Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Dangerous ideas

The Edge Annual Question — 2006 was suggested by Steven Pinker (a very cool and brilliant guy):

What is your dangerous idea?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?


(Via Maud Newton.)

So I've spent all my morning coffee time and more skimming over the 117 responses. I'm still having trouble in some instances sorting out whether the idea is one that's out there and that the respondent believes to be dangerous, or whether it's an idea held to be true by respondent. Most of the ideas are of the dangerous but likely true variety (as opposed to dangerous, with a huge and devastating influence on society at large, but someday soon we'll see the light and get over it).

I expect I'll be reading these again over tomorrow's morning coffee, cuz there's a lot to chew over.

The ideas cover a lot of material, from parenting and education to the environment and the state of democracy (all hopeless causes).

There are many riffs on the idea of a Matrix-like existence, "the self is a conceptual chimera," "we are all virtual," the lessening distinction between reality and simulation, variations of Crick's astonishing hypothesis ("that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere byproducts of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons."), we have no souls, free will does not exist, everything is pointless, there is no higher purpose to our lives, blah, blah, blah — all mighty dangerous cuz most people find these to be depressing ideas (I do not) and if the ideas were shown to be valid people would, I assume, simply curl up and die.

The rant of an idea that we're heading toward chaos (Kai Krause, researcher, philosopher, software developer) was trippy:
What I am referring to is a slow process I observed over the last 30 years, ever since in my teens I wondered "How would this world work, if everyone were like me ?" and realized: it wouldn't !

It was amazing to me that there were just enough people to make just enough shoes so that everyone can avoid walking barefoot. That there are people volunteering to spend day-in, day-out, being dentists, and lawyers and salesmen. Almost any "jobjob" I look at, I have the most sincere admiration for the tenacity of the people...how do they do it? It would drive me nuts after hours, let alone years...Who makes those shoes ?

That was the wondrous introspection in adolescent phases, searching for a place in the jigsaw puzzle.

But in recent years, the haunting question has come back to me: "How the hell does this world function at all? And does it, really ? I feel an alienation zapping through the channels, I can't find myself connecting with those groups of humanoids trouncing around MTV. Especially the glimpses of "real life": on daytime-courtroom-dramas or just looking at faces in the street. On every scale, the closer I observe it, the more the creeping realization haunts me: individuals, families, groups, neighborhoods, cities, states, countries... they all just barely hang in there, between debt and dysfunction. The whole planet looks like Any town with mini malls cutting up the landscape and just down the road it's all white trash with rusty car wrecks in the back yard. A huge Groucho Club I don't want to be a member of.


Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychologist, University of New Mexico) explains 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.


An idea I rather like (by which I mean that on the basis of my instinct and intuition, I suspect it is true, and I have no problems with that, it seems "natural" and sensible), from Marc D Hauser, Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University:
A universal grammar of [mental] life
The theory I propose is that human mental life is based on a few simple, abstract, yet expressively powerful rules or computations together with an instructive learning mechanism that prunes the range of possible systems of language, music, mathematics, art, and morality to a limited set of culturally expressed variants.


An idea that I believe to be truly dangerous, as explained by Diane F Halpern, Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president (2005), the American Psychological Association: Choosing the sex of one's child. I'm at a loss to select a quote, so just go read her entire entry, and then go read Amin Maalouf's The First Century After Beatrice, and celebrate your girls and raise your boys right.
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