Edge Questions

Edge Questions

What drives the brightest minds
René Scheu [2.7.18]
Edge Questions: What drives the brightest minds
By René Scheu 2.2.2018
If you were left with the chance of asking only one fundamental question about the future of humanity, which one would it be? That's exactly what legendary American literary agent John Brockman wanted to know of freethinkers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs moving at and across the very borders of modern thought. We present their best answers – in question form.
What is a philosopher? Philosophers are people who formulate questions in a way that they can’t be answered unequivocally. This may sound problematic but is undoubtedly a high art. The classical example, in Leibniz's words, is as simple as it is beautiful: Why is there something and not nothing? Later, Immanuel Kant called the art of such questions metaphysics and recognized in it the opposite of science – namely a "natural system" of man. Reason is beset by questions that it cannot reject and just as little can answer. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant draws a clear line between knowledge and speculation. But it is precisely this line that has become fragile with the life sciences, with information theory and digital technology.
Thought at the interface
The philosophical trait of the border crossers between science and fiction is due to their will to ask questions without restraint. They see themselves as adventurers at the interface between the natural sciences and the humanities, in the experimental gray area where something new is created. From the new – incredible as it may seem to the non-expert – there is no turning back. What distinguishes these freethinkers from good old philosophers like Kant is, in fact, the conviction that specific answers to speculative questions can be found. Truth made and established is Truth.

In their laboratories and experimental systems, the boundaries between discovery and invention, thinking and acting, designing and realizing become blurred. What is frightening to some – because suddenly everything seems programmable and thus reprogrammable – is a source of pure intellectual joy to others: man, this creature of nature, makes himself the creator of his own nature and nature around him. Yet – what exactly is he doing with his new magic powers? Can he keep them under control? And even if he does, can he really know what he's doing?

Literary agent John Brockman, himself a border crosser between business and the arts, has long been rallying researchers, thought acrobats and entrepreneurs who tease the boundaries of their disciplines. Brockman described his own virtues – courageously – as embarrassment, confusion and the will to question and contradict. He and his friends met in restaurants, museums and lofts to discuss their findings outside academe. Their concern was a profoundly Kantian one, but with the difference that speculation, explicitly, should be allowed: they dealt with the "starry sky" above them and the "law" in them. Nothing should, could, be safe from human knowledge.

Stephen Jay Gould attended the first meetings, as did Isaac Asimov, John Searle, Daniel Hillis. The meetings eventually became a semi-institutional community called the Reality Club. Brockman changed the club’s name in 1997 to Edge, the cyberspace for science-savvy entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial scientists at the height of the technological age.

The last question

Without a doubt, edge.org is one of the brightest, most stimulating websites today – visitors experience the thinking, actions and lives of modern intellectual adventurers in actu. The pleasure factor is great, as is the gain in knowledge. Every month there is news – but that's not all. Every year John Brockman sends a question out to the "Edgies" and makes the answers accessible on his website; afterward he publishes them in an anthology for bibliophiles. Life – what is it? How is the internet changing the way you think? What is your dangerous idea? Now, after 20 years, the American cultural impresario, who still looks young at the age of 76, has decided that enough is enough. And he asks his community one last question: what's your last question?

It is a question to inspire the individual – to quote Kant one last time – with "admiration and awe." The last question is always a question about last things. These last – and first – things are the true protagonists of the following pages. They will pursue you into your dreams and nightmares. Hopefully.