In an On-Line Salon, Scientists Sit Back and Ponder
'What Is the Question You Are Asking Yourself?'
By Phil Leggiere 12.30.1997
AT his Web site, called Edge, John Brockman, a literary agent for many scientists and an author himself, tries to achieve what he calls ''electronic discourse at the highest level'' with people of ''the third culture'' — scientists and other researchers who, he says, ''are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives, redefining who and what we are.''
To mark the first anniversary of the site (http://www.edge.org), Mr. Brockman posed a question: ''Simply reading the six million volumes in the Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle mind,'' he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. ''How to avoid the anesthesiology of wisdom?'' He answered the question with other questions — by inviting participants to submit ''the question you are asking yourself.'' Here are some of their queries. They and others are now available at Edge.
What is the crucial distinction between inanimate matter and an entity which can act as an ''agent,'' manipulating the world on its own behalf, and how does that change happen?
— PHILIP ANDERSON
Physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton University
Is the universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident or a great thought?
"What do collapses of past societies teach us?"
— JOHN D. BARROW
Astronomer, University of Sussex
How can we build a new ethics of respect for life that goes beyond individual survival to include the necessity of death, the preservation of the environment and our current and developing scientific knowledge?
— MARY CATHERINE BATESON
Anthropologist, George Mason University
How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?
— STEWART BRAND
''Whole Earth'' catalogues founder
Which cognitive skills develop in any reasonably normal human environment and which only in specific sociocultural contexts?
— JOHN T. BRUER
President, James S. McDonnell Foundation
What is the mathematical essence that distinguishes living from nonliving, so that we can engineer a transcendence across the current boundaries?
— ROD BROOKS
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, M.I.T.
Do humans have evolved homicide modules — evolved psychological mechanisms specifically dedicated to killing other humans under certain contexts?
— DAVID BUSS
Psychologist, University of Texas
How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?
— WILLIAM H. CALVIN
Neurophysiologist, U. of Washington
Any musically aware listener will know of music that breaks out of established forms or syntax to profound effect — my personal favorites include Beethoven's ''Eroica Symphony,'' Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde,'' Schoenberg's ''Erwartung,'' Debussy's ''Apres Midi d'un Faune.'' What is the most that we can ever say objectively about what those composers are discovering?
— PHILIP CAMPBELL
If ethnicity and the human use of biological cues (and cultural and linguistic cues) to indicate social identity are parts of our evolutionary legacy, it makes it that much harder to eradicate ethnocentrism and racism. Can we do it?
— RACHEL CASPARI
Anthropologist, University of Michigan
If Gordon Moore was correct in his prediction that the amount of information storable on semiconductor chips would double every 18 months, over time is time more or less valuable?
— LUYEN CHOU
President, Learn Technologies Interactive
What is information and where does it ultimately originate?
— PAUL DAVIES
Physicist, University of Adelaide, Australia
What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?
— RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary biologist, Oxford
A crowd can empty a football stadium in minutes, solving what is an intractable computational problem and exhibiting large-scale adaptive intelligence in the absence of central direction. Why are decentralized processes ubiquitous throughout nature and society — evolution, itself, is such a process — and why do people remain so distrustful of them that they will sacrifice their autonomy and freedom for centralized solutions?
— ARTHUR DE VANY
Behavioral scientist, University of California at Irvine
How on earth does the brain manage its division of labor problem —that is, how do the quite specialized bits manage to contribute something useful when they get ''recruited'' by their neighbors to assist in currently dominant tasks?
— DANIEL C. DENNETT
Philosopher, Tufts University
What do collapses of past societies teach us about our own future?
— JARED DIAMOND
Biologist, University of California at Los Angeles Medical School
Throughout its history, the scientific community has shown great integrity in resisting the onslaught of antirationalism. How can it now be persuaded to show the same integrity in regard to scientism?
— DAVID DEUTSCH
Is psychic phenomenon just wishful thinking and can we ever prove it exists or doesn't exist using scientific methodology?
— JOHN C. DVORAK
Columnist for PC Magazine, PC/ Computing and Boardwatch
What makes a soul? And if machines ever have souls, what will be the equivalent of psychoactive drugs? Of pain? Of the physical/ emotional high I get from having a clean office?
— ESTHER DYSON
President, Edventure Holdings; RELEASE 1.0 newsletter
What goes on inside the head of a baby?
