Edge 223 —September 19, 2007
(21,500 words)

Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Paul Steinhardt

Walter Isaacson, Brian Greene, Paul Steinhardt

BRIAN GREENE: Naturally, scientists quite generally and string theorists in particular  often describe their work without giving all of the associated qualifications all of the time. I, for example,have spoken of string theory as a possible final theory, as the possible theory that would unite all forces and all matter in one consistent framework—and I generally try to say—but perhaps not always—that this is not yet a proven theory; this is our hope for what it will achieve. We aren’t certain  that this is where it is going to lead. We just need to explore and see where we land.

PAUL STEINHARDT: What angers people, I think, is the notion that the ultimate theory of physics might allow a googol possibilities. That is, even though everywhere we look in the universe has the same laws as far as we can see and seems remarkably smooth and uniform—more uniform than we needed for human existence—somehow we are supposed to believe that the greater universe that we can't ever see is completely different. I think many people wonder whether a theory like that is science, or metaphysics?

WALTER ISAACSON: That's exactly it: we were talking about why it is that it arouses such passion and then started directly debating string theory. I'd love to take it right back to Einstein—twice you said  something that I find very interesting, which is, we have to find a way to make his two grand pillars of 20th century physics compatible, general relativity and quantum theory. Of course Einstein totally would believe that, because he loved unification, he loved unity. Secondly he and Newton agreed on one big thing, which is that nature loves simplicity. But I've always wondered about the more metaphysical philosophical question: how do we know that God likes simplicity? How do we know he wants these things to be compatible? How do we know that quantum theory and relativity have to be reconcilable?


By Aubrey de Grey

So there you have it. We will almost certainly take centuries to reach the level of control over aging that we have over the aging of vintage cars—totally comprehensive, indefinite maintenance of full function—but because longevity escape velocity is not very fast, we will probably achieve something functionally equivalent within only a few decades from now, at the point where we have therapies giving middle-aged people 30 extra years of youthful life.

I think we can call that the fountain of youth, don't you?



Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Paul Steinhardt

By Aubrey de Grey


David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers
on "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion"

David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers


Can't find the words? Make 'em up
By Steven Pinker

Is 'Do Unto Others' Written Into Our Genes?

By Nicholas Wade

Lost in a Million-Year Gap, Solid Clues to Human Origins
By John Noble Wilford

Holding back the years
By Tom Templeton

Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?
By George Johnson

Eggheads: How bird brains are shaking up science
By Jonah Lehrer

Mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers
By Max Tegmark

The Greatest Dying
By Jerry Coyne & Hopi E. Hoekstra

Google Backs $25 Million ‘Lunar X Prize’
By John Schwartz

An interview with Alex, the African grey parrot

The Book of Life
By Riz Kahn


Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Paul Steinhardt

BRIAN GREENE: Naturally, scientists quite generally and string theorists in particular  often describe their work without giving all of the associated qualifications all of the time. I, for example,have spoken of string theory as a possible final theory, as the possible theory that would unite all forces and all matter in one consistent framework—and I generally try to say—but perhaps not always—that this is not yet a proven theory; this is our hope for what it will achieve. We aren’t certain  that this is where it is going to lead. We just need to explore and see where we land.

PAUL STEINHARDT: What angers people, I think, is the notion that the ultimate theory of physics might allow a googol possibilities. That is, even though everywhere we look in the universe has the same laws as far as we can see and seems remarkably smooth and uniform—more uniform than we needed for human existence—somehow we are supposed to believe that the greater universe that we can't ever see is completely different. I think many people wonder whether a theory like that is science, or metaphysics?

WALTER ISAACSON: That's exactly it: we were talking about why it is that it arouses such passion and then started directly debating string theory. I'd love to take it right back to Einstein—twice you said  something that I find very interesting, which is, we have to find a way to make his two grand pillars of 20th century physics compatible, general relativity and quantum theory. Of course Einstein totally would believe that, because he loved unification, he loved unity. Secondly he and Newton agreed on one big thing, which is that nature loves simplicity. But I've always wondered about the more metaphysical philosophical question: how do we know that God likes simplicity? How do we know he wants these things to be compatible? How do we know that quantum theory and relativity have to be reconcilable?

Walter Isaacson, Brian Greene, Paul Steinhardt


The coincidence last spring of Walter Isaacson's Einstein biography (Einstein: His Life and Universe) hitting the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, coupled with the publication of The Endless Universe: Beyond The Big Bang by Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University (coauthored with Neil Turok), created an interesting opportunity.

I invited Walter, Paul and Columbia University string theorist, best selling author and TV presenter, Brian Greene, to participate in an Edge symposium on Einstein. Walter, Paul, and Brian, showed up for the session in early June.

Last year, in My Einstein, a book of essays by twenty-four leading thinkers, I asked each of the contributors to share their thoughts on who is their Einstein. This led me to ask the same questions to the Edge symposium participants.

"That's a hard question and there are many answers I'd give," Brian said, "but I'd say my Einstein surrounded learning—not learning, really hearing—in junior high-school that there is this feature of time whereby if you're moving relative to somebody else time elapses at a different rate compared to the person who's stationary, and thinking to myself, that sounds completely nuts, I really want to understand what this is all about. And little by little finally learning what it actually means, and going on from there to try to push the story a little bit further."

Walter's response: "Einstein is obviously my father," he said, "who as an engineer loved science and instilled that in me, but also has a lot of Einstein's moral nature to him, and political morality to him. I remember every day growing up, his asking me questions and pushing me in a certain way. One of the things I've learned as a biographer, and the first thing you learn, is that as you write about your subject, it's all about Dad—for Ben Franklin it's all living up to his father in a certain way; even to Einstein, a bit— his father's an engineer. And then the second thing you learn is, even for the biographer, it's all about Dad, and that's why I wanted to write about Einstein—I shouldn't say my father's an Einstein, he's just an engineer in New Orleans, but that was his aspirational secular saint, and so I wrote the book and dedicated it to my father."

Paul had a similar response. "One of my earliest memories of childhood," he recounted, "was sitting on my father's knee and his telling me stories about scientists and discovery. He wasn't a scientist, he was a lawyer, but for some reason he used to tell me stories about scientists and different discoveries they made—I remember stories about Madame Curie and Einstein and others."

"From that very initial instance, what I wanted to do was be in a field where you got to make discoveries. The thing that always impressed me the more I learned about Einstein was his uncanny ability to take the wealth of phenomena that people were studying at the time, and pick out not only which were the important questions, but which were the important questions that were answerable. There are always lots of questions you'd like to answer, but knowing whether or not you have the technology, the mathematical technology and the right ideas to attack them at the time—that's a real talent. Einstein had the incredible talent to do that over and over and over again, ahead of any of his contemporaries. So, for me he's the ultimate discoverer. That is my Einstein."

Read on.


BRIAN GREENE is a professor of physics and of mathematics at Columbia University, is the author of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for an Ultimate Theory and The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. He is also the presenter of the three-part Nova program, The Elegant Universe, available on DVD.

WALTER ISAACSON, the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been the Chairman and CEO of CNN and the Managing Editor of Time magazine. A noted biographer, his books include Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Einstein: His Life and Universe.

PAUL STEINHARDT, a physicist, is the Albert Einstein Professor in Science and on the faculty of both the Departments of Physics and Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. He is the coauthor (with Neil Turok) of The Endless Universe: Beyond The Big Bang.

Brian Greene's Edge Bio Page
Walter Isaacson's Edge Bio Page
Paul Steinhardt's Edge Bio Page

Brian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Paul Steinhardt

BRIAN GREENE: When it comes to Albert Einstein, his contributions are of such incredible magnitude that to get inside his head, and even for a moment to get a feel for what it would be like to see the world with such clarity and such insight, would be amazing.

But if I was going to ask him one question, I would probably stick to one a little bit more down to earth, which is—he famously said that when it came to the general theory of relativity, in some sense he wasn't waiting for the data to show whether it was right or wrong; the theory was so beautiful that it just had to be right. And when the data came in and confirmed it, he claimed he wasn't even surprised, he in fact famously said that had the data turned out differently, he would have been sorry for the [dear lord?] because the theory was correct. That's how much faith he had in theory.

So the question I have is, we, many of us, are working on Einstein's legacy in a sense, which is trying to find the unified theory that he looked for such a long time and never found, and we've been pursuing an approach called super string theory for many years now. And it is a completely theoretical undertaking. It is completely mathematical. It has yet to make contact with experimental data. I would like to ask Einstein what he would think of this approach to unification. Does he see the same kind of beauty, the same kind of elegance, the same kind of powerful incisive ideas in this framework to give him the confidence that he had in the general theory of relativity?

It would be great to have a response from him in that regard, because we don't know when we're going to make contact with experimental data. I think most of us in the field absolutely will never have faith that this approach is right until we do make contact with data, but it would be great to have the insight of the master as to whether he feels that this smells right. That it is going in the right direction. Many of us think that it is, but it would be great to have his insight on that question as well.

WALTER ISAACSON:  I was going to ask him the same question that Brian asked him, but I'll extend it now a bit more. Einstein, in the final two decades of his life, and even the final two hours of his life, on his deathbed, is writing equations, very mathematical, trying to do the unified theory that will bring together the various forces of nature into a field theory approach.

Brian posed the question of whether or not Einstein would approve of this—and I really think he would, because if you look at the maybe 12 serious efforts he made towards a unified theory, they do have so much in common with the mathematics and the mathematical approach that is being done by super string theory, including looking at extra dimensions and using the mathematics that way, to try to find the elegant mathematical solution.

That would lead to the next question I have about Einstein, which is, in the first part of his career and, may I posit, the more successful part of his career, he didn't rely that much on mathematical formalism. Instead, in all of the 1905 papers and in the main thought experiments that set him on the way towards general relativity culminating in 1915, he had some physical insight. In fact, the people looking at his general theory of relativity call it the mathematical strategy and the physics strategy.

Obviously they're not totally separate, in their iterative process, but he spent the period from 1905 through at least 1914 almost disparaging mathematics as a clean-up act that people would come along and help him do once he understood the equivalence of gravity and acceleration or the other great thought experiments he did.

If you look at what he does later in life, with the unified theory, people like Banesh Hoffman and others who were his collaborators say, we had no physical insight to guide us, nothing like the principle of the equivalence of gravity and acceleration, or some other great insight, and instead it became more and more mathematical formalism, without what Einstein called the ground lights that would touch us, as we've just said, to physical reality more. And there are some who think—and I kind of feel this way, which is why I've adopted this idea—he had used the physical strategy, the physics approach, so much from 1905 to around 1913–1914, and even in the Zurich notebooks where he tries to get general relativity and the equations of gravity right, and he just can't quite get them, and he's racing against David Hilbert, who's a Göttingen mathematician who has the advantage of being a better mathematician but also an added advantage of not being as good of a physicist.

