2017 Edge Question: “What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?”

UPDATE: I should have asked readers to answer the question for themselves, so I’m adding that here. Several people already have done that, and I encourage it.

Every year, science-book agent John Brockman, who handles the “trade books” of every well known science writers, as well as running the online intellectual “salon” Edge, asks his stable of writers to give brief answers to a question that someone thought up. The answers are posted online and later compiled into a book.  This year’s question is given in the title of the post, and the link to John’s introduction is in the previous sentence. Here it is, and note that John’s definition of science coincides with my notion of “science broadly construed”: a toolkit of ways of establishing provisional truth rather than a formal discipline or a body of knowledge (my emphasis below):

by John Brockman

Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.

Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.

Science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—is an essential part of psychology and the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.

It is in this spirit of Scientia that Edge, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is pleased to present the Edge Annual Question 2017. Happy New Year!

Now there are dozens of answers, but I’d suggest you go to the full compilation of responses and pick out the ones that interest you. Here are but a few that intrigued me—and that I thought people should know about:

Steven Pinker, “The second law of thermodynamics

Martin Rees, “Multiverse

Helena Cronin, “Sex

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein “Scientific realism

Frank Tipler, “Parallel universes of quantum mechanics“. Tipler asserts that most physicists accept Everett’s notion of an infinite number of parallel universes, and that this notion is indeed true (as he says, “So obvious is Everett’s proof for the existence of these parallel universes, that Steve Hawking once told me that he considered the existence of these parallel universes “trivially true”). Tipler then argues that the many-universe theory (or “truth”) gives us a form of free will:

The free will question arises because the equations of physics are deterministic. Everything that you do today was determined by the initial state of all the universes at the beginning of time. But the equations of quantum mechanics say that although the future behavior of all the universes are determined exactly, it is also determined that in the various universes, the identical yous will make different choices at each instant, and thus the universes will differentiate over time. Say you are in an ice cream shop, trying to choose between vanilla and strawberry. What is determined is that in one world you will choose vanilla and in another you will choose strawberry. But before the two yous make the choice, you two are exactly identical. The laws of physics assert it makes no sense to say which one of you will choose vanilla and which strawberry. So before the choice is made, which universe you will be in after the choice is unknowable in the sense that it is meaningless to ask.

To me, this analysis shows that we indeed have free will, even though the evolution of the universe is totally deterministic. Even if you think my analysis has been too facile—entire books can and have been written on the free will problem—nevertheless, my simple analysis shows that these books are themselves too facile, because they never consider the implications of the existence of the parallel universes for the free will question.

I’m not sure that the idea of parallel universes is as widely accepted as Tipler claims (after all, we need evidence to demonstrate its truth), but even if it is true, I’m not sure if it gives us free will in our own universe, which is the one we inhabit and care about.

Gino Segre, “Gravitational radiation

Lawrence Krauss, “Uncertainty

Leo M. Chalupa, “Epigenetics“.  This one is deeply misleading, implying that environmentally-induced epigenetic changes can affect our evolution, and dispose of the “nature vs. nurture controversy”. To wit:

What makes epigenetics important, and why is it so much in vogue these days? Its importance stems from the fact that it provides a means by which biological entities, from plants to humans, can be modified by altering gene activity without changes in the genetic sequence. This means that the age-old “nature versus nurture” controversy has been effectively obviated because experience (as well as a host of other agents) can alter gene activity, so the “either/or” thinking mode no longer applies. Moreover, there is now some tantalizing, but still preliminary evidence that changes in gene activity (induced in this case by an insecticide) can endure for a number of subsequent generations [JAC: not true!]. What happens to you today can affect your great, great, great grandchildren!

Sean Carroll, “Bayes’s theorem

Bart Kosko, “Negative evidence” (think about religion as you read it)

Barnaby Marsh, “Humility” Although listed as a “philanthropy executive” and visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, remember that Marsh used to be an executive vice-president at the John Templeton Foundation. That explains stuff like this:

As we advance in our scientific careers, it is all too easy to feel overconfident in what we know, and how much we know. The same pressures that face us in our everyday life wait to ensnare us in professional scientific life. The human mind looks for certainly, and finds comfort in parsimony. We see what we want to see, and we believe what makes intuitive sense. We avoid the complex and difficult, and the unknown. Just look across the sciences, from biochemistry to ecology, where multiple degrees of freedom make many problems seemingly intractable. But are they? Could new tools of computation and visualization enable better models of the behavior of individuals and systems? The future belongs to those brave enough to be humble about how little we know, and how much there is that is remaining to be discovered.

Scientific humility is the key that opens a whole new possibility space-  a space where being unsure is the norm; where facts and logic are intertwined with imagination, intuition, and play. It is a dangerous and bewildering place where all sorts of untested and unjustified ideas lurk. What is life? What is consciousness? How can we understand the complex dynamics of cities? Or even my goldfish bowl?  Go there are one can see quickly why when faced be uncertainty, most of us would rather quickly retreat. Don’t. This is the space where amazing things happen.

Yes, we scientists really need that lecture! I’m surprised he didn’t mention God—but then he wouldn’t be able to do that on this site.

Gregory Benford, “Antagonistic pleiotropy“.

Priyamvada Natarajan, “Gravitational lensing

Nicholas Baumard, “Phenotypic plasticity

Janna Levin, “The principle of least action

My own contribution about what people should understand is the idea of “Determinism,” but this won’t be new to readers here.

There are many more contributions at the site, so pick out the ones that most interest you. It’s a good way to start 2017—by stretching your brain. And remember that these essays are intended for nonspecialists interested in science, the “educated layperson.”


John Brockman

I should add about John that his success is due largely to his “nose” for what kind of science the public wants, and a sense of timing that makes him urge authors to write about certain topics at the “proper” time. It was he, for example, who told Richard Dawkins that he needed to write a book about religion for 2006, ergo The God Delusion.  


  1. Merilee
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:03 am | Permalink


  2. KD33
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Happy New Year! Great post to start it off.

    I love Sean Carroll’s entry. He introduces and uses Bayes Theorem in his book, the Big Picture (highly recommended). It provides a useful (and potentially rigorous) framework for evolving forward the likelihood of a theory being true as new information is discovered. Though I’d learned about Bayes Theorem in a philosophy course, it was usually presented in a restricted context, and Sen does a great job showing how it applies generally to scientific thought. Really useful!

    The Principle of Least Action is another good one, if a bit obscure (I’m biased, being a physicist by training). In Feynman’s construct it underlies all of physics. A great window into this is Feynman’s book Q.E.D., which gives an amazingly insightful, yet math-free, description of quantum electrodynamics, the most numerically precise theory known.

    As for the gravitation waves – the BICEP results were shown to be due to intergalactic dust, not cosmic background. But in separate observations gravitational waves were definitely “heard” as a chirps from two colliding black holes – in fact, two instances of this. Just in case you might have been confusing the two cases? The background source may not be dead – more data are expected from new experiments this year that may yet find gravitational waves in the cosmic background.

