This is my third post, following this one in March and this one in June, in which I consider the John Brockman book The Last Unknowns, in which he gathers deep unanswered questions about “the universe, the mind, the future of civilization, and the meaning of life” from numerous scientists and philosophers and other of the “smartest people on the planet.”
Out of the perhaps 250 contributors to this 325 page book, I’ve covered 32 in the earlier posts. This post covers 15 more, and I have 15-20 more to do, based on my notes.
Again, I’m quoting their questions and giving my own takes on the nature of possible answers, based on my reading and thoughts over many years. (It’s worth mentioning that I’m sure the contributors to this book all have good ideas about the answers to their questions. It’s just that those answers may not be universally accepted. But it’s not as if I claim to have some special insight beyond their expertise.)
Chiara Marletto, p178: Is the number of interesting questions finite or not?
Probably not. I suspect people hundreds of years ago would have also said not, and look how many new questions have appeared over the centuries and decades. Even devotees to religious texts can’t settle on definite answers to most questions, because those texts are so internally contradictory, and contradict the evidence of the real world. New questions will always arise, I suspect.
Barnaby Marsh, p180: How much of what we call “reality” is ultimately grounded and instantiated in convincing communication and storytelling?
Probably a lot. A theme I pursue here on this blog, and is a key point in my essay. Human perception of reality evolved and refined to facilitate survival, not “accurate” understanding of the real world — whatever that might even mean. We know other animals have quite different perceptions of the world, if only because their senses are so different than ours, but also due to differences in size and scale. Imagine the cosmos of an ant, who only experiences a narrow layer of reality along the ground. Contrast with a bird, who can move freely in three dimensions. Or a fish, who never sees the sky.
Tim Maudlin, p184: Why are people so seldom persuaded by clear evidence and rational argument?
Well we’ve learned quite a lot about this, in recent decades, via the evolutionary psychologists and studies of disinformation and social behaviors. The basic reason is that it doesn’t matter (in terms of survival) whether people are persuaded by evidence and argument; what matters is allegiance to community and tribe, and those “beliefs”, however irrational on their face, are far more powerful than evidence or rational argument.
Ian McEwan, p189: If the sum of all significant knowledge is finite, what proportion of it can humans, aided by intelligent machines, eventually attain?
McEwan is a celebrated novelist with a taste for intellectual topics, and who eschews religion and the supernatural. First, is the sum of significant knowledge finite? Well, see Marletto above. On the other hand if we bound “significance” to eliminate the vast majority of experience as variations on a few fundamental themes, then — recalling e.g. David Deutsch — the number of those fundamental themes may be relatively small. Because it will turn out seemingly different fundamental ideas are analogous to each other, in the same way there are only a few ways to arrange a small, finite number of objects.
Priyamvada Natarajan, p200: Are there limits to what we can know about the universe?
Probably so, for similar reasons as above. Our minds evolved to perceive and “understand” the universe only at particular scales and along particular portions of certain sensory realms. We will never “know” what an ant or a bird “knows” about their universe. On the other hand, we’ve discovered that mathematical principles can describe — or perhaps better to say are analogous to — realms of reality that humans apparently cannot “know” e.g. quantum mechanics, except in mathematical terms. Like many of these questions, the answer is “it depends what you mean by know.”
Toby Ord, p212: What can humanity do right now that will make the biggest difference over the next billion years?
The approach to this would be to ask, what can humanity do right now that will make *any* difference over the next billion years? And it’s easy enough to think of negative differences. We could blow up the world through nuclear war, or extreme climate change, and permanently shift the course of the planet’s biosphere, in ways that over a billion years wouldn’t necessarily be neither positive or negative, except for elimination of humanity. Which wouldn’t actually be a very big difference, compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Avoiding such a near-term catastrophe, would humanity be around in a billion years anyway? Likely not. We’d either die out (through any number of means) or a portion of humanity would leave the planet and evolve differently on other worlds. But it’s hard to relate any such future do what humanity might do “right now.” Except, not blow up the planet.
Elaine Pagels, p216: Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?
Pagels of course is a scholar of religion, author of books like The Gnostic Gospels. It’s odd see a scholar of religion ask this question. From everything we’ve learned about psychology and sociology, it seems religion will *always* be around. People make up new ones all the time, and the old ones change with the changing times. They serve psychological needs, not the least as belief frameworks for communities and tribes to bind around, in order to distinguish themselves from *other* communities and tribes. Many people who leave formal religions (e.g. as with the current rise of the “nones”) still think of themselves as “spiritual” in one way or another. At the same time, it used to be that virtually everyone was religious within any given culture, at least in the sense of not challenging the official theology; thus many of the great scientists, like Newton, were “believers” in this loose social sense. That doesn’t mean you can claim their discoveries for religion. And it doesn’t mean that, like savvy people throughout history, they didn’t perceive the, ah, arbitrariness of religious beliefs in the sense there’s no objective evidence to support them, the way people of different faiths all believe theirs to be true and the others false, and so on. There has always been a range of credulousness.
