ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic
am optimistic that God may come at the end.
I've never been able to choke down the idea of a supernatural
God who stands outside of time, a God who designs and creates
the Universe. There is, however, an alternate notion of
God relevant to the secular community, the skeptical, evidence-minded
community that believes only in nature.
Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in the 1950's called "The
Last Question." The story opens in 2061 with the
Earth cooling down. Scientists ask the giant computer, "can
entropy be reversed?" and the computer answers "not
enough data for a meaningful answer." In the next
scene, earth's inhabitants have fled the white dwarf that
used to be our sun, for younger stars; and as the galaxy
continues to cool, they ask the miniaturized supercomputer,
which contains all of human knowledge, "can entropy
be reversed." It answers "not enough data." This
continues through more scenes, with the computer even more
powerful and the cosmos even colder. The answer, however,
remains the same. Ultimately trillions of years pass, and
all life and warmth in the Universe have fled. All knowledge
is compacted into a wisp of matter in the near-absolute
zero of hyperspace. The wisp asks itself "can entropy
"Let there be light," it responds. And there
is a theory of God imbedded in this story that is based
not on faith and revelation, but on hope and evidence.
God in the Judeo-Christian theory has four properties:
omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, and the creation of
the universe. I think we need to give up the last property,
a supernatural creator at the beginning of time. This is
the most troublesome property in the Judeo-Christian theory:
it runs afoul of evil in the universe. If God is the designer,
and also good, omniscient, and omnipotent, how come the
world is so full of innocent children dying, of terrorism,
and of sadism? The creator property also contradicts human
free will. How can God have created a species endowed with
free will, if God is also omnipotent and omniscient? And
who created the creator anyway?
There are crafty, involuted theological answers to each of
these conundrums. The problem of evil is allegedly solved
by holding that God's plan is inscrutable: 'What looks
evil to us isn't evil in God's inscrutable plan.' The problem
of reconciling human free will with the four properties of
God is a very tough nut. Calvin and Luther gave up human
will to save God's omnipotence. In contrast to this Reformation
theory, modern "process" theology holds that God
started things off with an eternal thrust toward increasing
complexity (so far, so good). But mounting complexity entails
free will and self-consciousness, and so human free will
is a strong limitation on God's power. This theory of God
gives up omnipotence and omniscience to allow human beings
to enjoy free will. To circumvent 'who created the
creator,' process theology gives up creation itself by claiming
that the process of becoming more complex just goes on forever:
there was no beginning and will be no end. So the process
theology God allows free will, but at the expense of omnipotence,
omniscience, and creation.
There is a different way out of these conundrums: It acknowledges
that the creator property is so contradictory to the other
three properties as to mandate jettisoning the property of
Creator. Importantly, this very property is what makes God
so hard to swallow for the scientifically minded person.
The Creator is supernatural, an intelligent and designing
being who exists before time and who is not subject to natural
laws; a complex entity that occurs before the simple entities,
thereby violating most every scientific process we know about.
. Let the mystery of creation be consigned to the branch
of physics called cosmology. 'Good riddance.'
This leaves us with the idea of a God who had nothing whatever
to do with creation, but who is omnipotent, omniscient, and
righteous? Does this God exist?
Such a God cannot exist now because we would be stuck once
again with two of the same conundrums: how can there be evil
in the world now if an existing God is omnipotent and righteous,
and how can humans have free will if an existing God is omnipotent
and omniscient. So there was no such God and there is no
such God now.
Consider now the principle of NonZero that Robert Wright
(2000) articulates in his book of the same name. Wright argues
that the invisible hand of biological and cultural evolution
ineluctably select for the complex over the simple because
positive sum games have the survival and reproductive edge
over zero sum games, and that over epochal time more and
more complex systems, bulkily, but necessarily, arise. Space
does not allow me to expand on Wright's thesis and I must
refer the justifiably unconvinced reader to his very substantial
A process that selects for more complexity is ultimately
aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and
goodness. Omniscience is, arguably, the literally ultimate
end product of science. Omnipotence is, arguably, the literally
ultimate end product of technology. Righteousness is, arguably,
the literally ultimate end product of positive institutions.
