I'm going to attempt another of those free-wheeling posts in which I try to make some connections among articles, ideas and writers I've been reading lately. What I hope to accomplish is the beginning of a proposal, a modest call for attention, to establish a new conversation about intellectuals, those who think and feel something is not right in world of art, literature and creativity.
A menu of possible assertions:
1. Intellectuals need to talk less with each other and more to everyone else
2. Scientists have taken the traditional place of the public intellectual
3. Intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth
4. As newspapers recede, and the traditional hubs of intellectual activity recede with them, a new grassroots movement of intellectuals is needed to take its place.
Act 1: Theoretical bullshit
I'll start with something that I've returned to often (here and here and here, for instance): the disconcerting intellectual phenomenon that asserts that there is no such thing as objective reality, that epistemology is subjective, that facts are conditional.
I suppose I keep writing about it because without an fundamental agreement about what truth is -- and for that matter, what constitutes deception, equivocation, obfuscation, bullshit and outright lies -- how can we as critics, as mere human beings, accomplish much that is constructive, meaningful and significant?
Please don't get me wrong. I lean left, not right. I'm not trying to defend the high walls of Western Civilization. In fact, I argue that intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth as someone once ensconced in the Ivory Tower.
During my time at the University of Cincinnati, I became indoctrinated by literary critical theory. I came to believe in the postmodern condition of American culture. I believed in my ability to "read" anything like a "text," even non-semantic things like fashion, architecture and medical procedures. I suspected Enlightenment ideals like Reason and Truth were vestiges of imperial European colonization. Every subject -- whether porn, pulp fiction, romance novels, comic books -- all boiled down cynically to struggles for political and social power.
While I am grateful for postmodernism as a strategy for dismantling, or deconstructing, formerly entrenched ways of thinking, it's no humanist philosophy. There's little concern for people in it; there's little concern for morality in it. While postmodernist readings of, say, advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes (which I smoked) made "logical" sense, I felt that at its heart, postmodernism was a game of rhetoric, an argument over words and their struggle for meaning.
I left class many, many times feeling a kind of existential disorientation, a kind of out-of-body experience caught between a world constructed by language and a language that's always indeterminate. Hence, the world was indeterminate, like an illusion. If the world is indeterminate, possessing no ontological center independent of human consciousness, authoritative truth matters very little. Instead of one truth, there were many truths, with one being just as "good" as the other.
This kind of thinking is not exclusive to universities, or to people interested in and sensitive to intellectual inquiry. This postmodern relativism has trickled down to popular culture as well. Consider the book "Thank You For Smoking," Christopher Buckley's brilliant 1995 parody of Big Tobacco's downfall. The main character, Nick Naylor, is a master of postmodern relativism. No matter how much he was guilty of the sins of spin, by the judgment-free rules of postmodernism (it's a descriptive strategy, not proscriptive), his truth is as valid as any other, even if it's destructive bullshit.
And even if this kind of thinking is becoming passé in academe, which it is, it's influence lingers beyond the hallowed halls. Consider this response to our dearly departed Molly Ivins, who had offered one last cautionary tale about letting the amateur efforts of bloggers be confused with the professional, gritty and pain-in-the-ass tenacity of beat reporters. This reader was responding to Ivins' suggestion that bloggers try their hand at reporting a highway accident, just to see how difficult, challenging and rewarding determining the truth can be.
"If there is no objective truth, but only subjective truth (hence your five-car pile-up analogy) -- then what difference does it make if someone was a reporter or not? I am able to state subjective truth at a moment's notice -- it's always true for me!"
Act 2: The sins of our intellectuals
I don't think that it's overstating the case when I say that this kind of thinking is the result of academics and other intellectuals abandoning objective truth. And this attitude doesn't stop with fiction and the cranky comments of a Molly Ivins fan.
Harry G. Frankfurt, the moral philosopher formerly at Princeton, said the attitude is ubiquitous among a great many writers, artists and intellectuals in his 2005 treatise titled "On Truth," a follow-up to his bestselling book, "On Bullshit." In it, he said that "we live in a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect. ... this attitude -- or, indeed, a more extreme version of it -- has become disturbingly widespread even within what might naively have been thought to be a more reliable class of people."
"Numerous unabashed skeptics and cynics about the importance of truth ... have been found among best-selling and prize-winning authors, among writers for leading newspapers, and among hitherto respected historians, biographers, memoirists, theorists of literature, novelists -- and even among philosophers ...
"These shameless antagonists of common sense -- members of a certain emblematic subgroup call themselves 'postmodernists' -- rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all. They therefore go on to deny that truth is worthy of any obligatory deference or respect. ... the postmodernists' view is that in the end the assignment of those entitlements is just up for grabs. It is simply a matter, as they say, of how you look at it."
In other words, it seems the intellectuals have failed us.
How can we talk about issues, debate points of view, engage in any kind of public conversation if there is no agreement on reality independent of human whim, desire, interest, folly, fear and ignorance? The intellectuals are suppose to talk about our country's important issues. Instead, for the past 30 years, they've turned inward, addressed themselves, left the pulpit to the pundits and undermined our ability to talk coherently, objectively and constructively about the things that matter most.
