What Is Your Dangerous Idea?

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?

by John Brockman

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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


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

Editorial Reviews

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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HarperCollins Publishers
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Edge Question Series
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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.

Meet the Author

The publisher of the online science salon Edge.org, John Brockman is the editor of the national bestsellers This Idea Must Die, This Explains Everything, This Will Make You Smarter, and other volumes.

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