Edge in the News

Boing Boing [12.31.05]

Each year, John Brockman at Edge.org asks some of the brightest minds in science and technology to consider one question. This year: What is your dangerous idea?

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

Respondents include many whose work has appeared on Boing Boing before, including: J. Craig Venter, Sherry Turkle, Danny Hillis, Jaron Lanier, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Rudy Rucker, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Clay Shirky, Ray Kurzweil, and Clifford Pickover.

Here is U.C. Davis neurobiologist Leo M. Chalupa's dangerous idea:

# A 24-hour period of absolute solitude

Our brains are constantly subjected to the demands of multi-tasking and a seemingly endless cacophony of information from diverse sources. Cell phones, emails, computers, and cable television are omnipresent, not to mention such archaic venues as books, newspapers and magazines.

This induces an unrelenting barrage of neuronal activity that in turn produces long-lasting structural modification in virtually all compartments of the nervous system. A fledging industry touts the virtues of exercising your brain for self-improvement. Programs are offered for how to make virtually any region of your neocortex a more efficient processor. Parents are urged to begin such regimes in preschool children and adults are told to take advantage of their brain's plastic properties for professional advancement. The evidence documenting the veracity for such claims is still outstanding, but one thing is clear. Even if brain exercise does work, the subsequent waves of neuronal activities stemming from simply living a modern lifestyle are likely to eradicate the presumed hard-earned benefits of brain exercise.

My dangerous idea is that what's needed to attain optimal brain performance — with or without prior brain exercise — is a 24-hour period of absolute solitude. By absolute solitude I mean no verbal interactions of any kind (written or spoken, live or recorded) with another human being. I would venture that a significantly higher proportion of people reading these words have tried skydiving than experienced one day of absolute solitude.

 

Link to complete list of respondents, and their answers.

Telegraph.co.uk [12.31.05]

The Earth can cope with global warming, schools should be banned and we should learn to love bacteria. These are among the dangerous ideas revealed by a poll of leading thinkers.

John Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website posed the question: what is your dangerous idea? in reference to a controversial book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett that argued that Darwinism was a universal acid that ate through virtually all traditional beliefs.

Brockman received 116 responses to his challenge from Nobel laureates, futurists and creative thinkers. These were among them:

The evolution of evil

When most people think of stalkers, rapists, and murderers, they imagine crazed, drooling monsters with maniacal Charles Manson-like eyes. The calm, normal-looking image staring back at you from the bathroom mirror reflects a truer representation.

The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology or exposure to media violence.

The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips with the capacity for evil in all of us.

David Buss, Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin

Our planet is not in peril

Environmental crises are a fundamental part of the history of the earth: there have been dramatic temperature excursions, severe glaciations, vast asteroid and comet impacts. Yet the earth is still here, unscathed. And yet many people in the various green movements feel compelled to add on the notion that the planet is in crisis, or doomed; that all life on earth is threatened. The most important thing about environmental change is that it hurts people; the basis of our response should be human solidarity. The planet will take care of itself.

Oliver Morton, Chief news and features editor at Nature

Let's stop beating Basil's car

Basil Fawlty, television's hotelier from hell, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down. He seized a branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Has it run out of petrol?

Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Fawlty?

Isn't the murderer just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective genes? Why do we vent hatred on murderers when we should regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? We shall grow out of this and learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Fawlty.

Richard Dawkins, Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University

Biotechnology will be domesticated in 50 years

This means cheap tools and do-it-yourself kits for gardeners to design roses, and for animal-breeders to design lizards and snakes. It means biotech games for children, like computer games but with real eggs and seeds.

There are two dangers. First, smart kids and malicious grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture of lethal microbes.

Second, ambitious parents will find ways to apply the tools to the genetic modification of babies.

The unanswered question is, whether we can regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans.

Freeman Dyson, Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study

Bacteria are us

Our sensibilities, our perceptions that register through our sense organ cells evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. Yet our culture's terminology about bacteria is that of warfare: they are germs to be destroyed.

We load our soaps with anti-bacterials; stomach ulcers are now agreed to be caused by bacterial infection. Even if some admit the existence of "good" bacteria in soil or probiotic food, few of us tolerate the dangerous notion that human sperm tails and sensitive cells of nasal passages lined with waving cilia are former bacteria.

If this idea becomes widespread it follows that we humans must agree that, even before our evolution as animals, we have tried to kill our ancestors. Again, we have seen the enemy and, as usual, it is us. Social interactions of sensitive bacteria, then, not God, made us who were are.

Lynn Margulis, Biologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

The posterior probability of any particular God is small

You can't in any logical system I understand disprove the existence of God, or prove it for that matter. But in the probability calculus I use, He is very improbable.

Philip Anderson, Princeton University, Nobel laureate

Science must destroy religion

Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticising ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.

In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists keep silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.

Sam Harris, University of California, Los Angeles

Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)

Ever since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting the ultimate demise of religion.

But, if anything, religious fervour is increasing across the world. An underlying reason is that science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central.

Science is not well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do.

Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings.

Scott Atran, Anthropologist, University of Michigan

School is bad for children

Schools are structured today in much the same way as they have been for hundreds of years. Schools should simply cease to exist as we know them.

The Government needs to get out of the education business and stop thinking it knows what children should know and then testing them constantly to see if they regurgitate whatever they have been spoon-fed.

We need to stop producing a nation of stressed-out students who learn how to please the teacher instead of pleasing themselves.

We need to produce adults who love learning, not adults who avoid all learning because it reminds them of the horrors of school.

We need to stop thinking that all children need to learn the same stuff. We need to create adults who can think for themselves.

Call school off. Turn them into apartments.

Roger Schank, Chief learning officer, Trump University

Free will is exercised unconsciously

By observing another person's brain activity, one can predict what someone is going to do before he is aware that he has made the decision to do it.

This finding has caused -philosophers to ask: if the choice is determined in the brain unconsciously before we decide to act, where is free will?

Are these choices predetermined? Is our experience of freely willing our actions an illusion, a rationalisation after the fact? Is one to be held responsible for decisions that are made without conscious awareness?

Eric Kandel, Columbia University, Nobel laureate

Science may be 'running out of control'

Public opinion surveys (at least in the UK) reveal a generally positive attitude to science.

However, this is coupled with widespread worry that science may be "running out of control".

Whether this idea is true or false, it's an exceedingly dangerous one because it engenders pessimism, and de-motivates efforts to secure a safer and fairer world.

The future will best be safeguarded - and science has the best chance of being applied optimally - through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic.

Lord Rees, President, the Royal Society

Revealing the genetic basis of personality and behaviour will create societal conflicts

We attribute behaviours in other species to genes but when it comes to humans we seem to like the notion that we are all created equal, that each child is a "blank slate".

But it will inevitably be revealed that there are strong genetic components associated with most aspects of human existence, including personality sub-types, language capabilities, mechanical abilities, intelligence, sexual activities and preferences, intuitive thinking, quality of memory, willpower, temperament, athletic abilities, and so on.

The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal.

