What is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable


The world's leading scientific thinkers explore bold, remarkable, perilous ideas that could change our lives—for better . . . or for worse . . .

From Copernicus to Darwin, to current-day thinkers, scientists have always promoted theories and unveiled discoveries that challenge everything society holds dear; ideas with both positive and dire consequences. Many thoughts that resonate today are dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, ...

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What Is Your Dangerous Idea?

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The world's leading scientific thinkers explore bold, remarkable, perilous ideas that could change our lives—for better . . . or for worse . . .

From Copernicus to Darwin, to current-day thinkers, scientists have always promoted theories and unveiled discoveries that challenge everything society holds dear; ideas with both positive and dire consequences. Many thoughts that resonate today are dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.

What do the world's leading scientists and thinkers consider to be their most dangerous idea? Through the leading online forum Edge (www.edge.org), the call went out, and this compelling and easily digestible volume collects the answers. From using medication to permanently alter our personalities to contemplating a universe in which we are utterly alone, to the idea that the universe might be fundamentally inexplicable, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? takes an unflinching look at the daring, breathtaking, sometimes terrifying thoughts that could forever alter our world and the way we live in it.

Contributors include
Daniel C. Dennett • Jared Diamond • Brian Greene • Matt Ridley • Howard Gardner and Freeman Dyson, among others

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Editorial Reviews

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Edge webmaster John Brockman ranks as one of the great intellectual provocateurs of our time. His anthology What We Believe but Cannot Prove challenged leading thinkers to discuss personal theories that they can't demonstrate with certainty. What Is Your Dangerous Idea? asks world-class scientists to discuss breakthrough ideas that are potent because they are potentially true. The topics include "The Purpose of Life Is to Disperse Energy," "We Have No Souls," "The Differences Between Humans and Nonhumans Are Quantitative, Not Qualitative," "The Fight Against Global Warming Is Lost," and "Where Goods Cross Frontiers, Armies Won't." The contributors include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, and Matt Ridley.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061214950
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/13/2007
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 962,539
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

The publisher of the online science salon Edge.org, John Brockman is the editor of The Universe, This Explains Everything, This Will Make You Smarter, and other volumes. He is the founder of the literary agency Brockman, Inc., and lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

We Have No Souls

John Horgan

John Horgan is the director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. He is the author, most recently, of Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment.

This year's Edge question makes me wonder: Which ideas pose a greater potential danger? False ones or true ones? Illusions or the lack thereof? As a believer in and lover of science, I certainly hope that the truth will set us free, and save us, but sometimes I'm not so sure.

The dangerous (probably true) idea I'd like to dwell on is that we humans have no souls. The soul is that core of us that supposedly transcends, and even persists beyond, our physicality, lending us a fundamental autonomy, privacy, and dignity. In his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, the late, great Francis Crick argued that the soul is an illusion perpetuated, like Tinkerbell, only by our belief in it. Crick opened his book with this manifesto: "'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." Note the quotation marks around "You." The subtitle of Crick's book was almost comically ironic, since he was clearly trying not to find the soul but to crush it out of existence.

I once told Crick that "The Depressing Hypothesis" would have been a more accurate title for his book, since he was, after all, just reiterating the basic, materialist assumption of modernneurobiology and, more broadly, all of science. Until recently, it was easy to dismiss this assumption as moot, because brain researchers had made so little progress in tracing cognition to specific neural processes. Even self-proclaimed materialists, who intellectually accept the idea that we are just meat machines, could harbor a secret sentimental belief in a soul of the gaps. But recently the gaps have been closing, as neuroscientists—egged on by Crick in the last two decades of his life—have begun unraveling the so-called neural code, the software that transforms electrochemical pulses in the brain into perceptions, memories, decisions, emotions, and other constituents of consciousness.

I've argued elsewhere that the neural code may turn out to be so complex that it will never be fully deciphered. But sixty years ago some biologists feared the genetic code was too complex to crack. Then, in 1953, Crick and James Watson unraveled the structure of DNA, and researchers quickly established that the double helix mediates an astonishingly simple genetic code governing the heredity of all organisms. Science's success in deciphering the genetic code, which has culminated in the Human Genome Project, has been widely acclaimed—and with good reason, because knowledge of our genetic makeup could allow us to reshape our innate nature. A solution to the neural code could give us much greater, more direct control over ourselves than mere genetic manipulation.

Will we be liberated or enslaved by this knowledge? Officials in the Pentagon, the major funder of neural code research, have openly broached the prospect of cyborg warriors who can be remotely controlled via brain implants, like the assassin in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate. On the other hand, a cultlike group of self-described "wireheads" looks forward to the day when implants allow us to create our own realities and achieve ecstasy on demand.

Either way, when our minds can be programmed like personal computers, then perhaps we will finally abandon the belief that we have immortal, inviolable souls—unless, of course, we program ourselves to believe.

