The guy who runs Edge, the site we’ve had some fun with over the years, has decided he’s run out of interesting questions. So to go out with a noise, which you’ll have to judge is a bang or a poof, he asked his quiver of intellectuals What is the last question?
Answers, or rather questions, go on for fourteen pages. If there is any one theme, it is the conviction that (as we said earlier) scientists need training in not just physics, but metaphysics. Toss in a healthy dose of history, too. I know this not only because the questions demonstrate this lack, but by experience. I’ve mentioned many times that it is possible for a person to graduate with a PhD in the sciences from (what is considered to be) a top university with no requirement, or even expectation, of having learned any philosophy. Or history. Or much of anything else, really.
On the other hand, there are many non-scientists, philosophers and the like, asking questions, too. Not too much curiosity among the of what used to be considered The Big Questions.
Browse yourself. Here are some examples.
Samuel Arbesman: “How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?” Given any reading history, the easy prediction is that it ain’t gonna happen.
Of course, you can’t read too much into this, or any other, question. It’s tough being put on the spot and coming up with something that doesn’t sound trite or thick-headed. Avoiding that obvious trap is why some ducked into humor. Like Scott Aaronson. “Can we program a computer to find a 10,000-bit string that encodes more actionable wisdom than any human has ever expressed?” No, Scott, we can’t. Or Stewart Brand: “Can wild animals that are large and dangerous be made averse to threatening humans?” Yes. Tax them for every attack.
But then (still on the first page!) we have Noga Arikha asking “Will it ever be possible for us to transcend our limited experience of time as linear?” Just stand in front of a microwave and wait for it to beep. Or listen to Symphonie fantastique.
Lisa Feldman Barrett asks “How does a single human brain architecture create many kinds of human minds?” There are many questions like that, all assuming we are nothing but moving bits of matter. If you assume that, you can’t ask the last question. You’ll end up asking things like Ian Bogost asked: “Is there a way for humans to directly experience what it’s like to be another entity?” Or what Joshua Bongard asked: “Will a machine ever be able to feel what an organism feels?” No and no.
Our boy Jerry Coyne is back, arguing he doesn’t exist. “If science does in fact confirm that we lack free will, what are the implications for our notions of blame, punishment, reward, and moral responsibility?” None, Jerry. For if we do not have free will, there’s nothing anybody can do about anything.
Emanuel Derman: “Are accurate mathematical theories of individual human behavior possible?” No.
Jared Diamond: “Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?” Because, Jerry, science is 99% meaningless to most people, and always will be. Knowing the weight of a neutrino won’t tell you what kind of Christmas present to buy your mother-in-law.
P. Murali Doraiswamy: “How will we know if we achieve universal happiness?” Look for the smiles, Murray.
Daniel L. Everett: “Will humans ever embrace their own diversity?” Good grief, Danny boy, good grief.
Hans Halvorson: “Is scientific knowledge the most valuable possession of humanity?” No, Hans, it isn’t.
Bruce Hood: “What would the mind of a child raised in total isolation of other animals be like?” Not to self. Do not ask Bruce to be the babysitter.
Some questions are great. Giulio Boccaletti: “How much biodiversity do we need?” Love it! Given we’ve lost a lot of dinosaurs, and so forth, yet few would wish them still roaming about, what is needed? Needed for what?
Tyler Cowen: “How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of the year 1900?” There’s a great scene in They Drive by Night, favored by the Blonde Bombshell, in which Skipper’s dad, Alan Hale, is frantically trying to work a radio dispatch machines. “I wish they’d stop inventing things,” he said.
Now I gave up quoting after page six or seven—there’s a limit to the amount of fun I allow myself—but I read through all the questions. When there wasn’t indifference, there was hostility to religion. Here are two representative questions.
Ed Regis: “Why is reason, science, and evidence so impotent against superstition, religion, and dogma?” Tim White: “How much would surrendering our god(s) strengthen the odds of our survival?”
Not one person asked The Question. What a depressing bunch.