What Is Humanity’s Greatest Invention? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 27 2015 @ 3:01pm

A reader notes that “the movie Donnie Darko included an exchange on this very question“:

Another reader raises his hand: “Uh, what about language?” Another picks “writing, of course”:

Speech is encoded in our DNA as the way we transmit information from one person to another.  Writing is not.  Yet writing functions as a kind of disembodied DNA.  We can transmit any kind of information, from personal to cultural to technological through writing.  Writing is what makes it possible for us to know how much is owed or due to thousands of other people, at a glance. It is how we transmit religious traditions, with great fidelity, over generations, and it is how we speak to others long after we are dead.   A single person, knowing how to read and armed with just a few basic ideas, could rebuild civilization in a week if he had access to a decent small-town library.  Nothing else even comes close.

Another goes with:

Cheese.

Man, I love cheese.

Another recommends a recent book on the subject, How We Got to Here, by Steven Johnson:

It’s an excellent and engaging description of how the “invention” of glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light, and the inventions that flowed from those six items, did more to shape who we are today than other inventions. People can disagree with his list, thinking something more critical was left out, or something less critical was overblown by his descriptions in the book, but I can’t think of a more thoughtful, non-philosophical list of inventions that truly made a difference.

Another reader doesn’t buy the invention put forth by a previous one:

“Double-blind experiment”? Oh, please. It is as rife with problems as religion.  Our assumptions that it is better is, in fact, part of the problem.  Just think about Lipitor/statins or HRT, to name two high-profile drugs that were run through all the double-blind studies you could think of that both turned out to have issues.  And while not exactly double-blind, the Tuskegee experiments show that science is just as fallible as humans generally.

Another reader responds to the one who summarized Yuval Noah Harari’s view that “a company exists because everyone agrees that it does”:

This is a gross over-simplification of an issue involving the difference between abstractions and concretions in reality.  To use a different analogy, I can speak of the jar of coins I keep at home.  It’s something I’ve had for a while, so everyone agrees about the “imagined reality” of the jar.  It’s not necessarily a jar of coins, is it?  However, were I to take the jar to the bank, leaving only an empty container, and ask someone how much money I have in my jar of coins, they would quickly reply with “None!”

However, if I had not yet stored any coins in this jar, it being a new construct, something I just decided I would use to store my loose change, and I were to ask the same question, I would be met with quizzical looks.  This is because the concretion of the jar was not elevated to my abstraction of it; its reality did not live up to my imagination.

Going back to the given analogy of a company – a company only exists in “imagined reality” because there is a definite concrete reality to back it up.  The State of Delaware allows an organization right to a title in so far as there are actual physical, monetary and personnel assets to back up that claim.  So we aren’t as much allowing arbitrary definitions to permeate society as much as we are allowing rhetoric to help define that which already exists.

The company already exists; we’ve just applied a definition to it.  Not the other way around.

Another gets silly:

As much as I enjoy considering a chemical company as an imaginary structure, as a science nerd I should point out that there are limitations to this view of human activity.  Perhaps the best demonstration of the limits of human belief would be a 1970s sketch from Monty Python, regarding an architect who erects tower block apartments by hypnosis. The apartments remain perfectly serviceable as long as the residents continue to believe in them, but when a BBC reporter begins a sustained line of probing questions, all hell breaks loose: