2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Classical Scholar, University Professor, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire; Pagans; Webmaster, St. Augustine's Website
Everything Is In Motion

Nothing is more wonderful about human beings than their ability to abstract, infer, calculate, and produce rules, algorithms, and tables that enable them to work marvels. We are the only species that could even imagine taking on mother nature in a fight for control of the world. We may well lose that fight, but it's an amazing spectacle nonetheless.

But nothing is less wonderful about human beings than their ability to refuse to learn from their own discoveries. The edge to the Edge question this year is the implication that we are brilliant and stupid at the same time, capable of inventing wonders and still capable of forgetting what we've done and blundering stupidly on. Our poor cognitive toolkits are always missing a screwdriver when we need it and we're always trying to get a bolt off that wheel with our teeth when a perfectly serviceable wrench is in the kit over there unused.

So as classicist, I'll make my pitch for what is arguably the oldest of our "SHA" concepts, the one that goes back to the senior pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus."You can't step in the same river twice," he said; putting it another way his mantra was "Everything flows." Remembering that everything is in motion — feverish, ceaseless, unbelievably rapid motion — is always hard for us. Vast galaxies dash apart at speeds that seem faster than is physically possible, while the subatomic particles of which we are composed beggar our ability to comprehend large numbers when we try to understand their motion — and at the same time, I lie here, sluglike, inert, trying to muster the energy to change channels, convinced that one day is just like another, reflecting on the deep truth that my idiot cousin will never change, and wondering why my favorite cupcake store has lost its magic touch.

Because we think and move at human scale in time and space, we can deceive ourselves. Pre-Copernican astronomies depended on the self-evident fact that the "fixed stars" orbited around the other in a slow annual dance; and it was an advance in science to declare that "atoms" (in Greek, literally "indivisibles") were the changeless building blocks of matter — until we split them. Edward Gibbon could be puzzled by the fall of the Roman Empire without realizing that its most amazing feature was that it lasted so long. Scientists discover magic disease-fighting compounds only to find that the disease changes faster than they can keep up.

Take it from Heraclitus and put it in your toolkit: change is the law, stability and consistency are illusions, temporary in any case, a heroic achievement of human will and persistence at best. When we want things to stay the same, we'll always wind up playing catch-up. Better to go with the flow.