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January 6, 2006

The History: Part 2

As some already know, Eileen is fond of the website, Edge, which represents the online home of T

BABEL Graffitti at Taylor Grocery & Restaurant in Oxford, MS (October 2006)

he Reality Club, a somewhat loose confederation (or “informal club”) of some of the most well-known figures in the sciences and the arts, such as Daniel C. Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Elaine Pagels, among many others, whose motto is, “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” John Brockman, one of the founders, along with the late Heinz Pagels, is especially interested in promulgating Edge as “The Third Culture,” an outgrowth of the idea, in Brockman’s words, that “A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s.” The Third Culture is partly an extension of C.P. Snow’s bookThe Two Cultures, in which he argued that, some time in the 1930s, literary intellectuals split

off from the scientists and created a culture of intellectual letters that effectively did not consider how various scientists, such as Norbert Weiner or Werner Heisenberg, might contribute to the current cultural dialogue and debate. In his second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow suggested, in Brockman’s words, “that a new culture, “third culture,” would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists.” Brockman somewhat demurs with Snow’s prediction because, as he puts it, “Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists,” and further, “Scientists are communicating directly with the general public.” According to Brockman, whereas academic humanities discourses have become “the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class,” contemporary scientific discourses “affect the lives of everybody on the planet.” Brockman’s statements may be ultimately unfair to contemporary humanities scholarship and also hyperbolic regarding the public impact of certain esoteric science discourses, but nevertheless, he and his cohorts have created, through the conversations published on Edge and The Reality Club’s commissioned lecture series (videos and texts of which are also available on Edge), an energetic and not-to-be-missed forum for exploring what Brockman has termed the most important themes of the post-industrial age. For 2006, Edge posed the question, formulated by Steven Pinker:


The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Over 119 brief essays, written by Edge’s contributors, have already been written in reponse to the above question, and can be accessed here. It’s heady and exciting reading and one should beware of the possible loss of cabin pressure. The responses range from the musing of Clay Shirky that, “In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable,” to Sherry Turkle’s idea that, “After several generations of living in the computer culture, simulation will become fully naturalized. Authenticity in the traditional sense loses its value, a vestige of another time.” Regarding Edge’s annual questions, BBC Radio 4 reported that they are “Fantastically stimulating . . . It’s like the crack cocaine of the thinking world. . . . Once you start, you can’t stop thinking about that question.” The crack cocaine of the thinking world. Eileen does not believe that humanities intellectuals should turn away from science when asking “the big questions” (and . . . have they really done this?–much recent work in the humanities would indicate otherwise), but neither does she want the scientists believing they have an obligation to take the important socio-cultural conversations away from intellectualswhose work, in Brockman’s words, “is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real gets lost.” Brockman’s just plain mean and wrong here, but one can’t deny that the contributors to Edge, mainly scientists, are asking (and attempting to answer) the most important intellectual (and more practical) questions of the twenty-first century, and once again, Eileen felt, where were the medievalists in this conversation? Further, Eileen also posed the more dangerous question to herself: what if medieval studies could be the crack cocaine of the thinking world?

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