So in the very longest run the principle of Nonzero heads
toward a God who is not supernatural, but who ultimately
acquires omnipotence, omniscience and goodness through the
natural progress of Nonzero. Perhaps, just perhaps, God comes
at the end
I am optimistic that there may be in the fullness of time
a First Coming. I am optimistic that this is the door through
which meaning may enter our lives. A meaningful life is
a life that joins with something larger than the self and
the larger that something is, the more meaning. I am optimistic
that as individuals we can choose to be a tiny part of
this process. Partaking of a process that has as it ultimate
end the bringing of a God, who is endowed with omniscience,
omnipotence, and goodness joins our tiny, accidental lives
to something enormously larger.
Contemporary African Art; High-Tech Ecological
Researcher & Director, Liquid Jungle
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Artists and the Public
For me, the most interesting development
in the art world is what Charles Saatchi is doing with The
Saatchi Gallery (www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk), his new online
gallery which opens Summer 2007. It is a tool that is immensely
powerful as it is open on both sides to the artists and to
the public without interference of curators, editors, dealers,
critics, etc. This is exactly the way Contemporary Art should
be presented. The artists can show whatever they want and the
public can see whatever they choose to look at, there is no
more the barrier of the museum or the gallery or the art magazine
between the artists and the public. I find this immensely refreshing
The recent creation of YouTube is another very interesting and important development which provides Internet users with a cheap and easy way to make and post short videos. I think we have just begun to touch the surface of this huge iceberg. It means that anyone who sees a policeman beating someone up, or someone kicking their dog, or Paris Hilton kissing a young man in a car, or someone being mistreated in a hospital, etc. can post it on YouTube and have the entire world see it in less than ten minutes. People can write great editorials and post great blogs, but the power of a short film is a thousand times stronger than any well written anything anywhere. I am excited and also terrified by this new opportunity.
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New Rules for the New Economy
That We Will Embrace the Reality of Progress
I am optimistic about the only thing—by definition—that we can be optimistic about: the future. When I tally up the plus and minuses at work in the world, I see progress. Tomorrow looks like it will be better than today. Not just progress for me, but for everyone on the planet in aggregate and on average.
No sane person can ignore the heaps of ills on this planet. The ills of the environment, of inequality, of war and poverty and ignorance, and the ills of body and soul of many billion inhabitants are inescapable. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills that are bred by our inventions and activities, including ills generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old ills. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.
But the steady stream of good things is relentless as well. Who can argue with the goodness of antibiotics—even though they are over-prescribed? Electricity? Woven cloth? Radio? The list of desirable things is endless. While they all have their downsides, we acknowledge the goodness of these inventions by purchasing them in bulk. And to remedy currently perceived ills, we keep creating new good things.
Some of these new solutions are often worse than the problems they were supposed to solve, but it is my observation that on average and over time, the new solutions slightly outweigh the new problems. As Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi once said, "There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much." Unexpectedly "not much" is all that is needed when you have the power of compound interest at work—which is what culture is. The world needs to be only 1% (or even one-tenth of 1 %) better day in and day out to accumulate civilization. As long as we create 1% more than we destroy each year, we have progress. This delta is so small that it is almost imperceptible, particularly in the face of the 49% of death and destruction that is in our face. Yet this tiny, slim, and shy differential generates progress.
But is there really even 1% betterment? I think the only evidence we have of this is people's behavior. When we watch what people do, we see they inevitably, unwaveringly head towards more choices, more options, and the increased possibilities offered by the future.
No one I know has yet found a way to live in the future. Maybe someday we'll invent inexpensive time machines and we can vacation a hundred years into the future. Right now if we want to live in "tomorrow"—that place which is just a little better than today—the best we can do is to live in the most forward-looking city on earth. Cities are where the future happens. It is where there are increased choices and possibilities. Everyday one million people move from the countryside into cities. This journey is less a trip in space as in time. These migrants are really moving hundreds of years forward in time; relocating from medieval villages into 21st century sprawling urban areas. The ills of these slums are very visible and don't stop the arrivals. They are coming—as we all do—for the slightly increased number of freedoms and options they didn't have in their past. This is the very same reason we are living where and the way we do—to have 1% more choices.
