IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"
Anthropologist, University of Michigan;
Author, In God's We Trust
encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)
since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting
the ultimate demise of religion. But, if anything, religious
fervor is increasing across the world, including in the United
States, the world's most economically powerful and scientifically
advanced society. An underlying reason is that science treats
humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe,
whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly
well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including
death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for
love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only
what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's
deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral
needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that
are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and
long familiar environments.
a scientific perspective of the overall structure and design
of the physical universe:
Human beings are accidental and incidental products of the material
development of the universe, almost wholly irrelevant and readily
ignored in any general description of its functioning.
Earth, there is no intelligence — however alien or like
our own — that is watching out for us or cares. We are
Human intelligence and reason, which searches for the hidden
traps and causes in our surroundings, evolved and will always
remain leashed to our animal passions — in the struggle
for survival, the quest for love, the yearning for social standing
intelligence does not easily suffer loneliness, anymore than
it abides the looming prospect of death, whether individual or
is the hope that science is missing (something more in the endeavor
to miss nothing).
doesn't religion impede science, and vice versa? Not necessarily.
Leaving aside the sociopolitical stakes in the opposition between
science and religion (which vary widely are not constitutive
of science or religion per se — Calvin considered obedience
to tyrants as exhibiting trust in God, Franklin wanted the motto
of the American Republic to be "rebellion against tyranny
is obedience to God"), a crucial difference between science
and religion is that factual knowledge as such is not a principal
aim of religious devotion, but plays only a supporting role. Only
in the last decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly acknowledged
the factual plausibility of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. Earlier
religious rejection of their theories stemmed from challenges
posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds.
Separating out the core of the material world would be like draining
the pond where a water lily grows. A long lag time was necessary
to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in
such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to
Author, The End of Faith
Science Must Destroy Religion
people believe that the Creator of the universe wrote (or dictated)
one of their books. Unfortunately, there are many books that
pretend to divine authorship, and each makes incompatible claims
about how we all must live. Despite the ecumenical efforts
of many well-intentioned people, these irreconcilable religious
commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.
response to this situation, most sensible people advocate something
called "religious tolerance." While religious tolerance
is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without
its liabilities. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered
us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd
and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to
ourselves — repeatedly and at the highest levels — about
the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality.
conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly)
zero-sum. The success of science often comes at the expense of
religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes
at the expense of science. It is time we conceded a basic fact
of human discourse: either a person has good reasons for what
he believes, or he does not. When a person has good reasons,
his beliefs contribute to our growing understanding of the world.
We need not distinguish between "hard" and "soft" science
here, or between science and other evidence-based disciplines
like history. There happen to be very good reasons to believe
that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
Consequently, the idea that the Egyptians actually did it lacks
credibility. Every sane human being recognizes that to rely merely
upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical
fact would be both idiotic and grotesque — that is, until
the conversation turns to the origin of books like the bible
and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation
with the angel Gabriel, or to any of the other hallowed travesties
that still crowd the altar of human ignorance.
in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge
about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to
believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew
to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily
form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith
is nothing more than the license that religious people give one
another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference
between science and religion is the difference between a willingness
to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and
a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not
be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere
elided, even in the ivory tower.
is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global,
civil society. Religious faith — faith that there is a
God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is
infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living
and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. — is
on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. The difference
between science and religion is the difference between a genuine
openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and
a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle.
I believe that the antagonism between reason and faith will only
grow more pervasive and intractable in the coming years. Iron
Age beliefs — about God, the soul, sin, free will, etc. — continue
to impede medical research and distort public policy. The possibility
that we could elect a U.S. President who takes biblical prophesy
seriously is real and terrifying; the likelihood that we will
one day confront Islamists armed with nuclear or biological weapons
is also terrifying, and growing more probable by the day. We
are doing very little, at the level of our intellectual discourse,
to prevent such possibilities.
In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping
silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a
prior age with all the facts at their disposal.
win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will
need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience.
The distinction between science and religion is not a matter
of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of
consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a
matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude
on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs
that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We
must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions
in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage,
death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature
am hopeful that the necessary transformation in our thinking
will come about as our scientific understanding of ourselves
matures. When we find reliable ways to make human beings more
loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of
our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive
religious myths. Only then will the practice of raising our children
to believe that they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu
be broadly recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is.
And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and
most dangerous fractures in our world.
