WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST?
An Existential Detective Story
By Jim Holt
Liveright, 320 pp., $2Z95
As I read this surprisingly upbeat exploration of current philosophical and scientific thought on the age-old mystery of existence itself--why, quite simply, there is something rather than nothing--a depressing question kept occurring to me. Do college students, I wondered, still sit around their dorm rooms arguing such questions into the wee hours of the morning? Or have the most recent iterations of the information revolution, from Facebook and Twitter to the newest new app, dealt a fatal blow to those philosophical bull sessions of yesteryear?
I lack the requisite social science data to confirm my worst suspicions, but an essay I read a year ago by the biographer and cultural historian Neal Gabler tends to confirm them. In his New York Times commentary, "The Elusive Big Idea," Gabler announced the arrival of a "post-idea age." Citing a number of the usual suspects--academic overspecialization, the disappearance of public intellectuals, the rise of a largely visual culture--he fingers them less as causes than as harbingers. "The real cause," he says, "may be information itself." Thanks largely to the Internet, immediate access to almost anything has made us the most informed generation in history. Yet ease of access has had a paradoxical result.
"It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less," Gabler writes. We used to gather information "to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful-into ideas that made sense of the information." But now information is less grist for ideas than competition for them, and Gabler concludes that ideas have lost: "We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward."
There are counterarguments to such twilight pessimism. One could point out that ideas and idea-mongers have done more than their share of ill over time, particularly during the past century. A good dose of solid information is one of the best antidotes to the allure of seductive, all-explaining ideas and their offshoots, ideologies. And one could also make the case that recent innovations and innovators are worthy, if not superior, successors to the ideas and intellectuals of yore. Steve Jobs, Mark...