Edge in the News

Slashdot [1.4.05]

from the that-she-is-out-there dept.
An anonymous reader writes "That's what online magazine The Edge - the World Question Center asked over 120 scientists, futurists, and other interesting minds. Their answers are sometimes short and to the point (Bruce Sterling: 'We're in for climatic mayhem'), often long and involved; they cover everything from the existence of God to the nature of black holes. What do you believe, even though you can't prove it?  

bloomberg.com [1.3.05]

I call it "Broks's paradox": the condition of believing that the mind is separate from the body, even though you know this belief to be untrue

I’ve been browsing the “World Question Centre” at edge.org, the website for thinking folk with time on their hands. The 2005 Edge question is a good one: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

Alexander Vilenkin, a physicist, believes that our universe is just one of an infinite number of similar regions. But “it follows from quantum mechanics” that the number of histories that can be played out in them is finite. The upshot of this crossplay of finitudes and infinities is that every possible history will play out in an infinite number of regions, which means there should be an infinite number of places with histories identical to our own down to the atomic level. “I find this rather depressing,” says Vilenkin, “but it is probably true.” The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, on the other hand, believes that “consciousness and its contents are all that exists,” the physical universe being “among the humbler contents of consciousness.” But he can’t prove that either. Daniel Dennett sees consciousness as a scarcer commodity. His unproven belief is that, lacking language, animals and pre-linguistic children also lack self-awareness. He insists that neither is thereby morally demoted, but, I wonder, does this mean it is more acceptable to eat small children or less acceptable to eat animals?

This brings us to death. The psychologist Jesse Bering believes we will never get our heads around the idea. He calls it “Unamuno’s paradox,” after the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, who was troubled not so much by the prospect of his own death as by his inability in life to get any kind of imaginative purchase on what the state of being dead would be “like.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness,” he lamented. And you can’t get out of this by saying that “it is like nothing at all” to be dead, because the point is precisely that we are incapable of imagining absolute nothingness. Our mental apparatus is tuned to states of being in the world. Non-being is simply beyond our ken. All of this is of no concern to those who believe in an afterlife. The conscious personality just floats on elsewhere. That most people hold to this bizarre belief is not simply due to religious indoctrination. The separateness of body and mind is a primordial intuition. It has sprung from our evolution as social beings and coalesced into the hardware of the central nervous system. Human beings are natural born soul makers, adept at extracting unobservable minds from the behaviour of observable bodies, including their own. Taking the next, false step, if mind and body are conceived as separate entities, it is easy to see the possibility of a mental life after physical death.

This leads me to “Broks’s paradox”: we are inclined to believe in mind-body dualism even though we understand it to be wrong. Neuroscientists are not exempt. Consider the following thought experiment, devised by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Some years hence you find yourself taking business trips to Mars. Teleportation is the usual mode of transport. It works like this. A scanner records the states of your body in atomic detail and digitally encodes the information for radio transmission. Your body is destroyed in the process but reconstructed on Mars using locally available materials as soon as the radio signals are decoded. The replication is perfect: identical body and brain, identical memory stores and patterns of mental activity. It is “you.” You are in no doubt. Most neuroscientists say they would readily submit to this process. Why should they worry about destruction and reconstruction of the body? As good materialists, they know that “the self” (secular cousin to the soul) is no more than a pattern of experiences and dispositions bundled together by the operations of the central nervous system. Now imagine this. There is a teleporter malfunction. You have been scanned and the information transmitted, but this time your body was not vaporised in the usual way. Your replica was automatically constructed and is going about its business. Worse still, the faulty scanner has left you with a fatal heart condition. You will be dead within days. Which would you rather be, the Martian replica or the moribund earthbound version? It should make no difference to a true materialist. In scenario two, the vaporisation process has been delayed, that is all. The personal trajectory of the individual arriving on Mars is the same for both scenarios. Psychological continuity has been maintained, as it is via the oblivion of sleep from one ordinary day to the next. But very few rest easy with scenario two. It shatters one’s complacency about unproblematic teleportation (and therefore materialism): “If the replica’s not me now…”

One might dismiss all this as “angels on a pinhead” stuff. But Ian McEwan” makes a telling point. “What I believe but cannot prove,” he says, “is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death.” His enlightened fellow Edge contributors will take this as a given, but they may not appreciate its significance, which is that belief in an afterlife “divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere.” The natural gift of consciousness should be treasured all the more for its transience.