Moving back into the past has never been easier. Citizens in developing countries can merely walk back to their villages, where they can live with age-old traditions, and limited choices. If they are eager enough, they can live without modern technology at all. Citizens in the developed world can buy a plane ticket and in less than one day can be settled in a hamlet in Nepal or Mali. If you care to relinquish the options of the present and adopt the limited choices of the past you can live there the rest of your life. Indeed you can choose your time period. If you believe the peak of existence was reached in Neolithic times you can camp out in a clearing in the Amazon; if you suspect the golden age was in the 1890s, you can find a farm among the Amish. We have the incredible opportunity to head into the past, but it is amazing how few people really want to live there. Except for a few rare individuals, no one does. Rather, everywhere in the world, at all historical periods, in all cultures, people have stampeded by the billions into the future of "of slightly more options" as fast as they can.
Why? Because the future is slightly better than the past. And tomorrow will be slightly better than today. And while everyone's actions confirm the essential reality of progress, progress is not something we have been willing to admit to in public. I am optimistic that in the coming years we'll embrace the reality of progress.
former President, Weizmann
Institute of Science
Evolutionary Ability of Humankind To Do the Right Things
am optimistic about the evolutionary ability of humankind to
do the right things, even though it sometimes happens only
after all possible mistakes are exhausted.
am optimistic about technology and world leaders (in that order)
discovering ways to combine energy savings and alternative sources
of energy (in that order), so that our planet is saved, while
we still have a reasonable standard of living.
am optimistic about the irreversible trend of increasing the
economic value of knowledge and decreasing the relative economic
importance of raw materials, reducing the power of ruthless primitive
dictators and increasing the rewards for education and talent.
am optimistic about the emerging ability of the life sciences
to use mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering
in order to understand biological mechanisms, detect and prevent
medical problems and cure deadly diseases.
am optimistic that more scientists will understand that public
awareness and public understanding of science and technology
are the only weapons against ignorance, faith healers, religious
fanaticism, fortune tellers, superstitions and astrology, and
that serious programs will emerge in order to enhance the contribution
of the scientific community to this effort.
am optimistic that, in the same way that Europe understood during
the last Fifty years that education for all and settling disputes
peacefully are good things, while killing people just because
of their nationality or religion is bad, so will the Muslim world
during the new century.
am optimistic that we will soon understand that wise medical
and genetic ethics mean that we should not absolutely forbid
any technology and we should not absolutely allow any technology,
but find ways to extract the good and eliminate the bad, from
every new scientific development.
am optimistic about the fact that an important fraction of the
nations on this planet succeeded in refuting the extrapolations
concerning a population explosion and I hope that the remaining
nations will do likewise, for their own advancement and survival.
am optimistic about the power of education to alleviate poverty
and advance health and peace in the third world and I am hopeful
that the affluent world will understand that its own survival
on this planet depends on its own help to the rest of humanity
in advancing its education.
am not at all optimistic that any of the above will happen soon.
All possible mistakes and wrong turns will probably be attempted.
The weakest link is our chronic short sightedness, which is bad
in the case of the general public and is much worse for its elected
political leaders, who think in terms of months and years, not
decades and certainly not centuries.
Universite' de la Mediterrane' (Marseille, France); Author:
What is time? What is Space?
Divide Between Rational Scientific Thinking and the Rest
of Our Culture
days I wake up optimistic, others not at all. When I am optimistic,
I think that humans are increasingly realizing that rational
thinking is indeed better for them than irrational thinking.
In the process, scientific thinking is growing in depth, healing
itself from a certain traditional superficiality, re-gaining
contact with the rest of the culture, learning to deal with
with the complexity of the search for knowledge, and with the
full complexity of the human experience. Non-scientific thinking
is still everywhere, but it is losing ground.
the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between
science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals
on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge
cannot be seen unless we look at it all. A contemporary philosopher
that ignores scientific thinking is out of the world, but an
increasing number of theoretical physicists are also realizing,
for instance, that to solve quantum gravity we cannot avoid
addressing foundational "philosophical" questions. And
an increasing number of scientists coming out of the lab, and
speaking out (here on Edge, for instance).
I am pessimistic, I think that history shows that human madness
with us to stay: war, greed for more power and more richness,
religion, certainty to be the depositary of the ultimate Truth,
fear of those different from us ... I see all this madness
solidly in control of the planet's affairs. And even some of
my scientists friends trust homeopathy.
