have encountered "in the humanities" in recent years were blurted out by imaginative amateurs interloping from the sciences, but genuine curiosity and humility is part of the package.

And finally, science could make better use some of the traditional scholarly talents and habits of the humanists. As digitized texts become the sole medium of research, there are thousands of valuable experiments hiding modestly in thousands of old journals, swiftly fading into oblivion. There is valuable data mining to be done—by hand, the old-fashioned way, by people who can read German and French and Russian in addition to knowing the latest theories—but I wonder if the scientific establishment will reward such scholarship. It should.

DANIEL C. DENNETT is a philsopher at Tufts University and the author of Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays. [more....]



From: Timothy Taylor
Date:
4.17.02

Far from recognizing recent putative victories of science as heralding a 'new humanism', I see the potential for a new barbarism. If a literary critic wrote something about 'air atoms' we might laugh; but when an eminent evolutionary biologist uses the word 'metaphysical' as if it meant 'supernatural' or 'mystical' (as one recently did) no one appears to notice. Arts, humanities and philosophy scholars read popular science—if they read it at all—with an already jaded eye. No misuse of language (and consequent betrayal of muddled and unsophisticated thought) comes as a surprise any longer.

One could go off in many directions from the provocative starting point of John Brockman's essay on the 'new humanists', contrasting humanities subjects with 'hard' sciences; experimento-predictive science with historical science (necessity vs. contingency); or post-modernism with various brands of rationalism and Marxism.

Certainly I recognize some of what John diagnoses as frustrating (and worse) in the social sciences—'text-in, text-out' bubbles of inconsequential, content-free activity only blasphemously given the name of scholarship. But we must also recognize that there has been an extraordinary—and often extraordinarily arrogant—underestimation of the complexity of the humanities by some hard scientists who extend themselves across the arts-sciences divide. Personally, I have no doubt that to do moral philosophy well, for instance, requires a longer intellectual training than is typically needed to make advances in, say, plasma physics or genetics. But I also know that some physicists and geneticists are prone not to recognize this. I do not mean to say that what they do is simple-minded (emphatically it is not), simply that some (perhaps much) of it is epistemologically more straight-forward.

There is much that I agree with in what John has said, but points of disagreement too and it will perhaps be useful if we first agree on what things we might mean by humanism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four general definitions and a fifth, specifically philosophical one. Here they are:

1.Belief in the mere humanity of Christ.

2.The character and quality of being human; devotion to human interests.

3.Any system of thought or action which is concerned with merely human interest (as distinguished from divine), or with those of the human race in general (as distinguished from individual); the 'Religion of Humanity.'

4.Devotion to those studies which promote human culture; literary culture; esp. the system of the Humanists, the study of the Roman and Greek classics which came into vogue at the Renascence.

5.Philos. A pragmatic system of thought . . . which emphasizes that man can only comprehend and investigate what is with the resources of the human mind, and discounts abstract theorizing; so, more generally, implying that technological advance must be guided by awareness of widely understood human needs.

We should note that only in (1) and (3) is an association with atheism explicitly signalled and that Renaissance humanists like Leonardo believed in God (indeed their sense of wonder at the world and their urge to invent and subcreate within it was often felt to be part of discharging human duties that were ultimately divine in origin). However, scientific humanism, as it arose with Darwin in opposition to the dogma of Victorian clerics, is explicitly associated with atheism or agnosticism, and is understood by many to point the way towards a purely scientifically-grounded theory of right action—ethical humanism.

These definitions obviously contain contrastive elements. I take it that John might often be professionally concerned with definition 4, most usually associated with rhetoric, grammar, poetry and a knowledge of the classics—i.e. those things which popular science writing can benefit so much from (and which it sometimes fails to display); I am wondering, however, whether by new humanism John instead means to indicate something that furthers knowledge of humanity more rigorously and lucidly (more scientifically in one use of the word) than American sociology and socio-cultural anthropology currently do (disciplines which, powered by post-modernism and relativism, have all but imploded in some areas). If this is so, then the debate on what a new humanism might be as conducted in and from the US will be rather different to the debate which might be had elsewhere.

The dangers of scientists attempting to become the new humanists are best illustrated by specific examples. For instance, Richard Dawkins' idea of 'memes'—proposed cultural counterparts to genes—has not been adopted in archaeology, precisely the discipline where it should have succeeded had it been useful. It is unsurprising (and no real discredit to him) that a top-notch geneticist does not cut the mustard when it comes to theorizing cultural transmission: after all, Richard Dawkins may have no more training in cultural theory than I have in genetics. A problem arises, however, if people who may know no better think that memes must be a good idea, and interpret the paucity of critical discussion of them as evidence of the acceptance of the concept.

Similar kinds of concerns arise in relation to the psychologist Steven Pinker's formulation of a 'language instinct'. This is not a bad idea in theory, but it is elaborated with—apparently—total disregard for an extensive body of work by Russian, French and German philosophical linguists which has reached very different conclusions. That is to say, whether or not one accepts Pinker's linguistic judgements, his work has come out from a cognitive psychology background into the glare of public attention (and has been widely accepted to be true by the media) without engaging with those humanistic debates of most central relevance to the plausibility or otherwise of his most dramatic claims (as expressed by followers of L.S.Vygotsky, to take one example).

One has to confront the tricky problem that popular science often either preaches to the converted or, when it strays into more 'humanistic' domains, makes an unwitting ass of itself. The US has an excellent tradition of scientists writing for a broader audience, but a scarily growing third of the national population share a metaphysics which cannot accommodate Darwinian evolution, let alone understand what it entails. The rise of Creationism in the US is an unfolding intellectual tragedy that will only be turned around once there is greater respect, among scientists in particular, for the sophistication and unpredictability of human social and cultural formations. This will require a renewed humility in addressing the true complexities of our behavioural well-springs. The prospect of a great nation intellectually split between religious fundamentalism and an equally assertive, dogmatic and unreflectively narrow scientism is not pretty.

The 'human needs' alluded to in definition 5 above may well—in contrast to definition 3—include religion. Historically and prehistorically, they obviously do: viewed in a socially—and biologically-evolutionary perspective, religious beliefs generally (but not without exception) appear to represent adaptive systems which create and mediate cultural values and relationships. This indicates that to be fully human involves more than purely 'rational' existence. We might reflect here on Darwin's own horror of the possibility that the uneducated working classes would outbreed those who were more educated, like himself, even though, by his own survival-of-the-fittest logic, he should have taken a neutral, value-free view. He clearly thought that there was something valuable about humans 'at their best' that extended beyond reproduction. If it could no longer be viewed as a divine spark, then it was something equally transcendent—a quest for enlightenment and truth for its own sake, for example.

A real victory for science would consist not in sweeping other aspects of existence, such as religion, away (not that it has any hope of doing so), but in respectfully deepening understanding of what it is to live and die as a human and observe the universe from that perspective. Many dimensions of non-rational, symbolic or ritual behaviours can, of course, be partially or wholly analysed within a scientific framework, but other aspects will never be amenable to such a thing. There are places where experiment and verification cannot go and we have to observe, interpret, reflect and explain perceived phenomena in a qualitatively different way.

What we should remember, whatever disagreements and convergences this debate reveals, is that no data are untheorized; that theories embody values; and that therefore empirical research can never be wholly objective. In this sense, then, science is already pervaded by humanism—steeped in categories, perceptions and styles of entitation that have a long and distinctive cultural history. Science may be a (the?) most powerful way to answer questions, but both questions and answers are imbued with humane value. What is most important for John to do next is to encourage more people trained in traditionally 'non-scientific' disciplines to present their often highly sophisticated and demanding ideas in a way that enables greater dialogue across the arts-science divide. One day we may be able to just consider the quality and nature of our knowledge—distinguishing only good from bad thinking.

TIMOTHY TAYLOR is an archaeologist at University of Bradford, UK, and author of The Buried Soul. [more....]



From: Alison Gopnik
Date:
4.17.02

There is another reason why recent scientific advances, and the emergence of the third culture, provide at least some grounds for optimism. One of the arenas where we are making the most scientific progress is in our understanding of the origins of our own knowledge of the world, including the origins of science itself. It increasingly appears that human beings are, by and large, designed to get at the truth about the world. Much of the scientific process seems quite continuous with the ordinary ways that we learn about and make sense of the world, literally from the time we are born. From a scientific point of view, nonscientists ought to be able to follow, reflect on, understand and even emotionally empathize with scientific activity—and the success of popular science suggests that they do. Science provides us with a structured, socially organized way of exercising our innate truth-finding capacities.

The grounds for pessimism stem from the fact that the same capacities that, overall and in the long run, lead us to the truth, can, in some circumstances, lead to characteristic distortions and errors. In much the same way, the visual system does an absolutely remarkable job of getting us accurate information about the external world, but also generates the perceptual illusions you find in any psychology textbook.

Two sources of "cognitive illusion" are particularly relevant to the current culture. One involves cases where our explanatory drive far outstrips the evidence that is available to us. Ironically, the very motivations and emotions that are celebrated by many of the contributors to this discussion, the sense of glory in order and pleasure in explanation, may also be at the root of the continued appeal of magic, superstition and religious belief.

The other, perhaps more serious, problem, concerns the division of labor that is at the heart of the success of modern, socially organized science. The division of labor is itself one of the successful evolutionary devices that allow us to find the truth. By listening to their mothers, each generation of children can jump-start their way to the truth and take advantage of the militia of human investigation that preceded their appearance on the scene. But these mechanisms of authority and deference can easily produce a sort of cognitive software virus, a kind of counterworld in which the conventions take over from the reality—as in the medieval universities or many parts of the "official" humanities today. One of the puzzles of the history of science is why science never really took off in China. After all, China had an elaborate set of social institutions that encouraged and rewarded specialized scholarship, an enormous system of competitive examinations, and detailed mechanisms for establishing authority and passing on knowledge. Maybe the answer is that that social infrastructure, so painfully reminiscent of the contemporary American academic mandarinate, hurt more than it helped. The European intellectuals who started institutions like the Royal Society stayed as far away from the contemporary universities as they could.

Ultimately, though, there are grounds for at least a contingent kind of optimism (contingent, for example, on the fact that nuclear war or global warming don't get us first). In other areas, understanding both our capacities and limitations has led us to increase those capacities and overcome those limitations—the fact that I'm wearing glasses and writing this on a computer is testament to that. As we increasingly understand our learning capacities and limitations we ought, at least in principle, to be able to overcome both the intrinsic and social obstacles. Its just a guess, but I suspect that the program of John's essay will be one way to help solve the social organization problem. By providing social institutions that bridge and bypass the divisions of labor we ought to both be able to provide the right links between science and nonscientists, and to prevent the sort of internal wheel-spinning we see in so many parts of the "humanities" and too many parts of the sciences themselves.

ALISON GOPNIK is a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn. [more....]



From: Carlo Rovelli
Date:
4.17.02

Once more, John Brockman reclaims the cultural centrality of scientific thinking in our civilization. John tells us that a new "intellectual whole", a fresh reading of the world, is being developed by advancing contemporary science. This is the central role, recalls John, science had in the Renaissance that opened the modern age. Scientists today, or at least some scientists today, are the new humanists, searching and offering a powerful evolving, complex and articulated reading of the world, which is the core of today's culture.

I'd like to tell a story in this regard. It is a story that offers a perspective, and has a moral.

Many and many centuries ago, a young king of a small mountain kingdom had the wisest of all men as his teacher. The teacher taught the young king that knowledge is the source of civilization. And that rational scientific thinking is the way to knowledge. He nurtured in the king the immense dream of a novel world civilization, founded on knowledge. The king went to war. In his army, he did not have just soldiers, he had scientists, mathematicians, natural philosophers, engineers, writers, historians. People were amazed by the power of this army, that seemed capable, at times, to bend the world at his will. A city on a small island was considered impregnable: the scientists and engineers build a novel stretch of land to reach the island and took the city. The king conquered an immense empire, all the way to India. His life was brief and his empire fell rapidly apart. But his companions and the descendants of his companions inherited pieces of the empire, became wise kings and preserved the faith in knowledge. They built a great library to guard and propagate knowledge, and they keenly nurtured science. And science and knowledge developed astonishingly. The greatest scientist of all times lived then, medicine was born, optics was born, astronomy was born, physics was born, the basic book with the grammar of science, which we have all studied in school, was written in those times ... a way of enquiring the world had been found... With it, new huge ships were built, commerce flourished, new lands were reached, industries developed, people were healed, and the city of the wise king was diverse, prosperous, tolerant, intellectually vibrant and projected towards the future...

This is not a fairy tale. It is the true story of our civilization. The number of centuries ago is precisely twenty three. The young king is of course Alexander the Great. His wise teacher was Aristotle. The kings that continued his cultural politics are the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The great scientist is Archimedes. The book with the basic grammar of science we all have studied is Euclid's Elements, which created geometry. This is our deep heritage.

But did this inheritance continue across the centuries? No. Civilization fell back to obscurantism. The Romans failed to understand it. The story goes that they murdered Archimedes. Certainly they did not understand earlier theoretical science anymore. Time went on, things got worse and worse. The great library of Alexandria was burned down. Irrational and religious thinking prevailed. The kind of thinking whose effects we can well contemplate today in its very central nest: Jerusalem...

Eighteen century later, European men, full of awe and respect, slowly started to search and translate ancient books, where remaining bits of the old knowledge were still present, copied over and over by innumerable hidden and devoted hands. It took sometime, but soon some of these men, courageously, decided not to just rediscover, but to start the path again, push the path ahead. Galileo Galilei was one of these, well aware, as is clear in his writings, that he was doing again, eighteen centuries later, what had begun in ancient times. The path of rational knowledge had restarted. To a large extent, the modern world exists thanks to cumulated rational knowledge: the Greeks' recipe has worked.

Why tell this story? For various reasons. One is to remember that when we teach, say, elementary physics, we are not just training bored students to technical problem solving. We are telling them the story of one of the most extraordinary of the human adventures, the successful paths to knowledge. This is the story of human intelligence used at its best, with advantages for anyone of us. We are teaching the ways of the path to knowledge in our species, nothing less. The second reason is that I do not think Plato or Kant, or Wittgenstein, or so much of western philosophy, could be comprehensible, without the full understanding of the mathematics and the science of their times. And so many are the cultural misreadings of the historians who failed to understand the relevant mathematics and science (on this, and on others of the ideas presented here, see Lucio Russo's La Rivoluzione Dimenticata, Feltrinelli).

But the main reason for keeping this story in mind is that the Greeks had the far reaching intuition of the identity of civilization, knowledge, and rational thinking: but the they eventually lost. It took humanity eighteen centuries to restart the experiment. The path was lost once, and could be lost, in larger or smaller part, again. That we stay this direction is far from being granted.

We are certainly far away from obscurantism. But there are also signs of reaction against scientific thinking, and John's optimistic essay is also a warning against these. There are heavy signs of irrationalism all other the planet, and also in the words of our very top leaders. Our guarantee against obscurantism is not democracy alone: peoples have often voted into power forces that openly adhered to irrationalism such as the Nazis, or some current governments. Our guarantee against obscurantism is the widespread recognition of the vital and clear force of rational scientific thinking. This can help us finding a better world, if irrationalism (or the thirst of power and wealth concentration of our political leaderships) don't drive us down.

When I talk with cultivated people that happily claim they know nothing about math and science, I get even more scared than when powerful people say they do not read books. The control might fall in the hands of people that have no understanding of the basics of our understanding of the world, of our capacity of getting to correct answers and correct predictions.

There is much that is not science and that we want to defend around us. This does not change the core of John's thesis, that scientific thinking is at the core of our knowledge based civilization. We can add to this our thirsty belief in justice; our faith in dreams; our deep awareness of the emptiness of life; or our faith in humanity as a value; our desire of beauty; our joy in talking to all objects with a song; our sense of the mystery; and anything else that the wonders of the human adventure have given us. Nothing of this is challenged by science or challenges science. To the very contrary. The scientific quest for knowledge is deeply emotional in its ways and motivations. But if we resist it, we resist reality. Reality, however complex and unknowledgeable in its deepness, is there, and fights back. This is why rational scientific thinking is stronger. Whenever science has an answer to a well posed question, this answer is, at present, by far the best available answer.

More than that, science is intrinsically capable of multiplying well posed questions. And in this way it leads us continuously to unexpected new realms. The intensity with which this is happening in the last decades is wonderful. Yes, I agree with John that we are in a moment of splendid explosion. Science has opened new realms that no unrealist could ever dream of. Myself, I work in science because I believe in dreams. Science offers such magical dreams, so much more colored and so much more real than the tenuous dream called everyday's reality.

CARLO ROVELLI is a theoretical physicist at the Centre de Physique Theorique in Marseille, France. [more....]



From: Robert R. Provine
Date:
4.17.02

New Humanist Warriors

While reading "The New Humanists", I found myself mostly nodding in agreement. After all, Brockman is preaching to the choir. What's not to like? It's difficult to argue with scientific flag and motherhood statements. It's obvious that the rest of the world should think and act more like us. Most scientists use empirical methods to seek that which is deep, elegant, and true, using experimental methods to settle disputes and reject error. The power of good science is that the method is so effective that it transcends mediocre practitioners. Like penicillin, it works despite who dispenses it. Many of the New Humanist values have already gained a foothold in Western society, with the power of technology and medicine converting many skeptics. I was not sure whether to treat the essay as a manifesto, progress report, self-congratulation, or declaration of victory—it's clearly too late in the game for a call to action. Brockman's 1992 essay, "The Emerging Third Culture", had more work to do.

