Explanations That Transform the World
Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species. It began at approximately the time of the scientific revolution, and is still under way. It has included improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.
Old ways of thought permitted no process such as science for correcting errors and misconceptions. So ideas were static for long periods. Bad explanations, even the best of them typically had little reach and were therefore brittle and unreliable beyond, and often within, their traditional applications. When ideas did change, it was seldom for the better, and when it did happen to be for the better, that seldom increased their reach. The emergence of science, and more broadly what I am calling the Enlightenment, was the beginning of the end of such static, parochial systems of ideas. It initiated the present era in human history, unique for its sustained, rapid creation of knowledge with ever-increasing reach. Many have wondered how long this can continue. Is it inherently bounded? Or is this the beginning of infinity – that is to say, do these methods have unlimited potential to create further knowledge?
New York Times non-fiction bestseller list (September 2011).
Kirkus Reviews starred review (‘exceptional merit’) (June 2011).