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY [12.31.05]

Science can be a risky game, as Galileo learned to his cost. NowJohn Brockman asks over a hundred thinkers, “What is your most dangerous idea?”... more»

The Times [12.23.05]

Christmas brings with it the ultimate suspension of disbelief: a virgin birth of the Son of God. And a lack of substantial evidence to back up this claim seems to be no barrier to the belief of millions of Christians.

But when it comes to asking leading lights of science and medicine how they square belief with scientific fact, you might imagine a different story.

Body&Soul asked leading experts in their fields: “What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?” The answers reveal unsubstantiated, but nevertheless influential, theories from yodelling ancestors to winning formulas for artistic achievement.

Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism — its opposite — it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking.

SARAH-JAYNE BLACKMORE 

Cognitive neuroscientist 

I believe that I have free will over the decisions I make, but I can’t prove it because all the scientific evidence is to the contrary. Like everyone else, I deceive myself that I have it. This is because human beings are designed to think that they have freedom over their actions. In fact, our brain makes decisions before making us conscious we have made them. For instance, the part of the brain that controls movement is active up to one second before we are aware of deciding to move. Afterwards, another part of the brain provides an explanation of why the movement was made. So, although I am able to rationalise why I did something after the event, my brain is always one step ahead.

ARMAND LEROI 

Evolutionary biologist 

I believe but I cannot prove that the first song ever sung by a human being was a yodel, a song relying on the voice fluctuating from falsetto to normal pitch.

My latest project is attempting to reconstruct the history of human song with the help of the musician Brian Eno. Our starting point is that songs — from polyrhythmic chants of Xhosa farmers to the nasal cries of Lisbon fadistas — contain information that tells us how humans migrated from Africa more than 60,000 years ago and constructed the diverse cultural world we see today. I believe that songs are the product of a history that can be retrieved if you listen to them. I ’m trying to understand songs as geneticists understand genes or linguists interpret language. If these very different human attributes are ruled by Darwinian dynamics, might not music be, too?

Perhaps. But a yodel as the first human song? The idea seems absurd. But the yodel is not only found among Swiss goat herders; it can also be heard in Congo’s jungles and the Kalahari desert, in the songs of the Mbuti pygmies and San Bushmen. It is among these peoples that I suspect the origin of human song may be found. Of course, I can prove none of this — yet.

LORD WINSTON

Fertility expert 

I believe but I cannot prove that religiousness is, in part, genetically determined. The strongest reason for my belief is provided by the study of twins by the behavioural geneticist Thomas Bouchard in the 1980s. It gave insight into which aspects of the human condition are nature and which nurture. But I don’t think genes are the only contributing factor. Bouchard’s study, and recent research by psychologists, shows that religious background and parental influence provide environmental influences; in other words, extrinsic religiosity, based on the rewards of churchgoing, such as a sense of belonging. Intrinsic religiosity is a deeper feeling of spirituality, not related to churchgoing. This, I believe, is genetically determined. This belief neither denies nor proves the existence of God. For all we know, it was God who put the genes there.

ALISON MURDOCH 

Professor of reproductive medicine 

I believe that life does not begin at conception, but I have no proof. I am an atheist and I believe in the sanctity of life but not that there is a higher spirit up there creating it. I don’t think there is a magic moment when life begins. I favour a gradualist approach. Once a baby is born, it is an individual. But there’s a time before that when it is still part of the woman who is carrying it. At the very early stages of pregnancy, she has the right to make decisions about it. As the pregnancy develops, the growing infant acquires its independent rights.

While I respect the value of a fertilised egg because it has the capacity to create a baby, I do not look on it in the same way that I would regard a child. Life should be respected differently at different stages. A fertilised egg is not a life; it is a potential life. I can’t prove this, but my work is based on it. If I felt that every fertilised egg that I created for IVF was an individual person, I couldn’t do my job. We create hundreds of embryos every week; eight to ten for each person, only ever using two.

GABRIEL DOVER 

Geneticist 

I believe but I cannot prove that the biological basis of our individuality is not knowable. My theory is that the unique form, mind and behaviour of each one of us is due to net- works of interaction between our estimated 25,000 genes.

This process is highly particular and utterly unpredictable. Even if we were given a print out of the structure of our genes at conception, we would not be able to say how they would connect in the making of an individual, despite much hype to the contrary.

Our development is not hardwired. A single gene, even one related to genetic diseases, has no meaning outside the context of its networks with hundreds of other genes. So, my belief is that there is no fixed or natural link between genes and traits. This gives a unique take on what it means to be human; when Samuel Beckett wrote “I alone am man” he was right.

JOHN BROCKMAN 

Editor of The Edge, a scientific debate website 

I believe but I cannot prove that we are moving towards a future full of correct answers but this may cause us to lose our ability to ask the right questions. In this age of “search culture”, with Google and other search engines leading us towards unlimited information, we focus on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof.

Many people welcome these technological advances as the first steps toward a universal library. My concern is that we are moving forward blinded by a naive sense of certainty.

When I asked this same question about belief and proof as the annual Edge question (www.edge.org), last year, the responses pointed to the new ways of understanding the world: advances in physics, information technology, genetics and neurobiology. But the researchers behind these new developments did not achieve success by having answers: they asked the right questions.

SUSAN GREENFIELD 

Neuroscientist and pharmacologist 

I believe in the final triumph of the good guy. It’s totally unprovable and sounds awfully moral, but it drives me. I think being honest and kind, and living by your principles, wins through in the end, even if it doesn’t seem expedient at the time. This challenges the notion that human beings are corrupt and inherently nasty, committed only to furthering their own causes by realpolitik.

It has led me to consider what a belief is and why people hold them, sometimes even die for them, without any proof.

But belief can obstruct science; it can prevent you examining the evidence properly. Think of how men have argued over the centuries that women are less intellectually capable than men. However, it can also guide you towards an idea. Giving in to a hunch can be the best thing a scientist can do; we shouldn’t underestimate the power of intuition.

SIR ARNOLD WOLFENDALE 

Former Astronomer Royal 

I believe but I cannot prove that God exists. As a scientist as well as a Christian, I know that I am supposed to require firm knowledge for every phenomenon in which I believe, but with religious belief, the potential benefits are great enough for normal critical attitudes to be suspended. All this is not to say that I accept all of Christianity lock, stock and barrel. Indeed, I hope that it evolves, as some of the Christian dogmas seem to be in need of an overhaul.

RAYMOND TALLIS 

Gerontologist and philosopher 

I believe so many things without proof that I am spoilt for choice. As Karl Popper pointed out, no belief can be legitimately placed beyond the reach of doubt. There is always the possibility of further observations that may prove it wrong. Take, for instance, the statement: “All swans are white.” It looked pretty unassailable until visitors to Australia reported sightings of black swans. And if I extend the notion of reasonable doubt virtually everything within the borders of our known world can be doubted.

Here are two of my most stubborn beliefs: first, that the material objects which populate my world are not just the sum total of my experience of them. Some philosophers argue that you can reduce objects to the personal interaction you have with them; outside of that, they don’t exist. I believe the opposite. I believe — despite proof that still confounds the brightest philosophical minds — that material objects exist outside of my own relationship with them. Second, I believe that our all-too-human religions, which are organised around an all-too-human idea of God, have nothing significant to say about how things really are, compared with our everyday perceptions.

