Friday, January 26, 2007

Cultural Optimism: Is it Justified?

In my post “Lunch with Friends” of Jan 16, 2007, I mentioned “The Two Cultures” popularized by British novelist C. P. Snow. The phrase referred to a rift—“a matter of incomprehension tinged with hostility”—that had grown up between scientists and literary intellectuals.

Recently I came across an organization chartered to uphold the scientific side of the debate. The Edge Foundation was established in 1988 with “a mandate to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.” The Edge Third Culture is a group of “scientists and other empirical thinkers who, through their work and expository writing, are rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Edge believes that “traditional American intellectuals are increasingly reactionary, and quite often ignorant of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. The Edge Foundation is attempting to restore scientific intellectuals to their rightful place at the table.” I had no idea that things were so bad among scientific and literary types.

But I found the Edge web site, populated with writings from the Third Culturists, to be fascinating. For example, to mark the 10th anniversary of Edge, the site presented answers to the 2007 Edge Question: What Are You Optimistic About? Why? I’ve picked out excerpts from a few notables for the fun of it. Let me know what you think about the Edge question (Are you optimistic?) and about these responses. The categories are my own.

My Favorite

Max Tegmark: When gazing up on a clear night, it's easy to feel insignificant. For starters, we're smaller than we thought, living on an insignificant planet near an ordinary star, one of a hundred billion in our galaxy in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies. Darwin taught us that we're animals and Freud taught us that we're irrational, and cosmologists have found that we're not even made out of the majority substance. Yet I've come to believe that advanced evolved life is very rare, yet has huge growth potential, making our place in space and time remarkably significant. Moreover, this brief century of ours is arguably the most significant one in the history of our universe: the one when its meaningful future gets decided. We'll have the technology to either self-destruct or to seed our cosmos with life.


Steven Kosslyn: I am optimistic that human intelligence can be increased, and can be increased dramatically in the near future. First, the fruits of cognitive neuroscience and related fields have identified a host of distinct neural systems in the human brain, and each system can be made more efficient by targeted training. Second, I am optimistic that understanding the nature of such group interactions will increase human intelligence. Third, the distinction between what goes on in the head and what relies on external devices (my PDA, for example) is becoming more subtle and nuanced, and in so doing human intelligence is being extended.

Seth Lloyd: I am wildly optimistic about the future of scientific ideas. Wherever I travel in the world — first, second, or third — I meet young scientists whose ideas blow me away. The internet distributes cutting edge scientific work much more widely and cheaply than ever before. As a result, the fundamental intellectual equality of human beings is asserting itself in a remarkable way: people are just as smart in Peru and Pakistan as they are in London and Los Angeles, and those people can now participate in scientific inquiry with far greater effectiveness than ever before. Human beings are humanity's greatest resource, and when those humans start becoming scientists, watch out!

Lawrence Krauss: I am optimistic that after almost 30 years of sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists, within 3 years, following the commissioning next year of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, we will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time.

Physics for Poets (I once taught such a course)

Jerry Adler: I am optimistic that sometime in the twenty-first century I will understand twentieth-century physics. What I'm up against here is a problem in translation; the laws of nature are written in equations, but I read only English. I have the same problem with anything written in French. Someday I will understand not just the epiphenomena of physics, the trains and the slits and the cats in boxes, but their mathematical essence. Their metaphysics. I'm optimistic. Really.

Problem Solvers

Freeman Dyson: I am generally optimistic because our human heritage seems to have equipped us very well for dealing with challenges, from ice-ages and cave-bears to diseases and over-population. I am especially optimistic just now because of a seminal discovery made recently by comparing genomes of different species. A small patch of DNA called Human Accelerated Region 1 is found in the genomes of mouse, rat, chicken and chimpanzee. The same patch, modified with eighteen mutations, is in the human genome, which means that it must have changed its function in the last six million years from the common ancestor of chimps and humans to modern humans. That little patch of DNA expresses an essential difference between humans and other mammals.

David Gelernter: I am optimistic about the future of software, because more and more people are coming out of the closet every month — admitting in public that they hate their computers. Technologists who blandly assume that hardware will (somehow) keep getting better while software stays frozen in time (circa 1984) are looking wronger every month. In the near future, your information assets have all been bundled-up, encrypted and launched into geosynchronous orbit in the Cybersphere; computers are interchangeable devices for tuning in information. And instead of expanding into a higher-and-higher-entropy mess, the Web will implode into a blue hole: a single high-energy information beam that holds all the world's digital assets.

