The Expert Generalist: Why the Future Belongs to Polymaths

Some of history’s greatest contributions have come from polymaths.
Aristotle practically invented half a dozen fields of study across philosophy. Galileo was as much a physicist as he was an engineer when he helped kick-start the scientific revolution. Da Vinci might have been even more famous as an inventor than an artist if his notebooks were ever published.

Even in the last 100 years, we have had people like John Von Neumann and Herbert Simon who have made breakthrough advances across fields as diverse as computer science, economics, and psychology.

.. Polymaths see the world differently. The make connections that are otherwise ignored, and they have the advantage of a unique perspective.

In a world increasingly dominated by machines, I have a feeling that this approach in going to become increasingly valuable.

.. What polymaths realize by studying the different branches is that many of them have the same foundation, and if this foundation is deeply understood then all they need to do is apply that ingrained knowledge to a different context rather than do the work of surface-level specialization.

For example, as a writer, if I want my work read, I need to know marketing.

.. The big difference between the approaches of a polymath and a specialist is that the specialist picks a spot and then goes deep, whereas the polymath is on a lane that continuously gets wider.

.. our current distinctions between disciplines will start to fade away and new ones will arise. Many of them will likely reside between areas that aren’t currently covered by specialization.

.. Traditionally, the idea of having a single career over the course of a life wasn’t unreasonable. The future, however, looks different. People will likely have multiple careers that differ significantly. Even if they don’t, we will see more and more project-based work, which will require similar skills.
In such a world, the learning ability of a polymath may just be the difference.

.. we’re going to see more and more people playing at the intersection of different disciplines.
While specialization will still have its place, the boundaries between the many aspects of reality are going to continue to be blurred, and those who can comfortably embrace such blurring will thrive.

Opposition to Galileo was scientific, not just religious

But seen from Earth, stars appear as dots of certain sizes or magnitudes. The only way stars could be so incredibly distant and have such sizes was if they were all incredibly huge, every last one dwarfing the Sun. Tycho Brahe, the most prominent astronomer of the era and a favourite of the Establishment, thought this was absurd, while Peter Crüger, a leading Polish mathematician, wondered how the Copernican system could ever survive in the face of the star-size problem.

.. Brahe had theorised that all planets circled the Sun, while it circled Earth. Locher noted that Brahe might be right, but what was clear was that the telescope supported Ptolemy.

.. But the telescopically discovered moons of Jupiter were proof of epicyclic motion: the moons rode in circles around Jupiter, while those circles rode with Jupiter on its orbit. The telescope had proven Ptolemy correct; it was just that Venus and sunspots (and maybe all the planets) had their epicycles centred on the Sun.

.. Unfortunately for Locher, he turned out to be wrong about the Earth not moving (the apparent sizes of stars would be shown to be spurious, an effect of optics).

Worse, Galileo in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) made sport of a certain ‘booklet of theses’, namely Locher’sDisquisitions, quoting from it without identifying its author or title. He caricatured Disquisitions, then ridiculed the caricature, portraying the ‘booklet’ as the work of a befuddled establishmentarian, hung up on the ancient idea of an immobile Earth. Galileo gave no clue that the ‘booklet’s’ author was complimentary to him, excited about new telescopic discoveries, encouraging further telescopic research, and wielding solid arguments against Earth’s motion. Locher was forgotten, while Galileo’s caricature became accepted as history, and applied to the entire debate over Earth’s motion.

That is unfortunate for science, because today the opponents of science make use of that caricature. Those who insist that the Apollo missions were faked, that vaccines are harmful, or even that the world is flat – whose voices are now loud enough for the ‘War on Science’ to be a National Geographiccover story and for the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to address even their most bizarre claims – do not reject the scientific process per se. Rather, they wrap themselves in the mantle of Galileo, standing (supposedly) against a (supposedly) corrupted science produced by the ‘Scientific Establishment’. Thus Locher matters. Science’s history matters. Anti-Copernicans such as Locher and Brahe show that science has always functioned as a contest of ideas, and that science was present in both sides of the vigorous debate over Earth’s motion.