SIR JOHN KREBS 

Principal of Jesus College, Oxford 

I believe that Mozart was a better composer than Carl Stamitz, a lesser-known contemporary. I do not know how I would prove this, or any other kind of aesthetic superiority. If public reaction to a musician was enough, that would solve it but, if an independent objective proof is required, it’s close to impossible. There is a chance that one day we will arrive at a formula that will explain why music X is better than music Y. We may discover that certain music elicits a larger release of serotonin in listeners. Alternatively, that a brilliant painting sends certain messages from the retina to the brain.But I doubt it very much. Nor do I think it would be a good thing. By reducing art to science, you risk losing the essence of what you are trying to explain. In other words, the X-factor that makes it superior. Art involves individual judgment and, therefore, it’s not quantifiable. The only good thing would be that I’d be able to find other composers I’d like by applying the magic formula.

Sir John Krebs is the speaker at the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, from December 26-30. To book, visit www.rigb.org

EDZARD ERNST 

Professor of complementary medicine 

I don’t believe in anything that I can’t prove. My only true belief is in science and its ability to sort out belief from fact. Part of my fascination with alternative therapies stems from the fact that some of them have not yet been proved. My job is to establish whether or not they are evidence-based. There is no aspect of belief in this at all. If there is, it gets in the way and becomes a bias. Once you have tested and established your hypothesis, you try to disprove it. If you can’t, you do the test again before you consider believing it. If you find the results contradict your belief, you abandon it — or you’re a fool. This is why I am convinced of the power of placebo. I have done trials with patients who suffer from intractable pain. A portion of them, who were seen by actors pretending to be spiritual healers, improved so significantly that some were able to abandon their wheelchairs. This is this kind of proof I look for before I believe in something.

What We Believe But Cannot Prove, edited by John Brockman, published by Free Press (£9.99), is available from Times Books First at £9.49 p&p is free. Call 0870 1608080 or visitwww.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Toronto Star [12.17.05]

SEED December/January Science factions: The flood of "year in review" round-ups about to wash over us could do worse than take a cue from this penetrating recap, which has the smarts to set its individual ideas within the context of one Big Idea, in this case, the "Third Culture."

John Brockman, editor of the fascinating website edge.org, explains it like this: "The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

Circling around that intersection of science and philosophy are ideas as disparate as star athletes on drugs, Africa as an incipient centre for scientific research, race-based medicine, and the death throes of the oil economy. Amen.

The Boston Globe [12.11.05]

...One report, by the prominent neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, even suggested that mirror neurons could be involved when people understand metaphors.

These are early days for research into mirror neurons, but Ramachandran predicted in a 2000 essay (available online at www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ramachandran/ramachandran_p1.html) that they ''will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."

They could even help explain how language emerged in early humans, he argued in the essay. ...

The Observer [12.10.05]

What We Believe by Cannot Prove
edited by John Brockman
The Free Press £9.99, pp266

John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas. In the Sixties he got an MBA and then made his first fortune selling psychedelia to corporations, turning on marketing execs with 'multi-kinetic happenings' and showing them how their profits could levitate. These days he acts as literary agent for many of the world's greatest minds, including Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and achieves for some of them the kind of publishing advances that it takes great mathematicians to compute. The universe may be infinite, but Brockman still insists on his 15 per cent of it.

In order to help these floggable ideas to keep germinating, Brockman has set up a kind of global online Royal Society, called the Edge. The Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of science and philosophy and even poetry, an alternative to CP Snow. This cross-fertilising club, the most rarefied of chat-rooms, has its premises on his website www.edge.org, which presents monthly interviews and debates with many of the world's foremost thinkers, who also happen to be, more often than not, his clients.

As a favour, perhaps, or because they are genuinely intrigued or flattered to be in the company of their peers, every year a good number of these thinkers respond to a question posed by Brockman. In 2004 the question was: 'What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?'

The 100-odd responses to this question make up this book, which is compelling and repetitive by turns. Mostly, the correspondents are concerned with the two great time-honoured questions: is there life anywhere else in the universe? And, are we anything more than flesh and blood? Almost everyone, it appears, believes there is life elsewhere, but hardly anyone has truck with any notion of anything like an individual soul, or even a tangible 'I'. 'Mind', as John Dewey suggests, has become a verb, not a noun.

Despite this denial of a single self, there are plenty of formidable egos on display. Craig Venter, the man who tried to patent our DNA, the Book of Life, and make his fortune from it, believes that all life is a 'panspermic event'; that primordial microbes were sent in a directed rocket ship from an alien galaxy to colonise the earth, a big bang if ever there was one. We, in turn, are constantly pansperming, launching a zillion microbes back into space.

Others are slightly more circumspect. Kenneth W Ford is the retired director of the American Institute of Physics. He believes in the existence of life elsewhere because 'chemistry seems to be so life-striving'.

He also offers a couple of sobering thoughts. Microbes have occupied Earth for at least 75 per cent of its history; intelligent life for about 0.02 per cent of it.

He believes: 'Mars will be found to have harboured life and harbours life no more.' The effect of this on mankind, perhaps only a couple of years away, might be psychologically dramatic; more dramatic than 'Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton; perhaps even more so than the discovery of life elsewhere in the galaxy.'

Brockman characterises our times as the Age of Certainty, in that we are comfortable with materialism and Darwinism, and believe that science could unlock all of the world's mysteries, given enough time; our own version of monkeys and typewriters. Ian McEwan, the novelist and Edge thinker, in his introduction, suggests that we are not so far from the 'old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists'.

This faith is striking, and it fervently ignores the contrary tide of superstition and fundamentalism across the world. Even as they are thinking the unthinkable, however, many of Brockman's correspondents, largely Americans, seem also to be arming themselves against a return to an age of uncertainty in which creationism and intelligent design hold sway in the public mind. Enlightenment and infinity are hedged around, these days, by the Holy Neocon Empire.

Rocky Mountain News [12.9.05]

Daniel Gilbert, in an essay The Vagaries of Religious Experience posted at edge.org, says, "things can be viewed in many ways, but human brains like the most rewarding view and thus they search for and hold on to that view whenever they can." He is writing primarily about religious belief, but the observation is broader.

For instance, he says, "a significant portion of those who survive major traumas not only do well, but claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience."

El pais [12.3.05]

 

¿Es posible decir algo original sobre el Quijote? La obra maestra de Cervantes ha generado una bibliografía tan dispar como inabarcable. Sin embargo, como cualquier clásico, su riqueza artística todavía es capaz de provocar en la actualidad nuevas lecturas que se enfrentan a la tradición académica. Escritores vanguardistas rebatieron ayer algunas de estas tesis clásicas en Kosmopolis, el encuentro literario del Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona (CCCB).

      John Brockman, en el debate sobre la influencia darwinista
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      Con motivo del Año del Libro, el CCCB acoge hasta hoy una edición especial y compacta de Kosmopolis, su bienal literaria. El Quijoteprotagonizó ayer la programación de la cita cultural. Es bien sabido que este año se conmemora el cuarto centenario de la publicación de la primera parte de la obra maestra de Cervantes. Para festejarlo, los organizadores de Kosmopolis pidieron a varios autores vanguardistas que aportaran lecturas iconoclastas de la novela.

