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John Brockman: a fan of asking the big questions (Getty Images for Hubert Burda Media)

'This Will Make You Smarter'

by Marcelo Gleiser
Feb 22, 2012

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Marcelo Gleiser

For the past few years, literary agent and intellectual impresario John Brockman has invited some of the world's leading scientists and thought-architects to discourse on a given theme. In 2010 they addressed "How the Internet is changing the way we think." This year, Brockman proposed a question suggested by Steven Pinker and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman: "What scientific concept will improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" This Will Make You Smarter (Harper Perennial 2012), with 151 contributions and just out in original paperback, is climbing the best-sellers list fast. As of this writing yesterday morning, it was #74 in the Amazon Best Sellers list.

Brockman believes that scientists, natural and social, are asking some of the best questions in the air today. And we are not talking only about global warming or the future of the universe. Personal questions and corporate behavior are included as well: how to live a better life, to think more clearly about personal and social issues and how to lead a better company are all part of the game.

He proposes a "third culture" as a new take on C.P. Snow's famous essay, based on his 1959 Rede Lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." In that essay the British physicist and novelist critiqued the rift between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities (particularly in the British educational system of the time which, according to Snow, biased the humanities). Brockman believes that new ways of thinking about who we are and how to improve our quality of life and that of the planet will coalesce when scientists of different areas think together.

Brockman's books of questions, and his work as a nurturer of scientific cross-breeding, have led to a lively and enlightening discussion forum, www.edge.org, which I invite readers of 13.7 to visit regularly.

In this year's published volume, among the many thought-provoking ideas, one theme seems to be prevalent: we have plenty to celebrate when it comes to our intellectual and scientific achievements; and yet, we also have plenty of reasons to be humbled by all that we don't know and the limitations of our methodologies. For example, neuroscientist David Eagleman writes:

"Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen."

Kathryn Schultz finds optimism in the idea that since we know that scientific theories of the past have been wrong, it's safe to assume that many of our present-day theories are possibly wrong as well. She posits that we learn much more from our wrongs than from our rights. This is very much the spirit of scientific inquiry: never at rest, always rechecking, revising and improving. She writes"

"At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity."

"That fact is the essence of the meta-induction — and yet, despite its name, this idea is not pessimistic. Or rather, it is only pessimistic if you hate being wrong. If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight."

In my own entry, "We Are Unique," I argue that, to improve everybody's cognitive toolkit, we need a concept that needs to make a difference for us as a species, redefining our collective role. I propose that modern science, in particular physics and astronomy, is forcing us to rethink the main lesson of the Copernicam Revolution: the more we learn about the universe the less important we become.

Quite the opposite, the more we realize that the gradual complexification of matter in the universe, from elementary particles to atoms to molecules to planets to living matter, is a product of a series of imperfections and asymmetries without any grand plan behind it, the more we realize that our rarity is our greatest asset and can be a porthole to a different global attitude toward our species, and life in general.

We are important because we are rare: to all practical purposes, even if there is some other kind of intelligence tucked away in some corner of our galaxy, interstellar distances plus the lack of evidence indicates that we are essentially alone. We should thus take charge of our collective destiny. As I wrote there:

"And if we are alone, and alone have the awareness of what it means to be alive and of the importance of remaining alive, we gain a new kind of cosmic centrality, very different—and much more meaningful—from the religiously-inspired one of pre-Copernican days, when Earth was the center of Creation: we matter because we are rare and we know it."

"The joint realization that we live in a remarkable cosmic cocoon and that we are able to create languages and rocket ships in an otherwise apparently dumb universe ought to be transformative. Until we find other self-aware intelligences, we are how the universe thinks. We might as well start enjoying each other's company."


You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook.

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