The author of "The God Delusion" and "An Appetite for Wonder" doesn't care for "Pride and Prejudice": "I can't get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are."
What's the best book you've read so far this year?
I've been reading autobiographies to get me in the mood for writing my own and show me how it's done: Tolstoy (at one time my own memoir was to have been called, at my wife's suggestion, "Childhood, Boyhood, Truth"); Mark Twain; Bertrand Russell; that engaging maverick Herb Silverman; Edward O. Wilson, elder statesman of my subject. But the best new book I have read is Daniel Dennett's "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking." A philosopher of Dennett's caliber has nothing to fear from clarity and openness. He is out to enlighten and explain, and therefore has no need or desire to language it up like those obscurantist philosophers, often of "Continental" tradition, for whom obscurity is valued as a protective screen, or even admired for its own sake. I once heard of a philosopher who gushed an "Oh, thank you!" when a woman at a party said she found his book hard to understand. Dennett is the opposite. He works hard at being understood, and makes brilliant use of intuition pumps (his own coining) to that end. The book includes a helpful roundup of several of his earlier themes, and is as good as its intriguing title promises.
Who are your favorite contemporary writers and thinkers?
I've already mentioned Dan Dennett. I'll add Steven Pinker, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond, Matt Ridley, Lawrence Krauss, Martin Rees, Jerry Coyne — indeed quite a few of the luminaries that grace the Edge online salon conducted by John Brockman (the Man with the Golden Address Book). All share the same honest commitment to real-world truth, and the belief that discovering it is the business of scientists — and philosophers who take the trouble to learn science. Many of these "Third Culture" thinkers write very well. (Why is the Nobel Prize in Literature almost always given to a novelist, never a scientist? Why should we prefer our literature to be about things that didn't happen? Wouldn't, say, Steven Pinker be a good candidate for the literature prize?)
An organization promoting intelligent design is asking that Ball State review four professors teaching honors science courses.
...I could not agree more regarding the perverse effects that postmodernism has had on the humanities: tons of crappy theories, bad arguments, superficial historical recollections, paranoid political interpretations of major novels, untenable positions on basic biological facts, etc., all of which have been produced over the past 25 years or so in the name of a dubious ideological agenda of "debunking" the deeply concealed motivations of the 'truth-producers', whose shameful aim is to serve the interests of powerful groups.
But the humanities are not just that. It is difficult to define exactly what a scholar in the humanities – or an "intellectual" (at least in the French and Italian sense) – is in contrast to a scientist, but it is clearly a different job. Let us try to identify some of the differences, a bit like in those 'spot the difference' puzzles, where kids have to find a number of variations between two images that initially seem exactly the same. ...
Although the foundation of every innovation is the desire to improve human life, progress is often experienced as a relentless horde of "barbarian invasion" (definition by Alessandro Baricco) that triggers feelings of powerlessness and mistrust . This is due to our inability to understand the phenomenon in progress, difficulties arising, in turn, by a double communicative deficits. On the one hand, in fact, it lacks an effective dialogue between the community of innovators and all of us. To innovate is not enough to enter service in the social fabric: it is essential to a "third culture" (John Brockman - www.edge.com), an approach such that all the protagonists of this paradigm shift meet in opportunities for debate. It is necessary that scientists comparing their case, their ideas and expectations in dialogue with us, avoiding the accumulation of knowledge in intellectual circles, encouraging the involvement of the younger generation, ensuring the succession of ideas, assessing the risks and issues related to 'advanced technology. Only by reconciling the scientific with the humanistic sphere, making the knowledge democratic, unified and accessible you can understand the meaning and direction of flow of innovations.
...The scientists of the third culture are able to transform knowledge into words and arguments palatable to an audience much broader than just a handful of professors at some universities. The audience for these scientists write is worldwide. And it is quite natural, because who would not want to know what moves to Earth, why we enjoy sex, what are the laws that govern nature, whether born or we do, why we think what we think, why we behave as we do, if there is freedom, if there is a god, if there is a soul, and so on. All these are questions not unlike what other philosophers and writers tried to answer, but the difference is in the approach: science. ...
...Along with the efficiencies and clever new applications that Big Data has yielded come big concerns about privacy. As science historian George Dyson noted in a recent article published in Edge.org, "If Google has taught us anything, it is that if you simply capture enough links, over time, you can establish meaning, follow ideas, and reconstruct someone's thoughts. It is only a short step from suggesting what a target may be thinking now, to suggesting what that target may be thinking next."
...Here's an easy prediction: Big Data is only going to get bigger. Every year, more sensors will produce more signals that will be more quickly analyzed. This will lead to more convenience. And more concern. Mr. Dyson – whose physicist father, Freeman Dyson, grappled with wondrous but fraught technologies such as nuclear energy – sums up the Big Data revolution this way: "Yes, we need big data, and big algorithms – but beware."
How are the publishing houses sure halfway through 2013?
