What are the 3 most important ideas anyone’s ever had? Obviously, there is no right answer to the question, and it’s arguably subjective enough so that the answers say more about the answerer than the question. Nevertheless, here are my choices:
3) Darwinism. As Richard Dawkins says in The Selfish Gene, never before was their a credible answer to the children’s question of “Why are we?” until Charles Darwin published his theory. Darwinism is, I believe, the best single idea anyone ever had, and is also a fascinating illustration of the scientific method, in that it’s been verified across a whole range of disciplines, from taxonomy to molecular biology to epidemiology.
2) The scientific method. Aristotle was a smart guy, with a lot of ideas. What he didn’t have was a sieve to filter the ideas that work from the rest. The scientific method can best be summarized as falsifiability, the concept that if you’re interest in truth, you have to test your ideas. So, if you read Aristotle, it’s amazing how wrong he is about so many things, and without the technology of the scientific method, he has no way of figuring out when he’s wrong or right. Of course, innovations as varied as modern medicine, modern agriculture, and most engineering would be impossible without the scientific method. On a more down note, I’ll mention Richard Feynman’s contention of how many aspects of modern life don’t take advantage of the scientific method, including most educational strategies, criminology, and management studies.
1) Free will. My vote for the most important idea is free will, the concept that we are responsible for our own decisions and actions. There’s a fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence where in the course of painting murals during the Renaissance, Masaccio gave expression to the idea of free will by adding perspective. Perspective requires a viewpoint centered on the individual, not an abstract god. No longer were we creatures ordered or controlled by god, but individuals, with choices and control over ourself.
From this idea of free will (which the Greeks had, but was then lost until the Renaissance), directly flows the concepts of liberal democracy and market capitalism. It is central to both how our civilization is organized and how we view ourselves.
Which I why I was so concerned to read this article from the NYT, which describes some intriguing (though hardly conclusive) evidence is accumulating that free will is an allusion, an artifice covering up “computations unfolding in a subconscious neural netherworld”. The author continues:
To me, choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Moreover, our faith in free will has social value. It provides us with the metaphysical justification for ethics and morality. It forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or God. Free will works better than any other single criterion for gauging the vitality of a life, or a society.
Theologians have proposed that science still allows faith in a “God of the gaps,” who dwells within those shadowy realms into which science has not fully penetrated, such as the imaginary time before the Big Bang banged. In the same way, maybe we can have a free will of the gaps. No science is more riddled with gaps, after all, than the science of human consciousness.
Of course, we don’t have to give up liberal democracy and market capitalism if turns out that free will doesn’t exist, but it would make it harder to give them a philosophical foundation.