I direct attention to a topic neglected in this new essay, the scientist/writer warriors of his New Humanism who are to enlighten, entertain, and change the world. Writing by these Third Culture intellectuals has a personal cost, scientific productivity. (The financial costs were nicely solved by the development of a literary niche.) Few, if any, Nobelists and Nobel class scientists write books, at least while occupied at the lab bench and in hot pursuit of the Prize. The 24/7 schedule of cutting-edge science leaves little time for writing, let alone book writing. Unless scientist/writers are highly efficient, they may become the handmaidens (handbutlers?) of this enterprise, not its leaders. Research reports in refereed journals are the preferred publication form of scientists. And grant writing is necessary to pay laboratory bills and keep university administrators at bay.

While perched before the word processor, a scientist is neither turning the crank on the research machine nor bringing in research dollars, but is performing an important service. Books and key reviews advance the scientific enterprise, especially in framing issues, organizing scattered material, establishing new lines of endeavor, and, if directed to a broad audience, educating the public who finance the research. A book does this more effectively than shorter, more dispersed journal articles that may never reach critical mass. However, the act of writing also benefits the scientist. Text is crystallized thought, and the act of writing, especially writing in the long-form of a book, forces intellectual discipline. Writing is the act of learning what it is that you have to say. Blocking may reveal the terrible truth that you are confused and need to rethink what you are trying to do. Writing goes beyond reporting and is an active tool in intellectual and scientific activity. It's unfortunate that the fast pace of catch-as-catch-can modern science makes it difficult for science stories to be told by those who can tell them best, the scientists who are doing the work and love what they are doing.

ROBERT R. PROVINE is a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. [more....].



From: Steven Johnson
Date:
4.15.02

John, I read this—and the responses—with great interest, as I do everything that gets published on Edge. As others have suggested, the site itself is the finest example of the phenomenon you describe in the essay. Kudos on both.

I think Nicholas Humphrey may have a point when he says that "you've already won." One brief piece of anecdotal evidence: I attended a dinner party last weekend that was populated entirely by people who had spent their undergraduate—and in some cases graduate—years in the trenches of post-modernist theory. These were all people, like me, who had sworn allegiance to Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Jameson, et al. in their early twenties. (A number were Semiotics majors with me at Brown.) Any science courses we'd taken in those days we took in order to archly deconstruct the underlying "paradigm of research", or expose one of any number of "centrisms" lurking behind the scientific text and its illusory claims of empirical truth.

What struck me over dinner, though, was how readily the conversation drifted—without me pushing it along—to precisely the realm that you describe in the New Humanists, largely focused around brain issues. None of these people had returned to grad school in neuroscience, mind you, but they were all clearly versed in, and fascinated by, the latest news from the brain sciences: they talked casually about neurotransmitters and "other-mindedness"; they leaned readily on evolutionary psychological explanations for the behavior they were discussing; they talked about the role of the "god spot" in the evolution of religious belief. There wasn't a scarequote or a relativist aside in the entire conversation. I couldn't help think that if any one of them had made a comparable argument ten or fifteen years ago they would have been heckled out of the room.

I don't think my dinner survey was anomalous. It seems to me that the most interesting work right now is work that tries to bridge the two worlds, that looks for connections rather than divisions. I think that's what Wilson was proposing in Consilience: not the annexing of the humanities by the sciences, but a kind of conceptual bridge-building. In fact, I would say that the most consilient work today has come from folks trained as cultural critics—books like Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire with its mix of Nietzsche and Dawkins, or Manuel De Landa's 1000 Years of Non-Linear History with its unique combination of Deleuze and chaos theory.

I suspect there are other bridges to build in the coming years, but the traffic along those bridges will have to be two-way for the interaction to pay off. Obviously, the post-modernists have made a lot of noise trashing the empirical claims of sciences, but if you tune out a lot of that bombast, there's quite a bit in the structuralist and post-structuralist tradition that resonates with new developments in the sciences. To name just a few: the underlying premise of deconstruction—that our systems of thought are fundamentally shaped and limited by the structure of language—resonates with many chapters of a book like The Language Instinct. (I tried to persuade Pinker of this when I interviewed him years ago for Feed.) The postmodern assumption of a "constructed reality" dovetails nicely with the idea of consciousness as a kind of artificial theater, and not a direct apprehension of things in themselves. Semiotics and structuralism both began with Levi-Strauss' research into universal mythology, which obviously has deep connections to the project of evolutionary psychology.

So it seems to me that there are a number of productive avenues that scientists can explore by visiting the world of the humanities—and not just vice versa. I hope more of that exploration can happen on Edge—there's really no better forum for it.

STEVEN JOHNSON, co-founder of Feed, a pioneering Web publication, is the author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. [more....]



From: Lee Smolin
Date:
4.15.02

To my mind what is significant about the idea of a Third Culture and a New Humanism has little to do with a split between academic humanists and scientists. That was the old First/Second culture debate, and there is no need to rehash it. The point I think John is making, and the point that I think is worth discussing is the extent to which that old split has been transcended by the work of some scientists and humanists over the last few decades. I believe that it has, and the reason is that there has been a turn in the kind of questions people are asking across a broad range of fields, and—even more importantly—there has been a shift in what kinds of answers scientists, social scientist and humanists have been searching for in their work. This shift, which I will characterize in a moment, is what characterizes the Third Culture and New Humanism, and it is also why these movements are able to resolve the old disputes between First and Second Culture scientists and humanists.

Thus, what Third Culture and New Humanist intellectuals have to offer society is far more than just being in touch with science. They represent the vanguard of a broad intellectual movement that already has representatives in diverse fields of the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

I think the deepest characterization of this new movement is epistemological, because it is about the kinds of questions people are asking and the kinds of answers they are searching for. It is indicated by the emergence of new styles of explanation which reject the notion of an eternal "ultimate reality" perceived by God alone in favor of more rational and accessible styles of explanations. The old style explanation relies on the hypothesis that behind the ever changing appearances there is an "ultimate reality" that is eternal and unchanging. This eternal reality may be God, it may be eternal principles of justice or aesthetics, or it may be the ultimate laws of nature. The new style of explanation rejects such ideas as being in the end little different from mysticism, as the alleged "ultimate reality" is unknown and unknowable. As pointed out by C. S. Peirce, any explanation that rests on an appeal to the existence of ultimate and unchanging eternal laws of nature is fundamentally irrational, because there can be no further explanation of why those laws of nature, rather than some others, hold. Such an explanation is logically no different than an appeal to "the mind of God."

The new style of explanation rejects the Platonic myth of an eternal realm of true ideas in favor of the idea that knowledge has no meaning apart from what humans beings, as part of the natural world, can perceive and agree on. It also rejects the transcendent fantasies according to which scientist used to picture themselves outside of reality and outside of any society, in the place of God, surveying all that exists without being a part of it. Instead, many scientists are now happy to see ourselves as individuals who work inside of communities of living beings, who seek knowledge by sharing their observations and debating their ideas.

At the same time, this new style of explanation is neither relativist nor irrational. It believes that there is a truth to things, and that human beings are capable of finding it. It is just rejects as irrational mythology the idea that truth is possible because of the existence of an imagined platonic realm of eternal, absolute ideas. Instead, this new movement grounds the notion and possibility of truth on the ability human beings have to argue rationally and in good faith from shared evidence and, by doing so, to arrive at agreement. To accept this is to accept also the notion that rationality is situated and pluralistic. By accepting that there will be things that appear differently from different viewpoints, we strengthen the importance of those things that we find we can agree on.

A contributing factor to this shift is that our cosmological picture has changed drastically, in a way that makes the search for an eternal "ultimate reality" incoherent. Relativity and quantum theory tell us that science must be based on relational quantities, that have to do with relationships between things in the universe, and that no appeal to anything transcend or eternal or otherwise outside the universe is possible, or even meaningful. Observations tell us that we live in a young universe, that was born a relatively short time ago, and has been evolving ever since. It is far from clear what eternal laws of physics can mean, when the universe itself is only a few billion years old.

An aspect of this is the attitude towards reductionism. Everyone can agree that when something is made of parts it is of course useful to explain it in terms of its parts. This is fine but the problem is that there is a natural limitation to how far such a reductionist explanation can be pushed. When it succeeds, reductionism must lead to an explanation in terms of some set of elementary particles and forces. But then there is a problem, because if the elementary particles are truly fundamental their properties cannot be explained by a further appeal to reductionism. So the question of why these fundamental particles and laws, and not others, must be answered in some way that is not itself reductionist. So if we truly want a rational understanding of why things are as they are, and not otherwise, we must follow the path of reductionism till we find out what the fundamental parts are, but after this we must find new, non reductionist modes of explanation.

