THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER — 1998

WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU ASKING YOURSELF? James Lee Byars [1.11.98]
Topic:
Introduction By: John Brockman

Everything has been explained. There is nothing left to consider. The explanation can no longer be treated as a definition. The question: a description. The answer: not explanation, but a description and knowing how to consider it. Asking or telling: there isn't any difference.

The final elegance: assuming, asking the question. No answers. No explanations. "Why do you demand explanations? If they are given, you will once more be facing a terminus. They cannot get you any further than you are at present."[1] The solution: not an explanation: a description and knowing how to consider it.

Experience a minute. Experience an hour. Can you experience a minute and an hour together, simultaneously, at the same time? This is an important question to ask.

No explanation, no solution, but consideration of the question. "Every proposition proposing a fact must in its complete analysis propose the general character of the universe required for the fact."[2] The description, the proposition: not a definition, but a commission. "Understanding a commission means: knowing what one has got to do."[3]

Any new style, any new life, any new world, is but a god where gods are no longer valid. "The god that one so finds is but a word born of words, and returns to the word. For the reply we make to ourselves is assuredly never anything other than the question itself."4

"Our kind of innovation consists not in the answers, but in the true novelty of the questions themselves; in the statement of problems, not in their solutions."5 What is important is not "to illustrate a truth—or even an interrogation—known in advance, but to bring to the world certain interrogations . . . not yet known as such to themselves."6

A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in fantastic amounts of data, or in huge libraries filled with books. There's no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation. For a total synthesis of human knowledge, use the interrogative. Ask the most subtle sensibilities in the world what questions they are asking themselves.

— from By the Late John Brockman, 1969

~~

In Edge 19, I presented a eulogy to honor my friend and collaborator of sorts, the artist James Lee Byars, who died in Egypt last May.

I met Byars in 1969 when he sought me out after the publication of my first book, By the Late John Brockman. We were both in the art world, we shared an interest in language, in the uses of the interrogative, in avoiding the anesthesiology of wisdom, and in "the Steins"—Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein, and Frankenstein. In 1971, our dialogue, in part, informed the creation by James Lee of "The World Question Center".

I wrote the following about his project at the time of his death:

"James Lee inspired the idea that led to the Reality Club (and subsequently to Edge), and is responsible for the motto of the club. He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million volumes of books. (In this regard he kept only four books at a time in a box in his minimally furnished room, replacing books as he read them.) This led to his creation of the World Question Center in which he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world together in a room, lock them behind closed doors, and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves.

The expected result, in theory, was to be a synthesis of all thought. But between idea and execution are many pitfalls. James Lee identified his 100 most brilliant minds (a few of them have graced the pages of this Site), called each of them, and asked what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him."

That was in 1971. New technologies equal new perceptions. The Internet and email now allow for a serious implementation of Jimmy Lee's grand design and I am pleased to note that among the contributors are Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann, two names on his 1971 list of "the 100 most brilliant minds in the world."

For the first anniversary edition of Edge I asked a number of the third culture thinkers to use the interrogative. I have asked "the most subtle sensibilities in the world what questions they are asking themselves."

I am pleased to present The World Question Center.

"Given the ability of regulatory proteins to rescue functions between taxa that haven't shared a common ancestor for over 600 million years how do we integrate this into the way we think about the evolution of phenotype?"

JEREMY C. AHOUSE
Works in developmental genetics at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"Is a greater understanding of the way the brain works going to give me a new language to explain what it is like to be me? Will the words we use now one day seem as strange as the 'humours' we once used to explain the state of our bodies? And what will be the consequence if a scientist gains the power to know me better than I can know myself?"

ALUN ANDERSON
Editor of New Scientist, biologist and author of Science And Technology In Japan.

"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
Nobel laureate physicist at Princeton.

"Exactly how much of nature can we trash and burn and get away with it?"

NATALIE ANGIER
Science writer for The New York Times; author ofNatural Obsessions, The Beauty Of The Beastly.

"To what extent can we achieve a more just society through the use of better economic indicators, and to what extent is our choice of economic indicators just a reificiation of the wishes of those who are already economically powerful?"

JOHN BAEZ
Mathematical physicist at University of California, Riverside.

"What if Gutenberg had invented the world wide web instead of the movable type slug? How would the questions scientists chose to ask themselves over the past five centuries, and the language in which they chose to answer, have been different?"

JAMES BAILEY
Former executive at Thinking Machines; author of After Thought.

"As a theoretical physicist, the interpretation of quantum mechanics and the nature of time are what occupy me most, but, as a mystified sentient being, I should like to ask the child's question: Are the most remarkable things in life ÷ sights, sounds, colors, tastes ÷ really just subjective epiphenomena with no role or significance in the 'objective' world?"

