Writing recently at edge.org, one of the founding fathers of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby, answered a question which had long baffled me. Why do people on the left get more agitated about transgender bathroom access or hate speech than they do about modern slavery? Tooby explains: ‘Morally wrong-footing rivals is one point of ideology, and once everyone agrees on something (slavery is wrong) it ceases to be a significant moral issue because it no longer shows local rivals in a bad light. Many argue that there are more slaves in the world today than in the 19th century. Yet because one’s political rivals cannot be delegitimised by being on the wrong side of slavery, few care to be active abolitionists any more, compared to being, say, speech police.’ I might also add that many of the practitioners of modern slavery might be a bit foreign–looking, and so in criticising them you run the risk of violating some leftist tribal shibboleth.
One cited anecdote—which some say is apocryphal and whose central character varies according to the story—tells us that when, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Darwin's theory that humans descended from monkeys spread in England, the wife of the bishop of Birmingham responded, shocked: "Dear, let's hope it is not true. And if it is, let's hope it does not spread."
Those words take up the Edge website to present its annual question ( Edge Question ) this year. Every year, writer and publisher John Brockman hosts discussions on innovative ideas from the most diverse fields of science and proposes a provocative question to a number of intellectuals, scientists, artists and writers. Answers vary from small essays to a paragraph, but all have the spirit of those who are thinking about the boundaries of their disciplines or crossing them. "What should we care about?" "What scientific news was the most important this year?" "What do you think about the machines you think?" "What will change everything?" These are some of the questions from previous years, whose answers are then published in the form of books.
This year, the question was: "What term or scientific concept should be most widely known?" More than 200 scientists from the most varied fields, essayists and artists responded, and their texts—like all previous editions—can be freely read on the website.
"The Genetic Book of the Dead," "Reciprocal Altruism," "Neurodiversity," "The Second Law of Thermodynamics," "Common Sense," "Scientific Realism," and "The Copernican Principle," are some of the answers this year, which mostly propose reflections on the status of knowledge in the contemporary world, the ways in which science advances, and the role of uncertainty and chance in that movement.
It is not uncommon for that to be the approach. "Of all the scientific terms that should be better known to help clarify and inspire scientific thinking in general culture, none is more important than 'science' itself," Brockman wrote in presenting this year's Edge question. "Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA." Here, we reproduce excerpts from some of the essays.
Confirmation Bias (Brian Eno), The Anthropocene (Jennifer Jacquet), Navier-Stokes Equations (Ian McEwan), Mysterianism (Nicholas G. Carr), Epsilon (Victoria Stodden), Intellectual Honesty (Sam Harris)
Society Needs Reliable Knowledge. Ask Yourself the Right Questions
Science is the most reliable way to generate knowledge. This is the conviction of the Edge community which every year, for the past twenty years, has gathered around its long-time driving force John Brockman to answer a big question through which we can supposedly arrive at the edge of knowledge. In this period, however, knowledge empirically derived by the scientific method reveals an amount of information of varying quality and varied provenance which would seem to question the credibility of any belief and any consensus on the practical experience of reality. So one might ask: do we know enough about scientific knowledge? And, above all, can the scientific method be recognized as the most reliable? This is probably why Brockman asked his community of scientists, researchers, intellectuals, and creative interpreters to answer a seemingly simple question: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?"
Many contributors decided to respond by citing the latest discoveries that are actually not well known. Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, described Neurodiversity, a concept that challenges the definition of "autism" and embraces the diversity of ways of being human. Kevin Kelly, a pioneer in the narrative of technology, highlighted the concept of Premature Optimization to show that a success obtained in the first phase of a project’s development can put a brake on a bigger success: which is a recommendation for not only accepting the mistake but also for maintaining a critical attitude regarding what has already been discovered. And the Futurist Paul Saffo wrote about Haldane's Rule of the Right Size, which shows every organism has an optimum size and a change in size inevitably leads to a change in form, which is applicable not only to organisms, but also to technologies and organizations.
