Edge in the News: 2007

The Economic Times [1.4.07]

The assigned purpose of the influential Web magazine, Edge, is lofty enough. It’s to seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

Recently, Edge asked a group of world class scientists and thinkers its 10th Anniversary Question: “What are you optimistic about and why? Among the respondents were leading American philosopher Daniel C Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins— both pretty rabid proponents of atheism.

Dennett was of the opinion that within 25 years religion will command little of the awe it instils in people today and their fascination for it will disappear. He said the spread of information through the Internet, television and cell phones will generally and irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fervour.

Dawkins maintained that once scientists discover the so-called “theory of everything” it would be the end of the road as far as faith was concerned. “This final scientific enlightenment,” he said, “will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.”

What are we to make of these grand pronouncements?

The Wall Street Journal [1.4.07]

...Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett ("Breaking the Spell") and Sam Harris ("The End of Faith" and, more recently, "Letter to a Christian Nation"). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose "Moral Minority" was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.

There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool -- or better, simply to ban -- the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. ("Wisdom dwells with prudence," the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society -- or even our species -- is to survive. ...

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE [1.4.07]

From the lips of contributors to the online magazine Edge to God's ears (one wonders if She or It may be listening): Asked to respond to the question, "What are you optimistic about?", dozens of scientists and other thinkers have looked ahead to the future. On a Web site that routinely examines atheism, new scientific findings and a realistic view of world events that cuts through all sorts of dogma, some respondents to the "Edge Annual Question 2007" predict that someday religion will finally take a back seat to other ways of looking at and understanding the environments in which people live, work and play.

Global warming is making big chunks break off from Arctic ice islands; will an international reaction to the climate trend fuel a new kind of global governance?

Université Laval, Warwick Vincent, HO/AP

Global warming is making big chunks break off from Arctic ice islands; will an international reaction to the climate trend fuel a new kind of global governance?

Edge's future-themed article is making some news. Britain's Guardian has summarized some of its contributors' thoughts. "Philosopher Daniel Denett believes that, within 25 years, religion will command little of the awe it seems to instill today." Denett believes the "spread of information through the Internet and mobile phones will 'gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance.'"

Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins predicts that "the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer." He adds that "although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem." Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, feels "optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."

Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker believes that violence in the world is on the decline. He writes: "Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet...every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia..., particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward....Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that, statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that [they] are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial....[W]ars and killings are scrutinized and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive."

The Internet as tool of social change: The number of people using it in China grew by 30 percent in 2006 (to 132 million), but the government still blocks some foreign news sites

AP

The Internet as tool of social change: The number of people using it in China grew by 30 percent in 2006 (to 132 million), but the government still blocks some foreign news sites

Among many provocative observations in Edge's wide-ranging survey are those of musician, composer and record producer Brian Eno (David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads). Eno writes: "The currency of conservatism...has been that markets are smarter than governments," a notion that "has reinforced the conservative resistance to anything resembling binding international agreements."

However, Eno notes, the "suggestion that global warming represents a failure of the market is therefore important." Will a phenomenon like the warming trend force governments around the world to finally work together in earnest? If they do, and if "a single[,] first instance of global governance proves successful," Eno argues, "it will strengthen its appeal as a way of addressing other problems - such as weapons control, energy management, money-laundering, conflict resolution, people-trafficking, slavery, and poverty. It will become increasingly difficult for countries [like the U.S.] to stay outside of future treaties like Kyoto - partly because of international pressure but increasingly because of pressure from their own populations."

In his Edge contribution, Eno really does sound optimistic. He also writes: "Something like real democracy (and a fair amount of interim chaos) could be on the horizon. The Internet is catalyzing knowledge, innovation and social change,...proving that there are other models of social and cultural evolution[,] that you don't need centralized, top-down control to produce intelligent results. The bottom-up lesson of Darwinism, so difficult for previous generations, comes more naturally to the current generation. There is a real revolution in thinking going on at all cultural levels...."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [1.4.07]

When the very first population of atheists roamed the earth in the Victorian age -- brought to life by Lyell's "Principles of Geology," Darwin's "Origin of Species" and other blows to religious certainty -- it was the personal dimension of atheism that others found distressing. How could an atheist's oath of allegiance to the queen be trusted? It couldn't -- so an atheist was not allowed to take a seat in Parliament. How could an atheist, unconstrained by a fear of eternal punishment, be held accountable to social norms of behavior? Worse than heretical, atheism was not respectable.

In the 21st century, this no longer seems to be the case. Few acquaintances of Dr. Richard Dawkins, the world's most voluble public atheist, wonder, as they might have a hundred years ago: Can I leave my wife unchaperoned in this man's company? Indeed, the atheists are now looking to turn the tables: They want to make belief itself not simply an object of intellectual derision but a cause for personal embarrassment. A new generation of publicists for atheism has emerged to tell Americans in particular that we should be ashamed to retain a majority of religious believers, that in this way we resemble the benighted, primitive peoples of the Middle East, Africa and South America instead of the enlightened citizens of Western Europe.

