116 Following


"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: What Are You Optimistic About?, edited by John Brockman

What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better - John Brockman

Every year since 1998, online salon Edge.org has asked a philosophical or scientific question of its members, who are touted as the world's "most complex and sophisticated minds".


What Are You Optimistic About? is a compilation of responses to the 2007 question:



As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic.  Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better.  Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques.  Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.


What are you optimistic about?  Why?  Surprise us!



It's an interesting question, and a heartening one, given the dismal nature of so much science news these days.  The brief responses collected here, from 153 luminaries representing various intellectual and artistic fields, range from trite to eccentric to obvious to profound.


The complete text of the responses can be found here.  Some that I found notable are:



Geoffrey Miller: "A Secular Humanist Death"


The hope: That humanity will develop a wise, brave, accepting attitude toward death, without relying on religious tropes like a heavenly afterlife.  Miller writes movingly about his secular humanist view of death's meaning:


"My genes, proteins, neural networks, beliefs, and desires are practically identical to those sustaining the consciousnesses of 6 billion other humans and countless other animals, whose experiences will continue when mine do not.  


"Since life must be common throughout the universe and resilient across time, such subjective experiences will continue not just on Earth in the short term but across many worlds, for billions of years.


"There is no spooky personal afterlife to fear or hope for, only this wondrous diversity of subjectivity that trillions of individuals get to partake in."



Martin E.P. Seligman: "The First Coming"


The hope: That though there are no gods at the present time, that an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent being (or beings) may come into existence in the future, as a result of documented evolutionary processes that select for more complexity over time.


"A process that selects for more complexity is ultimately aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness.  Omniscience is arguably the ultimate end product of science.  Omnipotence is arguably the ultimate end product of technology.  Goodness is arguably the ultimate end product of positive institutions.  Altruism is selected for.  So in the very longest run, we have a God who is not supernatural but who has acquired omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence through natural processes.  Perhaps - just perhaps - God comes at the end."


This is a completely wacky idea, but I chewed it over for some time, and I find it kind of enchanting.  I would read fiction with this as the premise.



Frank Wilczek: "Physics Will Not Achieve a Theory of Everything"


Think about it: if we really discovered a theory of everything, what would there be left to discover?  Wilczek: "I'm optimistic that the world will continue to surprise us in fascinating and fundamental ways."


Granted, I don't think we're remotely near achieving a scientific theory of everything (and the commonly-understood meaning of this phrase is something far more limited - a theory of everything fundamental in physics), but Wilczek's right.  How depressing would it be to live in a universe where we know all the details?  Or even in one where we know all the basics, with no "big ideas" left to strive for?



Karl Sabbagh: "The Optimism of Scientists"


Sabbagh argues - powerfully - that simply to engage in science is to be an optimist.  No one would become a scientist if s/he didn't believe they would make new discoveries, contribute to humanity's corpus of knowledge, and/or find new solutions to persistent problems.  



Max Tegmark: "We're Not Insignificant After All"


Based on the available evidence, Tegmark believes that "we're the only life-form in our entire observable universe that has advanced to the point of building telescopes."  Rather than this being a sobering, lonely conjecture, Tegmark points out how important it makes us, and how meaningful our existence is as a result.


"It was the cosmic vastness that made me feel insignificant to start with, yet those galaxies are visible and beautiful to us -- and only us.  It is only we who give them any meaning, making our small planet the most significant place in our observable universe."


Heady stuff.



Rebecca Goldstein: "We Have the Ability to Understand One Another"


Our human capacity for empathy could, if developed, help ease even the most cavernous ideological divides.  Goldstein suggests we might foster this through fiction, which allows us to inhabit the minds of others who don't share our beliefs and prejudices.  As a reader, I love this idea - that fiction can save the world!



Jill Neimark: "The Human Epigenome Project"


Sure, we've mapped the human genome, but that's only half the story.  Epigenetics looks at the biochemical markers along the genome that regulate genes, turn them off and on, kick them into high or low gear.  These epi-effects can range from determining physical characteristics to producing mental illnesses to filtering traits down to our children and our children's children.  We can't fully understand how our genes work without mapping the epigenome, too - and now we are starting to.



Marvin Minsky: "New Prospects of Immortality"


This is the old we'll-be-able-to-download-our-minds-into-machines-and-live-forever idea.  No thanks.  Despite that I believe death is ultimately a good thing that provides a finiteness and meaning to our lives (see also: Ray Kurzweil), it seems to me that the latest neuroscience is indicating that our minds are not some separate "software" installed in our hardware brains, but that the brain IS the mind - consciousness being a side effect of the way our neural network functions.  So I'm not sure you COULD transfer that epiphenomenon into something completely alien like a computer chip.  And even if you could, it would necessarily be a duplicate of you.  You - your physical body and brain - are still going to die.  A virtual clone that thinks it's me doesn't seem like a very desirable afterlife.