But the Edge community, with its distinguishing humility, thought that it was necessary to also take into account those who don’t know the most basic scientific concepts. An example? A couple of years ago a survey from the National Science Foundation reported that 25% of Americans are convinced that the Sun revolves around the Earth, more Americans than those who voted for the new President of the United States. So, with great sense of reality, astrophysicist and author Mario Livio decided to dedicate his contribution to The Copernican Principle, which states that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system. And Steven Pinker, who does research in a vast territory between cognitive science and language, in turn, has devoted his contribution to The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. It is a basic concept that shows how closed systems not interconnected with the outside tend inexorably to become less structured, less organized, less able to do interesting things, until they fall into a monotonous and uniform situation where they stop. And die. For Pinker, this is instructive for society. Giving up the liaison with the other societies, not accepting energy and information from outside, leads to social death.
In writing about Confirmation Bias, the artist Brian Eno has found a balance between the need to provide information about a new scientific concept and to divulge an element of basic knowledge by dedicating his contribution to the error of perception due to the search for confirmation: “The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.” In fact, scientifically, what was wrong was the word "automatically." The internet is not the wisdom machine, but only the information machine. But it was conceived in such a way that it is constantly renewed through innovation. This is what Edge pushed us to do.
Major thinkers, researchers, and scientists present twelve concepts that everyone should know and which produce fertile new hypotheses.
The phrase is as apodictic as it is arrogant: "Science does not think." When Martin Heidegger pronounced it in 1951, he had his finger on the pulse of his time. These few words do not only express a fresh self-assurance of philosophy, but also a newly awakened awareness of problems.
The scientific and technological approach, according to Heidegger's findings, transforms the world into an object of human manipulation which ultimately will threaten the very existence of man through the atomic bomb and human genomics. The tone is unmistakably apocalyptic. While science does not know where it is going, philosophy sees it quite clearly: into ruin.
Heidegger's statement resonates to this day. Even in 2017, it is still de rigeur for a certain kind of intellectual from the humanities department to look down on natural sciences, despite all inter- and transdisciplinary efforts. They don’t usually judge on the basis of their own knowledge or of a presumably higher insight like Heidegger—who was, after all, well acquainted with the most recent findings which physics and biochemistry had brought forth in his time. Rather, they do it ignorantly and from a safe distance, cultivating with considerable fuss what hermeneutics calls a "prejudice": Since our mental life is so rich, what should evolutionary theory or microbiology have to teach us about the human being, this insolvable riddle?
All of our lives are changed fundamentally, and with enormous speed, in the wake of contemporary science and technology
Thus we have been taught in our studies: the humanities want to understand the life of the human spirit, while the natural sciences are trying to explain the phenomena of nature. The two areas are completely different in methodology, and their representatives have nothing to say to each other; there can be nothing but misunderstandings. But even sophisticated hommes de lettres experience today how, in the wake of science and technology, our life is changing fundamentally—and with enormous speed.
This also affects their self-understanding. Do philosophers, literati, and intellectuals continue to regard themselves as interpreters of a world which appears to them only as a black box, and therefore, as it were, specialize in the consolation of their peers? Or do they dare to reconsider the great old questions, not evading the friction with new scientific knowledge: What exactly is life? When did it begin? How does man tick? How deep is the universe? Is the universe a computer? Is there intelligence outside the earth? What is consciousness?
We live in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind —John Brockman
The British physicist and writer Charles Percy Snow had outlined the profile of this new kind of intellectual already half a century ago. He spoke of men of the "third culture", equally well-versed in literature as in science. But Snow's concept remained a dead letter until John Brockman adopted it 25 years ago.
Who is this man? Brockman, who was part of the New York avant-garde scene of the 1970s with people like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, found his way from the outskirts of experimental art into science, which he regards as a kind of creative practice. The focus of his interest is on cybernetics and evolutionary biology, and his growing certainty that we are "living in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind" compares most closely with the spirit of the Renaissance.
Edge is a cybersalon for extensive scientific debate with a claim to be at the edge of knowledge.
Brockman first saw himself as a homo universalis and man of the third culture, before he set himself up as an "intellectual universal impresario" (David Brooks), putting himself in the service of this culture in order to earn money. In the 1980s, he began to build up a vibrant network of authors working at the interface between natural sciences and humanities. He represents many of them as a literary agent, some of them to this day.
