Visions of a Better World


Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and others answer the question: What’s your utopia?

Visions of a Better World

Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?

I presented students’ responses to this question last year. This final column for 2018 (if aliens land in Central Park or CERN discovers a portal to a parallel universe, I’ll let major media handle it) offers responses from scientists and others I’ve interviewed lately. My hope is that these visions will cheer up readers bummed out by my previous post, “Dark Days.” See the end of the post for my utopia.

Noam Chomsky: I don’t have the talent to do more than to suggest what seem to me reasonable guidelines for a better future.  One might argue that Marx was too cautious in keeping to only a few general words about post-capitalist society, but he was right to recognize that it will have to be envisioned and developed by people who have liberated themselves from the bonds of illegitimate authority.

Richard Dawkins: My utopia is a world in which beliefs are based on evidence and morality is based on intelligent design—design by intelligent humans (or robots!). Neither beliefs nor morals should be based on gut feelings, or on ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions.

Sheldon Solomon: Staying alive long enough to see that my children are relatively settled and economically secure and knowing that there’s a decent chance that the earth will not be reduced to a festering heap long before the sun explodes!

Sabine Hossenfelder: That we finally use scientific methods to restructure political and economic systems. The representative democracies that we have right now are entirely outdated and unable to cope with the complex problems which we must solve. We need new systems that better incorporate specialized knowledge and widely distributed information, and that better aggregate opinions. (I wrote about this in detail here.) It pains me a lot to think that my children will have to live through a phase of economic regress because we were too stupid and too slow to get our act together.

Scott Aaronson: Since I hang out with Singularity people so much, part of me reflexively responds: “utopia” could only mean an infinite number of sentient beings living in simulated paradises of their own choosing, racking up an infinite amount of utility.  If such a being wants challenge and adventure, then challenge and adventure is what it gets; if nonstop sex, then nonstop sex; if a proof of P≠NP, then a proof of P≠NP.  (Or the being could choose all three: it’s utopia, after all!)

Over a shorter time horizon, though, maybe the best I can do is talk about what I love and what I hate.  I love when the human race gains new knowledge, in math or history or anything else.  I love when important decisions fall into the hands of people who constantly second-guess themselves and worry that their own ‘tribe’ might be mistaken, who are curious about science and have a sense of the ironic and absurd.  I love when society’s outcasts, like Alan Turing or Michael Burry (who predicted the subprime mortgage crisis), force everyone else to pay attention to them by being inconveniently right.  And whenever I read yet another thinkpiece about the problems with “narrow-minded STEM nerds”—how we’re basically narcissistic children, lacking empathy and social skills, etc. etc.—I think to myself, “then let everyone else be as narrow and narcissistic as most of the STEM nerds I know; I have no further wish for the human race.”

On the other side, I hate the irreversible loss of anything—whether that means the deaths of individuals, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, genocides, the flooding of coastal cities as the earth warms, or the extinction of species.  I hate when the people in power are ones who just go with their gut, or their faith, or their tribe, or their dialectical materialism, and who don’t even feel self-conscious about the lack of error-correcting machinery in their methods for learning about the world.  I hate when kids with a passion for some topic have that passion beaten out of them in school, and then when they succeed anyway in pursuing the passion, they’re called stuck-up, privileged elitists.  I hate the “macro” version of the same schoolyard phenomenon, which recurs throughout cultures and history: the one where some minority is spat on and despised, manages to succeed anyway at something the world values, and is then despised even more because of its success.

So, until the Singularity arrives, I suppose my vision of utopia is simply more of what I love and less of what I hate!

David Deutsch: Of course I’m opposed to utopianism. Progress comes only through piecemeal, tentative improvements. I think the world will never be perfected, even when everything we think of as problematic today has been eliminated. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. Never satisfied.

Stephen Wolfram: If you mean: what do I personally want to do all day?  Well, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to set up my life to let me spend a large fraction of my time doing what I want to be doing, which usually means creating things and figuring things out.  I like building large, elegant, useful, intellectual and practical structures—which is what I hope I’ve done over a long period of time, for example, with Wolfram Language.

