Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Edge Foundation's Big Questions

Richard Dawkins, Oxford University evolutionary biologist:
"Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software."
That's from Dawkins' answer to the Edge Foundation's annual question for public intellectuals from 2006: "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" Dawkins continues:
"Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution.
His dangerous idea is that we'll "grow out of all this."

The Edge Foundation was founded in 1988 on C.P. Snow's idea that from the two cultures of literary intellectuals on the one hand and scientists on the other -- two groups that don't communicate nearly enough -- can emerge a third culture, one made up of both groups. John Brockman, founder of the Foundation wrote of it:
"Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third- culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public."
Ironically, Brockman seems to backstep from Snow's idea of literary intellectuals and scientists communicating in exchange for a shift where the scientists are the new public intellectual. These are, according to the Foundation, "physicists, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, biologists, computer scientists, psychologists, social, behavioral, and anthropological scientists, and science journalists."

That's great, but wouldn't we all be better off with more people talking to each other? If not, I'm not only out of work, I'm irrelevant.

Thank god for Michael Nesmith then. You know, the former member of the Monkees? His "dangerous idea" is that the idea of existence as Non-Time, Non-Sequential, and Non-Objective, when used by the wrong mind, can be troublesome. Taking the an example, he says: "Non-Time drives forward the notion the past does not create the present. This would of course render evolutionary theory a local-system, near-field process that was non-causative (i.e. effect)." I don't actually find that very satisfying as a dangerous idea. What do you expect from a Monkee?

My favorite "dangerous idea" so far comes from Geoffrey Miller, Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico, who took physicist Enrico Fermi's 1940s era question to astronomers: if the universe is teeming with solar systems hospitable to life, where is everyone? and went beyond the typical "Perhaps extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up" and came up with this:
"I suggest a different, even darker solution to Fermi's
Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today."
Aliens aren't exploring space because they're addicted to entertaining themselves.

So what's Miller's dangerous idea? That we'll get over our addictions with the help of religious conservatives and liberal environmentalists:
"Those who persist will evolve more self-control, conscientiousness, and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs, and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratification, child-rearing, and environmental stewardship.
"Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, and anti-consumerism activists, already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our Creative-Class dream-worlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the earth, as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets."
Now that is a dangerous idea.

Last year's question was "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" Returning to my worry that the Edge is cutting out literary intellectuals, I'm relieved to find novelist Ian McEwan answering. He believes that when he's dead, he's dead. And science fiction writer Bruce Sterling is in there. I'll quote him in full: "I can sum my intuition up in five words: we're in for climatic mayhem." Hmm. Maybe we shouldn't have literary intellectuals in here. They're too depressing.


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