Dangerous idea is ‘the idea that ideas can be dangerous’

[ Mon. Aug. 6. 2007 ]

It was a genetic breakthrough that made us capable of ideas in the first place, says Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “Ideas have had their impact for good… But one of these days, one of those nice ideas is likely to have the unintended consequence of destroying everything we know,” he writes in one of the brief essays included in ‘What is Your Dangerous Idea?’ edited by John Brockman (www.landmarkonthenet.com).

The title draws from the question posed to the readers by ‘Edge’ (www.edge.org). And the responses fill the book, as ‘a celebration of the ideas of the third culture’. The ‘dangerous ideas’ are not about harmful technologies and WMDs, but about statements of fact or policy evidenced by science, which are ‘felt to challenge the collective decency of an age’.

Every era has its dangerous ideas, notes the intro. “Time and again people have invested factual claims with ethical implications that today look ludicrous.” There are a few mercies, however. “Punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to cancelling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews.”

The opening essay, ‘we have no souls’, by John Horgan, director of the Centre for Science Writings, dangerously proposes that when our minds can be programmed like personal computers, then perhaps we will finally abandon ‘the belief that we have immortal, inviolable souls – unless, of course, we program ourselves to believe.’

Rodney Brooks, author of ‘Flesh and Machines’, wonders if we might find ourselves to be alone, not just in the solar system, but in the galaxy. The shock could ‘drive us to despair and back toward religion as our salve,’ he postulates. In a similar vein, Keith Devlin of Stanford University suggests that we are entirely alone. Yet, “The fact that our existence has no purpose for the universe – whatever that means – in no way means that it has no purpose for us,” he declares.

“I don’t share my most dangerous ideas,” protests W. Daniel Hillis, chairman of Applied Minds, Inc. “I have often seen otherwise thoughtful people so caught up in such an idea that they seem unable to resist sharing it. To me, the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas is itself a very dangerous idea. I hope it never catches on.”

On the contrary, to Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, the only dangerous idea is, ‘the idea that ideas can be dangerous’. We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air, he rues. “Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one.”

Cyberdisinhibition is dangerous, according to Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence’. A major disconnect between the ways our brains are wired to connect and the interface offered in online communications, he cautions. “The Internet may harbour social perils that our inhibitory circuitry was not evolutionarily designed to handle.”

Kevin Kelly, editor at large of ‘Wired’ feels that it is dangerous to think that more anonymity is good. “Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously,” he says. “In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.”

Recommended read to detox a tired mind.

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