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A Characteristic Difference

When Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:  We're at the nub of the question. You come from philosophy, so there are certain things that are of interest to you. You want to convey two things at once: that the question is exciting, and that you have something new to say about it. It is true that I, as a psychologist, would come to the same question and conclude that it's an impossible question. Those are two impossible questions, and I certainly would not expect people to answer them in any way that is coherent.                                  

My first assumption, coming to it as a psychologist, is that there is no coherence. You agree with me that there is no coherence. What makes it exciting from the point of view of philosophy is that there is no coherence. Whereas, as a psychologist, I take it for granted that there is no coherence, so it's less exciting. That could be one of the differences.               

JOSHUA KNOBE:  That's really helpful. The thing we showed is not just that it is incoherent but along which dimension it is incoherent. It seems like there was evidence already that there's something pulling us towards one side and something pulling us to the other side, and we want to know which thing is pulling us towards one side or the other. We suggested that it's this difference between abstract thinking and concrete thinking.... 

JOSHUA KNOBE is an experimental philosopher and professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. Joshua Knobe's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

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Power Over Nature

New Phenomena That Will Change and Enrich Our Understanding of Fundamentals

The big story of the 20th and the 21st century is that we’re learning to control the world better. With the development of quantum mechanics, we understand the fundamental principles of what matter is and how it behaves that’s adequate for all engineering purposes.                                 

The limitation is just our imagination and our ability to calculate the consequences of the laws. We’re getting better at both of those as we gain experience. We have more imagination. As computing develops, we learn how to calculate the consequences of the laws better and better. There’s also a feedback cycle: When you can understand matter better, you can design better computers, which will enable you to calculate better. It's kind of an ascending helix.

FRANK WILCZEK, currently the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, has received many prizes for his work in physics, including the Nobel Prize (2004) for work he did as a graduate student at Princeton University. Frank Wilczek's Edge Bio Page

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The Augmented Human Being


There are now 2000 gene therapies where you’ll take a little piece of engineered DNA, put it inside of a viral coat so all the viral genes are gone, and you can put in, say, a human gene or you can have nonviral delivery, but the important thing is that you’re delivering it either inside of the human or you’re taking cells out of the human and putting the DNA in and then putting them back in. But you can do very powerful things like curing inherited diseases, curing infectious diseases.                                 

For example, you can edit out the receptor for the HIV virus and cure AIDS patients in a way that's not dependent upon vaccines and multidrug resistance, which has plagued the HIV AIDS story from the very beginning. You’re basically making a human being which is now augmented in a certain sense so that, unlike most humans, they are resistant to this major plague of mankind—HIV AIDS.              

There are now people walking around who are genetically modified: There are some that are resistant to AIDS because they have had their T cells, or more generally, their blood cells modified. There are children that have been cured of blindness by gene therapy. None of this is CRISPR, but it’s in the same vein. CRISPR is overtaking it very quickly and it’s drafting behind all the beautiful work that’s been done with delivery of DNA, delivery of genetic components to patients.

GEORGE CHURCH is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Personal Genome Project. George Church's Edge Bio Page

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Sounds of the Skies

Hear the Spacetime Ringing

The effect of these gravitational waves is to squeeze and stretch space. If you were floating near these black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. If you were close enough, you would feel the difference between the squeezing and stretching on your face or your feet. We’ve even conjectured that your eardrum could ring in response, like a resonant membrane, so that you would literally hear the wave, hear it even in the absence of a medium like air. Even though we think that empty space is silent, in these circumstances you would hear the black holes collide but you wouldn’t see them; it would happen in complete darkness. The two black holes would be completely dark, and your only evidence of their collision would be to hear the spacetime ringing.

JANNA LEVIN is a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots; A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines; and most recently, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer SpaceJanna Levin's Edge Bio Page 

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The Mattering Instinct


We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter." Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct, that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN, awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama, is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of English and Philosophy at NYU. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Edge Bio Page

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Liberal Arts and Sciences in the 21st Century


It is going to be much more of a Wild West—what sorts of things get tried in education. The notion that we’re going to be all singing out of the same hymnal is just not going to be the case. And it may not be bad. The American federal system has been very effective in certain areas, but not in policies of higher education.

HOWARD GARDNER is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner also directs the Good Project. Howard Gardner's Edge Bio Page


AI & The Future Of Civilization


The question is, what makes us different from all these things? What makes us different is the particulars of our history, which gives us our notions of purpose and goals. That's a long way of saying when we have the box on the desk that thinks as well as any brain does, the thing it doesn't have, intrinsically, is the goals and purposes that we have. Those are defined by our particulars—our particular biology, our particular psychology, our particular cultural history.

The thing we have to think about as we think about the future of these things is the goals. That's what humans contribute, that's what our civilization contributes—execution of those goals; that's what we can increasingly automate. We've been automating it for thousands of years. We will succeed in having very good automation of those goals. I've spent some significant part of my life building technology to essentially go from a human concept of a goal to something that gets done in the world.

There are many questions that come from this. For example, we've got these great AIs and they're able to execute goals, how do we tell them what to do?...

STEPHEN WOLFRAM, distinguished scientist, inventor, author, and business leader, is Founder & CEO, Wolfram Research; Creator, Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha & the Wolfram Language; Author, A New Kind of Science. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

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How the Brain Is Computing the Mind


The history of science has shown us that you need the tools first. Then you get the data. Then you can make the theory. Then you can achieve understanding.

ED BOYDEN is a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group. Ed Boyden's Edge Bio Page 

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The Genomic Ancient DNA Revolution

A New Way to Investigate the Past

My experience collaborating with Svante since 2007, has been that the data we’ve looked at from the incredible samples they have has yielded surprise after surprise. Nobody had ever gotten to look at data like this before. First, there were the Neanderthals, and then there was this pinky bone from Southern Siberia. At the end of the Neanderthal project, Svante told me we have this amazing genome-wide data from another archaic human, from a little pinky bone of a little girl from a Southern Siberian cave, and asked if I'd like to get involved in analyzing it.

When we analyzed it, it was an incredible surprise: This individual was not a Neanderthal. They were in fact much more distantly related to a Neanderthal than any two humans are today from each other, and it was not a modern human. It was some very distant cousin of a Neanderthal that was living in Siberia in Central Asia at the time that this girl lived.

When we analyzed the genome of this little girl, we saw that she was related to people in New Guinea and Australia. A person related to her had contributed about 5 percent of the genomes to people in New Guinea and Australia and related people—an interbreeding event nobody had known about before. It was completely unexpected. It wasn’t in anybody’s philosophy or anybody’s prediction. It was a new event that was driven by the data and not by people’s presuppositions or previous ideas.

This is what ancient DNA does for us. When you look at the data, it doesn’t always just play into one person’s theory or the other; it doesn’t just play into the Indo-European steppe hypothesis or the Anatolian hypothesis. Sometimes it raises something completely new, like the Denisovan finger bone and the interbreeding of a gene flow from Denisovans into Australians and New Guineans. 

DAVID REICH is a geneticist and professor in the Department of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School. David Reich's Edge Bio Page

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The Crusade Against Multiple Regression Analysis


A huge range of science projects are done with these multiple regression things. The results are often somewhere between meaningless and quite damaging. ...                             

I hope that in the future, if I’m successful in communicating with people about this, that there’ll be a kind of upfront warning in New York Times articles: These data are based on multiple regression analysis. This would be a sign that you probably shouldn’t read the article because you’re quite likely to get non-information or misinformation.

RICHARD NISBETT is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking; and The Geography of Thought. Richard Nisbett's Edge Bio Page