In Search of Refinement

Neurorelevance (Nita Farahany)

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Nita Farahany in conversation with Howard Burton

When someone starts talking about free will, I normally look searchingly for the exits.

I’ve read enough to know that philosophers, as they are wont to do, have created all sorts of categories over the years to describe different intellectual positions: compatibilists and incompatibilists, soft determinists and hard determinists, radical libertarians and modest libertarians. But I can’t shake the feeling that all of these categorizations, and many more besides, often end up obscuring the issues much more than clarifying them. Frankly, the only philosopher who makes any sense to me on this issue is John Searle, who has a refreshing ability to pare away all the silly jargon and simply get right to the heart of the matter.

Which is this: every serious scientist these days believes that the world around us is made of material stuff – atoms and molecules. This naturally applies not only to tables and chairs, but to ourselves too – and, equally obviously, not just to our legs and fingernails, but to our brains as well.

This is hardly a very surprising insight, given how our brains respond to LSD, alcohol or even headache medication. Moreover, since our brains seem to be located very much in the natural world, it’s pretty hard to imagine how they could somehow consist of non-material stuff at all.

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Situation Rooms (Philip Zimbardo)

When I sat down with famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo, I had a pretty good sense of the main topics we’d be focusing on during our discussion: his notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a detailed explanation of how situational factors affect our behavior, and his present work on the Heroic Imagination Project and how we might be able to “prime” people for acts of heroism.

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Philip Zimbardo in conversation with Howard Burton

What I certainly hadn’t expected was to spend more than an hour talking to Phil about his childhood, starting with being diagnosed with whooping cough at the age of 5 and his long quarantine in Manhattan’s Willard Parker Hospital with other children suffering from contagious diseases in a pre-antibiotic era.

As he watched many of his childhood comrades die around him, Phil developed various survival tactics: praying to both God and the Devil to live to fight another day while routinely ingratiating himself with the surrounding nurses to procure at least some small measure of preferential treatment.

But perhaps the most significant thing the young Phil learned from his hospital experience was the value of being a leader by inventing games and stories for the other boys in the ward. At first, this was simply a way to relieve the omnipresent boredom. But slowly, other benefits began to impress themselves upon him.

Essentially, from age five on, I began to take a leadership role, not because I wanted to be a leader, but because I was bored out of my mind and I wanted something to do. (more…)

Information Loss (Roger Penrose)

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Roger Penrose in conversation with Howard Burton

You might think that a blog post about Roger Penrose that’s called “Information Loss” would necessarily involve black holes, entropy, and Hawking radiation, perhaps also touching on bets over encyclopedias and all that.

Not this time. Instead, I’d like to talk about a more everyday sort of information problem: how best to communicate science. I’ve been puzzling about this issue for as long as I can remember: first as a keen undergraduate anxious to share the sorts of things I was learning, and later as a physics graduate student trying to describe the essentials of my tiny corner of understanding to anyone who might listen. I always had a lingering sense of frustration that, somehow, I was unable to coherently capture the fundamental aspects of what attracted me, and what frustrated me, about physics. But I thought it was just me.

Years later, when I found myself running Perimeter Institute, I tried again: taking advantage of our robust scientific visitor program to put together a series of monthly public lectures of internationally renowned physicists. (more…)

The Art of Conversation – Interdisciplinarity

What is interdisciplinarity? Opinions differ. The Collins English Dictionary matter-of-factly defines it as “the quality or state of involving more than one discipline”, while the Oxford English Dictionary seems to spurn its very existence, drawing the line at having been forced to accept the adjective “interdisciplinary” into the modern English lexicon.

To many sceptical researchers diligently advancing their own well-defined subdiscipline, it is the latest in a long line of unrigorous, unhelpful sentiments foisted upon them by trendy academic administrators anxious to demonstrate how modern they are.

To many of those same academic administrators, on the other hand, it is a vital, often underused mechanism to prod typically tunnel-visioned investigators into absorbing new techniques and ideas. (more…)

The Art of Conversation – Storytelling

Subjectivity is often frowned upon by serious scholars. After all, the story goes, what really matters is the objective merits of the insight or experimental result, not the individual path taken in reaching it.

But history tells another story. Throughout time and place, human societies have varied widely in their forms of government, religious orientation, economic structure, scientific acumen, cultural practices, and even moral code. But one commonality links us all: storytelling. From Homer to Hollywood, every human society that we know of has placed a high value on the intrinsically compelling nature of a good tale. (more…)

The Art of Conversation – Serendipity

At Ideas Roadshow, I tell people incessantly, we don’t do “interviews”, we do “conversations”. But what does that mean, exactly?  Just some clever promo-speak? An unwarranted presumption of equality? Not at all. It is, in fact, simply an accurate description of what is going on.

Interviews involve two people engaged in well-established roles: the interviewer and the interviewee. Often the interviewer is a journalist who rightly sees her role as that of the hard-nosed independent arbiter, keeping the interviewee honest and summarily bringing him up short when he descends to the level of propaganda or false statements. It is a dynamic we are all familiar with, particularly in a political setting: a head of state sits down with a top journalist and is asked tough questions about his record: Has he fulfilled his election promises? What does he think about his worryingly low poll numbers? What mistakes has he made? (more…)