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"What's Your Law"

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"So now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent and gadfly, whose online scientific salon,, has become one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"
"John Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists to get in on the whole naming thing...As a New Year's exercise, he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you."
"John Brockman has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines."
"Everything answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore, who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for more laws."

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"
"In 2002, he [Brockman] asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to 'What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?'Here are excerpts of some of the responses. "
"Edge's combination of political engagement and blue-sky thinking makes stimulating reading for anyone seeking a glimpse into the next decade."
"Dear W: Scientists Offer
President Advice on Policy"
"There are 84 responses, ranging in topic from advanced nanotechnology to the psychology of foreign cultures, and lots of ideas regarding science, technology, politics, and education."

"What's Your Question?"
"Brockman's thinkers of the 'Third Culture,' whether they, like Dawkins, study evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing is excluded from this intellectual game."
"The responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style (perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often fascinating and thought - provoking.... These are all wonderful, intelligent questions..."

What Now?
  "We are interested in ‘thinking smart,'" declares Brockman on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ‘wisdom.'"
"INSPIRED ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September 11 was measured and uplifting."

"What Questions Have Disappeared?"
"Responses to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing."
"Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it."

"What Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
"Don't assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial high command at the New York Times have a handle on all the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound, esoteric and outright entertaining responses.

"What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?"
"A terrific, thought provoking site."
"The Power of Big Ideas"
"The Nominees for Best Invention Of the Last Two Millennia Are . . ."
"...Thoughtful and often surprising answers ....a fascinating survey of intellectual and creative wonders of the world ..... Reading them reminds me of how wondrous our world is." — Bill Gates, New York Times Syndicated Column

"What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?"
"A site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level.... Genuine learning seems to be going on here."
"To mark the first anniversary of [Edge], Brockman posed a question: 'Simply reading the six million volumes in the Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid the anesthesiology of wisdom?' "
"Home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions."