Once a science reaches the point where naive reductionism can take us no further, there are three moves one can make. The first is of course to deny the existence of a crisis with reductionism and continue in a hopeless search for the eternal "ultimate reality". Unfortunately, this characterizes some, but by no means all, recent work in fundamental physics. Physicists who align themselves with the "many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, "eternal inflation" or who believe that theoretical physics is about to end with the discovery of "M theory" are operating from what may be called a "nostalgia for the absolute." There are similar, nostalgic movements in other fields.

The second response is what can be called the postmodernist move. This begins by denying the use of reductionism and the importance of rational understandings altogether. Truth is held to be nothing but a social construction, and a thorough going relativism is embraced. This is even worse than the nostalgic response, because it undermines the very reasons for the crisis, and leaves us suspended in an impotent haze from within which we cannot even remember how useful rational thought has been for improving our world, politically, scientifically and humanly. Even more than that, the postmodern ideology sabotages the possibility for democracy, because it denies the possibility that people in different situations, with different points of view, can argue rationally on the basis of shared evidence and reach agreement and mutual understanding.

There is however, a third, progressive response to the crisis in the search for "ultimate reality." This is to accept the strengths and limitations of reductionism and to seek to go beyond it to a more comprehensive and powerful kind of explanation. Evolution by natural selection is a paradigmatic example of such a theory: it is consistent with reductionism, but transcends it in being ultimately historical and allowing causation to go both ways-from the more to less complex, and the reverse. By attributing order to self-organization rather than design from the outside, evolution by natural selection offers an essentially rational mode of understanding that avoids any mystical appeal to eternal "ultimate causes of things."

Another characteristic of such explanations is that they may be applied to whole systems, which contain both all their causes and all their observers. Such whole systems include the universe, societies and ecologies. This implies that there is no useful view from outside the system, instead description and explanation are both pluralistic and relational, because they must take into account that any observer is situated inside the system. Thus, rather than denying objectivity, this kind of approach rationalizes it, by rooting objectivity in what may be observed from many, distinct view points, rather than in a mythical appeal to an "ultimate reality or an imaginary viewpoint from outside the system. This makes possible both science—that is knowledge without appeal to authority—and democracy in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic society.

This new kind of explanation characterizes much of modern biology, as well as recent approaches to complex and self-organized systems, whether economic, sociological, physical or biological. Into this category also goes new approaches to the foundations of quantum mechanics, which have been called relational quantum theory and new approaches to explanation in cosmology, such as cosmological natural selection, the notion of internal observables, and varying speed of light cosmologies.

I believe that what John has called the Third Culture and the New Humanism is ultimately rooted in this pluralistic, relational approach to knowledge. It characterizes many (although of course not all) of the thinkers that were interviewed in the Third Culture book. But the divide between the older, absolutes-seeking styles of thought and the newer, pluralistic and embodied, relational approach does not run cleanly between the sciences and the humanities. Many of the key debates now animating science are between specialists whose philosophical predilections put them on either side of this divide. The debates between many worlds and relational approaches to quantum mechanics or between string theorists and loop quantum gravity theorists clearly reflect this larger debate. So do the debates in evolutionary theory about the level and mechanisms of natural selection and the debates among computer scientists concerning the possibility of strong artificial intelligence. At the same time there are artists, philosophers, scholars, architects and legal theorists whose work is an exploration of the implications of the new attitude towards knowledge. Among them one can mention legal theorists such as Roberto Unger and Drucilla Cornell and artists and writers as diverse as Brian Eno and Pico Iyer.

Finally, it must of course be mentioned that what I have called a new approach to knowledge has very old roots. The 17th Century philosopher Leibniz was keenly aware that the world is a system of relations and the American pragmatists such as Peirce were already a century ago confronting the implications of Darwinism for epistemology and philosophy in general. (Indeed, the simplest way to divide Old from New Humanists is to ask whether their writing shows an awareness of how radically Darwinian evolution changes the background for doing new work in philosophy.) But Leibnizs worldview was to a large extent put aside in favor of Newtonian physics, until it was revived in the 20th Century, while the pragmatists have not had the influence of the deconstructionists in the American academy. When graduate students in the humanities embrace Peirce and Dewey, rather than Foucault and Derrida, and when they read Darwin rather than Hegel, we will be able to say that the New Humanism has come of age.

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist and a founding member at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada. And author of Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. [more....]



From: Jaron Lanier
Date:
4.15.02

Bravo, John!

You are playing a vital role in moving the sciences beyond a defensive posture in response to turf attacks from the "postmodernists" and other leeches on the academies. You celebrate science and technology as our most pragmatic expressions of optimism.

I wonder, though, if it's enough to merely point out how hopelessly lost those encrusted arts and humanities intellectuals have become to their petty arms races of cynicism. If we scientists and technologists are to be the new humanists, we must recognize that there are questions that must be addressed by any thinking person which do not lie within our established methods and dialogs. Indeed your edge.org website has provided one of the few forums where scientists can exchange ideas about some of these questions.

Maybe there's a community of scientists who have become the "new humanists", but that isn't good enough.

We "technical people" must either learn to be able to talk about certain things with a greater sensitivity, for a larger popular audience with needs that might seem extraordinary to many of us, or we will continue to cede much influence by default to whoever else is more willing to rise to the occasion.

While "postmodern" academics and "2nd culture" celebrity figures are perhaps the most insufferable enemies of science, they are certainly not the most dangerous. Even as we are beginning to peer at biology's most essential foundations for the first time, we find ourselves in a situation in which vast portions of the educated population have turned against the project of science in favor of pop alternatives that are usually billed as being more "spiritual". These range from the merely silly (such as astrology) to the archaic, mean, and often violent religious orthodoxies which seem to be gaining power within many of the world's religious traditions at the same time.

What is it that drives vast numbers of people into superstition, and the inevitable exploitation that follows from it? What is it, for instance, that has made medicine informed by science (often derided as being merely "Western", or "Allopathic") so unattractive to so many smart people, when it is utterly clear that it has been an overwhelming success?

Perhaps the science culture elite has not sufficiently appreciated the task it must take on if it is to be its own advocate. Postmodern critics of science are mostly merely ridiculous, while the mainstream enemies of science are something much worse: They are winning.

What does that word "spirituality" mean? Let me propose a definition: One's spirituality is the range of one's emotional relationships to those questions which cannot be answered. Scientists and technologists naturally gravitate away from such questions. "What happens when you die?", for instance. Of what we cannot speak we remain silent. We have made peace with the big questions every child asks by finding the limits to our abilities to answer them.

Many of us have grown comfortable with a few familiar and eternal splotches of ignorance, even though they are centrally placed in our fields of view, because there have been compensations for our disappointments. We're delighted that the universe can be understood so well in so many ways, and specifically that we've been able to make personal contributions to that understanding. We're often enchanted with the beauty we see in nature; beauty that's harder for non-specialized people to appreciate. Some among us have even found faith of one sort or another, but usually only faith which is precisely coincident with those splotches of ignorance.

But what we forget is that many people, probably most, haven't had life experiences which lubricate such intellectual bargains. Most people are not comfortable with accepting a little unfortunately-placed ignorance, or perhaps uncertainty leading to only rigorously bounded zones of faith, in exchange for robust specialized knowledge in other areas. There is every reason in the world to ridicule stupid elitist cultural figures who use trendy pessimisms as a cover for narcissism. Yes, please, let's have fun with them. But that approach won't do much for the hugely larger number of people who suffer from sincere anxiety about the unanswerable big questions.

I'd like to focus on one particular cultural pathway which I believe is driving much of the public away from the sciences, because some members of the edge.com community are central to it. It goes like this: A scientist or technologist is sought out by the media because she is articulate about life beyond the lab. She appears on TV talking about items with human interest using the intellectual framework of her research. Suppose she likes to think in the terms of artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, or some of the other intellectual frameworks which refute the "specialness" of people in order to clarify investigations. An idea arising from such a framework which might serve a purpose in the lab often turns out to fall flat out in the open environment. For instance, if she's an artificial intelligence researcher, she might in passing wonder if a lonely, childless couples could raise a robotic child for comfort in the future. This was an idea in a popular science fiction movie recently, but was also espoused as a reasonable and realistic eventuality by an MIT scientist on National Public Radio.

Within the informed scientific and technological community, it's possible to have a nuanced debate about such a remark. It's possible to ask if the scale of complexity in a real child can really be approximated by a digital device anytime in the relevantly near future. One might point out that even if the hardware gets vast and fast enough, we don't seem to be able to write stable giant programs, so some unforeseen advances would at a minimum be required on the software front.

But that's not what happens out in the wide world of non-scientists. "Soft", or "spiritual" people, for instance, are often disturbed and become more likely to cancel doctors' appointments in favor of aromatherapy sessions. If scientists think robots and children are the same, then a pox on them! When the artificial intelligence researcher equated, even in a very narrow sense, information systems and human beings, she inadvertently answered some of the big questions of childhood in a particular way. I fear the message ends up being heard as something like, "Not only is there no soul, no afterlife, no nothing magical about you at all, but I'm an elite scientist who can see into your circuitry and make another thing like you, thus making you in a fundamental way subordinate to me."

