January 1, 2008 at 1:59 pm #26791
note: I think http://www.edge.org is one of the most interesting sites on the web to get a quick survey of cutting edge thinkers. Taoist view of humanity is a creative one, and this tracks the creative intellectual edge. Often the ideas here parallel spiritual explorations I’ve made/making energetically – that focus on experience and self-cultivation is the difference between an intellectual and an alchemical or qigong adept. But the two can feed each other. Visit the site to go deeper.
Second thoughts on life, the universe and everything by world’s best brains
The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights
James Randerson, science correspondent
Tuesday January 1 2008
They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world’s best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.
When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.
The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year’s question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world’s greatest thinkers.
Edge’s publisher, John Brockman, asked the intellectual cream what they had changed their mind about and why. “Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?” said the brief.
A common theme in the responses is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and from faith is that new ideas can rapidly overturn old ones as new evidence emerges. So there’s nothing to be ashamed about in admitting an intellectual switch. Some responses, such as Dennett’s change of heart on how the mind works, resist paraphrasing in 100 words, but here is a selection of the rest.
What was the turning point in human evolution?
Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist who studied under Jane Goodall. Now at Harvard University, his research includes primate behaviour and human evolution.
“I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. After all, the idea that meat-eating launched humanity has been the textbook evolutionary story for decades, mooted even before Darwin was born.
“But in a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human … Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet. It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals. Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day.”
Why do men dominate society?
Helena Cronin, philosopher at the London School of Economics and director of Darwin@LSE, a research group devoted to what Darwinism can tell us about human nature.
“I used to think that patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments … Add to this some bias and barriers – a sexist attitude here, a lack of childcare there – and the sex differences are explained. Or so I thought … But they alone don’t fully explain the differences … Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance – the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst – can be vast.
“So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as ‘more dumbbells but more Nobels’… Unfortunately, however, this is not the prevailing perspective in current debates, particularly where policy is concerned.”
Are there genetic differences between “races”?
Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University. His research includes work on language and cultural evolution.
“Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.
“The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations … Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations – including differences that may even correspond to old categories of “race” – that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.
“This in no way says one group is in general “superior” to another … But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.
Are humans still evolving?
Steven Pinker, leading psychologist and language expert at Harvard University. Author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.
“I’ve had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution … New [laboratory] results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as 10% of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years … If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function … then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000-50,000 years ago.”
Is the universe flat?
Laurence Krauss, physicist at Case Western Reserve University and prominent opponent of the Intelligent Design movement. His books include The Physics of Star Trek.
“I was relatively certain that there was precisely enough matter in the universe to make it geometrically flat … according to general relativity [geometrically flat] means there is a precise balance between the positive kinetic energy associated with the expansion of space, and the negative potential energy associated with the gravitational attraction of matter in the universe so that the total energy is precisely zero … We are now pretty sure that the dominant energy-stuff in our universe isn’t normal matter, and isn’t dark matter, but rather is associated with empty space! And what is worse (or better, depending upon your viewpoint) is that our whole picture of the possible future of the universe has changed. An accelerating universe will carry away almost everything we now see, so that in the far future our galaxy will exist alone in a dark, and seemingly endless void. And that is what I find so satisfying about science … that the whole community could throw out a cherished notion, and so quickly! That is what makes science different than religion.”
Should we use brain-boosting drugs?
Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Nature
“I’ve changed my mind about the use of enhancement drugs by healthy people. A year ago, if asked, I’d have been against the idea, whereas now I think there’s much to be said for it. The ultimate test of such a change of mind is how I’d feel if my offspring (both adults) went down that road, and my answer is that with tolerable risks of side effects and zero risk of addiction, then I’d feel OK if there was an appropriate purpose to it … Research and societal discussions are necessary before cognitive enhancement drugs should be made legally available for the healthy, but I now believe that that is the right direction in which to head.
Does God exist?
Alan Alda, perhaps best-known as Hawkeye in the 70s series MASH. He now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US television.
“Until I was 20 I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn’t like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realised that I didn’t believe there was such a being … I still don’t like the word agnostic. It’s too fancy. I’m simply not a believer.”January 1, 2008 at 2:32 pm #26792
note: I’m posting this piece, as it highlights what I perceive as the need for a spiritual science to bridge the gap between religion and hard science. I believe eventually Taoist practices will play an important part in laying out that spiritual science, mostly because it has a clean set of principles that are personally testable thorugh qigong and meditation practice. – Michael
TAKING SCIENCE ON FAITH by Paul Davies
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality the laws of physics only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.
Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.
A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
[First published as an OpEd piece by The New York Times, November 24, 2007]January 1, 2008 at 8:16 pm #26794
Good article . . .
Paul Davies is an excellent science philosopher.
