EDGE


EDGE 32 — January 12, 1998


THE THIRD CULTURE

THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER - II

Colin Blakemore, Sidney Coleman, Liz Else, Katie Hafner, J.C. Herz, Donald Johanson, John McCrea, Hans-Joachim Metzger, David G. Myers, Michael Nesmith, George F. Smoot, George C. Williams, Delta Willis, Lewis Wolpert

(Colin Blakemore:) "Most human beings perform effortlessly a variety of tasks that are computationally extremely difficult (such as seeing, holding objects and understanding speech); but they are generally poor and vary enormously in tasks that are computationally easy (such as solving puzzles, doing mathematics and science). Given that the latter skills are apparently as biologically valuable as the former, does this disparity reveal a fundamental limitation of the human brain?"

(Sidney Coleman:) "Quantum mechanics was (and is) such a shock because it contradicts beliefs about physical reality that we didn't even know we had, beliefs so deeply embedded in the language of everyday speech that their contradictions seem not so much false as simply nonsensical. When we contact alien intelligences, will the effect on our ideas of mental reality be as profound as those of quantum mechanics on our ideas of physical reality."


EDGE IN THE NEWS

"For the past year it (EDGE) has been home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions about emerging insights into the sciences and the new digital world. It is a sort of ongoing digital Start the Week, with more nuts and bolts and less Melvyn Bragg."

The Independent
December 31, 1997
Oliver Morton

"
A site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level....Genuine learning seems to be going on here, especially for those whose work is being critiqued."

Atlantic Unbound
Web Citation - January 8, 1998
http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/citation/wc980108.htm


THE REALITY CLUB

Douglas Rushkoff and David Deutsch on The World Question Center


(3,855 words)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


EDGE IN THE NEWS


The Independent
December 31, 1997
Oliver Morton

The answer to life and the universe? Well, that depends on the question The new year is traditionally a time for the imperative. I will lose five kilos; control my temper better; learn the bassoon; enhance my homepage with Java; whatever. This year, why not take a break and shift to the interrogative instead. Don't resolve. Question. Don't focus on what you're not doing, but look at what you don't know. Ask yourself a few questions to which you would really like answers. They can be questions about anything in the world — one of the advantages of questions over resolutions is that you don't have to limit them to the personal. That said, though, the questions will be personal too; what you want to know says a lot about you. This suggestion is inspired by a parlour game on the world wide web. Edge () is a sort of salon run by John Brockman, a literary agent and writer who went a long way towards cornering the market in scientist-writers during the post-Stephen Hawking science-writing boom. For the past year it has been home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions about emerging insights into the sciences and the new digital world. It is a sort of ongoing digital Start the Week, with more nuts and bolts and less Melvyn Bragg.

For Edge's first anniversary, Brockman asked everyone who contributes — an in-crowd of his clients, various other scientists and science writers and a selection of the "digerati", by which is meant people who discourse on new communication technologies with some sort of authority — to send him the question that mattered most to them. For anyone with an interest in what science and technology have to offer humanity the result is provocative, not only in the questions this reasonably influential bunch is asking itself, but also in those it passes over.

Many of the questions are firmly centred in the questioner's own research, sometimes so much so that they seem reasonably obscure to anyone outside the discipline involved. Steven Pinker, author of How the mind works, asks a question about one detail of that working: "How does the brain represent the meaning of a sentence". Alan Guth, the man who dreamt up the notion of cosmic inflation as an explanation for the evenness, and much of the bigness, of the Big Bang, asks how we can know which sorts of universe are more probable than others.

Some of these insider questions are incisive. Richard Dawkins cuts to the heart of his own work by asking "What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?" Like geology, biology is a one-off science: there is only one Earth, and all life on it is one family, with a common ancestor. Only by studying other lifes elsewhere can we come to understand how much of life is necessarily the way that it is and how much is just the way things are on Earth. Life forms elsewhere may be hard to find, but probably easier to make sense of than Guth's alternative universes.

Various Edgies asked after these aliens, wondering whether we would recognise them if we found them (good question) and what they would mean for established religion. Others wondered if we might not build them ourselves. A range of questions, mostly asked by people who work in the catch-all field of "complexity", effectively ask what is special about arrangements of matter that are capable of agency, and can we create new ones, possibly using computers?

An allied question, and possibly the most interesting of the bunch, comes from William Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist (and an amateur climatologist too, but that's another story). "How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?" Part of this question's strength is in its breadth. You can treat the question as being about psychoactive drugs, or computer enhancements, or new teaching techniques, or whatever you like. But it is equally impressive in its scope.

Consider an analogue from history. Before we understood how cells make proteins, we could not make any of them ourselves, and had to make do with those nature provided. Now we do understand. We use designer proteins for many medical purposes — and will soon use them for a vast range of technological and agricultural ends. If we can understand how brains produce thinking, the increase in possibilities might be just as large, and far more personal. Asking us to think about how we use those new possibilities asks us about our moral and social worlds as well as our physical and intellectual areas of interest.

