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Richard Dawkins
Alex Steffen, 12 Jul 05

Richard Dawkins, who's essay Viruses of the Mind is a hallmark of modern science, has just taken the stage at TED Global.

"We are denizens of the middle world -- the range of sizes and speeds which we have evolved to feel inherently comfortable with -- and this limits what our brains are capable of imagining," Dawkins says. "Reality, for an animal, is whatever it's brain needs it to be for its survival." Reality is not absolute, but a sort of model the brain constructs -- and the world models of bats and water skeeters and moles are undoubtedly wildly unique. Why should the human animal be any different? And what, ultimately, are the implications for a rational human civilization, if reality is truly "queerer than we can suppose"?

He proposes starting to raise our children playing video games which are as deeply strange as the universe itself, so that they might grow up capable of expanding their ability to imagine the actual nature of reality.

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Who's going to design the games? On what will they rely for the design?

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Jul 05

Good questions.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 12 Jul 05

I could imagine games where you can get an intuitive feel for orbital dynamics (racing/combat games around a planet where you can get a feel for slowing down if you want to speed up), quantum mechanics (breakout with quantum tunneling), different scale factors (your combat drones are the size of mosquitoes and have to deal with very different air viscosity and water surface tension), maybe even general relativity... but you'd need to make them popular enough to compete with other titles, which could be tricky.

Posted by: Max Kaehn on 12 Jul 05

Got it. "Grand Theft Auto: Einstein City." Violent crime in a metropolis where a bizarre accident at a university physics lab has caused the speed of light to vary from block to block, sometimes dipping down to 10mph. Unlock bonus functionality by racing down Relativity Boulevard with all the red lights blueshifted to green.

Posted by: Max Kaehn on 12 Jul 05

Max, your game ideas are very clever and seem to be interesting enough to frame a good story on. What would the story be like? What are the goals of the game?

Posted by: Jennifer Evonne on 12 Jul 05

Mad scientist. You job is to destroy mankind. Methods include ecosystem destruction/destablization. Food system destruction. Econominic destruction. And so on. Teaches how all the important systems work as you try to break em;/

Posted by: wintermane on 12 Jul 05

Well, for "Grand Theft Auto: Einstein City", it'd be the usual Grand Theft Auto fare of violence, gang warfare, and sleaze, but with tactics where it's important to understand the effects of time dilation ("That is *not* a shortcut!") and the futility of shooting at someone who's in a zone where a bullet can't go more than a few times as fast as a running human. You don't make the game about the physics-- you make the physics part of the game.

Same for Strike Force Mosquito: it's all about being part of a military force sneaking insect-sized robots in to thwart terrorists, but you need to understand the effects of scale in order to run them properly.

Orbital combat would be tricky to keep exciting; you'd need a throttle for the time scale when you're in the period of waiting to go around the far side of the planet before you match with someone again. There are any number of themes that could work with that-- smuggling, space piracy, Orbit Guard working to stop the above.

Posted by: Max Kaehn on 12 Jul 05

I don't understand why this essay would be "a hallmark of modern science". The text is full of commonplaces ("reality is whatever a brain needs for its survival"). Hasn't this been said by countless people before?
The idea that reality is a mere construct that is very limited and "relative" or "contextual", and that there are many different, queer realities out there (relative to species or cultures or even to sex) is at least as old as Wittgenstein and it certainly has been hammered into all academic departments by post-structuralists since the 1960s.
Or is it simply because a biologist now takes up old post-structuralist themes, that the idea suddenly becomes more "real"? I'm sure I'm missing the point.
Anyway, a nice book about a thousand world models and about attempts at mind-hopping between them, is Mille Plateaux (A Thousand Plateaus), which I presume many of us have had to read during our studies.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 12 Jul 05

Good points, Lorenzo. I might add the piles of books on the topic from the 'non-respectable' arena of psychedelic research, at least back to Aldous Huxley's interest in the 'filter' model of consciousness.

"Reality is queerer than we can suppose" - I think this is a Whitehead quote than Terence McKenna was very fond of. Psychedelic researchers seem to me to be the first port of call for anyone trying to come to grips with the implications of this observation.

Of course, there are whole worlds of linguistic convention and bias to negotiate, and it may well be that insights that have been around for decades (if not centuries) have to wait to be paraphrased in the register of people like Dawkins to garner interest from more mainstream areas.

Posted by: Gyrus on 13 Jul 05

I saw a report elsewhere on this Dawkins talk & had a similar reaction ... Structurist & now many modern social theories emphasise the importance of context & meaning. I think their biological implications carry further than a genetic deterministic would admit. ie: individual brain constructs of reality are shaped by, and in turn, shape, social and environmental interactions. Context is inescapably influenced by the physical embeddedness of the mind in the body and the contextual perspective that comes from acting and peering out of that body, all of which in turn shapes the mind.

Lorenzo & Gyrus: I keep thinking about this in relation to 'technology will save our world' claims... if language, abstract mental capacity, social structures and technology have all mutually co-evolved since cave times then we need to moderate or influence the direction of runaway science by accelerating developments in social institutions, ability to project new mental constructs, language and capacity for communication (beyond just more forms of media), and(?) innovate in simple technologies. (Any comments or suggested further readng on thinkers who have addressed exactly this?)

Posted by: Janelle on 13 Jul 05

Janelle, the late Donella Meadows addressed this by how she lived her life, and by what she wrote. She rarely addressed this topic head-on, but it's the subtext implicit in just about everything she did from the early 1980's until her death in 2001.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Jul 05


What do you mean with runaway science?

When Hitler made koncenstration camps and had his doctors start their awfull experiments, they also gave us knowledge that we today use for things that are considdered good.

Not that I am in any way ofcourse endorsing Hitler or his doctors, but I am just pointing to a real problem with the current antiscientific stance that is so outspoken especially here in Europe.

Posted by: Thomas Petersen on 17 Jul 05



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