Stephen Dubner looks at a reader's question of who is the greatest modern thinker.
I love this question. It first requires you to define what a “thinker” is, and also raises the question of what incentives exist in the modern world to be a thinker. Also, is someone a great thinker if they’re never able to communicate their thoughts to a broad audience?
On a related note: The Times recently ran a piece about a rise in college philosophy majors; interestingly, the Wall Street Journal published a piece shortly thereafter (sorry, can’t find a link, but here’s a reprint of the pertinent info) ranking the first-year salaries for 16 selected college majors: engineers were first (at $48,707) and philosophers were dead last (at $28,234).
And I said I'd invest in philosophy majors! (But I still think they have the best option value, and that a few of them will be very rich in a decade or two)
The question of the greatest modern thinker is hazy in several ways. What is a great thinker? What is modern (can I nominate John Locke)? Do your ideas have to be highly original? Highly influential? Both?
Tyler Cowen suggests Tim Berners-Lee or Marc Andreesen. By implication, he is saying that, in C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" terms, the greatest thinker is no longer a humanist but a scientist.
If we go with the Internet or the Web as the greatest achievement of modern thought, then I think we have to give some credit to its governance structure, which I associate with Vinton Cerf. The governance structure is designed to minimize central authority and permanent government. The Internet protocols are put together by IETFs (internet engineering task forces) that assemble to solve problems and disband when the problems are solved. I fell in love with that concept the first time I saw Cerf explain it in 1993. You could say that right then and there I resolved to secede from the physical world and join the virtual one.