If you’re asking what I see as being the best ultimate outcome for our whole species—well, that’s a much more difficult question, though I’ve certainly thought about it.  Yes, there are things we want now—but how what we want will evolve after we’ve got those things is, I think, almost impossible for us to understand.  Look at what people see as goals today, and think how difficult it would be to explain many of them to someone even a few centuries ago.  Human goals will certainly evolve, and the things people will think are the best possible things to do in the future may well be things we don’t even have words for yet.

Peter Woit: Besides the peace, love and understanding thing, in my utopia everyone else would have as few problems and as much to enjoy about life as I currently do.

Martin Rees: A utopian society would, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal. Two trends are reducing interpersonal trust: firstly, the remoteness and globalization of those we routinely have to deal with; and secondly, the vulnerability of modern life to disruption –- the realization that “hackers” or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life – security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth — but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire Internet more secure. But their current applications – allowing an economy based on crypto-currencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions –seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

And the world is so interconnected that no utopia could exist on the scale of one nation-state.  Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair– with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries and the plight of the “bottom billion.” And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritize projects that are long-term in a political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Tim Maudlin: In the utopian tradition that goes back to Plato (again!) utopias are not supposed to be real places. In Republic, Socrates says that it does not matter whether the ideal state actually exists: it is a pattern by reference to which one can judge the present situation and how it can be improved. There is a reason why Butler’s Erewhon is about a place called “Erewhon”. But as it happens my present not-yet-in-full-existence utopia is well on its way to full-blown reality. It is called the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics, a non-profit institute formed to promote the study, teaching and investigation of the foundations of physics. So far we have our Faculty and Honorary Fellows and Bell Fellows and regular Fellows, and we have identified where our European campus will be (in Bojanić Bad, Hvar, Croatia) and are seeking an American campus in the Rockies. This is putting my views about utopia to the acid test.

Robin Hanson: My personal utopia would be an intellectual world where we actually lived up to most of the intellectual ideals we espouse. Where work is judged mainly on the long term benefit it gives the world, and arguments are accepted no matter how unpalatable their conclusions, or whose ox is gored. I actually think we know a lot about how to construct such a utopia if we wanted – see my work on futarchy and idea futures. The main problem seems to be that most of us don’t actually want my “utopia.”

Tyler Volk: John, having this opportunity to focus for a spell on your great questions: this is it!

Jim Holt: My utopia is a society that consists in its entirety of Tim and Vishnya Maudlin, David Albert, Jenann Ismael, Shelly Goldstein, Barry Loewer, Carlo Rovelli, Hartry Field, Trevor Teitel, and me, all arguing eternally about gauge theory while beautiful girls and comely boys peel grapes for us.

Nick Herbert: In sociology, I am utterly ignorant. My favorite poet Robinson Jeffers (“Shine, Perishing Republic”) held a dim view of human progress. Perhaps we are now living in the Last Golden Age before the Decline of the West. Whatever the case, Nick offers these words as a guide to rightly living in this odd complexity:

Love this well

ere it perish.

And thank you

for your mystery

which I almost entirely

do not understand.

John Horgan: As I argue in Mind-Body Problems, my free, online book, many of us are already living in pretty good utopias, democracies that give us unprecedented freedom to be who we want to be. But things could be—will be!–a lot better. We will recognize how stupid and wrong war is and end it once and for all. With the money we save from demilitarizing we will end poverty, too, improve education and health care for all, and solve the conundrum of climate change. And we will keep giving ourselves more freedom, more choices. Our children and their children will find new ways to be human, to live good, meaningful lives, ways we can’t even imagine now. This weird, wonderful human adventure will never, ever end. Happy Holidays!

Advertisements

Richard Dawkins: Religion Is a Meme and Religious Beliefs Are “Mind-Parasites”


We are used to the idea that diseases can be passed down from person to person. One gets ill and gives the sickness to everyone he meets, and so on till you have an epidemic. But what about ideas? Can ideas infect societies like viruses?

Any Internet-aware person has seen memes. They usually feature a photo with a quote or caption. They can also be popular videos or articles. Interestingly, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” to describe an idea, style or behavior that spreads within a culture. A meme is basically a unit of culture and it can spread virally. A meme can be Grumpy Cat or Hitler’s mad thought that an Aryan super-nation must be built at the expense of millions of exterminated people.

Article Image

How do memes spread? Richard Dawkins talks about it this way in his book:

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.”