The failure of the intellectuals, some say, has lead to America's cultural and political decline. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted in a widely read speech to graduates at Stanford University in June that such decline has occurred even as our economy has flourished and renewed itself since the '60s.
" ... surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture."
"This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life."
In 1963, the novelist and chemist C.P. Snow wrote a book that provided a vision of just the kind of intellectual transformation that Gioia talks about. It was called "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," a follow-up to his 1959 book "The Two Cultures." In the first book, Snow talked about the division between literary intellectuals and scientists, how each didn't understand the other. In the second book, he envisioned a middle way, a "third culture" that was a consensus in which intellectuals talked with scientists, scientists to intellectuals, feeding the expertise and creativity of each other.
But that never happened.
Act 3: Being replaced by scientists
"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."
Those are the words of John Brockman, author, impresario and book agent for Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, writing on his website, Edge. Note such words as "reactionary," "nonempirical," "the real world gets lost."
In 1996, Alan Sokal did something that illustrated just how far the real world had gotten lost in the hyper-jargon of literary theory. A physicist at New York University, Sokal submitted a paper to Social Text, an academic journal devoted to the discussion of postmodern literary theory. In it, he argued that quantum gravity is a social construction with profound political implications.
In other words, it was utter nonsense. I'm not really sure I've paraphrased the paper well. But it doesn't matter, because the point is that Social Context thought he was serious, lending credence to suspicions that such things as honesty and truth don't matter. As Sokal wrote in an article in Lingua Franca explaining his "experiment":
In the first paragraph I deride "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook": that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in "eternal"' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the "objective'" procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
Why did Sokal do this? To make a point:
... What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.
Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literary theory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and "text,'' then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and "language games,'" then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.
Postmodernism had already been under attack by right-wing jeremiahs like Alan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind." What Sokal's experiment showed, however, was that postmodernism is not just a tool for exposing the power structures of the status quo, to be naturally attacked by defenders of that power, but also, at its core, a poor and perhaps even harmful foundation for intellectual inquiry.
While the editors of Social Context, including the luminous scholar Andrew Ross, author of the near-impenetrable tome, "No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture," were busy accepting a hoax as serious scholarship, John Brockman was getting to work communicating with real people about things that really matter.
According to this piece in the London Guardian titled "The new age of ignorance," Brockman has done more than anyone to break down C.P. Snow's divide. But instead of encouraging literary intellectuals to communicate with scientists and then in turn communicate what they find to an engaged, educated reading public, Brockman has devised a "Third Culture" that doesn't need any help thanks.
"'The Third Culture' consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are," he writes on his website, Edge.
The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book "The Last Intellectuals," the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.
In short, the scientists don't need the intellectuals anymore.
They're doing it themselves.
The Guardian article also notes that Ian McEwan is one of the few novelists to contribute to the Edge's ongoing debates and that he suggests the project is not so far removed from the "old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists."
Why can't literary and aesthetic intellectuals talk like this anymore?
Act 4: The new intellectuals
Brockman, via the Edge and the Edge Reality Club, a kind of scientist's salon, is doing wonders for advancing the national conversation about science and scientific thinking. There are more magazines devoted science than ever more, more hunger for science and more books about science, even some that advance atheism.
But what about the literary and aesthetic intellectuals? What about them? They are around, but their influence seems to be shrinking even more drastically thanks to shrinking exposure given to them by Big Media, especially newspapers.
Book sections have traditionally been the forum for such conversations and we all know where these are going: newspapers in LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, Raleigh and Atlanta have all either sacked their books editors, reduced their book pages, consolidated them or even moved them from their historical place on Sundays.
Newspapers, in short, are not going to cut it. So what to do?
Perhaps an answer can be found in a new grassroots publication in Connecticut. Called the New Haven Review of Books, the publication is the result of numerous writers in that city who believe someone has to pick up where the newspapers have left off.
As Mark Oppenheimer, a former editor of the New Haven Advocate and author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture," writes, these are times that require innovative thinking by innovative people who live just about everywhere, not just in LA and New York.
In an age of shrinking book-review holes in newspapers, we're going to have to find new ways to get the word out about great books. Some of those ways will be local, and small in scale. We may never publish another issue of the New Haven Review (our motto is "Published Annually at Most"), but by just publishing once, we've made a statement in support of literary culture. Wouldn't it be cool if other small- and medium-sized towns -- Austin, Des Moines, Albany, etc. -- decided they wanted local book reviews, too? [italics mine] Maybe such reviews would feature local writers doing the reviewing, the way ours does, or maybe they would feature reviews of books by local authors. Either way, they would be reminders that major urban publications do not have to be the sole instruments for book reviewing.
And that leads us to the second statement that even one issue of a small, local book review makes: there are writers everywhere. Just here in New Haven and the surrounding towns we managed to round up Alice Mattison, Bruce Shapiro, Debby Applegate, Deirdre Bair, Jim Sleeper, Amy Bloom, and a couple dozen other greats. Many of us have never even met one another. We don't have a literary "scene" in this modest city; there is no cocktail-party circuit. But there are writers.
