Browsing through Portland's amazing bookstore, Powell's, I came across "This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress" in the new non-fiction area.
Couldn't resist it. The back cover said:
Few truly great ideas are developed without first abandoning old ones. In the past, discoveries often had to wait for the rise of the next generation to see questions in a new light and let go of old truisms. Today, in a world that is defined by a rapid rate of change, staying on the cutting edge has as much to do with shedding outdated notions as adopting new ones.
In this spirit, John Brockman, publisher of the online salon Edge.org, asked 175 of the world's most influential scientists, economists, artists, and philosophers: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
Just asking this question, and getting so many thoughtful responses, is a big reason why I love science so much.
It is open-minded, receptive to change, embracing of new ideas. Sure, scientists become wedded to outmoded ideas just as everybody does. But science recognizes this as something to be avoided, whereas religion, by and large, sees steadfast faith in unproven ideas as a virtue.
How often do leaders of a religion ask, "What theological idea of ours is ready for retirement?" Rarely.
And usually these aren't core ideas, but peripheral ones. Like whether women should be able to become ministers, or same-sex couples should be able to marry. Yet in science, vigorous debates occur over important questions.
Some of the Amazon reader reviews of "This Idea Must Die" criticize the many short essays for being shallow. Well, I like the pithy nature of them. Refreshing in a science book, which tend to be wordy.
Plus, these aren't intended to be sophisticated critiques of outdated notions. They're zingers, short and sweet, concise hard-hitting calls for this or that idea to be revisited and possibly replaced by a better one.
I haven't gotten very far into the book. So far I've liked all the essays, with these four being especially noteworthy for me. Here's the title and author, along with a brief excerpt.
Infinity, by physicist Max Tegmark
Let's face it: Despite their seductive allure, we have no direct observational evidence for either the infinitely big or the infinitely small.
The laws of physics are predetermined, by physicist Lawrence Kraus
We've come to accept the notion that life is not preordained; we also need to give up the quaint notion that the laws of physics are. Cosmic accidents are everywhere -- it's possible that our entire universe is just another accident.
Essentialism, by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins
But I mainly want to call attention to our society's essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato's essentialism.
Human nature, by environmental scientist Peter Richardson
Human nature implies that our species is characterized by a common core of features that define us. Evolutionary biology teaches us that this sort of essentialist concept of species is wrong.
Whether or not these scientific ideas are worth disposing of, I think everybody can benefit on a personal level from examining their own cherished viewpoints.
This isn't easy, I readily admit. Science uses peer review, open discussion of findings, and such to subject scientific notions -- even long-established ones -- to a Truth Test.
Individuals can do something roughly similar. It just takes more effort and determination. Some of our ideas are simply so damn enticing! Partly because, as Dawkins notes in his essay, we like to categorize everybody, including ourselves, into discrete categories.
Such as: Good guys and bad guys. Right guys and wrong guys. Moral guys and immoral guys. (Pretty easy to guess which categories we usually put ourselves in.)
It's impossible to look at ourselves, or at our beliefs about the world, from an objective standpoint. After all, we look out at things from our inner subjective consciousness, not as a detached observer.
Still, pondering what ideas we hold that could profitably be discarded strikes me as a good thing to do. Especially when it comes to religious, mystical, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. Just as science progresses by letting go of less-desirable ideas and grabbing on to more-desirable ideas, so should we.
Throughout our lives, not just when we are young. Most people tend to try out many kinds of belief systems when they are adolescents and young adults, then settle in to steady ways of believing as they get older.
Nothing wrong with this. Except when there is.
If some idea isn't working well for us; if some idea no longer fits with how the world actually seems to be; if we begin to feel uncomfortable with an idea that used to satisfy -- maybe it is time to let go of it.