    After reading the Big Picture, I revisited Carl Sagan’s great The Varieties of Scientific Experience. It’s based on Sagan’s Gifford Lectures, and is very much a kindred book to Carroll’s. It take a very elegant approach (though one less detailed than the Big Picture) to the nature of scientific thought and the implications for god. Every atheist should read it! Sagan comments extensively on the insanity of nuclear arms, as that was a big topic at the time. Unfortunately, it is again germane for the era of “let it be an arms race” Trump.

    Cheers (not meant ironically).

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Yes, I think I’m confusing the two experiments. I’ve fixed it, thanks.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      I don’t read hardbacks because I haven’t the space for them but The Big Picture comes out in paperback in May and I’m looking forward to it.

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Why wait? The “no back” edition (i.e., Kindle or e-book) is available for the bookshelf challenged.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      I find Carroll’s strong reliance on bayesian methods problematic. Notice how Kosko’s contribution – a great find – alone makes that point! generally I don’t see how it can replace hypothesis testing as an agreed on quality standard and agreed on rejections. It would make the process more amorphous for no good reason.

      I’ll nitpick your BICEP description with noting that the aggregated data showed that there was sufficiently dust signal to invalidate the BICEP test conditions. But at most half of the signal was ensured to be dust assuming there are primordial gravity waves – which was the condition that they tried to test.

  3. Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Krauss undercuts Segre’s conclusion about the existence of gravity waves …

    Not really. Segre is pointing to gravitational waves from colliding black holes, as detected by LIGO — and that is not in doubt.

    Krauss, in contrast, is pointing to the possible detection by BICEP2 of the effects of gravitational waves on the cosmological microwave background. That, rightly, is now considered to be an incorrect claim, but that doesn’t undercut the LIGO results or the existence of gravitational waves themselves.

    PS It is good to see John Brockman going full scientism-ist and using “science” in the broad sense!

  4. Gasper Sciacca
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I see that Frank Tipler is as wrong about free will as he’s wrong about Christianity.
    Another God is in quantum mechanics idea. I wonder if he has Templeton money too.

  5. Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Tipler asserts that most physicists accept Everett’s notion of an infinite number of parallel universes, …

    Which is not really true, Everett’s interpretation is very much a minority taste among physicists at large.

    The only thing that is “trivially true” is the *mathematics* of a multi-state wavefunction. How one then interprets that physically is then the entire issue.

    PS to Jerry, the link for Tipler seems to be the wrong one.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Fixed the link, thank you.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      But note Tipler’s qualification: “at least most physicists who apply quantum mechanics to cosmology”.

      Sean Carroll has said the same thing: physicists who actually use QM in their daily work are predominantly Everettians.

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        I don’t think that’s so. Everettian QM seems to be popular *only* among those who apply QM to cosmology, which is actually a small subset of physicists who use QM (being completely dwarfed by the vast numbers of solid-state physicists, for example). [After all, theoretical cosmology is a pretty esoteric and niche topic.]

        I’m betting that overall some sort of collapse/decoherence interpretation is much more popular.

        After a quick google, this from Sean Carroll’s blog reports 18% (of a rather small sample) as Everettians.

        • Kevin
          Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Quantum information theory community has a larger proportion than just 18% Everettians and they tend to be sort-of close to real world physics. Still, theorists do not matter much when you actually want to build a quantum computer.

        • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          But “collapse” just doesn’t make sense. It’s not so much an “interpretation”, more what you’d call a “prestidigitation”.


          • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

            Why do you think that “collapse” doesn’t make sense? It’s closest to the naive picture of what seems to be happening.

            • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              Because it is ex deus machina.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

                Obviously one would need some cause and explanation for collapse, which we currently don’t have. So QM as known is incomplete in the “collapse” picture, but then it’s also incomplete in the other interpretations, including EQM.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              A toddler’s naive picture of Peek-a-boo is that things stop existing when you can’t see them. Grownups know better.

              Everett’s insight was to realize that the same considerations of object permanence apply to QM. Naively we think we’re in a position to see everything that’s going on, but we’re not. That doesn’t mean the unseen branches cease to exist.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

                As per my reply to another comment: That whole picture rests on seeing the wavefunction as being ontological, as being the “thing” that actually exists, rather than as being a mathematical device that describe what is real, and on current QM being complete and correct.

                If the wavefunction is ontological then, yes, the unseen branches can be regarded as “real”. But there’s no reason why one need buy into that idea.

                Further, EQM is equally incomplete and problematic as other QM interpretations. For example it doesn’t predict the Born rule. It also has just as big a problem with what constitutes an “interaction” or “observation” or whatever, and thus causes “splitting”, as other interpretations.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                Coel, my impression from reading Wallace’s book (cited elsewhere in the thread) is that the Born rule is on a solider footing in EQM than in other schemes, since probability in EQM has a clear(er) physical basis.

                And “splitting” simply is decoherence, which is (according to Wallace) well understood mathematically.

                But I admit I’m getting above my pay grade here.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                The Born rule is indeed not properly explained by any version of QM, which just means that all versions are incomplete (unless you just accept the Born rule as an axiom).

                [And yes, Sean Carroll has tried to derive the Born rule from EQM; I think the general feeling is that he and others have got some way down that route, but not fully got there, though I’m open to correction of that.]

            • Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              It’s just not well defined; it’s hand-waving.


              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                Sure, but other interpretations have equal problems and are equally incomplete (including EQM).

            • D.H.
              Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:33 am | Permalink

              It is like saying that Biology just predicts what fossils you will probably find when digging in a certain spot.

              The fact that Dinosaurs once really existed is just an interpretation and not even the most accepted one.

              The mainstream interpretation says that the fossils suddenly appear the moment you are digging for them.

              (This is a slightly modified from David Wallace’s book.)

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        I think physicists who use QM in their daily work are predominantly the sort who “shut up and calculate.”

  6. Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Is it just me, or is the one on “Mysterianism” devoid of a single even moderately newish idea, and entirely mundane and trite?

    I’m no academic and am (in comparison to the average reader of this site) poorly educated in the sciences, but what does Mr Carr say that is not instantly associated with Kant, Popper, and common sense?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      I would agree. Don’t think they give out awards for pronouncing it cannot be solved by human intelligence or effort. Perhaps they should give it more time.

  7. Christopher Bonds
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Yes. Bayes’s Theorem is also my favorite of the ones listed above. One reason I like it is that it can be used to demonstrate inevitable problems in the way we think. One of the classic examples of its use involves a test for a disease; say, that a positive test result is correct 90 per cent of the time. What is the probability that the person actually has the disease? The intuitive answer is 90 per cent, but that’s incorrect.