This model won't replace the big-city, big-time book reviews; we still need them. And unless some angel comes along to fund another issue, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books. But we're in an age of renewed attention to localism and regionalism, and book reviews -- like farmers' markets, or even local currencies -- can do their part.
With today's concerns over global warming, AIDS, and terrorism, the future can look pretty bleak. surprisingly, many of the worlds' top thinkers see a rosy horizon and in this collection of over 150 essays, compiled and edited by the always iconoclastic Brockman, we lean why. From finding the genes for mental illness, to s saving the Arctic, to ending poverty, our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead.
"Like the participants of failed cultural eras before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us," claims writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, in a recent email. He continues:
The 22-letter alphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers, but a society of hearers, who would gather to hear the Torah scroll read to them by a priest. The printing press and television set did not lead to a society of writers and producers, but one of readers and viewers, who were free to enjoy their own perspective on the creations of an elite with access to the new tools of production. And the computer has not led to a society of programmers, but one of bloggers -- free to write whatever we please, but utterly unaware of the underlying biases of the interfaces and windows that have been programmed for us.
I'd dropped a line to Rushkoff to ask him to explain the following algorithm, titled "Social Control as a Function of Media," which he contributed recently to a special exhibition (on "Formulae for the 21st Century") at the Serpentine Gallery in the UK. (The question was asked by the same folks who brought us recent books in which bleeding-edge thinkers answer questions like, "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?")
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What does this algorithm, which is the subject of his next book ("The Slope: Corporatism and the Myth of Self Interest"), have to do with bloggers like me, not to mention Rushkoff himself? He explains:
Our controllers -- be they pharaohs, kings or corporations -- always remain one dimensional leap beyond us. When we learn to read, they gain monopoly over the presses. As we now gain access to Internet distribution of our text, they create the framework for such publication -- blogs, basically -- by monopolizing the programs, interface, and conduit. Worse, we tend to remain unaware of the new context shaping all our activity. And that's why no matter how much of a revolution Time magazine grants us by calling us "people of the year," we're still paying them for our access, and their sister corporations for our technologies.
As Curly from "The Three Stooges" used to say, I resemble that remark!
The favourite "formula for the 21st century" of leading scientists is to take centre stage at an encounter tomorrow between the arts and sciences in London.
At the Serpentine Gallery the mathematical expressions favoured by the likes of evolutionary biologist Prof Richard Dawkins, cognitive scientist Prof Steven Pinker and genome sequencer Craig Venter will be on show at a weekend "Experiment Marathon" to blur the boundaries of art and science.
Venter, head of the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, examines the connection between the ratio of the elements of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus with life, and how this links with the letters of the genetic alphabet that nature used to spell out genes.
Pinker of Harvard University works out the potential number of thoughts we can have and Prof Dawkins underlines the power of Darwin's ideas about evolution.
John Brockman, a New York based literary agent and publisher of the Edge.org web site, which is devoted to science.
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He was inspired to do the project by an earlier visit to the gallery, when he saw the walls of the office of his friend, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, were covered with single pages of size A4 paper on which artists, writers, scientists had responded to his question: "What Is Your Formula?" Now he has collected around 100 of them for the exhibition.
"Among the pieces he had collected were formulas by quantum physicist David Deutsch, artist and musician Brian Eno, architect Rem Koolhaas, and fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot," said Brockman.
He will also include contributions from the likes of Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, cosmologists Jana Levin and Lisa Randall, and many more of the 100 leading figures who replied.
Brockman will also lead a session that includes psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who will test the claim 'Do women have more empathy than men?' among a huge variety of experiments exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language, which will take place in and around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.
The Marathon starts with a session convened by renowned scientists Prof Israel Rosenfield of the City University of New York, and Dr Luc Steels of Sony Robotics Lab, looking into the brain's interpretation of reality, artificial intelligence and out-of-body experiences; "We are doing colour, robotics and sound to show how the brain functions," said Prof Rosenfield.
Angela Sirigu presents the famous Phantom Limb experiment, in which amputees continue to experience the presence of a lost body part; and Prof Olaf Blanke from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne shows how a confused mind can generate an out of body feeling.
Pedro Reyes brings his Three Way Kissing Booth for "a public experiment on the permutations of male and female desire" while Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment stages a 24-hour, online writing event, passing a cumulative piece of writing from time zone to time zone.
The experiment follows a similar event last October, which featured interviews with leading cultural figures including Gilbert and George, Zaha Hadid, Damien Hirst and the Doris Lessing, who is now a Nobel laureate.
Olafur Eliasson together with Hans Ulrich Obrist convenes the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Experiment Marathon from 13 to 14 October which blurs the boundaries of art and science and creates a laboratory of experience. A huge variety of experiments exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language, takes place in and around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen.
This year's Pavilion has been conceived as a laboratory for experimentation and invention with artists, architects, academics and scientists being invited to present hand-held or table-top experiments throughout the weekend.