— FREEMAN DYSON
Physicist, Institute for Advanced Study
As biological and traditional forms of cultural evolution are superseded by electronic (or postelectronic) evolution, what will be the differentially propagating ''units'' and the outcome of the natural selection among them?
— PAUL EWALD
Will the ''theory of everything'' be a theory of principles, not particles? Will it invoke order from above, not below?
— KENNETH FORD
Retired Director, American Institute of Physics
However appropriate it may be for the economy, the ''market model'' is a grossly inadequate model for the rest of human society. With the decline of religious conviction and the slow pace of changes in the legal code, how can we nurture persons and institutions that can resist a purely market orientation in all spheres of living?
— HOWARD GARDNER
How can we improve our reward system for excellence in filtering, interpreting and synthesizing the vast body of so-called information with which we are deluged?
— Murray Gell-Mann
Nobel laureate in physics, Santa Fe Institute
How do intelligent beings learn to adapt successfully on their own to a rapidly changing world without forgetting what they already know?
— STEPHEN GROSSBERG
Cognitive scientist, Boston University
How can we reconcile our desire for fairness and equity with the brutal fact that people are not all alike?
— JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Is there a way to enlarge our separate tribal loyalties, to include all our fellow humans?
— REUBEN HERSH
Why is music such a pleasure?
— NICHOLAS HUMPHREY
Psychologist, The New School
What must a physical system be such that it can act on its own in an environment?
— STUART A. KAUFFMAN
Biologist, Santa Fe Institute
Are the laws of physics a logical coherent whole, so that with any small change the entire framework would crumble? Or are there a continuum of possibilities, only one of which happens to have been selected for our observed universe?
— LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
Physicist, Case Western Reserve University
What does technology want?
— KEVIN KELLY
Executive editor, Wired
With the ever-growing dominance of corporate forms of control in everyday social life, how do we reconcile our notions of personal liberty and autonomy rooted in Enlightenment political thought?
— EDWARD O. LAUMANN
Sociologist, University of Chicago
For how long can Christianity and Islam survive the recovery of living organisms from beyond our planet by our species? Can religion exist after humans have created living entities that reproduce?
— RICHARD LEAKEY
Paleoanthropologist; former director, Kenya Wildlife Service
How can we know when and what we do not know?
— SIR JOHN MADDOX
Editor emeritus, Nature
How does the capacity for low mood give a selective advantage?
— RANDOLPH NESSE, M.D.
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan
Why are religions still vital?
— ELAINE H. PAGELS
Professor of religion, Princeton
How does the brain represent the meaning of a sentence?
— STEVEN PINKER
Cognitive scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Is there a happiness gene, and is it dominant?
— LOUIS ROSSETTO
Co-founder and publisher of Wired
I often wonder — sometimes despair — whether it will be possible to solve long-term, global problems (global warming being my current focus) until we can overcome collective denial, which in turn, may not become conscious until we grapple with personal myths. I question whether the eventual loss of half the other species on earth will even be enough to overcome personal escapism that has gone collective. . . . Perhaps that's not even a question, but it occupies my mind a lot.
— STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER
Do exotic life forms, made of very different materials than those used by life on earth, occur elsewhere in the universe?
— ROBERT SHAPIRO
Biochemist, New York University
Fundamentally, is the flow of time something real, or might our sense of time passing be just an illusion that hides the fact that what is real is only a vast collection of moments?
— LEE SMOLIN
Physicist, Penn State University
Why are most individuals and all human societies grossly underachieving their potentials?
— DUNCAN STEEL
What was the key factor in the success of Homo sapiens compared with other human species such as the Neanderthals?
— CHRIS STRINGER
Research paleoanthropologist, The Natural History Museum, London
— LINDA STONE
Director of the Virtual Worlds Group in the Microsoft Advanced Technology and Research Division
A joint question:
When posterity looks back on the 20th century from the perspective of a hundred years, what will they see as our greatest successes and worst follies?
— PAMELA McCORDUCK
— JOSEPH TRAUB
Computer scientist, Columbia
Can we devise a religion for the 21st century and beyond that is plausible and yet avoids banality — one that people see the need for? What would it be like?
— COLIN TUDGE
Is the phenomenology of modern biology converging on a small number of basic truths or will it increasingly diverge, becoming so endlessly complex that no single human mind will be able to encompass it?
— ROBERT A. WEINBERG, M.D.
Biologist, M.I.T.; Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
What do we want from science?
— MARGARET WERTHEIM