According to Dawkins, memes can be quite powerful in transmitting information, often becoming dangerous, as anyone who’s been featured in an Internet fail meme can attest.

“Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically,” writes Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene”. “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world.”

But can a meme evolve into an even more powerful force, a destructive mass affliction caused by the spread of thoughts? One example can be seen in the case of religion. A noted atheist, Dawkins regards religion as a meme that has taken over human brains for millennia. In his 1991 essay “Viruses of the Mind,” Dawkins describes religious beliefs as “mind-parasites” while believers are “faith sufferers” or “patients”.  He sees several conditions to be present in such people. One is that the belief is not based on reason.

“The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as “faith,” explains Dawkins. “Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may fell that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief.”

What’s significant to Dawkins is that being afflicted by a belief is likely to make you intolerant of others who don’t share the same view.

“The sufferer may find himself behaving intolerantly towards vectors of rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing them or advocating their deaths,” he writes in the essay.

Whatever one’s views on religion may be, Dawkins’s thoughts have value when applied to other social phenomena. The current election cycle in the United States has produced its share of belief-based division, with opposing sides slinging often-untrue facts at each other, while becoming more and more entrenched in their own opinions.

The polarization has become extreme, especially in the passions of some supporters of the candidates, who increasingly view the world in apocalyptic, highly defensive ways, especially as they are bombarded by contrasting memes. Such division can be viewed as thought viruses that are tearing up the “normal” functioning of the American society.

Could meme-driven social viruses bring often-necessary adjustments to the intellectual status quo? In a normal election year that is easy to assert. This year it is possible that the relatively open nature of democratic processes has allowed some unsavory ideas to spread unchecked, especially as the most common method of how modern ideas are transferred – the media – has come under fire for being biased. In such a climate, a destructive idea has a greater likelihood of taking hold.

Still, even fearing this, it’s hard to see a preventive remedy for these weak spots, short of running a totalitarian regime. One can argue that the strongly-interconnected and social-media-obsessed modern societies are now particularly vulnerable to thought viruses. And the threats are likely to keep coming, well into the future past the crazy election cycle.

You can hear Richard Dawkins talk about applying the study of memetics to religion here:

 

Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality.


 “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might havesome valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

sagan_life

In 1996, mere months before his death, the greatCarl Sagan — cosmic sagevoracious reader,hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org

 

Richard Feynman on Good, Evil, and the Zen of Science, Plus His Prose Poem for the Glory of Evolution.


 “I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.”

“Everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted,”psychology researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote in their fascinating exploration of the good and evil in all of us, and hardly is this variability more critical than in matters that profoundly affect not merely the fate of the individual but also the future of society at large. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same indispensable anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the universal responsibility of scientists and the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman explores the capacity of science to be a catalyst for both good and evil, and the moral choices steering the direction of the dial.

feynman_atoms1

The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value — even though the power may be negated by what one does.

I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

What, then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use, but it obviously has value. How can we enter heaven without it?

The instructions, also, would be of no value without the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that science could produce enormous horror in the world, it is of value because it can produce something.


But, for Feynman, science has another value, an entirely personal one, captured in the famous Feynmanism after which this very book is titled. This glorious intellectual enjoyment, he argues, is far too frequently dismissed by those who stress scientists’ moral obligations to society, but it is of equal importance:

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.

feynman_imagination1

But I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck-half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

He concludes by illustrating his point with what could be best described as a prose poem about the magnificence of evolution, what Richard Dawkins termed“the magic of reality”, Einstein extolled as the ineffable spirit of the universe, and Carl Sagan celebrated as the reverence of nature. The poetic eloquence for which Feynman remains known, which hardly anyone has mastered since, except perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, makes for a beautiful read on par with Diane Ackerman’s Cosmic Pastoral. Feynman writes:

I have thought about these things so many times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of some thoughts that I am sure you have all had — or this type of thought — which no one could ever have had in the past, because people then didn’t have the information we have about the world today.

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves . . . mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business . . . trillions apart . . . yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages . . . before any eyes could see . . . year after year . . . thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? . . . on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest . . . tortured by energy . . . wasted prodigiously by the sun . . . poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves . . . and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity . . . living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein . . . dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land . . . here it is standing . . . atoms with consciousness . . . matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea . . . wonders at wondering . . . I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org

%d bloggers like this: