IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"
Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual
spoon is like a headache
spoon is like a headache. This is a dangerous idea in sheep's
clothing. It consumes decrepit ontology, preserves methodological
naturalism, and inspires exploration for a new ontology, a
vehicle sufficiently robust to sustain the next leg of our
search for a theory of everything.
could a spoon and a headache do all this? Suppose I have a
headache, and I tell you about it. It is, say, a pounding headache
that started at the back of the neck and migrated to encompass
my forehead and eyes. You respond empathetically, recalling
a similar headache you had, and suggest a couple remedies.
We discuss our headaches and remedies a bit, then move on to
course no one but me can experience my headaches, and no one
but you can experience yours. But this posed no obstacle to
our meaningful conversation. You simply assumed that my headaches
are relevantly similar to yours, and I assumed the same about
your headaches. The fact that there is no "public headache," no
single headache that we both experience, is simply no problem.
spoon is like a headache. Suppose I hand you a spoon. It is
common to assume that the spoon I experience during this transfer
is numerically identical to the spoon you experience. But this
assumption is false. No one but me can experience my spoon,
and no one but you can experience your spoon. But this is no
problem. It is enough for me to assume that your spoon experience
is relevantly similar to mine. For effective communication,
no public spoon is necessary, just like no public headache
is necessary. Is there a "real spoon," a mind-independent
physical object that causes our spoon experiences and resembles
our spoon experiences? This is not only unnecessary but unlikely.
It is unlikely that the visual experiences of homo sapiens,
shaped to permit survival in a particular range of niches,
should miraculously also happen to resemble the true nature
of a mind-independent realm. Selective pressures for survival
do not, except by accident, lead to truth.
can have a kind of objectivity without requiring public objects.
In special relativity, the measurements, and thus the experiences,
of mass, length and time differ from observer to observer,
depending on their relative velocities. But these differing
experiences can be related by the Lorentz transformation. This
is all the objectivity one can have, and all one needs to do
one abandons public physical objects, one must reformulate
many current open problems in science. One example is the mind-brain
relation. There are no public brains, only my brain experiences
and your brain experiences. These brain experiences are just
the simplified visual experiences of homo sapiens, shaped for
survival in certain niches. The chances that our brain experiences
resemble some mind-independent truth are remote at best, and
those who would claim otherwise must surely explain the miracle.
Failing a clever explanation of this miracle, there is no reason
to believe brains cause anything, including minds. And here
the wolf unzips the sheep skin, and darts out into the open.
The danger becomes apparent the moment we switch from boons
to sprains. Oh, pardon the spoonerism.
Psychologist and Neuroscientist,
University of Maryland; Author, Laughter
is all there is
empirically testable idea that the here and now is all there
is and that life begins at birth and ends at death is so dangerous
that it has cost the lives of millions and threatens the future
of civilization. The danger comes not from the idea itself,
but from its opponents, those religious leaders and followers
who ruthlessly advocate and defend their empirically improbable
afterlife and man-in-the-sky cosmological perspectives.
vigor is understandable. What better theological franchise
is there than the promise of everlasting life, with deluxe
trimmings? Religious followers must invest now with their blood
and sweat, with their big payoff not due until the after-life.
Postmortal rewards cost theologians nothing--I'll match your
heavenly choir and raise you 72 virgins.
franchise! This is even better than the medical profession,
a calling with higher overhead, that has gained control of
birth, death and pain. Whether the religious brand is Christianity
or Islam, the warring continues, with a terrible fate reserved
for heretics who threaten the franchise from within. Worse
may be in store for those who totally reject the man-in-the-sky
premise and its afterlife trappings. All of this trouble over
accepting what our senses tell us—that this is all there
of religious conflict is impossible because there is no empirical
test of the ghostly, and many theologians prey, intentionally
or not, upon the fears, superstitions, irrationality, and herd
tendencies that are our species' neurobehavioral endowment.
