Six Simple Ideas

A nice little pitch-placed montage of pop scientists singing the praises of objectivity. I resonate with this thread. Science is a kind of poetry of shared reality. As Dawkins chirps, “science replaces private prejudices with publicly verifiable evidence.” World religion is fragmented into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of competing frameworks, with no central mediating idea. And while science can boast of central unifying tenets, it cannot address the depths of the human heart, the human spirit, the reality of hope (see Havel quote prior post). Maybe someday it will, but for now most of us embrace metaphysical metaphor to help make sense of mystery, death, and self. It is here: where objectivity meets mystery — where science meets spirituality — that our most important conversations are taking place. The world of religion can learn much from the scientific method, yet religion persists in trying to jam its clumsy superstitions into elegant, well-establish meta-patterns. Conversely, science, in its assumption that it can eventually objectify all reality, misses the fact that it hasn’t. Science would be well-served by integrating an engaged, conversational respect for the views of transcendence that currently fuel many of the planet’s greatest hopes and dreams. I’ve encountered a number of scientists who, while remaining atheistic or agnostic, have developed a healthy posture towards spirituality. Fact is, most scientists do maintain a sense of spirituality and/or faith. It’s a serious problem that the 5% militant extremes (on both sides) are often seen as the norm. As I mentioned here some years ago, physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.” Gleiser admits that science cannot offer the humanly essential qualities of hope, peace, charity, and spirit. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality… either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.” My public journal (aka blog) exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and faith/spirituality. Numerous science/spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. What’s needed in today’s rapidly connecting global culture, especially religious culture, is a way towards understanding the nature of unhealthy bias – how it clouds our thinking. Philosopher/scientist Massimo Pigliucci (NYU) offers six simple ideas that can help us overcome this “meta-bias” — our “not wanting to be wrong.” – Divorce your belief from your self – Think of disagreements as collaborative, not adversarial – Visualize being wrong – Take the long view – Congratulate yourself on being objective, not on being right – If you can’t overcome your competitive instinct, re-direct it Until we “become fine with being wrong” we will continue to harbor survival techniques which force us to hold on to irrational meta-biases. I journal this more as a reminder to myself than anyone  

Favorite TED Talks 2010

Great to see Bill Gates taking global energy seriously. In fact, he publicly stated from the TED stage last week what I’ve been saying since 2003:  energy is this century’s greatest structural issue. Fellow TED’ster Richard Branson went public this week with a similar clarion call. Worldchanging founder Alex Steffan, whom I spoke with at length, calls this “the most important climate speech of the year.” Sir Ken Robinson defined once again the highest art of public speaking. TED curator, Chris Anderson, noted after Ken’s talk that he may be the only person who can break all the TEDTalk rules – and we love him for it. Robinson focused on why education needs to change from an industrial model to an agricultural model. I think the same can be said of religion. Echoes of Wendell Berry. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot took us through a stunning visualization of design simplicity, in the form of fractals. I had a chance to spend some time with Benoit at TED, discussing emergence theory in light of fractal geometry and the Mandelbrot set. The music at TED this year was stunning: David Byrne (who also gave a TEDTalk), Thomas Dolby, and Natalie Merchant melted us with a brand new suite of songs based on romantic poets from the last 100 years. Cheryl Crow showed up, but probably shouldn’t have. Not much there musically. Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and family, and other musicians were soaking up the TED experience, but not there to perform. Oh, and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro captivated everyone. I’ve never heard a uke played with such subtlety – a true master of the instrument. I understand he gave impromptu concerts back in the lobby of the TED hotel. Anyone who takes the stage at TED is unpaid, including the invited musicians. Drawing from the field of Behavioral Economics, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman presented what amounted to an intellectual foundation for our activist social-media site Compathos.com. Dan asks, “when we return from a vacation, do the memories we bring back have intrinsic value?” Compathos (still in beta) seeks to realign the concept of “vacation” as a proactive event in which we aid or assist our destination with skills we possess (medical, engineering, skilled labor, crafts, etc..) and in doing so, we become deeply changed – bringing back to our own communities a new perspective, a new heart, and transformed motivations – far more than a traditional vacation memory. Sam Harris gave a surprisingly engaging talk. Rather than rehashing his views on atheism, Harris focused on finding an objective framework for morality and ethics. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke, who said “one of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion.” Kevin Bales presented a detailed, moving account of global slavery. It’s Kevin’s academic work that gave us the estimate of 27 million slaves worldwide. His work in slavery has effectively paved the way for most of today’s anti-slave efforts. I was honored to have lunch with Kevin after TED ended on Saturday – what a truly amazing man. Game designer Jane McGonigal sees video gaming as a core solution to many of today’s social problems. Don’t laugh – her TEDTalk is a must-watch. Brilliant. Cell biologist Mark Roth is onto something big. He’s discovered a way to put biological systems into suspended animation. Using his techniques, people who would otherwise die from serious trauma on the battlefield, in car accidents, etc.. can be placed into suspension (heart and breathing stopped – effectively dead) for hours without tissue damage while they are transported to a trauma center. Jaw dropping. Entertainer Sarah Silverman reminded me of those shallow and bawdy Las Vegas night club comedians from my parent’s era (Redd Foxx, etc..). With kids sharing the live TED experience both in Long Beach and virtual associates worldwide, this was not a wise choice. Live and learn. But many of the best talks were those that happened between sessions, in the halls, in the social spaces, at the lunches, and dinners, and parties, and spontaneous gatherings that define the TED experience. To elaborate on all the amazing, emotive, high-energy, a-ha! conversations I had this year might sound like name-dropping, so I’ll spare you the details. I go to TED to get energized, inspired, challenged, and awestruck by and with amazing people doing amazing things. I spend a week of my life here to renew a sense of childlike wonder and remind myself that I’m not crazy – that there are others who dare to dream big. ADDED:  Eighteen-year TED veteran Jack Meyers captures the scope and nuance of a TED Conference in his Huffington Post essay ADDED: Scoble’s excellent summary of attending TED ADDED: Overview of Bill Gates’ energy talk, at  

