Some people labor under the sad delusion that the world is worse off now in every way than it has ever been before. I say "delusion" because human beings live longer, more peaceful lives now than at any point in history, so to believe that the opposite is true, contrary to all the evidence, is a delusion. Of course, that's not to say we have perfected every metric of living, or that everyone has the same access to modern medicine and luxuries and all the other means to achieve happiness and health But hopefully, one day the human race will achieve such peace and understanding and wellness that it will look back even on the 21st Century and shudder.
Still, this is an amazing time to be alive. Yet many people today erroneously decry the failures of the modern world. They speak as though we are nearing the bottom of some long, perilous, predestined descent into oblivion, and that we're nearer the bottom than we have ever been. This gloomy delusion sometimes manifests itself in the subtle guise of cynicism -- or as a zealous street preacher warning of Armageddon and the end of our depraved world -- but always with the same unfortunate result: it undermines our ability to appreciate the blessings of today!
To counteract that unsubstantiated pessimism, I came up with a list of twenty-one great thinkers and ideas of the 21st Century -- twenty-one new technologies, techniques, and perspectives that offer ways to live better, happier, healthier lives and demonstrate the progress of humanity. Because some of these ideas are intricate and worthy of more than a passing mention, and because you may want to chew on some of them for a bit, I will roll them out in three installments. The first seven big ideas of the new century help us understand violence, economics, and even ourselves in marvelous new ways.
1.) The Role of Science in the Moral Landscape
"Non-overlapping magisteria," a term coined by the anthropologist Steven J. Gould, describes the mutually exclusive realms of authority for religion and science: religion handles moral or "ought" questions, while science merely describes how things are. Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris disdains this long-held view in favor of a more challenging intellectual and moralistic one. He argues that science can and should participate in conversations about what people ought to do, as much as it participates in conversations about how things are. We can, he asserts, ask scientific questions and make rational judgments about moral acts, and use the scientific method to discern better ways -- morally speaking -- of living. He offers the metaphor of a landscape where worse moral choices lead into valleys and better moral choices raise us to hilltops. Dr. Harris' website offers a number of discussions, videos, debates, and other opportunities to ponder the role of science in our lives.
In his recent book How Pleasure Works: Why We Like What We Like, Paul Bloom makes the simple point that humans are essentially essentialists. Using the entire sophisticated apparatus of our marvelous brains, we habitually, unconsciously boil things down to their core. Bloom offers this point as a profound observation, and he includes radical examples like the merits of cannibalism, the purchasing of celebrity waste, and pornography for chimps. But Bloom goes even further and offers keen insight into the advantages and disadvantages of this uniquely human style: while it is more efficient and therefore easier to categorize things, which can only be done if things are reduced to their essences, essentializing makes humans more liable to misjudge or make other errors, miss out on valuable experiences, hurt people, or even die. And we don't always get it right, which can make all the difference...or not. Dr. Bloom explains:
"Alief" is a cool psychological term coined by Yale philosophy and cognitive science professor Tamar Gendler that describes when one's beliefs and actions are out of sync. However, as Gendler is quick to clarify, these are not merely mistakes or doubts. Imagine, for example, someone offers you fudge shaped like feces. You might eventually be coaxed into eating it, but your first reaction is more than likely one of disgust. But why? You know for a fact -- without a doubt -- that it's fudge. You like fudge, and it's not typically something someone has to coerce you to eat. And yet, because the chocolate is shaped like poop, you behave as though you're being asked to eat feces instead of fudge. Imagine the implications when the stakes are a little higher. Everyone you know is absolutely not a racist, and yet our nation is plagued by racism. Can this unique theory offer insight and even solutions? You can read Gendler's seminal paper on the topic by clicking here.
4.) The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins possesses a special talent for translating cumbersome concepts into everyday prose. He employs this skill in his quest to end what he calls "the God delusion," or the belief in the supernatural. Dawkins suggests that a world without God is a world without fear, and that that is, in fact, the world in which we live. His greatest tool is a superlative intellect, but he's not above a little cheekiness. For instance, he's fond of asking religious people if they believe in Zeus; when they inevitably answer "no," he replies, "You see, we disbelieve in almost all the same things. I just believe in one less god than you." Dawkins is marvelous, not just because he eviscerates old regimes, but because he builds up something new and better. He envisions a world full of happiness and wonder, free from fear. He promotes science as a means for people to live fuller, more meaningful lives, in which there are no limits to the questions we can ask and knowledge we can gain. He embraces the experiences he feels when looking into the cosmos as akin to feelings of divine wonder, but without any need to ascribe them to something supernatural. The idea of a "God delusion" dares to offend in the "hurt-the-ones-you-love-in-order-to-save-them" tradition. Whatever your feelings about his conclusions, Dawkins' motives are unquestionably, objectively good.
5.) Disaster Capitalism
"Disaster Capitalism" describes the weird process by which industry profits from foreseeable, usually preventable human calamity. Naomi Klein, creator of the term, provides robust examples that include the military-industrial and oil profiteering by elites connected to the Bush Administration during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Disaster capitalism is the terrifying notion that markets have no -- or at least, in their current state, do not act on -- incentives to prevent disaster. Rather, their bottom lines are better served in the aftermath through lucrative cleanup contracts, or legislative sleight-of-hand that uses human tragedy as a distraction while favorable laws are slid through the oily democratic machine, or the simple market magic that inflates the value of the cheese just because it stands alone. Bravo to Klein for giving us terms and tools to talk about these sociopathic processes. Click here to learn more about disaster capitalism and the Shock Doctrine in her own words.
6.) Tina Fey
Yes, Tina Fey -- she's easily one of the greatest things that has happened since the turn of the century. Introduced to most audiences through her writing and acting on Saturday Night Live, Fey has been making us laugh in ever more brilliant, timely, and ludicrous ways. From Mean Girls, her epic portrait of high school life, to her masterful memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey's gift lies in exploiting human weakness in order to heal it: she makes day-to-day folly so interesting and entertaining that we gather around it and, in so doing, become equally the laughers and laughees, the characters in and audiences of her sketches. As an example, who could forget the now-legendary SNL debut of her famous Sarah Palin impression alongside Amy Poehler's Hillary Clinton?
7.) Explaining the Universe
Stephen Hawking is almost as famous for his relentless fight against a profound neurological condition, ALS, as he is for his physics. Some people think of Hawking as the guy that took over where Einstein left off. His outsize personality, humor, and extraordinary brain have made him a fixture of popular culture since the 1970s, but he has continued to add to the store of human knowledge in new ways since the turn of the century. Many gifted minds struggle to share their special insights with the world at large, but here Hawking excels! He has coauthored a number of bestselling popular science books -- including A Brief History of Time -- and his lectures are attended by everyone from laypeople to the finest minds in science. For the past dozen years Hawking has focused on the biggest questions in cosmology, including the origin of the universe. He also applies his incredible mind to reconciling different mathematical models of the universe into a single model that covers it all -- what physicists refer to as a unified theory of physics. Hawking does a masterful job not only of addressing the question, but of making the question itself accessible to broad audiences. He explains that the physics of relativity account for very big things, and quantum theory accounts for very small things, but those two things work in very different ways, and we must learn to reconcile them in order to have a complete (unified) theory of physics. To learn more, I highly recommend this transcript from a lecture he gave on the topic of top-down cosmology in 2005.
So that's the first installment of my list. Who would you add to or subtract from this list? Which person or idea resonates most with you?
Next week's installment will feature artists, political scientists, and even lawyers whose ideas are bold, interesting, and could change the course of history! Which modern ideas inspire you, and which idea do you think is the biggest and best idea of the 21st Century?