I am optimistic I think that the past was worse: we are definitely
going towards a better and more reasonable world. There are
countries today that have not started a war in decades, and,
in fact, these countries are the majority: it is something
new in the history of the world. The number of people that
have realized how much nonsensical is there in religion continues
to increase, and no doubt this will help decrease belligerency
the process is in both sides. In a recent interview with CNN,
the Dalai Lama was asked how it feels to be the leader of a
major religion in a secular world. He smiled and answered that
he was happy to see that the modern word has a rich secular spiritual
life. A secular spiritual life is a life rich intellectually
and emotionally. The next question was whether he really believed
he was the Dalai Lama, reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas.
This time he laughed, and answered "of course I am the
Dalai Lama", but to be the
"reincarnation" of previous Lamas, he continued, does
not mean to "be them": it means to continue something
that they had been developing. Not
all our major religious leaders are so reasonable, of course.
But if one can be so, can't we hope, at least in our optimistic
moments, the others will follow?
six centuries have lapsed since Anaximander suggested that
rain is not sent by Zeus. Rather, it is water evaporated by
the sun and carried by the wind. The battle to realize that
the scientific method of representing knowledge and the science-minded
mode of thinking is deeper, richer and better for us than any
God, is still ongoing, but by no means is it lost, as it often
Biotechonomy; Founding Director, Harvard Business School's
Life Sciences Project; Author, The Untied States
Knowledge Driven Economy Allows Individuals to Lead Millions
Out of Poverty In a Single Generation
to create, to work, to fundamentally alter is unprecedented.
For better and worse, science and technology provide ever
greater power. Individuals and small groups can leverage
this power to set their own rules, make their own lives,
establish their own boundaries. Paradoxically, this is leading
to massive global networks and ever smaller countries.
Don't like your country or your neighbors? Had enough of the
religious, nationalist, or ethnic fanatics nearby? Groups that
like to speak obscure languages, that want to revise the heroes
in the grammar school textbooks, or who advocate a different
set of morals are increasingly able to do so. Borders and boundaries
in both rich and poor countries are breeding like rabbits.
In Europe there are demands for autonomy or outright separation
in the former United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands,
Austria, Germany, Italy...
It used to be the bright had to leave India, Pakistan, China,
and Mexico to make a living, to lead and have a global impact.
No more. There are ever more powerful enclaves and zip codes
within countries where there is a concentration of smarts and
entrepreneurship. If their neighbors let them, these groups
and networks flourish. If not they separate or they leave.
As long as you can become and remain a part of the network,
the power of place matters ever less. Who your parents were,
where you were born, is irrelevant as long as you have access
to and interest in education, technology, science, and networks.
Every time you open a science magazine, research a new material
or gene, map a brain, ocean, or piece of the universe there
is a smorgasbord of opportunities to learn and build something
new, to create, to accumulate enough prestige, wealth, or power
to fundamentally change many lives.
A knowledge driven economy allows individuals to lead millions
out of poverty in a single generation. Many within the biggest,
China and India, as well as the smallest Singapore and Luxembourg
can thrive. One no longer needs to take what the neighbor has
to survive. One can thrive by building something complementary,
by thinking up something better. Knowledge unlike land, oil
wells, gold mines, is ever expanding. Someone's success depends
ever less on taking what the other had. You can build and make
Sometimes the real and cyber merge and cross over. Second lifers,
inhabitants of a virtual world, are free to become whatever
they wish, wherever they wish. Their creations and wealth are
increasingly crossing boundaries into the real world of corporate
planning, art, and dollars. This is just a foreshadowing of
real world governance going forward as the digital becomes
the dominant language and means of generating wealth on the
Throughout the world, likely your grandpa's favorite sports
team moved, his flag changed, and his job merged, moved, and
morphed. All of this implies an accelerating set of shifts
in allegiance and identity. Politicians and citizens who wish
to preserve and protect the current country are well advised
to pay attention to these trends as more have a choice and
as ever more debate whether to become a more compact few. For
the illegitimate or the slow, it will be harder to maintain
boundaries and borders. There is little margin for error; each
government and temporarily dominant party can screw up the
whole. And the whole can be spit very fast. But you have any
options. You can fight to preserve that you love or you can
choose to build or inhabit an alternative space. Your choice.
