Is it just me, or is everybody out there looking for a quick fix? There is something highly compelling about the idea that there is a secret switch we can flip to become suddenly smarter, to reveal cognitive abilities hidden inside each of us. It is a notion that certainly has commercial appeal.
Three years ago, when I was studying for a Masters in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, mindfulness was very much in the air. The Department of Psychiatry had launched a large-scale study on the effects of mindfulness in collaboration with the university’s counselling service.
Most people enter the self-help realm while planning a personal improvement project, a kind of steam-cleaning of the soul. I fell into it by mistake. Maybe the allusion to a familiar poem was what made me pull M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1978) off my parents’ shelf as a young teen.
‘Fuck Earth!’ Elon Musk said to me, laughing. ‘Who cares about Earth?’ We were sitting in his cubicle, in the front corner of a large open-plan office at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles. It was a sunny afternoon, a Thursday, one of three designated weekdays Musk spends at SpaceX.
One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler.
Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not.
Programming computers is a piece of cake. Or so the world’s digital-skills gurus would have us believe. From the non-profit Code.
Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort.
If we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think.
Great loners are fascinating. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Buddhist monks in their hermitage, and fictional heroes such as Robinson Crusoe are all romantic figures of successful solitary survival. Their setting is the wilderness.
‘Hypersanity’ is not a common or accepted term. But neither did I make it up. I first came across the concept while training in psychiatry, in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967) by R D Laing.
We credit Socrates with the insight that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and that to ‘know thyself’ is the path to true wisdom. But is there a right and a wrong way to go about such self-reflection?
Back in the fall of 1999, Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. While brainstorming ideas, ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report.
One crisp day last March, Harvard professor John Kovac walked out of his office and into a taxicab that whisked him across town, to a building on the edge of the MIT campus. People were paying attention to Kovac’s comings and goings that week. He was the subject of a fast-spreading rumour.
If you’d been born 1,500 years ago in southern Europe, you’d have been convinced that the Roman empire would last forever. It had, after all, been around for 1,000 years. And yet, following a period of economic and military decline, it fell apart. By 476 CE it was gone.
It is Saturday, 1 November 2014. I am book-browsing at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York City when my attention is caught by a collection of beautifully produced volumes. I look closer and realise that these books are part of what’s called the Leatherbound Classic series.
Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office. ‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours.
The peacock’s dazzling tail feathers do not exist for them to carry out everyday activities such as eating or sleeping, but because their colourfulness is attractive to peahens: the more brilliant the feathers, the greater the chance the peacock has of finding a sexual partner.
You have probably never heard of William Kingdon Clifford. He is not in the pantheon of great philosophers – perhaps because his life was cut short at the age of 33 – but I cannot think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant for our interconnected, AI-driven, digital age.
One evening in the year 1745, a distinguished scientist was dining in a private room at a tavern in London, when suddenly he noticed a man sitting in a corner and apparently speaking to him. Fearing for his sanity, the scientist hurried home and fell asleep.
The duty of man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads and … attack it from every side.
For decades, personality psychologists have noticed a striking, consistent pattern: extraverts are happier more of the time than introverts. For anyone interested in promoting wellbeing, this has raised the question of whether it might be beneficial to encourage people to act more extraverted.
By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation. In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.
It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort.
In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy.
The humanities are in crisis. It’s become orthodoxy. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the ‘crisis of the humanities’ that few have stopped to ask if there actually is such a crisis. Over just the past few generations, enormous changes have transformed higher education.
Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy.
We are doomed. Our best efforts to reproduce, to conserve, protect and survive will, in the end, come to nought. We could sort out climate change, dispose of our nuclear arsenals, ban research into killer AIs, and still the end would come, as surely as night follows day.
In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position.
‘Buy land – they aren’t making it any more,’ quipped Mark Twain.
‘We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.’ Those were the words of the American biologist E O Wilson at the turn of the century. Fastforward to the smartphone era, and it’s easy to believe that our mental lives are now more fragmentary and scattered than ever.
‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.’ These words are attributed to the realist painter Edward Hopper. Few can paint like Hopper could, but all of us can relate to the feeling that words are sometimes not enough. Having said that, what makes images any better?
Last year, a reporter in the Guardian described how the Man Booker Prize judges spent ‘a summer… devouring novel after magnificent novel’, culminating in their selection of ‘a (baker’s) dozen’. This is nothing unusual. The language of eating is often used to describe reading habits.
You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.
Management thinking is notoriously faddish. One week, the gurus, star CEOs, pundits and professors are talking about downsizing as the solution to corporate bureaucracy and inefficiency. The next week, the bandwagon has moved on to knowledge-management. Then to empowerment.
Who were the Neanderthals? Even for archaeologists working at the trowel’s edge of contemporary science, it can be hard to see Neanderthals as anything more than intriguing abstractions, mixed up with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabre-toothed cats.
A rooster crows and awakens my family at the farm where we are staying for a long weekend. The air is crisp, and stars twinkle in the sky as the Sun rises over the hill. We walk to the barn, where horses, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats vie for our attention.
When researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained mice to fear the smell of almonds (by pairing it with electric shocks), they found, to their consternation, that both the children and grandchildren of these mice were spontaneously afraid of the same smell. That is not supposed to happen.
People get angry for all sorts of reasons, from the trivial ones (someone cut me off on the highway) to the really serious ones (people keep dying in Syria and nobody is doing anything about it). But, mostly, anger arises for trivial reasons.
Humans are social animals. We live in groups. We care for our offspring for years. We cooperate with each other (the United States Congress notwithstanding). Most of all, we have lasting relationships with other individual humans – what biologists call long-term pair bonds.
In the film The Big Sleep (1946), the private eye Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) calls at the house of General Sternwood to discuss his two daughters. They sit in the greenhouse as the wealthy widower recounts an episode of blackmail involving his younger daughter.
Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tragedy