I’ve read a number of articles and books by him before, and
have always enjoyed his thought-provoking well-written
Thanks . . . SJanuary 5, 2008 at 8:30 am #26796
Excellent summary of evolutionary scientific thinking vs. faith-based living ffom perspective of ethics and moral psychology. Also from Edge.com
The main thing I see in these debates (which are largely evidence driven by genetic studies) is the view that a “third” force exists between empirical materialism and relgiiosity. Namely, spiritiual science. Hard scientists are not systematically training their internal processes of consciousness, so certain experiences are not available to them. The religionists invoke those internal states through worship of their deity/dieties, but often put on blinders in assuming their God/s are creating everyone else in the same way…..
read it – definitely high gear intellectual debate, but quite accessible. Examines studie showing that religious people tend to give me ot charity and live longer, happier lives…..but is it at the expense of those who dont believe the same as them?
michaelJanuary 6, 2008 at 3:33 am #26798
Discovering a way of living that provides
great personal meaning, but then forcing that
onto others under the belief that it is “good for them”
is the ultimate in selfishness.
Selfishness be it for it’s the complete devaluation
of the opinions of others–in favor of the personal view–
to such a distorted point that a sick power-hungry desire
to subjugate others forcibly into said personal view becomes the result.
It is the disrespect of the life of a human being
and its free will, and the replacement with the
worship of a prefabricated cookie-cutter fixed pattern–a type
of insidious evil one could argue.
A static uniform pattern, colorless and prohibitive of change
and variance, it exists to oppose the flow of life and is the
perfect example of 100% complete counterproductive motion.
Instead, let each person unfold who they were meant to be
naturally–in a manner of noninterference–and watch all of
society become enriched as a result.
StevenJanuary 6, 2008 at 4:28 pm #26800
The oriental mind is inherently “beehive”, i.e. collective first, individiual second. The west has the opposite model. You and I are both born western. The taoists were the cultural rebels against confucian collectivism. but they still believe in an inherentl virtuous collective, Nature….
michaelJanuary 6, 2008 at 9:52 pm #26802
I agree . . . with the exception that the “religious fundamentalists”
in this country would like us to be beehive. I pray that
they are kept impotent to allow individuals to reach the overall
collective through their own means.
Fundamentalists, radicals, and idealogues that try to force
their agenda on the population either through standard politics
or through terrorism is the greatest plague on the planet, in my opinion.
They would be better served looking within and trying to reach
the divine themselves rather than by putting their unwelcome
noses in others lives. Personally speaking, it is the only
form of human behavior that I find offensive.
StevenJanuary 6, 2008 at 11:15 pm #26804
..?January 7, 2008 at 1:21 am #26806
Diverging into purely personal opinion, having
to do with laws relating to drugs,
then if I were deciding said laws . . .
1. I would legalize *all* drugs and drug use.
2. To buy and/or possess drugs you would need to be at least 21,
and have a license for this purpose. You must pay a fee and
sign a consent form to obtain the license.
3. Laws would be put in place prohibiting intoxication while
driving, while working, or while in the general public.
There would be automatic prison time for harming someone while
under the influence, or supplying drugs to someone
not properly licensed.
4. Violating said laws would cause your license to be
suspended, revoked, and/or prison time, depending on the
severity of the infraction.
5. Drugs would be heavily taxed. Illegal sales would still
6. Proceeds from drug sales would be used to pay for
clinics for those who are addicted and need help, and
proceeds would also be used to pay for/support drug education.
I mean, what’s so special about alcohol that it should
be legal and the other drugs not. I personally think
alcohol is a poison, but don’t feel any need to force
others to follow my lead.
Being more specific about your question:
Personally, I think that there are much better and more
effective ways to connect with the divine than through
drug use, but if you feel it important, then so long
as your use doesn’t affect my life, I would (law-permitting)
say “have at”.
SJanuary 7, 2008 at 3:46 pm #26808
If there is light in the soul, There will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, There will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, There will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, There will be peace in the world.
The submissive and the dominant are one in the same, both guided by the unconscious.
I agree self correction is greatly needed.January 7, 2008 at 3:57 pm #26810
A taoist hermit that does like big allot of outer governance or collectivism shocking!!! 🙂January 7, 2008 at 8:20 pm #26812January 7, 2008 at 8:21 pm #26814January 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm #26816
I often here this about orientals, but after 5 years in China I would say that the Chinese are even more self-centered on average than Westerners, even babyboomers (sorry Michael, i know that’s your generation).
I can’t believe the greed that rules this culture and the complete lack of an ethical foundation. It’s mind boggling at times. The one thing Chinese esteem above all else, way above Westerners is money. And they are open about it. In a way it’s better than the hypocrisy that underlies our love of money, but their love of money far exceeds ours.
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