In this blog post I shall give some highlights from a book I have been reading and discuss them. The book is called "What is your dangerous idea?" and it is a collection of ideas that leading thinkers regard as being dangerous (either if true or if false) together with a few pages describing why they think those ideas are dangerous.
1) The differences between humans and non-humans is quantitative not qualitative - Irene Pepperberg (Psychologist)
This is mainly an ethical issue (In what ways is it ethical to use animals (food/ clothing/ research/ safety tests)). However, there is another issue. Have we kidded ourselves yet again into placing ourselves at the centre of a conceptual universe (in this case the moral universe)?
2) Groups of people may differ in their average talents and temperaments - Steven Pinker
To address this possibility properly will take another post. However, my view on the matter can be summed up as follows: Not discriminating means not to treat people differently based on their membership of a particular group. This should apply even if there are statistical differences between their group and others. Even if there are genetic groupings (e.g based on sex or height) which have particular differences in their talents and temperaments we should still treat members of those groups on the basis of their individual talents and temperaments.
We need to start arguing against discrimination in this way (rather than arguing that groups are identical) because eventually our science will turn up differences between certain groups and we do not want to be caught short by this.
3) Your conscious experience is generated entirely by your brain - V.S. Ramachandran (Psychologist/Neuroscientist)
It seems to me that what is dangerous is the idea that this isn't true (Ramachandran thinks it is true). Many moral questions come down to this in the end. Is early stage abortion OK? Can we turn off the life support of a brain-dead patient? Is contraception OK? Could AI ever have a conscious experience?
To me these are no-brainers (pardon the pun) because to me if 'you' have no brain (or in the case of AI some equivalent) then there is no 'you' to speak of. Given the importance of such issues I would say that those arguing against this idea should be expected to provide evidence supporting this before their opinions influence public policy. I believe this precisely because there is so much evidence in favour of Ramachandran's dangerous idea.
4) The purpose of life is to disperse energy - Scott D. Sampson (Paleontologist)
Ecosystems take energy from the sun and progressively degrade it into less and less refined forms until it ends up as waste heat. Many other physical systems such as the weather & ocean currents can be understood in the same terms. They exist to take relatively concentrated energy and disperse them into them concentrated forms. Sampson thinks this is a dangerous idea as it may undermine our confidence in ourselves or our moral sense. I don't think that Sampson is right that he has identified life's purpose. A key aspect of life is its propensity to undergo natural selection. The purpose of life (at least crudely speaking) might well be to create more life (or more complex life). Sampson seems to be confusing a necessary subsidiary aim (processing energy) with the core aim. It would be like saying that the purpose of the automobile is to create global warming!
5) We are entirely alone - Keith Devlin (Mathematician)
Keith Devlin argues that not only is there no God but that there may also be no direction or purpose in life and that there may not be any other life in the universe either. Whilst I agree with him that there probably no God I have always found it bizarre to infer from this that there is no direction in the universe (purpose is another matter as it implies an entity to be purposeful). There is a very clear direction to evolution which when viewed on appropriate time scales seems to be an entirely good direction (towards greater complexity, intelligence, use of energy, morality). Given the clear directionality of evolution and the clear directionality of chemistry and physics (towards stability) it would be surprising (and a rather arbitrary state of affairs) for there to be no direction towards the origin of life.
On the issue of purpose one could still look at this directionality and see it as an illusion of progress or state that the universe behaves as if it had a purpose to some extent.
on the matter of moral progress people often claim that the 20th century's wars show this not to be the case. Ponder this: The rate of death from warfare in hunter gatherer societies was (and still is where they still exist) 4 times the average rate of death during the 20th century. Similar statistics hold for murder, infant mortality and life expectancy amongst other things.
There really is no excuse for pedalling the myth that the 20th century was no advance on previous centuries morally speaking. What has happened is that our standards have risen and so we do not appreciate the great leaps forward we have already made. Not that there isn't still a very long way to go.