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Dangerous Ideas

January 4th, 2006

I ran across an article today about edge.org’s [edge.org] “The Edge Annual Question — 2006” (permalink [edge.org]). This years question is “What is your dangerous idea?” More specifically:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

This is a very intriguing question. Edge gathered answers from 117 different people, writers, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists, and all manner of thinkers.

I have by no means read all of the entries but so far my too favorite are by Paul Davies and Keith Devlin. Paul Davies entry [edge.org] is titled, “The Fight Against Global Warming is Lost” is great. If you have ever watched the Discovery Channel or TCL you’ve seen this guy on all those late night space and physics shows — you know the ones Patrick Stewart or some other Trekie narrates? The conclusion paragraph to his essay is really good:

The idea of giving up the global warming struggle is dangerous because it shouldn’t have come to this. Mankind does have the resources and the technology to cut greenhouse gas emission. What we lack is the political will. People pay lip service to environmental responsibility, but they are rarely prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Global warming may turn out to be not so bad after all, but many other acts of environmental vandalism are manifestly reckless: the depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of rain forests, the pollution of the oceans. Giving up on global warming will set an ugly precedent.

Global Warming, Climate Change, call it what you will, Davies nailed the problem: “what we lack is the political will.”

Keith Devlin’s idea [edge.org] is just as fatalistic, if not more so; “We are Entirely Alone.”

Living creatures capable of reflecting on their own existence are a one-off, freak accident, existing for one brief moment in the history of the universe. There may be life elsewhere in the universe, but it does not have self-reflective consciousness. There is no God; no Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives.

but he does end on a slightly more upbeat note that I agree with:

The fact that our existence has no purpose outside that existence is completely irrelevant to the way we live our lives, since we are inside our existence. The fact that our existence has no purpose for the universe — whatever that means — in no way means it has no purpose for us.

So, what would my answer be? I think my dangerous idea would be that a few pandemics might not really be a bad thing. This is because I think there are too many people on the planet. When a population overwhelms its environment eventually something must happen to restore some balance. AIDS or Bird Flu killing a few billion would be destroy modern culture — or would it? But if a string of pandemics killed billions over the next few hundred years would humans and the world be better off?

Another dangerous idea I have voiced in the past is “everyone should have the right to have kids, most people shouldn’t have kids” Which seems to be in the same vain as killing people with pandemics, but David Lykken [edge.org] seems to have hit upon the same idea with his idea “Laws Requiring Parental Licensure.”

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