Are We Really So Modern?

For all our technological breakthroughs, we’re still wrestling with the same basic questions as the Enlightenment philosophers.

Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us.

Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power over nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question.

.. If we are looking for the real origins of the modern world, then, we have to look for the moment when that world was literally disoriented—stripped of its sense of direction. Heliocentrism, the doctrine that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, was announced by Copernicus in 1543 and championed by Galileo in the early sixteen-hundreds.

.. Nietzsche is usually classified as a philosopher, Donne as a poet, and Galileo as a scientist. But one of the premises of Anthony Gottlieb’s new book, “The Dream of Enlightenment” (Liveright)—the second installment of his lucid, accessible history of Western philosophy—is that thought cannot be divided according to disciplines in this way.

.. “the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline.

.. in treating the philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is conventional to cast it as a struggle between “rationalists” and “empiricists.” In this account, everyone from Descartes to Hume is engaged in one long battle over whether truth is to be found “in here,” through strictly logical reasoning on the model of mathematics, or “out there,” through observation of the world.

.. Immanuel Kant, in the late eighteenth century, when he figured out a way to show that both sides were correct, since all perception is necessarily filtered through the categories imposed by our minds.

.. it was because these times were so tumultuous that they were able to think in such a radical way.

Eras in which everything is up for grabs are very rare, and they seem to be highly productive for philosophy. As Gottlieb points out, much of the Western philosophy that still matters to us is the product of just two such eras: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries A.D.

.. The discovery of America destroyed established geography, the Reformation destroyed the established Church, and astronomy destroyed the established cosmos. Everything that educated people believed about reality turned out to be an error or, worse, a lie.

.. Perhaps if it were somehow confirmed that, as some thinkers speculate, our universe is actually a simulation run on a computer by an unfathomably advanced intelligent civilization, we would feel an analogous sense of confusion and possibility.

.. the comic playwright Aristophanes, in his play “The Clouds,” portrayed Socrates as discussing questions such as whether a gnat buzzes through its nose or its anus.

.. the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were one of those rare periods when a lot of people cared, because their sense of the world was decomposing so dramatically. Literate people—and, thanks to the printing press, there were more of these than ever before—were eager to hear from philosophers who could give new answers to the ancient questions.

.. To Plato, this could be explained by the fact that the soul had a life before birth in which it learned mathematical truths, so that learning is really a form of remembering.

.. Begin, Descartes wrote, by doubting absolutely everything you know, think, and perceive; assume that it is all delusive, as in a dream. Does anything remain absolutely certain, even after this purge? One thing does, he argued: the fact of my consciousness. If I did not exist as a mind, there would be no “I” to be deceived by appearances. If I think, I must exist—Cogito ergo sum.

.. Descartes would have been disappointed to know that he gave rise to a whole new era of philosophy. He thought that there would not have to be any philosophy after him, since he had solved all the problems; only experimental research would remain.

.. Even today, cognitive scientists struggle to understand how consciousness arises from matter, though few doubt that it does.

.. There could not be two substances in the universe, Spinoza argued, one physical and the other divine, since this involved a logical contradiction. If God and Nature were distinct, then it must be the case that Nature had some qualities that God lacked, and the idea of a supreme being lacking anything was incoherent. It follows that God and Nature are just two names for the same thing, the Being that comprises everything that ever existed or ever will exist.

This radical idea, known as pantheism, has strange and paradoxical results.

.. it says that we ourselves are part of God. On the other hand, an immanent God is not the kind of God who watches over the world, hears prayers, and punishes sinners.

.. He was also much bolder than other philosophers in stating what many of them surely believed, that the Bible was a human document that contained no privileged information about historical events or the nature of divinity. It should therefore be read and studied like any other book, with due attention to the motives of its authors and the errors that had crept in throughout years of transmission. This secular, rational approach to Scripture made Spinoza arguably the father of Biblical criticism.

.. A more unexpected corollary of Spinoza’s pantheism is that it eliminates the possibility of free will, or of contingency of any kind. After all, if everything is God, and God is absolute, then there is no way that anything could happen differently from the way it does.