Founder of Gottman Institute; Author (with Julie Gottman), And
Baby Makes Three
Men Are Involved In the Care of Their Own Infants the
Cultures Do Not Make War
In the past 13 years we have been able to study 222 first born babies
interacting with their new parents using video cameras and the Swiss
Lausanne Triadic Play method. I am very impressed with babies and working
with them has renewed my faith in our species. However, in the first
study we did with 130 newlywed couples we discovered the grim fact that
67% of couples experienced a large drop in relationship satisfaction
in the first 3 years of their baby's life. We also found that hostility
between parents increased dramatically. The baby was deeply negatively
affected by this increased hostility. In fact, from the way a couple
argued in the last trimester of pregnancy we could predict with high
accuracy how much their baby would laugh and cry.
But then we compared the 33% of couples who did not experience that
negative drop in happiness when their first baby arrived with the 67%
who did, and the two groups of couples turned out to be very different
even a few months after the wedding. So my wife and I designed an educational
workshop based on these differences. What I am really optimistic about
is that now we have discovered in two randomized clinical trials that
in just a 2-day workshop we can reverse these negative effects of the
arrival of the first baby. That has renewed my faith in scientific research.
Furthermore, we dramatically change fathers and have a large impact on
the emotional and neurological development of their babies (even though
the babies didn't take the workshop).
thing that I am optimistic about is how much men have changed in the
past 30 years. Thirty years ago we'd have only women in our audiences.
Men becoming dads really want to attend these workshops and they want
to be better partners and better fathers than their own dads were. That
makes me optimistic. We have found that change to be there in all walks
of life, all socioeconomic levels, all the races and ethnic groups we
have worked with in this country. We have now trained workshop leaders
in 24 countries, so I am optimistic about prevention. I believe that
this knowledge can change families, avoid the deterioration of couples'
relationships, and contribute to Dan Goleman's social intelligence in
a new generation of children. Peggy Sanday's study of 186 hunter-gatherer
cultures found that when men are involved in the care of their own infants
the cultures do not make war. This greater involvement of men with their
babies may eventually contribute to a more peaceful world. That thought
makes me optimistic.
Researcher of Pirahã Culture; Chair of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Professor
of Linguistics and Anthropology, Illinois State University
Will Learn to Learn From
am optimistic that humans might finally come to understand
that they can learn from other humans who are not
like them. The supposed 'curse' of the Tower of Babel,
the diversity of languages and cultures, is perhaps
our greatest hope for continued healthy occupancy
of this rock we all share in our unforgiving universe.
Sure, there are dangers in this diversity that have
led to murder and suffering. Diversity can all too
easily be interpreted as 'incomprehensibility, inferiority,
wrong-headedness'. But I am optimistic that our species
has grown tired of this view of diversity. And I
am optimistic that groups we have heard very little
from will motivate us all to learn new solutions
to old problems in the coming years.
we define the group to which we belong, ethnically,
geographically, linguistically, or nationally, I believe
that 2007 could be the year in which we come to embrace
a symmetry of status between groups and a cross-pollination
of ways of living and ways of thinking about the world.
me say what I think it means for people groups to learn
from one another and then why I am optimistic about
world presents us all with similar problems at the
level of biological and emotional need. We need shelter,
food, companionship, affection, sex, and opportunities
to develop our abilities, among other things. As humans
we also have intellectual and social needs that go
beyond other species. We need affirmation, we need
respect, we need to feel good about our lives, we need
to feel like we are useful, and we need to feel optimistic.
And we need to know how to get more meaning out of
the world around us. And, especially, we need to learn
to love more and tolerate more. But how do we learn
these things? Where can we go for new ideas for the
problems we are still beset by in 2007? Anthropological
linguistics can offer some suggestions. We can learn
from the stories and values of smaller, overlooked
groups, endangered peoples, and even extinct peoples
that we have records of, about how to live more harmoniously
in the world.
example, when we look back to the now extinct cultures
of the Narragansett Indians the Northeastern British
colonies in the early 18th century and before, we learn
about their tolerance of difference. When Increase
Mather and his father Cotton Mather expulsed Roger
Williams from the colony of Massachusetts in 1735,
during a ferocious winter, Mather expected Williams
to do the right thing and freeze to death. Williams
had expressed views of tolerance and respect for others
and against tenets of the church of Mather that Mather
and Governor Winthrop found intolerable. But Williams
was taken in by the Narragansett and spent the winter
safely with them, learning about their language and
their philosophy of tolerance, of which he was living
proof. When Williams later wrote about these people,
his writings influenced the thought of Thomas Jefferson
and eventually the Narragansett philosophy seems to
have influenced, though indirectly, the writings and
thought of William James as he helped to develop American
Pragmatism, perhaps the only uniquely American contribution
to world philosophy — a philosophy that evaluates
ideas by their usefulness, by their tolerance of diverse
ideas, and by their rejection of the idea that any
one group holds a monopoly on Truth.
have spent most of our existence on this planet in
an attempt to homogenize it. To remove uncomfortable
differences. But I believe that we are growing weary
of this. I believe that this year the hurt and pain
that our species is inflecting on itself will surpass,
for many of us at least, what we are willing to bear.