Thanks in part to the actions of a few jihadists in September 2001, it is believers who stand accused, not freethinkers. Among the prominent atheists who now sermonize to the believers in their midst are Dr. Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett ("Breaking the Spell") and Sam Harris ("The End of Faith" and, more recently, "Letter to a Christian Nation"). There are others, too, like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brooke Allen (whose "Moral Minority" was a celebration of the skeptical Founders) and a host of commentators appalled by the Intelligent Design movement. The transcript of a recent symposium on the perils of religious thought can be found at a science Web site called edge.org.

There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool -- or better, simply to ban -- the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. ("Wisdom dwells with prudence," the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society -- or even our species -- is to survive.

What is new about the new atheists? It's not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won't encounter a single point you didn't hear in your freshman dormitory. It's their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote -- both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

For them, belief in God is beyond childish, it is unsuitable for children. Today's atheists are particularly disgusted by the religious training of young people -- which Dr. Dawkins calls "a form of child abuse." He even floats the idea that the state should intervene to protect children from their parents' religious beliefs.

For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins's volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.

The faith that the new atheists describe is a simple-minded parody. It is impossible to see within it what might have preoccupied great artists and thinkers like Homer, Milton, Michelangelo, Newton and Spinoza -- let alone Aquinas, Dr. Johnson, Kierkegaard, Goya, Cardinal Newman, Reinhold Niebuhr or, for that matter, Albert Einstein. But to pass over this deeper faith -- the kind that engaged the great minds of Western history -- is to diminish the loss of faith too. The new atheists are separated from the old by their shallowness.

To read the accounts of the first generation of atheists is profoundly moving. Matthew Arnold wrote of the "eternal note of sadness" sounded when the "Sea of Faith" receded from human life. In one testament after another -- George Eliot, Carlyle, Hardy, Darwin himself -- the Victorians described the sense of grief they felt when religion goes -- and the keen, often pathetic attempts to replace it by love, by art, by good works, by risk-seeking and -- fatally -- by politics.

God did not exist, they concluded, but there was no denying that this supposed truth was accompanied by a painful sense of being cut off from human fellowship as well as divine love. To counter it, religious figures developed a new kind of mission -- like that of the former unbeliever C.S. Lewis: They could speak to the feeling of longing that unbelief engenders because they understood it -- and sympathized not only with atheism's pain but with the many sensible arguments in its favor.

There is no such sympathy among the new apostles of atheism -- to find it, one has to look to believers. Anyone who has actually taught young people and listened to them knows that it is often the students who come from a trained sectarian background -- Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon -- who are best at grasping different systems of belief and unbelief. Such students know, at least, what it feels like to have such a system, and can understand those who have very different ones. The new atheists remind me of other students from more "open-minded" homes -- rigid, indifferent, puzzled by thought and incapable of sympathy.

The new atheists fail too often simply for want of charm or skill. Twenty-first century atheism hasn't found its H.G. Wells or its George Bernard Shaw, men who flattered their audiences, excited them and persuaded them by making them feel intelligent. Here is Sam Harris, for instance, addressing those who wonder if destroying human embryos in the process of stem cell research might be morally dicey: "Your qualms...are obscene."

The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves -- a remarkably incurious elite.

Seattlest [1.3.07]

The folks over at Edge.org, a small corner of the interwebs filled with some of the most surprisingly literary smarty-pants science types, asked their Question of 2007: What are you optimistic about?

Not that we were asked, but Seattlest is optimistic that someone will figure out that whole time-travel business, so we can go back and see James Brown in 1964. We did not see him the two times he performed in Seattle since we moved here (2000 at the EMP opening and again in 2003) and each time we neglected to buy tickets, we thought that despite the fact that it would never compare to JB in '64, we'd regret our inaction someday. And so we do.

Video of either Seattle show is nowhere to be found online, so instead we present to you what we will see in person someday, even if it means we have to scrounge up a battered old DeLorean: ...

Out of Sight, But Not Forgotten
SEATTLEST [1.3.07]

The folks over at Edge.org, a small corner of the interwebs filled with some of the most surprisingly literary smarty-pants science types, asked their Question of 2007: What are you optimistic about?

Not that we were asked, but Seattlest is optimistic that someone will figure out that whole time-travel business, so we can go back and see James Brown in 1964. We did not see him the two times he performed in Seattle since we moved here (2000 at the EMP opening and again in 2003) and each time we neglected to buy tickets, we thought that despite the fact that it would never compare to JB in '64, we'd regret our inaction someday. And so we do.

