Edge 189 — July 31, 2006
(3,450 words)



Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.

Spinoza's dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

REASONABLE DOUBT
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

[continue...]


news


July 30, 2006
SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
[lead review]


Laws of nature
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin sparked a scientific revolution. Now that revolution has become a culture war. But does the concept of "intelligent design" have validity as an alternative to evolution? Three new books look beyond the rhetoric
.

By Robert Lee Hotz

"A teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth."

Intelligent Thought
Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement

Edited by John Brockman

...Indeed, the effort to inject intelligent design into science classrooms is an attempt to narrow the common ground of a secular society, writes science publishing impresario John Brockman, who commissioned a collection of essays called Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. "[R]eligious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of 'intelligent design,' by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long."

In Intelligent Thought, Brockman persuaded 16 distinguished scientists to address the controversy from the pulpit of their technical expertise. The assembled are knowledgeable, humane and deeply passionate about science as a way of knowing the world around us. The result is a teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth ...


Why Darwin Matters
The Case Against Intelligent Design

Michael Shermer

...None writes so fiercely in defense of evolution as Shermer, a Scientific American columnist and founder and director of the Skeptics Society. With the sustained indignation of a former creationist, Shermer is savage about the shortcomings of intelligent design and eloquent about the spirituality of science. In "Why Darwin Matters," he has assembled an invaluable primer for anyone caught up in an argument with a well-intentioned intelligent design advocate.
...

[...continue]



Saturday July 29, 2006

A life in science
The human factor

After 40 years of studying the problem of consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey believes it was natural selection that gave us souls. God, he insists, had nothing to do with it

Andrew Brown

The distance between a neurone and a human mind seems very great, and to many philosophers and scientists quite impossible for science to cross. Even if minds are made from brains, and brains are made from billions of neurones, there seems no way to get from one sort of thing to the other.

Nicholas Humphrey's whole life as a scientist has been spent on that journey: in the 1960s he was part of the first team to discover how to record the activity of single neurones in a monkey's visual cortex; nearly 40 years later, he has reached a grand theory of how consciousness might have arisen in a Darwinian world, and why it might give us reasons to live.

[...continue]



Books and Arts
Nature 442, 355-356(27 July 2006) |
text | pdf [subscription]

DESIGN FLAWS

John Tyler Bonner reviews Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement edited by John Brockman


Editor's Summary
27 July 2006

For the defence

In his book Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement, John Brockman marshals the case for evolutionary science against its 'ID' detractors.

Contributors include Richard Dawkins, saying among other things that "The supernatural explanation fails to explain because it ducks the responsibility to explain itself". And Steven Pinker: "An evolutionary understanding of the human condition, far from being incompatible with a moral sense, can explain why we have one." This book should draw the fire of the ID web sites for a while


Design flaws
John Tyler Bonner
Destroying the argument that intelligent design has a scientific basis.

John Brockman's edited volume Intelligent Thought is largely a series of essays by scientists that make clear, often eloquently, how untenable the scientific basis of intelligent design really is.
...

If intelligent design has anything to say in its favour, it is that it spawned this book. Many of the essays are fascinating and fun to read, and tell us something new.

Intelligent Thought is a book for scientists; that is, for those who see evolutionary biology as a science. If you are a creationist you will be unmoved; there is no point in looking at the evidence.

[...text | pdf]



July 24, 2006

New work evaluates, celebrates Albert Einstein
By Ron Wynn, [email protected]

The new book My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-Four of the World’s Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy (Pantheon) attempts the difficult task of putting a totally unique figure from a highly specialized world into some type of recognizable, easily discerned perspective. Editor John Brockman and his staff mostly succeed in making their arguments cogent, analysis straightforward and assessments presented in a fashion that won’t embarrass or anger those scientifically literate, but will also hold the attention of readers that normally avoid books containing discussions about quantum physics and relativity

My Einstein doesn’t oversimplify nor unnecessarily complicate its views, opinions and feelings regarding Einstein’s impact and life. But it does offer those of us in the non-scientific community a means for better understanding and appreciating both his incomparable intellect and the practical effect of his contributions.