    And then there’s the famous Monty Hall problem publicized some years ago by Marilyn vos Savant in Parade Magazine. She gave the correct answer, but many mathematicians wrote heated letters arguing that she had to be wrong.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      My take on the Monty Hall problem and it’s tendency to flummox a lot of people who should know better is that it’s mostly just a communication problem.

      Those who are fooled by it assume that the situation arouse from a random curtain reveal, in which case the prize has an equal chance of being behind either of the two remaining curtains. But it wasn’t a random reveal, it was the reveal of one of Monty’s two curtains only (your own curtain wasn’t eligible), and an empty curtain was chosen to reveal t’boot (because Monty knows where the prize is and that’s the way the game works).

      It is a communication problem because it hasn’t been made clear that the first opened curtain was not chosen randomly. Let’s Make a Deal fans are probably better at solving the problem than mathematicians are because they understand these things.

      • Christopher Bonds
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        What interests me about the Monty Hall problem is that if a second person comes in after Monty has opened one of the doors, the probability of choosing the prize door is indeed 1/2, whereas because the contestant has additional knowledge, he knows that (a) the P of the prize being behind one of the other two doors is 2/3, and that doesn’t change when Monty opens one of them. That means that the probability of the remaining door is still 2/3 and he should switch. Knowledge is power. The reason it’s not obvious is partly because of the small number of doors. If there were 100 doors, and Monty had to open 98 of them, it would be pretty clear why he didn’t open the 99th–because it would have a 99/100 P of hiding the prize, from the point of view of the contestant. The latter would be a fool not to switch.

  8. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I am sorry Jerry but your “determinism” looks as a self contradicting fairytale. You have to separate some things to, at least, achieve a better logical coherence. I can understand very well Sean Carroll but not you. You don’t speak for the same thing even you use the same word. I found your approach emotional (and confusing!) and not scientific.

    Some telling excerpts from Sean Carroll’s “Big Picture” chapter 44 “Freedom to choose”:

    From this perspective, the mistake made by free-will skeptics is to carelessly switch between incompatible vocabularies. You step out of the shower in the morning, walk to your closet, and wonder whether you should put on the black shirt or the blue shirt. That’s a decision that you have to make; you can’t just say, “I’ll do whatever the atoms in my body were going to deterministically do anyway.” The atoms are going to do whatever they were going to do; but you don’t know what that is, and it’s irrelevant to the question of which decision you should make. Once you frame the question in terms of you and your choice, you can’t also start talking about your atoms and the laws of physics. Either vocabulary is perfectly legitimate, but mixing them leads to nonsense.

    You may be willing to accept that oceans and temperature are real, even though they are nowhere to be found among the fundamental ingredients of the Core Theory, but feel unwilling to apply the same logic to free will. After all, the ability to make choices isn’t just a macroscopic collection of many microscopic pieces; it’s an entirely different kind of thing.

    A poetic naturalist says that we can have two very different-sounding ways of describing the world, a physics- level story and a human-level story, which invoke separate sets of concepts and yet end up being compatible in their predictions concerning what happens in the world.

    Actually reading Carroll’s book I cannot see any real controversy about “compatibilism” and “incompatibilism”.

    This is the point at which free-will doubters will object that the stance we’ve defended here isn’t really free will at all. All we’ve done is redefine the notion to mean something completely different, presumably because we are too cowardly to face up to the desolate reality of an impersonal cosmos.

    I completely agree with Carroll that according of what we know…

    There’s no reason to accept libertarian freedom as part of the real world. There is no direct evidence for it, and it violates everything we know about the laws of nature. In order for libertarian freedom to exist, it would have to be possible for human beings to overcome the laws of physics just by thinking.

    But even “Core Theory” doesn’t explain everything. Consciousness could be on top of a physical reality of those it cannot explain. But something can explain it. We can also say that there is no “free will” of any kind but actually is possible for something like that to have a physical base. That there is a level of interterminism after all. I wouldn’t be so sure to exclude it.

    So biologists study biological phenomena, evolution etc, but as Carroll would say, those phenomena is nowhere to be found in the “Core Theory”!

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I enjoyed your comment and it was useful for me, but please do not be so rude to our host, or I won’t have the opportunity to read any more comments by you!

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Dear Mr. Klaras,

      I’m sorry, but you’ve not only made an incorrect criticism, but you are ineffably rude, and won’t be posting here any more.

      As for Sean’s compatibilism, I don’t agree with it. The common notion of free will, as shown in several surveys, is of the “I could have done otherwise” sort. That doesn’t exist. Now you could define free will as compatibilists do, and make it something other than the common parlance, but that’s like saying theism is “awe before the universe.” My piece is on determinism, which is something that we need to know about and appreciate the consequences of. That dispels the most common notion of free will, which is dualistic. We need to deal with that.

      Now if you want to call something ELSE “free will” besides that, fine, but it’s just a semantic exercise.

      Of course I use the word “choice”, and I say in my piece that all of us act as though we have it (and use that vocabularity). So fricking WHAT? The important thing is to appreciate the truth of determinism and then act according to the truth. The rest is commentary–and semantics. I don’t see any confusion engendered by that vocabulary, particularly because I’ve explained it.

      In the case of free will, “poetic naturalism” is dangerously deceptive, because it really does blind people to determinism, as you can see in the numerous articles that people beyond Carroll have published.

      As for my determinism being a “fairy tale,” you’re just flat wrong. Even Carroll admits that the determinism to which I adhere is true.

      Nice knowing you; try posting on reddit where your brand of incivility is the norm.

      • Carl
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        I was wondering when I read the wonderful phrase “carny trick” in your article, who the target was. Dan Dennett came to mind immediately. Sean Carroll didn’t.

        I don’t find Carroll’s “poetic Naturalism” objectionable, because he makes clear it isn’t actual reality, but a pleasing fiction. It doesn’t sway me from the “hard core” determinism I learned from Spinoza long ago.

        • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t have anybody in mind when I wrote that–there are many compatibilists.

        • Zado
          Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          Nor me. I only object to the implication that “hard core”-deterministic naturalism is unpoetic and bleak. I personally find the idea quite beautiful, and I don’t understand why most people automatically equate fatalism with pessimism (besides the obvious explanation that most people can’t accept their own fate).

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 1, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

          Can you point to where Carroll describes his view as “a pleasing fiction”? Previously he’s on record as saying that free will is as real as baseball, and he seems to be saying something similar here (“That’s a decision that you have to make”).

          • Carl
            Posted January 1, 2017 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

            “Pleasing fiction” is my own description of Carroll’s poetic naturalism, when he talks about free will.

            There are many places in the part 5 chapter Freedom to Choose where Carroll sides with hard determinism, for example:

            There’s no reason to accept libertarian freedom as part of the real world. There is no direct evidence for it, and it violates everything we know about the laws of nature. In order for libertarian freedom to exist, it would have to be possible for human beings to overcome the laws of physics just by thinking.

