Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Imagine a world with no religion...

The end of religion is nigh: as television and internet make it easier for people around the world to get information and scientists get closer to discovering a final theory of everything, leading thinkers have argued that, within a few decades, people's fascination for superstition and religion will disappear.

The argument is part of the responses to an exercise by the web magazine, Edge, which asked more than 150 scientists and thinkers: "What are you optimistic about?" The responses included predictions of extended human lifespan, hope for a bright future for autistic children in the digital age, and a potential end to violent conflicts around the world. (The full list of responses is here).

Philosopher Daniel Dennett led the charge against religion with his argument that, within 25 years, religion will evolve into something that commands little of the awe it seems to instil in people today. "Of course many people, perhaps a majority of people in the world, will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behaviour. But the rest of the world will see this behaviour for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will."

He cited the worldwide spread of information through the internet, mobile phones and portable radios and television as a problem for guardians of religious traditions. These will "gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance."

Biologist Richard Dawkins added that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein's dream to unify the fundamental laws of physics. "This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."

Part of that final theory will be formulated by scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a $8bn particle accelerator at Cern in Geneva that will be switched on in 2007. It will smash protons together in a bid to understand what makes up the most fundamental bits of the universe.

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University said that the LHC will end the years of "sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists. We will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time."

His biggest hope is that the LHC will give unexpected data, forcing scientists to reformulate their basic ideas.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University said that an optimistic trend had gone unnoticed in society: the decline of violence.

"Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward"

In his book, War before Civilisation, anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimated that, in the 20th century 100 million men, women, and children died from war-related causes, including disease and famine. If the rate of violence had been as high as the average primitive society, that total would have been 2 billion.

Prof Pinker said that, compared with centuries past, modern violent acts are generally hidden, illegal, condemned or controversial. "In the past, they were no big deal. My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them."

In his reponse to the Edge question, John Horgan of the Stevens Institute of Technology underlined Prof Pinker's point: "I'm optimistic that one day war-large-scale, organized, group violence-will end once and for all," he said.

Developing a better understanding of other people to prevent war could take some time. Understanding yourself, however, will come much more quickly, according to George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School. Genetic sequencing technology is getting cheaper and will soon be within the reach of individuals. He said that 2007 would be the year that people finally get to grips with their personal genomes.

"We will learn so much more about ourselves and how we interact with our environment and our fellow humans. We will be able to connect with other people who share our traits. I am optimistic that we will not be de-humanized, but we might be re-humanized, relieved of a few more ailments, to contemplate our place in the universe, and transcend out brutal past."

Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge University, focused his optimism on the lives of the rising numbers of autistic children. In 1978, the rate of autism was four in 10,000 children but today the figure is closer to one in 100. He said that, while no-one is certain why this increase is happening, many scientists put it down to a combination of environmental reasons and a better recognition of the condition. Prof Baron-Cohen argued that the outlook for autistic children was far from bleak. Indeed, there has never been a better time for them.

"There is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age. Computers operate on the basis of extreme precision, and so does the autistic mind," he said. "The inherently ambiguous and unpredictable world of people and emotions is a turn off for someone with autism, but a rapid series of clicks of the mouse that leads to the same result every time that sequence is performed is reassuringly attractive. Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people."

Leo Chalupa, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Davis predicted that, by the middle of the this century, "it will not be uncommon for people to lead healthy and productive lives well past their tenth decade. This means that the high school kids of today who believe they will be forever young might well have their fantasy fulfilled, albeit in modified form."

He cited the advances in medical research that can manipulate cells to prolong longevity, in particular brain cells.

"We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out or damaged during the course of a lifetime, providing renewed capabilities to what are currently considered old folks," he said. "So better start thinking what you'll be doing with all those extra years of life."

Other respondents include Martin Rees, Jared Diamond, Susan Blackmore, Ray Kurzweil and Marvin Minsky.

1 comment:

Stacy said...

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