      A juicio del filólogo Manel Zabala, la época en la que apareció el Quijote -marcada por la difusión de la imprenta- guarda similitudes notables con nuestros días. "La revolución que supuso entonces la extensión de la cultura impresa fue tan importante como el reto que nos plantean en la actualidad las nuevas tecnologías". Como ejemplo de similitudes reseñables, Zabala citó la locura en la que cae Alonso Quijano tras leer numerosas novelas de caballería, un trastorno similar al producido por el auge de los videojuegos y otros hábitos digitales entre los adolescentes. "El hidalgo es un adicto que pierde el contacto con la realidad, como sucede a los jóvenes que se enganchan a Internet".

      Especialmente combativo fue el escritor Jordi Carrión que abogó por apartarse de algunas interpretaciones consagradas sobre el Quijote, como las de Jorge Luis Borges, José Ortega y Gasset y la Generación del 98. "El reto de los jóvenes respecto a esta obra consiste en abrir una etapa posborgesiana", defendió Carrión, quien lamentó que el embate narrativo de la novela no haya tenido tantos frutos literarios en España como en otros países. Así, entre los herederos del Quijote se refirió al Tristram Shandy, de Laurence Sterne, o En el camino, del Jack Kerouac. Por su parte, la ensayista Irene Zoe Alameda afirmó que el Quijote no debe leerse como una parodia de los libros de caballería, una reducción simplista. Para justificar su opinión, señaló el respeto que muestra su narrador por Tirant lo Blanc, de Joanot Martorell.

      Cervantes no fue el único protagonista de la segunda jornada de Kosmopolis. En el encuentro también se debatió sobre la influencia que ha tenido la teoría darwinista de la selección natural en los avances de disciplinas científicas diversas, que abarcan desde la física a la genética. En este coloquio, centrado también en el futuro del humanismo y los límites de la ciencia, intervinieron el físico teórico Lee Smolin, el biólogo Robert Trivers y el neurocientífico Marc Hauser. La presentación del acto corrió a cargo de Eduard Punset y el moderador fue John Brockman, artífice de publicaciones de divulgación científica. Smolin subrayó la importancia de las investigaciones de Darwin en el posterior desarrollo de la teoría de la relatividad de Einstein y se preguntó si estábamos preparados para aceptar un mundo sin leyes absolutas, donde todo cambia. Hauser apuntó que la revolución de Darwin también fue moral, porque se opone al racionalista de Kant y al predominio de las emociones de Hume.

      Uno de los apartados más atractivos del encuentro es el audiovisual. En el programa cinematográfico destacó la proyección de Barry Gifford wild as heart in New Orleans,filme en el que los realizadores italianos Francesco Conversano y Nene Grignaffini repasan las obsesiones creativas del irreverente autor estadounidense de Perdita Durango.

      Como ya es costumbre, Kosmopolis trata de reunir en un mismo espacio a público y artistas para que dialoguen sin cortapisas. Ayer acudió a la cita el pintor Joan Pere Viladecans, mientras que Eduardo Arroyo no pudo estar finalmente como se había anunciado.

      La jornada de hoy, día en el que se clausura el encuentro, contiene muchas propuestas interesantes. Entre otros, participarán en diferentes actos los escritores Juan Marsé y Carlos Ruiz Zafón, el dramaturgo británico Peter Jukes, el cineasta Joaquim Jordà, el historiador francés especializado en la evolución de la lectura Roger Chartier y el pintor Frederic Amat.

      La Stampa [12.2.05]

      In Brockman's intentions, this running fire of a provocative and fascinating thesis should provoke a healthy optimism. The "new humanists" of his book are those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. Their turn then to speak: biologists, computer scientists, geographers, physicists, astronomers, inventors outline in a few pages their own experience and ideas.

      The "third culture" invoked by John Brockman is now an absolute necessity. We can't stand unproductive fences and mutual misunderstandings anymore.

      [From a review of I Nuovi Umanisti (The New Humanists), Garzanti Libri — the best of Edge — now available in a book.]

      The Sunday Times [8.31.05]

      ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” as the philosopher Wittgenstein famously said. That was my response to the tsunami in Asia and its terrible aftermath.

      To me it was and is a meaningless horror about which there is almost nothing one can say except, perhaps, to ask what can be done.

      That has not stopped thousands of people, particularly media commentators and public pontificators generally, from holding forth about it at length, trying to extract morals and meaning.

      I am not complaining about all the reporters and scientists who have been trying to discover useful information about how the tsunami might have been anticipated, its effects mitigated, what can be done now or how relief work is being co-ordinated.

      What has depressed me has been the excessive moral and theological posturing. Media atheists have been unfeelingly triumphalist, as if this disaster proved them — yet again — right in their disbelief.

      And media men and women of the cloth have, not surprisingly, been reduced to incoherence about their enduring belief. The Archbishop of Canterbury became, and not for the first time in his episcopate, almost incomprehensible.

      “The extraordinary fact,” he wrote, “is that belief has survived such tests again and again — not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learnt to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift.

      “They have learnt to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others and they have learnt that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

      “These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.”

      If that contorted prose means anything at all, it would take a very great leap of faith, of a most mystical sort, to believe so.

      It is sad that the Church of England, which produced the strong-minded, eloquent lucidity of Cranmer’s liturgy, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of the English language, should now be reduced to impenetrable waffle.

      However, in my case it would have made no difference if the archbishop had spoken with the tongues of men and of angels; I am an unbeliever. Yet the constant images of the disaster in Asia, like the less constant images of broken people and broken lives in Iraq, do naggingly demand some sort of answer to the question of what, if anything, one does believe in.

      Confronted with senseless violence, viciousness, corruption high and low, and human weakness generally, it is hard to have faith in anything much, especially if one is not religious. But even so I do believe in the importance of faith — not of religious faith but of faith in a different sense, such as keeping faith or living in good faith.

      "Fantastically stimulating...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — Broadcasting House
      BBC Radio4 [8.31.05]

      What do you believe to be true but cannot prove?   And what kind of problem does that pose to Scientists?  Professor Richard Dawkins joins us for that and we invite your thoughts on the subject.

      Fi Glover, Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4: Now, what do you believe is true, but cannot prove? This enormous query has been posed by the big thinkers' website edge.org as their question for 2005. Now the website is the technological organ of The Edge Foundation, which set itself up in 1988 with the mandate to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society. And so far hundreds of big thinkers have been answering this question.

      [male voice:] What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it? Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch and to perceive on that basis.

      BBC Radio 4: Well, the author and the novelist Ian McEwen gave the site the following answer:

      [male voice:] What I believe, but cannot prove, is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing. I suspect that many contributors to Edge will take this premise as a given—true, but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought, as well as to persons, by those who are certain that there is a life—a better, more important life—elsewhere".

      BBC Radio 4: And here's the response from Dan Dennett, who is a philosopher at Tufts University:

      [male voice:] "I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness. It would follow that non-human animals and pre-linguistic children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, are not really conscious in this strong sense. This assertion is shocking to many people, who fear it would demote animals and pre-linguistic children from moral protection, but this would not follow."

