This year’s Edge question

Every year John Brockman, the literary agent for many scientists who write popular books (including me), asked all of us to answer a question as part of his online salon, Edge. Usually the questions involve writing short essays, maybe two hundred words or so, and I’ve contributed a few times. This year, however, will be the last such question, and it requires a single-sentence answer. Here it is:

For the 50th anniversary of “The World Question Center,” and for the finale to the twenty years of Edge Questions, I turned it over to the Edgies:

“Ask ‘The Last Question,’ your last question, the question for which you will be remembered.”

Click the screenshot for the answers, which are many, diverse, and in alphabetical order by respondent (go to the bottom of the linked page, where you’ll find 14 pages of answers—or rather, questions).

The questions I found most provocative and intriguing were those posed by Gregory Benford, Paul Bloom, Jimena Canales (I don’t quite get what she means), Oliver Curry, Dan Dennett, Keith Devlin, Neil Gershenfeld, Hans Halvorson, Marti Hearst, Bruce Hood, Dale Jamieson, Gordon Kane, Kai Krause, Janna Levin, Elaine Pagels (Ed Regis and Christopher Stringer’s questions resemble hers), William Press, Diana Reiss, Gino Segre, Dan Sperber, and Anton Zeilinger.

Several of us asked questions involving free will: along with me there’s Rebecca Goldstein and Robert Sapolsky, all of us assuming determinism is true and wondering about the consequences of accepting it.

The questions often fall into distinct areas, particularly the mechanism of cognition, how the laws of physics arise, what will happen to human evolution in the “Anthropocene” (Helena Cronin and David Buss have questions about sexual selection), the consequences of artificial intelligence, the problem of consciousness, and the limitations on our ability to know.  Brockman’s task was hard, and I’m not sure whether my question is a “Last Question,” but I do think it’s an important one.

If you’d like, take a crack at giving your own answer in the comments.

44 Comments

  1. Liz
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    The “if” is important as well as the details of cognition. It’s a good question.

  2. Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I’ll just note that a fellow from the Discovery Institute- Steve Fuller- was a respondent but he didn’t ask a question about intelligent design or God.

    I’ve gotten through K and feel a lot of the questions were wasted opportunities.
    The question I would have asked would have something along the lines of what Hillis asked about how complex systems such as life arise. In lieu of that I’d ask if AI is destined to surpass us and be the ‘story’ of the next few billion years, with organic life and humanity just being the prologue.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Fuller is also a notorious postmodernist. (I suspect that there are fair numbers of pomo-style antirealists that are hiding religious convictions – JA Campbell was another.)

      • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        I’m surprised to hear that. I would have thought postmodernists would have almost as objectionable to religious folks at the DI as they are to scientists.

        • Posted February 6, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          The idea is they both want to “cut science down to size” and that sort of thing. JA Campbell, for example, has a talk “Why Was Darwin Believed?” and it is all about speaking style and that – he’s a “rhetorician of science”. I told him that in order to complete the argument one needed to work on the content too and that would be interesting as a collaboration between him and a philosopher or historian. I later saw his name at the DI and now know why he refused this sort of thing. (I thought he was just being content-free like a pomo.)

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    … the consequences of artificial intelligence …

    I see that PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who vibes as something of a Bond villain for the Age of Trump, was recently quoted as saying that, after the technological singularity comes, and runaway AI achieves world domination, the computers will probably keep us humans around for our entertainment value, as something akin to house cats.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      As long as my computer treats me like Hili or Gus, I’ll be okay with that.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I figure we humans could do worse.

  4. Jonathan Dore
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Interesting that the majority of questions were to do with the life sciences (including consciousness). I suspect fifty years ago most would have been about subatomic physics and cosmology.

  5. glen1davidson
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    What was the next to last question?

    Glen Davidson

  6. Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Will it be the case that humans are the reason the universe is here at all?

    I do not mean religious solipsism. I am wondering if humans or our descendants , carbon or otherwise, live long enough to control and make the universe, and are the very authors of this universe.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      See Isaac Asimov, The Last Question, 1956.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        I was just going to say this!

  7. rickflick
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    How long will Homo sapiens survive?
    (Backup question: Will Trump get more than 2 terms?)

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      More than TWO terms, that’s a dark question.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

        Could we call anything less treason?

        Why not.

  8. Historian
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    My question:

    Will within the next 50 years through genetic manipulation human lifespan be extended indefinitely and, if so, is that a good thing?

    I don’t know if this will happen, but if it does it will be the greatest scientific achievement ever. It would also probably spell the end of the human species.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      My favorite cartoon: two middle aged paunchy balding men are talking at a bar. One says to the other: The trouble with all this healthy living is that all the extra years come at the end when you’re old.

  9. Christopher Henson
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Hey, is that a real gun?

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      It took me a second but…that’s pretty damn funny. Well done.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Nice one! 🙂

  10. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I love the Sam Harris question:
    “Is the actual all that is possible?”
    If the answer was yes, then determinism would rule absolutely. However, I think the answer is “no”.

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      If I understand the question, Harris is asking if things could have been different than they are or is our belief that they could have been an illusion. It seems to me that the answer is trivially, ‘yes’, unless our basic understanding of physics is incorrect.

