July 24, 2006

The Edge of Wisdom

„Katra gudrība, kas ir augstāka par Tavējo, šķiet dumja”
“Every wisdom that is higher than yours will seem foolish”
/Rev.Juris Rubenis, in Latvian/

It’s always good to keep in mind the above sentence when we rush to judge others’ views. Especially the worldview that are in a conflict with your own.

Tracing V. Ramachandran and mirror neurons on the net, I have stumbled across a rich collection of ideas formulated (mostly) by exceptionally strong intellects. The site is www.edge.org and it defines itself as a mouthpiece of the “third generation intellectuals”. A layman like me would immediately wonder who those people are. The “about” section on Egde.org defines the “third generation” as accomplished scientists who care about the fundamental problems of society and knowledge, and who are ready to actively engage in educating and challenging the seeking public. So far so good.

A first pick from the surface of Edge.org indeed delivered fascinating and “ideaful” reading. I’ve read through a part of the World Question Center – a collection of short essays by highly accomplished intellectuals on specific provocative topics (each year features its own question). Here are just a few that I’ve liked the most:

For physicists, I recommend a short answer of Philip W. Anderson to What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? (World question’05), which makes a very important point. It is best understood in the context of “The Theory of Everything” by Laughlin and Pines, but also needs to be balanced against an educated pro-string opinion, like Leonard Susskind’s Dangerous idea (World question’06).

Two comments from a different sphere address the “dangerous questions” we were recently discussing with some of my friends: an honest look at the problems of democracy as a state-organizing principle by Haim Hariri, and a perspective on the weaknesses of the free will concept by Clay Shirky.

However, after my first excitement started to wane, I’ve noticed a strange and unpleasant bias of the Edge. The emphasis on “the empirical world” in the very definition of the site is quite ok – after all, if you gather the representatives of the natural sciences, how else would you define their methodology? Positioning the third generation as antagonistic to the “monopoly of literary intellectuals” sounded a bit strange, but given my ignorance in such a topic, could still be absolutely neutral. But then in several places I came across the painfully familiar “evolved-not-designed” emphasis… High correlation between the list of Edge contributions and the signatories of the latest Humanism manifesto just confirmed my suspicion – the famous “prejudice against any prejudice” of rationalism seems to be an entry requirement for Edge.org contributors.

Sadly enough, the illnesses of modernity “science-implies-atheism” and “religion-implies-ignorance” penetrate even the most intellectually refined communities. 


DimaD said...

First, I would correct the english translation of the epigraph from "will seem" to "may seem". Unfortunately, for a person not open to a new knowledge (as most of us are, at least in some directions of thought), "will" is a better guess.

Concerning, how tou call it, "evolved-not-designed" topic, I would not expect to hear something different. You see, the interviewed are scientists, specialists (and not "generalists", as Edwin Salpeter calls himself).

And any specialist in one branch of science is almost necessarily not knowing what happening in other, far from his interests, branch. As a simplest example, I would give "physicist vs. barber" (assuming that a good barber is an artist + skills).

So, I think that normal scientist should only express his thougths as "this is explained by the theory" and "this is at the moment not understood" and not forget that he is specialist only in his own branch.

And for those searching for "intelligent design" I would suggest to search for intelligence (and God) in themselves. Physics is yet far from being complete and actual knowledge and state of some theories may not yet represent the Nature.

Good luck!

Slaviks said...

DimaD, thanks for your comment!

Both caution and curiosity are indispensable in a quest for knowledge.

I agree that specialization of (single person's) knowledge is inevitable, and every scientist necessarily a will occupies a certain place within the specialist-generalist continuum. It is the responsibility of the specialist not to overstretch his ideas and be constantly mindful of their limits.

But there is something positive in the temptation to leap over the boundaries of the "firmly proved". The desire to have a coherent worldview should not be humbled by the obvious (and severe!) limitations of our small established islands in the ocean of unknown.

Here is the definition from the article of Edwin Salpter that you mention, "A generalist is a person who learns less and less about more and more subjects, until he knows nothing about everything." I see it as a brilliant piece of self-criticism, but hardly as an example to follow.

Finally, as for the imprecision of the translation, it does not exceed the original quote uncertainty induced by my aging memory. The reader should choose according to his own feelings and context. But thanks for correcting me anyway!