            I take Prof. Coyne’s worry about the poetic naturalism view, is that people will mistake it and not fully accept the accurate naturalism view:

            Men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Therefore the idea of their freedom is simply the ignorance of the cause of their actions. As to their saying that human actions depend on the will, these are mere words without any corresponding idea. For none of them knows what the will is and how it moves the body, and those who boast otherwise and make up stories of dwelling-places and habitations of the soul provoke either ridicule or disgust.

            • Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

              Your description of Sean’s position as a “fiction”, pleasing or otherwise, is, I think, inaccurate. In nothing I’ve read or heard from him does he say compatibilist free will is a fiction. He claims it is a very existent emergent phenomenon, as Gregory has already pointed out.

              • Carl
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                What I understand by free will is directly disavowed by Carroll in the what I quoted. So any other use of “free will” is false, a fiction, according to him (and my understanding of free will). If you want to employ a new term – “compatibilist free will” – fine, I think that will reduce the confusion.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

                Our point is that Carroll does not consider his view a “pleasing fiction”, as you originally claimed. What Carroll acknowledges in your quote as fictional is “libertarian freedom”, not the entire concept of free will, lock, stock, and barrel. He maintains that there is a real, emergent phenomenon displayed by conscious agents (and, importantly, not displayed by inanimate matter) that is perfectly well described as “free will”, along with all the other concepts and words that entails.

              • Carl
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                I retract my “pleasing fiction” if that makes you happy. Will you agree that if by “free will” someone means:

                The mind is an uncaused cause, or something whose activity cannot be explained like everything else in the world: according to its antecedent causes.

                Then that is flat out false.

                I now see what Prof. Coyne means by tedious semantic arguments, and apologize for taking part.

              • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

                I will agree with that. I also agree that there’s a lot of shared ground between compatibilists and incompatibilists that boils down to semantic quibbles. But I think there’s a meaningful difference, which is that compatibilists see higher-level emergent phenomena as just as “true” and just as important to take into account as more reductive models or explanations.

              • Carl
                Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

                I’m not even sure we disagree about emergent phenomena. I just wish you wouldn’t use “free will” to refer to one of those phenomena, which as the survey cited by Prof. Coyne on this page (and my reading deep into the history of philosophy) indicates is not what most people now and in the past understand by the term. Peace.

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        Sabine Hossenfelder (physicist) says Dr. Coyne wrote pretty much the same thing she would have written:


    • Carl
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see where you have pointed out any of Jerry Coyne’s contradictions or mistakes. You do is claim they are present, then extensively quote Sean Carroll. Carroll wrote a whole chapter, Coyne a few paragraphs – if your objection is Coyne wasn’t as detailed, then so what?

      I don’t see where any of the Carroll quotes diminish anything Coyne writes – they are pulling together, and in the right direction, in my reading of it.

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The short essays posted by John Brockman are entertaining, but I am surprised that no one wanted to call out the scientific evidence for global warming as a thing to be more widely known.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      There is one, on positive feedback in climate change, by Bruce Parker. It is a long set of essays, and I missed it.

    • KD33
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Does it qualify? The concept is certainly widely known; the problem is that too many people dismiss it.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I would count it as qualifying, since although widely heard about it is not widely understood to the point where people realize the implications.

  10. Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    My own suggestion to head up this list would be EMERGENCE. It is a little regarded property which in reality underpins all properties at all levels of physical reality. Just to follow one single thread: – how atomic properties emerges out of subatomic properties, how chemistry emerges out of atomic properties, how biology emerges out of chemical properties, how life emerges out of biological properties, and dare I say it… how free-will emerges out of biological properties. Excellent theoretical and mathematical analysis of the foundations of emergence exists – summarised for the layman in the book “Emergence” by John Holland (who also first pioneered mathematical work on Evolutionary Algorithms)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      The 2017 Edge Question list of answers includes an essay by the theoretical physicist Antony Garrett Lisi called “Emergence”

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that Michael… didn’t see it there.
        I do think emergence of central importance to the appreciation of the continuity that exists in our scientific understanding and of complexity.

        And I would add, that in the area of our endless debate here at WEIT, it provides a pivotal argument for the existence of what can be defined as free-will.

    • phoffman56
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      And how the ‘many worlds’ of Everett emerge semi-classically out of just plain quantum theory with no collapse, nor pilot waves, nor etc. tacked on (the multiverse isn’t!)
      cf. 2012 David Wallace book referred to a few times before by me. If I remember, title is The Emergent Multiverse.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      This is one of my favorite concepts, and I wish it were taught widely. It can be the seed for dispelling with a lot of the magical thinking that people tend to fall into. I use the term ’emergent property’, but that seems to be the same thing.

  11. Christopher
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    At the risk of sharing my confirmation bias, I thought Helena Cronin’s take on Sex was bang on.

    “…equality is not sameness. Equality is about fair treatment, not about people or outcomes being identical; so fairness does not and should not require sameness.”

    I’m quite sick of hearing about how science is sexist because it doesn’t have a 50/50 split between the sexes. I’m sick of the sexism shaming for every aspect of life that isn’t 50/50 while they refuse to accept any differences between the sexes and likewise seem to leave no room for personal choice. Its almost as if they wish to force people into certain jobs simply to meet that artificial balance. I can distinctly recall when, in the early 2000’s, I started hearing feminist pushback against women who were CHOOSING to be stay-at-home mothers. Not being FORCED by their husbands or boyfriends, by choosing to do so, and they got piled on for exercising the rights that feminism once stood for. It’s only gotten worse. Of course, I may find this a bit personal due to being a non-traditional male who was a single-father and I prefer to bake pies or plant flowers rather than work on cars and shoot guns, and therefor benefit from freedom of choice, regardless of sex.

    Freedom of choice, what a crazy, alien concept for the SJW’s.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      Out of all of them, it is Cronin’s piece that has the most import concerning our near future. Free will and parallel universes may seem sexy, but what will really be sexy – as regards our daily political lives – will be sex.

      Understanding sexual dimorphism through natural and sexual selection – and it’s implications – will allow us to achieve a closer approximation to reality – to truth – and better equip ourselves in the present and upcoming debates regarding gender and sexual fluidity – much of which is (currently) ideological nonsense.

      If you wish to respond, I prefer the pronouns ‘him’ ‘he’, ‘abracadabra’ or ‘genius’, and will be a bit upset and maybe even triggered if these aren’t used.


      Edit: Cronin’s ‘The Ant & the Peacock’ is a must-read.

      • Christopher
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Genius, I will certainly look up the recommended book.


  12. Kevin
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Information Theory.

    This, of course, is tied to The Second Law of Thermodynamics, complexity, and entropy and uncertainty (both quantum and classical). So Pinker/Carroll/Krauss mix has the most important legs for what the universe is all about.


  13. Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    “support” or “data”, as in “the data support the hypothesis” (as opposed to “proved”)

  14. Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if anyone proposed “controlled experiment”, but it would be at the top of my list.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      And I would couple it with “randomized trials.”

