Early in my neurology residency, a 50-year-old woman insisted on being hospitalized for protection from the FBI spying on her via the TV set in her bedroom. The woman's physical examination, lab tests, EEGs, scans, and formal neuropsychological testing revealed nothing unusual. Other than being visibly terrified of the TV monitor in the ward solarium, she had no other psychiatric symptoms or past psychiatric history. Neither did anyone else in her family, though she had no recollection of her mother, who had died when the patient was only 2. The psychiatry consultant favored the early childhood loss of her mother as a potential cause of a mid-life major depressive reaction. The attending neurologist was suspicious of an as yet undetectable degenerative brain disease, though he couldn't be more specific.
Most of us, most of the time, think and act as though there are facts about good and bad, right and wrong. We think the predatory behavior of Jeffrey Epstein was abhorrent, and that the political actions of Mahatma Gandhi were admirable. Moreover, we don't generally take these facts to be mere records of our subjective preferences or of cultural norms. I happen to like watching Doctor Who, but if that's not your cup of tea, that's fine with me. But if you think Epstein's behavior was pretty cool, I'm going to think there's something objectively wrong with your preferences. And to the extent that our society has become more opposed to violence and oppression in certain respects, we tend to think that this not just a change in our norms but a change to better norms.
Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves--constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made. This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. It has no single author; it's been written collaboratively by scientists over the past few centuries. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts. In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind.
The question of whether a god exists is heating up in the 21st century. In 2014, the proportion of the US who didn't believe in God was 33 per cent while in the UK it was 39 per cent. Despite this growing disbelief in a higher being, in a new article for The Conversation, Robert Nelson, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland explores why he believes that God exists. The question of whether a god exists is heating up in the 21st century. In 2014, the proportion of the UK who said they didn't believe in God was 39 per cent, while it was 33 per cent of people in the US (stock image) In 1960 the Princeton physicist – and subsequent Nobel Prize winner – Eugene Wigner raised a fundamental question: Why did the natural world always – so far as we know – obey laws of mathematics?
Adapted from Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks by Phil Torres. Our species has made Earth its home for about 2,000 centuries, but there are strong reasons for believing that the current century is the most dangerous. The question is whether the threat level today will continue to grow, stay the same, or shrink. Some monitors of human progress are hopeful about the third possibility. They believe that if humanity survives the next century or so, the risk of existential disaster will decline, perhaps to an all-time low.