The New York Times [1.3.05]

Fourteen scientists ponder everything from string theory to true love. 

"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

This was the question posed to scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers by John Brockman, a literary agent and publisher ofEdge, a Web site devoted to science. The site asks a new question at the end of each year. Here are excerpts from the responses, to be posted Tuesday at www.edge.org.

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.3.05]

(Woran glauben Sie, ohne es beweisen zu können?) 

It can be more thrilling to start the New Year with a good question than with a good intention. That's what John Brockman is doing for the eight time in a row. The New York based literary agent and pionieer of the "Third culture", in which the natural sciences and the humanities are meant to fuse, has posed a question to researchers and other scientific literati in 1998 for the first time. Then the question was: "Which questions do you ask youself?". In the meantime, Brockman has set up a World Question Center" at the internet site of his intellectual foundation Edge (www.edge.org). It is no accident that this years question refers to believes after a year in which America has shown its strong believing side. But what is it the reason-driven members of the Third Culture believe in? We supply a small selection of answers to this year's question."

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.1.05]

Domanda intrigantissima, cui hanno già risposto, tra gli altri, intellettuali come John Barrow, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel C. Dennett, Keith Devlin, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, Leon Lederman, Janna Levin, Joseph LeDoux, Benoit Mandelbrot, Martin Rees, Steven Pinker, Carlo Rovelli, Craig Venter. I loro interventi saranno resi disponibili sul sito nei prossimi giorni. Il dibattito sarà seguito a livello internazionale, con anticipazioni in contemporanea di diversi interventi, dal «New York Times», dal «Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung» e, per l’Italia, dal Domenicale
del Sole-24 Ore. 

Una nuova figura di intellettuale pubblico è venuta alla luce, e vi è un luogo in cui essa può esprimersi con grande libertà. Siamo certi che anche nel nostro Paese, più di quanto hanno fatto finora, non saranno in pochi a voler approfittare di questa opportunità.

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.1.05]

L’interesse dei mezzi di comunicazione per questo tipo di figure intellettuali ha preso tre vie principali. La prima è la più evidente ma in un certo senso anche la più sorprendente; si tratta della pubblicazione di opere di divulgazione scientifica di altissimo livello, affidata non a divulgatori di professione ma a scienziati cui si chiede di presentare al grande pubblico il loro lavoro, senza fare troppe concessioni. Nata da un’idea di un agente letterario, John Brockman, ha permesso di far venire alla luce best-seller come L’istinto del linguaggio di S. Pinker, Armi acciaio e malattie di J. Diamond, I vestiti nuovi dell'imperatore di R. Penrose, L’universo elegante di B. Greene. Hanno sorpreso sia la qualità della scrittura che le vendite; evidentemente c'era un bisogno di opere di alto livello che le case editrici hanno saputo individuare.

News Telegraph [12.31.04]

Prof Richard Dawkins, the scourge of those who maintain their belief in a god, has declared that he, too, holds a belief that cannot yet be proved.

In a recent letter to a national newspaper, Prof Dawkins said believers might now be disillusioned with an omnipotent being who had just drowned tens of thousands of innocent people in Asia. "My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him."

Now the Oxford University evolutionary biologist is among the 117 scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers who have responded to the question: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" posed by John Brockman, a New York-based literary agent and publisher of Edge, a website devoted to science.

Arts & Letters Daily [12.31.04]

What do you believe to be true, even though you can’t prove it?John Brockman asked over a hundred scientists and intellectuals...

QUARK [12.31.04]

What scientists believe but cannot yet prove

Time, space, aliens, and God...the views of 18 great minds give their answers

The Times Higher Education Supplement [12.31.04]

"It is like having a front-row seat at the ultimate scientific seminar series."
— Matin Durani (Deputy Editor, Physics World)

Guardian Unlimited [7.25.04]

A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists in a book developed from pieces that first appeared on the web forum Edge (www.edge.org).