  15. Dave
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised no one mentioned “scientific theory” as opposed to “some hare-brained idea I came up with after a couple of beers.”

  16. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Tipler’s take on free will is indeed wonky, but unfortunately Jerry’s isn’t much better. Jerry continues to base his argument on a number of claims that are deeply problematic.

    “could not have behaved differently”: If a uranium nucleus could have behaved differently, then so could we.

    “molecular quantum effects […] probably don’t even affect our acts”: Tell that to a cancer patient whose entire life has been derailed by a chance mutation in an oncogene.

    every criminal is impaired”: If brains are meat computers, then this is equivalent to saying that all computers are broken.

    “all criminals or transgressors should be treated as products of genes and environments that made them behave badly”: Jerry has yet to present a coherent case for how this view promotes successful rehabilitation and prevents recidivism. It seems much more plausible that the most effective programs will treat parolees as intentional agents capable of making choices.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Not just plausible but provable. Maybe it’s my analysis of determinism that that is lacking?


    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      I’m not going to go after all of your arguments, except that you are making a number of assumptions, including that human behavior is subject to quantum effects. Even if that were true, it doesn’t give us conscious free will and you know that very well, having read what I wrote before in other places.

      Your issue about “chance mutations” being caused by quantum effects is an unsubstantiated claim, which in FvF I say we’re not sure about. Why are you so sure that mutations reflect purely quantum effects? And,at any rate, this leaves untouched the vast bulk of human behavior that isn’t affected by somatic mutations in the way you’re discussing here.

      As for #3, I used the word “impaired” to mean “performing an act bad for society.” What is your beef with that? (Never mind, I don’t want to continue this argument.)

      Finally your last claim is again willfully ignorant of what I’ve written about this issue, which you know well since you’ve commented on it before. Have you read my article on the prison system in Norway, which uses the premise I discussed and has a recidivism rate much lower than that seen the U.S.? That is at least some evidence. In contrast, you give none; you adduce a plausibility argument about what you want to be true and offer NO EVIDENCE whatsoever.

      I have rarely seen a much more tendentious and deliberate misconstrual of my positions about free will. “If a uranium nucleus could have behaved differently, so could we?” SERIOUSLY? Do our brains work the same way as a radioactive nucleus? Please give me some evidence for that!

      And the last comment I find offensive, since you have no evidence at all and I have some.

      Do not bother to reply; I have no interest in continuing this argument with you.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        You are of course free to discontinue the discussion at any time. But since you accuse me of deliberately misreading you, allow me the courtesy of a reply. I’ll try to be brief.

        I am of course familiar with your writings on this subject, but I assume readers of your Edge essay will not be, and that your goal is to communicate clearly with those readers. In that context, it’s not at all clear that “impaired” should be read as “performing an act bad for society” rather than “cognitively disabled”.

        Regarding the Norway post, your thesis there was that treating prisoners humanely rather than retributively leads to lower recidivism rates. I have no beef with that; I think it’s probably true. However you seem to take it as axiomatic that this humane treatment must be founded on a philosophy of determinism. I and others questioned this assumption at the time, but if you offered any evidence that the Norwegian system depends on or explicitly references determinism (as distinct from compassion), I’m unable to find it.

      • reasonshark
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        Jerry, I agree free will is incorrect, but I do wonder if determinism is, at the very least, incomplete and limited in the same way Newtonian physics is, simply because it fundamentally excludes pure randomness. I think randomness needs to be incorporated into an accurate worldview these days because quantum mechanics is currently our best contender for fundamental physical law, and from what I can tell it is stochastic rather than strictly deterministic. On a practical level too, probability and statistics need to be foundational to any philosophy of, say, law. After all, our classical world is a subset of the quantum mechanical world.

        With that said, I think the more robust position to advocate would be “pessimistic incompatibilism”. It’s the view that neither free will nor determinism are (at least strictly) true. Not a catchy name, I’ll admit, but that’s what it’s called, and I think it fits with your interest in promoting the truth.

        I might just be being pedantic. After all, we might prefer to teach people Newtonian physics rather than Einstenian or quantum physics simply because it’s accurate enough for the scale we live on. But I think, if we’re going to be accurate, this is a better fit with our current scientific understanding from physics upwards.

    • peepuk
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      You can repair a broken computer. It makes no sense to inflict more damage or treat it badly.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        The point is that we make distinctions between broken and properly functioning computers, even in this our deterministic universe; why can’t we do the same with brains?

  17. nay
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    “Scientific Method” – which I learned in an intro science class in Freshman year, University of Hawaii. It wasn’t called Philosophy of Science, but maybe that’s what it would be called now (it also included “black box” exercises and “now we know ### things that DON’T work”). This should be taught in elementary school, at least as soon as the child can read if not sooner. I consider it the same as “common sense” so the sooner it is linked to the topic of Science in American minds, the better.

  18. Posted January 1, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Martin Rees’ “Multiverse” article seems like a quite significant shift in his thinking. He’s a Templeton Prize winner and I think he used to be moved by fine tuning arguments. Goddy folk used to hold him up as an antidote to atheism in science. See for example this article about Rees contrasted with Dawkkins:


    Rees’ Edge article, however, squarely faces the real consequences of the multiverse concept for our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, and doesn’t seem goddy at all. Maybe he has had a reverse conversion experience?

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I don’t actually think that Martin Rees’s views have shifted much. He’s always been clearly an atheist. It’s just that he’s not been as condemnatory to religion as, say, Dawkins, which allows people to write the sort of piece you point to.

      This piece, from about the same time, perhaps gives a better impression of his views.

  19. Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    From PCC-E’s “Determinism” contribution:

    … simply redefining the concept [of free will] But those are intellectual carny tricks.

    A hope for the new year is that some commenters here might persuade PCC-E that many compatibilists do not see compatibilist notions of “free will” and “choice” as carny tricks or as evasion, nor as being what we tell the little people, but that we see them as useful and indeed necessary concepts for understanding human interactions.

    To that end, I shall ask a question:

    Is there a meaningful sense in which one can say that wearing a hijab is a “choice” in America but not a choice in Iran or Saudi Arabia?

    Any determinist who answers “Yes” has then adopted the essentials of the compatibilist perspective (even if they then want to re-write the language).

    [And I presume that no determinist will answer “no”, and say that in neither country is there any meaningful “choice” in the matter, since whether one wears a hijab is just determined by the laws of physics, are they?]

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      What I would say, to be accurate, is this: “The government compels its citizens to wear the hijab in Iran, but doesn’t in the U.S.”

      I do use the word “choice,” but I always realize that its dualistic connotation is illusory. And, as I’ve already said (but don’t want to argue this again), I frankly don’t care about the semantic machinations of compatibilists. You and I both know that the laws of physics underlie whether one wears a hijab or not, and where. What is important to me is to grasp PHYSICAL DETERMINISM and work out its consequences. It’s a semantic trick to do compatibilism because it undercuts what virtually everyone sees as “free will”: a dualistic free will. It’s as if you’re saying we can redefine “religious” to mean “full of awe” because there are similarities between religious people and Carl Sagan.