      BBC Radio 4: Well, now it's your turn. We at Broadcasting House would love your thoughts on this. Perhaps you could send them whilst I chat amicably to Professor Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist at Oxford University. Very good morning, Professor.

      Professor Richard Dawkins: Good morning.

      BBC Radio 4: What was your own response to the question?

      Richard Dawkins: Well, my response was about Darwinism, which is my own field. Darwinism is the explanation for life on this planet, but I believe that all intelligence, all creativity, and all design anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. That was my response.

      BBC Radio 4: So this might take us toward a discussion of faith and the notion of faith. And being able to prove the substance of that faith is particularly relevant at the moment. I mean the Archbishop of Canterbury last week alluded to the fact that the tsunami should make every Christian question the existence of God. Would you or could you follow the same path of thinking, given what you have just told us. 

      Richard Dawkins: I think first one should say that the Archbishop of Canterbury was traduced and maligned by various people who said that he had questioned his own faith in God, which of course he did not. He said something much more cautious than that. And I'm sure he's right that this will cause people to question their faith in God.

      However, the Edge question is about beliefs that are true even though you can't prove them. Faith is obviously an aspect of that and quite a number of the responses were beliefs that probably will be proved one way or the other one day, but we don't have yet the evidence to prove them. For example, more than one person conjectured that there was life elsewhere in the universe than here and that's a belief which doesn't require faith; it's something which in principle one day could be demonstrated.

      On the other hand, if somebody said, "I believe that the way you see red is the same as the way I see red," then that seems to me to be in principle unprovable, which is a different kind of unproveability.

      BBC Radio 4: It is a fantastically stimulating question isn't it? And although we might believe that science acts as a bastion of provable theory in a world that contains many mysteries, as you've just said, this often isn't the case, is it? Scientists start out with theories and seek to build the proof around them. And that's the excitement of science often.

      Richard Dawkins: Very much so. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that science is something that knows everything already. Science proceeds by having hunches, by making guesses, by having hypotheses, sometimes inspired by poetic thoughts, by aesthetic thoughts even, and then science goes about trying to demonstrate it experimentally or observationally. And that's the beauty of science; that it has this imaginative stage but then it goes on to the proving stage, to the demonstrating stage.

      BBC Radio 4: The Edge foundation, and the website, makes this statement that great minds can guess the proof before they have evidence or arguments for it. But is it only great minds? Don't most people function on a series of things they believe to be true, but never even seek to prove.

      Richard Dawkins: Well, they do; you've got to be very careful about that because a lot of people really do simply assume things to be true, without really having any evidence, and that can be very dangerous. So, these intuitive feelings always should be followed up by an attempt to gather evidence. We should never go to war, we should never take drastic action on the basis of what we just, as a matter of faith, believe.

      BBC Radio 4: One of our listeners, Adam, has sent us the following this morning; I wonder whether you could cast your big brain over it. He says, "I believe there is no such thing as time, even though we experience progression; in fact it is because there is no time that we can experience progression, and this includes acceleration and travel".

      Richard Dawkins: Well that's fascinating. One of the contributors, I forget which, did actually say something rather similar and I think it's also the thesis of the physicist Ian Barbour in his rather stimulating book on the subject of time. This is a subject for a physicist to answer, rather than me. I guess that your correspondent probably is a physicist, actually. I think that physicists do have a rather different view of time from the view that we in the common sense word have.

      BBC Radio 4: Another one comes from Margaret, who says, "I believe, but cannot prove that most of the viewing audience of Jerry Springer the Opera watched as a result of the protest and the protesters shot themselves in the foot." Would you agree?

      Richard Dawkins: [Laughs] Well, that's a nice opinion and I think I do agree with that, but that's not of the same type as one of these statements that are true although you can't prove it. That's an opinion.

      BBC Radio 4: Yes. It's just delightful to talk to you, Professor Dawkins; thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.

      We'd love to hear some more of your thoughts on this; what is it that you believe, but can't prove. Please send all of those to bh@bbc.co.uk.

      Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question. It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world. 

      Read the full article →

      La Stampa [8.10.05]

      Elsewhere, the debate has moved ahead. John Brockman has launched the idea of "the third culture", a creative interaction of Snow's two cultures. Its scientists, are, in reality "The New Humanists": the cosmologist Alan Guth has rewritten the history of the first moments of the universe; the psychologist Steven Pinker brings to light the biological basis of the human mind; the computer science Jordan Pollack suggests an analogy between the very complex software and living organisms; the mathematician Mandelbrot, with his fractal geometry, interprets phenomena that range from financial markets to the distribution of galaxies. The future of the culture, Brockman says to us, lies in an increased knowledge at the intersection between the frontiers of the scientific disciplines. Filippo Burzio would have agreed with him.

      The Sydney Morning Herald [7.31.05]

       

      We all have hunches, beliefs we can barely explain, or even simply hopes or dreams that some might think of as crazy, or scoff at as irrational, or unproven. But that's just the point of hunches, isn't it? Sometimes we're even right. Diderot called the gift of those who guess the truth before being able to prove it the "esprit de divination".


      Which is why the latest "grand question" posed by the publisher of the scientific website edge.org, John Brockman, to 120 scientists and thinkers, is so wonderful: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"


      The answers, which spill to 60,000 words and were published this week, provide a fascinating insight into conjecture - and the power of imagination. Even the empirically driven, it seems, have their own leaps of faith.


      Many scientists and researchers believe in the unseen and the unknown - in true love, the power of a child's mind, in the existence of aliens.


      Joseph LeDoux, a New York neuroscientist, said the question was easy: "I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it." Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychologist, wrote: "I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are."

       

      The unproven belief of the Sydney physicist Paul Davies was that the universe is "teeming with life": "I make this sweeping claim because life has produced mind, and through mind beings who do not merely observe the universe, but have come to understand it through science, mathematics and reasoning. This is hardly an insignificant embellishment on the cosmic drama, but a stunning and unexpected bonus. Somehow life is able to link up with the basic workings of the cosmos, resonating with the hidden mathematical order that makes it tick. And that's a quirk too far for me."


      My favourite answer came from David Buss, a psychologist from the University of Texas, who has spent two decades studying human mating. He has documented "phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery". He has studied "mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers". But, he wrote, "Throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.


      "While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well travelled and their markers are well understood by many - the mesmerising attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. ... It's difficult to define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love exists."


      Curious, isn't it, that the most important things in life can elude the abacus, the microscope, the hard drive, emboldening and frustrating the empirically driven. But we know they exist.


      In his introduction, Brockman wrote that the answers were "a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty". We are in an age of "searchculture", he wrote, where Google and other search engines are leading us towards both correct answers and a naive sense of certainty: "In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it? This is an alternative path. It may be that it's OK not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis."


      I'm not sure why that is such a comforting thought in January 2005, when we are stomaching a planet not just of terrorism, war and a wilting environment, but a tsunami that swallowed villages, islands and hearts whole. The world, both natural and man-made, seems brutal and nonsensical. It's hard to sustain belief in much (except, paradoxically, in that which sustains us) and this week - particularly since the thoughtless and ill-timed comments of Phillip Jensen, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, that "disasters of this world are part of God's warning that judgement is coming" - there has been chest-beating worldwide about how God could allow such devastation to occur, and how the deaths of 155,000 people can possibly make sense.