Betraying that they were written for the screen, a leading role is given to the computer and the potential for machine intelligence.

Brockman, whose big black hat gives away his day job is as literary agent to scientists-turned-bestselling authors, argues in his introduction that his contributors have broken down the barrier of CP Snow's two cultures and found - echoes of Tony Blair - a third way. A number of chapters also echo the writers' latest books.

So you can dip into Jared Diamond trying to explain why human development proceeded at different rates in different continents, and appealing to biogeography to overcome historians' distaste for a question with racist overtones.

Or try Steven Pinker demolishing the idea that the human mind is a blank slate by pointing to the wastelands created by planners who omitted to cater for human aesthetic and social needs, and damning the postmodern arts for deliberate incomprehensibility.

Move on through Andy Clark's provocative proposal for a future world of human/technology symbionts (be your favourite cyborg) and Marc Hauser's discussion of the mental tools with which we, and other animals, arrive in this world. He poses question upon question about the survival of species but none more affecting than: "Why is Homo sapiens the only species that sheds tears when it cries?"

And you may laugh at the query "what shape are a German shepherd's ears?" but Stephen Kosslyn has been studying the question behind that question, what imagery is, for 30 years and honestly concludes that: "Imagery just isn't one thing."

That's six out of 22, and all before Seth Lloyd asks if we could read information transformed by going through a black hole? And that's a really big idea.

· Science at the Edge, ed. John Brockman, is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99. To buy a copy for £16.99 plus p&p, phone the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875

· What did you think of this article? Mail your responses tolife@guardian.co.uk and include your name and address.

Traffic World [2.1.04]

The online group Edge.org started the year by asking scholars, writers and other people with time on their hands to dream up some new universal truths. You know, like Murphy's Law. We like the one from John Maddox, the longtime editor of Nature magazine, which our editors have shortened to this: "Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are ... prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

Universal. We'd like to offer out own little universal law of commercial shipping. Every discount is paid for in another way, but never in a way the accounting department cares about.

Prospect [1.31.04]

164 of the world's finest boffins have been asked by the "scientific salon" website Edge (www.edge.org) to produce their own eponymous laws (think Boyle, Newton, Murphy). Answers ranged from Richard Dawkins' observation that "Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrnsic simplicity" to Steven Strogatz's arch "When you're trying to prove something, it helps to know it's true." Andy Clark wins the brevity prize for "Evrything leaks."

Kansascity.com [1.30.04]

• www.edge.org:

A fascinating site that conducts an annual solicitation of new “natural laws” from a variety of people, most of them well-known in some field. Here's one from Gerd Gigerenzer, a behavioral psychologist: “The world cannot function without partially ignorant people.” This is a condensation of observations from many behavioral studies. For example, he notes: “Ordinary people who selected stocks by name recognition outperformed most market experts and the Fidelity Growth Fund.”

My own favorite “law,” not listed on this site but well-suited to computers and many other subjects, was iterated many years ago by science fiction author Poul Anderson, who noted: “There is no subject, no matter how complex, which if looked at in just the right way, cannot be made more complex.”

The Courier Mail [1.30.04]

JOHN Brockman is a New York literary agent specialising in those who practise and write about cutting-edge science and how it is changing the world. His website, www.edge.org, has a cult following and is a combination of magazine and online community.

Late last year he asked several hundred thinkers to propose laws about how the world works, some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that they had noticed in the universe that might be named after them. The results are coming in and they're fascinating.

They're not all about science. Yale University professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert proposed Gilbert's Law: "Happy people are those who do not pass up on an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards." Think about it.

Brian Eno, former member of Roxy Music, music producer and techno-artist, opined that: "Culture is everything we don't have to do." As an explanation, he noted: "We have to clothe ourselves but we didn't have to invent platform shoes or polka-dot bikinis." How true.

But it was science that inspired the most new laws, some distinctly cynical, such as this offering from Kai Kraus, a philosopher and software designer: "93.8127 per cent of all statistics are useless."