Absolutely Convinced or Radically Uncertain?

Some thoughts this week on the slippery notion of ideological and religious certainty. Philosopher Philip Clayton, “The days are gone when we can just list the doctrines — mother church can decide and we can just sit there with those as a given.  Given is no longer a given. And I think there is an attitude of radical uncertainty and radical doubt. And rather than saying can we integrate doubt and faith, I want to speak of a faith which incorporates the radical doubt, which is the doubting miraculously finding faith within it.” Clayton articulates an important shift:  a faith not built upon persuasive propositions (if you’ve not heard a better argument, you’ve not talked to the right people) but upon wrestling with life’s mystery and paradox. Faith born of deep probing doubt. Faith that exists in harmony with doubt, not in opposition to it. Paul Fromont quotes existential psychologist Rollo May, “People who claim to be absolutely convinced that their stand is the only right one are dangerous. Such conviction is the essence not only dogmatism, but of its more destructive cousin, fanaticism. It blocks the user from learning new truth, and is a dead giveaway of unconscious doubt” Pretty obvious stuff, but so often lost in the passion of religious fervor: absolute certainty as a marker of toxic religion – a posture of certainty that snuffs out the small voice of creation – a rigidity of mental logic that that bounds and gags the transcendent freedoms of Spirit. May concludes, “The person with the courage to believe and at the same time to admit his doubts is flexible and open to new learning, and I’d add, open to new depths of meaning and new vantage points from which to gain new or different perspectives. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. To believe fully and at the same moment to have doubts is not at all a contradiction: [rather] it presupposes a greater respect for truth, an awareness that truth always goes beyond anything that can be said or done at any given moment” When discussing religion and spirituality, I prefer the word “confidence” over certainty. And sometimes “confidence” is too strong a word. Hope, however, is never too strong. A shared hope is always welcome in any community. Hope is a bridge between communities. Hope promotes inclusion and safety. Hope lives on, even in the face of death. Hope is the yeast of faith. As new generations accelerate and deepen the shift from institution-centric, lay-clergy models of religion to networked sharing and collaboration — what Duke theologian David Morgan calls an extended community of interpretation — theology will change, perhaps radically. And among the major changes will be the way we collectively re-imagine and re-envision our certainties, confidence, hope, and faith. As this collective re-imagining transforms religion from the inside-out, from the bottom-up, from expert to amateur… may it not coalesce into yet another static propositional confession. May doubt (the posture of honest uncertainty) remain authentic and always new – and not become a religion unto itself. May religion be continually redefined as (re)generative, inclusive, shared experience, offering a depth of freedom not found in ideas, but in what the best ideas always point to. Inertial. Pointing father. Pointing beyond the visible horizon. One of the 20th century’s greatest scientific thinkers, Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, talks about faith, doubt, religion, and uncertainty in this engaging four-minute film. Time well spent. “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that could be wrong… I don’t have to have an answer; I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.” – R.  