Religious fundamentalism inflames conflict and prevents solution—the
more extreme and irrational one's position, the stronger one's
faith, and, when possessing absolute truth, compromise is not
of conflicts between religions and associated cultures is less
likely to come from compromise than from the pursuit of superordinate
goals, common, overarching, objectives that extend across nations
and cultures, and direct our competitive spirit to further
the health, well-being, and nobility of everyone. Public health
and science provide such unifying goals. I offer two examples.
Initiative. A program that improves the health of all people,
especially those in developing nations, may find broad support,
especially with the growing awareness of global culture and
the looming specter of a pandemic. Public health programs bridge
religious, political, and cultural divides. No one wants to
see their children die. Conflicts fall away when cooperation
offers a better life for all concerned. This is also the most
effective anti-terrorism strategy, although one probably unpopular
with the military industrial complex on one side, and terrorist
agitators on the other.
Initiative. Space exploration expands our cosmos and increases
our appreciation of life on Earth and its finite resources.
Space exploration is one of our species' greatest achievements.
Its pursuit is a goal of sufficient grandeur to unite people
of all nations.
is all there is. The sooner we accept this dangerous idea,
the sooner we can get on with the essential task of making
the most of our lives on this planet.
of Psychology, Co-Director
of the Culture and Cognition
Program, University of Michigan;
Geography of Thought: How Asians
and Westerners Think Differently.
. . And Why
More Than We Can Know
you know why you hired your most recent employee over the runner-up?
Do you know why you bought your last pair of pajamas? Do you
know what makes you happy and unhappy?
be too sure. The most important thing that social psychologists
have discovered over the last 50 years is that people are very
unreliable informants about why they behaved as they did, made
the judgment they did, or liked or disliked something. In short,
we don't know nearly as much about what goes on in our heads
as we think. In fact, for a shocking range of things, we don't
know the answer to "Why did I?" any better than an
The first inkling that social psychologists had about just
how ignorant we are about our thinking processes came from
the study of cognitive dissonance beginning in the late 1950s.
When our behavior is insufficiently justified, we move our
beliefs into line with the behavior so as to avoid the cognitive
dissonance we would otherwise experience. But we are usually
quite unaware that we have done that, and when it is pointed
out to us we recruit phantom reasons for the change in attitude.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, social psychologists started
doing experiments about the causal attributions people make
for their own behavior. If you give people electric shocks,
but tell them that you have given them a pill that will produce
the arousal symptoms that are actually created by the shock,
they will take much more shock than subjects without the
pill. They have attributed their arousal to the pill and
are therefore willing to take more shock. But if you ask
them why they took so much shock they are likely to say something
like "I used to work with electrical gadgets and I got
a lot of shocks, so I guess I got used to it."
In the 1970s social psychologists began asking whether people
could be accurate about why they make truly simple judgments
and decisions — such as why they like a person or an
article of clothing.
For example, in one study experimenters videotaped a Belgian
responding in one of two modes to questions about his philosophy
as a teacher: he either came across as an ogre or a saint.
They then showed subjects one of the two tapes and asked
them how much they liked the teacher. Furthermore, they asked
some of them whether the teacher's accent had affected how
much they liked him and asked others whether how much they
liked the teacher influenced how much they liked his accent.
Subjects who saw the ogre naturally disliked him a great
deal, and they were quite sure that his grating accent was
one of the reasons. Subjects who saw the saint realized that
one of the reasons they were so fond of him was his charming
accent. Subjects who were asked if their liking for the teacher
could have influenced their judgment of his accent were insulted
by the question.
Does familiarity breed contempt? On the contrary, it breeds
liking. In the 1980s, social psychologists began showing
people such stimuli as Turkish words and Chinese ideographs
and asking them how much they liked them. They would show
a given stimulus somewhere between one and twenty-five times.
The more the subjects saw the stimulus the more they liked
it. Needless to say, their subjects did not find it plausible
that the mere number of times they had seen a stimulus could
have affected their liking for it. (You're probably wondering
if white rats are susceptible to the mere familiarity effect.
The study has been done. Rats brought up listening to music
by Mozart prefer to move to the side of the cage that trips
a switch allowing them to listen to Mozart rather than Schoenberg.