The Marathon starts with a session convened by renowned scientists Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels of Sony Robotics Lab, looking into the brain's interpretation of reality, artificial intelligence and out-of-body experiences; Beau Lotto demonstrates 'Why the Sky is not Blue', Paul Drew analyses the notorious 'Yo, Blair' conversation, explaining how we understand language, and Angela Sirigu presents the famous Phantom Limb experiment, in which amputees continue to experience the presence of a lost body part.
John Brockman, founder of Edge.org, leads a session that includes award-winning psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen who will test the claim 'Do women have more empathy than men? Contributions from Steven Pinker, Armand Leroi and Lewis Wolpert are followed by an EDGE-Serpentine presentation of Formulae for the 21st Century which includes formulas from Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Brian Eno, Jana Levin, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, J. Craig Venter, and many more.
Pedro Reyes brings his Three Way Kissing Booth for a public experiment on the permutations of male and female desire and world-famous performance artist Marina Abramovic 'cleans the house' in a renowned experimental work exploring subjects of the body, pain and endurance.
Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment stages a 24-hour, online continuous writing event, passing a cumulative piece of writing from time zone to time zone.
Artist Matthew Ritchie leads an experimental panel for The Morning Line, a public art project investigating alternatives to traditional museum space, developed in collaboration with Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.
An artists' laboratory will include experiments conducted by John Baldessari, Paul Fryer, Jonas Mekas, Gustav Metzger and Tomas Saraceno.
Notes to editors:
The 24-Hour experiment Marathon builds on the enormous success of the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Interview Marathon last October, which featured interviews with 64 leading cultural figures including Brian Eno, Gilbert and George, Zaha Hadid, Damien Hirst and Doris Lessing, conducted by Serpentine Gallery Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and architect of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006, Rem Koolhaas.
Notes for listing:
12 noon, Saturday 13th - 3pm, Sunday 14th October, 2007
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA.
Nearest Tube: South Kensington or Lancaster Gate.
For full listings please visit: http://www.serpentinegallery.org
Booking: TicketWeb: Tel 08700 600100 or http://www.ticketweb.co.uk or at the Serpentine Gallery Lobby Desk: 020 7402 6075
Tickets also available on the door.
10am - 6pm daily, Fridays 10am - 10pm. Admission free.
Recorded information: 020 7298 1515 http://www.serpentinegallery.org
What do you believe?
What is your personal philosophy?
What do you believe but cannot prove?
Answers to questions like these can reveal much about one's moral, spiritual and intellectual foundations.
It can say a lot about who you are, why you are the way you are and how you live your life.
How do your life views compare to those of writer Thomas Mann?: "Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm."
How about farmer Steve Porter's view on life?: "I believe in the 50 percent theory. Half the time, things are better than normal; the other half, they are worse. I believe life is a pendulum swing. It takes time and experience to understand what normal is, and that gives me the perspective to deal with the surprises of the future."
Thanks to the Internet, you can learn about other people's beliefs and philosophies, and examine those views in relation to yours.
A Web site called "This I Believe" (http://www.thisibelieve.org) plays host to thousands of short essays by people highlighting the core values that guide their daily lives.
The collection is built on the original "This I Believe" series of books and radio programs hosted by Edward R. Murrow that were popular in the 1950s.
A 21st century version of the books was recently published; National Public Radio has been airing audio versions of the new essays.
The Web site was developed by National Public Radio and Atlantic Public Media.
A related site by National Public Radio is at http://www.npr.org/thisibelieve/about.html.
You can search the essay database by person's name or topic/theme.
Each essay takes barely a minute or two to read, but the insights can get you thinking for hours. You'll be surprised by the number of people, famous and unknown, who share your core beliefs and values. You'll also be enlightened by the many different views, beliefs and observations of others that you might not have considered before.
Another great site to visit is Edge (http://www.edge.org). The mission is to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."
That, alone, is a lot to ponder. But what the site is best known for is its series of provocative questions posed to the world's leading scientists and thinkers. One year, the question was, "What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?" Another question was, "What do you consider to be your most dangerous idea?"
In answering these and other questions, the writers and readers explore fundamental ideas, concepts and beliefs that everyone has considered at one point in their lives to which they discover there is no final answer.
For example, French physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, "I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist; that is, there is a consistent way of thinking about nature that makes no use of the notions of time and space at the fundamental level."
Communications expert Howard Rheingold writes, "I believe that we humans, who know so much about cosmology and immunology, lack a fundamental framework for thinking about why and how humans cooperate."
The Edge Web site questions prompted the publication of several books cataloging hundreds of the responses.
You can read those short essays online as well as examine other issues and topics put out for public discussion. This site is a nice complement to the "This I Believe" site and concept.
These sites and the topics discussed are examples of how the Internet can be used in a positive manner. It seems we hear so much about what's wrong with the Internet that, on those rare occasions when something positive can be found in the digital world, that news needs to be loudly and widely recognized.
Who's the most odious man in the world today? Some people might name Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust ever happened and seems quite happy at the thought of unleashing nukes against the Jews. These unsavoury views didn't deter Columbia University from issuing him an invitation to speak on campus. The university's president, Lee Bollinger, described the event as part of "Columbia's long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate."