Hilbert's not there worrying about whether it reduces to the Newtonian in the weak field or whatever—he's just pursuing general covariance as a mathematical strategy in order to get the field equations of gravity. Einstein finally adopts that approach and it puts him there, it makes him succeed through what is a very mathematical strategy, and then for the rest of his life he spends a lot of time on mathematical formalism instead of worrying about the intuitive physics behind everything.

Was that the right approach? Is that what's happening with string theory? Is that the better way to do it; is that what you have to do? As Einstein said, when he was asked about this, that's the way you have to approach things now, we don't have any blinding new physics insight.

Finally the bigger question is, when he fights—and I do think that his quest for a unified theory comes out of his discomfort with quantum mechanics—when he is pushing against the people in the realm of quantum mechanics, they push back, and they say things like, well, we're just doing what you used to do; we're questioning every assumption. We're saying, unless you can observe something there's no reason to posit that it exists. Einstein is saying, yes, but that doesn't make sense now. They responded, well you always questioned authority and questioned everything unless you could actually observe it, and now you're resisting us.

Einstein said, well, to punish me for my contempt for authority, fate has turned me into an authority myself. I'm no longer quite as rebellious, is what he's saying. So why is it that he becomes in some ways more defensive of the classical order and less rebellious, even as he's trying to pursue the unified theory?

PAUL STEINHARDT: The question that I have about Einstein relates to the one that Brian raised, but with a twist, because I see what has been happening in theoretical physics in the last 30 years, and especially in the last few years, maybe from a slightly different point of view.

Over the last 30 years, there have been grand ideas that have emerged in theoretical physics that were meant to simplify our understanding of the universe. One is the idea of inflation; the idea that there was a period of very rapid expansion that smoothed and flattened the universe and which explains why when we look out anywhere in space it looks almost the same everywhere. And it is of course based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, and relates directly to his introduction of the cosmological constant back in 1917, but elaborated in a way that this rapid expansion would only occur in the early universe, and not in the later universe. Just to explain why the universe is the same, or looks the same, almost everywhere.

The other grand idea that has been developing is the one that Brian has written so elegantly about, which is the idea of string theory, that everything in nature is made of quantum vibrating strings, and that we can derive a simple unified theory to explain all the physical laws that we see.

The hope was that string theory would explain the microphysical world, and inflation would explain the macrophysical world.

What have we learned from these two grand theories, inflation and string theory? Well, in the last few years, especially in the last decade, we've learned that—at least to my way of reckoning things—neither of them is really delivering on their promise. It turns out inflation doesn't do what we originally thought it did back when it was introduced in the 1980s. It doesn't take an original initially complicated inhomogeneous, non-uniform, curved and warped universe and flatten it out everywhere—and leave it with a universe which is full of matter that we see, which is then smoothed and flat. Instead, what inflation does, once it takes hold, is continue to make a more and more inflating universe, only occasionally leaving behind a few pockets of universe that have matter that we would recognize and that might be inhabitable.

And in fact, among those pockets, it seems that the pockets that would look like the ones we observe would be exceedingly rare. So whereas inflation was designed to explain why the universe is as uniform as it is, and why that's a likely occurrence, it seems that the theory is actually leading us to a point of view where with inflation we are actually unlikely to find pockets of the universe that look as smooth and flat as we observe.

Similarly, the hope for string theory was that it would uniquely explain why the laws of physics are what they are. But developments over the last few years suggest that actually string theory doesn't make a unique prediction for the physical laws—there might be a google, or many googles, of possibilities. And the ones that we happen to observe are not particularly likely—at least there is no reason why they should be likely.

So a key conclusion according to the current view of string theory and inflationary theory is the fundamental nature of the universe is random. Although the universe seems to be remarkably the uniform everywhere as far as we can see, our leading theories currently suggest that the conditions we observe are actually very rare and unlikely phenomena in the universe entire. And I wonder what Einstein would have thought about that. I wonder if he would have found  that idea that is, a theory of this type, to be acceptable. My own point of view is that we have to change one or both of these two key components of our understanding of the universe. We either have to dramatically revise them, or we have to overhaul them entirely, replace them with something that combines to make a powerful theory that really does explain, in a powerful way, why the universe is the way that it is.

ISAACSON: Why is there such a personal theological argument—I can see it between the Sam Harris's and the Dawkins's on the other hand and Christopher Hitchens versus those who are strong believers—that when people start debating string theory their faces turn red.

STEINHARDT: I think it's for the reason that I was beginning to raise. In my view, and in the eyes of many others, fundamental theory has crashed at the moment. Instead of delivering what it was supposed to deliver—a simple explanation of why the masses of particles and their interactions are what they are—we get instead the idea that string theory allows googols of possibilities and there is no particular reason for the properties we actually observe. They have been selected by chance. In fact, most of the universe has different properties. So, the question is, is that a satisfactory explanation of the laws of physics? In my own view, if I had walked in the door with a theory not called string theory and said that it is consistent with the observed laws of nature, but, by the way, it also gives a googol other possibilities, I doubt that I would have been able to say another sentence. I wouldn't have been taken seriously.

GREENE: You really think that? I don't mean to get technical, but take the standard model of particle physics, which is the quantum field theory that people have developed over the course of a number of decades and that we generally view as the most solid, pinnacle achievement of particle physics. When you look at the framework within which the standard model of particle physics sits, namely relativistic quantum field theory, you do find that there are a google, if not more, possible universes that that framework is capable of describing. The masses of the particles can be changed arbitrarily and the theory still makes sense, it's internally consistent; you can change the strengths of the forces, the strengths of the coupling constants.

So if you see the standard model, the one that we all think is so spectacular, within the landscape of theories that that framework can give rise to, it seems to me that when you walk in the door and you say, I've got this theory called the standard model to describe all physics, isn't everybody excited? If I were to use the same benchmark for judging it, you would think that I would ignore it as well, since it actually is part of a family of theories that can describe a google of different universes. So how is that any worse than string theory?

STEINHARDT: Well I think there is a key difference, which is that no one believes the standard model is the ultimate theory, and string theory is claiming to be the ultimate theory.

GREENE: Oh, I think we should put claims of that sort…

STEINHARDT: But the question was raised, why are people upset about it? And the answer is, because whether you personally believe it or not, string theory has been advertised as being the ultimate theory from which we should be able to understand…

GREENE: I guess I would say it is unfortunate that people get worked up over that kind of advertising. If you look at the history of string theory, I agree with you; there was a time when people thought this could be it—the final theory that would describe everything. In fact, it still may be it.

But I think there was a certain kind of youthful exuberance that took hold when the theory was in its early infancy in the 1980s and early ‘90s and so forth, which perhaps was a little bit unfounded because it was such an immature theory that you really couldn't make pronouncements about it that you could have any real faith in. I personally, as do I think many string theorists, view string theory as a possible next step towards a deeper understanding of the laws of physics. It could be the final step, we can't judge yet.

But I think the most sober way of looking at it is that we have quantum mechanics, we have general relativity, we have to put them together in some consistent way, string theory is a possible way of doing that, and therefore we should explore it and see where it goes. I think it would be unfortunate if simply by virtue of it's being advertised within a certain framework of it being the final theory, one then judges it differently from any other scientific theory, which is on its merits.

STEINHARDT: That's a stupendous retreat from what many people have claimed.

GREENE: You really think so?

STEINHARDT: Yes, sure. And it’s worse than that. Some people even claim this idea that you have this googol or perhaps infinite number of possibilities is something we should come to accept, that it's now derived from string theory, that string theory should be accepted as true, and since it has led to this multiplicity of possibilites, we should all accept this conclusion as true.

GREENE: Naturally, scientists quite generally and string theorists in particular  often describe their work without giving all of the associated qualifications all of the time. I, for example,have spoken of string theory as a possible final theory, as the possible theory that would unite all forces and all matter in one consistent framework—and I generally try to say—but perhaps not always—that this is not yet a proven theory; this is our hope for what it will achieve. We aren’t certain  that this is where it is going to lead. We just need to explore and see where we land.

Similarly, I think that if you sat down and spoke to the folks you're referring to in a more informal setting—who talk about having all of these different universes emerge from string theory and about how it's a new framework that we have to think about things–in which we are one of many universes—they would say, yes, what we really mean is, this is the place string theory seems to have led us so we want to explore it. Is it necessarily the framework? I think most of them would say, we don't know; we are just shooting in the dark because this is our best approach to unified general relativity quantum mechanics, and we're going to explore where it leads us. They are not necessarily saying that this is definitely where it goes, because that's the nature necessarily of research: you don't know where it's going to lead, you just keep on going and see where it takes you.

STEINHARDT: But what angers people is even the idea that you might accept that possibility—that the ultimate theory has this googol of possibilities for the laws of physics? That should not be accepted. That should be regarded as an out and out failure requiring some saving idea. The fact is that, everywhere we look in the universe, we see only one set of laws. Also, the universe is smooth and uniform, smoother and more uniform than we need for humans to existence. Yet, we are asked to accept the idea that the greater universe beyond where we can see is completely different. Is that science, or is that metaphysics?

ISAACSON: That's exactly it: we were talking about why it is that it arouses such passion and then started directly debating string theory. I'd love to take it right back to Einstein—twice you said  something that I find very interesting, which is, we have to find a way to make his two grand pillars of 20th century physics compatible, general relativity and quantum theory. Of course Einstein totally would believe that, because he loved unification, he loved unity. Secondly he and Newton agreed on one big thing, which is that nature loves simplicity. But I've always wondered about the more metaphysical philosophical question: how do we know that God likes simplicity? How do we know he wants these things to be compatible? How do we know that quantum theory and relativity have to be reconcilable?

GREENE: There are actually some people who suggest that they don't necessarily have to be compatible. I've never really been convinced by their arguments at all; to me it seems evident that the laws that we are talking about, and quantum theory in particular, are not meant just to describe small things—that's where it was developed and that's where its unusual features manifest themselves more strongly, but quantum theory is meant to be a theory that applies everywhere, on all scales.

General relativity starts as a theory that describes big things because that is where gravity matters; but when you look at the equations of general relativity, in principle they can apply on arbitrarily small scales. The thing is, when you get to really tiny scales, you notice that there is a deep incompatibility between the two theories and moreover, you realize that there are realms of the universe that enter those domains. You have, for instance, a black hole, which you can say begins as a star that then exhausts its nuclear fuel, it collapses under its own weight, it gets smaller and smaller – at some point the star gets so small that quantum mechanics really starts to matter in a significant way.

Gravity matters the whole time because it is so heavy. If those two theories don't work together, how do you describe what happens to this collapsing star?

ISAACSON: That's true of the Big Bang as well?

STEINHARDT: Yes and that is why cosmology is the key battleground for trying to sort out how quantum physics and gravity relate. You can't avoid using them both to understand where the universe emerged from, or whether it had a beginning, or what happened before the bang.

ISAACSON: And it is impossible to imagine a cosmos in which those two theories aren't in some fundamental way totally reconcilable?

STEINHARDT: It would be a mistake. It would be inconsistency.