[...continue]



Sunday, July 23, 2006
Editor's Choice
By Jeff Simon

"Irresistible"

My Einstein: Essays by 24 of the World's Leading Thinkers, edited by John Brockman (Pantheon, 261 pages, $25). Now that jokes about Einstein's appeal to the opposite sex have become Letterman monologue staples (as if it were news that genius might not preclude other more sanguine enthusiasms) we can see that in the year following the centennial of his most ground-breaking work, Albert Einstein's remains our culture's folk paradigm of genius. (Newton, his predecessor was, by comparison, magnificently eloquent but pugnacious and almost no fun at all — a prig who needed falling apples to humanize him.)

These essays are irresistible ... the charm of the book is that its often star-struck writers so freely wanted to be connected to entirely non-theoretical humanity, their own and Einstein's.

[...continue]



July 22, 2006

"Strangely addictive."

PICK OF THE PAPERBACKS
By Michael Bhaskar

What We Believe But Cannot Prove
ed by John Brockman (Pocket Books, pounds 7.99)

Scientists occasionally give the impression that belief is something best left to other people. Scientists know, and, what's more, they can prove it. In this refreshing anthology, a litany of heavyweight names abandon any such pretence and let rip with startling speculations on everything from the size of the universe to the consciousness of cockroaches.

Deftly introduced by Ian McEwan, we find Richard Dawkins musing on a universal principle of evolution, Martin Rees postulating the existence of aliens, and Jared Diamond discussing when humans first arrived in the Americas. By unleashing scientists from the rigours of established method, we gain fascinating glimpses into the future of arcane disciplines few fully understand. Even if there is considerable overlap in several of the entries, there is a strangely addictive quality to the clipped essay format.



[7.16.06]

Relatively Fascinating: The Radicalism of Albert Einstein

He was a sexy flirt. He admitted to having difficulties with mathematics. He was only 12 when he decided that "the stories of the Bible could not be true and became a fanatical freethinker." His theory of relativity, which changed the way we view the world, "came from thinking about what it would be like to ride along on a beam of light." "The story goes that [he] liked to sleep ten hours a night — unless he was working very hard on an idea; then it was eleven."

All these observations appear in My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-four of the World's Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy, edited by John Brockman (Pantheon, $25), whose own devotion to "relative" thinking can be discerned in the title of his previous book, By the Late John Brockman . The essayists include Jeremy Bernstein, Gino C. Sergré and Maria Spiropulu, and the titles of their pieces range from the vaudevillian ("Einstein, Moe, and Joe") to the tantalizing ("The Greatest Discovery Einstein Didn't Make").

My Einstein delivers even more than its lengthy title promises.

— Dennis Drabelle

[...continue]



L'Espill 22 (2006)
"Something will snap in our heads"

L'Espill calls for the "Third Culture"


Humanities and the third culture
Francisco Fernández Buey

The contents of Catalan journal L'Espill, a new Eurozine partner, fulfil philosopher Fernández Buey's wish for a crossover between the sciences and the humanities – the project known as the "Third Culture". "Humanists need scientific culture to overcome reactionary attitudes based exclusively on literary tradition," writes Buey. "Nor is there any doubt that scientists need a humanist training [...] in order to overcome the old scientism that still tends to consider human progress as a simple derivative of scientific-technical progress."

..."If we want to do anything serious in favour of a rational and reasoned resolution of some of the great controversial socio-cultural and ethical-political issues in societies such as ours, in which the techno-scientific complex has got an essential weight, there is no doubt that humanists will need scientific culture to overcome reactive attitudes which are based exclusively on literary traditions. And we should add, as some of the great contemporary scientists used to do, that there is neither any doubt that scientists and technologists will need humanistic training (that is to say, historical-philosophical, methodological, literary, historical-artistic, and so on) in order to overcome the old scientism and its positivist roots, which still tends to consider human progress as a simple derivation of the scientific-technical progress. This is the real reason by which, in the last decades, and from different perspectives, sensitive scientists and engaged humanists are giving so much importance to the investigation of what could be a third culture."