Albert Einstein Professor of Science,
It's a matter of time
For decades, the commonly held view among scientists has been that
space and time first emerged about fourteen billion years ago in a
big bang. According to this picture, the cosmos transformed from a
nearly uniform gas of elementary particles to its current complex hierarchy
of structure, ranging from quarks to galaxy superclusters, through
an evolutionary process governed by simple, universal physical laws.
In the past few years, though, confidence in this point of view has
been shaken as physicists have discovered finely tuned features of
our universe that seem to defy natural explanation.
The prime culprit is the cosmological constant, which astronomers have
measured to be exponentially smaller than naïve estimates would
predict. On the one hand, it is crucial that the cosmological constant
be so small or else it would cause space to expand so rapidly that
galaxies and stars would never form. On the other hand, no theoretical
mechanism has been found within the standard Big Bang picture that
would explain the tiny value.
Desperation has led to a "dangerous" idea: perhaps we live
in an anthropically selected universe. According to this view, we live
in a multiverse (a multitude of universes) in which the cosmological
constant varies randomly from one universe to the next. In most universes,
the value is incompatible with the formation of galaxies, planets,
and stars. The reason why our cosmological constant has the value it
does is because it it is one of the rare examples in which the value
happens to lie in the narrow range compatible with life.
This is the ultimate example of "unintelligent design": the
multiverse tries every possibility with reckless abandon and only very
rarely gets things "right;" that is, consistent with everything
we actually observe. It suggests that the creation of unimaginably
enormous volumes of uninhabitable space is essential to obtain a few
rare habitable spaces.
I consider this approach to be extremely dangerous for two reasons.
First, it relies on complex assumptions about physical conditions far
beyond the range of conceivable observation so it is not scientifically
verifiable. Secondly, I think it leads inevitably to a depressing end
to science. What is the point of exploring further the randomly chosen
physical properties in our tiny corner of the multiverse if most of
the multiverse is so different. I think it is far too early to be so
desperate. This is a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.
My own "dangerous" idea is more optimistic but precarious
because it bucks the current trends in cosmological thinking. I believe
that the finely tuned features may be naturally explained by supposing
that our universe is much older than we have imagined. With more time,
a new possibility emerges. The cosmological "constant" may
not be constant after all. Perhaps it is varying so slowly that it
only appears to be constant. Originally it had the much larger value
that we would naturally estimate, but the universe is so old that its
value has had a chance to relax to the tiny value measured today. Furthermore,
in several concrete examples, one finds that the evolution of the cosmological
constant slows down as its value approaches zero, so most of the history
of the universe transpires when its value is tiny, just as we find
This idea that the cosmological constant is decreasing has been considered
in the past. In fact, physically plausible slow-relaxation mechanisms
have been identified. But the timing was thought to be impossible.
If the cosmological constant decreases very slowly, it causes the expansion
rate to accelerate too early and galaxies never form. If it decreases
too quickly, the expansion rate never accelerates, which is inconsistent
with recent observations. As long as the cosmological constant has
only 14 billion years to evolve, there is no feasible solution.
But, recently, some cosmologists have been exploring the possibility
that the universe is exponentially older. In this picture, the evolution
of the universe is cyclic. The Big Bang is not the beginning of space
and time but, rather, a sudden creation of hot matter and radiation
that marks the transition from one period of expansion and cooling
to the next cycle of evolution. Each cycle might last a trillion years,
say. Fourteen billion years marks the time since the last infusion
of matter and radiation, but this is brief compared to the total age
of the universe. Each cycle lasts about a trillion years and the number
of cycles in the past may have been ten to the googol power or more!
using the slow relaxation mechanisms considered previously, it
becomes possible that the cosmological constant decreases steadily
from one cycle to the next. Since the number of cycles is likely
to be enormous, there is enough time for the cosmological constant
to shrink by an exponential factor, even though the decrease over
the course of any one cycle is too small to be undetectable. Because
the evolution slows down as the cosmological constant decreases,
this is the period when most of the cycles take place. There is
no multiverse and there is nothing special about our region of
space — we live in a typical region at a typical time.
Remarkably, this idea is scientifically testable. The picture makes
explicit predictions about the distribution of primordial gravitational
waves and variations in temperature and density. Also, if the cosmological
constant is evolving at the slow rate suggested, then ongoing attempts
to detect a temporal variation should find no change. So, we may
enjoy speculating now about which dangerous ideas we prefer, but
ultimately it is Nature that will decide if any of them is right.
It is just a matter of time.