.. Spinoza’s definition of “blessedness” was “the intellectual love of God,” in which the mind sees the necessity of everything in the world as simply and indubitably as Plato’s slave perceived the necessity of the Pythagorean theorem.

.. Democracy, he argued, was “of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty.” He insisted on libertas philosophandi, freedom of thought, and, while he granted that the state had the power to establish the outward forms of religious worship, he adamantly opposed any coercion of conscience. Each person had the right to decide what God was and how best to serve him. Taken together, these beliefs give Spinoza a claim to be considered the first great philosopher of liberal democracy.

.. a Warsaw intellectual who spends his life trying to achieve that superhuman serenity, only to fall humiliatingly in love with his nurse.

.. Where Descartes and Spinoza tried to come to grips with reality through purely deductive logic

.. Locke and Hume valued the evidence of the senses. Their empiricism is often taken to be a peculiarly British kind of virtue

.. We can, of course, trust that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, just as it did yesterday and every day before that. But we can’t prove that it will rise in the same way we can prove that two plus two is four.

.. In Hume’s view, Descartes’s program of demolishing the world through doubt and then rebuilding it through logic is bound to fail. Instead, we have to accept that our knowledge of the world is not absolute, as much as we might like it to be.

.. But we are still living with the problems that these thinkers formulated and tried to solve. We are never quite as modern as we think.

Andrew Briggs recommends the best books on Nature of Reality

It specifically tested the following statement of reality, which involves the conjunction of two postulates. One is that if you have a system that can be in one of two states, that at any given time it’s in one of those states. So either you’re in Oxford or you’re in Cambridge, but not both at the same time. The other is that you can find out which it is without affecting the subsequent history of the state, or in fact the previous history of the state. That’s called a non-invasive measurement. And the experiment we did showed that both of those could not, at the same time, be true.

.. So what these experiments are beginning to do is to take some of these candidate interpretations of reality, within the context of quantum theory, and make some progress in which of them you can and cannot believe.

.. So, for example, some of the experiments we’re doing now may lead to information communication technologies that use much less electricity than current technologies do. At the moment, information and communication technology uses about 5% of the world’s electricity. It’s only 5% but it’s 5% of a very big number. The carbon emissions are similar to those produced by the whole world airline industry.

.. We already know, for example, that part of photosynthesis involves quantum interference, and there’s good evidence that the avian compass—bird navigation—may sometimes use quantum processes.

.. The amazing thing about that is that unlike Deep Blue, which 20 years or so ago was programmed to play chess, AlphaGo was programmed to learn how to play Go.

.. I still am, at heart, a critical realist, but I now understand better what the problems are in thinking through that. I still think that, in practice, I do my science as if there is an objective reality to describe, but I do it with an awareness that the nature of that reality may be more subtle, and perhaps more interesting, than I’d at first thought.

.. My own motivation for the book was that as someone with a passion for science and a firm faith in God, I wanted to understand better how the science fits into the relationship. How does science fit into knowing God?

.. looking through the books you’ve chosen, the theme seems to be that the polarization of science and religion is not very helpful.

Indeed. Particularly when we get to what’s probably the most explicitly scholarly of all the books—The Territories of Science and Religion—we will see just how a very distinguished historian, Peter Harrison, has taken that to pieces.

.. ‘Suppose that nobody could have any children anymore. How then would we live? What would we live for? And what would our purpose be?’ She explores how different people would respond, and how different people would live in that situation.

.. There were very good reasons, in quantum theory, for not being able to do error correction in the way you can in a classical computer — namely that you can’t copy quantum information, you can’t have a quantum photocopier in the way you can for ordinary information. Andrew thought of a whole new way of overcoming that, which changed the field and made it feasible to have error correction.

.. Aren’t most scientists atheist? The data on American scientists seems to show that.