GREENE: Although Freeman Dyson seems to have unusual views on this.

STEINHARDT: Yes, and I also would say I don't understand them…

ISAACSON: And that's where I got my question, but I tried to avoid Freeman Dyson because I was afraid I would totally misunderstood even his question.

STEINHARDT: But you ask a good question, and how do we know? The answer is, we don't know that things have to be simple. But a couple of interesting things have happened historically as we have followed that line of reasoning.

We've managed to push the program of understanding the universe to small scales and large scales, by pursuing this approach of looking for simplicity. Particularly when we look at the cosmos; now we can see out to the farthest observable edges of the cosmos, we can see that the laws of physics are the same, and that the physical conditions are also remarkably similar throughout observable universe.

Until we have hard evidence to the contrary, I think we push this program of looking for unification and simplicity until it takes us as far as we can go. I have no sort of moral principles about the scientific method; I simply think it is the most efficient method humans have found yet of taking what we know and adding new knowledge. If we think up some other program of thinking that does better, we should adopt it, but at the moment…

ISAACSON:  So it's a fundamental part of the program of thinking that the laws are unified at some level, and that we'll eventually get to more simplicity, not more Byzantine complexity in the laws of nature?

GREENE: So long as you're willing to adjust the measure of simplicity and complexity as you learn more and more about the universe. If you were to present quantum mechanics to Newton, at first it might seem fairly complicated because it uses a completely different body of mathematics, different kinds of ideas, invokes concepts that you can't directly see, and that certainly feels like it's a layer of complexity. But when you study it for many decades and you become used to its unusual features, you look at it and you see that it is just one simple little equation—Schrödinger's Equation.

From a pure mathematical standpoint, it's a linear equation—in technical terms, the simplest kind of equation to analyze—and it describes data. So your sense of what is complicated and simple now gets shifted by a layer, because you're judging this framework, which  to a 16th or 17th century scientist might seem really bizarre, but from a modern perspective, it works and you attune your aesthetic sense so that it actually feels pretty elegant, and pretty simple.

ISAACSON: You use the word ‘elegant' often, which…

GREENE: It's become hackneyed, but if a theory is so simple that its deep equation can be put across a T-shirt in 20-point type, then we generally view that as fairly simple. Certainly that is the case of both general relativity and quantum mechanics.

ISAACSON: There's a wonderful book that Einstein wrote called The Evolution of Physics with Leopold Infeld in 1938, which is not easy to find. I've gone over it again two or three times because I just love the way it was written. It was written to make money for both of them, because it's the 30s, and Hitler, and refugees and stuff. It's a popular book, but it has a deep philosophical argument, and the publisher is reissuing the book because I was pushing them to get it out there.

The deep philosophical argument is that it will be a field theory approach that will work. It starts with Galileo; he talks about matter and particles, and just makes the argument that in the end it is all going to be reconciled through field theory. It's about whether there is going to be a great distinction between a field theory and a theory of matter.

GREENE: You can even take that question one step further, which is, is there even a distinction between, say, a field theory, which has been so successful, and a string theory, which appears at first sight to invoke different ideas from what you would get if you were just doing a purely field theoretical approach.

One of the big ideas, one of the big results, in the last decade in string theory has been to find a close association, in fact an equivalence, between field theories and string theories. Even though string theory starts with a very different point of view and you can study it without it ever seeming to be a field theory, you realize…

ISAACSON: Isn't the mathematics different, though?

GREENE: The mathematics appears different at first, but one of the amazing kinds of discoveries in string theory in the last decade has been something called “dualities,” which is, something can look one way, and something else can look completely different, but if you study them with adequate intensity and adequate precision you can find that they're actually the same thing, just described in different languages. Like a book in French and in Sanskrit—they don't look the same, but if you have a dictionary that relates them, you can say, oh, this is the same book. Similarly, we have string theory framed in the language that's relevant to string theory…

ISAACSON: A mathematical language that's non-field theory…

GREENE: A mathematical language that feels non-field theory, that looks non-field theory, and then you have a field theory framed in language of quantum field theory, and they seem different, they look different, but a lot of work has been done to set up the dictionary that allows you to say, this element of this is that element of that and vice versa, and you realize that they're actually talking about the same theory; just in a different language.

ISAACSON: Is that sort of a reflection of the basic duality that is at the heart of quantum mechanics?

GREENE: No, I think this is a different kind of duality—and Paul has a different view of this—because the dualities that you're referring to sort of are inherent in each of these approaches, irrespective of the fact that they happen to be talking about the same theory. It is a completely unexpected and deep relationship between them but fundamentally shows that string theory actually isn't that different from field theory; it is field theory, it's particular kinds of field theory, just organized in a different way, making it look different at first sight. But it basically confirms what you were saying from that book of 70 years ago, that field theory seems to be the tool that will take us to the next step.

STEINHARDT: I'm not sure how much faith I put in claims like that, because that's basically talking about what what mathematics you use. It would be equivalent to saying that the explanation is going to involve calculus. And while it is likely that field theory will be among the useful mathematical tools, it's likely that we are going to have to discover some new mathematics along the way to get to a final answer. I think most of us, Einstein included, tend to focus less on the tools and more on the underlying physical concepts.

I want to come back to one of the issues you raised—you asked about simplicity. I should have emphasized the following: it could very well have been that, when we began to look out at the universe, we discovered different laws of physics, different gravitational forces, different electro-magnetic forces, other bizarre differences from what we see nearby—curiously, the very things that some people believe string theory predicts. Then we would be convinced experimentally that we don't live in a simple universe and that something like the stringy landscape picture is correct. We would also live in a universe which, due to its non-uniformity and our limited vantage point here on Earth, affords us no hope of understanding the universe in its entirety. Then, the picture of a random universe would be compelling. The moment we begin to look in space, things would look so different from what we observe here…

ISAACSON: Einstein felt a little bit that way, I think, as quantum mechanics progressed in the late 40s; he was an old guy, but he kept discovering more and more particles and more and more forces that he was not even willing to accommodate as he stood there at his blackboard with Valentine Bargmann and Peter Bergman and all of his assistants. But he was vaguely depressed by the fact that nature seemed to like more and more forces and particles to be discovered that were not reconcileable.

STEINHARDT: Although I would guess that Einstein would love the concept of string theory. Not all string theorists feel the same way, but I view it as the fulfillment of Einstein's program of geometrizing the laws of physics. Einstein took gravity and turned it into wiggling jello-like space, and now string theory turns everything in the universe, all forces, all constituents into geometrical, vibrating, wiggling entities. String theory also uses the idea of higher dimensions, which is also something that Einstein found appealing.

What I was commenting on earlier was where the string program has gone recently, which I described as a crash. I can’t say for sure how Einstein would view it, but I strongly suspect he would reject the idea. I read an interesting quote from Einstein—I think in the 50s—in which he said that he was noted that he had failed at constructing a unified theory and expressed his concern that it would be a very long time before there was any success.  The reason, he claimed, which I thought was interesting, was because physicists no longer know about logic and philosophy. He did not mention mathematics, but rather logic and philosophy.

ISAACSON: What he really felt there was that he had become more and more of a confirmed realist, or a scientific realist, and he felt that it was a philosophical question; that there was an underlying physical reality independent of our observations of it, and that's what science was supposed to discover. And because that became so out of fashion with—he called them neo-positivists—you can call them whatever you want, but I assume most people in the forefront of quantum mechanics would not subscribe to the theory that there is underlying physical reality independent of any observations of it, which is a philosophical pillar on which you build science. And that was his philosophical problem.

STEINHARDT: I interpret it differently. By that time, something that might be called an American attitude towards physics had taken over. It was an attitude where the connection between physics and philosophy was broken. You were supposed to focus on what was calculable: take your theory, make predictions with it, calculate with it, test if your calculations are right using experiments; and just stay away from philosophical questions. With this approach, the ideas was that we can systematically inch our way forward in science.

ISAACSON: Yes, that's a good point. He could certainly have meant that, because he believed that, too.

STEINHARDT: So that in fact the reason why unified theory from that point of view would be beyond our reach is because, if you didn't have deep philosophical principles to guide you, you just would never find your way. I thought that was an interesting quote because it reflects some of my concerns about where both cosmology and fundamental physics are going—that maybe they've lost their way. Of course it's unfashionable to appeal to philosophical viewpoints. But maybe that would be a healthy thing.

GREENE: Hey, We've got a research group with a philosopher as part of our group, so…

ISAACSON: But you've got art, you've got music…

GREENE: No, I’m not referring to those undertakings at all. We have a group that's trying to address questions such as the arrow of time. Where did the arrow of time come from? Why does time seem to unfold in one direction but not in reverse? This is a question that philosophers have really studied intently for a long time, and they have refined the question in such a way that when we talk about various possible solutions, they're able to see the solutions and say, well actually wait a second, you're actually assuming the answer in the solution in some hidden way that we've long since parsed out and let me explain to you how that goes.

We've found it very useful to talk to philosophers who perhaps haven't studied quantum field theory with the kind of technical intensity that a graduate student or a researcher in physics would have, but they have taken a step back and sort of looked at big questions, and really thought them through at a fundamental level. And that's actually extraordinarily helpful.

ISAACSON: To get it back to the history—in the period from 1900 to 1915, which is to me—maybe because I'm a bit prejudiced by having worked on Einstein so much—a period of great explosive creativity. It's a period in which both quantum theory and relativity theory were developed, so much of that development was driven by philosophy and philosophers. If you ask Einstein who were his  most important influences, he would get to Michelson and Morely at about number 3,500, or if at all. Every now and then he would "yes, I don't know if I ever read them, but Ernst Mach and David Hume—those are the people we were discussing all the time, and those are the people that led us to make the creative leaps that we had to make in that period.

It's an interesting question to ask why it is that between 1900 and 1915 we have such creative leaps, obviously in science, but even Stravinsky and Shoenberg saying, okay, we don't have to stick to the classical bonds, or Proust and Joyce, or Picasso and Kandinsky—breaking the classical bonds. But especially in science, the leaps seemed to have been pushed by people like Ernst Mach, who are almost more philosophers than they are physicists.

STEINHARDT: My impression is that this began to break down with the developments of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, where after a certain effort to struggle with the interpretation of it, there did come this attitude that said, okay, let's stop worrying about its interpretation; what we know we can do with it is to calculate and make predictions of new phenomena. And there were so many new phenomena to examine that it occupied generations of theorists to pursue this line of attack: ignoring interpretation and philosophy and just going forward in a straight line with these calculations.

Then, once that historic connection with philosophy was broken, it became disparaged. It was considered that philosophy might even distract you from discovering something interesting. But now, it might be that it's time to return to it.