Video of either Seattle show is nowhere to be found online, so instead we present to you what we will see in person someday, even if it means we have to scrounge up a battered old DeLorean: ...

Read the full article →

The Wall Street Journal [1.2.07]

• WWW.EDGE.ORG Jan. 1

Each year the Edge, a Web site that aims to bridge the gap between scientists and other thinkers, asks a question of major figures associated with the science world. This year's query: "What are you optimistic about? Why?"

Some respondents, such as biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, said he was hopeful science's empirical, evidence-based methods would be extended "to all aspects of modern society."

But some scientists clearly were hoping to limit expectations. Robert Trivers, a Rutgers University biologist, says the good news is "there is presently no chance that we could extinguish all of life -- the bacterial 'slimosphere' alone extends some 10 miles into the earth -- and as yet we can only make life truly miserable for the vast majority of people, not extinguish human life entirely."

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [1.2.07]

• WWW.EDGE.ORG Jan. 1

Each year the Edge, a Web site that aims to bridge the gap between scientists and other thinkers, asks a question of major figures associated with the science world. This year's query: "What are you optimistic about? Why?"

Some respondents, such as biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, said he was hopeful science's empirical, evidence-based methods would be extended "to all aspects of modern society."

But some scientists clearly were hoping to limit expectations. Robert Trivers, a Rutgers University biologist, says the good news is "there is presently no chance that we could extinguish all of life -- the bacterial 'slimosphere' alone extends some 10 miles into the earth -- and as yet we can only make life truly miserable for the vast majority of people, not extinguish human life entirely."

THE NEWS SENTINEL [1.2.07]

...Here is the response of Meagan McArdle, not exactly a religious fundamentalist but probably smarter than the 150 scientists and intellectuals put together:Let me see if I can phrase this in a way that Mr Dennett might understand: if smoking made us live forever, it would be very, very popular. Even if it didn't make you live for ever, but could convince enough people that it might, it would be very, very popular. And anyone who thinks that they have the same caliber of evidence for atheism that we do for the carcinogenicity of tobacco needs to have his ego examined for possibly fatal inflammation.

As I make my way through life and try to sort things out, I need the help of both dreamers and thinkers. I just wish they would keep their missions straight, although the intellectuals lately encroach more into the wishful-thinkers' territory than the artists do into the scientists'. At least I never heard Lennon sing, "Imagine quantum physics, it would make Einstein cry . . ." ...

Gefährlicher Kult um digitale Schwarmintelligenz; Aus internationalen Zeitschriften: Über kollektivistische Niederländer und europäische Selbstbefragung in New York
DIE WELT.DE [1.2.07]

Gefährlicher Kult um digitale Schwarmintelligenz; Aus internationalen Zeitschriften: Über kollektivistische Niederländer und europäische Selbstbefragung in New York

Edge.org, 25. Dezember Einen der interessantesten theoretischen Artikel über die Internetöffentlichkeit und das Web 2.0 hat im letzten Jahr Jaron Lanier in Edge geschrieben: "Digital Maoism", wo der Autor den Kult der "Schwarmintelligenz" angreift, der sich seiner Meinung nach in Phänomenen wie Wikipedia manifestiert. In einem neuen Artikel für Time, der in Edge dokumentiert ist, greift Lanier seine These noch einmal auf: "Wikipedia hat eine Menge jener Energie aufgesaugt, die vorher in individuelle, eigenständige Websites gesteckt wurde, und gießt sie in eine ein- und gleichförmige Beschreibung der Realität. Ein anderes Phänomen steckt in vielen Blogprogrammen, die die User geradezu dazu einladen, sich unter Pseudonym zu äußern. Das hat zu einer Flut anonymer Unflätigkeiten in den Kommentaren geführt."

Read the full article →

Energiekrise, Armut und Terror - Warum ich für die kommenden Jahre trotzdem optimistisch bin; Von düsteren Prognosen hält Ray Kurzweil wenig. Der renommierte Forscher erwartet, dass die Informationstechnik viele der heutigen Probleme lösen wird
WELT AM SONNTAG [1.2.07]

[I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)] Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years. Ray Kurzweil is inventor and technologist. The shortened contribution appeared on New Years in the Internet magazine Edge (www.edge.org) (http://www.edge.org), on scientists and their Optimism for the coming year.

Read the full article →

The news Sentinel [1.2.07]

...Here is the response of Meagan McArdle, not exactly a religious fundamentalist but probably smarter than the 150 scientists and intellectuals put together:Let me see if I can phrase this in a way that Mr Dennett might understand: if smoking made us live forever, it would be very, very popular. Even if it didn't make you live for ever, but could convince enough people that it might, it would be very, very popular. And anyone who thinks that they have the same caliber of evidence for atheism that we do for the carcinogenicity of tobacco needs to have his ego examined for possibly fatal inflammation.