Surfing the Exponential (Synthetic Biology)

Synthetic Biology. I don’t think I’ve ever been as equally intrigued and frightened as much by anything in my life. I listened to Craig Venter at TED earlier this year describe how he was creating entirely new genetic life forms (not simply hybrid recombinants). My reaction was identical. Until we reasonably know the total risks of synthetic biology, I believe the potential dangers of widespread boutique gene creation will usually outweigh the benefits. But it’s too late. The race is on. We may not recognize the power of the path we’re embarking upon until it is too late. A must-read New Yorker article describes in detail: ………… A team from Pennsylvania State University, working with hair samples from two woolly mammoths “one of them sixty thousand years old and the other eighteen thousand” has tentatively figured out how to modify that DNA and place it inside an elephant’s egg. The mammoth could then be brought to term in an elephant mother. “There is little doubt that it would be fun to see a living, breathing woolly mammoth” a shaggy, elephantine creature with long curved tusks who reminds us more of a very large, cuddly stuffed animal than of a T. Rex.,  the Times editorialized soon after the discovery was announced. “We’re just not sure that it would be all that much fun for the mammoth.” It is only a matter of time before domesticated biotechnology presents us with what Dyson described as an “œexplosion of diversity of new living creatures. . . . Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.” I asked Endy why he thought so many people seem to be repelled by the idea of constructing new forms of life. “Because it’s scary as hell,” he said. “It’s the coolest platform science has ever produced, but the questions it raises are the hardest to answer.” If you can sequence something properly and you possess the information for describing that organism “whether it’s a virus, a dinosaur, or a human being” you will eventually be able to construct an artificial version of it. That gives us an alternate path for propagating living organisms. Moreover, how safe can it be to manipulate and create life? How likely are accidents that would unleash organisms onto a world that is not prepared for them? And will it be an easy technology for people bent on destruction to acquire? “We are talking about things that have never been done before,” Endy said. “If the society that powered this technology collapses in some way, we would go extinct pretty quickly. You wouldn’t have a chance to revert back to the farm or to the pre-farm. We would just be gone.” “These are powerful choices. Think about what happens when you really can print the genome of your offspring. You could start with your own sequence, of course, and mash it up with your partner, or as many partners as you like. Because computers won’t care. And, if you wanted evolution, you can include random number generators.” That would have the effect of introducing the element of chance into synthetic design. Although Endy speaks with passion about the biological future, he acknowledges how little scientists know. “It is important to unpack some of the hype and expectation around what you can do with biotechnology as a manufacturing platform,” he said. “We have not scratched the surface. But how far will we be able to go? That question needs to be discussed openly, because you can’t address issues of risk and society unless you have an answer.” “It’s very hard for me to have a conversation about these issues, because people adopt incredibly defensive postures,” Endy continued. “The scientists on one side and civil-society organizations on the other. And, to be fair to those groups, science has often proceeded by skipping the dialogue. But some environmental groups will say, Let’s not permit any of this work to get out of a laboratory until we are sure it is all safe. And as a practical matter that is not the way science works. We can’t come back decades later with an answer. We need to develop solutions by doing them. The potential is great enough, I believe, to convince people it’s worth the risk.” “Do you know how we study aging?” Endy continued. “The tools we use today are almost akin to cutting a tree in half and counting the rings. But if the cells had a memory we could count properly. Every time a cell divides, just move the counter by one. Maybe that will let me see them changing with a precision nobody can have today. Then I could give people controllers to start retooling those cells. Or we could say, Wow, this cell has divided two hundred times, it’s obviously lost control of itself and become cancer. Kill it. That lets us think about new therapies for all kinds of diseases.” “We are surfing an exponential now, and, even for people who pay attention, surfing an exponential is a really tricky thing to do. And when the exponential you are surfing has the capacity to impact the world in such a fundamental way, in ways we have never before considered, how do you even talk about that? “ This is open-source biology, where intellectual property is shared. What’s available to idealistic students, of course, would also be available to terrorists. Any number of blogs offer advice about everything from how to preserve proteins to the best methods for desalting DNA. Openness like that can be frightening, and there have been calls for tighter control of the technology. Carlson, among many others, believes that strict regulations are unlikely to succeed. Several years ago, with very few tools other than a credit card, he opened his own biotechnology company, Biodesic, in the garage of his Seattle home “a biological version of the do-it-yourself movement that gave birth to so many computer companies, including Apple.” “Strict regulation doesn’t accomplish its goals,” Carlson said. “It’s not an exact analogy, but look at Prohibition. What happened when government restricted the production and sale of alcohol? Crime rose dramatically. It became organized and powerful. Legitimate manufacturers could not sell alcohol, but it was easy to make in a garage or a warehouse.” By 2002, the U.S. government intensified its effort to curtail the sale and production of methamphetamine. Previously, the drug had been manufactured in many mom-and-pop labs throughout the country. Today, production has been professionalized and centralized, and the Drug Enforcement Administration says that less is known about methamphetamine production than before. “The black market is getting blacker,” Carlson said. “Crystal-meth use is still rising, and all this despite restrictions.” Strict control would not necessarily insure the same fate for synthetic biology, but it might. Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, has frequently called for restrictions on the use of technology. “It is even possible that self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder” or even impossible “to control,” he wrote in an essay for Wired called Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.  “The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” Still, censoring the pursuit of knowledge has never really worked, in part because there are no parameters for society to decide who should have information and who should not. The opposite approach might give us better results: accelerate the development of technology and open it to more people and educate them to its purpose. Otherwise, if Carlson’s methamphetamine analogy proves accurate, power would flow directly into the hands of the people least likely to use it wisely. For synthetic biology to accomplish any of its goals, we will also need an education system that encourages skepticism and the study of science. In 2007, students in Singapore, Japan, China, and Hong Kong (which was counted independently) all performed better on an international science exam than American students. The U.S. scores have remained essentially stagnant since 1995, the first year the exam was administered. Adults are even less scientifically literate. Early in 2009, the results of a California Academy of Sciences poll (conducted throughout the nation) revealed that only fifty-three per cent of American adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, and a slightly larger number “fifty-nine per cent” are aware that dinosaurs and humans never lived at the same time. The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering. That won’t happen easily (or quickly), and it will never solve every problem we expect it to solve. But what worked for artemisinin can work for many of the products our species will need to survive. “We are going to start doing the same thing that we do with our pets, with bacteria,” the genomic futurist Juan Enriquez has said, describing our transition from a world that relied on machines to one that relies on biology. “A house pet is a domesticated parasite,” he noted. ” It is evolved to have an interaction with human beings. Same thing with corn” a crop that didn’t exist until we created it. “Same thing is going to start happening with energy,” he went on. “We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program  