      What is curious is how the incomprehensibility and uncertainty push people not away from, but towards, faith. And how many more have shadowed church doors since September 11, 2001, and Bali, and now the tsunami.


      G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the difference between the poet and the mathematician was that the poet merely tried to get his head into the clouds while the mathematician tried to get the clouds into his head - and it was his head that split. A theology of conflict, which assumes to know the the mind of God, at a time of immense suffering, seems to me to be a split head.


      All we can continue to do is defiantly believe - whether it is that animals have feelings, infants have souls, love can last forever, miracles occur, God is love. That the true expression of the face of God in the midst of horror is to stubbornly, and consistently, care for each other.

      The Sydney Morning Herald [7.31.05]

      We all have hunches, beliefs we can barely explain, or even simply hopes or dreams that some might think of as crazy, or scoff at as irrational, or unproven. But that's just the point of hunches, isn't it? Sometimes we're even right. Diderot called the gift of those who guess the truth before being able to prove it the "esprit de divination".

      Which is why the latest "grand question" posed by the publisher of the scientific website edge.org, John Brockman, to 120 scientists and thinkers, is so wonderful: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

      The answers, which spill to 60,000 words and were published this week, provide a fascinating insight into conjecture - and the power of imagination. Even the empirically driven, it seems, have their own leaps of faith.

      Many scientists and researchers believe in the unseen and the unknown - in true love, the power of a child's mind, in the existence of aliens.

      Joseph LeDoux, a New York neuroscientist, said the question was easy: "I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it." Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychologist, wrote: "I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are."

       

      The unproven belief of the Sydney physicist Paul Davies was that the universe is "teeming with life": "I make this sweeping claim because life has produced mind, and through mind beings who do not merely observe the universe, but have come to understand it through science, mathematics and reasoning. This is hardly an insignificant embellishment on the cosmic drama, but a stunning and unexpected bonus. Somehow life is able to link up with the basic workings of the cosmos, resonating with the hidden mathematical order that makes it tick. And that's a quirk too far for me."

      My favourite answer came from David Buss, a psychologist from the University of Texas, who has spent two decades studying human mating. He has documented "phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery". He has studied "mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers". But, he wrote, "Throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

      "While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well travelled and their markers are well understood by many - the mesmerising attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. ... It's difficult to define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love exists."

      Curious, isn't it, that the most important things in life can elude the abacus, the microscope, the hard drive, emboldening and frustrating the empirically driven. But we know they exist.

      In his introduction, Brockman wrote that the answers were "a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty". We are in an age of "searchculture", he wrote, where Google and other search engines are leading us towards both correct answers and a naive sense of certainty: "In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it? This is an alternative path. It may be that it's OK not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis."

      I'm not sure why that is such a comforting thought in January 2005, when we are stomaching a planet not just of terrorism, war and a wilting environment, but a tsunami that swallowed villages, islands and hearts whole. The world, both natural and man-made, seems brutal and nonsensical. It's hard to sustain belief in much (except, paradoxically, in that which sustains us) and this week - particularly since the thoughtless and ill-timed comments of Phillip Jensen, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, that "disasters of this world are part of God's warning that judgement is coming" - there has been chest-beating worldwide about how God could allow such devastation to occur, and how the deaths of 155,000 people can possibly make sense.

      What is curious is how the incomprehensibility and uncertainty push people not away from, but towards, faith. And how many more have shadowed church doors since September 11, 2001, and Bali, and now the tsunami.

      G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the difference between the poet and the mathematician was that the poet merely tried to get his head into the clouds while the mathematician tried to get the clouds into his head - and it was his head that split. A theology of conflict, which assumes to know the the mind of God, at a time of immense suffering, seems to me to be a split head.

      All we can continue to do is defiantly believe - whether it is that animals have feelings, infants have souls, love can last forever, miracles occur, God is love. That the true expression of the face of God in the midst of horror is to stubbornly, and consistently, care for each other.

      The Guardian [6.30.05]

      To celebrate the new year, online magazine Edge asked some leading thinkers a simple question: What do you believe but cannot prove? Here is a selection of their responses...

      The Guardian [6.30.05]

      Faith v fact

      To celebrate the new year, online magazine Edge asked some leading thinkers a simple question: What do you believe but cannot prove? Here is a selection of their responses

      Ian McEwan, novelist 

      What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. I suspect that many will take this premise as a given - true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.

      Richard Dawkins, biologist 

      I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all "design" anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

      Simon Baron-Cohen, psychologist 

      I believe that the cause of autism will turn out to be assortative mating of two hyper-systemisers. I believe this because we already have three pieces of the jigsaw: (1) that fathers of children with autism are more likely to work in the field of engineering (compared to fathers of children without autism); (2) that grandfathers of children with autism - on both sides of the family - were also more likely to work in the field of engineering (compared to grandfathers of children without autism); and (3) that both mothers and fathers of children with autism are super-fast at the embedded figures test, a task requiring analysis of patterns and rules. (Note that engineering is a chosen example because it involves strong systemising. But other related scientific and technical fields would have been equally good examples to study.)

      We have had these three pieces of the jigsaw since 1997, published in the scientific literature. They do not yet prove the assortative mating theory. They simply point to it being highly likely. Direct tests of the theory are still needed. I will be the first to give up this idea if it is proven wrong, since I'm not in the business of holding on to wrong ideas. But I won't give up the idea simply because it will be unpopular to certain groups (such as those who want to believe that the cause of autism is purely environmental).

      Martin Rees, astronomer royal 

      I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth, but that, even so, it has the potential to spread through the galaxy and beyond. If searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence fail, that would not render life a cosmic sideshow. Indeed, it would be a boost to our cosmic self-esteem: terrestrial life, and its fate, would become a matter of cosmic significance. Even if intelligence is now unique to Earth, there's enough time lying ahead for it to spread through the entire galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive.

      There's an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6bn years, watching the sun flare up and die. But the forms of life and intelligence that have by then emerged would surely be as different from us as we are from a bacterium. That conclusion would follow even if future evolution proceeded at the rate at which new species have emerged over the 3 or 4bn years of the geological past. But post-human evolution (whether of organic species or of artefacts) will proceed far faster than the changes that led to emergence, because it will be intelligently directed rather than being - like pre-human evolution - the gradual outcome of Darwinian natural selection. Changes will drastically accelerate in the present century - through intentional genetic modifications, targeted drugs, perhaps even silicon implants in to the brain. Humanity may not persist as a single species for more than a few centuries - especially if communities have by then become established away from Earth.

      But a few centuries is still just a millionth of the sun's future lifetime - and the entire universe probably has a longer future still. The remote future is squarely in the realm of science fiction. Advanced intelligences billions of years hence might even create new universes. Perhaps they will be able to choose what physical laws prevail in their creations. Perhaps these beings could achieve the computational capability to simulate a universe as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in.