      • Craw
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        I disagree that “virtually everyone” sees “free will” as being a freedom from causation or libertarian free will. Those are intellectual positions that one is argued into espousing, and are espoused by some philosophies, but don’t match how people actually use the term. “Free will” for most people really just refers to a decision made by a person as an information processing unit rather than as a point particle. Imagine you are ejected from an airplane. If you open a parachute that is because of your decision to do so, but falling happens whatever you decide. I think virtually everyone says first is a result of free will? But there is no mention of causality there. Free will as actually used, especially in moral and legal contexts, does not *presume* freedom from causation. Only mistaken philosophers do that. It results from trying to shoehorn distinctions into too few categories.

        • Carl
          Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          “I think virtually everyone says [opening the parachute] is a result of free will?”

          I certainly wouldn’t say this. I’d say I opened it because I didn’t want to crash into the ground. And I didn’t want to crash into the ground because …

          But thanks for your example that came in while I was writing my previous post. I think I’ll conclude the disagreement is over what most people mean by free will – and we need a scientific survey to determine that.

          I will say my side discourages magical thinking, while yours lets it slide by.

        • Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          As you familiar with the survey of Sarkeesian et al. which asked people about their notions of free will? That is data. If you have other data that contradicts that, then adduce it rather than just saying that you disagree. I have posted about the Sarkeesian et al. study on this site, you can search for it.

          And I doubt that the majority of college students who were surveyed about their beliefs in free will were “argued into espousing that.”

          When you say what “free will” is for most people, are you referring to a specific study or only giving your impression?

          • Craw
            Posted January 1, 2017 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

            I am arguing from how language is used, rather than what people articulate when pressed for a definition. By the nature of this argument there can be no survey, since the argument is that the actual operative meaning differs from articulated responses.

            This is a similar argument to the one made by Dawkins that Christians do not actually believe the dogma they espouse.

            I do not know about data, but I believe I have evidence. I know of no legal ruling that cites acausality, but many that cite a person’s choices as grounds for holding them responsible. I believe that exemplifies an operational notion of free-will. In law, I am pushed and jostle you I am not responsible for the damage to you, because I did not act with “free will”, but if I jostle you from choice I am responsible. There is no need for a finding that my choice was acausal. Only that I made a decision.

    • Carl
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      To me, the “carny trick” is raising the topic of “free will” – then discussing something that is not the common, widely held understanding of that phrase.

      The common idea of free will supposes that the mind is an uncaused cause, or something whose activity cannot be explained like everything else in the world: according to its antecedent causes.

      Coel, would you disagree that this is what people almost always mean by “free will?” How would you define it?

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:37 am | Permalink

        Coel, would you disagree that this is what people almost always mean by “free will?”

        Yes, I would disagree. If you ask people a metaphysical question about “free will” then yes, the “uncaused mind” answer is most common, though not universal.

        But, in everyday life people are often not making that assumption: e.g. “did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?” is not about uncaused causes, and is likely the most-used sense of the phrase.

        Further, the term “choice” is certainly not assuming anything metaphysical as people use it. E.g. “Would you like chicken or beef, you choose” works just as well in a deterministic world.

        If the incompatibilists restricted their complaint to the one term “free will” then they might have a point, but if they then proceed to say we aren’t making “choices” then yes we are, in the same way that chess-playing computers “choose” a move.

        I’d also suggest that the connotations are different in highly religiose America compared to Europe. Secular Europeans tend not to interpret such words as about uncaused minds.

        • Carl
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          I assumed this discussion was taking place in the metaphysical domain. The only problems I see with using “free will” and “choice” in everyday conversation happen when the fact of a deterministic universe is swept under the rug in the process.

  20. Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the heads-up! I only glanced over the list so far, and I found the many entries on cognitive distortions interesting. In my view, it’s a trendy topic I feel that is rather covered well. The type of people who read Edge certainly know of confirmation bias and the likes.

    The topics — as opposed to authors 😉 — that piqued my interest and were on subjects I myself discussed in the recent times:

    Noosphere: Hofstadter and Sander call it “discourse space”, Alan Moore calls it “idea space” or “mind space” and it’s very different from Peirce “phaneron”, and different from postmodern, relativist, idealistic or Platonic conceptions about the mind’s world. It’s the “sphere of the mind” where ideas reside, not the mind’s way of seeing reality. A decade ago, something like logical fallacies were an obscure subject. Now it’s known to most internet denizens. Recognizing idea-structures is a bit like Dutch landmass creation, and partially a collective effort. When I point out a logical fallacy, I must rely on other people being able to understand the thought, which refers not to something material, but to place in the Noosphere. Why I think it’s important: the context that brought it into mind was the censorship and shunning and shaming culture, which I view as a kind of book-burning in the Noosphere.

    Naive Realism: dealing with SJWs and their postmodernist flavoured ideas requires to also understand opposite views. Though no SJW ever made an intelligble attempt to argue against Naive Realism, I find myself occasioal between the fronts of realists and “lived experience” crowd, and positivist, verificationist, or naive realists on the other side. You Are Not So Smart made a great podcast featuring Lee Ross himself, an influential psychologist who “discovered” and studied Naive Realism.

    Lastly, Intellectual Honesty. Though I don’t know yet what Sam Harris has to say (should we bet Greenwald is mentioned?), I found it a recurring topic because our times are postmodern and post-truth not just because of Social Justice Warriors. A corner of their opponents thrive on alleged “ironic” embracing of fascist, racist, supremacist views in a so-called “edgelord” attitude. Likewise, the breakdown of discourse from the postmodernist SJW side is also often intellectually dishonest, occasionally to a point where I begin question their (or my) sanity. The age old problem emerges, whether some individuals are merely fantastically incompetent, somehow mentally challenged, or dishonest (the advice to assume incompetence rather than malice is known as Hanlon’s Razor). We need a new word, which I like to call “discompetence” and “discompetent”, merged from dishonest and incompetent, when you don’t know whether someone is (wilfully or naturally) obtuse, or ignorant, or incompetent or dishonest, lying or bullshitting or it’s all at once in a state of superposition and you have no way of knowing.

  21. grasshopper
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I found this quote on the back of a Feynman diagram depicting a positron travelling forwards in time.

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    There followed a polite request that the finder should forward the statement to a Mr. Zuckerberg.

    And I thought “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman”.

  22. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that the idea of parallel universes is as widely accepted as Tipler claims (after all, we need evidence to demonstrate its truth)

    The parallel universes of Everettian QM follow from basic QM in the same way that the inflationary multiverse follows from basic cosmology. In that sense, evidence for QM (e.g. two-slit interference by a single particle) is evidence for EQM. It takes additional postulates (for which we have no evidence!) to make the parallel universes disappear.