Rats raised on Schoenberg prefer to be on the Schoenberg
side. The rats were not asked the reasons for their musical
Does it matter that we often don't know what goes on in our
heads and yet believe that we do? Well, for starters, it
means that we often can't answer accurately crucial questions
about what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. A social
psychologist asked Harvard women to keep a daily record for
two months of their mood states and also to record a number
of potentially relevant factors in their lives including
amount of sleep the night before, the weather, general state
of health, sexual activity, and day of the week (Monday blues?
TGIF?). At the end of the period, subjects were asked to
tell the experimenters how much each of these factors tended
to influence their mood over the two month period. The results?
Women's reports of what influenced their moods were uncorrelated
with what they had reported on a daily basis. If a woman
thought that her sexual activity had a big effect, a check
of her daily reports was just as likely to show that it had
no effect as that it did. To really rub it in, the psychologist
asked her subjects to report what influenced the moods of
someone they didn't know: She found that accuracy was just
as great when a woman was rated by a stranger as when rated
by the woman herself!
But if we were to just think really hard about reasons for
behavior and preferences might we be likely to come to the
Actually, just the opposite may often be the case. A social
psychologist asked people to choose which of several art
posters they liked best.
Some people were asked to analyze why they liked or disliked
the various posters and some were not asked, and everyone
was given their favorite poster to take home. Two weeks later
the psychologist called people up and asked them how much
they liked the art poster they had chosen. Those who did
not analyze their reasons liked their posters better than
those who did.
It's certainly scary to think that we're ignorant of so much
of what goes on in our heads, though we're almost surely
better off taking with a large quantity of salt what we and
others say about motives and reasons. Skepticism about our
ability to read our minds is safer than certainty that we
Still, the idea that we have little access to the workings
of our minds is a dangerous one. The theories of Copernicus
and Darwin were dangerous because they threatened, respectively,
religious conceptions of the centrality of humans in the
cosmos and the divinity of humans.
Social psychologists are threatening a core conviction of
the Enlightenment — that humans are perfectible through
the exercise of reason. If reason cannot be counted on to
reveal the causes of our beliefs, behavior and preferences,
then the idea of human perfectibility is to that degree diminished.
Harvard University; Author, The Blank Slate
of people may differ genetically in their average talents
year 2005 saw several public appearances of what will I predict
will become the dangerous idea of the next decade: that groups
of people may differ genetically in their average talents and
January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm
when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical
statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life
March, developmental biologist Armand Leroi published an
op-ed in the New York Times rebutting the conventional
wisdom that race does not exist. (The conventional wisdom
is coming to be known as Lewontin's Fallacy: that because
most genes may be found in all human groups, the groups don't
differ at all. But patterns of correlation among genes
do differ between groups, and different clusters of correlated
genes correspond well to the major races labeled by common
June, the Times reported a forthcoming study by physicist
Greg Cochran, anthropologist Jason Hardy, and population
geneticist Henry Harpending proposing that Ashkenazi Jews
have been biologically selected for high intelligence, and
that their well-documented genetic diseases are a by-product
of this evolutionary history.
September, political scientist Charles Murray published an
article in Commentary reiterating his argument from The
Bell Curve that average racial differences in intelligence
are intractable and partly genetic.
or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences
is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less
so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. Summers was subjected
to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial
differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence,
and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape
have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a
priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the
mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents). The underlying fear,
that reports of group differences will fuel bigotry, is not,
of course, groundless.
intellectual tools to defuse the danger are available. "Is" does
not imply "ought. " Group differences, when they exist,
pertain to the average or variance of a statistical distribution,
rather than to individual men and women. Political equality is
a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that
treat people as individuals rather than representatives of groups;
it is not an empirical claim that all groups are indistinguishable.
