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Last summer The Atlantic featured “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” My response—as was almost everyone else’s I spoke to about that article—started out excited but quickly deflated. The “ideas” were more platitudinously ordinary than inspiring: “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was”, or the number one choice, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours.”

Neal Gabler, scholar and author, wrote a response in the New York Times weeks later, extending his musings on what seems to be missing for us these days:

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world…If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.

Gabler points to our post-Enlightenment times when rational discourse has been replaced by a willful disregard for rational thought (incredulously for the rest of us, most Tea Party candidates believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old.) But the primary culprit is information itself:

It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less…Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively…And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

While information was once the grist used to create ideas, that is no longer the standard supply chain. We are so overloaded with information that most of us don’t have the bandwidth to process it even if we would like to. And the reality is that most of us don’t really want to go that extra mile anyway.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information…We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.

What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.

Daunting.

One of my favorite spots on the web is the annual World Question* presented by The Edge. Each year a provocative question is posed, then answers flow in from every profession and point of view. It is a fascinating cross section of thinking, perspectives and insights.

The question being asked for 2011 is:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The answers posted are rich, varied and unexpected. And there is very little overlap. If you are compelled by ideas, reading through them all will be a terrific adventure. Here are a few excerpts that stood out for me:

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Linda Stone, former executive at Apple and Microsoft:

Suspending Disbelief

Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe
generative rather than reactive thinking…

Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing
case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of
intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is
expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the
context, concepts, and the objectives…

When we cling rigidly to our constructs…we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us.

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Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants:

The Virtues of Negative Results

We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.

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Alison Gopnik, author of Philosophical Baby:

The Rational Unconscious

One of the greatest scientific insights of the twentieth century was that most psychological processes are not conscious. But the “unconscious” that made it into the popular imagination was Freud’s irrational unconscious — the unconscious as a roiling, passionate id, barely held in check by conscious reason and reflection. This picture is still widespread even though Freud has been largely discredited scientifically.

The “unconscious” that has actually led to the greatest scientific and technological advances might be called Turing’s rational unconscious…The greatest advantage of understanding the rational unconscious would be to demonstrate that rational discovery isn’t a specialized abstruse privilege of the few we call “scientists”, but is instead the evolutionary birthright of us all. Really tapping into our inner vision and inner child might not make us happier or more well-adjusted, but it might make us appreciate just how smart we really are.

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Richard Foreman, playwright:

Negative Capability Is A Profound Therapy

Mistakes, errors, false starts — accept them all. The basis of creativity.

My reference point (as a playwright, not a scientist) was Keat’s notion of negative capability (from his letters). Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amidst uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without “irritable (and always premature) reaching out” after fact and reason.

This toolkit notion of negative capability is a profound therapy for all manner of ills — intellectual, psychological, spiritual and political. I reflect it (amplify it) with Emerson’s notion that “Art (any intellectual activity?) is (best thought of as but) the path of the creator to his work.”

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Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist:

The Lure Of A Good Story

Various concepts come to mind for inclusion in that cognitive toolkit. “Emergence,” or related to that, “the failure of reductionism” — mistrust the idea that if you want to understand a complex phenomenon, the only tool of science to use is to break it into its component parts, study them individually in isolation, and then glue the itty-bitty little pieces back together. This often doesn’t work and, increasingly, it seems like it doesn’t work for the most interesting and important phenomena out there.

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Christine Finn, archaeologist

Absence and Evidence

I first heard the words “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” as a first-year archaeology undergraduate. I now know it was part of Carl Sagan’s retort against evidence from ignorance, but at the time the non-ascribed quote was part of the intellectual toolkit offered by my professor to help us make sense of the process of excavation…Recognising the evidence of absence is not about forcing a shape on the intangible, but acknowledging a potency in the not-thereness.

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John McWhorter, author of That Being Said

Path Dependence

In an ideal world all people would spontaneously understand that what political scientists call path dependence explains much more of how the world works than is apparent. Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.