You see, great progress had been occurring because physicists were asking questions that could be tested almost immediately—the rapid interplay between experiment and theory was going back and forth for nearly a century. Every time a new observation would come in, or a new experiment would be performed, there would be a new question; you could do a new calculation; and someone else might do the next experiment—new physics  was flowing from theory to experiment and back again very rapidly. But now we've reached the stage where the time between major experimental breakthroughs in fundamental physics is very long—decades in the case of particle physics. We don't have experimental guidance, and we don't have the philosophical underpinnings, either. Maybe we don’t just need new experiments. Maybe we need to look back to philosophy for guidance. 

GREENE: In the PBS special on string theory that aired some time ago, there were a number of people who were interviewed about the fact that string theory had not yet made predictions that could be tested. And the framing of that fact by a number of physicists interviewed was, if string theory can't make, or doesn't make, those kinds of predictions, it becomes philosophy, not physics.

As I watched the series, I kept saying to myself, the poor philosophers—philosophy is not bad physics,, it's not physics that hasn't reached its goal. It's just a way of analyzing pathways towards truth that perhaps don't use as much mathematics as the physicists and mathematicians typically do. There's a lot of insight yet to be tapped from the philosophical community, and I imagine that we'll go through a cycle where that kind of interaction happens more and more.

STEINHARDT: Yes. In fact one of the interesting turns of events in string theory we've been talking about is the idea that there's a multiplicity of possibilities, and one of the approaches for dealing with it is the anthropic reasoning—to use the fact that we exist as a kind of selection principle. That turns out to be territory that philosophers have thought about quite a bit. They're far ahead the physicists in terms of realizing the flaws and the trapdoors.

GREENE: I agree with you completely. Could we just come back to the assessment you gave string theory a little while ago in terms of having crashed—that seems to me a pretty strong negative assessment, and I wonder if I'm hearing you fully, or if it's more nuanced.

When one looks at the history of string theory, the achievements have been manifold, as you are familiar with—the insights on space-time singularities, mirror symmetry, topology change, the ability to understand certain symmetry structures, the ability to give insight into the possibility of having a generation structure in the families of matter particles, the insights that it's given on gauge theories as a general structure and in particular being able to realize gauge theories that we're familiar with—and all of these features on top of it putting together general relativity and quantum mechanics. Now, I agree, and I'm actually all too happy to say that we have a ways to go, because we've not made that direct contact with experimental observation.

But to me, we just have a road ahead of us that we still need to travel. Whether it will ultimately take us to those predictions or not, the future will tell. I don't think we can judge now and say that the program has crashed. I can say the program has gone spectacularly far, but we definitely have further to go until we know whether what we're doing is right or wrong. Is that not a good assessment in your view?

STEINHARDT:  My view is more nuanced. This multiplicity, if that were to be the endpoint of the theory, is a crash. There's one of several possibilities…

GREENE:  The only reason I interrupt you is because I've heard a number of people take a similar perspective, which is to listen to a couple of string theorists who are pushing one particular point of view that maybe this is the endpoint of string theory—that there are many many universes, we're one of that many and there's no further explanation to be had. It may be right, it may be wrong, but I certainly don't at this point say that that's the endpoint of string theory. That's a way station that some people are exploring, and others are pushing on other pathways.

STEINHARDT: You have a more reasonable attitude on this than others whom I have heard. I would like it to be firmly recognized that googol possibilities is a crash, and that it is not an acceptable …

GREENE: But the many universe version of string theory—is that what you mean?

STEINHARDT: Yes. But let me hasten to add that I can envision several ways to escape from this crash. One is: discover some new ideas in string theory showing that the multiplicity really isn't really predicted by string theory. After all, the mathematical case is not firm. Or, second, even if there's a multiplicity, perhaps one can find some reason why almost everywhere in the universe should correspond to just one of these possibilities, namely the one we actually observe. Or, maybe string theory in its present form is fine, but you have to change the cosmology, and that change removes the multiplicity. All these rescues are conceivable to me. 

What I can’t accept is the current view which simply accepts the multiplicity. Not only is it a crash, but  it's a particularly nefarious kind of crash, because if you accept the idea of having a theory which allows an infinite number of possibilities (of which our observable universe is one), then there's really no way within science of disproving this idea. Whether a new observation or experiment comes out one way or the other, you can always claim afterwards that we happen to live in a sector of the universe where that is so. In fact, this reasoning has already been applied recently as theorists tried to explain the unexpected discovery of dark energy. The problem is that you can never disprove such a theory … nor can you prove it.

GREENE: You can imagine there are features that are consistent across all of these universes…

STEINHARDT: You could imagine it, but you could never prove it, experimentally.

GREENE: No, my point is, mathematically you could find that in each of these universes property X always holds.

STEINHARDT: Do you mean as derived from string theory? I don't believe that's true. I don't believe it's possible.

GREENE: Right, well that's a belief—it's not based on any calculation

STEINHARDT: Well, I believe that if you came to me with such a theory I could probably turn around within 24 hours and come up with an alternative theory in which property X wasn't universal after all. In fact, you almost know that's true from the conversation that's been happening in the field already, where someone says, these properties are universal and these others are not. The next day, another theorist will write a paper saying, no, different properties are universal. There are simply no strong guidelines for deciding.

GREENE: I agree that that's definitely been the way things have unfolded. But I thought I heard you say that you couldn't imagine being able to disprove a theory that had this kind of framework and I'm just setting up a way in which one could disprove it.

STEINHARDT: That may be true in principle, but, in practice, I don’t think this would ever occur. If a version of string theory with a googol-fold multiplicity of physical laws were to be disproved one day, I don’t think proponents would give up on string theory. I suspect a clever theorist would come up with a variation that would evade the conflict. In fact, this has already been our experience with multiverse theories to date.  In practice, there are never enough experiments or observations, or enough mathematical constraints to rule out a multiverse of possibilities. By the same token, this means that there are no firm predictions that can definitively decide whether this multiplicity beyond our horizon is true or not.

GREENE: I agree with you. But just so I understand; you're saying that this one particular way in which one may think about string theory—for which the endpoint is many many universes—is unacceptable.

STEINHARDT: Right. I claim it needs to be fixed.

GREENE:  But you also agree—just so it's clear—that's not a crash in string theory per se; that's a particular way of approaching the theory that you would not advocate because the endpoint would be unacceptable. You need to go further...

STEINHARDT: That's right; so it's just what you were saying; some people say that is the endpoint, and I'm saying that's not acceptable. If you believe that, it's time to abandon it.

GREENE: But it's those people who've crashed.

STEINHARDT: Yes, it's that point of view which is a crash, and needs a fix. I am not arguing that string theory should be abandoned. I think it holds too much promise. I am arguing that it is in trouble and needs new ideas to save it.

But let's get back to Einstein. One interesting question to consider about Einstein is how his generation of physicists were radicals, and were replaced by a generation of physicists that would be considered conservative.

ISAACSON: What is particularly interesting to me is that Einstein was a radical who in 1925 becomes replaced with Einstein who's a conservative. That's overstating it a bit, but right as he makes his last contribution of greatness to quantum theory—basically the whole Bose-Einstein statistics—he almost instantaneously is spinning around into a defensive crouch and resisting everything from the lack of realism to the lack of rigid causality in quantum mechanics, and he's calling them the young Turks at the Solvay conference 1927-1931, and they're calling him ridiculously conservative and that saying he had abandoned your radicalism when he used to challenge everything.

It's a theme that goes well beyond physics, which is, why is it that what at age 50 you used to think of yourself as a radical, and then you become age 50, and whether you're editing Time Magazine or doing theoretical physics, you start saying things like, no, we can't do that, we've tried that before, or, it doesn't work.

I were to give a real reason for Einstein's basic conservatism, it would go back to what Paul was talking about, which is the philosophical, which is just that the concept of realism is so at the core. There are three or four reasons that he doesn't like quantum mechanics, and if you had to pick one, it's not probabilities or the end of strict causality, even though he says strict causality is the greatest enduring gift that Newton gave us, it's the abandonment of realism, and to him that becomes a pillar of classical physics. If you have to define conservatism, I assume the definition would be, defending the classical order as opposed to radically throwing out the old order. That's what he quits doing in 1925.

So there you have it. We will almost certainly take centuries to reach the level of control over aging that we have over the aging of vintage cars—totally comprehensive, indefinite maintenance of full function—but because longevity escape velocity is not very fast, we will probably achieve something functionally equivalent within only a few decades from now, at the point where we have therapies giving middle-aged people 30 extra years of youthful life.

I think we can call that the fountain of youth, don't you?

By Aubrey de Grey

AUBREY DE GREY is a biomedical gerontologist and chairman and chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, a VA-based 501(c)(3). He is the author of some 80 articles and commentaries in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging. He is coauthor (with Michael Rae) of Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime.

Aubrey de Grey's Edge Bio Page


An important fact is that the therapies we develop in a decade or so in mice, and those that may come only a decade or two later for humans, will not be perfect. Other things being equal, there will be a residual accumulation of damage within our bodies, however frequently and thoroughly we apply these therapies, and we will eventually experience age-related decline and death just as now, only at a greater age. Probably not all that much greater either—probably only 30-50 years older than today.

But other things won't be equal, and I'm going to explain why not—and why, as you may already know from other sources, I expect many people alive today to live to 1000 years of age and to avoid age-related health problems even at that age.

I'll start by describing why it's unrealistic to expect these therapies to be perfect.

Evolution didn't leave notes

The body is a machine, and that's both why it ages and why it can in principle be maintained. I have made a comparison with vintage cars, which are kept fully functional even 100 years after they were built, using the same maintenance technologies that kept them going 50 years ago when they were already far older than they were ever designed to be. More complex machines can also be kept going indefinitely, though the expense and expertise involved may mean that this never happens in practice because replacing the machine is a reasonable alternative. This sounds very much like a reason to suppose that the therapies we develop to stave off aging for a few decades will indeed be enough to stave it off indefinitely.

But actually that's overoptimistic. All we can reliably infer from a comparison with man-made machines is that a truly comprehensive panel of therapies, which truly repairs everything that goes wrong with us as a result of aging, is possible in principle—not that it is foreseeable. And in fact we can see that actually one thing about them is very unlike maintenance of a man-made machine: these therapies strive to minimally alter metabolism itself, and target only the initially inert side-effects of metabolism, whereas machine maintenance may involve adding extra things to the machinery itself (to the fuel or the oil of a car, for example). We can get away with this sort of invasive maintenance of man-made machines because we (well, some of us!) know how they work right down to the last detail, so we can be adequately sure that our intervention won't have unforeseen side-effects. With the body—even the body of a mouse—we are still profoundly ignorant of the details, so we have to sidestep our ignorance by interfering as little as possible.

What that means for efficacy of therapies is that, as we fix more and more aspects of aging, you can bet that new aspects will be unmasked. These new things will not be fatal at a currently normal age, because if they were, we'd know about them already. But they'll be fatal eventually, unless we work out how to fix them too.

