Customer Reviews: What Have You Changed Your Mind About?: Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything (Edge Question Series)
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on January 7, 2010
I love this whole series. Even though these essays range in length and quality, one gets the sense of being at a dinner party with a long table of great thinkers.
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This is the fourth of John Brockman's books that I have read and reviewed, and I think the best. Previously Brockman asked scientists, What do you believe but cannot prove?, What's your dangerous idea?, and What are you optimistic about? Here he asks scientist the title question, What have you changed your mind about? I think this question energized the 150 respondents and made the responses most interesting.

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

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!
The Holon
Teddy and Teri
High School from Hell
Let's Play Overkill!
Like a Tsunami Headed for Hilo
Understanding Evolution and Ourselves

Coming soon:

The World Is Not as We Think It Is)

Now available at Amazon:

The World Is Not as We Think It Is
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on September 6, 2010
As all books in the [...] series (I have read three of the four), this recompilation of articles is a treasure. One is forced to stop reading in between opinions in order to think about the points being brought up by the authors. A wonderful piece, one that I will read again at random, again and again.
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on January 20, 2014
Interesting overview of very short "answers" to the title question, from a variety of scientists/experts. I didn't find in it anything that surprised me too much, but it's a good overview of "hot topics" in modern science.

You can find it all at the Edge website.
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on March 18, 2009
I enjoyed this book (actually a compilation of essays at the wonderful scientific A number of prominent scientists like Richard Dawkins, Scott Atran, and Freeman Dyson explain what they changed their mind on and why. I particularly enjoyed Dyson's essay, although his was about history, not science. (He discusses why the atomic bombs did not cause Japan to surrender). Anyone interested in science should not only get this book, they should frequent
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VINE VOICEon April 6, 2009
Most non-fiction books are written to advance a thesis; to present a conclusion, a theory which explains the facts. When you realize that you've got something wrong, that you have to change your mind, it's natural to be somewhat restrained about the fact. After all, we live in a society that demands certainty - however absurd that expectation may be - and castigates people as "flip-floppers". I think that we could all benefit from reading about how thoughtful men and women were humble and open enough to admit that they were wrong.

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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HALL OF FAMEon January 15, 2009
This is one of the finest of the `Edge Symposiums.' It is rich in ideas, speculations about what the future is going to be. Not all of these speculations are rosy, and a number of writers put forth doomsday ideas. The possibility of accidental nuclear war, the idea that we have already reached in many areas the best we are going to do and can expect from now on only Decline, the possibility that disaster may come through radical climate change, or though supernova explosion or asteroid collision are mentioned. But from my point of view the dark possibilities also grow out of some of the most optimistic prognoses. There are many essays here on various ways `humanity' is going to be transformed or transcended, rendered obsolete or irrelevant. There is talk of the singularity the moment when machine- intelligence replaces ours as prime - maker of our world. There are various speculations on ways in which our minds may be copied and then downloaded into machines which will then go on self- improving themselves cognitively. There are thoughts on ways we will engage in a cosmic competition and spread through the universe our silicon- descendants or perhaps viral heirs. There are also a whole host of speculations on shadow-worlds, parallel universes, perhaps microbiotically small, perhaps vast in ways we cannot imagine. There are too speculations of how we disappointed in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence are going to produce alternative intelligences who will become our real friends, and ensure that we are not lonely in the universe.
What disturbs me in considering many of the essays is that they often seem to relate to humanity as if we were simply `minds' and not people who live lives, and have histories and complex relationships with other human beings. The whole presumption that some other kind of being can be manufactured by us or can somehow come out of our own researches seems to me a vast simplification as to what we in all our complexity are.
Here I should note that there are a number of writers who question the very question of the project. One says nothing can possibly change everything, and another suggests that we cannot possibly know what the change will be, as we have in the past never been able to see the surprise which would come to take history and our understanding of the world in a new direction.
I have made a slight summary here, but to do justice to the book and the ideas it is necessary to consider each of the essays and suggestions in and of itself. In almost all the cases this will be worthwhile as there is much to learn from them. i.e. The speculations do not come out of the air but out of solid scientific understanding .
A number of the essays speculate on the end of illness and remarkably long lives. One speculates that the transformations will lead to a state of total satisfaction and happiness. This kind of idea seems to me again based on the kind of way human lives become meaningful through struggle, sacrifice, dedication , work and non- guaranteed outcomes.
For me the excitement of a collection of this kind is not in any expectation that it will give `the answer'. Rather it is in the play of ideas, the richness of possibility. There is a pleasure of reading and feeling minds `at the top of the game'telling us what they think.
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on June 23, 2014
Each book in this series has a sizable number of (supposed) great thinkers responding to the same (supposedly) provocative question.

Of the three books I've seen, this one contains the fewest interesting responses, and I lost interest about half way through
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on February 20, 2015
This is a very interesting book with a lot of creative ideas by a lot of creative people. Of course, in a book of this type the writing is somewhat variable in readability since all people, especially scientists do not write well. Several write in such obscure language that, unless you are an expert in their field, you probably won't get much out of it. Nevertheless, the good writers provide a wealth of ideas and make the book more than valuable to make you think.
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on June 22, 2015
Quality book in fine condition delivered in a timely way. Thanks.
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