Sean Carroll's Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas
Summary: Sean Carroll hosts conversations with the world's most interesting thinkers. Science, society, philosophy, culture, arts, and ideas.
Games play an important role in human life. We play games on our computers and our phones, watch other people compete in games, and break out the cards or the Monopoly set. What is the origin of this human impulse, and what makes for a great game? Frank Lantz is both a working game designer and an academic who thinks about the nature of games and gaming. We discuss what games are, contrast the challenges of Go and Poker and other games, and investigate the ways they can help us become better people.
Cosmologists have a standard set of puzzles they think about: the nature of dark matter and dark energy and so on. But there are also deeper questions, having to do with why there is a universe at all, and why the early universe had low entropy. Anthony Aguirre and I talk about these deep issues, and how tackling them might lead to a very different way of thinking about our universe. At the end there’s an entertaining detour into AI and existential risk.
It’s fun to spend time thinking about how other people should behave, but fortunately we also have an inner voice that keeps offering opinions about how we should behave ourselves: our conscience. Today’s guest, Patricia Churchland, is one of the founders of the subfield of “neurophilosophy.” We dig into the neuroscience of it all, but also explore the philosophical ramifications of having a conscience, with an eye to understanding morality and ethics in a neurophilosophical context.
Today’s guest, Nicholas Christakis, is an interdisciplinary researcher who studies human nature from a variety of perspectives, including biological, historical, and philosophical. His most recent book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, in which he tries to pinpoint the common features of all human societies, something he dubs the “social suite.” He argues that we are ultimately wired to get along, despite the missteps we make along the way.
If you’re bad, we are taught, you go to Hell. Who in the world came up with that idea? Some will answer God, but for the purpose of today’s podcast discussion we’ll put that possibility aside and look into the human origins and history of the idea of Hell. Marq de Villiers is a writer and journalist who has authored a series of non-fiction books, many on science and the environment. In Hell & Damnation, he takes a detour to examine the manifold ways in which societies have imagined the afterlife.
Most people in the modern world agree that humans are part of the animal kingdom, and that all living animals evolved from a common ancestor. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we are unique; humans are the only animals that stress out over Game of Thrones. I talk with geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford about what makes us human, and how we got that way, both biologically and culturally.
Most of us have no trouble telling the difference between a robot and a living, feeling organism. Nevertheless, our brains often treat robots as if they were alive. Kate Darling is a research at the MIT Media Lab who specializes in social robotics, the interactions between humans and machines. We talk about why we cannot help but anthropomorphize even very non-human-appearing robots, and what that means for legal and social issues now and in the future.
For decades now physicists have been struggling to reconcile two great ideas from a century ago: general relativity and quantum mechanics. A leader in this quest has been Leonard Susskind, who has helped illuminate some of the most mind-blowing ideas in quantum gravity: the holographic principle, the string theory landscape, black-hole complementarity, and others. We talk about black holes, quantum mechanics, and the most exciting new directions in quantum gravity.
Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book is an ambitious attempt to trace the role of feelings and our biological impulses in the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and our flourishing as social, cultural beings.
Wine seems to exhibit a degree of complexity and nuance that can be intimidating to the non-expert. Where does that complexity come from, and how can we best approach wine? We talk to Matthew Luczy, sommelier at Mélisse, one of the top restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Matthew insisted that we actually drink wine rather than just talking about it, so drink we do. Therefore, in a Mindscape first, I recruited a third party to join us and add her own impressions: science writer Jennifer Ouellette.
Recent years have seen the beginning of a boom in the number of objects orbiting Earth, as satellite tracking and communications have assumed enormous importance in the modern world. This raises obvious concerns for the control and eventual fate of these orbiting artifacts. Natalya Bailey is pioneering a novel approach to satellite propulsion, building tiny ion engines. We talk about how satellite technology is rapidly changing, and what that means for the future of space travel.
One of the most important insights in the history of science is the fact that complex behavior can arise from the undirected movements of small, simple systems. Despite the fact that we know this, we’re still working to truly understand it — to uncover the mechanisms by which, and conditions under which, complexity can emerge from simplicity. Steven Strogatz is a leading researcher in this field, a pioneer both in the subject of synchronization and in that of small-world networks.
We worry about robot uprisings and artificial intelligence taking over, and we contemplate what it would mean for a computer to be conscious or truly human. These ideas aren’t new to modern society — they go way back, at least to the mythologies of ancient Greece. Adrienne Mayor, is a folklorist whose recent work has been on artificial humans in ancient mythology. Mythology is rife with stories of artificial beings. It’s useful to think about our contemporary concerns in light of these ancient tales.
An important aspect of consciousness is imagination: our minds can conjure up hypothetical futures to help us decide which choices we should make. Where did that ability come from? Malcolm MacIver pinpoints an important transition in the evolution of consciousness to when fish first climbed on to land, and could suddenly see much farther, which in turn made it advantageous to plan further in advance. This idea might help us understand some of the abilities and limitations of our cognitive capacities.
Is there still a place for atheists to talk about transcendence, the sacred, and meaning in life? Alan Lightman brings a unique perspective to these questions, as someone who has worked within both the sciences and the humanities at the highest level. In his most recent book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, makes the case that naturalists should take transcendence seriously. We talk about the implications that the finitude of our lives has for our search for meaning.