The arts and humanities (and lets not forget the religions!) have been perpetually faced with the challenge of making simple things complicated. So we have preposterously garbled academic books about philosophy and art. This is a little like that old trope about Cargo Cults. When I was trained as a composer, I was made to study ridiculously arcane academic music that only a small number of people could understand. This simulated the situation in physics, in the hopes that similar prestige, budgets, and even parking spaces on campus might be forthcoming for the most celebrated and cryptic elite. In this case the cargo cult approach worked!

Science faces the opposite problem. Most scientists would be delighted if the inherent elitism of a hard discipline would suddenly drop away, so that there could be an army of new collaborators. Sadly, this future is not to be. Instead, we have to learn new ways to improve the interactions between the scientific community and the world at large.

This is where I think the "Third Culture" still needs to mature. Science must learn to be better at communicating its limits non-apologetically as strengths. And scientists might have to learn to communicate in public about how we, too, are sometimes troubled at night by the unanswerable questions.

JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of virtual reality, and currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative. [more....]



From: Michael Shermer
Date:
4.14.02

This is the finest essay you have penned to date John, but I wondered if it could not just as easily have been titled "The New Scientists"—scientists who have adopted "scientism" as a complete and all-encompassing secular world-view that includes humanism (as traditionally conceived) but is not necessarily restricted to its tenets or activities. In several publications I have noted your important contribution to the building of a scientistic world-view through the primary vehicle of its dissemination—book publishing. Since we live in a free society and a free market, instead of cursing the darkness we scientists should light a candle through books, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, and other forms of communication. My hat's off to you and to the Edge community for the construction of this culture of scientism. We have come a long ways, but it's a long row to hoe.

To that extent I feel your essay is as much prescriptive as it is descriptive. That is, this is definitely the direction our culture is moving but we are not quite there yet. As the publisher of a science magazine (Skeptic) and a contributing editor and monthly columnist for another science magazine (Scientific American), I find myself, like you, prescribing as much as describing this scientistic (third) culture. And if you compare Skeptic to, say, The Humanist magazine, or Free Inquiry magazine (the two main humanist publications in America), there is still a striking difference in content. Where they cover issues like abortion, birth control, overpopulation, third world poverty, civil and human rights around the world, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, etc., we (Skeptic, and even less so Scientific American) rarely deal with these issues, and when we do it is only orthogonally so where they intercept with, say, what science can tell us when "life begins," or what new technologies there are for birth control, why overpopulation is related to education, how poverty can be effected by the adoption of a market economy, why church and state need to be kept separate in order to protect the teaching of the theory of evolution from creationists, etc.

In other words, my "Scientism" and your "Third Culture" are really still mostly science and not so much humanism, because science still has little to say about absolute moral choices. Science may be able to inform our moral choices (e.g., abortion before the 23rd week is not murder because the neural template is not yet complete, thus there can be no consciousness, thought, etc.), but science cannot (or, at least, has yet to date) to provide actual moral decisions somehow apart from the human being making that moral decision in a very personal way. This is a (so far) insoluble problem. The "why" is the easy part—science (more specifically, evolutionary ethics and evolutionary psychology) can explain the origin of morality. The "how" part is a different (and more difficult) story. How we should be moral, science has far less to say. I have yet to determine if this is a permanent limitation of science, or just that no one has solved the problem yet. Until then, I fear that the gap (although closing) between science and humanism may never be completely closed.

MICHAEL SHERMER Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. [more....]



From: Piet Hut
Date:
4.14.02

I, too, expect science to be able to deal with any aspect of reality, in due time. The only catch is that we don't have much of an idea what this future science will look like. This means that we can be proud of the method of science, and of the results that have been obtained so far, but we'd better be very modest about claims that our current results more or less describe the world 'as it really is'. There are two directions in which to argue for this position.

1. Argument from the past. Remember how self-assured many of the leading physicists were toward the end of the nineteenth century? Fundamental physics seemed almost completed - and then suddenly relativity theory and quantum mechanics came along, offering a vastly different understanding of physical reality. Today we still admire the great contributions from people like Maxwell and Kelvin, but we have completely dropped their pictures of what the world really is like.

2. Argument from the future. Imagine living in the year 100,000, in an optimistic picture in which civilization has not completely destroyed itself. Would it really be plausible that history books would tell you then that science developed in 500 years, from Galileo in 1600 till the year 2100, when the structure of reality was understood, with the rest being 97,900 years of footnotes? I find this extremely hard to believe. I consider it far more likely that we will continue to see 'jaws dropping, eyes widening, minds opening', not only in popular presentations, but at the very frontier of science as well.

This is why I don't expect science to be able to provide a valid alternative to a full world view anywhere soon. Whether we are looking for an ethical, humanistic, religious, or spiritual view of the world including our own presence, science just isn't far enough along to address that quest. It makes more sense to use the scientific method to sift through the knowledge that has come down to us through the ages, to try to separate dogma and specific cultural trappings, while highlighting that which seems to be based most on empirical investigations. Insisting that the results of those investigations fit into a 21st (or 19th or 23rd) century snapshot of a scientific framework would be arbitrary limiting.

I wish I could have a peek into the future to see what a more mature future science would look like, what mathematical structures it would use, how it would describe the subject, to what extent it might have risen beyond a purely descriptive style into other types of (still empirical and verifiable) investigations. Who knows? But whatever will be discovered with these tools in, say, the year 52,002 will already now apply to the real world. And the question is, from the vantage point of 52,002: will our current scientific knowledge be seen to be more helpful to leading a full life than our current religious and spiritual views? If we distill from the latter what is closest related to experiential insights into the human mind, my guess would be that these will provide for us the more useful tools for quite a few centuries to come.

PIET HUTan astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. and a founding member of the Kira Institute. [more....]



From:
Joesph LeDoux
Date:
4.14.02

It's great to seek some sort of fusion across diverse fields, but I'm concerned that things are not as black and white as you imply in the piece. There are of course some vocal "relativists" in academic circles, but I think most people who are actually making culture (artists, writers, muscians) are open to and very interested in what science has to say. Unfortunately, the same is less the case for some scientists. It shocking to see how ignorant and dismissive of the arts scientists can be. As I see it, a broader view of culture you propose is going to require some mind expansion in the sciences as well.

JOSEPH LEDOUX is a neuroscientist at New York University and author of Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. [more....]



From:
Chris Anderson
Date:
4.13.02

First off, the philosopher in me suspects there is some language confusion seeping into this discussion.

Both Marc Hauser and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi seem to characterize your essay as championing the cause of 'scientists' over 'humanists'. But I think in fact you are arguing that Third Culture scientists have now been joined by enlightened new thinkers from the humanities and that together they can lay claim to the term 'humanists'.

So I have two questions.

1. Are you sure you want to use the term 'humanist' as the banner to unite under? In his controversial speech at TED this year, Richard Dawkins pointed out that there is a kind of speciesism inherent in the term that runs counter to some of the most profound insights of the Third Culture revolution... that we are special, but still just part of a much bigger, mind-bogglingly complex evolutionary process that (in your own words) is at an early stage. Dawkins' preferred banner of 'atheist' has its own problems (why use a negative to define something that is profoundly positive?). If the goal is to reference Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, how about 'Renaissance thinker'...? Actually this would be a great forum for you to canvas alternatives. 'Rationalist'? 'Universalist'? There's a lot of historical baggage whichever way you turn.

2. How far can the revolution go without the 'humanists' providing something to replace the role of religion? Suppose it turns out that religious instinct and consequent religious group behavior has been a part of our species since sentience first arose? Then the assumption of some scientists that the new intellectual framework they've provided means religion can be abandoned may be as mistaken as the now discredited belief that cultures can simply reinvent sexual and moral norms. Maybe most societies just need religious expression as part of being human. What's interesting is that science, or at least the breathtakingly mysterious world unveiled by science, is potentially capable of filling that role. As Douglas Rushkoff says: "The jaw drops, the eyes widen, the mind opens." But so far this is typically experienced by an individual alone. There is no venue for a group celebration of the mystery of our planet and universe. The very idea seems embarrassing. Yet without the group experience, it is possible the psychological appeal of church, mosque and synagogue will be too strong for the revolution you believe ever to become more than the conviction of an enlightened minority. Howard Rheingold asks whether science can crack the problem of "cooperation". It's a key question. But even more important may be whether it can ever inspire cooperation.

CHRIS ANDERSON, a philosopher by training, is the Chairman and Host of the TED Conference held each February in Monterey, California. [more....]



