Natural scientists are now and are daring to study one of the last fields to have eluded them for so long: faith itself. This, of course, threatens faith and philosophy’s hold on the definition of man and his place in the world. This is a main reason why Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett are debated so fervently.
The Third Culture in Süddeutsche Zeitung
WHEN ONLY THE ENLIGHTENED SPEAK OUT, REASON IS BOUND TO LOSE
Is religion a destructive force? The debate over Fundamentalism and the new Atheists overshadows the scientific research on faith.
By Andrian Kreye, Editor, the Feuilleton, Süddeutsche Zeitung
ANDRIAN KREYE, from 1987 to 2006, was the US cultural correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung (currently the largest German-language daily). At the end of 2006, he moved from New York to Germany, where he took over the Feuilleton section of the newspaper (part Arts & Ideas, part Op-Ed section). He is also an Edge contributor.
People's fascination for religion and superstition will disappear within a few decades as television and the internet make it easier to get information, and scientists get closer to discovering a final theory of everything, leading thinkers argue today.
The web magazine Edge (www.edge.org) asked more than 150 scientists and intellectuals: "What are you optimistic about?" Answers included hope for an extended human life span, a bright future for autistic children, and an end to violent conflicts around the world.
Philosopher Daniel Denett believes that within 25 years religion will command little of the awe it seems to instil today. The spread of information through the internet and mobile phones will "gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance".
Biologist Richard Dawkins said that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein's dream of unifying the fundamental laws of physics. "This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."
Intellectual impresario John Brockman puts his annual Edge question to leading thinkers... more»
• 'Jeremiahs' list their great hopes for 2007
• More romance, better old age and better death
Scientists often find themselves accused of pessimism. From the gravity of their public warnings about the dangers of climate change or bird flu, they have earned a reputation as Jeremiahs with a bleak view of human nature and humanity’s future.
It is a charge most researchers contest vigorously: science, they say, is a profoundly optimistic pursuit. The idea that the world can be understood by gathering evidence, to the ultimate benefit of its citizens, lies at its heart. It is not just about problems, but about finding the solutions.
The breadth of this optimism is revealed today by the discussion website Edge.org — often likened to an online scientific “salon” — which marks every new year by inviting dozens of the world’s best scientific minds to answer a single question. For 2007, it is: “What are you optimistic about?” The answers show that even in the face of such threats as global warming and religious fundamentalism, scientists remain positive about the future.
NEW YORK The Edge of Computation Science Prize endowed with a hundred housand dollars goes at David Deutsch, the pioneer of quantum computer research. The honor is aimed at scientists, who advance the "computatrional idea" in the past ten years with their work. Deutsch, born in Israel and trained in Oxford and Cambridge, is credited with the development of a set of algorithms on which the theoretical conditions for a recent revolution in computation are based. The Edge Prize, named after the virtual Internet salon Edge, in which an international avant-garde of researchers and philosophers meet, was organized by John Brockman, the New York Guru of the third culture.
The Prize was initiated by the investor Jeffrey Epstein, an inspired promoter of science, who also donated the Prize money. Among the other nominees were researchers such as Tim Berners Lee, Noam Chomsky, David Gelernter, Larry Smarr and J. Craig Venter.
A New Take on Atheism: Armed with evolutionary psychology and inflamed by the 9/11 attacks, these authors--Richard Dawkins, left, Sam Harris, center, and Daniel C. Dennett--treat belief in God as a superstition the modern world can no longer afford
...On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes. Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.
Karl Marx famously predicted that industrial capitalism’s individualist ethos would engender its opposite: a new collective consciousness that would ultimately fuel the socialist revolution. But the old dialectician would probably have been shocked to see how much collectivism has flowered in the hypercapitalist Internet economy of late. First there was open-source software — large-scale digital engineering projects miraculously executed by groups of programmers contributing their intellectual labor for the sheer reward of participation. Then Google took on the seemingly insurmountable problem of organizing the Web’s information by tapping the collective wisdom embedded in the links between Web sites. Then Wikipedia applied the open-source model to encyclopedia production, and — against all odds — built a genuine challenger to Britannica in four short years.
But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.
Unlike most counterrevolutionary manifestoes, however, Lanier’s essay aimed not so much to topple the dominant regime as to limit its application. “There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual,” he wrote. “When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective. . . . But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.”
In the essay, Lanier grouped everything from his personal Wikipedia entry to “American Idol” under the umbrella of digital Maoism, and many of the responses to the article by assorted Internet luminaries observed that Lanier had elided important differences between these systems to make his point. The entirety of Wikipedia, for instance, is most certainly a collective undertaking, but many articles are written and edited by small numbers of individuals. Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.
In any case, culture and technology are increasingly reliant on the hive mind — and whatever its faults, Lanier’s broadside helps us consider the consequences of this momentous development. A swarm of connected human minds is a fantastic resource for tracking down software bugs or discovering obscure gems on the Web. But if you want to come up with a good idea, or a sophisticated argument, or a work of art, you’re still better off going solo.
The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, it is said, had a good-luck horseshoe hanging in his office. "You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?" a visitor once asked, to which Bohr replied, "No, but they say it works whether you believe in it or not."