      My belief may remain unprovable for billions of years. It could be falsified sooner - for instance, we (or our immediate post-human descendants) may develop theories that reveal inherent limits to complexity. But it's a substitute for religious belief, and I hope it's true.

      Jared Diamond, biologist and geographer 

      I'm convinced, but can't yet prove, that humans first reached the continents of North America, South America and Australia only very recently, at or near the end of the last Ice Age. Specifically, I'm convinced that they reached North America around 14,000 years ago, South America around 13,500 years ago, and Australia and New Guinea around 46,000 years ago; and that humans were then responsible for the extinctions of most of the big animals of those continents within a few centuries of those dates; and that scientists will accept this conclusion sooner and less reluctantly for Australia and New Guinea than for North and South America.

      Alison Gopnik, psychologist 

      I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.

      This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our species relies more on learning than any other, and has a longer childhood than any other. Human childhood is a protected period in which we are free to learn without being forced to act. There is even some neurological evidence for this. Young children actually have substantially more neural connections than adults - more potential to put different kinds of information together. With experience, some connections are strengthened and many others disappear entirely. As the neuroscientists say, we gain conductive efficiency but lose plasticity.

      What does this have to do with consciousness? Consider the experiences we adults associate with these two kinds of functions. When we know how to do something really well and efficiently, we typically lose, or at least reduce, our conscious awareness of that action. We literally don't see the familiar houses and streets on the well-worn route home, although, of course, in some functional sense we must be visually taking them in. In contrast, as adults when we are faced with the unfamiliar, when we fall in love with someone new, or when we travel to a new place, our consciousness of what is around us and inside us suddenly becomes far more vivid and intense. In fact, we are willing to expend lots of money, and lots of emotional energy, for those few intensely alive days in Paris or Beijing that we will remember long after months of everyday life have vanished.

      I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris.

      Alun Anderson, editor in chief, New Scientist 

      I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts such as bees and butterflies.

      Cockroaches, like the owners of the New York apartments who detest them, suffer from stress and can die from it, even without injury. They are also hierarchical and know their little territories well. When they are running for it, think twice before crushing out another world.

      © Edge. www.edge.org

      Singolare inchiesta in usa di un sito internet. Ha chiesto ai signori della ricerca di svelare i loro "atti di fede". Sono arrivate le risposte piu' imprevedibili i fantasmi dello scienziato: non ho prove ma ci credo.
      La Stampa [5.31.05]

      E' il caso del cosmologo Martin Rees di Cambridge. E' convinto che la vita intelligente esista solo sulla Terra, ma che, in un futuro indeterminato, si espandera' in tutta la galassia. La mancanza della prova fa spuntare teorie originalissime, come quella della matematica Verena Huber-Dyson, che sostiene il ""potere creativo della noia"". Judith Rich Harris, psicologa dello sviluppo, e' persuasa che sono tre, e non due, i processi di selezione relativi all'evoluzione umana. I primi due sono noti: la selezione naturale, che si basa sulla capacita' di adattamento; e la selezione sessuale, sulla capacita' di riprodursi. Harris aggiunge un fattore inaspettato: la bellezza. Che aiuterebbe la sopravvivenza, specie nei primi giorni di esistenza di un bambino.

      Read the full article →

      Hoy la cultura es la ciencia, los intelectuales de letras están desfasados
      Lavanguardia [5.11.05]

      En 1959 el científico y novelista C. P. Snow publicó el libro Las dos culturas:de un lado, estaban los intelectuales de letras; de otro, los de ciencias. Snow lamentaba que, en los treinta, los primeros se habían apropiado de la palabra intelectual y sugería que una tercera cultura emergería y llenaría el vacío de comunicación entre los intelectuales de letras y los científicos.

      Hacia principios de los años noventa, John Brockman (Boston, 1941), que en los sesenta ya había sido una curiosa mezcla entre artista y promotor del panorama multimedia de la época, y que desde los ochenta ejercía como agente literario, lanzó un manifiesto por la Tercera Cultura, aunque con un concepto diferente al de Snow: "La tercera cultura reúne a aquellos científicos y pensadores empíricos que, a través de su obra y su producción literaria, están ocupando el lugar del intelectual clásico a la hora de poner de manifiesto el sentido más profundo de nuestra vida, replanteándose quiénes y qué somos".

      El sábado, Brockman participó en un encuentro sobre la Tercera Cultura en el marco del festival Kosmopolis en el CCCB. La Vanguardia habló con él antes del debate.

      CIENCIA Y CONDICIÓN. La ciencia se ha convertido en manos de Brockman en un ramillete de best sellers a cargo de las primeras cabezas de cada área, en el bien entendido de que "los pensadores de la tercera cultura son los nuevos intelectuales públicos" y de que "la ciencia es la única noticia hoy. Y para la gente es muy importante. Tener un presidente progresista es importante, pero nadie votó la electricidad, internet, las pastillas anticonceptivas o el fuego. Las grandes invenciones que lo cambian todo, la tecnología, están basadas en la ciencia". "Y es importante participar en sus preguntas - explica- porque hoy la cultura es la ciencia. Por primera vez la biología de la mente puede estudiar humanos y obtener conclusiones en las que podemos confiar, algo diferente a las ciencias sociales o a la aproximación psicológica", enfatiza.

      La Tercera Cultura "trata de que todos se puedan comunicar, de que no escriban sus ideas en revistas minoritarias a las que no tienen acceso los demás, y de que se cree "una gran conversación" entre todos.

      LO QUE VIENE.

      Entre las ideas que llegarán más tarde o más temprano por aquí, destaca las del libro Your inner fish (Tu pez interior) ,aún no publicado, de Neil Shubin, un paleontólogo de Chicago que cree que no necesitamos explorar el desierto de Gobi para saber de dónde venimos: nuestro interior guarda, según él, en los huesos, genes y órganos, una rama entera del árbol de la vida. Para Brockman, los intelectuales de letras de toda la vida están desfasados, siguen manteniendo las mismas batallas que cuando él era joven. Sólo hay una diferencia: "Están cada vez más marginados". Por el contrario, John Brockman se enorgullece de haber pasado de libros científicos en editoriales universitarias a best sellers, porque "la gente necesita conocer".

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      El pais [5.11.05]

      El compositor John Cage se inclinó desde el otro lado de la mesa y me entregó una copia deCybernetics, de Norbert Wiener. Era 1966. Estábamos en una cena semanal de jóvenes artistas en casa del pionero del grupo Fluxus, Dick Higgins. Cage solía preparar la comida -un plato de champiñones- y debatíamos sus últimas ideas. Me habían invitado a conocer a Cage por mi trabajo en el Expanded Cinema Festival de la Film-maker's Cinematheque de Nueva York, un programa de actuaciones a finales de 1965 presentadas por artistas, bailarines, poetas, cineastas e intérpretes de happenings, en las que el hilo conductor era la incorporación del cine en su trabajo.