Even within each existing category, there are some subcategories that will be easier to fix than others. For example, there are lots of chemically distinct cross-links responsible for stiffening our arteries; some of them may be broken with ALT-711 and related molecules, but others will surely need more sophisticated agents that have not yet been developed. Another example: obviating mitochondrial DNA by putting modified copies of it into the cell's chromosomes requires gene therapy, and thus far we have no gene therapy delivery system ("vector") that can safely get into all cells, so for the foreseeable future we'll probably only be able to protect a subset of cells from mtDNA mutations. Much better vectors will be needed if we are to reach all cells.

In practice, therefore, therapies that rejuvenate 60-year-olds by 20 years will not work so well the second time around. When the therapies are applied for the first time, the people receiving them will have 60 years of "easy" damage (the types that the therapies can remove) and also 60 years of "difficult" damage. But by the time beneficiaries of these therapies have returned to biologically 60 (which, let's presume, will happen when they're chronologically about 80), the damage their bodies contain will consist of 20 years of "easy" damage and 80 years of "difficult" damage. Thus, the therapies will only rejuvenate them by a much smaller amount, say ten years. So they'll have to come back sooner for the third treatment, but that will benefit them even less… and very soon, just like Achilles catching up with the tortoise in Zeno's paradox, aging will get the better of them.

An extremely counterintuitive fact is that, even though it will be much harder to double a middle-aged human's remaining lifespan than a middle-aged mouse's, multiplying that remaining lifespan by much larger factors—ten or 30, say—will be much easier in humans than in mice.

The two-speed pace of technology

I'm now going to switch briefly from science to the history of science, or more precisely the history of technology.

It was well before recorded history that people began to take an interest in the possibility of flying: indeed, this may be a desire almost as ancient as the desire to live forever. Yet, with the notable but sadly unreproduced exception of Daedalus and Icarus, no success in this area was achieved until about a century ago. (If we count balloons then we must double that, but really only airships—balloons that can control their direction of travel reasonably well—should be counted, and they only emerged at around the same time as the aircraft.) Throughout the previous few centuries, engineers from Leonardo on devised ways to achieve controlled powered flight, and we must presume that they believed their designs to be only a few decades (at most) from realisation. But they were wrong.

Ever since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, however, things have been curiously different. Having mastered the basics, aviation engineers seem to have progressed to ever greater heights (literally as well as metaphorically!) at an almost serenely smooth pace. To pick a representative selection of milestones: Lindbergh flew the Atlantic 24 years after the first powered flight occurred, the first commercial jetliner (the Comet) debuted 22 years after that, and the first supersonic airliner (Concorde) followed after a further 20 years.

This stark contrast between fundamental breakthroughs and incremental refinements of those breakthroughs is, I would contend, typical of the history of technological fields. Further, I would argue that it's not surprising: both psychologically and scientifically, bigger advances are harder to estimate the difficulty of.

I mention all this, of course, because of what it tells us about the likely future progress of life extension therapies. Just as people were wrong for centuries about how hard it is to fly but eventually cracked it, we've been wrong since time immemorial about how hard aging is to combat but we'll eventually crack it too. But just as people have been pretty reliably correct about how to make better and better aircraft once they had the first one, we can expect to be pretty reliably correct about how to repair the damage of aging more and more comprehensively once we can do it a little.

That's not to say it'll be easy, though. It'll take time, just as it took time to get from the Wright Flyer to Concorde. And that is why, if you want to live to 1000, you can count yourself lucky that you're a human and not a mouse. Let me take you through the scenario, step by step.

Suppose we develop Robust Mouse Rejuvenation in 2016, and we take a few dozen two-year-old mice and duly treble their one-year remaining lifespans. That will mean that, rather than dying in 2017 as they otherwise would, they'll die in 2019. Well, maybe not—in particular, not if we can develop better therapies by 2018 that re-treble their remaining lifespan (which will by now be down to one year again). But remember, they'll be harder to repair the second time: their overall damage level may be the same as before they received the first therapies, but a higher proportion of that damage will be of types that those first therapies can't fix. So we'll only be able to achieve that re-trebling if the therapies we have available by 2018 are considerably more powerful than those that we had in 2016. And to be honest, the chance that we'll improve the relevant therapies that much in only two years is really pretty slim. In fact, the likely amount of progress in just two years is so small that it might as well be considered zero. Thus, our murine heroes will indeed die in 2019 (or 2020 at best), despite our best efforts.

But now, suppose we develop Robust Human Rejuvenation in 2031, and we take a few dozen 60-year-old humans and duly double their 30-year remaining lifespans. By the time they come back in (say) 2051, biologically 60 again but chronologically 80, they'll need better therapies, just as the mice did in 2018. But luckily for them, we'll have had not two but twenty years to improve the therapies. And 20 years is a very respectable period of time in technology—long enough, in fact, that we will with very high probability have succeeded in developing sufficient improvements to the 2031 therapies so that those 80-year-olds can indeed be restored from biologically 60 to biologically 40, or even a little younger, despite their enrichment (relative to 2031) in harder-to-repair types of damage. So unlike the mice, these humans will have just as many years (20 or more) of youth before they need third-generation treatments as they did before the second.

And so on…

Longevity Escape Velocity

The key conclusion of the logic I've set out above is that there is a threshold rate of biomedical progress that will allow us to stave off aging indefinitely, and that that rate is implausible for mice but entirely plausible for humans. If we can make rejuvenation therapies work well enough to give us time to make then work better, that will give us enough additional time to make them work better still, which will … you get the idea. This will allow us to escape age-related decline indefinitely, however old we become in purely chronological terms. I think the term "longevity escape velocity" (LEV) sums that up pretty well.1

One feature of LEV that's worth pointing out is that we can accumulate lead-time. What I mean is that if we have a period in which we improve the therapies faster than we need to, that will allow us to have a subsequent period in which we don't improve them so fast. It's only the average rate of improvement, starting from the arrival of the first therapies that give us just 20 or 30 extra years, that needs to stay above the LEV threshold.

In case you're having trouble assimilating all this, let me describe it in terms of the physical state of the body. Throughout this book, I've been discussing aging as the accumulation of molecular and cellular "damage" of various types, and I've highlighted the fact that a modest quantity of damage is no problem—metabolism just works around it, in the same way that a household only needs to put out the garbage once a week, not every hour. In those terms, the attainment and maintenance of escape velocity simply means that our best therapies must improve fast enough to outweigh the progressive shift in the composition of our aging damage to more repair-resistant forms, as the forms that are easier to repair are progressively eliminated by our therapies. If we can do this, the total amount of damage in each category can be kept permanently below the level that initiates functional decline.

Another, perhaps simpler, way of looking at this is to consider the analogy with literal escape velocity, i.e. the overcoming of gravity. Suppose you're at the top of a cliff and you jump off. Your remaining life expectancy is short—and it gets shorter as you descend to the rocks below. This is exactly the same as with aging: the older you get, the less remaining time you can expect to live. The situation with the periodic arrival of ever better rejuvenation therapies is then a bit like jumping off a cliff with a jet-pack on your back. Initially the jetpack is turned off, but as you fall, you turn it on and it gives you a boost, slowing your fall. As you fall further, you turn up the power on the jetpack, and eventually you start to pull out of the dive and even start shooting upwards. And the further up you go, the easier it is to go even further.

The political and social significance of discussing LEV

I've had a fairly difficult time convincing my colleagues in biogerontology of the feasibility of the various SENS components, but in general I've been successful once I've been given enough time to go through the details. When it comes to LEV, on the other hand, the reception to my proposals can best be described as blank incomprehension. This is not too surprising, in hindsight, because the LEV concept is even further distant from the sort of scientific thinking that my colleagues normally do than my other ideas are: it's not only an area of science that's distant from mainstream gerontology, it's not even science at all in the strict sense, but rather the history of technology. But I regard that as no excuse. The fact is, the history of technology is evidence, just like any other evidence, and scientists have no right to ignore it.

Another big reason for my colleagues' resistance to the LEV concept is, of course, that if I'm seen to be right that achievement of LEV is foreseeable, they can no longer go around saying that they're working on postponing aging by a decade or two but no more. There is an intense fear within the senior gerontology community of being seen as having anything to do with radical life extension, with all the uncertainties that it will surely herald. They want nothing to do with such talk.

You might think that my reaction to this would be to focus on the short term: to avoid antagonising my colleagues with the LEV concept and its implications of four-digit lifespans, in favour of increased emphasis on the fine details of getting the SENS strands to work in a first-generation form. But this is not an option for me, for one very simple and incontrovertible reason: I'm in this business to save lives. In order to maximise the number of lives saved—healthy years added to people's lives, if you'd prefer a more precise measure—I need to address the whole picture. And that means ensuring that the general public appreciate the importance of this work enough to motivate its funding.

Now, your first thought may be: hang on, if indefinite life extension is so unpalatable, wouldn't funding be attracted more easily by keeping quiet about it? Well, no—and for a pretty good reason.

The world's richest man, Bill Gates, set up a foundation a few years ago whose primary mission is to address health issues in the developing world.2 This is a massively valuable humanitarian effort, which I wholeheartedly support, even though it doesn't directly help SENS at all. I'm not the only person who supports it, either: in 2006 the world's second richest man, Warren Buffett, committed a large proportion of his fortune to be donated in annual increments to the Gates Foundation.3

The eagerness of extremely wealthy individuals to contribute to world health is, in more general terms, an enormous boost for SENS. This is mainly because a rising tide raises all boats: once it has become acceptable (even meritorious) among that community to be seen as a large-scale health philanthropist, those with "only" a billion or two to their name will be keener to join the trend than if it is seen as a crazy way to spend your hard-earned money.

But there's a catch. That logic only works if the moral status of SENS is seen to compare with that of the efforts that are now being funded so well. And that's where LEV makes all the difference.

SENS therapies will be expensive to develop and expensive to administer, at least at first. Let's consider how the prospect of spending all that money might be received if the ultimate benefit would be only to add a couple of decades to the lives of people who are already living longer than most in the developing world, after which those people would suffer the same duration of functional decline that they do now.

It's not exactly the world's most morally imperative action, is it?

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, if I were in control of a few billion dollars, I would be quite hesitant to spend it on such a marginal improvement in the overall quality and quantity of life of those who are already doing better in that respect than most, when the alternative exists of making a similar or greater improvement to the quality and quantity of life of the world's less fortunate inhabitants.

The LEV concept doesn't make much difference in the short term to who would benefit from these therapies, of course: it will necessarily be those who currently die of aging, so in the first instance it will predominantly be those in wealthy nations. But there is a very widespread appreciation in the industrialised world—an appreciation that, I feel, extends to the wealthy sectors of society—that progress in the long term relies on aiming high, and in particular that the moral imperative to help those at the rear of the field to catch up is balanced by the moral imperative to maximise the average rate of progress across the whole population, which initially means helping those who are already ahead. The fact that SENS is likely to lead to LEV means that developing SENS gives a huge boost to the quality and quantity of life of whomever receives it: so huge, in fact, that there is no problem justifying it in comparison the alternative uses to which a similar sum of money might be put. The fact that lifespan is extended indefinitely rather than by only a couple of decades is only part of the difference that LEV makes, of course: arguably an even more important difference in terms of the benefit that SENS gives is that the whole of that life will be youthful, right up until a beneficiary mistimes the speed of an oncoming truck. The average quality of life, therefore, will rise much more than if all that was in prospect were a shift from (say) 7:1 to 9:1 in the ratio of healthy life to frail life.