This New York Humanist milieu evokes memories of the productive, adventurous Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s. Today's thinkers, however, do not see their task in hagiographical interpretation of the texts of founder figures (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) in order to prove themselves the only true disciples. Rather, the new authors take up inspiring ideas from Darwin, Neumann, or Maturana, in order to more precisely conceive our living present.
Instead of an exegetic look at the rear-view mirror, then, we find a robustly optimistic will to shape the future. No doubt there is a lot of hubris in the game, but just as much daring and the healthy self-confidence of science-savvy intellectuals who insist on living up to their curiosity.
This is how Edge came into being: a cybersalon designed for wide-ranging and accessible scientific debate with the claim to be at the edge of knowledge. For twenty years, John Brockman has put a question before his community at the end of every year and the responses are published at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve on www.edge.org. The 2017 Question is: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" You can read a selection of the responses in this Feuilleton. Some of the authors provide science fiction in the best sense of the word—fragments from the workshop of speculative-narrative reason. We intend to cultivate this discipline more consequently in the NZZ Feuilleton. A look into the intellectual laboratory of the future must be an integral part of a discourse oriented towards the true, the good and the beautiful.
Here the twelve posts:
Mysterianism (Nicholas G. Carr), Deliberate Ignorance (Gerd Gigerenzer), Navier-Stokes Equations (Ian McEwan), Embodied Thinking (Barbara Tversky), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), The Anthropocene (Jennifer Jacquet), Naïve Realism (Matthew D. Lieberman), Affordances (Daniel C. Dennett), The Neural Code (John Horgan), Common Sense (Jared Diamond), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall)
Theories that will change our everyday life in the year just begun according to 206 great researchers and intellectuals from around the world
Imagine taking over 200 international thinkers, including writers, artists and many, many scientists of all disciplines. Place them in front of a challenging question and collect their responses on a web site. It seems difficult to find a better way to greet with understanding the arrival of 2017. To do so we thought the literary agent John Brockman with his Edge Foundation. The ritual is repeated every year and this time the question was the following: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” That is, being able to choose freely a bud in the casket of knowledge, which you would show humanity at the beginning of this year. What piece of knowledge do you want to put metaphorically in your pocket, to walk toward the future with a greater awareness of the world? And do it with without pedantry and jargon. According to the novelist Ian McEwan, one of the 206 intellectuals invited to participate, the beauty of this game is that among the rules of engagement there is the invitation to be open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful, to indulge in the unadorned pleasure in curiosity.
Scientific ideas often remain confined among insiders, but sometimes science goes mainstream, and the most versatile and fortunate intuitions breach into the general culture, enriching it, and changing it in turn.
This happened to the memes of Richard Dawkins, to the paradigm jumps of Thomas Kuhn, to Schrödinger’s Cat, just to name some examples. Among the many ideas suggested this year, and candidates to become viral, a recurring theme is that of the peculiarities of scientific thought that would deserve to be exported to other fields of human knowledge and action is that science is a master of failure, critical spirit, intellectual honesty. Sometimes it delivers uncomfortable truths, as it reminds us of the famous phrase attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Birmingham on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Commenting on the embarrassing kinship between men and monkeys she apparently said: "Hopefully it is not true and, if it is true, that you do not know around".
The 206 responses to the 2017 question will eventually be published in a book. Here we have seven contributions, selected because they are particularly surprising and sometimes even useful in everyday life. Their merit? They warn of prejudices, educate complexity, cultivate wonder.
Confirmation Bias (Brian Eno), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), Deliberate Ignorance (Gerd Gigerenzer), Included Middle (Melanie Swan), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall), Multiverse (Martin Rees)
What scientific term or concept should be more widely known in the year ahead? Six answers from leading thinkers.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), Life History (Alison Gopnik), Positive Illusions (Helen Fisher), Common Sense (Jared Diamond), The Law of Small Numbers (Adam Alter), Complementarity (Frank Wilczek), The Copernican Principle (Mario Livio), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall)
On the occasion of presenting two facilities in the Kirchner Cultural Center, the legendary musician and producer Brian Eno went through Buenos Aires, in what was his first visit to Argentina. ... In 2012 he published one of 125 essays in the book What is going to change everything?, edited by John Brockman, editor of ... edge.com. Most of the responses, written by authors such as Ian McEwan, Nassim Taleb, Steven Pinker or Ricahrd Dawkins, coming down the side of the artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, physics or astronomy.