Some of the law makers were hard on their chosen profession. "Science can produce knowledge but it cannot produce wisdom," suggested New Scientist  editor-in-chief Alun Anderson.

As for science and communication, according to Anderson, who should know: "A scientist who can speak without jargon is either an idiot or a genius."

Yale University professor of computer science David Gelerntier observed: "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions." Gelerntier's other laws are: "Computers make people stupid," and "One expert is worth a million intellectuals."

Many of us might feel it would be stimulating to be at a dinner party with these people, provided you didn't have to contribute. But one man from Australia who'd feel at home would be Allan Snyder, professor of several things at the Australian National University. He has suggested: "Most creative science is wrong, but the deception ultimately leads to the benefit of mankind." Think Freud. Another of Snyder's laws is: "Everyone steals from everyone else, but they do so unconsciously. This has evolved for our very survival. It maximises the innovative power of society." He obviously doesn't teach undergraduates.

Leo Chapula is a professor of ophthalmology and neurobiology and has served on many research funding panels. He noted something that will surprise many lay people: "Don't underestimate the importance of fashion in doing science. There is a price to pay for originality, and every working scientist knows this."

There were more thoughtful comments on life outside science, including this one from University of California, Berkeley, associate professor Marti Hearst: "A public figure is often condemned for an action that is taken unfairly out of context but nevertheless reflects, in a compelling and encapsulated manner, an underlying truth about that person." Take that, Tony Blair.

Artist and lecturer Art Kleiner has noticed that: "Every organisation operates on behalf of the perceived needs and priorities of some core group of key people. This purpose will trump every other loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees, customers and other constituents."

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has perhaps explained the enormous sales of Mike Moore's books with this observation: "On any important topic we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

Author Mike Godwin noted the great truth that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one (that is, becomes certain)."

Brockman's project is a lot of fun, although if you tried to live by some of the laws thrown up by it you'd go mad.

As philanthropist Chris Anderson said: "Humans are engineered to seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there."


Copyright 2004 Nationwide News Pty Limited  

The Times [1.19.04]

ISAAC NEWTON had one, as did Michael Faraday and some chap called Murphy. What if you could distil your own sharpest observation into a scientific law that would bear your name? The literary agent John Brockman recently posed the question to the scientists, thinkers and technology innovators who visit his online salon at Edge.org. Now 164 of them have replied—and their insights make for wonderful reading.

Read the full article →

Only the Salon Knows the Answer But who asks the questions? Even scientists of the Third Culture look for natural laws
Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.18.04]

"Anything simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently, while anything complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand." So says the newest natural law, for which the world can thank science historian George B. Dyson. He formulated this statement just in time for the beginning of the new year, and it is something simple enough to be complicated. Dyson conducted himself so intelligently because he, along with nearly two hundred thinkers, researchers and their representatives, was invited to meet in the Internet forum, Edge.

Edge was founded by John Brockman, the New York propagator of the Third Culture, and it permits him sufficient time and leisure to conduct a virtual salon in addition to his considerable activities as literary agent. Every year he poses a question to the networked members of this community that is usually simple enough to allow even for complicated answers.

The most recent edition of this parlor game, partly earnest but also beset with irony and serious jokes, takes the natural law as its theme. What law, Brockman asks the great minds, could be filtered out of their empirical research and would be worthy of carrying their names? If Kepler and Newton could have their laws, why shouldn't J. Craig Venter be worthy of one today? He, with no less ambition than his agent, names five laws, the third of which states, "We have the tools for the first time in the history of humanity to answer virtually any question about biology and our own evolution."

Coming from the man who cracked the human genome this hardly surprises us, as is the case with Ray Kurzweil, who long ago hurried ahead to meet the future, and stays on the border of what we can expect with his "Law of Accelerating Returns." Because Kurzweil strove to expand the results of his observations almost to book-length, the collected, full-length contributions are available on the website www.edge.org.

At the same time, aphoristic condensation is also not foreign to the participating givers and discoverers of laws. Archeologist Timothy Taylor determines with lapidary concision that "There are no laws of human behavior." He is not the only skeptic in the enlightened group. For biologist Rupert Sheldrake, "The laws of nature are more like habits," and cultural historian James J. O'Donnell warns, "If it feels good, don't do it." But if you do do it, do so boldly, just as Luther recommended to sinners. Pecca fortiter—If you're going to do it at all, do it right.