In bridging this gap between intellect and right action, Calvin achieves something that most of the Edgies do not. Some of them ask questions about science; others ask about its implications, and more generally about how to better the world. Very few found a question that covered both. It is not clear whether those posing the pure science questions actually value those questions more than they do political and social questions, or whether they just, rather realistically, accept that while their view on what matters in science is interesting their wider views might be less so. But it is clear that the questions about how to better the world were asked from an intriguing set of perspectives.

Anyone who thinks that scientists and their fellow travellers are uninterested in religion will be in for a surprise. While there are no questions about God and some negativity about organised religion — David Gelernter, computer scientist, cultural critic and Unabomber victim asks "When will the nation's leading intellectuals come clean and admit that Biblical doctrine (on women, nature, homosexuality, the absolute nature of moral truth and lots of other topics) makes them cringe and they are henceforth not Jews and not Christians, and the hell with old time religion?" — there is quite a lot about the need for new spiritual values.

Some of these questions are more overtly religious than others, but the plaintive requests for a more long term approach to the world and its resources, like Stewart Brand's "How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?" seem much of a piece with the more overtly spiritual, if rather instrumentalist, question posed by Colin Tudge, one of Britain's best science writers: "Can we devise a religion for the 21st century and beyond that is plausible and yet avoids banality — one that people see the need for? What would it be like?" And the cosmologists often sound religious anyway; John Barrow, professor of astronomy at the University of Sussex, asks: "Is the Universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident, or a great thought?"

But while they acknowledge the spiritual, these seekers after truth ignore many more earthly and more pressing problems. No one asks how to cure cancer, or how many Brits are going to die of mad cow disease. No questions bear directly on the development of the Third World, or on gender equality, or on poverty. Some questions doubtless have such concerns at their heart, but they tend to be phrased in rather universalist, abstract language. There are social concerns here, but they are largely couched in terms of individuals and biological; have we evolved to be prejudiced, or murderous, or capable of only some sorts of intellectual endeavour?

It should not be surprising that 100 intellectuals discoursing on a website end up a little detached from the real world. But that detachment underscores what some of the questioners were asking themselves: how do we get science to do good? As yet, we do not know. Science, at this sort of level, is still very much an intellectual and personal set of questions, not a social one. We are quite good at getting science-based technology to make money, but we are a long way from understanding how to make it responsive to people's desires, needs and goals.

The question posed by Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, is: "How to ensure that we develop sciences and technologies that serve the people, are open to democratic scrutiny and which assist rather than hinder humans to live harmoniously with the rest of nature". It is a specialist's way of asking one of the best questions of all: how can I make things better, not just for myself, but for everything and everyone? If that is not the question you are asking yourself for the new year, what is?


Atlantic Unbound
Web Citation - January 8, 1998
http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/citation/wc980108.htm

In 1971, after identifying what he thought to be the hundred most brilliant minds in the world, the late James Lee Byars called each one of them, asked what questions they had been asking themselves recently, and wondered out loud if they'd be interested in getting together to share their ponderings with others. The result: seventy people hung up on him. Now, twenty-seven years later, Byars's dream has come true online.

John Brockman -- noted author, digital impresario, and longtime friend of Byars's -- has posted on his Web site, Edge, dozens of penetrating questions submitted by "the most subtle sensibilities" of today's "third culture" (Brockman's term for the scientists and other researchers who "are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives"). The result is a site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level and recalls the origins of the Internet as a tool to facilitate unhampered communication among scientists and academic researchers.

The site regularly features new essays and book excerpts by noted scientific thinkers. For instance, mathematician turned cognitive neuropsychologist Stanislas Dehaene recently offered his paper, "What Are Numbers, Really? A Cerebral Basis For Numbers Sense." That Edge makes available Dehaene's paper is not particularly noteworthy; the quality of response the paper has received, however, is. Such varied and provocative thinkers as M.I.T. cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, and science writer Margaret Wertheim, among others who have been invited by Brockman to participate, have all responded to Dehaene's paper in the form of posts to an electronic message board. The tone and substance of these posts are thoughtful, challenging, and supportive. Genuine learning seems to be going on here, especially for those whose work is being critiqued. George Dyson, who recently had a book excerpt of his discussed, responded in the electronic forum with, "Many thanks to those who contributed such a fascinating and informed response," before launching into a trenchant eight-paragraph follow up to readers' observations and questions. One would be hard pressed to justify an expensive academic conference after reading the stimulating exchange at Edge. James Lee Byars must be smiling somewhere.


THE THIRD CULTURE


THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER - II

Colin Blakemore, Sidney Coleman, Liz Else, Katie Hafner, Donald Johanson, John McCrea, Hans-Joachim Metzger, David G. Myers, Michael Nesmith, George F. Smoot, George C. Williams, Delta Willis, Lewis Wolpert


"Most human beings perform effortlessly a variety of tasks that are computationally extremely difficult (such as seeing, holding objects and understanding speech); but they are generally poor and vary enormously in tasks that are computationally easy (such as solving puzzles, doing mathematics and science). Given that the latter skills are apparently as biologically valuable as the former, does this disparity reveal a fundamental limitation of the human brain?"