JULIAN BARBOUR
Theoretical physicist; author of The Frame Of Mind.

"Will we ever generate enough bandwidth to convey prana?"

JOHN PERRY BARLOW
Co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation; a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

"Is the Universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident, or a great thought?"

"Is there enough information in the observable universe to identify the fundamental laws of Nature beyond all reasonable doubt?"

"Are there other minds that think about us?"

JOHN D. BARROW
Cosmologist, Professor of Astronomy, University of Sussex, UK; author of Theories Of Everything; Pi In The Sky.

"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; authorComposing A Life; Peripheral Visions.

"How can considering the longest time scales in human endeavor lead us to deal with the approaching crises of greenhouse warming and species diversity?"

GREGORY BENFORD
Physicist, University of California, Irvine; author ofTimescape.

"How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?"

STEWART BRAND
Founder of The Whole Earth Catalog; author of How Buildings Learn.

"Which cognitive skills develop in any reasonably normal human environment and which only in specific socio-cultural contexts?"

JOHN T. BRUER
President, James S. McDonnell Foundation

"What is the mathematical essence that distinguishes living from non-living, so that we can engineer a transcendence across the current boundaries?"

ROD BROOKS
Computer scientist; director of MIT's AI Lab.

"Do humans have evolved homicide modules ÷ evolved psychological mechanisms specifically dedicated to killing other humans under certain contexts?"

DAVID BUSS
Psychologist at University of Texas at Austin; author ofThe Evolution Of Desire.

"If Mosaic had never supported pictures (read: the Internet didn't become a commercial medium), what would I be doing right now?"

JASON McCABE CALCANIS
Publisher, Silicon Alley Reporter.

"How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?"

WILLIAM H. CALVIN Theoretical neurophysiologist, University of Washington; author of The Cerebral Code; How Brains Think.

"Any musically aware listener will know of music that breaks out of established forms or syntax to profound effect ÷ my personal favourites include Beethoven'sEroica 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? What are the limits of objective description using science, mathematics and musical analysis? More generally, how do these structures in sound make sense? As of now, I see only very preliminary hypotheses in response to this last question, no possibility of much more given current understanding and techniques, and no consensus as to the ultimate constraints on such an answer."

PHILIP CAMPBELL
Editor of Nature.

"It's probably the case that intergroup competition was an important part of human evolution and there is increasing evidence that 'ethnicity' may be a correlate of 'modernity.' 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? How can we engage our focus on the flip side of competition ÷ cooperation?"

RACHEL CASPARI
Anthropologist at the University of Michigan; coauthor ofRace And Human Evolution.

"How can we develop an objective language for describing subjective experience?"

DAVID CHALMERS Philosopher, University of California, Santa Cruz; author of The Conscious Mind.

"When will we learn to ask 'And then what' as a matter of course?"

JEREMY CHERFAS
Biologist and BBC Radio Four broadcaster; author ofThe Seed Savers Handbook.

"If Gordon Moore was correct in his prediction that the amount of information storable on semiconductor chips would double every 18 months, then over time is time more or less valuable?"

LUYEN CHOU
President and CEO of Learn Technologies Interactive in New York City, an interactive media developer and publisher.

"How can we sustain young people's interest in asking questions such as these? Does the emphasis on personal success and security divert psychic energy from taking the long-term view on things? How long can we keep curiosity and creativity alive in an increasingly materialistic culture?"

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI

Psychologist, University of Chicago; author of Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience; Creativity."What is information and where does it ultimately originate?"

PAUL DAVIES
Physicist, University of Adelaide, Australia; author ofThe Mind Of God; Are We Alone.

"What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?"

RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary biologist, Oxford; author of River Out Of Eden; Climbing Mount Improbable.

"How can we even begin to formulate the right questions about consciousness?"

STANISLAS DEHAENE
Cognitive neuropsychologist, Institut National de la SantŽ; author of The Number Sense.

"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 (or is this 'recruitment' an illusion ÷ are they not helping but just complaining about the noise caused by their hyperactive neighbors)?"

DANIEL C. DENNETT 
Philosopher, Tufts University; author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Kinds Of Minds.

"Throughout its history, the scientific community has shown great integrity in resisting the onslaught of anti-rationalism. How can it now be persuaded to show the same integrity in regard to scientism?"

DAVID DEUTSCH
Physicist, Oxford University; author of The Fabric Of Reality.

"Why are decentralized processes ubiquitous in nature and society and why are they so poorly understood that people will sacrifice their autonomy and freedom for authoritarian, centralized solutions (gods, governments, and gurus) to personal and social problems?"

ARTHUR DE VANY
Professor, Mathematical Behavioral Sciences Dept., University Of California, Irvine.

"Is justice real?"

