The archeology of ideas

There is a curious phenomenon in the academic world of peer reviews and science journals. Pick up any scientific journal you like and look at the dates of any paper’s references at the end. Most will be from the 2000s. You may find a couple from the 1990s. If you look hard you may also get the odd and rare reference from the 1980s. And that will probably be it. So what has happened to scientific ideas dated before the 1980s? How come they are virtually extinct from the present?

One might suggest that as science progresses ideas are in constant review. Most fail in the light of new evidence. New ideas replace old ones in an evolutionary way. Or one may take a sociological perspective of science and, adopting Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the generational aspect of scientific progress, suggest that science runs in approximate 25-year cycles; old professors need to die or retire in order to be replaced by new ones; old professors’ ideas die with them and new professors’ ideas become the latest fad. Hence the 20-25 year reference time window at the end of academic papers.

Whatever the explanation might be the fact remains that there is no such thing as a de novo idea. All ideas, scientific or artistic, have roots that may travel a long way in the past, certainly beyond the time frame of an academic generation. Artificial Intelligence, for example, is not something that just happened to occur in some people’s heads when computers came about. Ideas about mechanical intelligence and artificial life circulate for thousands of years. The body-mind problem, so central to AI, has kept Plato awake at nights, and many a philosopher since.

The deeper one digs the more revealing discoveries one makes. It is a truism to say that ideas link to our cognitive systems, but the repercussions of this statement are immense. It means that there may be ideas beyond our ability to conceive them. Human consciousness, individual and collective, is a cognitive and cultural time continuum. Therefore, we cannot hope to adequately inform ourselves about the quality and value of what we think unless we can associate our thinking with facts about our nature and history.

Apparently, the archeology of ideas is something that is  missing from modern scientific and artistic production. I am often bemused when eminent physicists “discover deeper questions” that arise, say, from particle-wave duality; ignorant of the fact that such questions have been posed before, and they only needed to have asked their classics colleagues  in order to know. Not to mention prominent artists who seem to display the mindset of persons living in the Middle Ages.

The “two cultures” problem is evident here. Humanistic studies, arts and sciences all speak  different tongues, exist in a state of mutual suspicion and frequently hold each other in contempt. As a result many scientists are disconnected from humanity and a great number of humanists and artists live in a magical, pre-scientific world.

There are of course exceptions, and these exceptions have inspire me to cross a few lines and dig into the archeology of ideas. I was trained as an engineer but I am also a novelist. What fascinates me in Artificial Intelligence is not only the technologies but also its vision and its deep roots in our collective past. Turing Dreams will  try to wade along a lonely – and academically deserted – “third culture” path of linking science to humanities, in the hopeful attempt of discovering, and describing, a heroic narrative of scientific endeavor in the making.

6 thoughts on “The archeology of ideas

  1. Love this idea: about the archeology of ideas… it is harder to quantify than science and math… but oh, so delicious! How do you suggest that these seemingly disparate disciplines of humanities and science merge (in inquiry?) to find themselves less at odds? – Renee

    • Thank you for your comment Renee. I am a pessimist when it comes to the “two cultures” problem. The reason for my pessimism is economic, i.e. how science is currently funded. Funding science severely inhibits te building of bridges towards humanities. From the perspective of artists and humanities the main problem is the media: ruled mostly by humanity graduates they have a deep suspicion for science stemming from ignorance. Since media informs contemporary culture science will try to adapt and reap some benefit (fame, money, exposure, etc.) by imitating art (see for example what Dawkins does), i.e. science becomes a show…so no hope I am afraid, except for the odd writer or novelist who will manage to enter the mind of science and make a thrilling read out of it….

      • I am about to enter this arena… teaching writing at a research branch of Arizona State U… my work must focus on the spirit of inquiry… my love in writing is Creative Nonfiction and Lee Gutkind manages to bridge the divide about which you speak in his piece on following the robotics researchers in the Chilean desert… will see if I can dig it out. I have much to learn from your thoughts. Looking forward to more discussion. – Renee

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