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In writing the last post, I discovered Edge, an online community for “the third culture” that claims modestly, “Its informal membership includes of some of the most interesting minds in the world.”

Edge asserts that “third culture” intellectuals “are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” Big of them. And who are these “leading thinkers? Ah, I should have known: Mostly, the usual suspects, er, I mean the “free thinkers,” or “brights,” or whatever other name they give themselves at a given time, which I guess is now third culture.

So, I decided to read some of the essays about why some of the most interesting minds in the world are scientifically optimistic—which is the current Edge question being pondered by all that gray matter. As with most group efforts of this kind, the entries vary in quality. Some are quite good—primarily those essayists who actually stuck with science. Thus, Oliver Morton of Nature expresses why his “current optimism is for solar energy.” He explains: “The simple facts of the matter are that the sun provides more energy to the earth in an hour than humanity makes use of in a year...I am optimistic that direct solar conversion-photovoltaic cells and their future analogues will come to take its place among and then surpass these more established technologies a lot more quickly than most people outside the area currently imagine.” Sounds like a good reason for optimism to me.

Unfortunately, others, such as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, use the question as an excuse to express prejudice against that old materialist bugaboo, religion (which isn’t an expression of science but a knock on the competitor by the quasi religion of scientism). Thus, Dennett sees, “The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory—the inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated “rebound” of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases—there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents.” Right: A radical Islamic jihadist equals a home schooler, equals George Bush. Good to see logical and rational thinking for a change!

And some are just plain dumb, as in the transhumanist entry of MIT professor Marvin Minsky’s push for immortality through uploading our minds into computers: “Once we embody our minds in machines, we’ll find ways to expand their capacities. You’ll be able to edit your former mind, or merge it with parts of other minds—or develop completely new ways to think.”

Meanwhile, George F. Smoot, a cosmologist, sounds about as optimistic for the future as Woody Allen: The earth is going to melt some day! Eeek! “A careful assessment and years of experience that show that the long-term future is most bleak...This is the fate that awaits us, if we manage to work our way past the energy crisis that looms as the Sun runs out of fuel and in its death throws expands as red giant star likely to engulf us after boiling away the seas before it collapses back to a slowly cooling cinder eventually to leave the solar system in cold darkness.” Wait a minute! I thought transhumanism would bring us immortality!

Intellectual efforts such as this can be interesting and are worthy endeavors. And it isn’t the authors’ fault that Edge is so laughingly full of itself. But really. If this is the best that the most interesting minds in the world have to offer, maybe we had better give some boring minds a chance to contribute.

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