Izumi Aizu

Alan Alda

Ivan Amato

Alun Anderson

Chris Anderson

Philip W. Anderson

Charles Arthur

W. Brian Arthur

Scott Atran

Robert Aunger

Albert-László Barabási

Simon Baron-Cohen

Samuel Barondes

Julian Barbour

John Barrow

David Berreby

Gregory Benford

Jamshed Bharucha

Susan Blackmore

Colin Blakemore

Adam Bly

Stewart Brand

Rodney Brooks

David Bunnell

David Buss

William Calvin

Philip Campbell

Leo Chalupa

Andy Clark

Helena Cronin

Garniss Curtis

Antonio Damasio

Paul Davies

Richard Dawkins

Stanislas Dehaene

Daniel C. Dennett

David Deutsch

Art De Vany

Keith Devlin

Niels Diffrient

K. Eric Drexler

Esther Dyson

Freeman Dyson

George Dyson

Brian Eno

Jeffrey Epstein

Nancy Etcoff

Dylan Evans

Paul Ewald

David Finkelstein

Christine Finn

Howard Gardner

David Gelernter

Neil Gershenfeld

Gerd Gigerenzer

Daniel Gilbert

Mike Godwin

Beatrice Golomb

Brian Goodwin

Alison Gopnik

Steve Grand

Stuart Hameroff

Haim Harari

Judith Rich Harris

Marc D. Hauser

Marti Hearst

W. Daniel Hillis

Gerald Holton

Donald Hoffman

John Horgan

Verena Huber-Dyson

Nicholas Humphrey

Mark Hurst

Piet Hut

Arthur R. Jensen

Raphael Kasper

Stuart Kauffman

Kevin Kelly

Art Kleiner

Steven Kosslyn

Kai Krause

Andrian Kreye

Ray Kurzweil

George Lakoff

Jaron Lanier

Edward O. Laumann

Steven Levy

Sara Lippincott

Steve Lohr

Seth Lloyd

David Lykken

John McWhorter

John Maddox

Gary Marcus

John Markoff

Pamela McCorduck

Geoffrey Miller

Marvin Minsky

Mark Mirsky

Howard Morgan

Michael Nesmith

David G. Myers

Randoph Nesse

Richard Nisbett

Tor Nørretranders

James J. O'Donnell

Jay Ogilvy

Dennis Overbye

John Allan Paulos

Irene Pepperberg

Clifford Pickover

Stuart Pimm

Steven Pinker

Jordan Pollack

Ernst Pöppel

William Poundstone

Robert Provine

Eduard Punset

Steve Quartz

Richard Rabkin

Lisa Randall

Eric S. Raymond

Martin Rees

John Rennie

Howard Rheingold

Matt Ridley

Rudy Rucker

Paul Ryan

Scott Sampson

Robert Sapolsky

Roger Schank

Gino Segre

Charles Seife

Terrence Sejnowski

Al Seckel

Rupert Sheldrake

Michael Shermer

Todd Siler

Charles Simonyi

John Skoyles

Lee Smolin

Allan Snyder

Dan Sperber

Maria Spiropulu

Paul Steinhardt

Bruce Sterling

Steven Strogat

Leonard Susskind

Nassim Taleb

Frank Tipler

Joseph Traub

Arnold Trehub

Carlo Rovelli

Douglas Rushkoff

Karl Sabbagh

Timothy Taylor

Sherry Turkle

Yossi Vardi

J. Craig Venter

Henry Warwick

Delta Willis

Dave Winer

Eberhard Zangger

Anton Zeilinger

Jaron Lanier

The following are Lanier's Laws for Putting Machines in their Place, distilled from comments I've posted on Edge over the years. They are all stolen from earlier laws that predate the appearance of computers by decades or centuries.

Lanier's First Law

Humans change themselves through technology.

Example: Lanier's Law of Eternal Improvement for Virtual Reality: Average human sensory perception will gain acuity over successive generations in tandem with the improving qualities of pervasive media technology.

Lanier's Second Law

Even though human nature is dynamic, you must find a way to think of it as being distinct from the rest of nature.

You can't have a categorical imperative without categories. Or, You can't have a golden rule without gold. You have to draw a Circle of Empathy around yourself and others in order to be moral. If you include too much in the circle, you become incompetent, while if you include too little you become cruel. This is the "Normal form" of the eternal liberal/conservative dichotomy.

Lanier's Third Law

You can't rely completely on the level of rationality humans are able to achieve to decide what to put inside the circle. People are demonstrably insane when it comes to attributing nonhuman sentience, as can be seen at any dog show.

Lanier's Fourth Law

Lanier's Law of AI Unrecognizability.

You can't rely on experiment alone to decide what to put in the circle. A Turing Test-like experiment can't be designed to distinguish whether a computer has gotten smarter or a person interacting with that computer has gotten stupider (usually by lowering or narrowing standards of human excellence in some way.)

Lanier's Fifth Law

If you're inclined to put machines inside your circle, you can't rely on metrics of technological sophistication to decide which machines to choose. These metrics have no objectivity.

For just one example, consider Lanier's retelling of Parkinson's Law for the Post-dot-com Era: Software inefficiency and inelegance will always expand to the level made tolerable by Moore's Law. Put another way, Lanier's corollary to Brand's Laws: Whether Small Information wants to be free or expensive, Big Information wants to be meaningless.

Lanier's Sixth Law

When one must make a choice despite almost but not quite total uncertainty, work hard to make your best guess.

Best guess for Circle of Empathy: Danger of increasing human stupidity is probably greater than potential reality of machine sentience. Therefore choose not to place machines in Circle of Empathy.

Charles Seife

Seife's First Law

A scientific revolution is a complete surprise. Especially to its authors.

Seife's Second Law

Each generation's scientific neologisms adorn the labels of the next generation's quack cures.

Andy Clark

Clark's Law

Everything leaks.

There are no clear-cut level distinctions in nature. Neural software bleeds into neural firmware, neural firmware bleeds into neural hardware, psychology bleeds into biology and biology bleeds into physics. Body bleeds into mind and mind bleeds into world. Philosophy bleeds into science and science bleeds back.The idea of levels is a useful fiction, great for hygienic text-book writing and quick answers that defend our local turf but seldom advance scientific understanding).

