Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Most Dangerous Question ...

Edge.org has their latest annual question. This year it is
What is your most dangerous idea ?
Like last year, when the question was 'What you believe to be true that cannot be proved', a number of thinkers (117 in all) in different areas were asked this question.

All the answers (72,500 words) can be perused @ Edge.org. The answers are all across the spectrum, with themes like the evanesence of human existence, the unknowability of it all, the inevitable doom (or lack thereof) of humankind, and open source currency ! Many of the answers reflect on the boundary between mind and matter.

Bart Kosko warned us of the imminent demise of thin-tailed distributions, his point being that heavy-tailed distributions are more prevalent around us than we think (well, not if you're a computer scientist :)), and that classical statistical inference is completely inadequate to deal with the world outside the Central Limit Theorem. Considering that even Darwin and Einstein communicated in heavy-tailed distributions, maybe he's right !

Stephen Strogatz asked an interesting question: are we at the end of mathematical insight ? He worries that
insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.
It reminds me of a quote attributed to John von Neumann:
In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
Karl Sabbagh (author of a great book on the Riemann Hypothesis) generalized this idea to the notion that
The human brain and its products are incapable of understanding the truths about the universe
As can only be expected in 2005, the issue of science and religion came up. Carolyn Porco wonders what would be so horrible about a Church of the Latter-Day Scientists and 'Einstein Witnesses' going door-to-door singing relativistic paeans. As a card-carrying geek, how can I argue with this:
And today's museums, expositional halls, and planetaria may then become tomorrow's houses of worship, where these revealed truths, and the wonder of our interconnectedness with the cosmos, are glorified in song by the devout and the soulful. "Hallelujah!", they will sing. "May the force be with you!"
Alas, Jordan Pollack and Sam Harris take a far grimmer point of view, pointing out (correctly) that the idea that science is "just another religion" is extremely dangerous, and that in fact science must destroy religion:
In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.
Read them all ! As a new parent, I will take comfort in this dangerous idea from Judith Rich Harris:
parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence,or the way he or she behaves outside the family home?

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