I’ve just finished reading John Brockman’s What is your Dangerous Idea?. This book is a collection of short essays (108 of them, I believe) by various authors selected by the Edge foundation. This makes it a book that is difficult to summarize or even analyze, but I’ll try. If you want to read the essays on-line, you can find them on the Edge site.
An impressionist painting of today’s intellectual landscape
One thing can be said upfront: this is a book worth reading, even if you are unlikely to like all of it. It’s worth reading, because it exposes the viewpoint of various smart thinkers on a large number of topics. You are unlikely to like all of it, because in this long list of idea, one is bound to trigger disagreement, angst, anger, or some other kind of negative sentiment.
The book covers a large range of topics, largely circling around science (physics, biology, neurophysiology, computer science), with peeks at sociology, religion or morality. Trying to talk about each and every individual idea would be quite pointless. It’s clear that the “Dangerous idea” question leaves things quite open, and so there is no real central theme. Some ideas appear quite insightful, others frightening, other depressing, some even seem clearly wrong or overly simplistic to me. But the general impression remains that of an impressionist painting of today’s intellectual landscape: it’s made of many little strokes, yet you can see trends and general shapes emerging from all these dots.
The dangerous uniformity of bland gray matter
Unfortunately, compared to real impressionists, the picture surprisingly lacks color and intensity, in my humble opinion. This was really the first impression I had after the few chapters of the book: “Hey, why are they all saying the same thing?” Now, to be honest, some of that may be a result of the subtle editorial work of John Brockman, who did a remarkable job of grouping writers who happened to be covering a similar theme together, which seems to give the book a kind of gentle flow.
But still, from such an honorable audience, I expected a lot more: more fire, more contrast, more debate, more disagreement. Oh, sure, many of the ideas are bound to shock a large fraction of the readers, in particular in the US, by claiming for example that we have no soul (John Horgan), that the probability of God is small (Philip W. Anderson), even that science must destroy religion (Sam Harris), that the fight against global warming is lost (Paul C.W. Davies), and so on.
However, while all these thinkers might liken themselves more or less consciously to Galileo or Darwin for their revolutionary ideas, for going against majority thinking, they are still nowhere close to these role models, because they largely agree among themselves and with their peers. The true honor of Galileo or Louis Pasteur was to go against the scientific establishment of the time. By contrast, What is your Dangerous Idea shows an unfortunate uniformity in the thinking of our present scientific establishment.
To illustrate this, it is sufficient to take the first three essays in the print edition: We Have No Souls (John Horgan), The Rejection of Soul (Paul Bloom), and The Evolution of Evil(David Buss). All three talk about a topic that is central to religious thinking, and all three go straight against conventional religious wisdom. Worse yet, they present their ideas under the authority of science, as if the ideas they present were scientific.
For example, John Horgan writes:
The dangerous (probably true) idea I’d like to dwell on is that we humans have no souls.
Paul Bloom confirms:
If what you mean by “soul” is something immaterial and immortal, something that exists independently of the brain, then souls do not exist.
and David Buss, on a different topic, similarly defines evil in a way that entirely ignores traditional morality:
At a rough approximation, we view as evil people who inflict massive evolutionary fitness costs on us, our families, or our allies.
Now, maybe you think that this is just the theme for essays at the beginning of the book? Not really. There is even an essay dedicated to that same ever-present idea, This Is All There Is, written by Robert R. Provine. And in one of the last essays on an unrelated topic, What We Know May Not Change Us (link apparently broken), Barry C. Smith finds it useful to begin his work by echoing exactly the same sentiment:
Human beings, like everything else, are part of the natural world. The natural world is all there is.
This would not be so dramatic if there was, in all this loud concert of consensual voices, at least one lone dissenter daring to proclaim a dangerous idea that would go against that flow, something like: Science has nothing to say about religion, or There may be something else after all. This would be the expected high-contrast picture of healthy scientific skepticism. Instead, what we have is bland gray matter, pun intended.
