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Rolling Up the Slopes of Everest in a Wheelchair
And how materialism won't ever recover the majesty of science.
Neal Stephenson wants to get big stuff done, and in the process, recover the majesty of science. He wants to invoke awe again. He also has opinions on the possible role of science fiction in generating big ideas. Since he’s a science fiction author (who has written one of my favorite books), this makes sense, and his opinions are thought-provoking.
I’d recommend watching the video, but if you don’t, I’ll summarize. As an example, Stephenson calls for building a tower at least 20 kilometers tall, which is apparently possible to do with steel, even with today’s construction technology. According to Stephenson, there are a couple of things this would accomplish.
One, it’s big.
It would be a unifying beacon or a light shining in the darkness, similar to other scientific advances that people couldn’t argue with, such as the polio vaccine and the nuclear bomb. We would continue to make a name for ourselves.
Two, for a more practical reason, it takes far less energy (and therefore less money and resources) to break the atmosphere if you start at an altitude of 20 km. This makes space travel cheaper and more common.
This type of call to arms with the promise of glory is eerily familiar. Building a tower to the heavens? Making a name for ourselves?
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:3)(ESV)
And we all know how that turned out. Any other attempt would probably end in a similar disaster.
Before anyone accuses me of being intolerant of tall buildings or suffering from raging batophobia, let me say I have no problem with 20-kilometer tall buildings, or even a building 18.6-mile tall buildings, to use the King’s measurement system. I even have some friends who live and work in tall buildings. So let’s build them. But I’d rather have reasons more interesting than the self-glorification of man and the perpetuation of the species.
Also in the video, Stephenson laments the ground (his version of) science is losing, such as parents not vaccinating their kids and people denying the moon landing.
He asks, “How do we awaken wonder and respect again?”
This is a good question and a noble goal, but he’s turned left where he should have turned right. The way to awaken wonder is the same way it happened during the first scientific revolution: point to the supreme Artist and Engineer. We can’t race as fast as we can to utter meaninglessness and randomness, and then wonder why everyone is apathetic at the finish line.
As much as I like Stephenson as a writer, he is just another secular humanist, which is like trying to roll up the slopes of Everest in a wheelchair, saddled with oxygen tanks that are empty. You probably don’t want to undertake the climb with such a person or follow their advice when it comes to mountain climbing, just like you wouldn’t want to take fruit from a serpent.
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