In his latest book, The Frontiers of Knowledge: What We Now Know about Science, History and the Mind, bestselling polymath and philosopher A.C. Grayling offers an ambitious and gripping history of science, thought, life on earth and the human mind itself.
Grayling, master of the New College of the Humanities in London and supernumerary fellow of St Anne’s College Oxford, has written and edited more than 30 books.
This latest, he told Jim Mora was helped by the chaos of Covid-19.
“We've had a really tragic situation here in the UK with Covid, and I grieve the tens of thousands of people who have lost those they care about.
"But I'm afraid it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, because lockdown has suited me. I've got a lot of writing done in the process. My troglodytic nature has somewhat benefited from it.”
So why embark on this book?
“Well for one thing I'm fascinated by the fact that so recently - very, very recently - we've had this huge explosion of knowledge.
“And yet what this enormous explosion of knowledge, which by the way has been fantastic in its applications via technology, not least, in the very medium that we're using to talk to one another right now, or in clinical applications in neurology and so forth.
"But despite that, what this great explosion of knowledge has taught us is how little we know.”
Rather than knowledge accruing, he says there has been a kind of dramatic reversal.
“It used to be thought that the more we learned, the more we discovered, that the less ignorant we were.
“On the contrary, the more we know, the more we know we don't know. There’s a great, great universe of the yet to be known, the yet to be discovered which is even larger than we thought it was.”
This has implications for the nature of inquiry and education, Grayling says.
“The belief that we originally held, that we were bit by bit creeping up on certainty and on truth, the model of knowledge that we had was that we were like miners, digging and getting closer and closer to the seam of gold.
“Imagine that you're on an island which is growing in the midst of the ocean. Well as your island grows that's the growth of our knowledge, so your shoreline gets longer and longer. That's the frontier of knowledge.”
That means the “oceans of ignorance beyond the shoreline get bigger and bigger”, he says.
This makes education vital, Grayling says. Specifically, critical thinking.
“Everybody talks about critical thinking, and it's become such a cliché that people don't take it seriously.
"But actually it is really, really crucial. This is because we now have all this new knowledge. We have the internet, we have access at the touch of a button to all sorts of data, information. But we know that data is not knowledge until you organise it, until you find the patterns and the framework to put all that data into the right kind of relationship with itself, then that's knowledge.
“But not even knowledge is the last step. Because the last step is understanding, is insight, is knowing what that knowledge is worth, how to use it, how to apply it, which bits really matter, and what it tells us about what we need to discover next.”
The focus of education should be on the ability to evaluate information, he says.
“To be very critical and skeptical in the right kind of healthy way about it, and to know how to make use of the resources of inquiry.”
Instead of educating people to be good thinkers, we train people to occupy a silo, Grayling says.
“If the general population were literate in an understanding of medical science, they don't have to be experts in it, but to have a good intelligent grasp of what's happening there, they will be able to make sense of what is said by the epidemiologists and the biologists. They'd be able to put it in some kind of context.”
He says we have become spooked by the notion that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
“That to just have a very superficial and sketchy understanding of something is very bad. And that frightens people off making the effort to have what I describe as an intelligent and responsible grasp of things.”
The objective is not indubitable truth but rational belief, he says.
“Once you've got that idea in mind, the idea of rational belief really powerfully supported, you recognise then that these beliefs are nevertheless defeasible … meaning that new evidence could refute it or make us adjust or change it or look for a new theory.
“And it's that openness, that preparedness to revise and to think again and to be led by the evidence, not by what you want to be true, which is distinctive of the scientific outlook.”
This rational way of approaching knowledge has paradoxically shown us how little we know, he says.
“I quote the French poet Paul Valerie who said a marvellous thing, he said a difficulty is a light, if you tackle a difficulty it's very illuminating, you learn a huge amount.
“But then he said an insurmountable difficulty is the sun. Because an insurmountable difficulty, when you really have a go at it and you try to make sense of it, you try to solve that problem, you learn even more - it’s wonderfully illuminating.”
Humanity has been inventive for millennia, he says, but now we are gaining better understanding of why things work.
“The French say, because as you know they're a very philosophical nation, oh well, it works in practice, but does it work in theory? Because that's the really interesting thing.
“Humankind has always had lots of things working in practice but very recently, we began to think about what explains it. And that is where this great explosion of knowledge has come from looking for the explanations.”
Knowing more and having access to more information mustn’t dim our sense of wonder, Grayling says.
“The more you know about the past or about the world, about what's going on in science, the more wondrous it all seems, because it is pretty remarkable.”
Science is driving a deeper understanding of our past through breakthroughs in genetics and other areas, he says.
“Just one example; the people who built the last iteration of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England, had within a couple of generations of doing so, completely vanished.
The islands of the British Isles were then occupied by people who originated the steppes of Asia, he says.
“Now, that was something that genetics has taught us by comparing the fossil remains of people who lived at the time of Stonehenge before, and then later people occupying the British Isles.
“And this is something that we wouldn't have known without that advance in science.”