Huh? (She must have slipped in from the literary side.)

Susan Blackmore: I am optimistic that our civilization will survive the coming climate catastrophe. I thought that the climate might just continue heating up but I now think it possible that the climate will shift into a new stable state. But there is another worry. Some people still maintain the fantasy that we humans are in charge and can still control the memes we have let loose. Yet it must be increasingly obvious that we can't; that they are in the driving seat. They are sucking up the planet's resources fast and, being selfish replicators, they have no foresight and don't care in the least what happens to us or the planet.

Nietzsche Award Winners

Daniel Dennett: I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will need every morsel of this reasonable attitude to deal with such complex global problems as climate change, fresh water, and economic inequality in an effective way.

Martin Seligman: I am optimistic that God may come at the end. I've never been able to choke down the idea of a supernatural God who stands outside of time, a God who designs and creates the Universe. There is, however, an alternate notion of God relevant to the secular community, the skeptical, evidence-minded community that believes only in nature. Process theology gives up creation by claiming that the process of becoming more complex just goes on forever, and allows free will, but at the expense of omnipotence, omniscience, and creation. Let the mystery of creation be consigned to the branch of physics called cosmology. Good riddance.

Michael Shermer: I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William Paley's natural theology, which gave us the "watchmaker" argument) was the only game in town so everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America, the most religious nation of the developed democracies, and in most other parts of the world virtually everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That's progress.

When I tell friends my at Saint John Fisher church about these Nietzscheists they find such views hard to believe. Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptic Society is the guest speaker at an Omnilore Luncheon next week (Jan. 31 at Los Verdes Country Club). Shermer’s subject is derived from his book The Science of Good and Evil. I'll have an opportunity to ask him a question. What do you suggest?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Since John and I have been taking our Bible class it is even more evident and clear to me that God exists and if people would only follow the ten commandments our lives would be so good and the world such a better place.

I can't think of any good questions for you to ask, but I think some of these so called brainiacs can't stand the thought that God is smarter than they are, that he knows the answers and that they just don't have the foggiest idea about so many things - so they question his existence, mock believers and sadly I think many of them are lonely, empty individuals wasting the good brains that God gave them.

Just my personal opinion, Bill, written in basic terms from the heart and not in intellectual jargon.


10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you keep holy Sabbath and refrain from working that day? Do you ever look at your neighbor's house and go "I wish I had that house". Let me guess, your for the death penalty, right? WHat about that whole "Thous shalt not murder" thingie? Do you keep religious icons or symbols in your house? Guess those have to go if everyone followed the ten commandments. Half of you fundamentalists have no idea what the ten commandments are, much less the gumption to actually follow them. You believers mock those that actually do use their brains and point out your hypocrisy and unwillingness to keep an open mind. I'd actually prefer a little more intellectual jargon from you guys.


8:10 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

I find it interesting that people of faith pose such a threat to non-believers. And, why is it we can believe in God AND in science, when they must deny one in order to believe exclusively in the other?

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not ask Shermer whether or not he thinks "good" or "evil" are choices, adjectives, or whether "good" and "evil" are forces, or nouns...that should stir things up!


10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say that Cultural Optimism is always justified to the extant of human nature, which--as far as I can tell--hasn't changed for some thousands of years.

Concerning possible questions for Mike Shermer, that may depend on how much he sticks to his announced topic and his book, or how much he strays into other more controversial areas. Unless something unexpected from him
strikes me, I have no plans of asking him anything while he's on the podium. If I have a chance to be with him in a small goup after things break up, I'll see
what transpires.

Many speakers don't so much answer questions on a podium. They field
them. Any question or comment that challenges them is often dismissed with a clever quip that gets a laugh from the audience while he immediately recognizes another questioner. Ridicule is often used as an offence when
a speaker feels on the defensive.


10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

You asked people if they have questions for Michael Shermer.
Not sure if the time has passed, but I do have a question for him.

Trying to be as terse as possible:

"Without something like religion, how do you address the conflict between local optimization and global optimization inherent in human existence?

How do you ever conclude, "There is something more important to me than me"?

(Examples: Why would a brilliant, promising, well-educated young woman ever consent to spend the next 20 years devoting herself to another human being by having a baby?

Why would anyone risk their life in defense of others, particularly strangers, by serving in the military?)

Greg Johnson

10:32 PM  

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