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Book review: The Other World, by Janet Oppenheim

This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.

The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena. Read more

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

Apocalyptic visions from Martin Rees

Martin Rees is one of the world's leading astronomers and cosmologists and former President of the Royal Society. In 2003 he published Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century?. Rees's answer seemed to be "perhaps".

Now he has returned to the same theme in a 'Conversation' published on Edge, with the title Curtains For Us All?, which isn't much more optimistic about our prospects.

Rees envisages various possible global catastrophes, particularly those associated with biological scenarios. The increasing availability of gene-editing techniques is potentially enormously dangerous. It is already possible to produce super-lethal strains of flu that could be used as a weapon. Perhaps governments would not want to do that because it would, in effect, be suicidal (although what about North Korea if it felt itself to be on the verge of defeat?). But Rees's worst nightmare is "an ecology fanatic with the mindset of some of the extreme animal rights people we have in this country, someone who thinks that the world—Gaia—is being polluted or destroyed by too many human beings".

There are many people who think that, but if there's one person who thought that and had this kind of mindset, then they might think it a good idea to try to kill off as many human beings as they can. They wouldn't care who it was. Obviously, this is unlikely. You'd need to have someone with this extreme psychology, but the point is that one such person is too many because the downside could be so colossal. That is number one on my list of not entirely unrealistic scares.

Actually, the Edge piece is not all as gloomy as that. It ranges widely and takes in cosmology (Rees finds the many-universes idea to be becoming scientifically respectable now and more probable than not) and the likelihood of finding intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Here he makes the important point that even if intelligent life does exist out there, the chances that we can find it at just the right moment - when it is neither not advanced enough technoligically to communicate nor too advanced for our comprehension - are pretty small.

If it is advanced it will probably not be biological. The future, if any, for advanced technologies, including ours, is almost certainly mechanical.

Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It's almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.

Welcome to the future.