Drew Gilpin Faust: You’ve said that we’re inebriated by technology. If we weren’t inebriated, what would we be doing instead?
Leon Wieseltier: We would be living more slowly to begin with. The single most important fact about the technology is its speed, as far as I can tell.
Ten years ago, I frequently remarked to myself from my perch at The New Republic, that they finally invented a medium of communication with no limits in physical space — yet everything on it had to be 400 words.
And the reason was the speed.
The acceleration of everything is troublesome to me. I think we’re extending ourselves beyond what our hearts and our minds can actually absorb. And we’re all living checklist lives; we’re all just getting everything done.
There are bastions against this acceleration. Reading — I mean real reading. Sex. You can’t fast forward it. Music. You can walk out of a Bruckner symphony but you cannot speed it up. You are at the mercy of whatever the tempo of a piece of music is, which is why music is one of the great spiritual correctives of our era.
And if you speed things up, what you’re really doing is diminishing or impoverishing or in some ways even abolishing experience, because experience takes place in time.
There’s a tenth century Jewish philosopher who wrote a very influential book of philosophy in what is now Iraq. And in the forward to the book, he asks a perfectly sensible question: if God wanted us to know the answers, why didn’t he just tell us?
And the answer that Saadia Gaon gives is that because if He had told us, we wouldn’t in any strict sense know it. What would be absent is the dimension of time — or struggle or method, which is time.
The experience of acquiring knowledge is part of the certainty that we have it in some way.
And I’m not in any way a luddite, but the technology reduces all knowledge to the status of information.
Leon Wieseltier, former editor The New Republic and current visiting professor of civics at Harvard, in conversation with the president of the school, Drew Gilpin Faust earlier this year. I encourage you to buy a copy of Wieseltier’s Kaddish, a book I plan to read early in the coming year.
Gaon may’ve been early by about a millennium, but his line of reasoning fits nicely in the “knowledge argument” that psychologists and philosophers have now been fighting over for a century. In short, the debate goes: is there such thing as knowledge that is not “physical” but exclusively “experiential”?
Fred Jackson outlined the most famous thought experiment on the subject in his 1982 paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (perfect the next time you need a cocktail party conversation starter!):
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
The basic point is this: if Mary knows every bit of physical knowledge about human color vision before she is realized from the monochrome room, does she “learn” anything once released into a world of tomatoes and sky? If so, what exactly does she learn in apprehending these things for the first time? Several philosophers I’ve posted about — most notably the great Thomas Nagel — have taken sides on this issue and made arguments worth exploring.