Quantifying longevity escape velocity more precisely

I hope I have closed down the remaining escape routes that might still have remained for those still seeking ways to defend a rejection of the SENS agenda. I have shown that SENS can be functionally equivalent to a way to eliminate aging completely, even though in actual therapeutic terms it will only be able to postpone aging by a finite amount at any given moment in time. I've also shown that this makes it morally just as desirable—imperative, even—as the many efforts into which a large amount of private philanthropic funding is already being injected.

I'm not complacent though: I know that people are quite ingenious when it comes to finding ways to avoid combating aging. Thus, in order to keep a few steps ahead, I have recently embarked on a collaboration with a stupendous programmer and futurist named Chris Phoenix, in which we are determining the precise degree of healthy life extension that one can expect from a given rate of progress in improving the SENS therapies. This is leading to a series of publications highlighting a variety of scenarios, but the short answer is that no wool has been pulled over your eyes above: the rate of progress we need to achieve starts out at roughly a doubling of the efficacy of the SENS therapies every 40 years and actually declines thereafter. By "doubling of efficacy" I mean a halving of the amount of damage that still cannot be repaired.

So there you have it. We will almost certainly take centuries to reach the level of control over aging that we have over the aging of vintage cars—totally comprehensive, indefinite maintenance of full function—but because longevity escape velocity is not very fast, we will probably achieve something functionally equivalent within only a few decades from now, at the point where we have therapies giving middle-aged people 30 extra years of youthful life.

I think we can call that the fountain of youth, don't you?


  1. I first used the phrase "escape velocity" in print in the paper arising from the second SENS workshop—de Grey ADNJ, Baynes JW, Berd D, Heward CB, Pawelec G, Stock G. Is human aging still mysterious enough to be left only to scientists? BioEssays 2002;24(7):667-676. My first thorough description of the concept, however, didn't appear until two years later: de Grey ADNJ. Escape velocity: why the prospect of extreme human life extension matters now. PLoS Biology 2004;2(6):e187.
  2. Gates disburses these funds through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/
  3. Buffett's decision to donate most of his wealth to the Gates Foundation was announced in June 2006 and is the largest act of charitable giving in United States history.

[Excerpted from Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime by Aubrey de Grey with Michael Rae, St Martin's Press, 2007.]

On "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" By Jonathan Haidt

David Sloan Wilson, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, PZ Myers

DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Alas, even the best minds can fall under the spell of a cherished cause, and so it is with the new atheists. Jonathan Haidt's article has special force because he is a scientist at the forefront of the study of morality and religion. His critique therefore represents the scientific process in action—scientists holding each other accountable for their factual claims. [...more]

MICHAEL SHERMER: Although I have been actively (and emotionally) involved in combating some of these religious intrusions into social life (e.g., the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes), I find myself in agreement with Haidt in his conclusion that "every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing."[...more]

SAM HARRIS: The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith. [...more]

PZ MYERS: I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people's well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected. [...more]


Religions are not the only belief systems that can become detached from reality. Political ideologies, intellectual movements, and even scientific theories can also distort the facts of the world to promote a cherished cause. The only reason that science is less vulnerable to distortion than other belief systems is because scientists are expected to hold each other accountable for their factual claims.

The new atheism has no legitimacy whatsoever unless it is grounded in scientific reason and evidence. To the average observer, this legitimacy might seem to be assured by the credentials of proponents such as Daniel Dennett, an eminent philosopher, and Richard Dawkins, an eminent spokesperson for science and evolution. Alas, even the best minds can fall under the spell of a cherished cause, and so it is with the new atheists. Jonathan Haidt's article has special force because he is a scientist at the forefront of the study of morality and religion. His critique therefore represents the scientific process in action—scientists holding each other accountable for their factual claims.

The issues at stake go beyond religion per se to include the nature of all moral systems. According to Haidt, moral systems are inherently about the functional organization of groups. This might seem so obvious that it can't be new, but what was obvious to Durkheim and his peers was widely rejected during the 2nd half of the 20th century, in the social sciences in addition to evolutionary biology. Only now are we beginning to explain in formal scientific terms how large-scale cooperation can evolve by genetic and cultural evolution. In his crusade against religion, Richard Dawkins also distorts his own home field of evolution by ignoring this literature and claiming that "From a Darwinian point of view, human super-niceness is just plain dumb."

For the rest of this commentary I will focus on how the new atheists respond to scientific criticism, which indicates the weakness of their position. Major questions that need to be answered about religion include: 1) Is there any empirically verifiable evidence for the existence of supernatural agents? 2) If not, how can we explain the phenomenon of religion in naturalistic terms? 3) What are the impacts of religion, good or bad, on human welfare? 4) How can we use our understanding of religion to advance the goals of a stable and peaceful society? The new atheists have much to say about all four questions, not just question 1. Yet, in response to critiques of The God Delusion, Dawkins has protested that his only interest is in the literal existence of God, whatever the answers to questions 2-4 might turn out to be. This is like a debater leaving the debate after the opening round. Dawkins and the other new atheists need to be held accountable for everything that they say about religion and morality. I hope that other contributors to this Edge conversation will join Haidt in helping to correct the all-to-human tendency for scientists to become true believers in their own right.


Is religion a force for good or evil? Yes. And with the confirmation bias firmly ensconced in our brains—where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence—it is simply a matter of scanning the social landscape and picking out examples to support whatever answer you have already formulated to this question.

On the good side, there is Arthur C. Brooks' data in his 2006 book Who Really Cares, showing that religious conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals and nonreligious people (even when controlled for income), they give more blood and log more volunteer hours; religious people are four times more generous than secularists to all charities, 10 percent more munificent to non-religious charities, and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. Those raised in intact and religious families are more charitable than those who are not. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are "very happy" than nongivers, and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is "excellent" or "very good."

On the evil side, there is Gregory Paul's 2005 data published in the Journal of Religion and Society demonstrating an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies, where the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In his thoughtful Edge essay Jonathan Haidt wrestles with this problem, correctly demonstrating that the response by atheists and secularists toward the insurgence of extreme religionists in American politics is more emotional than it is rational. Although I have been actively (and emotionally) involved in combating some of these religious intrusions into social life (e.g., the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes), I find myself in agreement with Haidt in his conclusion that "every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing."

As a social primate species we evolved moral emotions that set up a tension between within-group morality (where we tend to be pro-social and cooperative with our fellow group members) and between-group morality (where we tend to be xenophobic and tribal against out-group members and other groups). Informal means of behavior control work well when group numbers are small and groups are spread out. When tiny bands and tribes coalesced into large chiefdoms and states over the past 10,000 years, however, two social institutions evolved to codify and enforce the rules of social cooperation: government and religion. For many millennia both have had a monopoly on how humans should live with one another in large state societies. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution are only a couple of centuries in development and thus we have our work cut out for us to convince the vast majority of the world that reason and science can and should be employed to enhance our moral emotions to reinforce the values our reason leads us to choose.

SAM HARRIS [9.13.07]

In his essay, "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, "Jonathan Haidt worries that the "new atheists"—Dawkins, Dennett, and I—may be "polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process." According to Haidt, Dawkins becomes the Grand Inquisitor whenever the topic of group selection is politely raised; Dennett has misinterpreted the literature on religion and morality for reasons inscrutable; and for my part, I am merely waging war with straw men. As luck would have it, Haidt comes to this debate in the guise an increasingly familiar "straw man"—that of the liberal, atheist scientist who would deliver us to the threshold of moral relativism, if not across it, with the best of intentions.

Haidt concludes his essay with this happy blandishment: "every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing." Surely we can all agree about this. Our bets have been properly hedged (the ideology must be "longstanding" and need only have "some" wisdom). Even a "new atheist" must get off his high horse and drink from such pristine waters. Well, okay…

Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there's nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to "suppress selfishness" and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren't the only culture to have discovered "human flourishing" at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.

What would Haidt have us think about these venerable traditions of pious ignorance and senseless butchery? Is there some wisdom in these cults of human sacrifice that we should now honor? Must we take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? Or might we want to eat that baby instead? Indeed, many of these societies regularly terminated their rituals of sacred murder with a cannibal feast. Is my own revulsion at these practices a sign that I view these distant cultures with the blinkered gaze of a colonialist? Shall we just reserve judgment until more of the facts are in? When does scientific detachment become perverse? When might it be suicidal?

Despite Haidt's suggestion to the contrary, it actually matters what people believe. Most religious practices are the direct consequence of what people think is actually going on in the world. In fact, most religious practices only become intelligible once we understand the beliefs that first gave rise to them. The fact that some people have begun to doubt these doctrines in the meantime, while still mouthing the liturgy and aping the rituals, is beside the point. What religion, after all, is best exemplified by those who are in the process of losing it?

Haidt draws comfort from the fact that even biblical literalists occasionally yield to common sense and ignore their holy books. Of course they do: their holy books are not only bursting with ancient ignorance—they are actually self-contradictory. Is Haidt suggesting that there are no real religious fundamentalists out there at all, or that their numbers are negligible? According to a recent poll, thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) think apostates should be put to death for their unbelief. Just how much exculpatory sociology is Haidt inclined to do in this area so as to get Islam entirely off the hook? When is a belief system not only false, but so encouraging of falsity and needless suffering as to be worthy, not merely of our understanding, but of our contempt?

Haidt offers us a choice between "contractual" and "beehive" approaches to morality—the first is said to be the province of liberals like myself, who care only about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity; the second represents the social order imposed by conservative religion, which incorporates further concerns about ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The opposition between these two conceptions of the good life may be useful to talk about, and the data Haidt presents about the differences between liberals and conservatives is interesting, but is his interpretive scheme correct? I have my doubts. It seems possible, for instance, that these five foundations of morality are simply facets of a more general concern for harm/care.

What, after all, is the problem with desecrating a copy of the Qur'an or taking the Lord's name in vain? Well, if a person really believes that the Qur'an is a sacred text or that God is listening, he almost surely believes that some harm could come to him or to his tribe as a result of these actions—if not in this world, then in the next. Examples of this sort of thinking should come so readily to the reader's mind as to make any examples I provide superfluous (AIDS as a punishment for the sin of homosexuality? The Asian tsunami as repayment for idolatry? September 11th as the result of too little faith and too much tolerance for abortion and gay shenanigans?). A more esoteric reading might be that any person who blasphemes or desecrates will have harmed himself directly thereby: a lack of reverence might be its own punishment, dimming the eyes of faith. Whatever interpretation we favor, sacredness and authority have collapsed to the harm/care axis just the same. Perhaps Haidt's thinking on this subject has been powerfully distorted by his own atheism, as he seems incapable of seeing the world as the faithful see it. We might well wonder, at this juncture, just which of us atheists are in danger of "misunderstanding religion." At least Dennett, Dawkins, and I have made some attempt to understand what it might be like to actually believe what people of faith say they believe.