Alan Alda

The following is written by a non-scientist who supposes it might be entertaining for scientists to see what passes through the head of a curious layman while trying to understand the people who try to understand Nature.

Alda's First Law of Laws

All laws are local.

In other words, something is always bound to come along and make you rethink what you know by forcing you to look at it in a broader context. I've arrived at this notion after interviewing hundreds of scientists, and also after being married for 46 years.

I don't mean that laws are not true and useful, especially when they have been verified by experiment. But they are likely to continue to be true only within a certain frame, once another frame is discovered.

Some scientists will probably find this idea heretical and others may find it obvious. According to this law, they'll both be right (depending on the frame they're working in).

Another way of saying this is that no matter how much we know about something, it is just the tip of the iceberg. And most disasters occur by coming in contact with the other part of the iceberg.

Alda's Second Law of Laws

A law does not know how local it is.

Citizens of Lawville do not realize there are city limits and are constantly surprised to find out they live in a county.

When you're operating within the frame of a law, you can't know where the edges of the frame are—where dragons begin showing up.

I've just been interviewing astronomers about dark matter and dark energy in the universe. These two things make up something like 96% of the universe. The part of the universe we can see or in some way observe is only about 4%. That leaves a lot of universe that needs to be rethought. And some people speculate that dark energy may be leaking in from a whole other universe; an even bigger change of frame, if that turns out to be the case.

It’s now known that vast stretches of DNA once thought to be Junk DNA because they don’t code for proteins actually regulate or even silence conventional genes. The conventional genes—what we used to think were responsible for everything we knew about heritability—account for only 2% of our DNA. Apparently, it’s not yet known how much of the other 98% is active, but I think the frame has just shifted here.

Welcome to Lawville; you are now leaving Lawville.

Chris Anderson

Anderson's Law of Causal Instinct

Humans are engineered to seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there.

Anderson's Law of Skepticism

Most proposed laws, including this one, will probably turn out to be vacuous.

Stuart Pimm

Pimm's First Law

No language spoken by fewer than 100,000 people survives contact with the outside world, while no language spoken by more than one million people can be eliminated by such contact.

Pimm's Second Law

With every change in language (including first contact with humanity), a region's biodiversity shrinks by 20%.

Robert Provine

Provine's Motor Precocity Principle

Organisms spond before they respond (act before they react).

This principle of neurobehavioral development and evolution describes the tendency of the nervous system to produce motor output before it receives sensory input. Because motor systems often evolve and develop before sensory systems, sensory input cannot have the dominant influence on neural structure and function predicted by some psychological and neurological theories.

The evolutionary precocity of motor relative to sensory systems also argues against the classical reflex as a primal step in neurobehavioral evolution. Spontaneously active motor processes are adaptive and can emerge through natural selection unlike sensory processes that are not adaptive without a behavior to guide. Sensory systems evolved to control already existing movement.

Another argument against the primacy of reflexes is that they require the unlikely simultaneous evolution of a sensory and a motor process. The tendency of organisms to "spond before they respond" requires the re-evaluation of many other traditional neurobehavioral concepts and processes.

Provine's Self/Other Exclusionary Principle

The "self," the most basic sense of personhood, is defined as that which is not "other." "Other," the most primitive level of social entity, is defined as a non-self, animate stimulus on the surface of your skin.

Self is distinguished from other by a neurological cancellation process. These definitions are attractive because they permit a neurologically and computationally based approach to problems that are traditionally mired in personality and social theory. Although our sense of identity involves more than self/non-self discrimination, such a mechanism may be at its foundation and a first step toward the evolution of personhood and the neurological computation of its boundaries. For a demonstration of this mechanism, consider your inability to tickle yourself. Tickle requires stimulation by a non-self animate entity on the surface of your skin. Similar, self-produced stimulation is cancelled and is not ticklish.

