Further highlights from "What is your dangerous idea?"...
6) Brains cannot become minds without bodies - Alun Anderson
Alun Anderson thinks it would be dangerous not to acknowledge this. He's not batting for the existence of a soul here though. He is trying to persuade us that it is not just our brains that generate our minds, but that our hormonal system, internal sensory systems, muscular feedback and spinal chord have important parts to play too.
Anderson argues that an understanding of the mind which encompasses more than just the brain is necessary to explain the placebo effect, reported physical sensations involved in the emotion love and links between stress and ill health.
Personally I think Anderson is onto something here. I have noticed in the past that various emotions do seem to manifest themselves as aches, pains or internal sensations within my body. Also it is clear that hormones, the spinal chord and other internal dynamics are important to mood, desires and can be used in problem solving (ever moved your arms to trace out a shape whilst thinking of it?).
7) Drugs may change the pattern of human love - Helen Fisher
Helen Fisher specifically questions whether a class of anti-depressants (Serotonin-enhancing) may interfere with the biochemical pathways necessary for romantic love. Fisher provides evidence both that these drugs have such an effect and for a biochemical mechanism behind such an effect.
She regards it as a dangerous idea because if true it means that we are systematically preventing a significant percentage of our population from experiencing an emotionally normal life. As Fisher points out it is also quite possible that social change and/or political changes may occur in our societies because of such an effect.
Although confronting such a dangerous idea may make one uneasy its clearly better to know the truth on this one.
8) You have the right to choose the sex of your child - Diane Halpern
Diane Halpern provides good evidence that left to their own devices families (and individuals) the world over have an inherent bias towards having male children (often through infanticide unfortunately). Imbalance in the number of men and women is a problem (particularly in rural China) and various methods have been used to try to mediate this effect without much success.
The economist ran an article on the social effects that an imbalance of men and women had in China. Amongst the problems were increased aggression amongst young males, increased rapes, forced marriages and a shortage of surrogate mothers not to mention larger numbers of men never marrying/having children. This is a problem we should keep our eyes on.
9) The world may be fundamentally inexplicable - Lawrence Krauss
What is currently happening in cosmology and fundamental physics looks very much like what was happening in Chemistry before the periodic table. Often in science just before a revolution in thinking more and more complex systems become necessary to fit new data into an old model. I see no particular reason to think that we've reached the edge of our capabilities. Krauss is delivering a council of despair before we've really got started trying to explain some new and interesting data.
Incidentally this structure of scientific revolutions (a weak reading of Kuhn) is interestingly similar to punctuated equilibrium (the hypothesis that evolutionary change proceeds in a series of slowly changing plateaus punctuated by sudden bursts of ultra-fast change). The similarity is such that I'm tempted to hypothesise that there is a shared mathematical structure to these to phenomenon.
10) Insight is becoming impossible at the frontiers of mathematics - Steven Strogatz
Why Steven thinks this is dangerous is unclear. It is probably undesirable. Perhaps Steven thinks that the idea that this is happening is dangerous (he does think it is happening).
I think that the idea that this is happening is dangerous but furthermore I do no think that this it is happening (generally speaking I only think ideas that are not true are dangerous). This sort of idea stems from the logical limitative results of the 20th century. But these results show merely that absolute knowledge is algorithmically unattainable and that every system of logic is incomplete.
What seems to have been lost in all this is the possibility that progress in mathematics is nerve the less highly probable. Again and again problems in mathematics that were considered unassailable have fallen (often to extremely elegant proofs).
Several things contribute to this. Amongst others these are: Advances in the expression of mathematical questions (e.g. algebra & calculus), advances in definitions (e.g. the definition of the group, the definition of first order logic), advances in communication between mathematicians (e.g. the journal, latex).
Such advances must not be underestimated. The solution of the quadratic is much simpler once you understand algebra. Computer visualisation programs can allow human pattern finding much more to work with. Often those who cannot see the way forward decide we have reached a blind alley. I suspect Steven Strogatz has made this perennial mistake.
There will be more highlights from this book in subsequent blogs. Look out for the next instalment soon (I may blog on another topic first though).