Yet many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points, to
say nothing of the wider world community.
in genetics and genomics will soon provide the ability to test
hypotheses about group differences rigorously. Perhaps geneticists
will forbear performing these tests, but one shouldn't count
on it. The tests could very well emerge as by-products of research
in biomedicine, genealogy, and deep history which no one wants
human genomic revolution has spawned an enormous amount of commentary
about the possible perils of cloning and human genetic enhancement.
I suspect that these are red herrings. When people realize that
cloning is just forgoing a genetically mixed child for a twin
of one parent, and is not the resurrection of the soul or a source
of replacement organs, no one will want to do it. Likewise, when
they realize that most genes have costs as well as benefits (they
may raise a child's IQ but also predispose him to genetic disease), "designer
babies" will lose whatever appeal they have. But the prospect
of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits
is both more likely and more incendiary, and is one that the
current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.
Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist;
Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul
is a universally distributed quality
object has a mind. Stars,
hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules
— each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human,
each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.
I'm quite comfortable with the notion that everything
is a computation. But what to do about my sense that there's
something numinous about my inner experience? Panpsychism
represents a non-anthropocentric way out: mind is a universally
the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation
that could be emulated by any universal computer. And,
yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound
exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner
light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner
glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely
limited to biological organisms.
that panpsychism needn't say that universe is just
one mind. We can also say that each object has an individual
mind. One way to visualize the distinction between the
many minds and the one mind is to think of the world as a stained
glass window with light shining through each pane. The
world's physical structures break the undivided cosmic
mind into a myriad of small minds, one in each object.
minds of panpsychism can exist at various levels. As
well as having its own individuality, a person's mind would
also be, for instance, a hive mind based upon the minds of the
body's cells and the minds of the body's elementary
the panpsychic minds have any physical correlates? On
the one hand, it could be that the mind is some substance that
accumulates near ordinary matter — dark matter or dark energy
are good candidates. On the other hand, mind might simply
be matter viewed in a special fashion: matter experienced from
the inside. Let me mention three specific physical correlates
that have been proposed for the mind.
have argued that the experience of mind results when a superposed
quantum state collapses into a pure state. It's
an alluring metaphor, but as a universal automatist, I'm
of the opinion that quantum mechanics is a stop-gap theory, destined
to give way to a fully deterministic theory based upon some digital
precursor of spacetime.
Skrbina, author of the clear and comprehensive book Panpsychism
in the West, suggests that we might think of a physical
system as determining a moving point in a multi-dimensional
phase space that has an axis for each of the system's
measurable properties. He feels this dynamic point represents
the sense of unity characteristic of a mind.
a variation on this theme, let me point out that, from the
universal automatist standpoint, every physical system can
be thought of as embodying a computation. And the majority
of non-simple systems embody universal computations, capable
of emulating any other system at all. It could be that
having a mind is in some sense equivalent to being capable of
side-remark. Even such very simple systems as a single
electron may in fact be capable of universal computation, if
supplied with a steady stream of structured input. Think
of an electron in an oscillating field; and by analogy think
of a person listening to music or reading an essay.
panpsychism be a distinction without a difference? Suppose
we identify the numinous mind with quantum collapse, with chaotic
dynamics, or with universal computation. What is added
by claiming that these aspects of reality are like minds?
think empathy can supply an experiential confirmation of panpsychism's
reality. Just as I'm sure that I myself have a mind,
I can come to believe the same of another human with whom I'm
in contact — whether face to face or via their creative work. And
with a bit of effort, I can identify with objects as well; I
can see the objects in the room around me as glowing with inner
light. This is a pleasant sensation; one feels less alone.
there ever be a critical experiment to test if panpsychism
is really true? Suppose that telepathy were to become possible,
perhaps by entangling a person's mental states with another
system's states. And then suppose that instead of
telepathically contacting another person, I were to contact a
rock. At this point panpsychism would be proved.
still haven't said anything about why panpsychism is
a dangerous idea. Panpsychism, like other forms of higher
consciousness, is dangerous to business as usual. If my
old car has the same kind of mind as a new one, I'm less
impelled to help the economy by buying a new vehicle. If
the rocks and plants on my property have minds, I feel more respect
for them in their natural state. If I feel myself among
friends in the universe, I'm less likely to overwork myself
to earn more cash. If my body will have a mind even after
I'm dead, then death matters less to me, and it's
harder for the government to cow me into submission.