Without such a self/non-self discriminator, we would be constantly be tickling ourselves by accident, and the world would be filled with goosey people lurching their way through life in a chain reaction filled with tactile false alarms. Developing a similar machine algorithm may lead to "ticklish" robots whose performance is enhanced by their capacity to distinguish touching from being touched, and, provocatively, a computationally based construct of machine personhood.

Art De Vany

De Vany's Law

The future is over-forecasted and underpredicted.

Alison Gopnik

Gopnik's Learning Curve

The ability to learn is inversely proportional to years of school, adjusted for hormones.

Gopnik's Gender Curves

The male curve is an abrupt rise followed by an equally abrupt fall. The female curve is a slow rise to an extended asymptote. The areas under the curves are roughly equal. These curves apply to all activities at all time scales (e.g. attention to TV programs, romantic love, career scientific productivity).

Raphael Kasper

Kasper's Law

One should never blindly accept things as they are.

Jose Saramago writes in The Cave with his usual quirky punctuation and sentence structure:

"... we often hear it said, or we say it ourselves, I'll get used to it, we say or they say, with what seems to be genuine acceptance ..., what no one asks is at what cost do we get used to things."

Kasper's Second Law

Try to know where and how your thoughts arise and always give credit to your teachers.

Susan Blackmore

Blackmore's First Law

People's desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger than all the evidence that it does not exist.

Blackmore's Second Law

Humans are not in control of the web; the memes are.

Stanislas Dehaene

Dehaene's First Law

Every successful human invention such as arithmetic or the alphabet has a "neuronal niche"—a set of cerebral processors that evolved for a distinct purpose, but can be recycled to implement the new function.

Two corollaries:

The difficulty of learning a new concept or technique is directly related to the amount of recycling needed—the distance between the evolutionary older function and the new one.

When the old and the new functions are closely related (isomorphic), an evolutionary old cerebral processor can provide a fast, unconscious and unexpected solution to a recent cultural problem—this is what we call

Dehaene's Second Law

The confusability of two ideas, however abstract, is a direct function of the overlap in their neuronal codes.

Richard Rabkin

Rabkin's Rule

Nothing is a simple as it seems.

Rabkin's Dictum

If you don't understand something, it's because you aren't aware of its context.

Donald Hoffman

Hoffman's First Law

A theory of everything starts with a theory of mind.

Quantum measurement hints that observers may create microphysical properties. Computational theories of perception hint that observers may create macrophysical properties. The history of science suggests that counterintuitive hints, if pursued, can lead to conceptual breakthroughs.

Hoffman's Second Law

Physical universes are user interfaces for minds.

Just as the virtual worlds experienced in VR arcades are interfaces that allow the arcade user to interact effectively with an unseen world of computers and software, so also the physical world one experiences daily is a species-specific user interface that allows one to survive while interacting with a world of which one may be substantially ignorant.

Nassim Taleb

Taleb's First Black Swan Law

The risk you know anything about today is not the one that matters. What will hurt you next has to look completely unplausible today. The more unplausible the event the more it will hurt you.

Consider that had the WTC attack been deemed a reasonable risk then we would have had tighter control of the skies and it would have not taken place. It happened because it was improbable. The awareness of a specific danger makes you protect yourself from its precise effect and may prevent the event itself from occurring.

Taleb's Second Black Swan Law (corollary)

We don't learn that we don't learn.

We don't learn the First Black Swan Law from experience, yet we think that we learn something from it. Abstract subject matters (and metarules) do not affect our risk avoidance mechanisms; only vivid images do. People did not learn from the WTC (and the succession of similar events in history such as the formation of financial bubbles) that we have a horrible track record in forecasting such occurrences. They just learned the specific task to avoid tall buildings and Islamic terrorists—after the fact.

Geoffrey Miller

Miller's Law of Strange Behavior

To understand any apparently baffling behavior by another human, ask: what status game is this individual playing, to show off which heritable traits, in which mating market?