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?
Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
. Copyright © by John Brockman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Preface: The Edge Question     xvii
Acknowledgments     xxi
Introduction   Steven Pinker     xxiii
We Have No Souls     1
The Rejection of Soul     4
The Evolution of Evil     7
The Differences Between Humans and Nonhumans Are Quantitative, Not Qualitative     10
Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments     13
The Genetic Basis of Human Behavior     16
Marionettes on Genetic Strings     19
Francis Crick's Dangerous Idea     22
Being Alone in the Universe     27
Life as an Agent of Energy Dispersal     29
We Are Entirely Alone     33
Science May Be Running Out of Control     35
Why I Hope the Standard Model Is Wrong About Why There Is More Matter Than Antimatter     38
The Idea That We Understand Plutonium     40
The Idea That We Should All Share Our Most Dangerous Ideas     41
The Idea That Ideas Can Be Dangerous     42
The Fight Against Global Warming Is Lost     43
Think Outside the Kyoto Box     45
Our Planet Is Not in Peril     50
The Effect of Art Can't Be Controlled or Anticipated     54
A "Grand Narrative"     55
Our Universal Moral Grammar's Immunity to Religion     59
Bertrand Russell's Dangerous Idea     62
Hodgepodge Morality     63
We Will Understand the Origin of Life Within the Next Five Years     65
Understanding Molecular Biology Without Discovering the Origins of Life     69
The Problem with Super Mirrors     70
Cyberdisinhibition     73
Brains Cannot Become Minds Without Bodies     76
What Are People Well Informed About in the Information Age?     80
More Anonymity Is Good     82
A New Golden Age of Medicine     84
Using Medications to Change Personality     90
Drugs May Change the Patterns of Human Love     92
A Marriage Option for All     95
Choosing the Sex of One's Child     97
The Idea of Ideas     101
The Human Brain Will Never Understand the Universe     102
The World May Be Fundamentally Inexplicable     105
The "Landscape"     108
Seeing Darwin in the Light of Einstein; Seeing Einstein in the Light of Darwin     112
The Multiverse     117
What Twentieth-Century Physics Says About the World Might Be True     120
It's a Matter of Time     122
A Radical Re-evaluation of the Character of Time     126
It's OK Not to Know Everything     128
The End of Insight     130
When Will the Internet Become Aware of Itself?     132
Democratizing Access to the Means of Invention     137
Mind Is a Universally Distributed Quality     139
The Forbidden Fruit Intuition     143
The Posterior Probability of Any Particular God Is Pretty Small     146
Science Must Destroy Religion     148
The Self Is a Conceptual Chimera     152
The Greatest Story Ever Told     153
Science as Just Another Religion     156
This Is All There Is     159
A Science of the Divine?     162
Science Will Never Silence God     167
Religion Is the Hope That Is Missing in Science     169
Myths and Fairy Tales Are Not True     173
Parental Licensure     175
Zero Parental Influence     177
The Focus on Emotional Intelligence     181
A Cacophony of "Controversy"     182
Applied History     184
Tribal Peoples Often Damage Their Environments and Make War     186
Nothing      187
Everything Is Pointless     188
There Aren't Enough Minds to House the Population Explosion of Memes     189
Unspeakable Ideas     193
Anty Gravity: Chaos Theory in an All-Too-Practical Sense     196
Navigating by New Scientific Principles     201
A Political System Based on Empathy     204
Social Relativity     207
There Is Something New Under the Sun -Us     209
A Spoon Is Like a Headache     211
Projection of the Longevity Curve     214
The Near-Term Inevitability of Radical Life Extension and Expansion     215
The Domestication of Biotechnology     218
Public Engagement in Science and Technology     220
Suppose Faulkner Was Right?     221
What If the Unknown Becomes Known and Is Not Replaced with a New Unknown?     225
Where Goods Cross Frontiers, Armies Won't     227
Government Is the Problem, Not the Solution     229
The Free Market     232
Modern Science Is a Product of Biology     234
No More Teacher's Dirty Looks     235
We Are All Virtual     238
Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox     240
Simulation Versus Authenticity     244
Culture Is Natural     248
The Human Brain Is a Cultural Artifact     252
Free Will Is Exercised Unconsciously     256
Free Will Is Going Away     259
The Limits of Introspection     263
What We Know May Not Change Us     266
Telling More Than We Can Know     269
The Quick-Thinking Zombies Inside Us     273
The Banality of Evil, the Banality of Heroism     275
Open-Source Currency     277
Is the West Already on a Downhill Course?     279
Technology Can Untie the United States     282
Democracy May Be on Its Way Out     286
Marx Was Right: The State Will Evaporate     288
Following Sisyphus     290
How Can I Trust, in the Face of So Many Unknowables?     292
A Twenty-Four-Hour Period of Absolute Solitude     294
Afterword   Richard Dawkins     297
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  • Posted January 27, 2012

    Definitely recommend

    A very good book. Great for a gift for the skeptic or atheist in your life, or for yourself. Highly recommend.

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