College, Devon, UK; Author, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots
science, the concept of a field is used to describe patterns
of order in systems that are extended in space and show regularities
of behaviour in time. They have always expressed ideas that
are rather mysterious, but work in describing natural processes.
The first example of a field principle in physics was Newton's
celebrated gravitational law, which described mathematically
the universal attraction between bodies with mass.
mysterious action at a distance without any wires or mechanical
attachments between the bodies was regarded as a mystical, occult
concept by the mechanical philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
They condemned Newton's idea as a violation of the principles
of explanation in the new science. However, there is a healthy
pragmatic element to scientific investigation, and Newton's equations
worked too well to be discarded on philosophical grounds.
celebrated example of a physical field came from the experimental
work of Michael Faraday on electricity and magnetism in the 19th
century. He talked about fields of force that extend out in space
from electrically charged bodies, or from magnets. Faraday's
painstaking and ingenious work described how these fields change
with distance from the body in precise ways, as does the gravitational
force. Again these forces were regarded as mysterious since they
travel through apparently empty space, exerting interaction at
a distance that cannot be understood mechanically.
so precise were Faraday's measurements of the properties of electric
and magnetic fields, and so vivid his description of the fields
of force associated with them, that James Clerk Maxwell could
take his observations and put them directly into mathematical
form. These are the famous wave equations of electromagnetism
on which our technology for electric motors, lighting, TV, communications
and innumerable other applications is based.
the 20th century with Einstein transformed Newton's mysterious
gravitational force into an even more mysterious property of
space itself: it bends or curves under the influence of bodies
with mass. Einstein's relativity theory did away with a force
of attraction between bodies and substituted a mathematical relationship
between mass and curvature of space-time.
result was a whole new way of understanding motion as natural,
curved paths followed by bodies that not only cause the curvature
but follow it. The universe was becoming intrinsically self-organising
and subjects as observers made an entry into physics.
if Einstein's relativity wasn't enough to shake up the world
known to science, the next revolution was even more disturbing.
Quantum mechanics, emerging in the 1920s, did away with the classical
notions of fields as smooth distributions of forces through space-time
and described interactions at a distance in terms of discrete
little packets of energy that travel through the void in oscillating
patterns described by wave functions, of which the solutions
to Schrödinger's wave equation are the best known.
we have not only action at a distance but something infinitely
more disturbing: these interactions violate conventional notions
of causality because they are non-local. Two particles that have
been joined in an intimate relationship within an atom remain
coherently correlated with one another in their properties no
matter how far apart they may be after emission from the atom.
Einstein could not bring himself to believe that this 'spooky'
implication of quantum mechanics could possibly be real.
implied entanglement means that there is a holistic principle
of connectedness in operation at the most elementary level of
physical reality. Quantum fields have subverted our basic notions
of causality and substituted a principle of wholeness in relationship
for elementary particles.
idea that I have pursued in biology for much of my career is
the concept that goes under the name of a morphogenetic field.
This term is used to describe the processes in space and time
that organise and coordinate the various activities involved
in the emergence of a whole complex organism from a single cell,
or from a group of cells in interaction with each another.