Or perhaps it's Larry Summers, the man who created such a storm with his remarks about women and science that he had to step down as president of Harvard. This week, he was disinvited from a regents' dinner at the University of California, where he was going to speak, after a bunch of faculty members protested that his views were too repellent. "I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents," said biology professor Maureen Stanton, who helped put together a petition drive. "I think many of us who were involved in the protest believed that it wouldn't reflect well on the university that he even received the invitation."
So much for the notion that our universities are supposed to champion fearless free inquiry and debate. Obviously some ideas - such as the idea that innate differences between men and women might affect their aptitudes and career preferences - are too dangerous to even have.
The renowned psychologist Steven Pinker (whose new book is reviewed in today's Books section) recently got to thinking about some of the other ideas that are too dangerous to discuss. In an essay first posted at Edge (www.Edge.org), he wrote: "By 'dangerous ideas' I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age." ...
“What sound is green?”
“Ssshh,” Alex answered correctly, and then demanded a nut. Instead he got another question.
“What sound is orange?”
“Want a nut!” Alex demanded. The interview was over. “Want a nut!” he repeated. “Nnn ... uh ... tuh.”
Dr. Pepperberg was flabbergasted. “Not only could you imagine him thinking, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?’ ” she said. “This was in a sense his way of saying to us, ‘I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it.’ ”
She is quick to concede the impossibility of proving that the bird was actually verbalizing its internal deliberations. Only Alex knew for sure. ...
...The experiment is not only represents a collaboration by Brockman and Obrist’s of their own work; it is also a continuation of a movement that began in the '60s on America’s East Coast. John Cage brought together young artists and scientists for symposia and seminars to see what what would happen in the interaction of big thinkers from different fields. The resulting dialogue, which at the time seemed abstract and esoteric, can today be regarded as the forerunner to interdisciplinary science and the digital culture....
Recently I entered a bookstore. After ambling by the coffee and dessert area and passing the CDs and DVDs, I found actual books! The title of one of them stopped me: What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Potential answers came quickly:
Test the hypothesis first posited as a child that a red towel tied around the neck will indeed confer the ability to fly.
Go all in against a poker player named after a city or state, such as Amarillo or Colorado.
Wear a Yankees jacket in the bleachers at Fenway Park.
Carry a book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? through airport security.
A closer inspection, however, revealed the book to be a collection of dangerous intellectual ideas, concepts that in many quarters might be considered to be literally unthinkable. In his introduction, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker (who came up with the dangerous idea idea) throws examples around, including: “Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?” “Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?” “Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?” To test whether the mere asking of these questions might be dangerous, pose the first to Hillary Clinton, the second to Ellen DeGeneres and the third to William J. Bennett, author of the Book of Virtues, who nonetheless lost millions in venues dominated by guys named Amarillo and Colorado.
The book is edited by John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge (www.edge.org), a Web site devoted to “inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society,” and whose “informal membership includes some of the most interesting minds in the world.” One can therefore find in Edge critiques of the antievolution essay of presidential candidate Sam Brownback, but not the antievolution essay itself. (The New York Times published that work, which immediately dropped P. J. O’Rourke down to second funniest conservative commentator.)
In his preface, Brockman notes that a provocative question is an annual Edge feature. The roots of this exercise date back to 1971, when artist James Lee Byars identified his 100 most brilliant people on the planet. His plan was to have them ask one another the same questions they had been asking themselves. Byars “called each of them,” Brockman explains, “and asked them what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.” Which may prove that Byars was in fact only 70 percent successful in his personal assessment of brilliant minds.
The book includes 108 contributions, some of which go egghead-to-egghead. For example, physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis’s dangerous idea is “the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas.” Whereas psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s dangerous idea is “the idea that ideas can be dangerous.” I both agree and disagree with both.
Nature’s chief news and features editor Oliver Morton has the dangerous idea that “our planet is not in peril,” although he quite rightly points out that many inhabitants of the planet are in great jeopardy because of environmental crises. Actually, George Carlin covered this territory years ago when he said, “The planet is fine. The people are f*^#ed ... the planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
My personal favorite entry is that of philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who knows a dangerous idea when he sees one and so simply quotes Bertrand Russell’s truly treacherous notion: “I wish to propose ... a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it true.” The danger of ignoring this doctrine can almost certainly be found in the politics or world events stories on the front page of today’s New York Times. On whatever day you read this.
En octubre del 2005 se celebró Kosmopolis, el Festival Internacional de Literatura de Barcelona, como parte de un programa global que iba desde Cervantes y el origen del libro, hasta la influencia del internet en la literatura actual y desde la aparición de la "tercera cultura" hasta los conceptos que sitúan a su producción literaria como el centro de la creatividad mundial.
Desde 1963, C.P. Snow señalaba que los intelectuales de letras se tendrían que comunicar con los científicos, pero lo que ahora sucede es que los científicos se están comunicando directamente con el público. Los pensadores de la tercera cultura tienden a prescindir de intermediarios y procuran expresar sus reflexiones más profundas de una manera accesible para cualquier lector.