THOMAS DE ZENGOTITA 
Anthropologist; teaches philosophy and anthropology at The Dalton School and at the Draper Graduate Program at New York University.

"What do collapses of past societies teach us about our own future?"

JARED DIAMOND
Biologist, UCLA Medical School; author of The Third Chimpanzee; Guns, Germs, And Steel

"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, 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, Edventures Holdings, Inc; publisher ofRelease 1.0 Newsletter; author of Release 2.0.

"The best questions were asked long ago. For example, Fermi's question, 'Where are they?', and Blake's question, 'How do you know but ev'ry bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?' My question is, 'What goes on inside the head of a baby?' "

FREEMAN DYSON
Physicist, Institute for Advanced Study; author ofDisturbing The Universe; From Eros To Gaia.

"Why not trees in the oceans?"

GEORGE DYSON
Leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut kayaks; author of Baidarka; Darwin Among The Machines. 

"Will we find the will and the way to limit our population growth before the Biosphere does it for us?"

NILES ELDREDGE
Paleontologist and Curator at The American Museum of Natural History; author of The High Table; Dominion.

"As biological and traditional forms of cultural evolution are superseded by electronic (or post-electronic) evolution, what will be the differentially propagating "units" and the outcome of the natural selection among them?"

PAUL EWALD
Evolutionary biologist at Amherst; author of Evolution Of Infectious Disease.

"Will the 'theory of everything' be a theory of principles, not particles? Will it invoke order from above, not below?"

KENNETH FORD
Retired Director of the American Institute of Physics; author of The World Of Elementary Particles.

"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
Psychologist at Harvard; author of Frames Of Mind; The Mind's New Science; Extraordinary Minds.

"When will the nation's leading intellectuals come clean & admit that Biblical doctrine (on women, nature, homosexuality, the absolute nature of moral truth and lots of other topics) makes them cringe and they are henceforth NOT Jews and NOT Christians, and the hell with old time religion?"

DAVID GELERNTER
Computer scientist at Yale; author of Mirror Worlds; Drawing Life.

"Is superstring theory (or M-theory, as it has become) the long-sought unified theory of all the elementary particles and forces of nature?"

"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 physicist at the Santa Fe Institute; author of The Quark And The Jaguar.

"How can we teach each other to embrace pluralism, and to trust each other with the new tools that promote privacy and freedom of speech?"

MIKE GODWIN
EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) Staff Counsel.

"Can science survive the sell-out to technology and the corporate sector?"

BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College; author of How The Leopard Changed Its Spots.

"At what point a complex organic macro-structure becomes 'alive' ?"

MARCELO GLEISER
Brazilian physicist, Dartmouth; author of The Dancing Universe.

"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 at Boston University; author ofStudies Of Mind And Brain; The Adaptive Brain.

"It appears likely that the universe that we can observe is just one of an infinity of 'pocket universes,' which are continually being created by a process called eternal inflation. These pocket universes are believed to split off from a region of 'false vacuum', which expands so quickly that its volume increases forever, despite the loss of volume to the formation of pocket universes. The problem is to find a reliable way to extract predictions from this picture. The properties of the pocket universes can vary, and with an infinity of trials essentially anything will happen an infinite number of times. We need to learn how to distinguish the probable from the improbable, but so far such a probability calculation has never been given a precise definition."

ALAN GUTH
Physicist at MIT; author of The Inflationary Universe.

"Are life and consciousness purely emergent phenomena, or subtly connected to a fundamental level of the universe?"

STUART HAMEROFF, M.D. 
Neuroscientist, University of Arizona; coeditor ofToward A Science Of Consciousness.

"How can we reconcile our desire for fairness and equity with the brutal fact that people are not all alike?"

JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Developmental psychologist; co-author of The Child: A Contemporary View Of Development.

"It is now possible for functional parts of one animal's brain to be transplanted into another's. A tasty question for future research, one with volatile biomedical and ethical implications, is whether the memories and goals and desires of one animal can be transplanted as well?"

MARC D. HAUSER
Evolutionary psychologist at Harvard; author of The Evolution Of Communication.

"Is there a way to enlarge our separate tribal loyalties, to include all our fellow humans?"

REUBEN HERSH
Mathematician; author of What Is Mathematics, Really?

"Where is the frontier?"

W. DANIEL HILLIS
Computer scientist; V-P of R&D at the Walt Disney Company author of How Computers Think(forthcoming).

"How can we bring up children so that they have the ability to form satisfying relationships and a proper moral sense? How do we construct a society with a proper moral code? Do we know what a proper moral code is?"

ROBERT HINDE
Ethologist; Fellow, former Master and Royal Society Professor, St. John's College, Cambridge; author ofTowards Understanding Releationships; Individuals, Relationships, and Culture.