If one thing emerged from the "Beyond Belief" conference at the Salk Institute in LaJolla, Calif. it's that religion doesn't work the same way. Some 30 scientists—one of the greatest collections of religious skeptics ever assembled in one place since Voltaire dined alone—examined faith from the evolutionary, neurological and philosophical points of view, and they concluded that some things only work if you do believe in them. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and author of the best-selling book "The God Delusion," said he couldn't have a spiritual experience even when he tried. After another panelist, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, explained that temporal-lobe seizures of the brain create profound spiritual and out-of-body experiences, Dawkins disclosed that he had participated in an experiment that was supposed to mimic such seizures—and even then he didn't feel a thing.
Dawkins obviously feels this loss is a small price to pay for freedom from superstition. But even physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and an outspoken atheist, acknowledged that science is a poor substitute for the role religion plays in most peoples' lives. It's hard, he said, to live in a world in which one's highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only "a lot of little truths" and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, "I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time."
To which Dawkins retorted, "I won't miss her at all." Only in the most extreme circumstances would he deign to take account of the consolations offered by religion. He would not, for instance, try to talk a Christian on his deathbed out of a belief in Heaven. He didn't say what he would do if he were the one near death, but it's unlikely he would be calling for a priest. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett had been expected to attend, but two weeks earlier had been rushed to the hospital with a near-fatal aortic rupture. At the conference, people handed around copies of Dennett's essay entitled "Thank Goodness," posted on the science Web site Edge.org, in which he described how annoying it was to hear from friends that they had been praying for his recovery. "I have resisted the temptation," he wrote, "to respond, 'Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?'"
To Lanier, the 'wisdom of crowds' delivers a reflection of the lowest common denominator.
By Steven Levy
Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents—virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier, these represent an alarming decision—rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism." ...
...Neil H. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, writes of the way living things emerged from the seas and describes the recently discovered fossil specimen of that first terrestrial explorer. Paleontologist Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, lays out the forensic evidence of pre-human descent. Nicholas Humphrey, a professor at the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, muses on how natural selection might have produced human consciousness. Steven Pinker, the Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist, holds forth on the evolution of ethics. Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser discusses the proper role of evolution in the science curriculum.
Several essayists worry that the passions stirred by the intelligent design debate go well beyond the natural tension between science and religion. They suspect that baser political motives are at work in a strategy crafted to discredit science itself as an independent auditor of political claims about global warming, stem-cell research, pollution and high-tech military systems. ...
In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.
The reader is transported to a space-time continuum much like our own in "My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-Four of the World's Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy," edited by John Brockman Pantheon, $25,In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.These essays prove why, as editor John Brockman writes, "Einstein was clearly the most important person of the 20th century."
...More recently I found "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement," fascinating brief essays by leading evolutionists and edited by John Brockman.
... Each side of the evolution versus intelligent design debate has tended to draw me similarly, yet there is a winner. I am persuaded that the evolutionists have far the better case. In an essay titled"Unintelligent Design," Scott Atran, in the last volume noted above, points out that "no scientific theory can ever be proved true, but states that "scientific theories are validated when their surprising predictions are confirmed ..." ... (Grael Gannon, of Bismarck, is a teacher at Shiloh Christian School.)
The kind of hard-right thinking found in conservative pundit Ann Coulter's book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" amazes Bammel, he said. "It drives me up the wall. Evidence is being produced almost day by day in favor of evolution. That to me says it's factual, the way thing happened. How anyone can come along and deny it, it just numbs my mind."
The talk Bammel will give Monday is a distillation of material he used in a course he taught at West Virginia University about the conflicts between science and religion. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. He said he doesn't necessarily expect to change minds, but he does want to present some facts.
"There's a lot of intelligent people in the Vail Valley, really well-read people," he said. "There are so many good books put out on this topic in the past 10 years, and part of my purpose is to just people to get back to these and examine the evidence out there."
Two books Bammel recommends are "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement" edited by John Brockman and "By Design: Science and the Search for God" by Larry Witham.
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If you are interested in education, and what draws different people to different disciplines, you may want to read Curious Minds: How a child becomes a scientist. Edited by John Brockman, this is a collection of reminiscences by prominent scientists of how they came to science through experiences during childhood. It’s amazing what triggers an interest in science. It could be a family friend with an interest in both science and children, the impetus from imagination stirred by a childhood novel, the special interest of a teacher, or a child’s cleaning job in a butcher shop.
My Einstein is a gem of a book that celebrates not only Einstein the scientist but also Einstein the man, even though it is a collection of essays written by scientific figures ... The result is a remarkably well-rounded figure.
If you want to learn more about how Intelligent Design relates to science, get the small 2006 paperback book, “Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement,” edited by John Brockman ...
...And the key to our preeminence is education. The study of evolution has practical benefits: It is the basis for breeding food crops, choosing animal models that can be used to treat human disorders, conserving species and their habitats, predicting which vaccines should be made to prepare for epidemics like avian flu and manufacturing those vaccines.
Science education that incorporates unscientific issues like ID is a sure path to America’s failure against competing countries. Conversely, given its importance for biology and for science in general, evolution deserves to be properly taught in American classrooms.