January 08, 2006

The Question for 2006

Every New Year's Day since 1998, the Edge, a website run by literary agent John Brockman in order to promulgate the idea of a "third culture" -- "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are" -- chooses a challenging, heuristically rich question to ask scientists, and gathers their responses.

A year ago I blogged about their 2005 question, ""What do you believe although you cannot prove it?" That question, which received 117 replies totaling 60,000 words, got a lot of media attention and has now been published as a book with an introduction by novelist Ian McEwen.

This year's question, suggested by Steven Pinker, is, "What is your dangerous idea?"

Edge elaborates: "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

119 replies, 75,000 words.

It seems to be getting less media attention than last year, and perhaps that's because some of these ideas are -- well, dangerous. Craig Venter, for instance, foresees a potential for social conflict in an increasing number of discoveries of genetic bases for human differences in ability. "The danger rests with what we already know: that we are not all created equal." David Lykken foresees laws requiring parental licensing. (Combine Venter's and Lykken's ideas and what do you get?) Roger Schank wants to abolish schools. Arnold Trehub's entire contribution is this:

"The entire conceptual edifice of modern science is a product of biology. Even the most basic and profound ideas of science — think relativity, quantum theory, the theory of evolution — are generated and necessarily limited by the particular capacities of our human biology. This implies that the content and scope of scientific knowledge is not open-ended."

The entire edifice shaken in three sentences! And to me, those sentences, or at least the first two, seem not so much dangerous as undeniably true. (It will be open-ended, I think, because science can lead us to whatever will come after science.)

Here's the full list of contributors:

Martin Rees J. Craig Venter Leo Chalupa V.S. Ramachandran David Buss Paul Bloom Philip Campbell Jesse Bering Paul Ewald Bart Kosko Matt Ridley David Pizzaro Randolph Nesse Gregory Benford Marco Iacaboni Barry C. Smith Philip W. Anderson Timothy Taylor Oliver Morton Samuel Barondes David Bodanis Nicholas Humphrey Eric Fischl Stanislas Dehaene Joel Garreau Helen Fisher Paul Davies April Gornik Jamshed Bharucha Jordan Pollack Juan Enriquez Stephen Kosslyn Jerry Coyne Ernst Poeppel Geoffrey Miller Robert Shapiro Kai Krause Carlo Rovelli Richard Dawkins Seth Lloyd Carolyn Porco Michael Nesmith Lawrence Krauss Daniel C. Dennett Daniel Gilbert Andy Clark Sherry Turkle Steven Strogatz Terrence Sejnowski Lynn Margulis Thomas Metzinger Diane Halpern Gary Marcus Jaron Lanier W. Daniel Hillis Neil Gershenfeld Paul Steinhardt Sam Harris Scott Atran Marcelo Gleiser Douglas Rushkoff Judith Rich Harris Alun Anderson Todd Feinberg Stewart Brand Jared Diamond Leonard Susskind Gerald Holton Charles Seife Karl Sabbagh Rupert Sheldrake Tor N¿rretranders John Horgan Eric R. Kandel Daniel Goleman Brian Greene David Gelernter Mahzarin Banaji Rodney Brooks Lee Smolin Alison Gopnik Kevin Kelly Denis Dutton Simon Baron-Cohen Freeman Dyson Gregory Cochran George B. Dyson Keith Devlin Frank Tipler Scott Sampson Jeremy Bernstein Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Irene Pepperberg Brian Goodwin Rudy Rucker Steven Pinker Richard E. Nisbett Robert Provine Donald Hoffman Marc D. Hauser Ray Kurzweil Haim Harari David G. Myers Clay Shirky Michael Shermer Arnold Trehub Roger Schank Susan Blackmore David Lykken Clifford Pickover John Allen Paulos James O'Donnell Philip Zimbardo Richard Foreman John Gottman Piet Hut Dan Sperber Martin E.P. Seligman Howard Gardner

Go over there and get some intellectual stimulation! The site also provides links to media coverage and to other Edge articles.