Near the end of 1984, George Orwell wrote this interchange between Winston Smith and O’Brien, his tormenter in one of Oceania’s gulags:
‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation — anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.’
‘But you do not! You are not even masters of this planet. What about Eurasia and Eastasia? You have not conquered them yet.’
‘Unimportant. We shall conquer them when it suits us. And if we did not, what difference would it make? We can shut them out of existence. Oceania is the world.’
‘But the world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of years the earth was uninhabited.’
‘Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.’
‘But the rocks are full of the bones of extinct animals — mammoths and mastodons and enormous reptiles which lived here long before man was ever heard of.’
‘Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing. After man, if he could come to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing.’
‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’
Despite the fact that Orwell intended 1984 as a warning, much more than an attempt at predicting the future, it seems like a lot of intellectuals took that passage to heart, as Steven Den Beste demonstrates in a tremendous post, apparently the first of a two part series:
The academics in non-rigorous fields were not even needed any longer to help bridge the gap between the scientists and laymen. In 1991, John Brockman wrote:
In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.
In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as “the intellectuals,” as though there were no others. This new definition by the “men of letters” excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.
But what Snow eventually referred to as a “third culture” began to appear, though not exactly in the way he expected. Scientists and other technical people began to reach out directly to the laymen, to explain what they were doing and why and what significance it had, and why it was so fascinating. (Blush, people like me.)
Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.
But no one was paying comparable attention to the kind of stuff that the self-styled intellectuals were doing. The worst thing you can do to a proud man is to ignore him; and increasingly the “men of letters” found themselves being ignored or treated as curiosities.
Increasingly isolated, frustrated, useless on a practical level, and with prestige declining, they became intellectually inbred. Since no one else respected them, they “respected” each other and decided no one else’s opinion really mattered. The swelling spiral of comment-on-comment continued, divorced from reality. Over the course of maybe thirty years, a form of intellectual “pseudoscience” developed.
Be sure to read what happens next, when in 1991, computer programmer Chip Morningstar was invited to give a speech at a two-day “interdisciplinary” Second International Conference on Cyberspace.
UPDATE: Whoops–Steven emailed me to inform me that his post is actually the second of what he believes will be a four-part series. Here’s the first part.