To me, that’s the beauty of science: to know that you will never know everything, but you never stop wanting to, that when you learn something, for a second you feel crazy smart, and then stupid all over again as new questions come tumbling in. It’s an urge that never dies, a game that never ends.
Excellent read in Aeon Magazineabout the scientific and philosophical question of when apparent moral behavior in animals really becomes moral behavior. You know, whatever that is. Case in point:
"Binti Jua, a gorilla residing at Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, had her 15 minutes of fame in 1996 when she came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five metres onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate."
From videos of dogs saving other dogs in the middle of highway traffic to a humpback whale appearing to give a “thank you” to fishermen who freed it from a net, these are clearly moments of significance to the animals involved.
But are they moral? Or are we applying human explanations where they don’t belong or where simpler explanations could suffice? And if a simpler explanation could suffice, is that necessarily always the right explanation? And if animals become moral, do they accept moral responsibility for their actions?
What are we even doing when we’re being moral? These are challenging issues.
Check out more at Aeon Magazine: lots of questions, few answers, and many intriguing thoughts.
(image via Wikipedia)
The memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance … It stands alone and by itself in the imagination, and refuses to be grouped or confounded with any set of objects whatever. The imagination and memory exert themselves to no purpose, and in vain look around all their classes of ideas in order to find one under which it may be arranged. They fluctuate to no purpose from thought to thought, and we remain still uncertain and undetermined where to place it, or what to think of it. It is this fluctuation and vain recollection, together with the emotion or movement of the spirits that they excite, which constitute the sentiment properly called Wonder, and which occasion that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart, which we may all observe …
Adam Smith, defining the feeling of wonder, that experience of novelty, that rush of newness and curiosity. In his 1795 writing on the “History of Astronomy” Smith placed wonder as the cornerstone of science and philosophy, where it has always been, and where it will always continue to be.
Perhaps this is the key experience that separates us from animals. Our ability to investigate disturbances in our imagination, to answer for the unexpected, to embrace confusion, knowing that it can be conquered. And perhaps this most of all: We enjoy the experience.
We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that’s fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, I have two college-age kids, and I’d be thrilled if they pursued careers in science, engineering or medicine. I certainly want them to learn as much science and math as they can, because those skills can help you get a great job.
But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.
The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.
But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.
“Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future–a comet on a collision course, or global warming–and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.”
So I suppose the question is this: do you want to be merely a sensory neuron or can you rise to become a motor neuron?
The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.
A meditation on what we’d live for if we could live forever, from Neil deGrasse Tyson (via explore-blog):
Also see Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom.
So make ‘em count.
Bonus points for connecting my favorite band to my favorite astrophysicist!!
"What SHOULD We Be Worried About?"
That was the question posed to a gaggle of the world’s smartest people by Edge.org. Great thinkers from all disciplines weigh in with everything from “Chinese eugenics” to”out of control nanotechnology” to “the fall of science journalism”. What do you think of their ideas?
Guaranteed to be the most intelligent thing you read for the rest of the week, at least.
If you aren’t following literaryjukebox, that will surely change after you read Debbie Millman’s meditation on knowing and not knowing:
I will never be a brain surgeon, and I will never play the piano like Glenn Gould.
But what keeps me up late at night, and constantly gives me reason to fret, is this: I don’t know what I don’t know. There are universes of things out there — ideas, philosophies, songs, subtleties, facts, emotions — that exist but of which I am totally and thoroughly unaware. This makes me very uncomfortable. I find that the only way to find out the fuller extent of what I don’t know is for someone to tell me, teach me or show me, and then open my eyes to this bit of information, knowledge, or life experience that I, sadly, never before considered.
Afterward, I find something odd happens. I find what I have just learned is suddenly everywhere: on billboards or in the newspaper or SMACK: Right in front of me, and I can’t help but shake my head and speculate how and why I never saw or knew this particular thing before. And I begin to wonder if I could be any different, smarter, or more interesting had I discovered it when everyone else in the world found out about this particular obvious thing. I have been thinking a lot about these first discoveries and also those chance encounters: those elusive happenstances that often lead to defining moments in our lives.
I once read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I fundamentally disagree with this idea. I think that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of hope. We might keep making mistakes but the struggle gives us a sense of empathy and connectivity that we would not experience otherwise. I believe this empathy improves our ability to see the unseen and better know the unknown.
Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don’t know that we don’t know. The arc of a life is a circuitous one. … In the grand scheme of things, everything we do is an experiment, the outcome of which is unknown.
You never know when a typical life will be anything but, and you won’t know if you are rewriting history, or rewriting the future, until the writing is complete.
This, just this, I am comfortable not knowing.
Song: “Mystery” by Beth Orton
Thomas W. Malone, director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, on his study of humanity’s ability to think beyond our own brains: the idea of "collective intelligence".
What does collective intelligence mean? It’s important to realize that intelligence is not just something that happens inside individual brains. It also arises with groups of individuals. In fact, I’d define collective intelligence as groups of individuals acting collectively in ways that seem intelligent. By that definition, of course, collective intelligence has been around for a very long time. Families, companies, countries, and armies: those are all examples of groups of people working together in ways that at least sometimes seem intelligent.
It’s also possible for groups of people to work together in ways that seem pretty stupid, and I think collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence…
What’s new, though, is a new kind of collective intelligence enabled by the Internet. Think of Google, for instance, where millions of people all over the world create web pages, and link those web pages to each other. Then all that knowledge is harvested by the Google technology so that when you type a question in the Google search bar the answers you get often seem amazingly intelligent, at least by some definition of the word “intelligence”….
Our future as a species may depend on our ability to use our global collective intelligence to make choices that are not just smart, but also wise.
Want to dig deeper? Andy Revkin has a collection of links on his NY Times DotEarth blog. The fact that we are even having this discussion, in the connected manner that we are having it, is a pretty good example of the power of this idea.