      • Rosmarie Maran
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Do you include Thermodynamics, especially the Second Law of it, into physics? If every moment had only one way to go into the next, entropy would be a completely unknown concept.

  11. greybloon
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    My question is,

    Beside 42, what is the meaning of life,

  12. Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Does Free Won’t exist?

    • greybloon
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

      Doug Hofstadter thinks so.

  13. Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Hilbert and Newton both gave lists of problems for posterity to work on.

    Now we have a “crowdsourced” version, though I would say some of the questions are a bit “cranky”.

    I also notice that nobody asked a question in chemistry – though there was one in geology (prediction of earthquakes), so not everyone was asking “deep questions” …

  14. Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that so many ask, directly or indirectly, whether there is some magical difference between human and machine. I think I know the answer to that.

    If asked, my last question would have been “Is there a last question?”

  15. Mark R.
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    “Why are there no trees in the ocean?” Really? I enjoyed many of the questions, but some (like the above) seemed childish (in that a child would ask it).

    • Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      I agree. There are a few that seem trivial, but I’m not sure if questions like that one include all the whys that come after it.

      • Mark R.
        Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Salt and too much water. I didn’t see a lot of proceeding whys. No niche for a tree to fill in the ocean…

  16. Kiwi Dave
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    For those of us less learned than contributors to the Edge, more mundane and immediate questions suffice. Last night I spent some 40 minutes fruitlessly cogitating on and searching for the whereabouts of the spare parts for a recently installed but suddenly leaking bathroom fixture. Fortunately, my wife knew the answer.

  17. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Also this question is nice:
    “How can we rebel against our genes if we are biological creatures without free will?”
    From Itai Yanai.

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      And it’s not even necessary to invoke free will here. “How can we rebel against our genes, being biological creatures?” That’s completely enough for a very good question about how the world works.

  18. Posted February 5, 2018 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I like Donald Hoffman’s question, but probably because it’s related to black holes. There are a few others that I really like, such as Judith Harris’s “How could one last question possibly be enough?” and Mary Bateson’s “Will the process of discovery be completed in any of the natural sciences?” (Lawrence Krauss asked something similar.) Brain Keating’s “Is there any observational evidence that could shake your faith, or lack thereof?” is one I think everyone should consider.

    But there are a few I find ridiculous as well, like Luca De Biase’s “If we want to make a real and effective science-based policy, should we change politics or science?” I feel it is obvious that policy should change. Or Amanda Gefter’s “Is intersubjectivity possible in a quantum mechanical universe?” Given that there’s no universally agreed-upon definition of “intersubjectivity”, this question is kind of unanswerable. But if it refers to anything that exists. The answer is a trivial yes.

    But I’m rambling. I should probably shut up.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      It looked too long but as a rambler myself it was time for payback.

  19. nicky
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    As observed, there were questions of different quality, but then, who’s to determine?
    Noted there were several questions on free will (including our host’s). I think that the question by Anthony Aguirre: “Are complex biological neural systems fundamentally unpredictable” is quite pertinent. Even if the answer is ‘no’, the possibility of ‘yes’ would go a long way to explain accommodationism (something I’m surreptitiously flirting with) 🙂

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I just noticed something:

    “If you’d like, take a crack at giving your own *ANSWER* in the comments.”

    Answer, people – answer.

  21. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 5, 2018 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Surfer dude lives! Did you see his question?

  22. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 6, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Just results of my hobby here :

    Web Browser : Google Chrome
    define:free will
    -> translated to :
    definition of free will

    result:

    free will

    the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
    synonyms: self-determination, freedom of choice, autonomy, liberty, independence More
    “they take for granted their blessed right to free will”
    voluntarily, willingly, readily, freely, without reluctance, without compulsion, of one’s own accord, of one’s own volition, of one’s own choosing
    “I pursued a modeling career of my own free will”
    adjective
    adjective: free-will; adjective: free will; adjective: freewill
    1.
    (especially of a donation) given readily; voluntary.
    “free-will offerings”

    Google Ngram link:

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=Free+will&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CFree%20will%3B%2Cc0

  23. aljones909
    Posted February 6, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Consciousness?

  24. Posted February 6, 2018 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I’d nominate Scott Alexander’s Meditations on Moloch for the Last Question. Moloch is the name of an Alan Ginsburg poem about vast forces of cruelty and destruction; Moloch is also a Carthaginian god who demanded the sacrifice of children to grant victory in war. Alexander riffs off the latter theme: competition (war; capitalism; evolution) demands the sacrifice of what we hold most dear. Those who abandon all other values other than winning, are likely to prevail in the competition. Others will go extinct. Evolution is not your friend, if you value the long term survival of humanity as we know and love it. Scott Alexander writes:

    Everything the human race has worked for – all of our technology, all of our civilization, all the hopes we invested in our future – might be accidentally handed over to some kind of unfathomable blind idiot alien god that discards all of them, and consciousness itself, in order to participate in some weird fundamental-level mass-energy economy that leads to it disassembling Earth and everything on it for its component atoms.

    AI is a worry, but only one of many. The last question: can “Moloch” be defeated?

    • Posted March 12, 2018 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Just to clarify: the “blind idiot alien god” is Scott Alexander’s poetic metaphor for evolution.


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