We are going to look for other answers. And we are
going to need to turn to humans who have mastered the
art of contentment and peace and tolerance. These people
are found in various parts of the world. Zen Buddhists
are one example. But there are others.
thirty years of work with the Pirahãs (pee-da-HANs)
of the Amazon rain forest, for example, has taught
me a great deal about their remarkable lack of concern
about the future or the past and their pleasure in
living one day at a time, without fear of an afterlife,
with full tolerance for others' beliefs. The Pirahãs
know that people die, that they suffer, that life is
not easy, through their daily struggle to provide food
for their families without being bitten by snakes or
eaten by jaguars and from loved ones they bury young,
dead from malaria and other diseases. But this doesn't
dampen their joy of life, their love for other Pirahãs
or their ability to look at death without fear and
without need for the idea of heaven to get them through
this life, to them the only life.
have a concept of Truth that lacks tolerance, a Truth
that wants to missionize the world to eliminate diversity
of belief. Western history has shown what that leads
to. But peoples like the Narragansett, the Pirahãs,
Zen Buddhists, and many others offer alternatives to
homogenizing and destroying the diversity of the world.
They show us how different people can solve the same
problems of life in ways that can avoid some of the
by-products of the violent homogenization of Western
history. I believe that the impact of the internet
and of rapid dissemination of research in popular and
professional forums, coupled with widespread disgust
at some of the things that our traditional cultural
values have produced, can be the basis for learning
from other peoples.
is there to learn? Let me give some examples from my
own field research among Amazonian peoples.
I once thought it might be fun to teach the Pirahã people
about Western games. So I organized a 'field day',
with a tug of war, a foot race, and a sack race, among
other things. In the foot race, one Pirahã fellow
got out in front of everyone else. He then stopped
and waited for all the others to catch up so they could
cross together. The idea of winning was not only novel
but unappealing. We cross the line together or I don't
cross it. And the same went for the sack race. The
tug of war contest was a joke — just guys keeping
the slack out of the rope talking. The people loved
it all, laughing and conversing all day and told me
they had a good time. They taught me more than I ever
taught them: you can have a great time and have everyone
win. That is not a bad lesson. That is a fine lesson.
The Pirahãs, like the Narragansett and other
American Indians, believe that you use your knowledge
to serve yourself and to serve others in your community.
There is no over-arching concept of Truth to which
all members of society must conform.
The Pirahãs seem to accept only knowledge that
helps, not knowledge that coerces. Think of our English
expression 'knowledge is power'. The concept as practiced
in most industrial societies is really that 'knowledge
is power for me so long as I have it and you don't'.
But to many peoples like the Pirahãs, knowledge
is something for us all to share. It is power to the
people, not power to a person. The Pirahãs don't
allow top secret conversations. Every member of their
society knows what every other member is doing and
how they are doing it. There is a communal mind. There
is freedom and security in group knowledge.
In Western society we associate tolerance with education — the
more you learn, the more you tolerate. But there is
little evidence for this thesis when we look at our
society as a whole (where education is even compatible
with religious fundamentalism, one of the worst dangers
for the future of our species). Yet among some hunter-gatherer
societies, toleration of physical, mental, and religious
diversity can be much greater than our so-called pluralistic
Western societies. Not everyone has to look alike,
act alike, behave alike, or believe alike. In fact,
they don't even have to pretend to do so.
In the 1960s there was a similar optimism among my fellow
hippies, as many of my generation went into fields like
anthropology, literature, and science to learn more about
diverse facts and truths and to give us a cornucopia
of coping lessons for life. We are ready now for a new
60s-like exploration of diversity and I am optimistic
that we will do this. I am optimistic that we will learn
the simple and useful truths of cooperation, pluralism,
communalism, and toleration and that no one Idea or Truth
should be the ring to bind us all.
and Psychiatrist, University of California
San Francisco; Author, Better Than
Mental Illness Genes
When I trained
in psychiatry in the 1960s, schizophrenia
and bipolar disorder were blamed on bad mothering.
