| Index | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 |

next >




2007

"WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"


CONTRIBUTORS
Samuel Barondes
Juan Enriquez
Daniel Everett
John Gottman

Haim Harari

Kevin Kelly
Jean Pigozzi
Robert Provine
Carlo Rovelli
Martin Seligman

Back to Index Page


\

MARTIN E.P. SELIGMAN
Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness


The First Coming

I 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 be reversed?"

"Let there be light," it responds. And there was light.

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 arguments.

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

So 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.


JEAN PIGOZZI
Collector, Contemporary African Art; High-Tech Ecological Researcher & Director, Liquid Jungle Lab, Panama

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 and interesting.

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.


KEVIN KELLY
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.


HAIM HARARI
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science

The Evolutionary Ability of Humankind To Do the Right Things

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.

I 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.


CARLO ROVELLI
Physicist, Universite' de la Mediterrane' (Marseille, France); Author:
What is time? What is Space?

The Divide Between Rational Scientific Thinking and the Rest of Our Culture Is Decreasing

Some 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.

In 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).

When 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.

When 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 and intolerance.

But 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?

Twenty 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 seems.


JUAN ENRIQUEZ
CEO, Biotechonomy; Founding Director, Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project; Author, The Untied States of America

A Knowledge Driven Economy Allows Individuals to Lead Millions Out of Poverty In a Single Generation

Freedom 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 your own.

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 planet.

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.


JOHN GOTTMAN
Psychologist; Founder of Gottman Institute; Author (with Julie Gottman),
And Baby Makes Three


When 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).

The other 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.


DANIEL L. EVERETT
Researcher of Pirahã Culture; Chair of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology, Illinois State University


Humans Will Learn to Learn From Diversity

I 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.

However 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. 

Let me say what I think it means for people groups to learn from one another and then why I am optimistic about it.

The 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.

For 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.

We 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.

My 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.

Religions 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.

What is there to learn? Let me give some examples from my own field research among Amazonian peoples.

Cooperation: 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.

Pluralism: 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.

Communalism: 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.

Toleration: 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.


SAMUEL BARONDES
Neurobiologist and Psychiatrist, University of California San Francisco; Author, Better Than Prozac

Finding 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

ROBERT R. PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

Things 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." 

< previous

| Index | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 |

next >


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2007 by
Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.
|Top|