COLIN BLAKEMORE
Neuroscientist, Oxford; President, British Association for the Advancement of Science; author of The Mind's Brain.


"Quantum mechanics was (and is) such a shock because it contradicts beliefs about physical reality that we didn't even know we had, beliefs so deeply embedded in the language of everyday speech that their contradictions seem not so much false as simply nonsensical. When we contact alien intelligences, will the effect on our ideas of mental reality be as profound as those of quantum mechanics on our ideas of physical reality."

SIDNEY COLEMAN
Physicist, Harvard University.


"How can we learn to work with metaphor so that it serves rather than enthralls us?"

"Can we hope to build a Grand Universal Theory of Ideas?"

"Who holds the translation black box which will allow the subjective to talk to the objective?"

LIZ ELSE
Editor at New Scientist.

"Why does history matter?"

KATIE HAFNER
Technology Correspondent, New York Times; author of Where Wizards Stay Up Late.

"How is technology changing our imaginations?"

J.C. HERZ
Author of Joystick Nation; Surfing on the Internet.


"What is the evolutionary advantage of the universality of mysticism in human societies? could it have played a vital role when populations were small, and widely dispersed, but now is outdated for modern global societies?"

DONALD JOHANSON
Paleoanthropologist at Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University; author of Lucy; The Beginnings of Humankind.


"We are hurtling toward an immersive, networked virtual reality, driven by two unstoppable trends — ever faster chips, and the global compulsion to be connected via the Internet. This 'Second Web' will open new territories for imagination and social interaction, unfettered by the real world's geography, physics, or time. On the wall of this new cave, what will humans dream to paint?"

JOHN McCREA
Web pioneer; Director of Marketing for the Cosmo Software division of Silicon Graphics.


"Can we learn to die?"

HANS-JOACHIM METZGER
Co-editor and translator of the German edition of the writings and lectures of Jacques Lacan.


"What are the powers, and the limits, of human intuition?"

DAVID G. MYERS
Psychologist at Hope College; author of The Pursuit of Happiness.


"Is there such a thing as narrative complexity?"

MICHAEL NESMITH
Artist, writer, and business man; former cast member of "The Monkees".


"Is 'self' necessary to life?"

"Is a sense of 'self' necessary to consciousness?"

"What would a consciousness without a sense of 'self' be like?"

GEORGE F. SMOOT
Research astrophysicist, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, UC Berkeley; coauthor of Wrinkles in Time.


"The main reason I have not sent you a question is that I can not think of one worth sending. So maybe my appropriate question is 'What question should I ask?' The one I wish I could identify would be of great intellectual or practical interest, and I (or someone) would have some hope of solving it. Peter Medawar once defined science as 'the art of the soluble'. This is an example of a definition that may be formally correct but does not help anyone trying to find out what science is, but it makes a good point. For a problem to be scientifically important it has to be soluble. How many angels can dance on a pinhead may be a problem of great interest to some people, but it is not soluble."

GEORGE C. WILLIAMS
Evolutionary biologist (emeritus) at SUNY -Stony Brook; author of Adaptation and Natural Selection; The Ponyfish's Glow.


"If tragedy + time = comedy, what is the formula for equally therapeutic music? Do (Blues) musicians reach a third person perspective similar to that found in meditation, mind-altering drugs, and genius?"

DELTA WILLIS
Writer; author of The Sand Dollar & the Slide Rule; The Hominid Gang.


"Why do people believe in things for which there is no evidence and would it be a mistake to try and persuade them not to?"

LEWIS WOLPERT
Biologist at University College, London; author of The Triumph of the Embryo ; The Unnatural Nature of Science.


THE REALITY CLUB

Douglas Rushkoff and David Deutsch on The World Question Center


From: Douglas Rushkoff
Submitted: 12.20.97

These questions are just too provocative to leave sitting there. I'm particularly keen on considering Ms. Bateson's notion that accepting "the necessity of death" is a prerequisite to collective thinking/post-individualistic evolution.

I suggest a Well-like set of "topics" -- one dedicated to each question, and open to the students who currently access The EDGE. We keep them going for the year, and then replace them Jan 1, 1999.

But that's a lot of work, and I'm naive about these things. Thanks for assembling this set of interrogatives, in any case.-

Doug

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author of Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing The Future, Ecstasy Club, and columnist for New York Times Syndicate and Time Digital.


From: David Deutsch
Submitted: 12.30.97

Hi -

That's a very interesting list of questions you've collected!

What's the copyright status of the list? Ideally what I'd like to do is answer them and put the answers on my web site. What do you think?

Regards-

David Deutsch

DAVID DEUTSCH is a physicist; member of the Quantum Computation and Cryptography Research Group at the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford University; author of The Fabric Of Reality.



Copyright ©1998 by Edge Foundation, Inc.

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