From:
George Dyson
Date:
4.13.02

Twelve years ago I was invited to join the Reality Club. It changed my life. Brockman's genius was in recognizing that there was something about science (and some but not all scientists) that transcended the boundaries of the profession itself. If you were deeply and completely engaged in trying to better understand some aspect of reality, you could give a talk about it, and thereby join the Club. I talked about 18th-century Aleut/Russian kayaks in Alaska and my attempts to reconstruct them, and I passed.

I am not suggesting that "The New Humanists" is a hoax, like Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," but I believe that it is a test. Brockman is testing us too-comfortable members of the old Reality Club, now settled into our overstuffed browsers, to see if we will wake up and say, "Hey! Wait a minute! This is exactly the kind of talk about talk and writing about writing that's so far removed from objective reality that it won't get you into the Club! Who let this guy in here, anyway?"

We now return to our normal programming. This was only a test.

GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. [more....]



From:
Kenneth Ford
Date:
4.13.02

It's a good essay, John, thought-provoking and on target. I for one would find it more effective if it conveyed less certitude and more of the tentative quality that characterizes science. (Is the "fossil culture" really in decline?)

KENNETH W. FORD is the retired director of the American Institute of Physics and coauthor (with John Archibald Wheeler) of Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. [more....]



From:
Marc D. Hauser
Date:
4.12.02

I read your piece "The New Humanists" with interest, but actually think that you have painted a caricature of both scientists and humanists. Somehow, you have convinced yourself that the goals of humanists should be more closely aligned with those of science. I think this is a mistake. I think the problem with your essay is that in trying to make the argument that scientists have swallowed up the positions long held by humanists, you have actually blurred two important issues.

The first point concerns what any respecting intellectual should know about the world. You argue, and I concur, that one simply can't be an educated member of the species Homo sapiens without knowing about the sciences. What the new humanists, as you call them, have done, is opened the door on some of the mysteries of science by making such information accessible to a general public. Making information accessible is, of course, for the good. One might argue, and sometimes I have, that some of the information disseminated by scientists is done in such a way that it is almost mischievously irresponsible. But that is another story. Returning to the main point, I fully agree that for those in the humanities to remain woefully ignorant of the sciences is to remain in the bleachers of an intellectual life. But here one could equally well accuse many scientists of remaining woefully ignorant of the humanities. I am often shocked and appalled by scientists who have never read some of the classics of literature, who know little about history, and who continue to ignore insights from philosophy. So, the finger can be pointed both ways. Summing up, it is hard to argue with what I take to be one of your main points, specifically, no card carrying intellectual should be ignorant of the sciences. Ditto for the humanities.

This brings up the second point, which I believe is unfortunately fused with the first. You seem to suggest that the humanities ought to have the same or at least quite similar goals to the sciences. (You applaud humanists who think like scientists, and point the schoolmarm's finger at those who don't). The humanities can, and should I believe, have different goals. Take, for instance, philosophy. Although I personally have a great affinity for the empirical philosophers such as Dennett, Fodor, Block, Stitch, and Sober, I also enjoy reading work in the philosophy of ethics that toys with interesting moral (fantasty) dilemmas, philosophy of language that presents interesting twists on meaning and metaphor, and philosophy of mind that simply engages one to think about possible worlds. Many of these philosophical discussions explicitly ignore empirical work because that is not the underlying mission. I don't think this is bad at all. It is healthy.

So, to put a final point on the discussion, there is plenty of room for scientists to do their thing, humanists to do theirs, and for fertile interactions to arise between the two. I of course agree that the most fertile ground is in the interface zone, but that is a matter of taste!

Two smaller points:

1. You claim that science is a "wide-open system." I think you are very much wrong. There are significant constraints on science. Although science may well move on, it is often constrained by particular paradigms that are dominant, and often dominated by particularly powerful individuals. There are also ethical constraints, as evidenced recently by heated discussions concerning the use of information from the human genome project to explore biomedical issues related to ethnic background.

2. On science, information and quantity. The contrast with Moore's law fails in my opinion. I have never heard a scientist speak of the quantity of information. Sure enough, there are more journals now than at any time in the past, and all of us complain about keeping up. But I would rather think of science as changing as a function of radical new ideas that open the door to looking at problems in new and exciting ways, as opposed to simply gaining new information. Each new paradigm shift changes the game. Sure, there is more information. But it is the new information, guided by the new paradigm, that is of interest. When Darwin provided his lightening bolt of intuition, he turned people around and caused them to look at problems in a new light. Yes, it led to more information. But quantity wasn't the issue. Similarly, when Chomsky provided his lightening bolt of intuition into the structure of language, yes it generated immense data sets on the similarities among languages. But critically, it provided a new way of looking for new information. Again, quantity wasn't the issue.

MARC D. HAUSER is an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard University and author of Wild Minds: What Animals Think. [more....]



From:
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
Date:
4.11.02

John, I do share with you the almost petulant impatience concerning what passes for scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences. The isolation from the rest of the world, the navel-gazing, the faddish swings and inbred coteries are not a pretty sight.

But is this situation due to the perversity of humanists, or is it a temporary disease that just now happens to afflict the humanities? You seem to blame mostly the individuals involved, whereas I would hope that the problem resides with the way the humanities have been practiced in the past few generations.

The mandate of the sciences is to explore, discover, and create new ways of looking at the world, and new ways of controlling physical processes. Some of this will be useful to humankind; some—such as nuclear waste, hothouse gasses, genetic changes—might yet be our bane. But because every culture (first, second, third...) tends towards hegemony and values dogma, we must pretend that science is an unmitigated blessing. And in the meantime, it is true, as you say, that the pursuit of science and its sexy daughter, technology, are a lot of fun for those involved in the chase.

What we expect from the humanities is something different. It is not the production of novelty, but the selection among them, the evaluation of what is important, meaningful (dare I say "good"?)—and then the transmission of the selected human achievements to the next generation. And the next. Thus the role of the humanities is conservative, bridging the present with the future with a view to the past. As you know, there cannot be evolution without a well-working mechanism for screening novelties that improve life from inferior ones: producing novelty alone does not lead to adaptive change. To help in this process should be the role of the humanities.

Of course, by and large the humanities have abandoned that task. Why? There are surely many reasons, but one of the major ones is that the same criteria that make sense in science have been applied to the humanities. Assistant professors in philosophy or English are hired and promoted on the basis of the "originality" of their contributions—which forces them to come up with ever cuter novelties rather than reflect on what is valuable and permanent. Young scholars are not rewarded for being good humanists, but for applying the "explore, discover, create" approach to texts, in a superficial imitation of the sciences. If there is blame to assign, it is the recent success of the sciences that has helped erode the uniqueness of the humanities.

So it is true, in my opinion, that the domains of the humanities are in trouble. But it is less of a distinction between "scientists" and "humanists" than between the institutional structures and the social reward systems within which the two groups operate. As you say at the end of the article, there are humanists who think like scientists, and vice versa. In fact, it is probably true that the frequency of scientists who are provincial in their outlook, who ignore the long-term implications of their work, who disdain anyone outside their circle, is at least as large as that of benighted humanists. The difference is that they are doing a job appreciated by the majority, while the humanists are not.

Therefore my solution to this problem is in some ways the opposite of your—the humanities need to rediscover their true calling, and stick by it. Of course, this does mean that in order to evaluate, select, and transmit valuable knowledge the individual humanists has to be acquainted with the novelty produced by scientists, and understand its implications. It may no longer be possible for an artist to be at the forefront of science, like Leonardo was, but the insularity of both camps ought to decrease. With a common fund of knowledge, the two endeavors can then proceed towards their respective goals.

MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI is the Davidson Professor of Management at the Claremont Graduate University, and author of Finding Flow. [more....]



From: Douglas Rushkoff
Date:
4.11.02

Fascinating piece, John. And it couldn't come at a better time.

Funny, it reminded me of Buckminster Fuller's argument, in Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth, that the invention of academic disciplines was intended to prevent anyone from getting the whole picture. Of course it led to tremendous advances in particular fields, but it also led to an incompatibility between them.

I have lately been thinking about the lasting effects of modernism and science on religious narrative. Cultural theorists may think we're in the age of "post-post-modernism," but our theologians are still simply contending with the impacts of Descartes, Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The most profound impact of modernity is that we can no longer base the authority of our religious testaments on history; our myths and our Gods are refuted by scientific reality. We lose our absolutes, and the sense of certainty they afforded us.

So in march the post-modernists, from James Joyce to MTV, who learn to play in the house of mirrors, creating compositions and world views out of relativities. Entirely less satisfying (feels more like a Slurpee than hot oatmeal that actually fills you). We cultural theorists tried to make sense out of this world of self-references as if it mattered.

What we ended up with was a culture of inside jokes, cynicism, and detachment. Detachment was considered "cool" and then "cool" itself was replaced by objectification. So all our kids walk around like models in a Calvin Klein catalogue; and actually getting photographed is the supreme honor. It means that you are single absolute—the benchmark against which others will define themselves.