Eno, which in the past produced albums by U2, Talking Heads and Coldplay, among others, was on the other side. His answer to What is going to change everything? It was "the feeling that things will get worse." "What will change everything is not a thought but a feeling" ...
For Eno, "the development of mankind so far was driven by the idea that things, with high probability, will be better in the future. The world was rich in relation to its population, there were new lands to conquer, new thoughts to discover and exploit new resources. the great migrations of history was implemented from the projection that there was a better place. But what if this feeling changes?"
"With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change."- Professor Sandy Pentland - leading specialist in data science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA - above Edge.org.
Pentland had ambitions to reinvent human society on a large database platform. He believes that with scientific data, one can understand the operating system to generate human society of the future system stable and safe. Thus, the financial system is not disturbed, paralyzed government and the health system will actually work effectively.
"The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire—it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society." - Professor Sand Pentland said.
HOW A BANKER-TURNED-LITERARY AGENT GOT HIS START IN THE UNDERGROUND ART SCENE
Best known as a literary agent, Brockman’s career has spanned art, science, film, theater, and digital media. For more than 50 years, he has served as a steady intermediary between disciplines, working with everyone from Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. He specializes in science literature and represents a roster of authors—including Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker—who are more widely known than he is. But Brockman’s preference has always been for the perimeter. He founded edge.org, a foundation with the mission of connecting people “working at the edge” of a wide range of disciplines. In his own writing, he advocates for a “third culture,” a synthesis of science and the humanities, with no smaller a goal than “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives and redefining who we are.”
I imagine the reluctance to publish Q&A interviews is one reason that we British readers find so few serious interviews with scientists in our newspapers—compared, say, to interviews with novelists or with retired politicians.
It need not be thus. John Brockman’s Edge publishes (almost) exclusively long verbatim conversations between scientists about science, and every one of them is riveting. Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that he never needed to go out in the evening when he could find such wit and wisdom in the books he had at home, and I feel something similar when I read interviews on Edge. Indeed, it may be as well that Edge limits itself to publishing one main interview per month, since if there were many more of them I would have time for nothing else.
Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that he never needed to go out in the evening when he could find such wit and wisdom in the books he had at home. I feel something similar when I read interviews on Edge.
THE NEW BOOK OF ANNA CURIR
The Emergence of the Third Culture and Lethal Mutation
In Italy there are two cultures, humanities and science: from the union of these two seemingly opposing visions of the world depends on the survival of our own society. Young researchers and scientists can make a difference.
…The emotion unites science and art, humanistic and scientific culture. Are the same poets, playwrights, directors, astronomers, scientists, explorers, architects, artisans and to become excited during the creative process, investigation, discovery, accompanying their work.
In short, the excitement can mend the breach between science and humanism that, at least in Italy, it seems not be solved by Benedetto Croce times. There is a third path to take, or we are faced with a dead end?
To reflect on the contrast between scientific and humanistic culture is Anna Curir, associated INAF Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, just in the bookstore with The Emergence of the Third Culture and Lethal Mutation, published by the Sirente.
This fascinating book contains the thoughts of the world's leading biologists, geneticists and evolutionary theorists. It's all about where we are, and where we're heading—from a comparison between genes and digital information to new findings on how parents individually influence the human genome.
The world of innovation, entrepreneurial and technological singularity is full of parallels with religion: there are prophets, pilgrimage centers (Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Seoul, Shenzhen), tribes of believers, heretics and revealed truths. The commonalities could become a simple curiosity, a thesis topic of a humanistic career, if not because there is a group of technologists and experts on this agenda who believe this cogency of religious values acts as a bias that could lead to wrong projections. And the forecasts of vehicles without human drivers, lives of hundreds of years, end of employment, to travel by virtual reality and other phenomena that are as inexorable from the field of innovation could be saying more about our present, with its molded psychological and cultural patterns in thousands of years, about the future. . . .
In the movie 2001 Space Odyssey, filmed in 1969, Stanley Kubrick imagines a future of space travel, but all women of history are hostesses, assistants or secretaries: the director did not foresee the gender revolution of the 70s. Steven Pinker talks about this in his essay in the book This Will Change Everything, published by the director of the website Edge, John Brockman.
