Only the Salon Knows the Answer But who asks the questions? Even scientists of the Third Culture look for natural laws [1]

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[ Sun. Jan. 18. 2004 ]

"Anything simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently, while anything complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand." So says the newest natural law, for which the world can thank science historian George B. Dyson. He formulated this statement just in time for the beginning of the new year, and it is something simple enough to be complicated. Dyson conducted himself so intelligently because he, along with nearly two hundred thinkers, researchers and their representatives, was invited to meet in the Internet forum, Edge.

Edge was founded by John Brockman, the New York propagator of the Third Culture, and it permits him sufficient time and leisure to conduct a virtual salon in addition to his considerable activities as literary agent. Every year he poses a question to the networked members of this community that is usually simple enough to allow even for complicated answers.

The most recent edition of this parlor game, partly earnest but also beset with irony and serious jokes, takes the natural law as its theme. What law, Brockman asks the great minds, could be filtered out of their empirical research and would be worthy of carrying their names? If Kepler and Newton could have their laws, why shouldn't J. Craig Venter be worthy of one today? He, with no less ambition than his agent, names five laws, the third of which states, "We have the tools for the first time in the history of humanity to answer virtually any question about biology and our own evolution."

Coming from the man who cracked the human genome this hardly surprises us, as is the case with Ray Kurzweil, who long ago hurried ahead to meet the future, and stays on the border of what we can expect with his "Law of Accelerating Returns." Because Kurzweil strove to expand the results of his observations almost to book-length, the collected, full-length contributions are available on the website [3].

At the same time, aphoristic condensation is also not foreign to the participating givers and discoverers of laws. Archeologist Timothy Taylor determines with lapidary concision that "There are no laws of human behavior." He is not the only skeptic in the enlightened group. For biologist Rupert Sheldrake, "The laws of nature are more like habits," and cultural historian James J. O'Donnell warns, "If it feels good, don't do it." But if you do do it, do so boldly, just as Luther recommended to sinners. Pecca fortiter—If you're going to do it at all, do it right.

From the mathematical and the biological, to the economic and the social the answers roam into the cosmologic and don't even exclude religion. Among the participants is Richard Dawkins, discoverer of the selfish gene and, possibly because of that, a knowledgable atheist, who suggests, "God cannot lose… When comprehension expands, gods contract—but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo." In his analysis of prayer, economist and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey identifies something similar: "In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not." Although that may be evident to us, we soon begin once again to brood along with philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who identifies the "needy reader," someone who "tends to fall for the words he wants to read, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

A problem? One that is unsolvable? Quantum physicist David Deutsch argues that "inherently insoluble problems are inherently boring." Adhering to such a statement he might give up on many a riddle, but at the same time this is a scientific performance. "Good science," declares astrophysicist Paul Steinhardt, "creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it resolves." Such laws can also probably all be applied to culture, for which all-around avant-gardist Brian Eno delivers a definition: "Culture is everything we don't have to do."

This is a case for Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist who considers human intelligence and social relations. He is more cautious than David Gelernter, to whom three (natural) laws occur. First, the computer scientist diagnoses, "Computers make people stupid." Second, "One expert is worth a million intellectuals." And third, "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions."

In the end it may be that scientists are like the rest of humanity, as psychologist David G. Myers reminds us. "Most people," he proclaims, "see themselves as better than average." As if that weren't bad enough, he follows this with the "Myers Law of Writing": "Anything that can be misunderstood will be." So it's not better to understand? Gregory Benford maintains that "Any technology that does not appear magical is insufficiently advanced." But what does "advanced" mean? Life, brain researcher Ernst Pöppel has determined, "occurs three seconds at a time." Even the avant garde can't escape from that.


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 (Translation by Christopher Williams)

[Original German text] [5]