The Future of Knowledge

I want to look here at the progress of the mind in an extended historical setting. I shall take as my inspiration a former warden of Wadham College, Oxford, Warden Wilkins, who was elected warden in 1648 and died in 1672, a founder of the Royal Society, which started in embryo in Wadham and then continued in London. Wilkins foresaw and helped to plan the new science in Britain and in Europe, and he wanted to bring the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to the attention of Englishmen. He typically helped and encouraged Christopher Wren at Wadham. His writings were not intended for the learned only, but for a wider public of practical men. He wanted to use the state for the assistance of the intellect, and to organize learning. Could men find a means to fly to the moon? he asked. Could they navigate under water? These were technical possibilities which he guessed were being opened up by the new science of his time.

He was to be proved right in his belief that mankind, or the advanced section of it in Western Europe, was at that time launched on a vast expansion of the uses of the intellect and of the imagination; three hundred years of accelerating understanding of nature as a rational system had begun. Wilkins laid out in his writings an architect’s drawing of the future fabric of human reason. This fabric proved to be what we now call modern science and advanced technology. In this last decade we have heard much more authoritative questioning of the future of technology, and even of the future of natural science, than ever before in the last three hundred years. So perhaps we should pause and take stock, as Wilkins did in the middle of the seventeeth century, though modestly, because he was a genius of foresight.

I shall therefore be discussing the future of knowledge rather than knowledge of the future. At a new turning point, we should put to ourselves some new, or largely new, questions. Given the resources of knowledge now available, and given the spread of this knowledge in different minds across the world, how much of the future development of thought can we reasonably forecast or guess? And what could we do now to encourage the development of the mind?

I am not a scientist of any kind; I am a philosopher. Philosophy in the West began as the study of the nature of knowledge and of its forms, and it continues to be that study up to the present day. Not only do new forms of science and scholarship modify the nature of knowledge, but the sheer amount of systematic knowledge does this also. We may not know, in the sense that we may not realize, how much we now know. The pace of accumulation is so fast, and the acceleration is so great. And if we do not know what we know, then our first-order knowledge is apt to …

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