"Can we use our current technology to bring C. P. Snow's two cultures closer together? For example, could we produce a vision-oriented, computer-based version of the cross-cultural artifact envisioned in Hermann Hesse's Das Glasperlenspiel?"

JOHN HENRY HOLLAND
Computer Scientist at the University of Michigan; author of Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity; Emergence.

"Does anyone who is not a fool or fundamentalist still believe in utopia?"

JOHN HORGAN
Science writer; author of The End Of Science.

"Why and how do we jump to conclusions in mathematics?"

VERENA HUBER-DYSON
Mathematician; author of Goedel's Theorems; A Workbook On Formalization.

"Why is music such a pleasure?"

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY
Psychologist at The New School for Social Research; author of Consciousness Regained; A History Of The Mind; Leaps Of Faith.

"What will be the framework for a scientific study of the subject-object split?"

PIET HUT
Astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study; President of the Kira Institute.

"What are the implications of the science of complex adaptive systems for the nature of law and of legal personhood?"

DAVID JOHNSON 
Attorney; founder of Counsel Connect; Co-Director, Cyberspace Law Institute.

 


"If humanity ever encounters an alien intelligence, will we be able to communicate with it ÷ or even realize that it is there?

GEORGE JOHNSON
Writer, The New York Times; author of Fire In The Mind; Machinery Of The Mind.

"What happens when a the library of human knowledge can process what it knows and provide advice? In other words what happens when the Library of Alexandria, Computing, and the Oracle at Delphi merge?"

BREWSTER KAHLE
Computer scientist; founder: Wide Area Information Servers Inc.; The Internet Archive; Alexa.

"What must a physical system be such that it can act on its own in an environment."

STUART A. KAUFFMAN
Biologist at the Santa Fe Institute; author of Origins Of Order; At Home In The Universe.

"What does technology want?"

KEVIN KELLY
Executive editor, Wired; author of Out Of Control.

"Do we or even can we know the joint multi-variable probability density function (f(x1, ... , xn)) that describes any realworld event?"

BART KOSKO
Electrical engineer at USC; author of Fuzzy Thinking; Nanotime.

"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 Universe University; author of The Fifth Essence; Fear Of Physics; The Physics Of Star Trek.

"How do neural computation principles and the neural networks of our brains, together with the relevant aspects of experience, account for the details of all human concepts, especially their structure, how they are learned, and how they are used in thought and expressed in language?"

GEORGE LAKOFF
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Berkeley; coauthor of Metaphors We Live ; author of Women, Fire, And Dangerous Things.

"How can minds, lives, and relationships be enhanced by information systems in unforeseen ways?"

"How can scientific and technological culture be articulated so that fewer people are driven to embrace superstitions, and so that technology is more likely to be designed and judged on humanistic terms?"

JARON LANIER
Computer scientist and musician; pioneer of virtual reality.

"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 at the University of Chicago; author of The Social Organization Of Sexuality.

"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 and former director of Kenya's Wildlife Services; author of Origins Of Humankind and coauthor of The Sixth Extinction.

"'What is the question I am asking myself?' ÷ After contemplating this for hours the only honest answer I could come up with was, 'What is the question I am asking myself?'"

SETH LLOYD
Physicist at MIT, who works on problems having to do with information and complex systems.

"How can we know when and what we do not know?"

SIR JOHN MADDOX
Editor emeritus of Nature; author of The Doomsday Syndrome; What Remains To Be Discovered(forthcoming).

"Do new computing technologies create or destroy jobs?"

JOHN MARKOFF
Technology reporter, The New York Times; coauthor,Takedown.

"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
(McCorduck:) Writer; author of Machines Who Think; coauthor of The Futures Of Women. (Traub:) Computer scientist at Columbia; author of Complexity And Information (forthcoming).

"What will happen when the male, scientific, hierarchical, control-oriented Western culture that has dominated Western thought integrates with the emerging female, spiritual, holographic, relationship-oriented Eastern way of seeing?"

JERRY MICHALSKI
Editor, Release 1.0

"Will it be possible to direct young people to the great educational question of learning what they have become without having chosen it, their unknown internal worlds, in the face of the blistering assault of stimuli ( in medias res, truly) they encounter continuously each day?"

FRANK MORETTI
Philosopher & educator; Co-Director, Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia.

"How come we don't understand how photosynthesis works?"

MARNEY MORRIS
Founder of Animatrix, an interactive design company; currently teaches interactive design at Stanford.

"In 500 years, how will the phenotypic, genotypic and physical spaces occupied by life descended from that on earth have changed?"

"How best can we combine democracy and expertise to make the living conditions of the people of earth, especially those currently in hardship, better and more equitable?"

OLIVER MORTON
Freelance writer, and a contributing editor at Wired andNewsweek International.

"How does the capacity for low mood give a selective advantage?"