This whole Vanity Fair culture, beginning with Didion or Wolfe, and ending with Sedaris or Eggers, has run its course. We've grown sick of living in a vacuum and struggling to remain detached. It's no fun to read magazines through squinty, knowing smirks. We realize that detachment is a booby prize. We want to engage, meaningfully, in the stuff of life.

In comes science. And with it, comes good, old-fashioned, innocent awe. Science is not the force that corrupts our nature—it is the open-minded wonder that returns us to it. It is being welcomed back into the culture of narcissism because we've finally grown tired enough of ourselves to care about something real. We ache to let go of our postured pretentiousness and surrender to that sensation a kid gets at the Epcot Center or planetarium.

The jaw drops, the eyes widen, the mind opens.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, a Professor of Media Culture at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, is is author of Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say. [more....]



From: Howard Rheingold
Date:
4.10.02

Can Science Crack Cooperation?

Because scientific propositions must be testable, and because questions of humanism versus science come down to how these ways of knowing affect our lives, I propose a test for the role of scientific understanding in human affairs: can science improve life for most people alive today, and for our heirs, by understanding the nature of cooperation as profoundly as physicists understand matter and biologists understand the processes of life and evolution?

I suspect that if this question, above all others, is not answered soon by some method, all other questions are likely to become moot. Even if we stipulate the advent of a technological singularity in the manner of Vinge and Kurzweil several decades hence, who today does not have at least a reasonable doubt that machine intelligence will mature quickly enough to take over soon enough to prevent human intelligence from beating itself to death with its own creations?

I pose this as a scientific, not a philosophical question. Certainly, the attempt to apply scientific methods to psyches, societies, markets, and civilizations has been less successful to this point than scientific probes into the nature of the cosmos, matter, and life itself. Does this mean that the atom or DNA of cooperation, the fundamental element of human collective goods, is eternally elusive, perhaps in some Heisenbergian Godelian-Zen sense? Or does it mean that current scientific knowledge of human cooperation and conflict remains inadequate? This is a key question, because we know that science did move beyond age-old inadequate understandings of the physical world when the "new methods" of rational, empirical inquiry emerged from the work of Descartes, Newton, Galileo, Bacon five hundred years ago. Is human social behavior beyond the understanding of science, or has science simply not caught up yet?

It isn't necessary to make a case to anyone who follows world events that some serious new thinking about solving the problems of genocide, warfare, terrorism, murder, assault—violent human conflict on all scales—is urgently needed. Traditionally, discourse about this aspect of human nature has been the province of the humanities. Can any scientist say with certainty, however, that such questions are forever beyond the reach of scientific inquiry? Investigations into the nature of disease meandered for centuries in unsupported theory and superstition. When optics and experimentation made possible the knowledge of the germ theory of disease, discovery and application of scientific knowledge directly alleviated human suffering.

Some general characteristics of cooperation among living organisms in general and humans in particular have been emerged from biological and economic experiments using game theory and sociobiological theories explaining the behavior of organisms. The use of computer simulations in Prisoner's Dilemma and other public goods games and the application of public goods games to human subjects has begun to provide the first pieces of the puzzle of how cooperation has evolved up to the present, and most importantly, small clues to how it might continue to evolve in the future. Sociological studies of the way some groups successfully manage common resources have illuminated a few general characteristics of cooperative groups. Recent economic studies of online markets have demonstrated the power of reputation systems. Social network analysis, experimental economics, complex adaptive systems theory, all provide relevant evidence. The evolution of social cooperation, aided and abetted by the evolution of technologies, has been the subject of meta-theories of social evolution.

The entire puzzle of how groups of different sizes agree to cooperate, why and how cooperation breaks down, how conflicts arise, intensify, and resolve, is largely unknown. But the puzzle pieces from a dozen different disciplines are beginning to fit together to reveal larger patterns. Part of the current lack of understanding may stem from the nature of specialized scientific inquiry: biologists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, computer scientists, game theorists, and political scientists have only recently begun to suspect that they hold parts of the same puzzle.It has taken some time for those studying cooperation, reputation, and conflict to recognize the need for interdisciplinary syntheses.

The practical chances of this proposed test of the power of science to do what the humanities have tried to do for centuries depend on whether someone marshals resources and spurs organizational motivation for a full-scale, cross-disciplinary effort to understand cooperation. Unlike knowledge that might lead to new weapons, new media, or new medicines, no organizational or economic structure currently exists to support an Apollo Project of cooperation. And even the best organized and funded effort can't guarantee that an answer exists, or that it won't take a century to discover.

The consequences of failure might or might not be the end of all cultures, but if scientific inquiry does succeed in elucidating the nature and dynamics of social cooperation, it will have proved its superiority as a way of knowing that can improve the way most people live. Curing diseases was impressive. Curing conflict would be proof.

HOWARD RHEINGOLD is a communications theorist and author of The Virtual Community. [more....]



From: Reuben Hersh
Date:
4.10.02

Your essay is eloquent, even inspiring. I hope it stirs some interesting controversy.

As a part-time member of the old-fashioned humanists (a habitual reader of the New York Review of Books!) I can imagine some responses....

"Your optimistic scientists seem, by your account, to live entirely on the cognitive plane. Perhaps even with some workaholic tendencies. Optimism is the only emotion you report.

May one wonder if they live in a particular place—perhaps, many of them, in the U.S.A.?

Do they breathe air? drink water? consume nourishment?

Have some of them aged parents? How do they relate to such parents, how are such parents cared for?

Have they youngish children, or grand children? How do those children or grand children see their present and future in this world they must live in?

Have they spouses? ex-spouses? emotional relationships with fellow human beings?

These questions are perhaps not as irrelevant as you may want to call them. If readers of the New York Review (for instance) have more of an inclination to read about politics, literature, history, even art and music, than about science, technology and computing, perhaps this has to do with their being human in a more inclusive sense than you seem to contemplate.

If the situation of such readers (including me) includes some of the issues I have hinted at, perhaps you will admit some counter-balance to the breath taking optimism you offer.

Are we governed more wisely than 100 or even 5,000 years ago?

Is the frequency of genocide decreasing, say per decade?

Is freedom of thought and inquiry becoming safer and more respected?

Are standards of taste in music, art, or entertainment being raised, maintained or debased?

Are our prisons, hospitals, old-age homes becoming more numerous and horrifying, or the opposite?

Is the standard of truth, honesty, responsibility in public life and in commerce rising or falling?

Do the wondrous advances you expect in molecular biology, cosmology, and of course computers, give any strong hope of saving our political, moral or cultural life?"

Such, I imagine, might be some responses to your essay.

REUBEN HERSH is professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and author of What is Mathematics, Really? [more....]



From: Keith Devlin
Date:
4.10.02

Parallel to the development Brockman has labeled the Third Culture (and not altogether separate, although arguing that would require another article), the past thirty years have seen major changes in the way we organize our societies and live our lives, at least those of us in the Western democracies. Nicholas Negroponte, the director of MIT's Media Lab, dubbed the key technological development "Being Digital". Regular Edge readers are unlikely to need any explanation of that phrase, and anyone who does can read Negroponte's 1995 book with that title.

A consequence of Being Digital is that the word, both spoken and written, is no longer the sole primary glue of society. Given readily accessible, networked digital technologies with which people can create and communicate, the word becomes just one in a whole spectrum of thought delivery systems. For creatures (us) that learned to interact long before language came onto the scene, arguably the most significant aspect of today's creative and communication digital technologies is their interactive nature. Being Digital, a revolutionary technological concept, has given rise to an even more significant social development: Being Interactive.

The shift to interactivity has been so recent, so rapid, and (surprisingly) so little discussed, that most readers will almost certainly accuse me of hyperbole when I suggest that the interactive element of digital technologies will bring a major revolution in human artistic and cultural activities. In a world where interactivity, through interactive experience, plays a more fundamental role than the word, writing, literature, and the spoken-word art forms will no longer occupy a privileged place in human culture. (They surely won't go away, or cease to be important. But they will no longer be the sole occupants of the center stage. I also realize that words operate by mediating a form of interaction.)

At Stanford University, surrounded as we are by the world's greatest concentration of cutting edge digital technology companies and the related communication/entertainment industries, some of us have been thinking about what this change means in terms of scholarship and education. What will it mean to be an "educated person" in the Being Interactive world? What will constitute the Core Curriculum in the new liberal arts of the twenty first century and beyond?

That's not a question to resolve in a single article, nor one for which a committee of learned men and women could produce an accurate prediction. Time alone will yield the answer, as social and cultural evolution leads to the emergence of an accompanying shared consensus—a gradual process of recognition and realization. In particular, the Being Interactive world is so different from the World of the Word that there are as yet no agreed upon norms and metrics as to what is "good".