[continued...]



Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.

Spinoza's dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

REASONABLE DOUBT
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Introduction

History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: History of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the real world? One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; "social constructionist" literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of genetics and evolutionary biology.

In the seventeenth century, people not only believed in that constricted past but thought that history was near its end: The apocalypse was coming. A realization that time may well be endless leads us to a new view of the human species—as not being in any sense the culmination but perhaps a fairly early stage of the process of evolution. We arrive at this concept through detailed observation and analysis, through science-based thinking; it allows us to see life playing an ever greater role in the future of the universe.

There are encouraging signs that the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, they believe there is a real world and their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, conformity with empirical facts. They do not defer to intellectual authorities: Anyone's ideas can be challenged, and understanding and knowledge accumulate through such challenges. They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics—a whole panoply of humanist concerns—need to take the sciences into account.

As the Italian scholar Gloria Origgi, writes:

No matter what your attitude is towards science, no one in the humanities can ignore that something has changed in the way we think about a number of key oppositions such as: nature-nurture, rational-irrational, conscious-unconscious, individual-social, mind-body, digital-analogical, masculine-feminine, etc. To discuss such matters today, we have to overcome the Freudian-Lacanian-Foucaultian vulgata and take a look at what science has to tell us.

Enter Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a novelist trained as a philosopher, who is one of the leading science-based humanities scholars: intellectually eclectic, seeking ideas from a variety of sources and adopting the ones that prove their worth, rather than working within "systems" or "schools." Goldstein knows science, and easily communicates with scientists. Her novels, and her studies of nonfiction studies of Gödel and Spinoza, are excellent examples of science-based thinking by an enlightened humanities scholar.

And now, Rebecca Goldstein on Spinoza and the voice of reason.

JB

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Edge, in partnership with the Genoa Science Festival (Festival Della Scienza 2006), has organized a panel to explore the role of science-based humanities scholars in the evolution of the third culture. The panel, featuring Rebecca Goldstein and Gloria Origgi (and others, to be announced) will take place on Tuesday, October 31 at 3pm in Genoa. (Among the other Edgies in Genoa for this year's Festival are Sue Blackmore, Seth Lloyd, Steven Pinker, Robert Trivers, Lisa Randall, Dan Sperber, and Chris Stringer). Stay tuned for further information.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN is the author, most recently, of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. She is a Radcliffe Fellow, Harvard.

REBECCA GOLDSTEIN'S Edge Bio Page


REASONABLE DOUBT

[REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN:]
Thursday marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.

Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn't get a lot of attention. But it's one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza's life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator's partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition.

The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the "New Christians," as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe's first experiment in racialist ideology.

Spinoza's reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.

Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world's unfolding.Spinoza's system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.

Spinoza's faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.

Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.

It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.

Spinoza's attempt to deduce everything from first principles — that is, without reliance on empirical observation — can strike us today as quixotically impractical, and yet his project of radical rationality had concrete consequences. His writings, banned and condemned by greater Christian Europe, but continuously read and discussed, played a role in the audacious experiment in rational government that gave birth to this country.

The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza's contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza's ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke's library not only included all of Spinoza's important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned.

It's worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state's power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.

Locke's claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza's. He was firm in defending Christianity's revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza's universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson's view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza's collected works were also in Jefferson's library, so Spinoza's impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)

If we can hear Locke's influence in the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," (a variation on Adam Smith's Locke-inspired "life, liberty and pursuit of property"), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson's appeal to the "laws of nature and of nature's God." This is the language of Spinoza's universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.

Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.

Spinoza's dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.

[Editor's Note: First published as an Op-Ed Page article in The New York Times on Saturday, July 29th]


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2006 By
Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

|Top|