Arts & Weekend Seductive power of a hazardous idea

[ Tue. Jan. 10. 2006 ]

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Every year, the literary agent John Brockman invites 100 or so scientists and other thinkers to answer the "edge question". This year it was: "What is your dangerous idea?" In particular, respondents were asked for an idea that would be dangerous if it were true.

The results (collected at give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.

Some of the most insightful contributions come when the thinkers revolt against the implications of their own work. Jared Diamond, for example, warns against the sentimental anthropological fallacy that premodern cultures can do no wrong. (His own Guns, Germs and Steel, unkindly caricatured, would be one example.) On the contrary, he says, tribal peoples often damage their environment and make war.

Kevin Kelly bravely takes on technologists' received wisdom that ever-increasing anonymity is a positive good. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi thinks the free market as ultimate arbiter of political questions is a dangerous idea. The physicist Haim Harari thinks democracy itself is on the way out.

There are, of course, people who refuse to play. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, flatly says the most dangerous idea is the idea that ideas can be dangerous. "Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one." But he seems to be confusing the question of whether ideas can be dangerous, with the question of what to do about them. History is littered with ideas that were genuinely damaging when widely adopted. Richard Dawkins, when coining the notion of the meme, explicitly conceded that, unlike genes, they could be maladaptive to their hosts. Religion was his main example; most forms of irrationality are bad ideas.

Where Gilbert may be right is that in a free society bad ideas will be exposed and wither, and any attempt to control ideas is more dangerous. Seth Lloyd, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the most dangerous idea is the genetic breakthrough that made people capable of ideas themselves. But "to suppress the power of ideas will hasten catastrophe, not avert it". The computer scientist Danny Hillis says loftily that when he has dangerous ideas he doesn't share them.

There are pessimists. David Bodanis worries that the Islamicist critique of western decadence might be true. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, paints a picture of mainstream modern society retreating into technologically enhanced solipsism ("MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronic Arts, rather than rocket science for Nasa"), so that the only people prepared to engage with the physical world are religious fundamentalists and environmentalist Luddites. David Gelernter of Yale pours wonderful scorn on the idea of this being an "information age": if that is true, he says, what exactly are we informed about? Certainly not history, literature, philosophy or scholarship. Kai Krause, a software developer and philosopher, worries that the global drive towards individualism will lead to ever more elaborate acts of terrorism.

But Daniel Dennett goes one bigger: his dangerous idea is that the explosion of ideas is accelerating so fast that we will run out of human minds to contain them. If he is right, all the future holds is a series of mutually incomprehensible monologues. If he is right, the most dangerous ideas are trivial ones, which soak up attention that should be put to better use.