The same point can be made in the other direction: even a liberal like myself, enamored as I am of my two-footed morality, can readily see that my version of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of others. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I even expect that conservative epiphanies of this sort could well multiply in the coming years—just imagine how we liberals will be disposed to think about Islam after an incident of nuclear terrorism. Liberal hankering for happiness and freedom might one day yield some very strident calls for stricter laws and tribal loyalty. Will this mean that liberals have become religious conservatives pining for the beehive? Or is the liberal notion of reducing harm flexible enough to encompass the need for order and differences between in-group and out-group?

Even if we accept Haidt's "new synthesis" without caveat, we can ask whether any given culture is raising its children to have "bad" moral intuitions and to be incapable of the sort of moral reasoning that might lead to a more enlightened outlook. Are certain conceptions of morality especially good at binding a community together, but incompatible with modernity? What if certain cultures are found to be relying upon moral codes that look terrible no matter how we squint our eyes or jigger Haidt's five variables and four principles? What if we find a culture that is neither especially sensitive to harm and reciprocity, nor especially cognizant of the sacred, nor especially conducive to human flourishing, nor especially astute in any other way? Would Haidt's conception of morality allow us to then demand that these benighted people to stop abusing their children? Or would that be unscientific?

Finally, I should mention that Haidt fails to acknowledge the central point of "new atheist" criticism. The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good (though I think this can be argued, and the balance seems to me to be swinging further toward harm each day). The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it. And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet—by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith. Even if Haidt's reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe. It is time that atheist scientists, above all people on this infatuated planet, acted as if this were so.

PZ MYERS [9.13.07]

Jonathan Haidt has written a complicated article on moral psychology and the misunderstanding of religion. I'm going to give it a mixed review. The first part, on moral psychology, is fascinating and a good read that I think clarifies a few ideas about morality. The second part, though, where he tries to apply his insights about morality to the New Atheists*, fails badly. I can see where he has thought deeply about morality, but unfortunately, he hasn't thought clearly about the New Atheism (and perhaps that isn't entirely his fault. We're "New", after all, and I don't think the structure and goals of these New Atheists have quite gelled yet.)

Haidt makes the case with some sophistication that emotion and experience play a greater role in morality than has typically been credited—we don't make decisions about what is right to do by cooly and objectively weighing evidence and alternatives, but instead make judgments rapidly and intuitively. Often the reasoning part of our morality comes after the fact, as an attempt to cobble together an intellectual justification for a moral position we've already taken on the basis of deeper biases. And finally, that morality is a tool that may very well have strong adaptive value in binding individuals in a society together and fostering cooperation.

He also provides a clear, simple definition for morality that I like very much.

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.

That covers about half the essay. Unfortunately, then he tries to bring these ideas about morality to bear in a criticism of the New Atheists, and there … well, the linkage simply disintegrates. Haidt makes many assumptions that he doesn't justify (although this essay is obviously much shorter than his book; maybe the justifications are there) about both religion and the New Atheists that make his criticisms feel peculiarly irrelevant to me.

One deep flaw in his argument is an implicit shift in the target. He makes a good general definition of moral systems; religion is simply assumed to be a moral system; Dawkins and Harris criticize religion strongly; now, suddenly, Haidt starts treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems. This is simply wrong. I'm all for moral systems, and I suspect both Dawkins and Harris would agree that a good moral system, especially as defined by Haidt, is essential. The argument is much narrower. Is religion a good moral system? (Our answer is no.) Are there significant aspects of religion that do not represent a moral system at all, and actually make social life more difficult? (Yes.) And can we erect a better moral system that is stripped of the supernatural and much of the pathological baggage that afflicts religion? (Yes, optimistically, but the implementation remains to be done.)

Haidt doesn't even seem to recognize the possibility of these questions, let alone try to argue for different answers. He seems to have made them vanish, reducing them to tautologies, by equating religion with moral systems. This section reads like an unconscious echo of the tired canard that atheists are amoral — it lacks any appreciation of the fact that these New Atheists are all espousing moral behavior in a framework that simply rejects the false virtues of faith. This is especially odd since Haidt is also an atheist; it must be just the New Atheists who are the immoral ones.

We also get another familiar trope, that the New Atheists are just another religion with heresies and orthodoxies and unscientific thinking. I'm beginning to get the feeling that the New Atheists are really just the new outgroup, the bad Other on which the Old Atheists can now turn the same old tired arguments that theists used against us all, once upon a time. The sins are to be concentrated upon a vocal few, who may then be safely cast out.

Haidt's argument in this case is particularly weak. It seems to rest largely on the fact that Dawkins dismissed the possibility of group selection favoring religion in The God Delusion. But Dawkins spent several pages discussing group selection models in the book, and is far from dogmatic in rejecting it: he says, "Those of us who belittle group selection admit that in principle it can happen. The question is whether it amounts to a significant force in evolution." He also doesn't merely dismiss it, but gives several reasons why he rejects it, with examples…it is false to claim as Haidt does that he dismisses "a credible position without reasons". Now I'm certainly more sympathetic to the idea of group selection than Dawkins, but I'm also going to provisionally reject it here for another good reason that Dawkins discusses at some length — we don't have any evidence that religion is adaptive in any way! If anyone wants to present the supporting evidence for group selection, it is most definitely not going to be using religion as an example. It's too complicated, it's too nebulous, we don't even have good evidence that it's a heritable attribute, and it's all in a species that isn't easily subject to testing.

If that part of the case is weak, though, the conclusion is monumental in its flabbiness, and collapses completely. Its ignorance of what the New Atheism is about is absolute.

Here's the argument: Haidt says that "surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people," and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion—it might well have something useful to tell us.

I've heard that same story often, and it does not convince. Note that the US is currently suffering the social and international consequences of its recent domination by the religious right, and that atheists are, if not an actively oppressed minority, a minority that is urged to be silent. I would be absolutely gobsmacked if surveys showed that we were happier than Christians about this state of affairs.

We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, "I thought I was the only atheist around here!" — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.

Similarly, atheists may not give as much for a very good reason divorced from the essence of their lack of religious beliefs: who are they going to give to? I am surrounded by requests for charity, and most of them are for religious organizations that I do not trust. There is a great deal of charitable giving that is assessed in these surveys as a moral virtue, but that I consider a moral detriment: why should I contribute to the construction of church buildings, the employment of priests, or the sending of missionaries to Africa? I question whether we should consider those charities at all; rather, they seem to be self-serving propaganda and oppression efforts.

These surveys that Haidt believes are evidence of a virtue in religion actually have a different meaning. They state that scattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them. It is community that benefits people, not religion. Unfortunately, in this same essay, Haidt apparently deplores the efforts by Dawkins to engage in consciousness raising and the building of a community of atheists, precisely the thing that I suspect would reveal the hollowness of those surveys and would give the godless those benefits of which we are mostly currently deprived.

Strangely, Haidt wants to claim that the New Atheists have been trying to close their eyes and deny the results of surveys that show the religious as happier and healthier. Note that I do not. I think the results of those surveys are weak and biased, and tend to be over-interpreted to favor the virtues of religion, but I'll readily concede that yes, the Christian majority in America tends to be happy with its dominance and that they do have institutions to care for their own. I will also point out that Dawkins concedes this point as well, and adds an important caveat: "I wish it were not necessary to add that such beneficial effects in no way boost the truth value of religion's claims." And there we have a critical point, one that Dr Haidt overlooks entirely.

This is not an argument about whether the faithful are happier, or longer-lived, or more moral (I should point out, too, that Haidt's own definition of moral systems that I liked so much does not include happiness or longevity in its terms). It's about the truth of their claims. It's about whether we should trust social institutions that are both founded on falsehood and lack mechanisms for correcting error.

I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we'd often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by. They were ecstatic. If we are to judge the value and virtue of a "moral system" by the happiness of its followers, then the Rajneeshis were contesting for the pinnacle of radiant glee; interviews would always have them gushing over the Baghwan, and I'm sure that any survey would have shown them far exceeding the happiness quotient of us sullen, gloomy, miserable atheists.

Shall we assess the merits of any social institution by the professions of happiness of its followers? Is that what we want?

By my side right now, I have a small plush animal. If it were conclusively shown that beliefs in a god or religion were definitely beneficial in and of themselves, that humans needed this little kernel of worship in order to thrive a little better, and I said that my toy octopus was a god, lord and savior of us all, and if only you believed in him, you would gain an empirically demonstrable extra year of life and a quantifiable increase in your happiness, what would you do? Would you abandon one little piece of rationality and bow down before the toy? Would you even be capable of that level of credulity?

I would say that the New Atheists definitely would not, not even for an extra year of life (I don't know about the rest of you; I'm beginning to be suspicious.) We couldn't. I would also say we shouldn't. There is more to our lives than the raw quantity of it, and bliss isn't the ultimate goal of our existence — I think even the American religious who are the subject of those surveys might be a little aghast at the idea that the purpose of their belief was to help them cling to a life of hedonism for as long as possible. I would sacrifice a little happiness to know the truth, and I would find no consolation in a lie, no matter how cheerful that lie might be. I'm sure there was a time when I was extremely happy about Santa Claus, but that was long ago, and I have no desire to return to that state of blissful ignorance. I grew up. Most of us do.

Haidt closes his essay with another trite accusation. The New Atheists might help advance the cause of atheism, but it muddles up science with "moralistic dogma" and damages the "prestige of science" — we're hurting the cause, that tiresome old whine. Oh, please, do buck up. The New Atheism isn't about throwing away moral systems or introducing a new dogma, it's about opening up a protected realm to inquiry and sweeping away old cobwebs, refusing to allow people to hide absurd ideas from criticism behind the foolish plea of faith. It's much more compatible with the spirit of science to question the follies of the priests than to argue that because priests hand out charity, we should overlook the fact that they also claim that gods speak to them and tell them who is naughty and who is nice, and that the good boys and girls will receive magical rewards.

I entirely agree with Haidt that many religious people are good people, that religion has incorporated moral systems that contribute to people's well-being, and that there are kernels of wisdom in religious thought. Where I disagree is that I see the superstition and dogma and error of religion as separable from those desirable elements — that religion is not synonymous with morality and is actually an unfortunate excrescence of the human condition that does not have to be and should not be respected.

*I have in the past, and will continue to object to the label "New Atheism" for many reasons. It's becoming clear, though, that the label is going to stick, appropriate or not, so I'll use it under protest. It's sure going to look silly in 2050, though, when it's the Old Atheism.