Non-fiction publishing houses Vantilt and Maven are both strongly up in the first half. ... " We're up 50 percent," says Sander Ruys, publisher of the young nonfiction Maven Publishing house. "Now it is true that we are a small publishing house, so if a few titles do well, we notice that right away. This Explains Everything, ed. by John Brockman, published in March, has sold 4,200 units sold. "Moreover, it is our first listing in the "Bestseller 60". It just opened at #57. " ... Ruys explains the success: "Our network is growing and we are still being discovered by journalists and booksellers who then enthusiastically set to work with us. On the other hand we know ourselves better and better which titles are doing well. Furthermore Maven's community is taking shape, thanks to the hiring of new employees. in early 2013 "The pre-read club grows, where people ahead of time reading our books and discuss. Our strategy is to grow a lively community where people speak about human behavior."
The disclosures of former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who this week was granted temporary refugee status in Russia, suggest that the government has spent years tapping the very thoughts of Internet users, as George Dyson puts it in a recent essay on Edge.org.
...Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970) says it all. The meaning of his "Third Wave" was a rip-tide-undertow that would sweep maladaptive "societies and cultures aside." Toffler soothed the anxiety somewhat with "Society needs people who take care of the elderly, know how to be honest, compassionate, work in hospitals, and all kinds of skills that aren't just cognitive, they're emotional and affectional. You can't run a society on data and computers alone.
John Brockman picked up a thread from C.P. Snow's classic, The Two Cultures (1959) with his book The Third Culture (1996), giving meaning to a new generation of artists and scientists, who collectively sprinted off the blocks, carrying the Internet Revolution with them.
Stanley Kubric's A Space Odyssey (1968) changed the rules of engagement for probable futures. He co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur C. Clarke, who is best known for his visionary milestone Profiles of the Future (1962), which contributors to Wikipedia embarrassingly forgot to include in his writing career. ....
Studies show that money does increase happiness. The latest research shows there’s not even a known satiation point — a higher income makes virtually everyone happier, although each additional dollar delivers less happiness than the one before it.
But we tend to overestimate money’s potential on our happiness by thinking of it out of context. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, writes in the book This Will Make You Smarter:
On average, individuals with high incomes are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about a third as large as most people expect. When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.
The editors of intellectual site Edge.org decided to ask some of the most influential thinkers in the world - including physicists, neurologists and mathematicians—and ask them what they think are the most important scientific concepts in the modern era.
The outcome of the exercise is the book "This will make you smarter: New scientific concepts to improve thinking" —a collection of two hundred essays that describe the most important ideas to handle today and explore the world.
Multimedia artist and literary agent American John Brockman, who has "the world's most exclusive address book", founded Edge Foundation in 1996, linking humanities, science, arts, business, and arranging exchanges to produce knowledge in the world. Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Nicholas Carr, are among Edge Foundation members.
Culture Shock is the second in the series of "Best of Edge" books. Writer and ciritc Evgeny Morozov notes that the influence of the Internet has been overestimated.
Surprisingly, computer scientists in the book write about the negative influence of the Internet. David Gelernter points to the low quality of information; Jaron Lanier complains about weaknesses in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. ...
Where do cool ideas come from? Every year, the online salon Edge.org poses one question and gets a bunch of smart people to answer it.
The 2011 question was: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? The answers, compiled as a book with the laughably ambitious title, This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, has 165 contributions from eminent thinkers on subjects too disparate to be memorable: anthropophilia, cognitive humility, haecceity, and other such abstruse concepts.
Some themes emerge out of this morass of ideas. One that informs this column is called dualism.
During the brief moment that I majored in anthropology in college, I was fascinated by the work of Napoleon A. Chagnon and his seminal 1968 text Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Chagnon's time as a field scientist in the Amazon had a profound impact on the field of anthropology even as his methods (and misunderstandings of his methods) resulted in an academic war on his research and his character. To further explore Chagnon's legacy, and what he really found in the rainforest, BB pal John Brockman of EDGE convened a meeting between Chagnon and big thinkers Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, Daniel C. Dennett, and David Haig. The result is 30,00 words of conversation and hours of video that John says is "one of the most significant events in (Edge's) sixteen year history.
Every year, the Edge.org website, run by a group of scientists and intellectuals in the U.S., presents a provocative question the responses to which are then collected in a book that is invariably instructive and surprising, since the contributions are heavyweights from various fields of academia and the world of the arts. "What is your favorite explanation is that deep, elegant or beautiful?" was the question proposed in 2012. Almost 200 responses are collected in the volume This Explains Everything, launched earlier this year.
One of the texts that particularly caught my attention is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, she remembers that there is in principle no connection between the fact that a theory is beautiful and it is true, and yet we tend to use aesthetic criterion for deciding between competing explanations. ...
1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Penguin, $20). A monumental achievement. Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, draws on 5,000 years of historical evidence to explain in fascinating detail how violence has declined across human history. More broadly, he shows that human beings have learned to treat each other better in general.