Now we know that the pathogenic stuff that
mothers (and fathers) transmit is genes.
Once this was
established, scientists began searching for
the genes that are involved. The main thing
we have learned so far is that variants of
quite a few different genes (maybe dozens
or even more) may each increase the risk
of developing one of these disorders; and
that several (or more) of these variants
must work together in a particular person
to produce an appreciable increase in risk.
Because so many combinations of gene variants
may each produce the same pattern of mental illness,
it has proved to be very difficult
to identify any one of them with the techniques
that identified the single genes that cause
some other disorders, such as rare forms
of Alzheimer’s disease.
To have a good
chance of identifying the combinations of
genes that influence the development of schizophrenia
or bipolar disorder two things are needed:
thousands of DNA samples, each from a person
who is clearly suffering from the disorder
being studied (to compare with controls);
and an affordable technique for scrutinizing
each DNA sample in sufficient detail
to identify all the salient genetic variations.
Both these requirements are now being met.
Groups of researchers have been collecting
the requisite number of DNA samples from
patients with clear-cut cases of schizophrenia
or bipolar disorder; and the costs of detailed
genomic analyses keep coming down. When the
numbers of samples are big enough and the
costs of analysis are small enough, the relevant
genes should be found. Already a few gene
variants have been tentatively implicated
as risk factors for schizophrenia.
there are skeptics. Unconvinced by the tentative
findings, their biggest worry is that there
may be so many different kinds of schizophrenia
or bipolar disorder that any collection of
DNA samples, no matter how large, will be
a jumble, and that the many relevant gene
variants in the samples will all elude detection.
This is where
optimism comes in. I am optimistic that this
approach can work now, if it is adequately
funded. And I am disappointed that there
are enough influential pessimists to limit
the wholehearted support that it needs to
succeed. What makes this so important is
that identification of these genes will have
important practical consequences in the design
of new treatments to replace the unsatisfactory
ones that we presently employ.
We are at the point
where a concerted effort to find the gene variants
that predispose to disabling mental illnesses
has a high probability of success. It is
a time for optimism. It is a time for funding
with a full hand.
and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland;
Could Always Be Worse
Things could always be worse. Is this a cause
for optimism? And if so, is this a form of
optimism worth having — a wimpy, agnostic,
non-committal, damn-with-faint-praise kind
of optimism? Quite the contrary. It’s
a rough-and-ready, rustic kind of optimism. This
optimism is suited for everyday life and doesn’t
fold under pressure. We have all heard of the "grass
is greener" syndrome. This is its "grass
is browner" counterpart, the achievable
anecdote for broken dreams, and bolster of
the status quo.
Psychophysics — the
study of the psychological impact of physical
events — indicates that more is not
always better, and that greener grass, once
acquired, quickly starts to yellow. We keep
order in our lives because two inches always
seem twice as long as one inch, but unlike
length, other sensations do not grow in a
linear manner. A tone, for example,
must be much more than twice as powerful
as a standard to sound twice as loud. As
with tones, the quirks of our brain doom
a path to happiness based on the accumulation
of stuff. The second million dollars, like
the second Ferrari, does not equal the satisfaction
provided by the first, and a second Nobel
is pretty much out of the question, a dilemma
of past laureates. Goals once obtained become
the new standard, to which we adapt, before
continuing our race up the escalating, slippery
slope of acquisitiveness and fame. Philosophers
and scientists from antiquity to the present
generally agree that life is a marathon,
not a sprint, and the formula for happiness
and well-being is the journey — not
achievement of the goal — and the comfort
of friends and family.
This brings me
back to my proposal, "things could always
be worse." It finesses our biologically
determined law of diminishing returns and the
impossibility of keeping up with the Joneses.
Lacking the understated nobility of "we
have nothing to fear, but fear itself," my
slogan would not lift the spirits of a depression-era
nation, serve a candidate seeking political office,
nor provide a philosophy of life, but it does
help me to slog on. Best of all, my modest proposal
is unconditionally true for anyone healthy enough
to understand it. When things take a nasty
turn, as they often do, celebrate the present
and recite my slogan —"things could
always be worse."