The Dangerous Man Has One Idea

I'm a sucker for a pithy quote, and yesterday, thinking about the IdeaFestival, one came to mind the exact phrasing of which I soon realized I had forgotten. After some quick research, I discovered that the quote could be found in a piece at the New Yorker titled The Possibilian, which describes the career arc and ideas of David Eagleman, a scientist and polymath. Like IdeaFestival 2014 speaker Claudia Hammond, who referenced some of Eagleman's work in her book, Time Warped, and at the festival, Eagleman has an intense interest in our perception of time. The New Yorker:

What would it be like to have a drummer’s timing? I wondered. Would you hear the hidden rhythms of everyday life, the syncopations of the street? When I asked the players at Eno’s studio this, they seemed to find their ability as much an annoyance as a gift. Like perfect pitch, which dooms the possessor to hear every false note and flat car horn, perfect timing may just make a drummer more sensitive to the world’s arrhythmias and repeated patterns, Eagleman said—to the flicker of computer screens and fluorescent lights. Reality, stripped of an extra beat in which the brain orchestrates its signals, isn’t necessarily a livelier place. It’s just filled with badly dubbed television shows.

So what does time have to do with the IdeaFestival? Humanity's "extra beat," is according to Eagleman, the time it takes to produce "the best possible story about what’s going on in the world." That extra beat is not the world as it is, but a world that makes sense. Aside from the startling observation that we all, therefore, live ever so briefly in the past, being extra sensitive to "the world's arrhythmias and repeated patterns" is a particularly valuable talent. The world is indeed a livelier place because of it.

There is a great deal of anxiety today about the economy, and understandably so. Peter Van Buren and Tyler Cowen talked at length at the festival about the growing economic divide. So I was encouraged listening to Cowen at the festival when he remarked that those who would succeed would cultivate that "extra beat." Context, an elasticity of thought, a head full of ideas from history, from literature, from the sciences and the arts - these things cannot be duplicated in a world where software has replaced so many jobs. Unlike the ever present ordinating machines we have created, humans know what they know. Nicholas Carr, another favorite thinker of mine, cleverly amplified this point recently on his blog when he said that in the strictest terms, consciousness for computer would be a disaster, a "bug-as-bug, not bug-as-feature."

How sad, then, that we strive to eliminate so much surprise, or quickly discount ideas that fall outside our immediate experience. No one knows - in the moment - what ideas will prove valuable and what ideas will not, and so it's important to be open to them precisely because they are new and different. 

The quote I went looking for turned out to be a prescient comment made by Francis Crick to Eagleman early in the younger man's career, and is quoted in The Possibilian. It goes to the beating heart of discovery, to a danger today of being a prisoner of the moment, and, if I may, of prizing efficiency instead of transcendency. Eventually transcendency suffers the consequences.

Before Francis Crick died, in 2004, he gave Eagleman some advice. 'Look,' he said. 'The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.'

I don't know about you, but I find comfort and freedom in that.

Stay curious.