Thoughts from the Edge of science.

dangersign.jpg Credit: Paul van Bueren

 

It seems our mind is on our mind.

At least, that’s one of the take-home messages gleaned from the responses to 2006’s Edge annual question: “What is your dangerous idea?”

Each year since 1998, third culture proponent John Brockman—founder of the Edge Foundation, Inc., a non-profit that supports and promotes intellectual inquiry, as well as its website, Edge.org—has queried scientists, thinkers and artists, probing the zeitgeist of contemporary thought. This year’s question inspired 75,000 words of stimulating, provocative and sometimes surprising answers.

As Haim Harari, physicist and former president of the Weizman Institute for Science, wrote in his essay, “When, in the past two years, Edge asked for brilliant ideas you believe in but cannot prove, or for proposing new, exciting laws, most answers related to science and technology.” But this year, few of the dangerous ideas shared online at www.edge.org addressed science alone. This year’s answers are more personal with most essayists choosing to ponder the place that mankind inhabits in a grander scheme. Their responses focused on issues of human consciousness, human behavior and humanity’s future.

Many respondents deemed a notion dangerous because it can shake-up the status quo by changing our world view, our behavior or our culture. This common theme makes the essays a conversation of sorts, the collection akin to a cafeteria packed with brilliant luminaries exchanging views over a cup of coffee. To read the essays is to eavesdrop on leading minds, from an array of different fields, grappling with issues of consequence.

The discussions are wide ranging: In one corner, cognitive scientists and psychologists argued over the meaning and manifestation of reality: “Is my idea of what constitutes a spoon the same as yours?” asked Donald Hoffman of the University of California Irvine. What about something more abstract, like a headache? Elsewhere, participants swapped predictions about what humankind will achieve in the future. George Dyson, a science historian, predicted we will reach a complete understanding of molecular biology and molecular evolution, without ever discovering the origins of life, while Ray Kurzweil, inventor and technologist, hypothesized that we will soon have a radically improved ability to extend human life.

Many of the dangerous ideas concerned the human brain, yet there was little agreement about the true nature of the brain or human self-awareness.

V. S. Ramachandran’s dangerous idea is that the self may be nothing but the activity of a billion neurons—our likes, dislikes, fears and dreams being nothing more than byproducts of neural activity. John Allen Paulos, a mathematician, described the self as nothing more than a transient amalgamation of ideas, while psychologist Gary Marcus put forth the notion that the brain is a machine, only responsible for computing and communicating.

Jason Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, illustrated the plasticity of the brain and its ability to adjust to new stimuli—new ideas, new environments, even new bodies. He observed that, in virtual space, people could learn to manipulate bodies unlike their own. For instance, with little practice, one can learn to control the trio of small arms along each side of a virtual lobster. Lanier is hopeful that the flexibility of the human mind will enable us to embrace new ideas in the future.

“The more flexible the human brain turns out to be when it comes to adapting to weirdness,” Lanier wrote, “the weirder a ride it will be able to keep up with as technology changes in the coming decades and centuries.”

Karl Sabbagh, writer and television producer, was less convinced of the brain’s limitless versatility, claiming that, “Our brains may never be well-enough equipped to understand the universe, and we are fooling ourselves if we think they will.” 

Given the depth and scope of the answers to Edge’s question, it seems unlikely that Sabbagh’s cynical slant is entirely correct. While we may never approach perfect understanding, we continue to make strides by questioning accepted theories and struggling to make sense of our universe. 

The Edge annual question gives us an opportunity to check in with some of the world’s finest thinkers. This sort of intellectual dialogue creates a framework for exploration and for the communication of new thought experiments.

John Brockman, himself, spells out the value of the yearly survey in his introduction: “There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.”

Originally published January 12, 2006

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