September 18, 2007

Can't find the words? Make 'em up
By Steven Pinker

A top psychologist examines why — and how — people coin new terms to fill lexical gaps, in this extract from his new book

...Now that we have an inkling of where the sounds of new words come from, we come to the puzzle of which meanings are seen as needing a sound. New words should materialise to fill a lexical gap: a concept that every one wants to express, but for which le mot juste does not yet exist. One has only to overhear the jargon of a specialty – photography, skate-boarding, hip-hop, any academic field – to appreciate that lexical suppliers will step in to meet a demand.

But many gaps in the language simply refuse to be filled: a gender-neutral third-person pronoun to replace he or she; a term for one’s adult children; the early-morning insomnia in which your bladder is too full to allow you to fall back to sleep but you are too tired to get up to go the lavatory. The comedian Rich Hall gave us the word sniglet (an example of itself) for a word that should exist but does not. Eg, Elbonics n. The actions of two people manoeuvering for one arm-rest in a cinema. Peppier n. A waiter whose sole purpose seems to be asking diners if they want ground pepper. Furbling v. Having to go through a maze of ropes at an airport or bank even if you’re the only person in line. Phonesian n. Dialling a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer.


September 18, 2007

Is 'Do Unto Others' Written Into Our Genes?
By Nicholas Wade

...In a series of recent articles and a book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has been constructing a broad evolutionary view of morality that traces its connections both to religion and to politics.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) began his research career by probing the emotion of disgust. Testing people’s reactions to situations like that of a hungry family that cooked and ate its pet dog after it had become roadkill, he explored the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding — when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Dumbfounding led him to view morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern, though the mind is scarcely aware of the difference. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong.


September 18, 2007

Lost in a Million-Year Gap, Solid Clues to Human Origins
By John Noble Wilford

...A skull and other fossils, uncovered by a team led by the Ethiopian anthropologist Berhane Asfaw, were named the new species Australopithecus garhi. The researchers said the specimen had the projecting apelike face, small braincase and limb bones suggesting descent from the much earlier Lucy species. But if this was a candidate ancestor of early Homo, “a lot of evolution had to take place rather quickly” to complete the transition, a scientist said at the time.

With one possible exception, no fossils that are conclusively Homo have appeared in that period, Dr. Rightmire said. “That suggests there was not much Homo around then,” he said.

Nevertheless, Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most experienced hunters of hominid fossils, said that his teams and several others were “pushing hard” to explore sites in Ethiopia and Kenya that may produce evidence of earlier Homo origins. Prospects are uncertain. Some prominent sites of previous hominid discoveries are underlain with lava flows and other geological barriers to digging into the deeper past.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Holding back the years
By Tom Templeton

Ageing is a disease that can be cured. This is the radical claim that has made biomedical theorist Aubrey de Grey a popular hero of gerontology - and a maverick among the science community. Tom Templeton meets the man who wants us to live for 1,000 years

...Among these diners are the wizards of the 21st century: molecular biologists who study the building blocks and mechanisms of the body - what keeps us alive, what kills us, in essence - in order that humans might gain greater control over their lives and deaths. The wizards have their different theories, sources of funding, loyalties and groups of acolytes. The world of biological research is in some ways a democratic world of shared humanistic aims, but it is also steeply hierarchical - from lab technicians at the bottom, up to Nobel prize winners - and much of the direction in which science travels is decided by the high-status personalities. These eminent men and women sit on public and private funding boards that decide where the money spent on health research and development ($126bn in 2003) should go. They build their reputations by publishing papers in journals and presiding over laboratories that make important breakthroughs, creating something where there was nothing, and changing our futures.

These are the titans of the biological revolution: that man over there in the suit is Professor Hwang Woo-suk, stem-cell scientist and, this summer, the first person to clone a dog - an Afghan hound named Snuppy. There's Professor Song Chang-hun, the Korean who made a paralysis victim of 19 years walk by injecting stem cells into her spine. And that one with the moustache is Professor Buddy Ratner; he's engineering a heart - yes, literally growing it out of cells on a mini-scaffold in a laboratory in Seattle.|

Then, finally, there's Aubrey de Grey, a scruffy, self-taught, biomedical theorist who is currently creating something of a stir in the world of gerontology - the study of ageing. With long auburn hair and beard, and a spare frame hung with T-shirt and drainpipe jeans, the 43-year-old doesn't look the sort of person that Hollywood has led us to believe will save the human race from destruction, but that is what he is trying to do. He is devoting his professional life to convincing people that ageing is a disease that can and should be cured.


September 16, 2007


Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

By George Johnson

In an talk on Edge.org, Dr. Pepperberg told of an effort to teach the parrot about phonemes using colored tokens marked with letter combinations like sh and ch.

“What sound is green?”

“Ssshh,” Alex answered correctly, and then demanded a nut. Instead he got another question.

“What sound is orange?”


“Good bird!”

“Want a nut!” Alex demanded. The interview was over. “Want a nut!” he repeated. “Nnn ... uh ... tuh.”

Dr. Pepperberg was flabbergasted. “Not only could you imagine him thinking, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?’ ” she said. “This was in a sense his way of saying to us, ‘I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it.’ ”

She is quick to concede the impossibility of proving that the bird was actually verbalizing its internal deliberations. Only Alex knew for sure.


September 16, 2007


How bird brains are shaking up science
By Jonah Lehrer

For most of the 20th century, "bird brain" has been used as an insult. Noting the stark structural differences between human and bird brains, anatomists concluded that birds are essentially flying reptiles. Their minds were too tiny for thought. But in recent years, scientists have discovered that the bird brain doesn't deserve its reputation.

In 2005, Alex wowed many scientists when he began spontaneously using the word "none" to represent a rudimentary conception of zero. He also enjoyed inventing new words for things: he referred to almonds as "cork nuts," since the texture of the nut resembles that of a wine cork. An apple was a "banerry," a combination of two of his favorite other fruits, bananas and cherries.

"All of these cognitive abilities weren't supposed to be possible in birds," says Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who worked with Alex. "But Alex showed us just what a bird brain is capable of."


September 14, 2007


Mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers
By Max Tegmark

What is the universe really made of? Physicist Max Tegmark has an extreme take on the quest for a theory of everything

...My personal quest for this theory begins with an extreme argument about what it is allowed to look like. If we assume that reality exists independently of humans, then for a description to be complete, it must also be well defined according to non-human entities - aliens or supercomputers, say - that lack any understanding of human concepts. Put differently, such a description must be expressible in a form that is devoid of human baggage like "particle", "observation" or other English words.

In contrast, all physics theories that I have been taught have two components: mathematical equations, and words that explain how the equations are connected to what we observe and intuitively understand. When we derive the consequences of a theory, we introduce concepts - protons, stars, molecules - because they are convenient. However, it is we humans who create these concepts. In principle, everything could be calculated without this baggage: a sufficiently powerful supercomputer could calculate how the state of the universe evolves over time without interpreting it in human terms.

All of this raises the question: is it possible to find a description of external reality that involves no baggage? If so, such a description of objects in this reality and the relations between them would have to be completely abstract, forcing any words or symbols to be mere labels with no preconceived meanings whatsoever. Instead, the only properties of these entities would be those embodied by the relations between them.

This is where mathematics comes in.


September 14, 2007

A fate worse than global warming.
The Greatest Dying
By Jerry Coyne & Hopi E. Hoekstra

...OUR ARGUMENTS so far have tacitly assumed that species are worth saving only in proportion to their economic value and their effects on our quality of life, an attitude that is strongly ingrained, especially in Americans. That is why conservationists always base their case on an economic calculus. But we biologists know in our hearts that there are deeper and equally compelling reasons to worry about the loss of biodiversity: namely, simple morality and intellectual values that transcend pecu- niary interests. What, for example, gives us the right to destroy other creatures? And what could be more thrilling than looking around us, seeing that we are surrounded by our evolutionary cousins, and realizing that we all got here by the same simple process of natural selection? To biologists, and potentially everyone else, apprehending the genetic kinship and common origin of all species is a spiritual experience-- not necessarily religious, but spiritual nonetheless, for it stirs the soul.

But, whether or not one is moved by such concerns, it is certain that our future is bleak if we do nothing to stem this sixth extinction. We are creating a world in which exotic diseases flourish but natural medicinal cures are lost; a world in which carbon waste accumulates while food sources dwindle; a world of sweltering heat, failing crops, and impure water. In the end, we must accept the possibility that we ourselves are not immune to extinction. Or, if we survive, perhaps only a few of us will remain, scratching out a grubby existence on a devastated planet. Global warming will seem like a secondary problem when humanity finally faces the consequences of what we have done to nature: not just another Great Dying, but perhaps the greatest dying of them all.


September 13, 2007

Google Backs $25 Million ‘Lunar X Prize’
By John Schwartz
The contest calls for entrants to land a rover on the moon that can travel at least 500 meters and send data.

The new X Prize, Dr. Diamandis said, grew out of research performed last year for NASA as a contest that the space agency would sponsor. The research suggested that six or seven credible contenders could be expected to try for the prize, but NASA ultimately backed away from financing the project, Dr. Diamandis said. “We were left with a very strong concept, but without a funder,” he said.

Then, in March, Dr. Diamandis pitched the idea to Google’s cofounder, Larry Page, who sits on the board of the X Prize foundation, at a foundation fundraiser.

Mr. Page’s reply provides a stark distinction between the ways of government and of billionaire entrepreneurs. “Sounds like a lot of fun,” he told Dr. Diamandis.

The multimillion-dollar project, Mr. Page said, would be “doable,” but his Google cofounder, Sergey Brin, would have to sign on as well. This also happened quickly, Dr. Diamandis recalled.

In a video statement prepared to accompany the announcement, Mr. Brin said that “we believe in the entrepreneurial spirit to accomplish the most ambitious tasks."


September 12, 2007

An interview with Alex, the African grey parrot

In 1996, former Scientific American editor Madhusree Mukerjee paid Alex a visit at Pepperberg's lab, then at the University of Arizona. Her report from that memorable encounter follows below.


September 12, 2007

The Book of Life
Riz Kahn

In the 1990s, Craig Venter led the race to map the human genome, the sequence of genes that govern the makeup of every cell of our bodies.

After completing his original project in 2000 he donated his own DNA for a new project: unveiling the six-billion-letter genome of a single individual.

That achievement was reached last week, when Venter's institute, the J Craig Venter Institute, announced that it had completed its work to decode Venter's genome.

Although it will take decades to unravel the secrets of the human genome, scientists say the new breakthroughs will help them predict who is prone to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, mental illnesses, and everything else that afflicts us.

They also are working on medicines tailored to work according to each body's DNA – medicines that will make today's cures seem prehistoric.

Not one to shy from scientific and political battles, Venter promises to work on projects to manipulate DNA, and to find new alternative sources of energy.

Watch the episode here...

September 12, 2007

Essays and Opinion

Suppose a family cooks and eats its dog, after the pet is killed by a car. What’s wrong with that? Our moral intuitions are a morass of reason and emotion...


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

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WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

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