Generative Rhythms

Here’s a brilliant three-minute video of Bobby McFerrin leading an audience experiment. Something profound occurs at the 45 second mark, and again around 2:00. We are ALL pre-wired with certain shared resonant qualities. Innate musical cognition is one of those qualities. While the universe may seem random at times, it is not.  Nothing on earth or beyond happens outside of a perfectly structured set of organic, natural rules. We all operate within those rules. Whether it be the pentatonic primacy of music to the soul, the centrality of love to the spirit, or the human tendency towards selfishness, pride, and narcissism ” certain universal truths are wired into our collective sentience.” If we are here for a reason, then finding, living, and growing within these generative shared rhythms, while learning to eschew naturally degenerative rhythms, seems like our shared mission. But by fear or thoughtlessness we often stop sharing. We dig ourself into a hole that differentiates ourselves from others (us and them, my tribe / your tribe, my religion, etc.). If we individually lived more in this place of shared mindfulness, those we call “enemies” might start to look strangely like family. “No matter where I’m at, every audience gets this” — Bobby McFerrin World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on  

Re-synthesize & Reconnect

Not blogging much this summer. TED’ster Thomas Dolby pointed me to a 2010 TED Fellow who deserves attention. From Rachel Armstrong: We are experiencing a renaissance and a change in the cultural conditions of science and technology where the information that was discovered as a result of twentieth-century science is being re-synthesized. Scientists need to work outside their own areas of expertise to make new technologies that are pertinent to the twenty-first century and to collaborate, both with other scientific disciplines and the arts and humanities. This is an opportunity for us to reconnect with each other, decide what the most important issues facing humanity are and how we may address this with the responsible use of new  

