Saturday, January 07, 2006

Top Five Dangerous Ideas

With thanks to Matt Bertrand for mentioning, the online magazine, The Edge, asked specialists to state their "most dangerous idea", an idea "that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true". Go through all of these, they're great. So far there have been 119 respondents. The following five are my favorites.

1. There is no such thing as blame or responsibility. (Richard Dawkins)

This dangerous idea wins hands down, and I agree with it -- just as I include myself, as Dawkins does, in the category of those who will probably remain unable to attain this level of enlightenment. Dawkins writes:

"Ask people why they support the death penalty or prolonged incarceration for serious crimes, and the reasons they give will usually involve retribution. There may be passing mention of deterrence or rehabilitation, but the surrounding rhetoric gives the game away. People want to kill a criminal as payback for the horrible things he did. Or they want to give 'satisfaction' to the victims of the crime or their relatives.

"Doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

"Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment."

2. Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account. (Clay Shirky)

"In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable."

3. Zero parental influence. (Judith Rich Harris)

"Is it dangerous to claim that 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? More to the point, is this claim false? Was I wrong when I proposed that parents' power to do these things by environmental means is zero, nada, zilch?... The establishment's failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn't yet found proof that 'parents do shape their children,' but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough."

4. Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments. (Steven Pinker)

This is a prolifically dangerous idea which calls forth charges of racism. "Whether or not these hypotheses hold up (the evidence for gender differences is reasonably good, for ethnic and racial differences much less so), they are widely perceived to be dangerous. [Advocates have been] subjected to months of vilification, and proponents of ethnic and racial differences in the past have been targets of censorship, violence, and comparisons to Nazis. Large swaths of the intellectual landscape have been reengineered to try to rule these hypotheses out a priori (race does not exist, intelligence does not exist, the mind is a blank slate inscribed by parents)."

5. Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa). (Scott Atran)

"Science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and long familiar environments... Religion is the hope that science is missing."

In an upcoming post, I will spin off this list with my own Dangerous Ideas in Biblical Studies.


Anonymous john said...

It seems to me, that numbers 1 - 4, prove number 5.


Blogger Chris Tilling said...


Blogger Andrew Criddle said...

3 4 and 5 are (plausible) scientific/empirical claims.
1 and 2 are philosophical questions as much as scientific ones. (IMO it is correct that popular ideas of moral responsibility and freewill are deeply confused and problematic; but scientific research in neurology and psychology is of only limited relevance to clarifying these issues.)


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