Philosopher Daniel Dennett once asked: Would you rather be remembered for being right about something, or for being "original and provocative"?
I've been mulling over Dennett's question in the aftermath of sociologist Steve Fuller's recent visit to my school, Stevens Institute of Technology. After hanging out with Fuller for most of a day and night, I felt over-stimulated in a good way, like I'd been tripping at the Burning Man Festival.
Fuller has training in sociology, history and philosophy, and he now holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick in England. Reading my previous post about him, which quotes his assertion that scientists aren't more rational than the rest of us, you might conclude he is a Kuhn-style postmodernist. But no label can contain Fuller.
He seems to be literally intoxicated by ideas. He talks rapidly, at high volume, grinning, eyes popping, waving his arms around so wildly that I feared for those nearby him. He is serious and not serious, deadly earnest one moment and guffawing the next. Ideas, names, book titles gush out of him. One refrain: "You know so and so, right? You don't know so and so? You've got to check him out!"
Although he is almost absurdly erudite—he excels at tracing even his wackiest propositions to antecedents in the history of ideas--he exudes not the slightest whiff of snobbishness. This was apparent when he was fielding questions from students after his talk--and when he was having lunch with me and a half dozen other Stevens professors in a restaurant in Hoboken.
We were noisily arguing about something—let's say Fuller's call for a fusion of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism--when a voice boomed out: "Hey, are you guys professors or something?" It was a big, barrel-chested, blue-suited policeman, looming over our table. I thought he was going to tell us—and especially Fuller—that we were talking too loud and should pipe down.
But no, the cop, whose daughter was just starting college, wanted to ask us why college is so damn expensive. Fuller proceeded to extol the merits of the British system of higher education, and soon Fuller and the cop were talking abut the pros and cons of capitalism and socialism, disagreeing on some issues and agreeing on others.
In his public talk, Fuller defended transhumanism, the idea that humans should embrace genetic engineering and other technologies that can help us transcend our biological limits. He argued for reforms in our political and legal systems to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm from technological self-improvement. Among his more specific proposals: Ethical restrictions should be relaxed so people can volunteer for risky experiments aimed at human enhancement. If science extends our life spans, the elderly can help solve the overpopulation problem by leaving Earth in spaceships.
Fuller is like no other transhumanist I'm aware of. At various moments, he sounds like a socialist, libertarian, Popperian or Jesuit (and in fact he was raised Catholic and still has a strong affinity for that faith). If you made a Venn diagram of ideologies that Fuller at least partially inhabits, there would be only one person at their intersection, Fuller himself.
I don't know how many people Fuller converts. Probably not many. He didn't convert me to his transhumanist vision. Sure, human biology could use a little tweaking, but my version of paradise calls for radical social and cultural changes, and especially the end of militarism, not designer babies.
But Fuller constantly provoked me. My Stevens buddy James McClellan, a distinguished historian of science and technology, introduced Fuller at his public talk. McClellan rattled off some of Fuller's many accomplishments, but his greatest compliment, by far, was a quote from a scholar who had seen Fuller in action. "I witnessed one of the few wild intelligences that I've seen in decades of being around academics," the scholar said. "It was a joyful thing."
It's easy for intellectuals to be right, especially if they are safely right, not pushing the boundaries of received wisdom. What's harder is to be original, surprising, challenging.
Fuller forced me to reconsider my own beliefs about human destiny, the meaning of life, the nature of truth. I suspect many others who read his works or hear him speak are provoked as well. And these days, maybe provocation—especially the kind that gets us to question our own worldviews--is a better outcome than conversion.