Esto significa que la participación de la tercera cultura es inminente en el mundo actual, tal como lo pronosticó desde 1992 John Brockman en "The Emerging Third Culture", donde la identificaba como la nueva visión de los científicos y pensadores del mundo empírico, expresada en sus escritos expositivos que ahora ocupan el lugar de los intelectuales tradicionales, al hacer visibles los significados más profundos de la vida humana y redefinir su origen y su destino.
Durante los últimos años, la vida intelectual ha cambiado y los conceptos de la modernidad ya no son suficientes para el intelectual finisecular o del siglo 21. Esa cultura fósil va siendo sustituida por la tercera cultura. Hoy existen nuevas formas de entender los sistemas físicos que ponen en duda casi todas las bases de la cultura moderna.
De la tercera cultura está surgiendo una nueva filosofía naturalista, sustentada en la comprensión de la complejidad de la evolución. Los sistemas complejos, como el cerebro, la biósfera y el universo, no se construyeron siguiendo un diseño, sino que todos han evolucionado. Estos científicos han elaborado una serie de metáforas que describen su funcionamiento y su interacción con el ser humano.
Si se desean superar algunos de los grandes problemas socioculturales y ético-políticos del mundo actual, la nueva clase política tendrá que recurrir a la información de los nuevos científicos que han hecho una reinterpretación de la biología, la genética, la ecología, la física nuclear, la etología, la neurología y la termodinámica.
Para orientarse en los debates ecológicos, sobre el uso de las energías disponibles y desde el punto de vista de la sustentabilidad, ayuda mucho la idea de la entropía descrita por Nicolás Georgescu-Roegen y Barry Commoner. Para entender a la ética ambientalista no antropocéntrica sirve mucho la comprensión de la teoría sintética de la evolución de S.J. Gould. Para justificar la defensa de la biodiversidad y de la igualdad social ayuda comprender la genética y la biología molecular de Dobzhansky, y para combatir el racismo y la xenofobia conviene conocer los trabajos de genética de poblaciones de Cavalli Sforza y de Jared Diamond.
Se podría concluir que la nueva cultura científica es parte esencial de la cultura en general y desdeñarla equivaldría a renunciar al más profundo sentido de la política, definida como la participación activa de la ciudadanía en los asuntos de la "polis". Pero, por otra parte, es necesario comprender que la ciencia por sí misma no genera conciencia ético-política y las ciencias de la naturaleza y de la vida no enseñan cómo llevar la teoría personal a la decisión de actuar en beneficio de toda la comunidad.
Decía el genetista francés Albert Jacquard que gracias a la biología podía demostrar que el concepto de raza no se puede definir de una manera científica, por lo que el racismo debiera desaparecer. No obstante, su trabajo político no concluía, ya que aun cuando no hubiera razas, el racismo persiste.
Liberals don't have a clean history when it comes to science vs. ethics
02:48 PM CDT on Sunday, August 12, 2007
To hear the left tell it, the so-called war on science is the only war Republicans have managed to wage successfully.
From the Bush administration's suppression of data supporting global warming , to its opposition to federally funded embryonic stem-cell research, to the recent testimony of former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona , who said, of his former employer, "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried" – Republican government has occasioned an assault on science not seen since Urban VII told Galileo to shut his trap.
That's the story, anyway. Unfortunately, there's more than a kernel of truth in the overwrought charge. This administration has been pretty awful about twisting science to serve its policy goals – though please note that after Dr. Carmona's Galilean cri du coeur, the libertarian writer Radley Balko showed that Dr. Carmona was willing to play the same game, as long as science was distorted in ways of which he approved.
But the slam against conservatives, however justified, is also hypocritical, dishonest and even dangerous.
Liberals themselves have resisted scientific research that doesn't suit their own beliefs. Bjorn Lomberg, the Swedish scientist and renowned global warming skeptic, is treated slightly better than a heretic in Calvin's Geneva . The European left rejects scientific advice on genetically modified crops, demonizing them as "Frankenfoods." Before bringing up genetic or social science research that reflects negatively on the capabilities or performance of racial minorities, women or other human groupings favored by the left, you would do well to remember "The Bell Curve." And for decades, an avalanche of data detailing the failures of "scientific" socialism did little to shake the true believers in its superiority as an economic system.
When liberals accuse conservatives of opposing science, what they often mean is that conservatives simply disagree with their policy preferences, especially in the matter of bioethics. President Bush's refusal to commit federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research was not "anti-science," but rather a move that put exceedingly modest limits on science. Does anyone other than madmen believe that science should be free to operate with no moral limits imposed by society? If scientific curiosity is its own justification, then prepare to pay your respects to Dr. Mengele.
Raising the anti-science alarm is a tried-and-true rhetorical strategy. For one thing, it allows liberals to flatter themselves for their superior intellect. For another, positing these conflicts as a clash between the forces of reason and ignorance has been an effective public relations move since at least the Scopes monkey trial. It plays to the American weakness for scientism – that is, granting science authority it does not deserve.
Result: Disagree with what scientists, or many scientists, say, and you reveal yourself to be a mouth-breathing peasant with a torch in one hand, a Bible in the other, ready to burn down the labs. In no case are you to be taken seriously. Sneering is not an argument, but as a political matter, it's often argument enough.