Somehow this all reminds me of a cartoon by French cartoonist Sempé, which unfortunately I can’t find on the web, where dozens of characters in a building were all saying I’m fortunate not to have seen that happen in my lifetime, but I’m afraid that you kids will live in a world where everybody believes the same thing. Hilarious, and so true…
How could you tell if you are in the Matrix?
The irony is that there is, actually, one essay that explains very well why the general consensus expressed by all these thinkers is, in reality, illogical, and why it should quickly appear untenable to such bright minds. The essay I’m referring to is: We Are All Virtual, by Clifford Pickover. In it, Pickover argues that there are more chances for us to be virtual than real. The idea is that we are building ever more realistic virtual worlds, and that at one point, we will certainly be able to make them appear as realistic to us as our own dreams. Since there will be more such virtual environments than real ones, chances are that you are currently in one.
I should know about virtualization. As the original designer of HP Integrity Virtual Machines, HP’s virtualization technology for servers, I am acutely aware that it’s possible to fool the most “reality-aware” form of software, the only form of software that routinely interacts with real, physical devices, namely operating systems. In other words, we can make an operating system such as Linux, Windows, HP-UX or OpenVMS believe that it’s running on some real hardware, with real disks, real network cards, a real console, and so on, when in reality, everything is pure software. This is why I’m often describing my own job by saying that I’m coding The Matrix.
Is there any reason the brain’s “software” can’t be fooled that way? If there is one, I don’t know it. It is certainly not widely known. Consequently, claims that there is nothing beyond natural reality, beyond the sum of our sense, are vacuous at best and fraudulent at worst. They are a belief, not science. Worse yet, from a scientific point of view, these claims fly in the face of simple technological and scientific evidence, from virtual machines to the psychology of dreams.
Ernst Pöppel also makes a similar point about the limits of what we can know in How Can I Trust, in the Face of So Many Unknownables (the on-line version differs somewhat from the print version). So that viewpoint is somewhat common, and as well it should. But to get back to my initial comment about uniformity of thought, what I find unfortunate is that both Pöppel and Pickover carefully wrap this simple point in a consensual, conflict-avoiding shroud of anything-but-religion. In today’s scientific community, it is apparently acceptable to write We are all virtual, but Gödel forbids that you’d write Chances are that the natural world is not all there is… even if the two sentences are essentially equivalent
My dangerous idea: there is a supernatural world
Now, from the reasoning above, you probably understand that what I truly believe is that we really can’t tell if there is something beyond the natural world or not. This is not exactly new philosophy. After all, it’s quite similar to Pascal’s Wager. But the obvious next question is: is there any way to tilt the balance one way or another?
In order to address this question, I need to point out that everything we “know” is really something we believe more strongly than the rest. Pöppel’s essay doesn’t say anything else, actually. In order to “know”, we must trust in a number of things, in general simply because we have been told about them, or because our senses report them. Sometimes, this approach leads us to hold as self-evident beliefs that are spectacularly false. But in general, it is a good working model we can use to drive our own actions. Trust in our own beliefs is the main driver that guides everyone of our actions.
Now, where do religions come from? They come from a testimony. According to the scriptures common to the majority of religious people on Earth today, someone once told a guy named Moses that reports of his nonexistence were vastly exaggerated. As I wrote earlier in this blog, I am that I am is actually quite profound: someone claims to exist without the need for anything else. This is definitely not the case for us: can we ascertain that we can exist without a brain or a physical body? Someone out there, allegedly, once said that He can.
Everything considered, monotheist religions are nothing but faith in such testimony. Unlike the characterization of religion given incorrectly at various places in Dangerous Idea, truly religious people do not claim that they know God, only that they know God spoke to us (Catholics often refer to God as “The Word” for that very reason.) In that respect, there is very little difference between believing that God exists and believing that George Bush exists, there is little difference between believing that God wants us to love one another and believing that George Bush wants to eradicate the axis of evil. In both cases, it’s mostly hearsay, testimony from someone who heard about something that someone else once heard, or indirect testimony through the Bible or newspapers.