From the mathematical and the biological, to the economic and the social the answers roam into the cosmologic and don't even exclude religion. Among the participants is Richard Dawkins, discoverer of the selfish gene and, possibly because of that, a knowledgable atheist, who suggests, "God cannot lose… When comprehension expands, gods contract—but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo." In his analysis of prayer, economist and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey identifies something similar: "In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not." Although that may be evident to us, we soon begin once again to brood along with philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who identifies the "needy reader," someone who "tends to fall for the words he wants to read, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

A problem? One that is unsolvable? Quantum physicist David Deutsch argues that "inherently insoluble problems are inherently boring." Adhering to such a statement he might give up on many a riddle, but at the same time this is a scientific performance. "Good science," declares astrophysicist Paul Steinhardt, "creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it resolves." Such laws can also probably all be applied to culture, for which all-around avant-gardist Brian Eno delivers a definition: "Culture is everything we don't have to do."

This is a case for Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist who considers human intelligence and social relations. He is more cautious than David Gelernter, to whom three (natural) laws occur. First, the computer scientist diagnoses, "Computers make people stupid." Second, "One expert is worth a million intellectuals." And third, "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions."

In the end it may be that scientists are like the rest of humanity, as psychologist David G. Myers reminds us. "Most people," he proclaims, "see themselves as better than average." As if that weren't bad enough, he follows this with the "Myers Law of Writing": "Anything that can be misunderstood will be." So it's not better to understand? Gregory Benford maintains that "Any technology that does not appear magical is insufficiently advanced." But what does "advanced" mean? Life, brain researcher Ernst Pöppel has determined, "occurs three seconds at a time." Even the avant garde can't escape from that.


© All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt

 (Translation by Christopher Williams)

[Original German text]

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The New York Times [1.9.04]

Nature abhors a vacuum. Gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects. Over the course of evolution, each species develops larger body sizes. If something can go wrong, it will.

Such are some of nature's laws as handed down by Aristotle, Newton, Edward Cope and Murphy. And regardless of their varying accuracy (and seriousness), it takes an enormous amount of daring to posit them in the first place. Think of it: asserting that what you observe here and now is true for all times and places, that a pattern you perceive is not just a coincidence but reveals a deep principle about how the world is ordered.

If you say, for example, that whenever you have tried to create a vacuum, matter has rushed in to fill it, you are making an observation. But say that "nature abhors a vacuum" and you are asserting something about the essence of things. Similarly, when Newton discovered his law of gravitation, he was not simply accounting for his observations. It has been shown that his crude instruments and approximate measurements could never have justified the precise and elegant conclusions. That is the power of natural law: the evidence does not make the law plausible; the law makes the evidence plausible.

But what kind of natural laws can now be so confidently formulated, disclosing a hidden order and forever bearing their creator's names? We no longer even hold Newton's laws sacred; 20th-century physics turned them into approximations. Cope, the 19th-century paleontologist, created his law about growing species size based on dinosaurs; the idea has now become somewhat quaint. Someday even an heir to Capt. Edward Aloysius Murphy might have to modify the law he based on his experience about things going awry in the United States Air Force in the 1940's.

So now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"

"There is some bit of wisdom," Mr. Brockman proposes, "some rule of nature, some lawlike pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you." What, he asks, is your law, one that's ready to take a place near Kepler's and Faraday's and Murphy's.

More than 150 responses totaling more than 20,000 words have been posted so far at www.edge.org/q2004/q04_print.html. The respondents form an international gathering of what Mr. Brockman has called the "third culture" - scientists and science-oriented intellectuals who are, he believes, displacing traditional literary intellectuals in importance. They include figures like the scientists Freeman Dyson and Richard Dawkins, innovators and entrepreneurs like Ray Kurzweil and W. Daniel Hillis, younger mavericks like Douglas Rushkoff and senior mavericks like Stewart Brand, mathematicians, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, psychologists, linguists and journalists....