 Roger C. Schank: "The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge"


"Fifteen years ago, I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica.  In short order, I learned that these editors saw themselves as guardians of knowledge.  They knew what was true and what was important, and only knowledge that fit those criteria would be in their encyclopedia.  I asked if the encyclopedia could be say, ten times bigger, economic issues aside, and they said no, the right information was already in there."


Occasionally, it dawns on me again how completely revolutionary the Internet has been, and how rapidly it has transformed our social, economic and intellectual landscape - all within my relatively short lifetime.  Wow.  That makes me optimistic, too.



Chris DiBona: "High-Resolution Images of Earth Will Thwart Global Villainy"


The idea here is that incredibly hi-res, up-to-date satellite imagery of every inch of the planet will be available to everyone at any time.  DiBona sees this as a good thing, because we'll all be able to see everything from "troop movements, power-plant placement, ill-conceived dumping," to "just your neighbor building a pool."  This complete destruction of any shred of privacy and national security makes DiBona optimistic?  Holy Christ!  BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.  AND HE IS EVERYONE.



John Gottman: "When Men Are Involved in the Care of Their Infants, the Cultures Do Not Make War"


Title says it all (based on research on hunter-gatherer societies).  And worldwide, fathers are getting ever more involved in parenting.


Also, this quote:  "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 cry."  Insane.  So Gottman and his wife designed a workshop to help couples avoid postpartum marital dissatisfaction and destructive behaviors, and follow-up research has indicated that these negative effects on both babies and marriages were reversed.  SO insane.



Rudy Rucker: "Universal Telepathy"


I just want to note that this is the most bullshit article in the whole collection.  Rucker believes that there will be "an amazing new discovery in physics" of something he calls the subdimensions.  "Endless free energy will flow from the subdimensions!"  Uh huh, sure.  And via access to these subdimensions, we will not only be able to naturally communicate telepathically with other humans, but also with "animals, plants and even insentient objects."  OKAY.  And thus every object in the world will become conscious.  OOOOH KAAAAAY.  And then something something, reprogramming the basic physical structure of reality with our minds, something something, awakening to the presence of higher minds in the cosmos.


OKAY WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS.  I was going to point this out at some other point in my review, but fuck it, it's relevant here.  There are 153 articles in this book and nineteen of them were written by women.  That's 12.4%.  Whatever criteria Edge is using to cull their "complex and sophisticated" contributors, their net overwhelmingly snares dudes over ladies.  And, okay, men are overrepresented in STEM and academia, and that's a cultural issue that is not Edge's responsibility to remedy (though some effort at recruiting more women scientists as contributors would be welcome, but whatever).  But Edge also recruits novelists and other cultural commentators, such as this Rudy Rucker, who is, besides a mathematician and computer scientist, a novelist and "cyberpunk pioneer".  I just find it hard to believe that they couldn't come up with, oh 400 female thinkers and writers off the top of their head, that could provide a more legitimate, interesting, and realistic response to this question.




Also, fuck telepathy.  I remain convinced that it is the stupidest idea ever.



Elizabeth F. Loftus: "The Restoration of Innocence"


And then, not one page later, we have Elizabeth Loftus - who is so very awesome - talking about how her research into the staggering fallibility of human memory could help reshape criminal justice systems and reduce wrongful convictions.


Granted, not as cool as telepathic communication with rocks -- but I mean, what do you expect from a lady.



Marcel Kinsbourne: "Shortening Sleep Will Enrich Our Lives"


I hate the fact that I need sleep.  Though I suspect that it isn't the easily-eradicated vestigial throwback Kinsbourne describes, I hope that someone, somewhere can make some progress on eliminating all this nighty-night bullshit in the coming years.  And I know that sleep deprivation drives people legit insane and then kills them in a pretty brief period of time, I KNOW THAT, but... if I had 8 extra hours every day to read and/or get shit done (mostly to read), HOW GREAT WOULD MY LIFE BE?


Pretty great.




It's after 2:00 in the morning here, and since science is slow-moving and cruel, I do need to get some sleep.  So I'll finish up with a couple of quotes, which I think cover the basics of why being human is a necessarily optimistic endeavor:



"We begin life as uninhibited explorers with a boundless fascination for the ever growing world to which we have access.  And what I find amazing is that if that fascination is fed, and if it's challenged, and if it's nurtured, it can grow to an intellect capable of grappling with such marvels as the quantum nature of reality, the energy locked inside the atom, the curved spacetime of the cosmos, the elementary constituents of matter, the genetic code underlying life, the neural circuitry responsible for consciousness, and perhaps even the very origin of the universe."

 - Brian Greene


"I believe in the future of humankind.  As long as there are children, as long as there are people who look up at the night sky in sheer wonder, as long as there is music and poetry and the Mona Lisa -- and old monasteries and young artists and fledgling scientists and all the other expressions of human creativity -- I will remain optimistic."

- Anton Zeilinger


"There are two kinds of optimism, the optimism of people who think they know the future and the optimism of people who believe the future will be more interesting and, if always imperfect, more wonderful than they can imagine.  I am of the second kind."

- Lee Smolin



(2014 #21)