    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      The parallel universes of Everettian QM follow from basic QM in the same way that the inflationary multiverse follows from basic cosmology.

      That surely only follows if one regards the wavefunction as ontological rather than descriptive.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Sure, but the norm in science is to take seriously the ontology implied by a successful theory. There seems no good reason (discounting personal incredulity) for making QM an exception.

        • Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          OK, but does QM actually imply that the wavefunction is ontological?

          Quantum Field Theory, for example, suggests that particles are excitations of quantum fields (which is different from saying that the wavefunction is what is real).

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            When I studied QM (many years ago), no prof ever mentioned ontology. QM is, as someone pointed out, predictive of the evolution of a physical system in time. Period. Ontology is philosophy and therefore extra-physical, which doesn’t keep physicists form thinking about do not find that it leads to illumination.

            • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, that should have been:

              Ontology is philosophy and therefore extra-physical, which doesn’t keep physicists from thinking about it. Personally, I do not find that it leads to illumination.

  23. Posted January 1, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    A scientific concept I wish more people would know about would be markedness in linguistics and social sciences.

    Someone asks you “how young are you?”, and that draws special attention to their impression that you are young — maybe too young. Whereas the common question “how old are you?” does not make it seem someone is perceived as old. In such pairs, the default (“old” in our case) is unmarked, while the other (“young”) is the marked one.

    You can invite someone to a coffee (unmarked), but you don’t mean they literally have to drink coffee (marked). The coffee in an unmarked sense is a stand-in for any beverage one might fancy in the afternoon. You can agree to go for a coffee (unmarked), and then order a tea (marked).

    As you can go for a coffee (unmarked), which includes tea, but coffee (marked) does not include tea. The “descent of man” includes woman, but “man” (marked) excludes them.

    This has some interesting aspects as some ways of looking at the world are generic and invisible, dead as a doornail, while just switching the word-pair around suddenly draws attention to something.

    Where it gets more relevant today: What about feminism, or atheism? A feminist (marked) is an activist, whereas a feminist (unmarked) is someone whose views are broadly feministic. To give up on feminism and no longer thinking one is a feminist can mean two things: unmarked, one is no longer convinced in the equality of sexes, or marked, one is no longer a feminist activist (or is no longer embracing feminism as an identity).

    Similar confusions are around atheism. I’m not an atheist (marked), but my views are atheistic, hence, I’m an atheist in the unmarked sense. Consider some buddhist. They are clearly no theists, thus atheists, but they are not really atheists in the sense as Richard Dawkins is one.

  24. stuartcoyle
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I liked the suggestion “Principle of Least Action”, though I’d go more general and say “Noether’s Theorem”, though not the mathematics of it, just that idea that symmetries lead to conserved quantities.

    It makes it very clear why energy and momentum must be conserved, purely from arguments of symmetry of space-time.

  25. Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I am still trying to figure out how the 2017 question is different from the 2011 question.


    • Posted January 1, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      That’s what Sabine Hossenfelder said here: http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2017/01/the-2017-edge-annual-question-which.html

      Her take:

      “My first thought when I heard the 2017 Edge Annual Question was “Wasn’t that last year’s question?” It wasn’t. But it’s almost identical to the 2011 question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit.” That’s ok, I guess, the internet has an estimated memory of 2 days, so after 5 years it’s reasonable to assume nobody will remember their improved toolkit.”

      • Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

        Ah. I suppose the 2017 question is more general than the 2011 question because “improving everybody’s cognitive toolkit” is a single reason why a scientific concept should be more widely known. I wonder what the other reasons are.

  26. rickflick
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    So many fascinating articles. It will take me some time to get through those I just have to read.

  27. rickflick
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I just spotted the UPDATE under the title.

    UPDATE: I should have asked readers to answer the question for themselves, so I’m adding that here. Several people already have done that, and I encourage it.

    I’ll give that some thought.

  28. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    My answer to 2017 Edge Question “what scientific term or concept should be more widely known [& better understood!]?” is…

    “Singularity” – the point at which a mathematical object is no longer well defined due to infinities or non-differentiabilities in the maths. These types of singularities are often described in popular literature [& science papers] as if they are real things! e.g. infinite mass densities at the centre of black holes is probably a fiction

  29. alexandra Moffat
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”
    – Richard Feynman

  30. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Im happy to report that high school math classes are just starting to include stuff on Bayes theorem. The two Richards, Swinburne and Carrier, have tried to use Bs T to establish the existence of God and the nonexistence of Jesus.respectively. Both are using arbitray numbers but Carrief has admitted he is using a rough guess based on ultimately insufficient data. (He said so to me personally. Im not sure where he goes in his writing.) Swinburne seems to just pulling numbers out of a hat (one can think of a less delicate phrasing).

  31. Marilee Lovit
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    I was drawn to phenotypic plasticity, but the entry was about humans. The concept applies to ferns too.

  32. Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t read them (yet), but I agree with Sean Carroll. Mostly because his is the most pertinent to everyday life. The rest are interesting and curious people should be interested in them but I think lay people will find little use from understanding them.

    • Carl
      Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      This reminds me of Bill Murray reviewing Oscar nominations on Saturday Night Live.

  33. Carl
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Lastly, Intellectual Honesty. Though I don’t know yet what Sam Harris has to say (should we bet Greenwald is mentioned?) …

    Save your money Prof. Coyne. He doesn’t even discuss the Greenwald flavor of intellectual (dis)honesty, but one we all probably indulge in on occasion. We probably all agree with Harris’s thesis (before or after reading it). Yet can we follow its prescription?

  34. Craw
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Error bars.

  35. kelskye
    Posted January 1, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Nice – something to read on my week off from work. Looking forward to this.

    The concept I wish was more widely known was superconductivity. Not only because it’s really cool, but it’s a way to think about energy and energy loss.

  36. Henry Fitzgerald
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    I’ll go for regression to the mean.

    Anything that cuts back the clutter of spurious patterns out there…

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      James J. O’Donnell covers that exact subject [Regression to the Mean] – it’s in the Edge 2017 list, but perhaps you know that & you’re just saying which essay you think most pertinent

      • Henry Fitzgerald
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        No, I missed it. Read it now. Thanks!

  37. Henry Fitzgerald
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    By the way, of the featured entries, sex gets my vote, too.

  38. reasonshark
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Just started reading them, and already I’m impressed by Dawkins’ and Pinker’s. The Genetic Book of the Dead combines a poetic phrase with a fascinatingly huge idea about studying the past, while I’m in agreement with how Pinker uses the Second Law to show how our social attitudes should accommodate it.