As I make my way through life and try to sort things out, I need the help of both dreamers and thinkers. I just wish they would keep their missions straight, although the intellectuals lately encroach more into the wishful-thinkers' territory than the artists do into the scientists'. At least I never heard Lennon sing, "Imagine quantum physics, it would make Einstein cry . . ."

OPEN SOURCE [1.2.07]

With the new year comes new resolutions, and new questions, including the new Edge.org question. The science super-hero club house that brought you dangerous ideas in 2006 wants to bring you optimism in 2007.

Extra-Credit Reading

 

Juan Enriquez, A Knowledge Driven Economy Allows Individuals to Lead Millions Out of Poverty In a Single Generation, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Steven Pinker, The Decline of Violence, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Clay Shirky, Evidence, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Chris DiBona, Widely Available, Constantly Renewing, High Resolution Images of the Earth Will End Conflict and Ecological Devastation As We Know It, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Paul Steinhardt, Bullish on Cosmology, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

James O’Donnell, Scientific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable, The Edge Annual Question 2007, Edge

Diewelt [1.2.07]

Edge.org, 25. Dezember Einen der interessantesten theoretischen Artikel über die Internetöffentlichkeit und das Web 2.0 hat im letzten Jahr Jaron Lanier in Edge geschrieben: "Digital Maoism", wo der Autor den Kult der "Schwarmintelligenz" angreift, der sich seiner Meinung nach in Phänomenen wie Wikipedia manifestiert. In einem neuen Artikel für Time, der in Edge dokumentiert ist, greift Lanier seine These noch einmal auf: "Wikipedia hat eine Menge jener Energie aufgesaugt, die vorher in individuelle, eigenständige Websites gesteckt wurde, und gießt sie in eine ein- und gleichförmige Beschreibung der Realität. Ein anderes Phänomen steckt in vielen Blogprogrammen, die die User geradezu dazu einladen, sich unter Pseudonym zu äußern. Das hat zu einer Flut anonymer Unflätigkeiten in den Kommentaren geführt."

Ray Kurzweil, weltamsonntag.de [1.2.07]

[I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)]

Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.

I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years.

Ray Kurzweil is inventor and technologist. The shortened contribution appeared on New Years in the Internet magazine Edge (www.edge.org) (http://www.edge.org), on scientists and their Optimism for the coming year.

WELT AM SONNTAG [1.2.07]

Energiekrise, Armut und Terror - Warum ich für die kommenden Jahre trotzdem optimistisch bin; Von düsteren Prognosen hält Ray Kurzweil wenig. Der renommierte Forscher erwartet, dass die Informationstechnik viele der heutigen Probleme lösen wird

Ray Kurzweil

[I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)]

Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years.

Ray Kurzweil is inventor and technologist. The shortened contribution appeared on New Years in the Internet magazine Edge (www.edge.org) (http://www.edge.org), on scientists and their Optimism for the coming year.

Read the full article →

Cordis News [1.1.07]

... Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the Mediterranean University in Marseilles, France, believes that 'the divide between rational scientific thinking and the rest of our culture is decreasing'. 'In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all,' he writes.

According to Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc, 'Widely available, constantly renewing, high resolution images of the Earth will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.'

Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist at Munich University, is optimistic about fighting 'monocausalitis', the tendency to search for one single explanation for a phenomenon or event. 'Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle,' he writes.

An eagerly-awaited collider carries Maria Spiropulu's hopes for 2007. Dr Spiropulu is a physicist at CERN. 'Being built under the Jura on the border of Switzerland and France the Large Hadron Collider is a serious reason of optimism for experimental science. It is the first time that the human exploration and technology will offer reproducible 'hand-made' 14 TeV collisions of protons with protons. The physics of such interactions, the analysis of the data from the debris of these collisions [the highest energy such] are to be seen in the coming year,' she writes.

It Business [1.1.07]

...It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a resolution for the new year or a new day. The point is to change who you are. It’s not always a case of completely transforming yourself: you just want to be recognized as something other than one of David Berreby’s zombies.

An online forum conducted by Edge.org recently asked a slew of scientists and intellectuals what they are optimistic about. Berreby, the author Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, said he was hopeful that the idea of a “zombie identity is coming to an end, or at least being put into greater context. I’ll let Berreby explain the notion of a zombie identity himself.

“(It’s) the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation,” he writes. “It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of ‘American behaviour’ or ‘Muslim behaviour’ or ‘Italian behaviour’)—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).”

Dennis Overbye, The Newyork Times [1.1.07]

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”...

A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.

That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said recently that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will.” ...

If by free will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Every time you click on an icon, he explained, the computer’s operating system decides how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions. But, Dr. Lloyd said, “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ”

Why can’t computers say what they’re going to do? In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.

One implication is that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” said: “Gödel says you can’t program intelligence as complex as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still suffer from the illusion of free will.”

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