      El pintor Robert Rauschenberg montó un collage cinético, una versión viviente de sus famosas piezas artísticas de la década de 1960. El escultor Claes Oldenburg presentó un proyector de cine de curioso diseño que parecía una esfinge. El videoartista Nam June Paik, subido en una escalera detrás de una gran pantalla opaca durante horas, fue cortando lentamente un cuadrado que le iba dejando al descubierto ante el público. Yo estaba sentado junto a Joan Miró, que se encontraba en la ciudad por una cena en su honor aquella noche en el Museo de Arte Moderno. A pesar de los ruegos del director del museo, no hubo quien moviese a Miró y se quedó durante toda la actuación.

      Fue durante ese periodo cuando por primera vez tuve conocimiento de la ciencia. Los artistas, a diferencia de sus homólogos literarios, sentían un ávido interés por los científicos, y les leían. Empecé a leer a los físicos Jeans, Eddington, Einstein y poetas como Wallace Stevens, que manifestaban una profunda comprensión de las ideas científicas. Recibí una invitación para conocer a Marshall McLuhan. Recuerdo que hablamos mucho sobre su tema de que el arte puede servir como faro: un distante y temprano sistema de aviso que puede decir a la vieja cultura lo qué está empezando a ocurrir, interpretar lo que los científicos están haciendo. El valor no estaba en la explicación o en la popularización de la ciencia; más bien residía en la descripción, en hacer visibles las preguntas que formulaban los científicos.

      En la primavera de 1966 organicé el que quizá fuera el primer encuentro entre arte y ciencia, cuando A. K. Soloman, presidente del departamento de Biofísica de Harvard, me pidió que llevara a un grupo de artistas, que habían sido colegas de Wiener, fallecido en 1964, a Cambridge para reunirlos con científicos de Harvard y del Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Entre los participantes estaban Walter Rosenblith, Anthony Oettinger y Harold Edgerton. Conservo dos vivos recuerdos del acontecimiento. Primero, que la reunión fue un completo desastre, ya que artistas y científicos tenían pocos puntos en común sobre los que mantener un debate. Segundo, nos condujeron a un edificio en el que nos vimos enfrentados a un recinto elevado unos 30 centímetros, detrás del cual había científicos y técnicos con bata y guantes blancos. Iban de acá para allá con el ordenador. En ese preciso momento supe adónde me encaminaba.

      En 1992, en un ensayo titulado The Emerging third culture, expuse el siguiente argumento: "La tercera cultura consiste en aquellos científicos y otros pensadores del mundo empírico que, a través de su trabajo y de sus escritos expositivos, ocupan el lugar de los intelectuales tradicionales al hacer visibles los significados más profundos de nuestra vida y redefinir quién y qué somos. Durante los últimos años, el terreno de juego de la vida intelectual estadounidense ha cambiado, y los intelectuales tradicionales han quedado cada vez más marginados. Una educación de la década de 1950 en Freud, Marx y el modernismo no es una cualificación suficiente para un pensador de la de 1990. De hecho, los intelectuales estadounidenses tradicionales son, en cierto sentido, cada vez más reaccionarios, y orgullosamente (y perversamente) ajenos a muchos de los logros intelectuales verdaderamente importantes de nuestro tiempo. Su cultura, que desdeña la ciencia, a menudo no es empírica. Utiliza su propia jerga y lava sus propios trapos sucios. Se caracteriza fundamentalmente por el comentario sobre comentarios, la fuerte espiral de observaciones que acaba llegando a un punto en el que se pierde el mundo real".

      Actualmente, esa cultura fósil sigue en declive, sustituida por la incipiente "tercera cultura" del título del ensayo, una referencia a la celebrada división que planteó C. P. Snow del mundo del pensamiento en dos culturas: la del intelectual literario y la del científico. Lo que presenciamos en 1992 fue la entrega del testigo de un grupo de pensadores, los intelectuales literarios tradicionales, a un nuevo grupo, los intelectuales de la nueva tercera cultura. Desde entonces, lo que tradicionalmente se había denominado "ciencia" se ha convertido en "cultura pública". Como ha señalado Stewart Brand: "La ciencia es la única noticia".

      Hoy tenemos nuevas y radicales formas de entender los sistemas físicos, y de pensar en el pensamiento que ponen en duda muchas de nuestras suposiciones básicas. Una biología realista de la mente, los avances en la física, la tecnología de la información, la neurobiología y la química de los materiales cuestionan supuestos básicos sobre lo que significa ser humano. Por primera vez, tenemos las herramientas y la voluntad para emprender el estudio científico de la naturaleza humana. Algo nuevo flota en el aire: nuevas formas de comprender los sistemas físicos, nuevos intereses que nos llevan a cuestionar muchos de nuestros fundamentos. Una biología realista de la mente, los avances en la física, la tecnología de la información, la genética, la neurobiología, la ingeniería, la química de los materiales: todas son cuestiones de importancia capital con respecto a lo que representa ser humano.

      En 2005, la tercera cultura está viva y en buen estado, e impulsa el reconocimiento de esta evolución. Pueden encontrarse pruebas de ello. En el mercado, la gente vota con la cartera. Los libros de Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene, Stephen Pinker, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees y E. O. Wilson no sólo son lecturas indispensables, sino también grandes ventas. En lo relativo a la ciencia, la tercera cultura es de alto relieve: el genetista J. Craig Venter intenta crear genes sintéticos como respuesta a nuestras necesidades energéticas; el biólogo Robert Trivers explora la base evolutiva del engaño y el autoengaño en la naturaleza humana; el biólogo Ian Wilmut, que clonó a la oveja Dolly, utiliza la transferencia nuclear para producir células madre embrionarias para investigar; el cosmólogo Lee investiga la evolución darwiniana del universo; el físico cuántico Seth Lloyd intenta crear ordenadores cuánticos; el psicólogo D. Hauser examina nuestra moralidad, y los informáticos Sergey Brin y Larry Page, de Google, alteran tanto el modo en que buscamos información como nuestra forma de pensar.

      La tercera cultura es un concepto con mentalidad científica; no es propiedad de nadie. Otros parten de estos fundamentos y aplican su propia visión. Éste ha sido el caso de Kosmopolis, el Festival Internacional de Literatura de Barcelona, que ayer se clausuró, en el que la ciencia se sentó a la mesa con Marc D. Hauser, Lee Smolin y Robert Trivers, que presentaron sus ideas como parte de un programa global "que va desde la luz duradera de Cervantes a la (ambigua) crisis del formato libro, desde un trazado literario del barrio barcelonés del Raval hasta el dilema planteado por la influencia de Internet en la cocina de la escritura, y desde la aparición de un nuevo humanismo de la tercera cultura hasta las prácticas que sitúan a la literatura en el centro de la creatividad".

      Está naciendo de la tercera cultura una nueva filosofía natural, cimentada en la comprensión de la importancia de la complejidad, de la evolución. Los sistemas muy complejos -ya sean organismos, cerebros, la biosfera o el propio universo- no se construyeron siguiendo un diseño; todos han evolucionado. Existe una nueva serie de metáforas para describirnos, a nuestra mente, al universo y a todas las cosas que conocemos, y son los intelectuales con estas nuevas ideas e imágenes los que impulsan nuestros tiempos.

       

      John Brockman es editor y director de Edge (www.edge.org), página web en la que los pensadores, líderes de lo que ha bautizado como tercera cultura, exploran la ciencia de vanguardia.

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