Enter Media X. Media X is a new research initiative, and a novel administrative infrastructure to support it, that Stanford launched recently to try to address some aspects of Being Interactive. Despite the name, Media-X is not a west coast version of the Media Lab. It's not a lab or a center, but a program. A program to study the design and use of interactive technologies—interactive media—using whatever methods and paradigms seem appropriate. The "X" in the title is meant to be read as a variable that can refer to any of those conceptual tools. By being topic centered but discipline grounded, Media X both looks to the future and at the same time remains rooted to the past—to the tried and trusted disciplines that have served us well for so long and therefore provide established methodologies and reliable metrics for quality, and without which the enterprise could easily become a grab bag of superficial "interdisciplinary" approaches.

Eager to avoid the ever present danger of creating over optimistic expectations, Media X was not launched with a great fanfare—no "media" coverage in fact. Instead, we simply talked privately with various key industry leaders for a couple of years and then, early this year, quietly started operations. (The Media X website will go live later this summer.)

Designed to operate in a rapidly changing world, Media X is a highly flexible, virtual enterprise, a dynamic network stretching across the entire campus and beyond to outside ICT industries. The Media-X structure cuts orthogonally across the existing university structure at Stanford—departments, schools, and research centers —and brings together central information themes: language technologies (e.g. natural language processing, semantics, dialogue systems), human-computer interaction (e.g. information organization, conversational agents, collaborative work environments), engineering (e.g. product design, information sensing, robotics), cognitive science (e.g. artificial intelligence, logic, neuroscience, rationality and philosophical foundations), and the artistic execution of mediated interactions (e.g. theater, narrative, computer music, character development, gestures. and the digital art of lighting).

By pulling on intellectual resources from computer science and engineering, through the human sciences to the humanities and the arts, Media X is every bit a Third Culture enterprise. But culture is not our aim. Media X is entirely funded by industry, who see the kind of research being done as key to their future prosperity, and we make no apologies for engaging for the most part in commercially exploitable research. We are very much a Silicon Valley operation, more concerned (as an enterprise) with changing the world than examining the nature of those changes. But because we are made up of individual scientists, engineers, humanists, and artists, each grounded in our own disciplines—our own X's—that examination certainly goes on, and we are definitely aware that the shift to Being Interactive has enormous societal, cultural and educational implications. Not the least being that by the end of the present century, the Third Culture will be the only one there is.

KEITH DEVLIN is a mathematician at Stanford University, and author of The Math Gene. [more....]



From: James O'Donnell
Date:
4.9.02

Most interesting and most correct. Has a particular personal zing because I've just been appointed Provost of Georgetown as from 1 July, and so I now "own" a bunch of humanists and scientists in a fresh and challenging way. Got some ideas, but . . .

And you make me wonder: as a recent second-hand customer (not quite done, right? what's he up to next?) of a traditional university education, what do you make of our curriculum and its impact? There's a piece in the Penn Almanac this week by the College dean on the "pilot curriculum", which has always struck me as a pretty tame exercise.

Not resisting your main line of argument, which as you know I support, two concurrent areas of thought:

— humbug avoidance. The scientist who engages broadly does have a track record of wrapping a fair amount of humbug in his wisdom. Now this slops over into the role of the "public intellectual". Nothing drives me nuts more (and G'town and DC are actually an opportunity to work on this) than the disengagement of the critical faculty in our public discourse. By the time the public intellectual gets out in the open, he's either (1) writing a monologue that does not get the same peer review and validation that his professional stuff does or (2) talking to Oprah or Charlie Rose, who are functionally equivalent for these purposes, where the interlocutor turns off all critical faculty. The temptation to humbug and self-promotion is considerable. Finding media and forums for real engagement of argument and even evidence is a challenge I think we've mostly so far failed.

— the opportunity for reinvention inside the humanities: you get at a bit of this, but I'd push it harder. There are some models for doing things better, but it's for the most part laborious. New book, e.g., by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell called The Corrupting Sea—first volume of several projected on the Mediterranean and its world in antiquity, taking what Braudel did 50 years ago with early modern Med. and racking it up another level. Not entirely persuasive, but a heroic effort. But you are quite right that the establishment (by which I think you—and I know I—mean precisely the people who most think of themselves as daring and original thinkers) does not know how to support such work.

— religion hobby horse: the place of religion in the world is the great unmentionable topic. I'm obviously going to an interesting place in which to have some attitude about this. It is impossible to escape the two poles of opinion, which are only opinion: (1) I don't like religion, so religion is bad for people; (2) I like religion, so religion is good for you. So we can not have a public conversation about Islam or un Islam that is grounded anywhere near reality. Not sure you want to touch on that at all, but a small ring on the chime would be a useful place-holder.

JAMES J. O'DONNELL, a classicist and Vice Provost of University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace. On 1 July 2002, he will become Provost of Georgetown University. [more....]


From: Clifford Pickover
Date:
4.9.02

Although Nicholas Humphrey would disagree with me, I'm on your side when you suggest that science is expanding and providing a never-ending geyser of interesting and profound problems. One of my heroes, Isaac Asimov, had the key when he wrote, "I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe."

On the other hand, I do believe that there will be facets of the universe from which we will always be shielded, because our brains will not have the capacity for such understanding. Can a gorilla understand calculus or gravitational wave theory? Computers will no doubt be of immense help, allowing us to reason beyond some of these cognitive limits.

Consider that around four billion years ago, living creatures were nothing more than biochemical machines capable of self-reproduction. In a mere fraction of this time, humans evolved from creatures like Australopithecines. Today humans have wandered the Moon and have studied ideas ranging from general relativity to quantum cosmology. Once space travel begins in earnest our descendants will leave the confinement of Earth. We will evolve into intelligent simulations—machines that think, love, dream. I agree with theoretical physicist Freeman J. Dyson who suggested there will always be new frontiers to explore:

Gödel proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible; no finite set of axioms and rules of inference can ever encompass the whole of mathematics; given any finite set of axioms, we can find meaningful mathematical questions which the axioms leave unanswered. I hope that an analogous situation exists in the physical world. If my view of the future is correct, it means that the world of physics and astronomy is also inexhaustible; no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory.

And remember that science includes the sense of wonder. Richard Powers had it right:

Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery.

CLIFFORD PICKOVER is a research staff member at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center and author of The Paradox of God and the Science of Omniscience. [more....]



From: Nicholas Humphrey
Date:
4.9.02

I have major problems with the essay. In particular, I don't find the identification of Science and Optimism at all convincing—on either of your two counts.


1. I don't think scientists do or should expect an exponential Moore's-Law like expansion of interesting problems. In fact, just the opposite: I think we are—or soon will be—exhausting the mine of deep and interesting problems. We'll have a "theory of everything", we'll have proved "Riemann's hypothesis", we'll have got to the bottom of consciousness, etc. This is indeed the Golden Age of Science. But it has to be self-closing, at least so far as the "big", "the hard", problems are concerned. I wrote about just this issue in my essay "Scientific Shakespeare." The point I made there is that the "arts" continue to have opportunities that the "sciences" soon will not have. I think we scientists had better be prepared for—and even humble in the face of—the next phase of human culture, which may well revert to the traditional province of the arts.

2. I don't think scientific discoveries can be counted on, necessarily, to bring about a net increase in human happiness—either through what they reveal about the course of nature or through the tools they potentially give us with which to intervene in it. Many scientists, from Bertrand Russell to Jacques Monod to Martin Rees, have been and are deeply pessimistic about what science tells us about the way the world is headed. And, as a separate issue, many still have anxieties about the use to which scientific discoveries will be put—from weapons of mass destruction, to eugenics, to thought-control.

This isn't to question your main point that, today, "science is the only game in town." I do of course agree there's more hope in science than there is in anything else. I spelt out my position on this at the end of my Amnesty Lecture, "What Shall We Tell the Children.". But, the problem, as I see, for this Essay, is that you already made this point years ago as convincingly as could be in your introduction to The Third Culture, and it really doesn't need making again. In fact, if I were you, I would now adopt a totally different tack.

Instead of repeating your attack on the Bloomsbury-obsessed intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, I think you should be drawing attention to the way they have already become marginalised—partly through your own, I mean John Brockman's, efforts. The evidence for the triumph of science in the intellectual culture is all around. In literature—eg Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love", in film—eg "A Beautiful Mind,", in theatre—eg Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen", and so on: what we're seeing is an astonishing turnaround from the old values to the new. Even Bill Clinton, in The New York Times (2nd March 2002), when asked what he wished he knew more about, replied "biochemistry"!

Your Essay, as it is, is curiously paranoid. You no longer need to be! You've largely won. But the next task is to provide a sober assessment of the nature of the victory. "Double Optimism" seems much too simplistic.

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY is a theoretical psychologist at LSE and The New School and author of The Mind Made Flesh.
[more....]


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