    • reasonshark
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      Jared Diamond’s Common Sense… I agree with his point that a counterintuitive result should make us suspicious of the reasoning behind it, especially when some people seem to be too ready to upend the table of scientific legitimacy for street cred. I don’t think “common sense” is necessarily the right concept, since what he’s describing is closer to the idea of consilience – that new information must also account for and fit with old information – but from another angle. Besides, as someone undoubtedly if cynically said elsewhere, common sense is neither. 🙂

      • rickflick
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        Diamond, I notice, is aligned with Pinker’s theme. Adjusting to new information includes assessing probabilities that some conclusion is true.

    • reasonshark
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      Brian Eno’s Confirmation Bias. I wish he’d gone into more (i.e. actual) depth about it, but basically my response is an unequivocal “yes”. Anything that wakes people up to the shockingly irrational – or, to put a positive spin on it, contextually limited – cognitive biases in our thinking is a necessity in my book.

      Victoria Wyatt’s Evolve. I agree with her argument because I think the word “evolve” is misused, and it’s a real shame to see such a key concept of multifacted adaptation and change turned into such a blandly one-dimensional scale of progressiveness. The real concept is so much more fascinating complex and context-bound, as she says. Her point about it being a symptom of underlying problems in thought also rings true to me.

      David Christian’s (Vernadskyian) Noösphere. I had forgotten about this one. I think he’s tending towards human exceptionalism a little too much – surely, in a world of gradualistic continuums, social animals of different complexities should have a place in the Noosphere? But otherwise, another good concept I agree should be better known. Besides, we need reminding that our minds exist in Nature and aren’t some supernatural spirit things (ironic, considering the concept’s origins).

      Daniel C. Dennett’s Affordances. I get the impression this is already an easy-enough idea to grasp and that most people would see it as obvious, but I still think he makes a compelling point that we should think of the mind as a machine for swimming through seas of information, rather than as some kind of movie projector. I’m not entirely sure. Maybe if I think about his point, I’ll spot an implication I’m otherwise missing.

      I think I’d better stop there, otherwise I’m going to be gushing over nigh-every entry on that list. Thanks for posting it, Jerry! The Edge questions yield so many great responses.

  39. Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Whats wrong with Determinism

    Jerry’s contribution on Edge is a brilliantly succinct presentation of his views and arguments on the subject of the possibility of free will in a deterministic universe. The crux of this argument is that determinism itself precludes any possible place for free will to exist.

    The proposition that Jerry puts forward is, in my opinion, quite wrong for any number of reasons. Let me state a few of them as briefly as I can:

    1. There is no recognition of Emergence -Because the mind is a physical entity does NOT mean that we can explain all mental activity as subject only to the physics of neural activity. Jerry rightly draws the similarity of the mind to a computer complex. The point is, that we can not explain SOFTWARE in only terms of hardware. Software has mathematical attributes totally removed from NAND gates. Software as a mathematical entity in its own right. The “software of the mind” includes many very special abstracted capabilities – language and symbolic representation, modelling, associative referencing, pattern recognition, learning, self-modification, but to name a few. Free will is a property that can emerge from these computational capabilities at a sufficient level of complexity .

    2. There is no recognition of autonomy – The causality of Jerry’s determinism is treated as a continuum – not as though an organism can exist in itself as a causal system. Jerry’s thesis ignores the property of Evitability which almost all organisms exhibit.

    3. There is no proper recognition of selfhood – The highest form of evitability is exhibited in the most highly formed self – which of course exists only in our own species. The self, although strongly influenced by genetics and external experience is also to a large degree self programmed (self formed as Kane would have it). It has self-awareness which allows advanced decisional modelling to compute consequence. Self forming is an iterative/ recursive process – making the self a major contributor to the formation of a formed self (Hofstandter)

    4. There is an incorrect assumption that free will is a physical property – Jerry makes the inference that as free will exists in a physical universe that it must be physically measurable and therefore if it can NOT be physically measured it can not exist. This is a fallacy. Free will can be validly viewed as a human construct – as with beauty or love. It is subject to measurements within the realm of other human constructs such as “moral responsibility”. Denying human constructs is essentially denying everything that defines us as humans.

    5. There is an incorrect assumption that only a certain fixed dualist definition of the term free will must be applied- Jerry’s arguments move between the physical and the philosophical. For example the “could not have done otherwise” argument is essentially attempting to impose a physical causality to apply to a philosophical moral causality. There is also a dismissal of the real importance of definition itself – refinement of definition is a vital element of both science and philosophy

    Many arguments for the dismissal of the concept of free will bring up the possibilities of consequential benefits that might incur. I would argue that such a dismissal would just as likely lead to negative consequences. But all this is argument from consequence – which should be avoided I believe in settling the argument.

  40. Jim
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    This question is connected to Mr Pinkerton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics entry.

    If I understand the second law correctly, without energy entering a system, the system will become increasingly disordered.

    I read the entry and then went to pour myself some cold brew coffee and milk. I opened a glass container of whole milk. The cream had risen to the top, so I used a chopstick to stir the milk so that the cream would dissolve into the milk.

    It occurred to me that as I was stirring the milk it was becoming more disordered, which since I was increasing the energy, it should become more ordered.

    I’m guessing that I don’t quite get the distinction between order and disorder.

    Any brief explanation would be appreciated.

    Thank you

    • Carl
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Not brief, but worthwhile: Sean Carroll discusses an almost identical entropy/second law example in The Big Picture, using cream mixing with coffee.

      The author of the article may be a detective of sorts, but not that detective.

      • Jim
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, Carl.
        Happy New Year

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Jim you stirred the mug of coffee/milk [cm], thus you are included in the system as is the mug & as is the kitchen air local to the mc.

      The closed system must include these elements at a minimum:
      [1] The mc obviously
      [2] You. You’ve stirred the mc
      [3] The mug. Heat energy will be flowing into the mc via the mug interior surface [mug warmer than mc]
      [4] Kitchen air. Heat energy flowing into the mc via the kitchen air interface with the mc surface [air warmer than mc]

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        coffee/milk = cm = mc [just noticed I’ve swapped the letters]

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          Also noticed now you’re referring to the glass container of milk not the cm, but you get the idea! [sorry, not slept well & misread your post]

          • Jim
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

            Thank you Michael
            Happy New Year

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Sean Carroll has a good explanation of this in _The Big Picture_ and there’s an animated version of the explanation on YouTube.


      • Jim
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Ant and a Happy New Year.

  41. Jim
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    That should have been, Mr Pinker’s entry.

  42. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins speaks directly to me as a (hopefully) burgeoning bioinformatician! It is a huge project, but some group(s) should likely tackle it.

    I enjoyed Pinker’s piece, but I found Rees’s article the most interesting. He made the case for multiverses much more eloquent than I have been able to.

    Rees’s example of galaxies outside the observable horizon I think I have used (especially since we know more will disappear). But not black hole interiors (with the same situation of mass disappearing from view). Currently Big Bang is the same observational cut off, where we can imagine other volumes of an inflation process branch off.

    Too bad there is no sign of colliding sister universes in the cosmic microwave background. But someone may come up with another test.

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