Irene Pepperberg, p220: What is the most important thing that can be done to restore the general public’s faith and trust in science?
Trust: because it works, and is self-correcting, given time. Faith isn’t the right word; it should be confidence. Confidence, because it works, has worked over and over, and has been the basis for the technology that has built our modern world. Religious faith contributing nothing to that. Beyond that, to “restore” confidence and trust: promote an appreciation for how the world is complex, and the answers that science provides are often both complex and provisional. But understanding these things challenges the biases of human nature in ways that will forever be impossible for most people to accept.
Steven Pinker, p222: How can we empower the better angels of our nature?
This is a bit like the previous item. Pinker of course wrote the book on the matter, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which describes how violence in human societies has declined over the centuries and millennia, despite many peoples’ superficial impressions from the news media. And it declined because of the rise of Enlightenment values and the exercise of reason, and the diminishment of religious certainty. How to further “empower” those trends? To some extent it’s continuing to happen, though as I’ve said I think there will always be a majority of people, given innate human nature, more attracted to irrational tribal and community beliefs for purposes of social solidarity, than rational thinking that would lead to challenges of such cultural orders. Getting along with your neighbors is ultimately a better survival strategy than calling out their irrational beliefs.
David C. Queller, p233: Must we suffer and die?
Suffer? Probably. But it depends on what the question means, and the answer is a matter of degree. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which *no one* suffers, because many situations are necessarily competitive and to some extent zero-sum games. And if no one suffered at all in any way, wouldn’t life be boring, without any motivation for improvement, or to do *anything*? On the other hand I think it’s fair to say that people today suffer a great deal less, in terms of diseases and hardships, than people did centuries ago. And it’s not because of religion.
Die? It’s more likely we may someday avoid dying, than we will avoid suffering. People already live longer than they did centuries ago (and not because of religion), but current understanding is there’s an upper limit to this, somewhere around 120 years. Still, science fiction and science itself have speculated about ways to overcome or circumvent physical death. In the 1980s it was nanotechnology to keep the body repaired indefinitely; currently it’s various flavors of techno-optimism, including the idea of “uploading” consciousness into a permanent, non-biological substrate. Of course these achievements would raise other issues. What would you do with yourself if life were indefinite? (The same could be asked about life in heaven.) Wouldn’t *anything* get boring after a while? One possibility is that memories are shed (which happens already), ambitions are reset, indefinitely, like becoming hungry every day and eating again. But then would this still be *you* not dying?
Lisa Randall, p237: How far can we extend beyond our human limitations to more fully grasp the nature of the world?
Science has come a long way in doing so in recent centuries, with discoveries of things both smaller and larger than ordinary human senses can perceive; we’ve extended our senses through telescopes and microscopes and any number of other devices. To continue to do so would be to extend the indirect nature of perception. We make observations and deduce the reality that must have produced them. We use mathematics to “understand” things we cannot deduce, by making calculations that correspond with observations even when we cannot perceive or intuitively understand them. …As with several of these questions, there probably will come a point beyond which further understanding of the nature of the world will not proceed. Unless everything discovered really does turn out to be a set of basic principles that are all analogous to each other, and so explain everything through that small set, and we can deduce things that must exist even though we may never “grasp” them.
Martin Rees, p240: Will post-humans be organic or electronic?
Yet another question it’s possible to answer in different ways depending on what we take the terms to mean. Cop-out answer: both. But what does “post-human” mean? Many kinds of answer to this kind of question have been posed in science fiction.
Ed Regis, p242: Why are reason, science, and evidence so impotent against superstition, religion, and dogma?
See Tim Maudlin, and Elaine Pagels, above.
Carlo Rovelli, p251: Is there an ultimate reality?
Yes. The universe we’ve observed is so ruthlessly, uniformly self-consistent — in the sense that the same “laws” of nature seem to be in operation everywhere across the vast cosmos — that we do seem to be living in a single reality. Is it ultimate? Again it depends on what the word means. There may well be other universes, in the “multiverse,” in which case the multiverse would be the ultimate reality, but it wouldn’t be a single one.
Robert Sapolsky, p260: Given the nature of life, the purposeless indifference of the universe, and our complete lack of free will, how is it that most people avoid ever being clinically depressed?
Because most people “believe” in stories, including religious ones, that deny those elements of the nature of life. Sapolsky just published a new book, Determined, that outlines his claims about the lack of free will. Another way of putting the answer: in order to survive, it is almost *necessary* to believe such stories, or live *as if* they are true, else give in to clinical depression as Sapolsky worries. One might ask Sapolsky what his personal answer is.
My personal answer: because there’s a certain pleasure in simply living — learning new things, experiencing things, letting the motivations of the body and the brain propel oneself along — even if one “knows” these drives to live exist, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. It’s like “knowing” that the emotion of love exists, not for some conscious “purpose,” but because it *functions* to bring people together and thereby serves to propagate the species. And I think most people understand that, deep down, even if they would never admit it.