Director, Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT; Author, Fab
Democratizing access to the means of invention
elite temples of research (of the kind I've happily spent my
career in) may be becoming intellectual dinosaurs as a result
of the digitization and personalization of fabrication.
with about $20k in equipment it's possible to make and measure
things from microns and microseconds on up, and that boundary is
quickly receding. When I came to MIT that was hard to do. If it's
no longer necessary to go to MIT for its facilities, then surely
the intellectual community is its real resource? But my colleagues
(and I) are always either traveling or over-scheduled; the best
way for us to see each other is to go somewhere else. Like many
people, my closest collaborators are in fact distributed around
ultimate consequence of the digitization of first communications,
then computation, and now fabrication, is to democratize access
to the means of invention. The third world can skip over the first
and second cultures and go right to developing a third culture.
Rather than today's model of researchers researching for researchees,
the result of all that discovery has been to enable a planet of
creators rather than consumers.
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman,
Applied Minds, Inc.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone
The idea that we should all share our
most dangerous ideas
don't share my most dangerous ideas. Ideas are the most powerful
forces that we can unleash upon the world, and they should
not be let loose without careful consideration of their consequences.
Some ideas are dangerous because they are false, like an idea
that one race of humans is more worthy that another, or that
one religion has monopoly on the truth. False ideas like these
spread like wildfire, and have caused immeasurable harm. They
still do. Such false ideas should obviously not be spread or
encouraged, but there are also plenty of trues idea that should
not be spread: ideas about how to cause terror and pain and
chaos, ideas of how to better convince people of things that
are not true.
have often seen otherwise thoughtful people so caught up in such
an idea that they seem unable to resist sharing it. To me, the
idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas is, itself,
a very dangerous idea. I just hope that it never catches on.
Computer Scientist and Musician
homunculus is an approximate mapping of the human body in the
cortex. It is often visualized as a distorted human body stretched
along the top of the human brain. The tongue, thumbs, and other
body parts with extra-rich brain connections are enlarged in
the homunculus, giving it a vaguely obscene, impish character.
ago, in the 1980s, my colleagues and I at VPL Research built
virtual worlds in which more than one person at a time could
be present. People in a shared virtual world must be able to
see each other, as well as use their bodies together, as when
two people lift a large virtual object or ride a tandem virtual
bicycle. None of this would be possible without virtual bodies.
was a self-evident and inviting challenge to attempt to create
the most accurate possible bodies, given the crude state of the
technology at the time. To do this, we developed full body suits
covered in sensors. A measurement made on the body of someone
wearing one of these suits, such as an aspect of the flex of
a wrist, would be applied to control a corresponding change in
a virtual body. Before long, people were dancing and otherwise
goofing around in virtual reality.
course there were bugs. I distinctly remember a wonderful bug
that caused my hand to become enormous, like a web of flying
skyscrapers. As is often the case, this accident led to an interesting
turned out that people could quickly learn to inhabit strange
and different bodies and still interact with the virtual world.
I became curious how weird the body could get before the mind
would become disoriented. I played around with elongated limb
segments, and strange limb placement. The most curious experiment
involved a virtual lobster (which was lovingly modeled by Ann
Lasko.) A lobster has a trio of little midriff arms on each side
of its body. If physical human bodies sprouted corresponding
limbs, we would have measured them with an appropriate body suit
and that would have been that.
assume it will not come as a surprise to the reader that the
human body does not include these little arms, so the question
arose of how to control them. The answer was to extract a little
influence from each of many parts of the physical body and merge
these data streams into a single control signal for a given joint
in the extra lobster limbs. A touch of human elbow twist, a dash
of human knee flex; a dozen such movements might be mixed to
control the middle join of little left limb #3. The result was
that the principle elbows and knees could still control their
virtual counterparts roughly as before, while still contributing
to the control of additional limbs.
it turns out people can learn to control bodies with extra limbs!
biologist Jim Bower, when considering this phenomenon, commented
that the human nervous system evolved through all the creatures
that preceded us in our long evolutionary line, which included
some pretty strange creatures, if you go back far enough. Why
wouldn't we retain some homuncular flexibility with a pedigree
original experiments of the 1980s were not carried out formally,
but recently it has become possible to explore the phenomenon
in a far more rigorous way. Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford has
created a marvelous new lab for studying multiple human subjects
in high-definition shared virtual worlds, and we are now planning
to repeat, improve, and extend these experiments. The most interesting
questions still concern the limits to homuncular flexibility.
