Big questions, muddled answers

Human Frontiers is an entertaining, zippy read but it feels one layer down from its ostensible subject: big ideas

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

After centuries of acceleration, humanity is stuck. Genuinely world-changing innovations — the aeroplane, vaccines, electricity — are fewer and further between. Art is stale and derivative. Everywhere, we’re fast running out of big ideas.

Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking by Michael Bhaskar (Hachette, £20)

Michael Bhaskar thinks we can stop the stagnation. In Human Frontiers, he argues that ours is a mire largely of our own making: the result of small-minded mistakes like short-termist politics, box-ticking universities, and growing self-censorship. With a bit more vim and imagination, all can be overcome. Even seemingly intractable problems — the limits of the brain, the increasing complexity of scientific problems — will likely soon be solved, Bhaskar says, thanks to breakthroughs in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and nuclear fusion.

As an historical overview of innovation and the often surprising ways scientific discoveries and inventions come about, Human Frontiers is an entertaining, zippy read. Bhaskar whizzes us from Archimedes’s bath to CERN, from the Wright Brothers to future colonies on Mars. But the whole thing feels one layer down from its ostensible subject: big ideas.

Little mention is given to the overarching philosophical, religious and political ideas that ultimately give civilisations their intellectual character — nor is any consideration given to whether these might lie behind our current predicament. Was Richard Weaver correct that the intellectual fragmentation of the last few hundred years has left us unable to resynthesise discrete disciplines back into a single picture of reality? Has the “death of God” irreversibly demoralised us? Did Enlightenment scepticism make us too self-critical? Has economic success made us too complacent? Bhaskar doesn’t really ask. 

Clearly, the book is aimed at the general reader, and expecting something as in-depth as Jacques Barzun’s masterful (and very long) From Dawn to Decadence is unfair. But even the few explanations Bhaskar does offer for our predicament only get us halfway: the rise of populism, for instance, is surely only the surface symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Little mention is given to the overarching philosophical, religious and political ideas that give civilisations their intellectual character

Nor, curiously, does Bhaskar seem especially interested in what might have fuelled earlier flurries of innovation. He writes, for instance, that around “the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Europe changed, attitudes shifted. Now original thoughts were to be celebrated.” Just … like that? Similarly, modernism is presented with plenty of what — “There was a self-conscious effort to produce completely original ideas, to challenge everything that had gone before” — but little why.

Perhaps Bhaskar’s publishers thought a book on the very biggest ideas wouldn’t sell (which would, in its own way, be proof that we’re in an “age of small thinking”). But one gets the sense that for Bhaskar our horizons are largely framed by science and rationality — and that any questions that go beyond those boundaries (other than those concerning artistic ingenuity) are inconsequential. 

That’s what his Whiggish account of the past suggests. For most of history, Bhaskar writes, “the dominant assumption was that everything had already been thought” Really? “Originality was dangerous and probably impossible”. Nonetheless, somehow a few bright sparks — Confucius, Plato, the mathematicians of early Islamic civilisation — cobbled together the makings of enlightenment.

Then came, in the West, the “dark ages”, when all this was “crushed under a dogmatic steamroller”. For “century upon century Europe now went down a path of regression”. No mention of the — if anything excessive — emphasis Aquinas and Ockham placed on reason and logic. Nor of inventions such as eyeglasses and the mechanical clock. 

Finally, the Enlightenment appeared (seemingly from nowhere), bringing with it human rights, thanks to the “daring postulation of the existence of a ‘natural law’ emanating from humans’ innate dignity” (a curious assertion, given that such a natural law was one of Aquinas’s main schticks).

The scientific revolution saw “the creation of concepts like ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘law of nature’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘theory’”. This would be a questionable claim even if Bhaskar had defined his terms — but he doesn’t. One of the most telling moments comes when Bhaskar voices frustration with our lack of progress — despite the fact that thinking has “become easier”.

Has it? We might have more scientific data, and more advanced tools, but has thinking itself become easier? Do we think more clearly, more incisively, than Aquinas, Montaigne or Leibniz?

One way of judging the clarity of thought in any given era is to look at its prose. And Bhaskar’s — while lively — often lapses into jargon and dodgy imagery. There are lots of “step changes” and “toolkits” and “interlocutors”. The concept of human rights “was given purchase” after the war.

Bhaskar’s central image of the “frontier”, the threshold between the known and unknown, is stretched beyond all meaning — it is, variously, “at a crossroads”, “neither fixed nor a spectator sport”, “stickier, slower, further away, more dispersed” and “alive, roiling, moving, expanding”. 

Metaphors are jumbled: “as we are incentivised to burrow deep, it is essential to go wide, to swim out of our depth”; “threading the needle to successfully, safely complete the toolkit is no done deal”. We need a “world that can paint on a daring, radical, different canvas.” (The world paints? The canvas is radical?). There are also occasional factual errors, such as the suggestion that Louis Armstrong was a saxophonist.

Bhaskar’s central image of the “frontier”, the threshold between the known and unknown, is stretched beyond all meaning

There’s an especially revealing passage late in the book when Bhaskar speculates about the future. “Experimental philosophy”, he says, will create “new moral principles, post-ideological codes whose assemblage makes them akin to the creation of a post-religious moral order equivalent in scope to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism.”

Bhaskar probably didn’t intend as much, but presenting philosophy and religion as creative pursuits, rather than the ultimate bridge to the transcendent, seems remarkably parochial: shrinking the largest questions of reality down to questions of lifestyle. 

But then Bhaskar tends to make his case in fairly pragmatic terms: we need big ideas because we need solutions to things such as climate change. This is obviously true. But we surely also need to consider what gives us meaning and purpose — and most importantly, what gets us closer to truth?

Today, though, truth can be the hardest thing to keep in focus. “The whole tendency of modern thought”, Richard Weaver once wrote, “is to keep the individual busy with endless induction. Since the time of Bacon, the world has been running away from, rather than toward, first principles, so that, on the verbal level, we see ‘fact’ substituted for ‘truth’, and on the philosophic level, we witness attack upon abstract ideas and speculative inquiry.” 

In the language of the philosopher Charles Taylor, we’ve “buffered” ourselves from transcendent truth — we’ve disenchanted our minds, and made ourselves incapable, therefore, of even perceiving the most profound aspects of reality. Unable to access truth — perhaps not even believing it possible — we distract ourselves instead with the endless pursuit of shiny innovations.

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