Miller's Iron Law of Iniquity

In principle, there is an evolutionary trade-off between any two positive traits. But in practice, every good trait correlates positively with every other good trait.

Miller's First Law of Offspring Ingratitude

People who don't understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane role models offered by their parents.

Miller's Second Law of Offspring Ingratitude

People who do understand genetics attribute their personal failings to the inane mate-choice decisions made by their parents.

Piet Hut

Hut's First Law

Any attempt to define what is science is doomed to failure

Scientists often attack what they consider irrational creeds by first defining what counts as science and then showing that those creeds don't fit within the limits specified. While their motive is often right, their approach is totally wrong. Science has no method. It is opportunistic in the extreme, with theory adapting with admirable agility to the most amazing experimental discoveries, no matter what previous 'corner stones' have to be given up: quantum mechanics is the most striking example. This opportunism is the only reason that science has remained alive and well, notwithstanding the human tendency for stagnation that is exemplified so clearly through more than a dozen successive generations of individual scientists.

Hut's Second Law

In scientific software development, research = education

When writing a large software package or a whole software environment, the most efficient way to produce a robust product is to write documentation simultaneously with the computer codes, on all levels: from comment lines to manual pages to narrative that explains the reasons for the many choices made. Having to explain to yourselves and your coworkers how you choose what why when is the best guide to quickly discovering hidden flaws and better alternatives, minimizing the need to
backtrack later. Therefore, the most efficient way to write a large coherent body of software as a research project is to view it as an educational project.

I have come across similar endorsements of documentation in various places, including Donald Knuth's idea of literate programming, and Gerald Sussman's advice to write with utmost clarity for humans first, and for computers as an afterthought.

Stewart Brand

Brand's Law
Information wants to be free.

The rest of Brand's Law
Information also wants to be expensive.

Brand's Pace Law
In haste, mistakes cascade. With deliberation, mistakes instruct

Brand's Asymmetry
The past can only be known, not changed. The future can only be changed, not known.

Brand's Shortcut
The only way to predict the future is to make sure it stays exactly the same as the present.

Jeffrey Epstein

Epstein's First Law

Know when you are winning.

Epstein's Second Law

The key question is not what can I gain but what do I have to lose.

Steven Kosslyn

Kosslyn's First Law

Body and mind are not as separate as they appear to be. Not only does the state of the body affect the mind, but vice-versa.

Kosslyn's Second Law

The individual and the group are not as separate as they appear to be. A part of each mind spills over into the minds of other people, who help us think and regulate our emotions.

Jay Ogilvy

Ogilvy's Law

Many well defined manifolds lack unifying centers that define or control them.

• Just because some things are genuinely sacred does not mean that there is a god.

• Just because a corporation or a country seems to be hierarchically structured does not mean that any single leader is really in charge.

• Just because some behavior is conscious and intentional does not entail a "ghost in the machine," a homunculus, or a central intender.

• Just because evolution appears to be directional, from less order and complexity toward greater order and complexity, that does not presuppose either an alpha-designer or an omega-telos.

Precursors to Ogilvy's Law:

1. Derridean Deconstruction, which is not about taking things apart, but showing how they were never all that unified in the first place

2. Wittgenstein's replacement of Platonic Ideas‹e.g., that one thing which all instances of 'game' or 'justice' have in common‹with the much looser notion of "family resemblances"

Lemma to Ogilvy's Law:

Demythologizing false unities does not degrade the values to be found in their respective manifolds.


• Nietzsche's announcement of the death of god does not mean that nothing is sacred.

• Skepticism regarding conspiracy theories does not entail naiveté regarding power or the impossibility of effective leadership.

• Seeing through Cartesianism in the cognitive sciences does not entail eliminative materialism, a lack of intentionality, or the reduction of mind to matter.

• Dismissing teleology does not deny a manifest directionality to evolution.
In each of these cases and many others like them, the deconstructive turn should not be confused with nihilism or deflationary debunking. The value of Ogilvy's Law lies in its ability to help predict which valleys harbor real value, and which peaks are better left undefended

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