John Brockman is editor and publisher of the EDGE.ORG — an imaginative website that has as its mission: “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.” This is a website worth checking out for the intellectually curious. Brockman has recently edited a volume titled What Should We Be Worried About? (Harper Perennial, 2014) in which he posed that question to 150 persons. It is a fascinating volume that I recommend highly. Below are excerpts from two responses to the “What should we be worried about?” question:
The first, found on page 59, is authored by Tim O’Reilly (founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media) and titled “The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism and the End of Progress.”
“For many in the techno-elite . . . the notion of perpetual progress and economic growth is somehow taken for granted. As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of 1,000 years. What I fear most is that we will lack the will and foresight to face the world’s problems squarely and will instead retreat from them into superstition and ignorance.
“Consider how in A.D. 375, after a dream in which he was whipped for being a ‘Ciceronian’ rather than a Christian, St. Jerome resolved to abandon the classical authors and restrict himself to Christian texts, and how in A.D. 415 the Christians of Alexandria murdered the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia – and realize that, at least in part, the Dark Ages were not something imposed from without, a breakdown of civilization due to barbarian invasions, but a choice, a turning away from knowledge and discovery into a kind of religious fundamentalism. Now, consider how the conservative elements in American religion and politics refuse to accept scientific knowledge and deride their opponents for being ‘reality based,’ and ask yourself, ‘Could that ideology come to rule the most powerful nation on Earth? And if it did, what would be the consequences for the world?’”
The second excerpt is found on page 63 and is from an essay titled “Armageddon” by Timothy Taylor who is an archaeologist and professor of the prehistory of humanity at the University of Vienna:
“We should be worried about Armageddon . . . as a particular, maladaptive mindset that seems to be flourishing despite unparalleled access to scientific knowledge. Paradoxically it may flourish because of this. Ignorance is easy and science is demanding, but more tellingly, being neither tribal nor dogmatic, science directly challenges ideologies who need their followers to believe them infallible. We should not underestimate the glamour and influence of anti-science ideologies. Left unchecked, they could usher in a new intellectual Dark Age.”
Depending on the border, crossing it may not always be a good thing. The passage from a reality founded on scientific knowledge into a land of superstition may, as the above authors state, take us into a new Dark Age where human progress is thwarted. Crossing the border into a world that casts aside “science” and “facts,” is crossing into a terrain where oceans rise, temperatures escalate, and where life as we know it may be changed in incalculable and unforeseen ways.