Edge 225 —October 3, 2007
(3,650 words)


THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER

"WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION? YOUR ALGORITHM?"
A "World Question Center" Special Event

An Edge-Serpentine Gallery Collaboration

THE REALITY CLUB

Marc D. Hauser
On "Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion" By Jonathan Haidt

EDGE IN THE NEWS

THE BISMARK TRIBUNE
Discovering beliefs, core values online
By Keith Darnay

THIRD CULTURE NEWS

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Future of Bioenergy
By Juan Enriquez

VALLEYWAG
Boing Boing to launch daily Internet-TV show

WASHINGTON POST
On Faith
The Problem with Atheism
By Sam Harris

SALON
Our rosy future, according to Freeman Dyson
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

BLOGGINGHEADS TV
John Horgan & Carl Zimmer

THE NATION
Root and Branch
By Ian Hacking



COMING SOON: A WORLD QUESTION CENTER SPECIAL EVENT
Midnight (GMT), Saturday, October 13


"WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION? YOUR ALGORITHM?"



AN EDGESERPENTINE GALLERY COLLABORATION

Introduction

I recently paid a visit to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London to see Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, a long-time friend with whom I have a mutual connection: we both worked closely with the late James Lee Byars, the conceptual artist who, in 1971, implemented "The World Question Center" as a work of conceptual art.

I was delighted to find the walls of Obrist's office covered with single pages of size A4 paper on which artists, writers, scientists had responded to his question: "What Is Your Formula?" Among the pieces were formulas by quantum physicist David Deutsch, artist and musician Brian Eno, architect Rem Koolhaas, and fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.

Within minutes we had hatched an Edge-Serpentine collaboration for a World Question Center project, which would further the reach of Obrist's question by asking for responses from the science-minded Edge community, thus complementing the rich array of formulas already assembled from distinguished artists such as Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Louise Bourgeois, Gilbert & George, and Rosemarie Trockel.

For the purposes of this collaboration, the question was been broadened to:

"WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION? YOUR ALGORITHM?"

Nearly one hundred members of the Edge community have sent in "pages" for the exhibition. Obrist, in an email to the contributors, wrote:

We are delighted by this collaboration with Edge, which is so vital in this project of presenting exceptional thinkers articulating the significance of formulas and equations in contemporary culture. The project will be publicly presented as part of the 'Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon', a special live event to be held at the Gallery in London on the weekend of the 13 - 14 October.


Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007
© 2007 Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

Photograph © 2007 Luke Hayes Photography

The Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon
10:00 am to 1:30 pm, Sunday 14 October

In addition to the exhibition of the formulas, Edge has been invited to organize a segment of the Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon from 10:00 am to 1:30 pm on Sunday 14 October. The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007, commissioned by Serpentine Director Julia Peyton-Jones and designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson will host the Marathon convened by Eliasson and Obrist on 13 and 14 October. The Serpentine announcement notes that:

...the session includes award-winning psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen who will test the claim 'Do women have more empathy than men?' Contributions from Steven Pinker, Rem Koolhaas, Seirian Sumner and Lewis Wolpert as well as an Edge-Serpentine Gallery presentation of Formulae for the 21st Century, which includes formulas from Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Brian Eno, Janna Levin, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, J. Craig Venter, and many more.

This year’s Pavilion has been conceived as a laboratory for experimentation and invention with artists, architects, academics and scientists being invited to present ‘hand-held’ or ‘table-top’ experiments throughout the weekend.

JB


MARC D. HAUSER

Jon Haidt is certainly one of our most creative and influential social psychologists today. His views on morality, and especially moral intuitions fueled by emotions, have opened a new wave of research.  In fact, if it hadn’t been for Haidt’s important conceptual work in the early 2000s, most of us, myself included, would not be doing the kind of work we are doing today.  Since several commentators have already discussed Haidt’s critique of the new atheists, I would like to take a different approach here, and pick on a few points that come up in his essay.  In brief, though there is much to admire in Haidt’s psychological perspective on morality and religion, there is much lacking in his evolutionary theorizing.

Haidt states "Yet even if belief in gods was initially a byproduct, as long as such beliefs had consequences for behavior then it seems likely that natural selection operated upon phenotypic variation and favored the success of individuals and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid."  This is bad evolutionary reasoning, and the kind of speculation that ultimately led Gould and Lewontin to have a field day with loose just-so stories. But there is more.  Just because there is variation doesn’t mean it will be selected. It has to be heritable variation. One has to show that the belief systems are genetically passed on in some way, or one has to argue for cultural selection, which is an entirely different affair, at least at the level of mechanism and timing of change. I don’t see any evidence that the observed variation in beliefs is heritable in a genetic sense.

