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Questions that could change the world

Continuing our series on 'interesting' books, we have 'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?', edited by John Brockman

John Brockman is best described as an impresario of ideas. Technically, he is a literary agent, and a highly successful one. But his fame—and unique contribution to the world of ideas—comes from a very specific niche he has carved out for himself. He represents some of the brightest minds in the world, in science, technology, arts and humanities. As for those he does not represent—well, he has their phone numbers anyway on speed dial. And his friend and client circle includes at least a couple of dozen Nobel laureates.

He runs the Edge Foundation, whose public face is edge.org, a site which The Guardian once called “the world’s smartest website". And The Guardian could well be right.

The mission of edge.org is “to arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves".

Brockman’s work flows from his concept of the Third Culture. This references British scientist/ novelist C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures theory, which postulated that modern Western civilization—his hypothesis is equally applicable to modern Eastern civilizations—is divided into the sciences and the humanities, and there is a gulf between the two. Brockman bridges that gulf.

In 1991, Brockman published an essay in The Los Angeles Times, where he introduced his idea: “The third culture consists of 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."

Edge.org has an annual ritual. Brockman poses a question, and gets some seriously bright people to answer it. Chosen answers are published in the form of a book.

These questions have ranged from “What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?" (2005), and “What will change everything?" (2009), to “ What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" (2012) and “What ‘should’ we be worried about?" (2013). All the questions asked so far are available here.

The latest—2016—question (the book is not yet out, but all the responses are available on the Internet) is: “What do you consider the most interesting recent (scientific) news? What makes it important?"

Brockman says that these are “questions that inspire answers we can’t possibly predict. My goal is to provoke people into thinking thoughts they normally might not have".

I own several of these annual-question books, so I am randomly selecting the 2006 one: What Is Your Dangerous Idea?

What is a “dangerous" idea? The question for 2006 was suggested to Brockman by psychologist Steven Pinker: “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?"

Of course, some of the ideas presented in the book are too lofty to be proved in our lifetime—or perhaps any lifetime. For instance: those related to the soul. Psychologist Paul Bloom’s idea is that there is no such thing—if “thing" is the right word—as soul. Giving up on the soul, he says, means giving up on an a priori distinction between humans and other creatures. It would mean that the difference between human beings and other animals is only superficial—a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.

Science journalist John Horgan posits that the day our neural code is deciphered completely—as we have done with the genetic code—we will know that there is no soul. And once cracked, any code can be tweaked: “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."

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and atheist, believes that science must destroy religion: “When we find reliable ways to make human beings more loving, less fearful, and genuinely enraptured by the fact of our appearance in the cosmos, we will have no need for divisive religious myths. Only then will our practice of raising our children to believe that they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu be broadly recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is. And only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world." Strong words, those.

But cognitive scientist Jesse Bering’s idea is that science can never silence god: “There will never be a day when God does not speak for the majority. There will never even be a day when he does not whisper into the ears of the most godless of scientists. This is because God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, nor ‘an opiate of the masses’, nor any such thing. God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection... God... is a biological appendage."

Planetary scientist Carolyn C. Porco thinks that the confrontation between science and religion will come to an end when the role played by science in our lives is the same as that played by religion today.

“One day the sites that we hold most sacred just might be the astronomical observatories, the particle accelerators, the university research installations, and other laboratories where the high priests of science... engage in the noble pursuit of uncovering the workings of nature." The devout may gather here, she dreams, and sing, “Hallelujah! May the force be with you!"

Psychiatrist Samuel Barondes thinks using medications to change one’s personality is a dangerous idea. While psychiatric medications are now common, they used to be prescribed for short periods of time—maybe a few months at the most.

Today, they are prescribed for indefinite use and millions of people pop these pills for years and decades. But there have been no controlled studies on the influence of these drugs on personality. We don’t know if the sustained use of such drugs is helpful, and how it impacts the user’s persona.

Simply put, is the man you married the same man after taking Anxozap twice a day for 10 years? Yes, he is less stressed out, but he could be different now in other ways too.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher gets more specific. Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants can jeopardize feelings of romantic love, feelings of attachment to one’s spouse or partner, one’s fertility and one’s genetic future.

Genetic future? Fisher says that Homo sapiens has evolved three primary neural systems for reproduction: sex drive, romantic love and attachment. Any medication that changes the chemical checks and balances between these three brain systems is likely to alter an individual’s courting, mating and parenting tactics, ultimately affecting fertility and thus, our genetic future. These drugs inhibit our ability to fall in love and stay in love. This could have massive social, political and economic implications.

What Is Your Dangerous Idea? exposes the reader to a hundred or so interesting ideas—some of them heartening, many of them scary. This is what all of Brockman’s annual-question books do. One can pick up any of them, and browse through it for some brain stimulation or plain diversion whenever one faces the scourge of boredom, or has to go to a social gathering where one should appear intelligent. Casually insert a Brockman question in a conversation and relax. The conversation will take care of itself and everyone will think you are smart.

I have mentioned only a few of the “dangerous" ideas here. But I can’t help citing a few more that are either meta-ideas or cut to the very core of existence.

For instance, the idea that ideas can be dangerous (psychologist Daniel Gilbert); the idea that the idea of ideas is nice enough in principle, but one of these days, one of those nice ideas is likely to have the unintended consequence of destroying everything we know (quantum computer scientist Seth Lloyd).

Psychologist Susan Blackmore’s dangerous idea (well, it had to come from someone in a book with this theme) is that everything is pointless. We humans can and do make up purposes for ourselves, but ultimately, the universe has none. It’s just there.

And, to end with, an idea from Charles Seife, author of Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea. The idea is “nothing". The ancient Greeks declared the idea of the void unnatural and unreal. Medieval European thinkers attempted to ban zero. But, “most of the universe is void. Even as we huddle around our hearths and invent stories to convince ourselves that the cosmos is warm and full and inviting, nothingness stares back at us with empty eye sockets".

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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