465 - What are you optimistic about?

I stumbled upon Edge magazine today, run by the Edge Foundation, who say their mandate is “to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society”. Specifically, their page entitled The Edge Annual Question — 2007, which is “What are you optimistic about? Why?”. This question was put to many interesting people and their answers are available to read, and read through some of them you should. I’d like to point out some of my favourites amongst the answers.

There are several answers detailing beliefs that we can augment our intelligence and mental prowess in similar ways to the way we have added to our physical capabilities by utilising technological innovations. I found the essays of Stephen Kosslyn, Andy Clark, Leonard Susskind and Marvin Minsky especially engaging in this area.

Also in the realm of the mental was Simon Baron-Cohen’s views that autistic people should be able to engage themselves better in the digital world than before, as their mental strengths map well into computational systems. Howard Gardner’s predictions on the ability to detect mental disabilities early in development are interesting, especially as he brings in the corollary that almost all technological advances can be used for good or bad.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins get in a predicable diatribe against religion; as usual Dennett’s arguments are better thought out and less dogmatic than Dawkins‘. I obviously share and believe strongly in their viewpoints, though I don’t have Dawkins’ view that religion per se is negative for society. Geoffrey Miller has a very interesting piece on how we face death — can we escape our pre-programmed fear of death? This brings to mind my thoughts on breaking down your conservatism, that is, you are more likely to fear death if you are unhappy with your life’s works.

Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow have a more societal bent to their answers. Shirky deals with the lack of evidence-desire: a willingness in society to believe what we are told rather than asking for evidence. Shirky mentions one of my favourite fallacies produced by religious people, the oft mentioned argument that we cannot disprove the existence of a God as an argument it is reasonable to believe. This is of course brought down by the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative; a simple counter-argument is that I cannot prove that blue polar bears don’t exist (I just don’t have any evidence they do), yet I do not believe they do exist! Cory Doctorow’s deals with the greater recognition in the mainstream of the drawbacks of DRM, another subject close to my heart.

There are plenty of other interesting answers given; I would encourage you to explore them yourself.