|The Third Culture||
December 31, 1997
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 ó 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 (http://www.edge.org) 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 ó 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 ó 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 ó 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 ó 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?" ó 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 ó 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?