human embryo developing in the mother's womb from a single fertilised
egg, emerging at birth as a baby with all its organs coherently
arranged in a functioning body, is one of the most breathtaking
phenomena in nature. However, all species share the same ability
to produce new individuals of the same kind in their processes
remarkable organising principles that underlie such basic properties
of life have been known as morphogenetic fields (fields that
generate form) throughout the 20th century, though this concept
produces unease and discomfort among many biologists.This
unease arises for good reason. As in physics, the field concept
is subversive of mechanical explanations in science, and biology
holds firmly to understanding life in terms of mechanisms organised
the complete reading of the book of life in DNA, the major project
in biology during the last two decades of the 20th century, did
not reveal the secrets of the organism. It was a remarkable achievement
to work out the sequence of letters in the genomes of different
species, human, other animals, plants, and microbes, so that
many of the words of the genetic text of different species could
we were unable to make coherent sense of these words, to put
them together in the way that organisms do in creating themselves
during their reproduction as they develop into beings with specific
morphologies and behaviours, the process of morphogenesis. What
had been forgotten, or ignored, was that information only makes
sense to an agent, someone or something with the know-how to
meaning was missing because the genome researchers ignored the
context of the genomes: the living cell within which genes are
read and their products are organised. The organisation that
is responsible for making sense of the information in the genes,
an essential and basic aspect of the living state, was taken
for granted. What is the nature of this complex dynamic process
that knows how to make an organism, using specific information
from the genes?
is returning to notions of space-time organisation as an intrinsic
aspect of the living condition, our old friends morphogenetic
fields. They are now described as complex networks of molecules
that somehow read and make sense of genes. These molecular networks
have intriguing properties, giving them some of the same characteristics
as words in a language.
it be that biology and culture are not so different after all;
that both are based on historical traditions and languages that
are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities,
either of cells or of individuals? These self-organising activities
are certainly mysterious, but not unintelligible. My own work,
with many colleagues, cast morphogenetic fields in mathematical
form that revealed how space (morphology) and time (behaviour)
get organised in subtle but robust ways in developing organisms
coordinating patterns in living beings seem to be at the heart
of the creativity that drives both biological and cultural evolution.
Despite many differences between these fields, which need to
be clarified and distinguished rather than blurred, there may
be underlying commonalities that can unify biological and cultural
evolution rather than separating them.
could even lead us to value other species of organism for their
wisdom in achieving coherent, sustainable relationships with
other species while remaining creative and innovative throughout
evolution, something we are signally failing to do in our culture
with its ecologically damaging style of living.
Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The
differences between humans and nonhumans are quantitative,
believe that the differences between humans and nonhumans are
quantitative, not qualitative.
is this idea dangerous? It is hardly surprising, coming from
someone who has spent her scientific career studying the abilities
of (supposedly) small-brained nonhumans; moreover, the idea is
not exactly new. It may be a bit controversial, given that many
of my colleagues spend much of their time searching for the defining
difference that separates humans and nonhumans (and they may
be correct), and also given a current social and political climate
that challenges evolution on what seems to be a daily basis.
But why dangerous? Because, if we take this idea to its logical
conclusion, it challenges almost every aspect of our lives — scientific
and nonscientific alike.
the idea challenges the views of many researchers who continue
to hypothesize about the next human-nonhuman 'great divide'…Interestingly,
however, detailed observation and careful experimentation have
repeatedly demonstrated that nonhumans often possess capacities
once thought to separate them from humans. Humans, for example,
are not the only tool-using species, nor the only tool-making
species, nor the only species to act cooperatively.
one has to wonder to what degree nonhumans share other capacities
still thought to be exclusively human. And, of course, the critical
words here are "to what degree" — do we count
lack of a particular behavior a defining criterion, or do we
accept the existence of less complex versions of that behavior
as evidence for a continuum? If one wishes to argue that I'm
just blurring the difference between "qualitative" and
"quantitative", so be it…such blurring will not
affect the dangerousness of my idea.
idea is dangerous because it challenges scientists at a more
basic level, that of how we perform research. Now, let
me state clearly that I'm not against animal research — I
wouldn't be alive today without it, and I work daily with captive
animals that, although domestically bred (and that, by any standard,
are provided with a fairly cushy existence), are still essentially
wild creatures denied their freedom.
if we believe in a continuum, then we must at least question
our right to perform experiments on our fellow creatures; we
need to think about how to limit animal experiments and testing
to what is essential, and to insist on humane (note the term!)
housing and treatment. And, importantly, we must accept the significant
cost in time, effort, and money thereby incurred — increases
that must come at the expense of something else in our society.