We are only beginning the project of mapping how far it can go.
is homuncular flexibility a dangerous idea? Because the more
flexible the human brain turns out to be when it comes to adapting
to weirdness, the weirder a ride it will be able to keep up with
as technology changes in the coming decades and centuries.
kids in the future grow up with the experience of living in four
spatial dimensions as well as three? That would be a world with
a fun elementary school math curriculum! If you're most interested
in raw accumulation of technological power, then you might be
not find this so interesting, but if you think in terms of how
human experience can change, then this is the most fascinating
stuff there is.
flexibility isn't the only source of hints about how weird human
experience might get in the future. There also questions related
to language, memory, and other aspects of cognition, as well
as hypothetical prospects for engineering changes in the brain.
But in this one area, there's an indication of high weirdness
to come, and I find that prospect dangerous, but in a beautiful
and seductive way. "Thrilling" might be a better word.
New York University; Author, The
Birth of the Mind
genes, and machines
exist primarily to do two things, to communicate (transfer information)
and compute. This is true in every creature with a nervous system,
and no less true in the human brain. In short, the brain is a
machine. And the basic structure of that brain, biological substrate
of all things mental, is guided in no small part by information
carried in the DNA.
the twenty-first century, these claims should no longer be controversial.
With each passing day, techniques like magnetic resonance imaging
and electrophysiological recordings from individual neurons make
it clearer that the business of the brain is information processing,
while new fields like comparative genomics and developmental
neuroembryology remove any possible doubt that genes significantly
influence both behavior and brain.
there are many people, scientists and lay persons alike, who
fear or wish to deny these notions, to doubt our even reject
the idea that the mind is a machine, and that it is significantly
(though of course not exclusively) shaped by genes. Even as the
religious right prays for Intelligent Design, the academic left
insinuates that merely discussing the idea of innateness is dangerous,
as in a prominent child development manifesto that concluded:
scientists use words like "instinct" and "innateness" in
reference to human abilities, then we have a moral responsibility
to be very clear and explicit about what we mean. If our
careless, underspecified choice of words inadvertently
does damage to future generations of children, we cannot
turn with innocent outrage to the judge and say "But
your Honor, I didn't realize the word was loaded.
new academic journal called "Metascience" focuses on when extra-scientific
considerations influence the process of science. Sadly, the twin
questions of whether we are machines, and whether we are constrained
significantly by our biology, very much fall into this category,
questions where members of the academy (not to mention fans of
Intelligent Design) close their minds.
put us in our place, so to to speak, by showing that our planet
is not at the center of universe; advances in biology are putting
us further in our place by showing that our brains are as much
a product of biology as any other part of our body, and by showing
that our (human) brains are built by the very same processes
as other creatures. Just as the earth is just one planet among
many, from the perspective of the toolkit of developmental biology,
our brain is just one more arrangement of molecules.
Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president
(2005), the American Psychological Association; Author, Thought
the sex of one's child
an idea to be truly dangerous, it needs to have a strong and
near universal appeal. The idea of being able to choose the sex
of one's own baby is just such an idea.
who has a deep-seated and profound preference for a son or daughter
knows that this preference may not be rational and that it may
represent a prejudice better left unacknowledged about them.
It is easy to dismiss the ability to decide the sex of one's
baby as inconsequential. It is already medically feasible for
a woman or couple to choose the sex of a baby that has not yet
been conceived. There are a variety of safe methods available,
such as Preimplanted Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), so-named because
it was originally designed for couples with fertility problems,
not for the purpose of selecting the sex of one's next child.
With PGD, embryos are created in a Petri dish, tested for gender,
and then implanted into the womb, so that the baby-to-be is already
identified as female or male before implantation in the womb. The
pro argument is simple: If the parents-to-be are adults, why
not? People have always wanted to be able to choose the sex of
their children. There are ancient records of medicine men and
wizened women with various herbs and assorted advice about what
to do to (usually) have a son. So, what should it matter if modern
medicine can finally deliver what old wives' tales have promised
for countless generations? Couples won't have to have a "wasted" child,
such as a second child the same sex as the first one, when they
really wanted "one of each." If a society has too many
boys for a while, who cares? The shortage of females will make
females more valuable and the market economy will even out in
time. In the mean time, families will "balance out," each
one the ideal composition as desired by the adults in the family.