This approach leads to the conclusion that the existence of certain technology is a necessary and sufficient condition for a large-scale social change associated with that progress in a short time. . . .
Speculation comes to mind of a reigning "social mood" in recent days, with a local reality in gray tone that combined corruption scandals, economic recession and defeat in the Copa America, and that in turn matches no less daunting international context, between Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump winning the election in the United States, terrorist attacks and turbulence in the markets. These were the dominant themes in the media and on social networks in recent days. ...
Six years ago, John Brockman, editor of Edge.org, published a book with 125 short essays written by several of the most influential thinkers in the world, who attempted to answer the question: "What is going to change everything?" The texts were authors like Richard Dawkins, Ian McEwan, Nassim Taleb, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson and Jared Diamond, among others.
Most responses came from the field of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, physics and astronomy (the most repeated response will change what all was the discovery of intelligence beyond Earth).
This month’s Insights column was an attempt to use simple puzzles to highlight the consequences of the infinity assumption in the physical world. The idea was sparked by an article by the physicist Max Tegmark that was written for the book, "This Idea Must Die." Tegmark’s article is excerpted in a blog at Discover magazine under the title, "Infinity Is a Beautiful Concept — and It’s Ruining Physics."
In the past week I seized the opportunity to meet two foreign role models who visited the country.
One is the theoretical physicist Lisa Randall. The other is the artist Brian Eno.
Lisa Randall...spoke to Science & Cocktails in Christiania, which I blogged about here. And she is the person who to me has opened the magic of the laws of physics (and our limited senses to understand it) with books like 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' and her totally humble nature.
Then there's Brian Eno.
...[H]is cooperation with Stewart Brand and The Long Now Foundation and involvement in the anthology This Will Make You Smarter (published by Edge and which each year asks experts in their field an ambitious questions - and to the anthology this year was: "WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT SCIENTIFIC NEWS?"), I found out that Eno is actually deeply ambitious about the world's development while he is a great artist.
John Brockman is a colourful character, known to share photos of himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, or John Cage. That popular culture should include intelligent conversations about science is a given for him.
Edge.org, sometimes dubbed “the world’s smartest website”, was born out of an idea from Brockman’s late friend, performance artist James Lee Byars, who suggested that rather than trying to assimilate the information contained in the six million books housed in the Harvard library it might be more productive and instructive to assemble the hundred most brilliant minds and have them ask each other questions in order to achieve what Brockman has referred to as “a synthesis of all thought”.
Life is the fifth volume in The Best Of Edge series, and as with previous books, most of the featured content has already appeared on the Edge.org website....
...[T]here is an advantage to reading the essays featured in Life as opposed to gleaning information from random articles on the Internet.
On the net knowledge is dispersed, whereas this book has a structured sense of narrative, showing how research from different disciplines, and their disciples, can bolster and inform each other.
Ultimately, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, perhaps an apt and fitting off-the-cuff metaphor for the subject matter – life.
...[I]f you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past several years, you’ve almost certainly seen articles from a wide range of news outlets about the looming danger of artificial general intelligence, or “AGI.”
The other problem with AGI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something. ...
[Mary Lou Jepsen's] vision is broad and sweeping: it runs from a new generation of extremely high-resolution, affordable MRI machines for early detection of cancer, heart disease, and more, to a far-out time (or maybe not so far-out) when machines can read people’s minds and people can communicate—with each other and maybe even with animals—via thoughts.
The idea “leverages the tools of our times,” Jepsen says, citing advances in everything from physics to optoelectronics to consumer electronics to big data and A.I. that can be combined to shrink the size, improve the functionality, and lower the cost of MRI. “I could no longer wait. I’m still writing up the patents. But I am incredibly excited to strike off on this direction,” she says.
The startup, whose name has not previously been released as far as I can tell, is called Open Water (it could also be OpenWater, “not sure yet…either is OK for now,” she says). “Peter Gabriel gave me the name. He is a great advisor,” Jepsen says. In particular, she was inspired by this article he wrote for Edge.org, called Open Water–The Internet of Visible Thought, in which he credited Jepsen for introducing him “to the potential of brain reading devices.”