idea, taken to its logical conclusion, is dangerous because it
should also affect our choices as to the origins of the clothes
we wear and the foods we eat. Again, I'm not campaigning against
leather shoes and T-bone steaks; I find that I personally cannot
remain healthy on a totally vegetarian diet and sheepskin boots
definitely ease the rigors of a Massachusetts winter.
if we believe in a continuum, we must at least question our right
to use fellow creatures for our sustenance: We need to become
aware of, for example, the conditions under which creatures destined
for the slaughterhouse live their lives, and learn about and
ameliorate the conditions in which their lives are ended. And,
again, we must accept the costs involved in such decisions.
we do not believe in a clear boundary between humans and nonhumans,
if we do not accept a clear "them" versus "us",
we need to rethink other aspects of our lives. Do we have the
right to clear-cut forests in which our fellow creatures live?
To pollute the air, soil and water that we share with them, solely
for our own benefit? Where do we draw the line? Life may be much
simpler if we do firmly draw a line, but is simplicity a valid
in case anyone wonders at my own personal view: I believe that
humans are the ultimate generalists, creatures that may lack
specific talents or physical adaptations that have been finely
honed in other species, but whose additional brain power enables
them — in an exquisite manner — to, for example,
integrate information, improvise with what is present, and alter
or adapt to a wide range of environments…but that this
additional brain power is (and provides) a quantitative, not
Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont
Graduate University; Author, Flow
ideas are thought to be dangerous when they threaten an entrenched
authority. Galileo was sued not because he claimed that the
earth revolved around the sun — a "hypothesis" his
chief prosecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine, apparently was quite
willing to entertain in private — but because the Church
could not afford a fact it claimed to know be reversed by another
epistemology, in this case by the scientific method. Similar
conflicts arose when Darwin's view of how humans first appeared
on the planet challenged religious accounts of creation, or
when Mendelian genetics applied to the growth of hardier strains
of wheat challenged Leninist doctrine as interpreted by Lysenko.
One of the most dangerous ideas at large in the current culture
is that the "free market" is the ultimate arbiter of
political decisions, and that there is an "invisible hand" that
will direct us to the most desirable future provided the free
market is allowed to actualize itself. This mystical faith is
based on some reasonable empirical foundations, but when embraced
as a final solution to the ills of humankind, it risks destroying
both the material resources, and the cultural achievements that
our species has so painstakingly developed.
So the dangerous idea on which our culture is based is that the
political economy has a silver bullet — the free market — that
must take precedence over any other value, and thereby lead to
peace and prosperity. It is dangerous because like all silver
bullets it is an intellectual and political scam that might benefit
some, but ultimately requires the majority to pay for the destruction
dangerous idea is dangerous only to those who support the hegemony
of the market. It consists in pointing out that the imperial
free market wears no clothes — it does not exist in the
first place, and what passes for it is dangerous to the future
well being of our species. Scientist need to turn their attention
to what the complex system that is human life, will require in
like the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators,
which focus on such central requirements as health, education,
infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety,
need to become part of our social and political agenda. And
when their findings come into conflict with the agenda of the
prophets of the free market, the conflict should be examined — who
is it that benefits from the erosion of the quality of life?
of Physics, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, Hitler's
idea that we understand plutonium
most dangerous idea I have come across recently is the idea that
we understand plutonium. Plutonium is the most complex element
in the periodic table. It has six different crystal phases between
room temperature and its melting point. It can catch fire spontaneously
in the presence of water vapor and if you inhale minuscule amounts
you will die of lung cancer. It is the principle element in the "pits" that
are the explosive cores of nuclear weapons. In these pits it
is alloyed with gallium. No one knows why this works and no one
can be sure how stable this alloy is. These pits, in the thousands,
are now decades old. What is dangerous is the idea that they
have retained their integrity and can be safely stored into the
Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History; Associate Professor
Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah; Host,
Dinosaur Planet TV
purpose of life is to disperse energy
truly dangerous ideas in science tend to be those that threaten
the collective ego of humanity and knock us further off our
pedestal of centrality. The Copernican Revolution abruptly
dislodged humans from the center of the universe. The Darwinian
Revolution yanked Homo sapiens from the pinnacle
of life. Today another menacing revolution sits at the horizon
of knowledge, patiently awaiting broad realization by the
same egotistical species.
dangerous idea is this: the purpose of life is to disperse
of us are at least somewhat familiar with the second law of
thermodynamics, the unwavering propensity of energy to disperse
and, in doing so, transition from high quality to low quality
forms. More generally, as stated by ecologist Eric Schneider, "nature
abhors a gradient," where a gradient is simply a difference
over a distance — for example, in temperature or pressure.