Pranic Healing & Science

It’s one of my life’s profound joys to see something we call “spiritual” validated by scientific method. Over time, I think that many of the chasms separating science and religion will be bridged. Until then, it’s in our best interest that both disciplines maintain a respect for one another – realizing that the best practitioners in science and religion are both earnestly seeking truth, via different methods. Joie Jones holds a PhD in Physics from Brown and was a professor of Radiology at UC (updated 28 Dec 2012). Joie is a contemporary example of consilience between scientific method and ancient religious ideas. Holding numerous patents in medical instrumentation and radiology, one of Joie’s prime areas of study is the ancient practice of “pranic healing” – which finds its roots in both Chinese and East Indian religion and medicine. Joie has been researching pranic healing for twleve years and his results are nothing less than stunning. Moreover, his experimental results appear to be scientifically bulletproof and in process of peer review. A recent YouTube video documents Dr. Jones giving a summary lecture on his findings — nearly 900 separate experiments to-date. I urge you to spend a few minutes with Dr. Jones’ truly revolutionary work, revealing findings that, as he says, are “difficult to explain in terms of the standard scientific  

Easter Story

Conversations with friends often focus on philosophy, faith/belief, spirituality… and how these ideals can be put into a life practice that might make the world a better place. An artist friend (musician, writer, all-around creative type) e-mailed me this morning describing some major life changes – a kind of catharsis. He says, Continuing our conversation from your living room, I’ve decided to let go of the darkness I have been carrying around. I reached a new level of understanding last night, that what I have been embracing and hanging onto for so many years is killing me. I don’t know exactly how to put it into words. Through the negativity in my art I believe I have been poisoning other people as well. All of the cynicism, depression, negative introspection, failure… I used to like riling people up and getting a negative reaction, but that means nothing to me now. I’ve always had a problem accepting God / Christianity because of the goody-goody imagery and hypocrisy. It makes me feel kind of squirmy. But I think it’s time that I get past that and see it for what it really is. Which, of course, is also hard to put into words. I, too, have “always had a problem accepting God / Christianity” – and for more reasons than just its hypocrisy and shallowness. Religion paints with a broad brush of a few primary colors. It tends to pacify fears with superstitions. It seeks to nail down air-tight answers to questions many of us are no longer asking. It has a low tolerance for inquiry. It quickly becomes its own self-referencing sub-culture. But I love the Jesus story – the embodied perfection of humanity. I recognize all too well that the story could be fiction, but I live as if it were true – for it is the most compelling story I have ever known. I acknowledge and live with this intellectual tension, this uncertain but hopeful possibility. Religion rarely honors intellectual honesty. Most religious leaders and ideologies demand triumphal allegiance to one’s beliefs as if they were scientific fact. I refuse to pretend, or bow to my own (or anyone else’s) notions of “certainty.” Being convinced and being certain are not necessarily the same. So I walk arm-in-arm with you, my friend, in this journey. What few answers I have are saturated in the ideals of love – what are called the “fruits of the Spirit” in the NT . These innate, unalienable, universal ideals will survive every human invention. We are part of a greater story. Creation’s infinite, harmonious beauty is a reflection of this story, for those with eyes to  

Biology never bothers to prove anything

From today’s New Scientist, on the safety (or lack thereof) of the Large Hadron Collider: “It’s easy for any of us to be seduced by the nature of logical thinking and its illusion of certainty. We generally strive to become aware of what former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously called the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns”, but are perilously ignorant of the “unknown unknowns”, and, worse, blithely unaware of our own ignorance. This becomes particularly dangerous when it hides flaws in an argument we are relying on for reassurance… Maybe there’s another lesson here: that mathematical certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We are, after all, biological organisms, and biology never bothers to prove anything. Cell design, for instance, reflects a crazy historical legacy of structures cobbled together to produce workable solutions to thousands of temporary problems. Perhaps we shouldn’t insist that good reasoning conforms to some “pure” proof-making ideal, and accept it is more like those ad hoc biological processes that leave us fallible and vulnerable, but resilient enough to get by in an uncertain