"People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved," writes Harvard scientist Steven Pinker , in an edge.org essay about dangerous ideas.
"Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse," he continues, "because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason."
Why is this dangerous? Decisions that individuals and societies make based on false, flawed or ideologically tainted scientific information can be harmful, even devastating. History – Ciao, Galileo! –shows how damaging it can be to suppress science to serve an ideological agenda. Recent history shows how destructive it can be to suppress moral reasoning to serve a scientism-driven agenda.
In the early 20th century, eugenics – the scientific philosophy devoted to improving the human race through various forms of genetic engineering – was supported by leading scientists and academics, as well as progressive philanthropists, politicians and social reformers. Many mainstream Protestant religious leaders evangelized on the idea that science, through sterilization and selective breeding, should be employed to improve society by reducing the numbers of the "unfit."
Many liberals – religious and otherwise – embraced eugenics. So did business-minded conservatives. Who opposed it? In the main, Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics, who were denounced as obscurantists trying, yes, to impede the progress of science. And then came the Nazis.
Is it crazy to consider that religious traditionalists, whatever their shortcomings, might be playing the same prophetic role today? In this age of genetic wizardry, and a time in which something called "liberal eugenics" is bidding for respectability, can we really afford to vilify these people again? Last time around, the conservative church folks didn't know as much as the intelligentsia who looked down on them. But they knew what really mattered.
It was a genetic breakthrough that made us capable of ideas in the first place, says Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Ideas have had their impact for good… But one of these days, one of those nice ideas is likely to have the unintended consequence of destroying everything we know,” he writes in one of the brief essays included in ‘What is Your Dangerous Idea?’ edited by John Brockman (www.landmarkonthenet.com).
The title draws from the question posed to the readers by ‘Edge’ (www.edge.org). And the responses fill the book, as ‘a celebration of the ideas of the third culture’. The ‘dangerous ideas’ are not about harmful technologies and WMDs, but about statements of fact or policy evidenced by science, which are ‘felt to challenge the collective decency of an age’.
Every era has its dangerous ideas, notes the intro. “Time and again people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous.” There are a few mercies, however. “Punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to cancelling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews.”
The opening essay, ‘we have no souls’, by John Horgan, director of the Centre for Science Writings, dangerously proposes that when our minds can be programmed like personal computers, then perhaps we will finally abandon ‘the belief that we have immortal, inviolable souls – unless, of course, we program ourselves to believe.’
Rodney Brooks, author of ‘Flesh and Machines’, wonders if we might find ourselves to be alone, not just in the solar system, but in the galaxy. The shock could ‘drive us to despair and back toward religion as our salve,’ he postulates. In a similar vein, Keith Devlin of Stanford University suggests that we are entirely alone. Yet, “The fact that our existence has no purpose for the universe – whatever that means – in no way means that it has no purpose for us,” he declares.
“I don’t share my most dangerous ideas,” protests W. Daniel Hillis, chairman of Applied Minds, Inc. “I have often seen otherwise thoughtful people so caught up in such an idea that they seem unable to resist sharing it. To me, the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas is itself a very dangerous idea. I hope it never catches on.”
On the contrary, to Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, the only dangerous idea is, ‘the idea that ideas can be dangerous’. We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air, he rues. “Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one.”
Cyberdisinhibition is dangerous, according to Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’. A major disconnect between the ways our brains are wired to connect and the interface offered in online communications, he cautions. “The Internet may harbour social perils that our inhibitory circuitry was not evolutionarily designed to handle.”
Kevin Kelly, editor at large of ‘Wired’ feels that it is dangerous to think that more anonymity is good. “Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously,” he says. “In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.”
Recommended read to detox a tired mind.
The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How Science Can Predict the Ultimate Fate of Our World, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (Portrait, £8.99)
"Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice". These lines from Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" appear at the start of Ward and Brownlee's book which argues that both fates await us. The authors are a palaeontologist ("a glorified and well-educated grave robber") and an astronomer ("a catcher of comets"). They point out that the Earth is already middle aged and past its best years. We are fortunate to live in an interglacial period but "the gentle green cradle we regard as normal" is in fact only temporary. After global warming ("a blink in planetary time") has done its worst, the Earth will catch a very nasty cold. For the next ice age is coming: glaciers half a kilometre high will grind their way down to New York and into central Europe. After this, the authors whisk us away hundreds of millions of years into the future, to a time when the sun has become a red giant. Then the only life on Earth will be those from which it all evolved: bacteria. This fascinating but bleak work of scientific eschatology is an important reminder of "how wondrous, fragile, and perilous our present world is".
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, edited by John Brockman (Pocket, £8.99)
The "traditional intellectual" is out of a job; scientists now tell us who and what we are, argues John Brockman, the literary agent and founder of the website Edge. Each year Edge poses a question to the leading "thinkers in the empirical world". In 2006 Steven Pinker suggested "What is your dangerous idea?" - not the secret of a doomsday device, or some fiendish theory, but an idea that is dangerous "because it might be true". There are more than 100 responses in this volume and they make fascinating and provocative reading. For Charles Seife (author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea), "nothing can be more dangerous than nothing". Equally chilling is psychologist Susan Blackmore's thought that everything is pointless. Even her contribution to the book is merely the result of "memes competing in the pointless universe". Richard Dawkins, as ever, is splendidly controversial. He comments that eugenics is notable for its absence and asks "what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons". It doesn't get much more dangerous than that.
Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Phoenix, £9.99)
Could it be that Michael Palin is the most well-adjusted famous comedian ever? His diaries, started when he was 25 and writing TV comedy sketches, certainly give no hint of a dark soul, of creative angst, or addiction to audience appreciation. Reading them is a curiously fascinating pleasure, though there are long swaths where not a lot happens. Not once, in 10 years, does Palin record a row with his wife. Rarely does he report extremes of emotion - no black moods, flared tempers or skittish exuberance - all the more remarkable considering how quickly the Pythons were becoming famous during these years. And yet for all that the diaries are a gently compelling look at a life lived in 70s Britain. Couples meet young and get married, and usually remain so. Babies are born, become toddlers, and couples become families. Parents get older and frailer and become a worry. There are three glorious months in Tunisia shooting The Life of Brian which will appease comedy nerds, but really it is all a delight. Would that all our celebrities could record the events of their remarkable lives in such a calm, measured way.
Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, by Paddy Agnew (Ebury, £7.99)
When Paddy Agnew arrived in Italy from Ireland 20 years ago to become a football journalist, he continued to wear his old scruffy leather jacket. Had he ditched the jacket and invested in some smart Armani suits, his progress would have been a lot smoother. It's a lesson that his entertaining and immensely readable book shows applies to all aspects of Italian life: some surface style can conceal just about anything. In the case of football and Serie A, the particular skills of del Piero, Maldini and Totti (who somehow manage to come across as sex gods even in translation), have through the years glossed over endemic corruption, enforced doping of players, blatant match fixing, mafia connections and fan violence. Hovering over it all is Berlusconi, ensuring that no aspect of Italian life for the past couple of decades has been free of his heavy-handed control. It is a disgrace, of course it is. But still it feels more shameful to be reminded that when they tried playing there, a hapless Ian Rush demanded baked beans and Welsh ale, and Gazza's contribution to la dolce vita was burping into Italian journalists' microphones.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze (Penguin, £12.99)
A revisionist history of Nazi Germany, as reconsidered from the bottom line (which ultimately couldn't be made to add up). It starts with the first governmental work of the Nazis in 1934 dealing with crises of balance of payments and consumption - not up the glamour end of the economy, either, but down among the imported oilcake animal feedstuffs supporting the urban populace's sausage intake. Armed German expansionism, especially the Lebensraum plan to settle farmers in a people-purged USSR, was meant to improve the standard of living for an emerging economy not backed by the resource-rich and underpopulated landmasses of the US or France, nor sea-supplied from the British empire. Not "guns OR butter" (though there was a permanent fat deficit post-1934) but the production of guns for use in the confiscation of Europe's butter. It comes down in the starved, powerless end to the 450 daily ration calories often not issued to the mouths of occupied Poland, and the begrudged litres of petrol, Romanian or synthesised, on which the Panzer tanks made their final stand. Astounding.
Die Weltwoche | The New York Review of Books | The New Yorker | Der Spiegel | The New York Times | The Economist | Nepszabadsag | Edge.org | Asharq al-Awsat | Magyar Hirlap | Figyelö | Gazeta Wyborcza
Edge.org 18.07.2007 (USA)
Kevin Kelly, one of the heralds of the "third culture" explains the term that he coined: "technium" (more on Kelly's homepage). He understands it as all the converging and networked technological and scientific revolutions, particularly in genetics and the natural sciences, which could have frightening consequences and must be controlled. ...
Im Spiegel verteidigt Alexander Solschenizyn den KGB-Mann Wladimir Putin. In der New York Times porträtiert Bernhard-Henri Levy Nicolas Sarkozy als Freibeuter nationaler Identitäten. Magyar Hirlap versteht die Wut der Kaczynskis auf Europa. Nepszabadsag spürt es in Ungarns Tiefe gären. In Edge bereitet uns Kevin Kelly darauf vor, ein halberwachsenes Technium gehen zu lassen. Der New Yorker porträtiert Abraham Burg, den Herold des Zionismus und seines Endes. Der Spectator feuert Boris Johnson an, der jetzt Bürgermeister von London werden will. Für die New York Review of Books gibt Timothy Garton Ash Günter Grass einen halben Punkt. Und der Economist vermisst Reiche in Berlin.
Essays and Opinion
Dangerous ideas: science has a habit of turning them up, and the internet has a habit of blowing their cover. Let's face them squarely in open debate, says Steven Pinker...
Über die neue Politik des Wissens
Die Masse macht's eben nicht: Die Wikipedia-Ideologie von der Schwarmintelligenz gleicht einer Lebenslüge
Von Larry Sanger
[Translated from WHO SAYS WE KNOW: On the New Politics of Knowledge By Larry Sanger 4.28.07 — An Edge Original Essay]
"...He [Brockman] also runs a kind of global online Royal Society called Edge. Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art."