The scene in America is very different from the scene in Britain. There’s a very different history. In Britain we’ve got a very rich heritage of distinguished scientists who are people of strong Christian faith

.. the best surveys that have been done seem to indicate that a majority of elite scientists would describe themselves as spiritual persons. In science, there is a genuine pleasure from getting an experiment to work or developing a new technology, or solving a theoretical problem. That can be experienced by people whether or not they have a relationship with God. But I think what Andrew would say, and what I would say, is that that pleasure is hugely enriched when it’s in the context of a relationship with the Creator, whose work you’re studying.

.. Peter Harrison starts with (another) striking thought experiment, if you like. He says if a historian were to contend that he or she had discovered evidence of a hitherto unknown war that had broken out in the year 1600 between Israel and Egypt, what would your response be?

.. the 1600s, those territories didn’t exist with those designations. Of course the bits of land, the hills, the mountains existed, the topography existed, but not with those labels. What he is showing, in an immensely scholarly way, is that these labels of science and religion—although nowadays we think we know what they mean—are rather recent and no more applicable to most of intellectual and cultural history than the labels of Israel and Egypt would have been to those territories in 1600. And therefore a lot of misunderstandings arise because people are applying incorrect categories.

.. The idea of religion as a distinct body of knowledge is a surprisingly recent one,

.. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes defines scientia as the skill to solve every problem.


Religio, in the Middle Ages, was a virtue. It referred to internal acts of devotion and prayer. This interior dimension is more important than any outward expression—that’s according to Aquinas, in the 13th century. There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of proposition of beliefs, and no sense of different religions. They’re inner virtues.

.. And he wants to replace the ‘and’ with ‘of.’ He wants to talk about a theology of science.

.. the Book of Job. The book is worth it for that chapter alone. Job would have been a fantastic scientist. He didn’t have the mathematics that we have, he didn’t have the

God asks him well over 100 different questions about the material world—mainly the animal world, but not only. They’re all fabulous questions. In the context of these big ultimate questions Job is a very rich book.

.. He disagrees with probably the majority of commentators, who would say that what God says to Job out of the whirlwind does not answer Job’s questions. Tom McLeish faces that square on, he even disagrees with one of the leading scholars in the field, David Clines. But it’s not a one sentence, knockdown answer. And I don’t think these ultimate questions lend themselves to that. If you’re asking for an answer to the question, ‘Why do innocent people suffer?’ if someone said, ‘I can give you a one sentence, complete answer to that question,’ I would treat it with great scepticism. I don’t think it’s the sort of question that lends itself to a simple, formulaic answer.

.. the desire of science to maximise the benefit from the slipstream of ultimate questions, the temptation to get too close can be very strong. If the wheels do touch—by which I mean trying to make science answer religious questions or vice versa—then you can get a chute in which everyone falls over.

.. Although he was put on trial, he was never sent to jail. The issue was more about whether or not Galileo was allowed to teach these things.

.. It’s another thought experiment: What would happen if incontrovertible evidence was found of the human remains of Jesus in Jerusalem? i.e. a skeleton was found that could undoubtedly be identified as the Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified?

.. he does is to look at the responses of different individuals and different groups of people to the discovery that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

.. Deism, in this context, means a belief in a God who was responsible for the creation of the world, but has no further involvement in it. Theologians would say no revelation. The demise of deism was inherent in it, because you can’t relate to such a do-nothing god. It makes no sense to pray to him or anything like that.

.. His research career ended fairly soon after his doctorate. You won’t find many scholarly papers by him in peer reviewed international journals. But the public engagement of science is a hugely important activity and he started out his career absolutely brilliant at it.

.. If you’re going to engage in an argument with people that you disagree with—which is a healthy activity, at least at Oxford—you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments and not the weakest of their arguments and still more not with a caricature of them.

.. Many people feel that his books have, as time has gone by, shouted louder and louder with weaker and weaker arguments. I don’t know of any scholar who takes the arguments in his more recent books at all seriously, except, perhaps, in one or two cases to counter them.

.. Actually my favourite answer to Richard Dawkins is by John Cornwell, who has written a lovely book entitled Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to ‘The God Delusion.’ , in which the angel gives advice to Dawkins about how to think more clearly.