WHO KNOWS? A Meeting of The Third Culture

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[ Tue. Jul. 31. 2001 ]


Plato once sought out an olive grove in which he might finally bring the world its first academy. But olive trees are rare in New England. Instead, there are strong maples, and recently, beneath a knotty, especially old and venerable specimen on Eastover Farm in Connecticut, academics fled their laboratories and lecture halls and, in the tradition of their intellectual ancestors, conversed in nature about more than their surroundings.

There were no professional philosophers, which might hardly come as a surprise since the invitation to the open-air symposium was issued by the Internet salon "Edge," whose founder, John Brockman, cultivated the Third Culture and is now busy washing away the border between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Thus, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale brought along news that industry invests much more energy into research than universities do. The professor, who is also an entrepreneur, was already more than a little anxious, because although the Internet has just entered the race for the exchange of knowledge it might soon overtake its competition from the universities. This thesis was not contested. Jaron Lanier, who gave virtual reality its name, and Jordan Pollock, head of the Brandeis robotics program, were also in agreement that software limps behind hardware and is even losing more ground.

In the free-floating exchange of ideas, however, the scientists repeatedly put reins on wildly galloping progress. In this they distinguish themselves considerably from us mere mortals. While we might think we can distinguish between a dead and a living organism, no specialist ventures a definition of life. It was similar here. Science uncovers its fundamental lack of knowledge.

"We don't know what information is," said Lee Smolin, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University, and none of the collected authorities on information could explain it to him. Brian Greene, who teaches mathematics and physics at Columbia University and writes bestsellers about "string theory," sat and smiled at how perplexing the concepts of space and time are: "We don't know what it is." Evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser, who traveled from Harvard, took up the riddle of the brain, a part of the human body that compels us with the illusion that we know more than what is actually true. He thanked Noam Chomsky not least of all for this insight. As cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained, maybe the assertions of quantum mechanics also manifest themselves in this way, as they describe the cosmos in possibilities. Where should there still be room for certainties? Guth spoke of dark energy, which composes sixty percent of all of the energy in the universe, but "We don't know what it is."

They know more, these scientists, than their predecessors ever knew. But in the end, when they add their knowledge together, they are quite Socratic in their realization that they know that they know nothing. Today, when every day witnesses a new discovery, the keys to the primary causes and the fundamental laws of the universe are still missing. The maple tree, under which the scientists speculated in green Connecticut, is little more than a tree of limited knowledge. In this sense, the virtual cybersalon committed no faux pas as it spent a summer afternoon reconstructing itself in the real shadow of the maple tree in order to consider who we are, how we live, and - above all - how we will live in the future. Was this temporary change in the conditions of aggregation, after all, also a sign of what the roundtable demonstrated as the apparent instability of our revolutionary times? Who knows.