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“What are you optimistic about?” – Leading EDGE thinkers share their thoughts March 12, 2007

Posted by IntimatePower in interactions, quotations, science, technology, thinkers.

Every year, EDGE, a leading scientific community, presents a question to its members – leading thinkers and scientists.

At the beginning of 2007, it presented the following question:

What Are You Optimistic About? Why?

Here are some excerpts that I found interesting, thought-provoking, and in some cases, even inspiring.
While I don’t necessarily agree or accept all of them, I still find them important.

[Note: My notes appear in square brackets]

John Brockman
Edge’s Publisher and Editor

As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.

Richard Dawkins
Evolutionary biologist; Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science, Oxford University; author, ‘The God Delusion’

I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything.
I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem.
I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that’s in it, including ourselves.

Brian Eno
Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist

The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us “the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen”.

Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big-government socialism in the present climate.

The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.

Steven Pinker
Psychologist, Harvard University; author, ‘The Blank Slate’

In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning… As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under-appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence.

What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question – “Why is there war?” instead of “Why is there peace?”

[Democracy] has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us.

The award-winning science writer Robert Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over those of other sentient beings.

Larry Sanger
Co-founder, Wikipedia

I am optimistic about humanity’s coming enlightenment.

In particular, I am optimistic about humanity’s prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.

Lord (Martin) Rees
President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; author, ‘Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity’s Survival’

There are indeed powerful grounds for being a techno-optimist. For most people in most nations, there’s never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advance – information technology, biotech and nanotech – can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We’re becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world’s information and culture – and to every other person on the planet. Creativity in science and the arts is open to hugely more than in the past.

Later in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and “cyberg” techniques may change human beings themselves. That’s something qualitatively new in recorded history – and it will pose novel ethical conundrums.

My number-one priority would be much-expanded research and development into a whole raft of techniques for storing energy and generating it by “clean” or low-carbon methods.

This effort can engage not just those in privileged technical environments in advanced countries, but a far wider talent pool. Even if we discount climate change completely, the quest for clean energy is worthwhile on grounds of energy security, diversity and efficiency.
[* Not to mention cost]

Judith Rich Harris
Independent investigator and theoretician; author, ‘No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality’

I am optimistic about human relationships – in particular, about friendship.

But friendship isn’t dying out: it’s just changing, adapting to the changes in the world. People are discovering different ways of getting together.
It may be harder to find a bowling partner but it’s easier to find someone to chat with, because there are more ways to chat.

I have friends whom I know only through email conversations but who are as dear to me as my college roommate and dearer by far than my next-door neighbour.

Timothy Taylor
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; author, ‘The Buried Soul’

Computers’ eventual power will probably not be in simulation or deception. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas, they will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort. If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers’ currently unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most, enhancing and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding it.

Gloria Origgi
Philosopher and researcher, Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique; author, ‘Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet’

I quickly realised that asking the opening question of ordinary train encounters, “Where are you from?”, had become patently obsolete.

Simon Baron-Cohen
Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; author, ‘The Essential Difference’

Autism is on the increase.
[He says there’s a 25 fold increase in the rate of autism in the last 40 years]

[Some] may feel that the future is bleak for all of these newly diagnosed cases of autism.
But I remain optimistic that, for a good proportion of them, it has never been a better time to have autism.
Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age.

Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people.

So, why am I optimistic?
For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate.

David Deutsch
Quantum physicist, Oxford University; author, ‘The Fabric of Reality’

If we are optimistic that failure to improve ourselves means merely that we haven’t found the solution yet, then success is never due to divine grace (nowadays known as “natural resources”) but always to human effort and creativity, and failure is opportunity.

The full text can be found at EDGE’s website at:

Selected excerpts can be found at “The Independent”:

Some excerpts that I’ve saved from the independents’ summary are at:

Which thoughts here do you resonate with?


1. lazola - January 27, 2009

I love this web site

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