Open physical systems — including those of the atmosphere,
hydrosphere, and geosphere — all embody this law, being
driven by the dispersal of energy, particularly the flow of
heat, continually attempting to achieve equilibrium. Phenomena
as diverse as lithospheric plate motions, the northward flow
of the Gulf Stream, and occurrence of deadly hurricanes are
all examples of second law manifestations.
is growing evidence that life, the biosphere, is no different.
It has often been said the life's complexity contravenes the
second law, indicating the work either of a deity or some unknown
natural process, depending on one's bias. Yet the evolution
of life and the dynamics of ecosystems obey the second law
mandate, functioning in large part to dissipate energy. They
do so not by burning brightly and disappearing, like a fire
torching a forest, but through stable metabolic cycles that
store chemical energy and continually reduce the solar gradient.
Photosynthetic plants, bacteria, and algae capture energy from
the sun and form the core of all food webs.
all organisms, including humans, are, in a real sense, sunlight
transmogrified, temporary waypoints in the flow of energy.
Ecological succession, viewed from a thermodynamic perspective,
is a process that maximizes the capture and degradation of
energy. Similarly, the tendency for life to become more complex
over the past 3.5 billion years (as well as the overall increase
in biomass and organismal diversity through time) is not due
simply to natural selection, as most evolutionists still argue,
but also to nature's "efforts" to grab more and more
of the sun's flow. The slow burn that characterizes life enables
ecological systems to persist over deep time, changing in response
to external and internal perturbations.
has been summarized by the pithy statement, "energy flows,
matter cycles. " Yet this maxim applies equally to complex
systems in the non-living world; indeed it literally unites
the biosphere with the physical realm. More and more, it appears
that complex, cycling, swirling systems of matter have a natural
tendency to emerge in the face of energy gradients. This recurrent
phenomenon may even have been the driving force behind life's
idea is not new, and is certainly not mine. Nobel laureate
Erwin Schrödinger was one of the first to articulate the
hypothesis, as part of his famous "What is Life" lectures
in Dublin in 1943. More recently, Jeffrey Wicken, Harold Morowitz,
Eric Schneider and others have taken this concept considerably
further, buoyed by results from a range of studies, particularly
within ecology. Schneider and Dorian Sagan provide an excellent
summary of this hypothesis in their recent book, "Into
concept of life as energy flow, once fully digested, is profound.
Just as Darwin fundamentally connected humans to the non-human
world, a thermodynamic perspective connects life inextricably
to the non-living world. This dangerous idea, once broadly
distributed and understood, is likely to provoke reaction from
many sectors, including religion and science. The wondrous
diversity and complexity of life through time, far from being
the product of intelligent design, is a natural phenomenon
intimately linked to the physical realm of energy flow.
evolution is not driven by the machinations of selfish genes
propagating themselves through countless millennia. Rather,
ecology and evolution together operate as a highly successful,
extremely persistent means of reducing the gradient generated
by our nearest star. In my view, evolutionary theory (the process,
not the fact of evolution!) and biology generally are headed
for a major overhaul once investigators fully comprehend the
notion that the complex systems of earth, air, water, and life
are not only interconnected, but interdependent, cycling matter
in order to maintain the flow of energy.
this statement addresses only naturalistic function and is
mute with regard to spiritual meaning, it is likely to have
deep effects outside of science. In particular, broad understanding
of life's role in dispersing energy has great potential to
help humans reconnect both to nature and to planet's physical
systems at a key moment in our species' history.