Haidt states "…Dawkins has referred to group selection in interviews as a "heresy," and in The God Delusion he dismisses it without giving a reason. In chapter 5 he states the standard Williams free rider objection, notes the argument that religion is a way around the Williams objection, concedes that Darwin believed in group selection, and then moves on.
Dismissing a credible position without reasons, and calling it a heresy (even if tongue in cheek), are hallmarks of standard moral thinking, not scientific thinking."

The main reason many biologists, Dawkins included, have classically rejected group selection thinking in favor of individual or gene level selection is because of both the explanatory power of the latter, as well as the predictions that follow from thinking about the world from a gene’s eye view. In particular, as soon as Hamilton, Williams and Trivers turned our attention to the level of the gene, the empirical torrent that followed was overwhelming. There were, and continue to be, literally thousands upon thousands of confirmatory papers on insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, humans included. Much, much less can be said of the "new" group selection, and this includes work on humans.  So Dawkins’ rejection is anything but facile, though it may appear so in a popular book which doesn’t really have as its main target, these kinds of details.

Haidt states, following a quote from Dennett’s "Breaking the Spell" that "I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities." 

Brooks’ result is of interest, but perhaps a more fundamental question is whether religious background influences moral judgment? This kind of question attempts to distinguish issues concerning the evolution of morality as a biological faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong from the ways in which cultural factors, including religion, can alter what we do in explicit cases.  Though the results are only beginning to emerge, my sense is that the effects of religious background are small or non-existent when it comes to aspects of our intuitive judgments, especially when we move away from familiar and well rehearsed cases. Consider a classic fantasy dilemma in moral philosophy, first articulated by Judy Thomson—the so-called violin case. 

Thomson’s interest at the time (circa 1970) was the debate over abortion.  In particular, she wanted to explore the claim, often assumed without argument, that the fetus has an obligatory right to the mother’s body. In her hypothetical case, a woman wakes up one morning to find a man, lying unconscious, next to her. Another man introduces himself and says "I am from the Society for Music Lovers. The man lying unconscious next to you is the world’s most famous violinist. He is in kidney failure.  While you were asleep, we plugged him into you. If you stay plugged in for the next nine months, he will survive. But if you unplug now, he will certainly die."  In one version of the story, the woman unplugs immediately; in a second version, perhaps approximating current cases of abortion more closely (i.e., restrictions on when it is legally permissible to abort), the woman unplugs after two months.

If you ask atheists and people with a religious background about the violin case, and especially the version that involves a 2 month period of staying attached, our results suggest no effect of religious background on judgments about the permissibility of detaching from the violinist.  That is, though it would be nice of the woman to stay plugged in for nine months, she is not obliged.  And whether you are an atheist or religious, you see things in the same light. What is important about this case, and others, is that it reveals a core difference between our evolved moral psychology, part of what I consider the core of our species’ moral psychology, and the cultural principles that are handed down for specific cases by specific institutions such as religion and government.

Haidt states: "These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk."  Why morally superior? Perhaps they are better rule followers, worried about God’s lightening bolt! Perhaps they are better conditioned by their religious institution? 

The experiment is a bad one:  do religious people give more because of religion or because they would have given more anyways? Perhaps the people who join a religion would have been bigger altruists even if they had never entered the church, synagogue, or mosque. We simply can’t tell from such data. Dennett may be wrong, but Haidt isn’t correct in his interpretation of such results.  Fortunately, the kinds of insights that Haidt has brought forward in this domain means that we need not rely on armchair intuition to resolve such issues. We are in a new period of empirical enlightenment. Let the science of morality guide the way brother jon.


Return to MORAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION By Jonathan Haidt



THE BISMARK TRIBUNE
October 1, 2007

Discovering beliefs, core values online
Keith Darnay

Another great site to visit is Edge (http://www.edge.org). The mission is to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."

That, alone, is a lot to ponder. But what the site is best known for is its series of provocative questions posed to the world's leading scientists and thinkers. One year, the question was, "What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?" Another question was, "What do you consider to be your most dangerous idea?"

In answering these and other questions, the writers and readers explore fundamental ideas, concepts and beliefs that everyone has considered at one point in their lives to which they discover there is no final answer.

For example, French physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, "I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist; that is, there is a consistent way of thinking about nature that makes no use of the notions of time and space at the fundamental level."

Communications expert Howard Rheingold writes, "I believe that we humans, who know so much about cosmology and immunology, lack a fundamental framework for thinking about why and how humans cooperate."

The Edge Web site questions prompted the publication of several books cataloging hundreds of the responses.

You can read those short essays online as well as examine other issues and topics put out for public discussion. This site is a nice complement to the "This I Believe" site and concept.

These sites and the topics discussed are examples of how the Internet can be used in a positive manner. It seems we hear so much about what's wrong with the Internet that, on those rare occasions when something positive can be found in the digital world, that news needs to be loudly and widely recognized. ...



THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 2, 2007


The Future of Bioenergy
By Juan Enriquez

...Over the next decade, improvements in energy production will likely come to depend far more on understanding the biology of energy than its chemistry. As we grow bugs that like to eat sulfur, it will be a lot easier and cheaper to turn heavy crude into sweet crude. As we understand the microbial communities that lead to differential pressures in wells, we can become far better at extracting oil than by finding one more drilling fluid or learning new ways to fracture wells.

We have barely begun to scratch the surface. Today's efforts to use plants to power our SUVs are primitive at best. Plants are not programmed to make gasoline, nor are bacteria. Ethanol is simply a complex and expensive byproduct. But then again yesterday's corn and wheat were not programmed to grow fast, large and golden. That change required biologists.

The same will be true of today's primitive biofuels. Last month Science magazine reported the first full transplant of DNA from one cell to another. That is the first step in being able to program cells specifically for energy production on a massive and efficient scale. It is the birth of a new and potentially very large industry, one comparable in scale to biotechnology. ...



VALLEYWAG
October 2, 2007

Boing Boing to launch daily Internet-TV show



Is any blogger still satisfied with merely blogging? The quirky alternative website Boing Boing, which claims 7.5 million monthly viewers, will debut a daily online video show Wednesday. After closet negotiations with national networks, the Boing Boingers decided to go it alone and own the show themselves. But this is no basement operation. BBtv's Hollywood agent is George Ruiz at clout-wielding ICM, who also handles Christopher Walken, Jennifer Connelly and Richard Dreyfus. Robolicious blogger Xeni Jardin (left), whose TV credits include appearances on Dennis Miller and most of the big nightly newsies, will host. She'll coanchor with fellow BB editor Mark Frauenfelder, best known for his TV appearance in an Apple ad.

The show's publicists gave the Los Angeles Times exclusive dibs on the TV-centric story. (A few goofs in the LAT's first post: Boing Boing began as a printed magazine, not a "webzine" -- there was no World Wide Web in 1989 -- and didn't go online until 1998. Editor David Pescovitz is based in San Francisco, not Paris. Cory Doctorow is in London rather than Tokyo. And here we thought old media factchecked.) But what Net geeks want to know is: Why does Ted Turner's TBS own the boingboing.tv domain? The show's URL will be tv.boingboing.net. ...



WASHINGTON POST
October 2, 2007

ON FAITH

The Problem with Atheism
By Sam Harris

...Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists” or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism. ...



SALON
September 29, 2007

Our rosy future, according to Freeman Dyson
Climate change is nothing to worry about, says the eminent physicist. Let's celebrate genetic engineering and our ability to design a new world of plants and creatures.
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

What do you think of what Richard Dawkins is doing.

I think Richard Dawkins is doing a lot of damage. I disagree very strongly with the way he's going about it. I don't deny his right to be an atheist, but I think he does a great deal of harm when he publicly says that in order to be a scientist, you have to be an atheist. That simply turns young people away from science. He's convinced a lot of young people not to be scientists because they don't want to be atheists. I'm strongly against him on that question. It's simply not true what he's saying, and it's not only not true but also harmful. The fact is that many of my friends are much more religious than I am and are first-rate scientists. There's absolutely nothing that stops you from being both.

Dawkins calls religion as a virus.

I disagree totally. He has the arrogance to say that anyone who does not share his views is infected with a virus. No wonder he cannot coexist peacefully with them.

You've mentioned that you believe in God. How would you characterize your religion?

For me, religion is much more about a community of people than about belief. It's fine literature and music. As far as I can tell, people who belong to my church don't necessarily believe anything. Certainly we don't talk about that much. I suppose I'm a better Jew than I am a Christian. Jewish religion is much more a matter of community than it is of belief, and I think that's true of us Christians to a great extent, too. ...



BLOGGING HEADS TV
Month xx, 2007

John Horgan & Carl Zimmer

Have we already solved the mystery of life?; A parasite odyssey (and theodicy); The problem of biological cooperation; The real deal on group selection; Searching for a definition of life; Alien microbes and little green men; Thinking way, way ahead about biology. ...



THE NATION
October 8, 2007

Root and Branch
By Ian Hacking

...Or read any of the self-indulgent, virulent atheists in circulation today--Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens being just two. Contrary to their professed intentions, such writers buttress the faithful; their loathsome arrogance shields evangelical churches from doubt. That part of the American population that believes God made man in His own image has a heartfelt contempt for know-it-alls. I am inclined to say, God bless the people, even when they get it wrong.

...



PRE-ORDER:

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November 5, 2007


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November 1, 2007

WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better With an Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett, Edited By John Brockman

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

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

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

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


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