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What Have You Changed Your Mind About?: Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything (Edge Question Series) Paperback – May 20, 2014
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In this wide-ranging assortment of 150 brief essays, well-known figures from every conceivable field demonstrate why it's a prerogative of all thoughtful people to change their mind once in a while. Technologist Ray Kurzweil says he now shares Enrico Fermi's question: if other intelligent civilizations exist, then where are they? Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) reveals that he has lost faith in probability as a guiding light for making decisions. Oliver Morton (Mapping Mars) confesses that he has lost his childlike faith in the value of manned space flight to distant worlds. J. Craig Venter, celebrated for his work on the human genome, has ceased to believe that nature can absorb any abuses that we subject it to, and that world governments must move quickly to prevent global disaster. Alan Alda says, So far, I've changed my mind twice about God, going from believer to atheist to agnostic. Brockman, editor of Edge.org and numerous anthologies, has pulled together a thought-provoking collection of focused and tightly argued pieces demonstrating the courage to change strongly held convictions. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
The publisher of the online science salon Edge.org, John Brockman is the editor of Know This, This Idea Must Die, This Explains Everything, This Will Make You Smarter, and other volumes.
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Top customer reviews
Of the three books I've seen, this one contains the fewest interesting responses, and I lost interest about half way through
What Princeton Professor Lee M. Silver has changed his mind about is the effectiveness of modern education to get humans to reject supernatural beliefs or "to accept scientific implications of rational argumentation." What he has discovered over the years is that "irrationality and mysticism seem to be an integral part of normal human nature." (pp. 144-146)
Well, I've noticed the same thing and so have a lot of other people. The question is why should our minds be in such a sorry state? The broad answer is evolution made them that way because that was what worked.
Irrationality works? Strange to say, but sometimes it does--or has. Since even the most rational of our prehistoric ancestors could not know when the tsunami was coming or how to avoid drought and disease, rational thinking had a limited applicability. In some cases more value was to be found in certain rituals and mumbled words that gave our ancestors heart and allowed them to avoid despair.
The problem with this is that in the modern world, with the power of science and our knowledge of history to guide us, we would be much better off if we were able to throw off the irrationality and work together toward logical and informed solutions to our problems.
Cosmologist and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees used to believe that the fairly distant future ought to be "best left to speculative academics and cosmologists." Now, with rapid acceleration in cultural evolution that we are experiencing, he feels that "We are custodians of a 'posthuman future'--here on Earth and perhaps beyond--that cannot just be left to writers of science fiction." (pp. 29-31)
Laurence C. Smith, Professor of Geology at UCLA used to think that the effects of global warming would be gradual, but now he believes that such effects, both positive and negative" may already be upon us." He cites the rapidity with which the Arctic Ocean is becoming ice-free for changing his mind. He notes that "Over the past three years, experts have shifted from 2050 to 2035 to 2013 as plausible dates for an ice-free Arctic Ocean..." "Reality," it appears, is revising the models. (pp. 141-143)
J. Craig Venter, human genome decoder, used to believe that "solving the carbon-fuel problem was for future generations and that the big concern was the limited supply of oil, not the rate of adding carbon to the atmosphere." Now he believes greenhouse gas emissions could result in "catastrophic changes" more quickly that previously imagined, and that "we are conducting a dangerous experiment with our planet. One that we need to stop." (pp. 139-140)
Physicist Lee Smolin has changed his mind about time. Originally he believed that (quantum) reality is timeless. Then he came to believe that "time, as causality, is real." Now he writes, "Rather than being an illusion, time may be the only aspect of our present understanding of nature that is not temporary and emergent." (pp. 148-149)
I am not sure what kind of distinction Smolin is making between a reality that is timeless and one in which time is causality. I think that in both instances time does not exist and is, as Smolin reports," an illusion" that some philosophers and physicists believe "is just an 'emergent quantity' that is helpful in organizing our observations..." (p. 147)
What I think would be helpful is to realize that causality is the ordering of events with no concept of "time" needed. We say that event A occurred "before" event B as though having reference to "time," but this is just a verbalism. Notice that we also say that the numeral 2 appears "before" the numeral 3 or "after" the numeral 1 in an ordering. Again time is not involved.
Physicist Lawrence Krauss used to believe that the universe was flat. Now he thinks it will go on expanding forever. (pp. 159-161)
Richard Wrangham, author of excellent "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence," now believes it was cooking that transformed us from Homo habilis through Homo erectus to Homo sapiens and not meat-eating. He now believes that erectus used fire although clear proof is still lacking. (pp. 242-244)
Steve Connor, Science Editor of The Independent, now sees the 21st century bringing horrors worse than the Holocaust and nuclear proliferation. The culprits? "[G]lobal warming and the inexorable growth in the human population" leading to a stampede by the four horsemen of the apocalypse. He believes that the IPCC is underestimating the pace and extent of global warming. (pp. 327-330)
Richard Dawkins has changed his mind about Amotz Zahavi's "handicap principle" in evolutionary biology. (pp. 335-338) Dawkins's change of heart seems somewhat reluctant however and is, judging by the entry in this book, applicable to only the sexual selection aspect of the handicap principle. Dawkins allows that yes, superior male animals like the peacock may take on the handicap of appendages or behaviors that put them in increased danger just so they can "say" to the opposite sex: "See how fit I am. I can carry around his otherwise useless and heavy tail and still make a good living. Reproduce with me!"
But Dawkins does not mention the predator-prey aspect of Zahavi's handicap principle, such as the springbok pronking (jumping up and down conspicuously) to demonstrate to predators its fitness, "saying,": "Don't waste your energy chasing me. I am too fit for you to catch."
What I would like to see Dawkins change his mind about is group selection. He has allowed that group selection may be a (small) factor in evolution in some instances. What he needs to acknowledge is that selection occurs at various levels from the gene on up.
There is much, much more in this fascinating book. Don't miss it.
(Note: The following books by Dennis Littrell are now available at Amazon.com:
Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)
Dennis Littrell's True Crime Companion
Novels and other Fictions
Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!
Teddy and Teri
High School from Hell
Let's Play Overkill!
Like a Tsunami Headed for Hilo
Understanding Evolution and Ourselves
The World Is Not as We Think It Is)
Now available at Amazon:
The World Is Not as We Think It Is
You can find it all at the Edge website.
Oh sure, this is a mixed bag. There are a few essays where you get to the end and scratch your head, wondering whatever happened to the purported change. But most are excellent. There are some obvious common themes: cosmology, evolution, climate change, science and religion, gender, consciousness. It seems intuitively obvious that these big questions which have both a scientific and a societal dimension will be associated with skepticism and revision.
Any reader of a book like this is going to be faced with the personal question: what have I changed my mind about? Well, 10 years ago I was in the computational neuroscience camp: I thought that the Churchlands had got most of it right. Somewhere along the way, I realized that biology, from the simplest plants to the most cerebral animals, was actually based on information systems. I'm not talking about computers as metaphors for brains, or anything like that; I mean that at some, very early point, the self-replicating information patterns co-opted and started to organize the material substrates of life.
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