Last Questions and Possible Answers, 4

This is my fourth and likely last post, following this one in March and this one in June, and this one eight days ago, 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.”

This installment includes discussions of:

  • The issues with living a thousand years;
  • Humanity’s addiction to religion;
  • The differences between knowledge, understanding, and wisdom;
  • The basic question: Why?
  • And many other philosophical conundrums

Out of the perhaps 250 contributors to this 325 page book, I’ve covered 47 in the earlier posts. I’m covering 12 more here, but of course there are many other entries I’m skipping for now and might well return to.

Again, I’m quoting their questions and giving my own take on the nature of possible answers, based on my reading and thoughts over many years.


Gine Segre, p268: Can the human brain ever fully understand quantum mechanics?

QM has been my go-to example for something that seems to be true — it’s one of the most validated of all scientific theories — but which will likely forever remain beyond human intuition — if that’s what the writer means by “fully understand.” The ultimate reason of course is that our minds evolved to understand, intuitively, the world at the particular scale we exist at, and the world works differently at different scales. On the other hand, we “fully understand” QM mathematically, which is how we know the theory works so well. But that’s probably not what the writer meant.

Michael Shermer, p271: Would you like to live a thousand years?

Sure. Concerns about longevity (see some of the previous items, in previous posts) raise themselves. Wouldn’t you get bored, or at least *tired*, after a few hundred years? Human lives currently are structured around cycles of birth and death, with raising the next generation or two in between. Living much longer would require some additional structure. SF writers have thought about this. A typical speculation is that, child-rearing years left behind, people would be free to pursue a variety of interests, perhaps sequentially. One career after another. Already the pace of change is requiring people to learn new things throughout their lives; some entire professions have disappeared, and new ones arise. Moving forward in such a fashion would be one way to keep from boredom.

At the same time, many people commit themselves to certain patterns of thought, and “beliefs,” early on, and are resistant to change. Which is to say, liberals might enjoy living a thousand years more than conservatives would. Conservatives, set in their thinking and resentful of change, would be increasingly uncomfortable, even ornery and cranky, just as the MAGA folks are now, always longing for lost golden age.

Pursuing this thought further — and this is a notion science fiction has entertained — as people live longer, the forces of conservatism might eventually prevail, and stagnate society. Another explanation for the Fermi paradox?

For those more open to new experience, and to learning, longer lives would bring the prospect of finding how things turn out. Or at least how they progress. Will many of the big questions in this book have been answered in a thousand years? How great it would be to live long enough to find out!

Lee Smolin, p275: Why is the acceleration of the expansion of the universe roughly equal to a typical acceleration of a star in a circular orbit in a disk galaxy?

Is it? I’ll take Smolin’s word for it. One possible answer: coincidence. But Smolin apparently feels there’s some deep meaning, i.e. that the two accelerations have some deep connection. What would it be? I couldn’t say.

Bruce Sterling, p281: Do the laws of physics change with the passage of time?

This has been seriously speculated, in part to resolve certain conceptual difficulties with our observations of the deep past, the beginning of the universe. But recall analogous issues concerning the “fine-tuning” of the physical constants, that if any one of them were a bit different, stars and planets and life would never have arisen in our universe. Wouldn’t the shifting laws of physics be a problem with that?

Christopher Stringer, p284: Can we ever wean humans off their addiction to religion?

Probably not. Again, our minds evolved to perceive cause and effect relationships even where none exist; better safe than sorry. And so people will forever be given to subjective impressions of the universe as animistic, as being alive somehow, and that (remember the narrative bias) there must be some ‘purpose’ for human existence — a common conception is about a father, his son, and humans as a flock of sheep. Believing such things (or the cosmologies of any of the other thousands of religions) assuages those deep psychological biases in the mind, and it will be difficult to overcome them, even with education.

Max Tegmark, p289: What will be the literally last question that will preoccupy future superintelligent cosmic life for as long as the laws of physics permit?

Um, this is the kind of question where you suspect the writer has some specific answer in mind, and we’re supposed to deduce what it might be. Last question? As if there a ‘last’ one? As if at some point the laws of physics may not permit such contemplation? How about, what comes next? Or, what’s for dinner?

Richard H. Thaler, p290: How will we cope when we are capable of keeping humans alive longer than our optimal life expectancy?

Well, the phrase “optimal life expectancy” sorta begs a question. Aren’t we already doing so? Was the optimal life expectancy the one from hundreds of years ago, before modern medicine? That is, “three score and ten” for a few and two or three decades for most? Let’s let that pass. Consider life expectancy longer than the current. Part of the answer is above, at Michael Shermer. Some people will welcome longer lives, and change; others will be uncomfortable with it. Recall also Harari’s idea, in HOMO DEUS, that as technology improves and it becomes *unnecessary* for many people to work full-time jobs, and need something to fill their time, they will resort to games (everything from video games to being sports fans) and drugs (not just the hard ones, but the calming ones too).

Yet the supplemental answer here is that, contrary to what conservatives believe, once people’s basic needs are covered, they do *not* sit around on the sofa, watch TV, and drink. (Conservatives don’t think much of other people.) They find projects, hobbies, things to keep them busy; even charitable work! The prospect for people living longer lives (and perhaps not needing to work full time) will necessarily bring about new cultural institutions, formal or informal, to give people something to do that does not involve conventional work, i.e. making widgets or servicing other people. What do people do now in their spare time? (Besides sit on the sofa and watch TV.) More of that.

Frank Tipler, p292: Can rational beings such as Bayesian robots, humans, and superintelligent AI ever reach agreement?

Again, you have the impression that Tipler has something specific in mind. He probably thinks no. Bayesian robots, they would be agents who are able to change their minds — to update their priors — based on new information. Which, and perhaps this is the point, humans are notoriously resistant, even unable to do. Superintelligent AI? It’s so speculative what that might be, it’s difficult to factor in. Presumably they would include the capabilities of Bayesian robots. What else is intelligence? Generally, the ability to perceive patterns more complex than those most people can perceive, and more quickly; the ability to synthesize large amounts of data (priors); the ability to perceive consequences of new ideas and changing circumstances. Will AI be able to do that? The current crop of AI (the various chatbots), which apparently simply mix and match (plagiarize) existing information they find on the net, do not impress in that direction.

Frank Wilczek, p310: Why?

The ultimate deep question. As I blogged about a week ago, asking the question presumes there is an answer, and this question is likely a wrong question, because there is no answer. It presumes that relationships humans perceive in their own environment — which are correct only some of them time — apply everywhere and for all time. They objectively do not. There is no why. Things just are.

One religious answer — e.g., to worship the creator — begs the question. Why should there be a creator whose creations need to worship him? Where did the creator come from? And why does he need his creations to worship him? (Too much the master/slave flavor here for me. Consider the era in which these concepts arose! In which slavery was the norm.) These are all projections of human relationships where they don’t necessarily apply. And other religions have far different answers, e.g. cycles of reincarnation until the soul achieves perfection — whatever that might mean.

And: why not?

Evan Williams, p313: What will be obvious to us in a generation that we have an inkling of today?

Hmm, that we have an inkling of today. (There are plenty of things that future generations will find obvious that we have *no* inkling of today, just as people from 500 years ago had no inkling of our 21st century culture, of modern medicine, or of our modern understanding of the size and age of the universe; they were all besotted by religious myths, and knew no better.)

What comes to mind is my answer to a similar question posted on Facebook some years ago. The question was something like, what is common now that will be unthinkable in future generations? And my answer then was: single-use products.

Now, I’m tempted to add: any burning of fossil fuel products. This will become obvious eventually, but perhaps not in a generation. Eventually, our era of burning fossil fuels, which led to the expansion of technology, will be regarded as a sort of necessary evil — much as, to the Big History writers like Diamond and Harari, we can in retrospect regard the Agricultural Revolution as a necessary disaster in the progress of our species. But in the next generation or two, conservative vested interests in fossil fuels will slow the realization down as long as they can.

Richard Saul Wurman, p318: Clarify the differences between understanding, knowledge, and wisdom that could be communicated to a literate twelve-year-old and re-communicated to their parents.

Wow. OK, I’ll take a swing, since I’ve used these terms frequently in this blog. Knowledge is the awareness of basic facts: about culture, about history, and especially about science. It includes what many people think science is only about: facts about chemistry, physics, biology (whereas science is also about the process of identifying and correcting knowledge). Understanding is about how these facts relate. How some facts ‘explain’ others. How biology derives from chemistry, which derives from physics. And how history and culture develop from past. Wisdom lies along a higher plane; it’s about how people deal with knowledge and understanding. It’s about understanding why people believe things they think are knowledge, as part of their history and culture, while understanding that those beliefs conflict with the knowledge of basic facts.

Carl Zimmer, p325: How does the past give rise to the future?

History is contingent, circumstantial, to some extent random given the occasional appearance of ‘great men’. At the same time, given global forces — in particular the expansion of the human population across the planet, which has forced previously isolated communities to come into contact with one another — there’s an arc of history that has brought about moral progress and a world culture with the same understanding of science and technology.

The past inevitably gives rise to the future. *How* does it do that? Through the dead weight of tradition. This recalls the Sunk Cost fallacy, that when people have invested so much of their lives, and principles, in some cause, they cannot abandon it even when evidence shows that cause to be invalid. It challenges their identity, and their identity in their community. And so: wisdom is available to those who are able to step outside their communities of beliefs.

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