year for the last two decades I have asked students in my college
classes to write down the number of children they would like
to have and the order in which they ideally want to have girls
and boys. I have taught in several different countries (e.g.,
Turkey, Russia, and Mexico) and types of universities, but despite
large differences, the modal response is 2 children, first a
boy, then a girl. If students reply that they want one child,
it is most often a boy; if it is 3 children, they are most likely
to want a boy, then a girl, then a boy. The students in my classes
are not a random sample of the population: they are well educated
and more likely to hold egalitarian attitudes than the general
population. Yet, if they acted on their stated intentions, even
they would have an excess of first-borns who are male, and an
excess of males overall. In a short time, those personality characteristics
associated with being either an only-child or first-born and
those associated with being male would be so confounded, it would
be difficult to separate them.
excess of males that would result from allowing every mother
or couple to choose the sex of their next baby would not correct
itself at the societal level because at the individual level,
the preference for sons is stronger than the market forces of
supply and demand. The evidence for this conclusion comes from
many sources, including regions of the world where the ratio
of young women to men is so low that it could only be caused
by selective abortion and female infanticide (UNICEF and other
sources). In some regions of rural China there are so few women
that wives are imported from the Philippines and men move to
far cities to find women to marry. In response, the Chinese government
is now offering a variety of education and cash incentives to
families with multiple daughters. There are still few daughters
being born in these rural areas where prejudice against girls
is stronger than government incentives and mandates. In India,
the number of abortions of female fetuses has increased since
sex-selective abortion was made illegal in 1994. The desire for
sons is even stronger than the threat of legal action.
the United States, the data that show preferences for sons are
more subtle than the disparate ratios of females and males found
in other parts of the world, but the preference for sons is still
strong. Because of space limitations, I list only a few of the
many indicators that parents in the United States prefer sons:
families with 2 daughters are more likely to have a third child
than families with 2 sons, unmarried pregnant women who undergo
ultrasound to determine the sex of the yet unborn child are less
likely to be married at the time of the child's birth when the
child is a girl than when it is a boy, and divorced women with
a son are more likely to remarry than divorced women with a daughter.
the only ideas more dangerous that of choosing the sex of one's
child would be trying to stop medical science from making advances
that allow such choices or allowing the government to control
the choices we can make as citizens. There are many important
questions to ponder, including how to find creative ways to reduce
or avoid negative consequences from even more dangerous alternatives.
Consider, for example, what would our world be like if there
were substantially more men than women? What if only the rich
or only those who live in "rich countries" were able
to choose the sex of their children? Is it likely that an approximately
equal number of boys and girls would be or could be selected?
If not, could a society or should a society make equal numbers
of girls and boys a goal?
am guessing that many readers of child-bearing age want to choose
the sex of their (as yet) unconceived children and can reason
that there is no harm in this practice. And, if you could also
choose intelligence, height, and hair color, would you add that
too? But then, there are few things in life that are as
appealing as the possibility of a perfectly balanced family,
which according to the modal response means an older son and
younger daughter, looking just like an improved version of you.
Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies;
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; President German
Cognitive Science Society; Author: Being
Forbidden Fruit Intuition
all would like to believe that, ultimately, intellectual honesty
is not only an expression of, but also good for your mental health.
My dangerous question is if one can be intellectually honest
about the issue of free will and preserve one's mental health
at the same time. Behind this question lies what I call the "Forbidden
Fruit Intuition": Is there a set of questions which are
dangerous not on grounds of ideology or political correctness,
but because the most obvious answers to them could ultimately
make our conscious self-models disintegrate? Can one really believe
in determinism without going insane?
middle-sized objects at 37° like the human brain and the
human body, determinism is obviously true. The next state of
the physical universe is always determined by the previous state.
And given a certain brain-state plus an environment you could
never have acted otherwise — a surprisingly large majority
of experts in the free-will debate today accept this obvious
fact. Although your future is open, this probably also means
that for every single future thought you will have and for every
single decision you will make, it is true that it was determined
by your previous brain state.
a scientifically well-informed person you believe in this theory,
you endorse it. As an open-minded person you find that you are
also interested in modern philosophy of mind, and you might hear
a story much like the following one. Yes, you are a physically
determined system. But this is not a big problem, because, under
certain conditions, we may still continue to say that you are "free":
all that matters is that your actions are caused by the right
kinds of brain processes and that they originate in
you. A physically determined system can well be sensitive
to reasons and to rational arguments, to moral considerations,
to questions of value and ethics, as long as all of this is appropriately
wired into its brain. You can be rational, and you can be moral,
as long as your brain is physically determined in the right way.
