Major thinkers, researchers, and scientists present twelve concepts that everyone should know and which produce fertile new hypotheses.
The phrase is as apodictic as it is arrogant: "Science does not think." When Martin Heidegger pronounced it in 1951, he had his finger on the pulse of his time. These few words do not only express a fresh self-assurance of philosophy, but also a newly awakened awareness of problems.
The scientific and technological approach, according to Heidegger's findings, transforms the world into an object of human manipulation which ultimately will threaten the very existence of man through the atomic bomb and human genomics. The tone is unmistakably apocalyptic. While science does not know where it is going, philosophy sees it quite clearly: into ruin.
Heidegger's statement resonates to this day. Even in 2017, it is still de rigeur for a certain kind of intellectual from the humanities department to look down on natural sciences, despite all inter- and transdisciplinary efforts. They don’t usually judge on the basis of their own knowledge or of a presumably higher insight like Heidegger—who was, after all, well acquainted with the most recent findings which physics and biochemistry had brought forth in his time. Rather, they do it ignorantly and from a safe distance, cultivating with considerable fuss what hermeneutics calls a "prejudice": Since our mental life is so rich, what should evolutionary theory or microbiology have to teach us about the human being, this insolvable riddle?
All of our lives are changed fundamentally, and with enormous speed, in the wake of contemporary science and technology
Thus we have been taught in our studies: the humanities want to understand the life of the human spirit, while the natural sciences are trying to explain the phenomena of nature. The two areas are completely different in methodology, and their representatives have nothing to say to each other; there can be nothing but misunderstandings. But even sophisticated hommes de lettres experience today how, in the wake of science and technology, our life is changing fundamentally—and with enormous speed.
This also affects their self-understanding. Do philosophers, literati, and intellectuals continue to regard themselves as interpreters of a world which appears to them only as a black box, and therefore, as it were, specialize in the consolation of their peers? Or do they dare to reconsider the great old questions, not evading the friction with new scientific knowledge: What exactly is life? When did it begin? How does man tick? How deep is the universe? Is the universe a computer? Is there intelligence outside the earth? What is consciousness?
We live in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind —John Brockman
The British physicist and writer Charles Percy Snow had outlined the profile of this new kind of intellectual already half a century ago. He spoke of men of the "third culture", equally well-versed in literature as in science. But Snow's concept remained a dead letter until John Brockman adopted it 25 years ago.
Who is this man? Brockman, who was part of the New York avant-garde scene of the 1970s with people like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, found his way from the outskirts of experimental art into science, which he regards as a kind of creative practice. The focus of his interest is on cybernetics and evolutionary biology, and his growing certainty that we are "living in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind" compares most closely with the spirit of the Renaissance.
Edge is a cybersalon for extensive scientific debate with a claim to be at the edge of knowledge.
Brockman first saw himself as a homo universalis and man of the third culture, before he set himself up as an "intellectual universal impresario" (David Brooks), putting himself in the service of this culture in order to earn money. In the 1980s, he began to build up a vibrant network of authors working at the interface between natural sciences and humanities. He represents many of them as a literary agent, some of them to this day.
This New York Humanist milieu evokes memories of the productive, adventurous Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s. Today's thinkers, however, do not see their task in hagiographical interpretation of the texts of founder figures (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) in order to prove themselves the only true disciples. Rather, the new authors take up inspiring ideas from Darwin, Neumann, or Maturana, in order to more precisely conceive our living present.
Instead of an exegetic look at the rear-view mirror, then, we find a robustly optimistic will to shape the future. No doubt there is a lot of hubris in the game, but just as much daring and the healthy self-confidence of science-savvy intellectuals who insist on living up to their curiosity.
This is how Edge came into being: a cybersalon designed for wide-ranging and accessible scientific debate with the claim to be at the edge of knowledge. For twenty years, John Brockman has put a question before his community at the end of every year and the responses are published at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve on www.edge.org . The 2017 Question is: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" You can read a selection of the responses in this Feuilleton. Some of the authors provide science fiction in the best sense of the word—fragments from the workshop of speculative-narrative reason. We intend to cultivate this discipline more consequently in the NZZ Feuilleton. A look into the intellectual laboratory of the future must be an integral part of a discourse oriented towards the true, the good and the beautiful.
Translation of René Scheu 's essay from German and articles from English: Angela Schader . Design concept and images (macro shots of the ice on the Lago Bianco): Reto Althaus.
Here the twelve posts:
Mysterianism (Nicholas G. Carr), Deliberate Ignorance (Gerd Gigerenzer), Navier-Stokes Equations (Ian McEwan), Embodied Thinking (Barbara Tversky), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), The Anthropocene (Jennifer Jacquet), Naïve Realism (Matthew D. Lieberman), Affordances (Daniel C. Dennett), The Neural Code (John Horgan), Common Sense (Jared Diamond), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall)
[Click for German original ]