The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards…Most of life looks path dependent to me. If I could create a national educational curriculum from scratch, I would include the concept as one taught to young people as early as possible.

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Scott D. Sampson, author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life:

Interbeing

Humanity’s cognitive toolkit would greatly benefit from adoption of “interbeing,” a concept that comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either . . . “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are. . . . “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.”

Depending on your perspective, the above passage may sound like profound wisdom or New Age mumbo-jumbo. I would like to propose that interbeing is a robust scientific fact — at least insomuch as such things exist — and, further, that this concept is exceptionally critical and timely.

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Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People

Entanglement

Entanglement is “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein liked to say (he actually did not like it at all, but at some point he had to admit that it exists.) In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: we can separate our “entangled buddies” as far as we can, they will still remain entangled. A change in one of them is instantly reflected in the other one, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean different countries!)

Entanglement feels like magic. It is really difficult to wrap our heads around it. And yet, entanglement is a real phenomenon, measurable and reproducible in the lab. And there is more. While for many years entanglement was thought to be a very delicate phenomenon, only observable in the infinitesimally small world of quantum physics (“oh good, our world is immune from that weird stuff”) and quite volatile, recent evidence suggests that entanglement may be much more robust and even much more widespread than we initially thought. Photosynthesis may happen through entanglement, and recent brain data suggest that entanglement may play a role in coherent electrical activity of distant groups of neurons in the brain.

Entanglement is a good cognitive chunk because it challenges our cognitive intuitions. Our minds seem built to prefer relatively mechanic cause-and-effect stories as explanations of natural phenomena. And when we can’t come up with one of those stories, then we tend to resort to irrational thinking, the kind of magic we feel when we think about entanglement. Entangled particles teach us that our beliefs of how the world works can seriously interfere with our understanding of it. But they also teach us that if we stick with the principles of good scientific practice, of observing, measuring, and then reproducing phenomena that we can frame in a theory (or that are predicted by a scientific theory), we can make sense of things. Even very weird things like entanglement.

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Barry Smith, writer and presenter, BBC World Service series “The Mysteries of the Brain”:

The Senses and the Multi-Sensory

For far too long we have laboured under a faulty conception of the senses. Ask anyone you know how many senses we have and they will probably say five; unless they start talking to you about a sixth sense. But why pick five? What of the sense of balance provided by the vestibular system, telling you whether you are going up or down in a lift, forwards or backwards on a train, or side to side on a boat? What about proprioception that gives you a firm sense of where your limbs are when you close your eyes? What about feeling pain, hot and cold? Are these just part of touch, like feeling velvet or silk? And why think of sensory experiences like seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling as being produced by a single sense?

Contemporary neuroscientists have postulated two visual systems — one responsible for how things look to us, the other for controlling action — that operate independently of one another. The eye may fall for visual illusions but the hand does not, reaching smoothly for a shape that looks larger than it is to the observer.

And it doesn’t stop here. There is good reason to think that we have two senses of smell: an external sense of smell, orthonasal olfaction, produced by inhaling, that enables us to detect things in the environment such food, predators or smoke; and internal sense, retronasal olfaction, produced by exhaling, that enables us to detect the quality of what we have just eaten, allowing us to decide whether we want any more or should expel it.

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Neri Oxman, architect

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Preceding the scientific method is a way of being in the world that defies the concept of a solid, immutable reality. Challenging this apparent reality in a scientific manner can potentially unveil a revolutionary shift in its representation and thus recreate reality itself. Such suspension of belief implies the temporary forfeiting of some explanatory power of old concepts and the adoption of a new set of assumptions in their place.

Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than the state by which they may appear or thought to be — a rather ambiguous definition given our known limits to observation and comprehension of concepts and methods. This ambiguity, captured by the aphorism that things are not what they seem, and again with swing in Sportin’ Life’s song It Ain’t Necessarily So, is a thread that seems to consistently appear throughout the history of science and the evolution of the natural world. In fact, ideas that have challenged accepted doctrines and created new realities have prevailed in fields ranging from warfare to flight technology, from physics to medicinal discoveries…

It Ain’t Necessarily So is a drug dealer’s attempt to challenge the gospel of religion by expressing doubts in the Bible: the song is indeed immortal, but Sportin’ himself does not surpass doubt. In science, Sportin’s attitude is an essential first step forward but it ain’t sufficiently so. It is a step that must be followed by scientific concepts and methods. Still, it is worth remembering to take your Gospel with a grain of salt because, sometimes, it ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, it ain’t necessarily so.

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*The World Question Center is part of Edge Foundation, Inc., an organization with a mandate to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.”

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One more thing to love about San Francisco

Sunday night I went to hear a lecture at Lesley University by Thomas Moore (author of Care of the Soul) and Richard Tarnas (Passion of the Western Mind) on the topic, “Soul and Cosmos: A New Way of Imagining Life in the 21st Century.”

I have heard Moore speak before (he is, after all, something of a local luminary) but it was my first encounter hearing Tarnas speak. I hope it isn’t my last. He is thoughtful and articulate which is even more impressive when it happens in the domain of that hard to describe, edgy, thin ice world that goes by a number of different names—metaphysics, New Age, cosmic consciousness, soul-centered theology, neo-paganism, mysticism, among others.

Every once in a while you come across a person who has been extremely well educated in the rational traditions, usually sporting a PhD in a serious field. And then something happens. Their world cracks open.

I have come to call this “scientists gone galactic”. David Bohm. Ken Wilbur. Rupert Sheldrake. Stanislav Grof. Richard Tarnas is another one to add to the list.

Sunday night was a steady stream of idea kernels, and I hope to write about many of those in the future. Here is a small one as a start.

Tarnas referenced research that demonstrated how a small consortium of like-minded people can shift the overall cultural patterns much more readily when systems are in a state of chaos and upheaval. The discontinuity is actually an advantage for leveraging a change in thinking.

In other words, small groups can have a much larger impact than might have been supposed. This is an idea that can’t help but make you feel more hopeful. There are possibilities here.

And today I found an example that is a case in point. Bruce Weber wrote a piece for the New York Times about the extremely supportive and convivial literary scene in San Francisco. This is far afield from the competitive posturing that is typically found in New York and London. And even though the number of well known writers is small by comparison, San Francisco appears to be creating a literary community that does thing differently. Writers mentioned in the piece include Amy Tan; Po Bronson, Ethan Watters and Ethan Canin (founders of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto); Dave Eggers (creator of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern); Stephen Elliott. Weber also pointed to the positive influence of programs like Stanford University’s prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowships.

From Weber’s article:

The city’s writers — and, notably, its readers — celebrated the 10th anniversary of the book lovers’ festival known as Litquake with dozens of readings, panel discussions and other events (including the braising of Ms. Tan). It all culminated in Saturday’s edition of Lit Crawl, the annually overcrowded word-and-drink fest in city bars.

It was, over all, a pep rally, an emblem really of the school spirit that San Francisco literary life has established in the last decade or so. And though the city has a venerable history in letters, the community of writers has never been as, well, communitylike as it is today. Like the thriving theater culture in Chicago, which coalesced around a few key companies and created an important center for the art form without becoming a rival to New York City as a center for theater commerce, so San Francisco’s writers have come to recognize and trumpet the idea that this city prizes their craft, its solitary difficulty and what can emerge from it, even though there isn’t much of a publishing industry here.

Feelin’ good.

Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.

–Rita Mae Brown

These days I’m filling life with a lot more silence than is usual for me. Just a single thought or insight seems food enough for a day in the studio. And each morning begins by breaking everything apart and starting new (“If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as you change your shirts.” See posting on Picabia below.)

This morning I love this quote. Creativity. Trust. Instincts. Hope. Work. Big ideas, each.

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Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle, among many others