You like this basic idea: physical determinism is compatible
with being a free agent. You endorse a materialist philosophy
of freedom as well. An intellectually honest person open to empirical
data, you simply believe that something along these lines must
you try to feel that it is true. You try to consciously experience the
fact that at any given moment of your life, you could not have
acted otherwise. You try to experience the fact that even your
thoughts, however rational and moral, are predetermined — by
something unconscious, by something you can not see. And in doing
so, you start fooling around with the conscious self-model Mother
Nature evolved for you with so much care and precision over millions
of years: You are scratching at the user-surface of your own
brain, tweaking the mouse-pointer, introspectively trying to
penetrate into the operating system, attempting to make the invisible
visible. You are challenging the integrity of your phenomenal
self by trying to integrate your new beliefs, the neuroscientific
image of man, with your most intimate, inner way of experiencing
yourself. How does it feel?
think that the irritation and deep sense of resentment surrounding
public debates on the freedom of the will actually has nothing
much to do with the actual options on the table. It has to do
with the — perfectly sensible — intuition that our
presently obvious answer will not only be emotionally disturbing,
but ultimately impossible to integrate into our conscious self-models.
our societies: The robust conscious experience of free will also
is a social institution, because the attribution of accountability,
responsibility, etc. are the decisive building blocks for modern,
open societies. And the currently obvious answer might be interpreted
by many as having clearly anti-democratic implications: Making
a complex society work implies controlling the behavior of millions
of people; if individual human beings can control their own behavior
to a much lesser degree than we have thought in the past, if bottom-up doesn't
work, then it becomes tempting to control it top-down,
by the state. And this is the second way in which enlightenment
could devour its own children. Yes,
free will truly is a dangerous question, but for different reasons
than most people think.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Coauthor (with Dorion
Sagan), Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins
is my dangerous idea? Although arcane, evidence for this dangerous
concept is overwhelming; I have collected clues from many sources.
Reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's claim that "even true things
can be proved" I predict that the scientific gatekeepers
in academia eventually will be forced to permit this dangerous
idea to become widely accepted. What is it?
sensibilities, our perceptions that register through our sense
organ cells evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. Signals
in the environment: light impinging on the eye's retina, taste
on the buds of the tongue, odor through the nose, sound in the
ear are translated to nervous impulses by extensions of sensory
cells called cilia. We, like all other mammals, including our
apish brothers, have taste-bud cilia, inner ear cilia, nasal
passage cilia that detect odors. We distinguish savory from sweet,
birdsong from whalesong, drumbeats from thunder. With our eyes
closed, we detect the light of the rising sun and and feel the
vibrations of the drums. These abilities to sense our surroundings,
a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, indeed,
all animals, by use of specialized cilia at the tips of sensory
cells, and the existence of the cilia in the tails of sperm,
come from one kind of our bacterial ancestors. Which? Those of
our bacterial ancestors that became cilia. We owe our sensitivity
to a loving touch, the scent of lavender , the taste of a salted
nut or vinaigrette, a police-cruiser siren, or glimpse of brilliant
starlight to our sensory cells. We owe the chemical attraction
of the sperm as its tail impels it to swim toward the egg, even
the moss plant sperm, to its cilia. The dangerous idea is that
the cilia evolved from hyperactive bacteria. Bacterial ancestors
swam toward food and away from noxious gases, they moved up to
the well-lit waters at the surface of the pond. They were startled
when, in a crowd, some relative bumped them. These bacterial
ancestors that never slept, avoided water too hot or too salty.
They still do.
is the concept that our sensitivities evolved directly from swimming
bacterial ancestors of the sensory cilia so dangerous?
reasons: we would be forced to admit that bacteria are conscious,
that they are sensitive to stimuli in their environment and behave
accordingly. We would have to accept that bacteria, touted to
be our enemies, are not merely neutral or friendly but that they
are us. They are direct ancestors of our most sensitive body
parts. Our culture's terminology about bacteria is that of warfare:
they are germs to be destroyed and forever vanquished, bacterial
enemies make toxins that poison us. We load our soaps with antibacterials
that kill on contact, stomach ulcers are now agreed to be caused
by bacterial infection. Even if some admit the existence of "good" bacteria
in soil or probiotic food like yogurt few of us tolerate the
dangerous notion that human sperm tails and sensitive cells of
nasal passages lined with waving cilia, are former bacteria.
If this dangerous idea becomes widespread it follows that we
humans must agree that even before our evolution as animals we
have hated and tried to kill our own ancestors. Again, we have
seen the enemy, indeed, and, as usual, it is us. Social interactions
of sensitive bacteria, then, not God, made us who were are today.