Answering the Question Personally
There is one big difference, though. At least in the Catholic Faith (I’m not too sure about others), it is possible to speak to God directly, something called “prayer”. All things considered, this is probably much easier than speaking to George Bush directly. What the Church tells us is that we have some inner sense that allows us to listen to God. It is more subtle than hearing or seeing. It takes some faith to believe that it works. But thousands of people speak to God today.
To them, saying that God doesn’t exist is like saying that their parents don’t exist. Try this with your friends: “I’m sorry, Sir, but my computer has no trace of your father, so he doesn’t exist.” Of course, many believers will acknowledge that their faith may be a fluke in their brain, that the answers to their prayers may just be chance and random coincidence.
But in that respect, if we are all virtual, George Bush may also be a fluke in my brain for all I know, and the fact that my wife cooks a delicious dinner may also be a pure coincidence totally unrelated to her love for me. Still, in both cases, scientists beloved Ockam’s razor recommends that I act under the hypothesis that both George Bush and my wife’s love are “real”, whatever that word means. And believing in God is not more stupid than this belief, no matter what too many scientists in Dangerous Idea proclaim.
So here is why the idea that there is a supernatural reality is dangerous: if this person named God is real, and if He is who He claims to be, then we’d better listen carefully. After all, His message is not so bad, it’s all about love. Aren’t we lucky not to be in a world where the creator constantly yells “How can I make you miserable, you unworthy pieces of carbon-based junk”? Granted, the message is all garbled and difficult to comprehend. But then, my virtual machines probably also have a very poor understanding of my “reality”.
Other gems in the book
I can’t finish this review without mentioning that there are a number of essays in this book that stand out for a reason or another. The usual suspects talk about physics (e.g. Leonard Suskind, Lee Smolin, Brian Greene and Carlo Rovelli), and defend their now relatively well known core ideas with the usual brio.
As usual, I find Carlo Rovelli to be the most insightful of the bunch, pointing out that somehow, the two core discoveries of twentieth century physics have not yet been assimilated by most, including by physicists:
Many of today’s audacious scientific speculations – about extra dimensions, the multiverse and hte like – are not only unsupported experimentally, but also quite often formulated within a worldview that has not even fully digested quantum mechanics and relativity
Unfortunately, for most readers, it may not be entirely clear what he means by that, even if he does a good job at explaining it in the rest of the essay. Rovelli’s core idea, I believe, is that Relativity demonstrated that the notion of “fixed background” where events play out is a persistent illusion, one that is appropriate from our low-energy, low-speed environment, but totally wrong in general. As Brian Greene explains in one of his books, if you walk towards Andromeda or away from it, the “now” in the Andromeda galaxy shifts backward or forward by a few thousand years…
Yet, what Rovelli complains about is that some theories today are still written on some absolute background. This is certainly not the case for my own pet theory, which removes yet another “absolute background” (in my case, absolute variables such as x, t or m, as opposed to relative measurements of the corresponding physical entities, length, time or mass). But in general, I believe that he has a point. It’s a shame that relativity or quantum mechanics are still presented as dangerous ideas.
Computer geeks rule!
But the pearl of wisdom in the whole book, in my opinion, goes to Kai Krause for the strangely titled Anty Gravity: Chaos theory in an All-To-Practical Sense, probably in large part because it feels so “original” compared to all other essays. The Anty spelling is not a typo: it’s both in the title and in the contents table, and the essay does talk about ants. Kai’s essay is about what he calls “Super Individualism”, the need for every single one of us (myself included) to feel unique and special, and how this goes against the need of the many:
What if each ant suddenly wants to be the queen? What if soldiering and nest building and cleaning chores are just not cool enough anymore? If AntTV shows them, every day, nothing but un-Ant behavior…?
He concludes with:
Next year, let’s ask for good ideas, not dangerous ones. Really, practical, serious, good ideas, like: “What is the most immediate positive global impact of any kind that can be achieved within one year?”
And when I read that, I was proud to be a computer geek: in this large collection of essays from a large pool of bright minds, the one that really stood out from the rest was from a fellow geek…