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We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History


In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we've gotten used to the idea that science doesn't offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 

DAVID CHRISTIAN is Professor of History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. David Christian's Edge Bio Page 


Popper Versus Bacon


People have to go around measuring things. There's no escape from that for most of that type of work. There's a deep relationship between the two. No one's going to come up with a model that works without going and comparing with experiment. But it is the intelligent use of experimental measurements that we're after there because that goes to this concept of Bayesian methods. I will perform the right number of experiments to make measurements of, say, the time series evolution of a given set of proteins. From those data, when things are varying in time, I can map that on to my deterministic Popperian model and infer what's the most likely value of all the parameters that would be Popperian ones that would fit into the model. It's an intelligent interaction between them that's necessary in many complicated situations. 

PETER COVENEY holds a chair in Physical Chemistry, and is director of the Centre for Computational Science at University College London and co-author, with Roger Highfield, of The Arrow of Time and Frontiers of Complexity. Peter Coveney's Edge Bio Page

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This Is My Vision Of "Life"


My vision of life is that everything extends from replicators, which are in practice DNA molecules on this planet. The replicators reach out into the world to influence their own probability of being passed on. Mostly they don't reach further than the individual body in which they sit, but that's a matter of practice, not a matter of principle. The individual organism can be defined as that set of phenotypic products which have a single route of exit of the genes into the future. That's not true of the cuckoo/reed warbler case, but it is true of ordinary animal bodies. So the organism, the individual organism, is a deeply salient unit. It's a unit of selection in the sense that I call "a vehicle."  

There are two kinds of unit of selection. The difference is a semantic one. They're both units of selection, but one is the replicator, and what it does is get itself copied. So more and more copies of itself go into the world. The other kind of unit is the vehicle. It doesn't get itself copied. What it does is work to copy the replicators which have come down to it through the generations, and which it's going to pass on to future generations. So we have this individual replicator dichotomy. They're both units of selection, but in different senses. It's important to understand that they are different senses.   

RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; Emeritus Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Selfish Gene; The Extended Phenotype; Climbing Mount Improbable; The God Delusion; An Appetite For Wonder; and (forthcoming) A Brief Candle In The Dark. Richard Dawkins's Edge Bio Page

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Existential Risk


The reasons why I'm engaged in trying to lower the existential risks has to do with the fact that I'm a convinced consequentialist. We have to take responsibility for modeling the consequences of our actions, and then pick the actions that yield the best outcomes. Moreover, when you start thinking about—in the pallet of actions that you have—what are the things that you should pay special attention to, one argument that can be made is that you should pay attention to areas where you expect your marginal impact to be the highest. There are clearly very important issues about inequality in the world, or global warming, but I couldn't make a significant difference in these areas. 

JAAN TALLINN is a co-founder of The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at University of Cambridge, UK as well as The Future of Life Institute in Cambridge, MA. He is also a founding engineer of Kazaa and Skype. Jaan Tallinn's Edge Bio Page

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Death Is Optional


Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, to take just one example, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can basically break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, as it's often referred to, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what's happening beyond that. 

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

YUVAL NOAH HARARI is a professor in the Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of Sapiens. Yuval Noah Harari's Edge Bio Page


Digital Reality


...Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              

...Finally, when I could own all these machines I got that the Renaissance was when the liberal arts emerged—liberal for liberation, humanism, the trivium and the quadrivium—and those were a path to liberation, they were the means of expression. That's the moment when art diverged from artisans. And there were the illiberal arts that were for commercial gain. ... We've been living with this notion that making stuff is an illiberal art for commercial gain and it's not part of means of expression. But, in fact, today, 3D printing, micromachining, and microcontroller programming are as expressive as painting paintings or writing sonnets but they're not means of expression from the Renaissance. We can finally fix that boundary between art and artisans.

...I'm happy to take claim for saying computer science is one of the worst things to happen to computers or to science because, unlike physics, it has arbitrarily segregated the notion that computing happens in an alien world.

NEIL GERSHENFELD is a Physicist and the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He is the author of FAB. Neil Gershenfeld's Edge Bio Page

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Jesse Dylan's Documentary On The Edge Question — 2014

An Edge World Premier

Following January's publication of the Edge Question—2014, "What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement?," the director Jesse Dylan approached Edge regarding putting together a documentary film on the project. 

The result: Edge is pleased to present the world premiere of Dylan's interesting and engaging four-minute impressionistic montage, featuring appearences by a number of Edgies: Jerry Coyne, Daniel C. Dennett, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Alison Gopnik, Kevin Kelly, Alex Pentland, Irene Pepperberg, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhardt, and Frank Wilczek.

JESSE DYLAN is a filmmaker and founder, Creative Director and CEO of Wondros, a production company based in LA. He has created media projects for a diverse group of organizations, including George Soros and the Open Society Foundations, Clinton Global Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations, MIT Media Lab, the Columbia Journalism School, and Harvard Medical School. Among his best known works is in the Emmy Award-winning  "Yes We Can—Barack Obama Music Video."  Jesse Dylan's Edge Bio Page


Formulating Science in Terms of Possible and Impossible Tasks


It turns out that in the constructor theoretic view, humans, or knowledge creating systems, are quite central to fundamental physics in an objective way and not an anthropocentric way. This is a very deep change in perspective. One of the ideas that will be dropped if constructor theory turns out to be effective is that the only fundamental entities in physics are laws of motion and initial conditions. Of course they are, but in order for physics to accommodate more of physical reality, there needs to be a switch to this new mode of explanation, which accept is a scientific explanation more than predictions. The ideal prediction will be complemented with the idea of statements about what tasks are possible and impossible and why.

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford. Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page


Entwined Fates


It's a very interdisciplinary subject, there's no question about that. As I've said, a community of fate is about evoking norms and beliefs about the way in which the world works. That was part of what the great capacity of the leadership was—to change people's beliefs about whether they could do something and change something. The notion of beliefs of that sort comes from economics, comes from Bayesianism, comes from philosophy, comes from psychology. When you think about the organizational foundations for a community of fate, you're already in the world of sociology, economics, certainly political science, certainly history, in thinking about those issues. It's a multidisciplinary concept by its very nature. To answer the questions that we've been talking about in relationship to it requires a multidisciplinary approach.

We keep coming back to the issue of a community of fate: can it be for good or for bad, right? We can imagine the beer hall in Munich and what happened there that created a community of fate, and we can imagine the left-wing union organizers and communist intellectuals developing a different kind of community of fate. The real distinction between them is not just the ethical principles that inform them—that's clearly an important distinction—but what kind of community of fate it is. The terminology that I use there, and I keep repeating and want to get that through, is between an inclusive and an expansive community of fate versus an exclusive and narrowing community of fate. That's the difference.

MARGARET LEVI is the Director of the Center For Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies at the University of Washington. Margaret Levi's Edge Bio Page

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Simone Schnall: "Moral Intuitions, Replication, and the Scientific Study of Human Nature"

HeadCon '14

In the end, it's about admissible evidence and ultimately, we need to hold all scientific evidence to the same high standard. Right now we're using a lower standard for the replications involving negative findings when in fact this standard needs to be higher. To establish the absence of an effect is much more difficult than the presence of an effect.

SIMONE SCHNALL is a University Senior Lecturer and Director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory at Cambridge University. Simone Schnall's Edge Bio Page