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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Academics Mostly Disappoint with Their "Last Questions"

For years the web site edge.org has submitted an annual question to about 70 different people, mostly professors. The answers to the questions have made some pretty interesting reading. This year the site has simply asked “Can you ask the Last Question?” The responses are all given as questions, rather than the usual essay-length answers given in previous years.

I was expecting to get many thought-provoking questions that might get me thinking on many an important topic. But the results were rather disappointing, with some exceptions. I think a good way to answer a question like this is to think of some question that will really stimulate someone to do some deep thinking on some topic. A bad way to answer is to create some question that mainly just advertises your position on some topic. We can call such questions “position statement questions.” An example would be if someone were to say, “Why are we spending too little on border security and letting so many Mexicans enter the country?” A question like that simply advertises someone's opinion on some topic, and doesn't stimulate someone to thinking.

An example of a useless “position statement question” was given by Lisa Feldmann Barrett, a psychology professor who asks, “How does a single human brain architecture create many kinds of human minds?” An equally useless “position statement question” is offered by neurobiologist Leo M. Chalupa, who asks, “What new methodology will be required to explain the neural basis of consciousness?” And just as useless a “position statement question” is offered by psychologist Alison Gopnik, who asks, “How can the few pounds of grey goo between our ears let us make utterly surprising, completely unprecedented, and remarkably true discoveries about the world around us, in every domain and at every scale, from quarks to quasars?” These questions are essentially just statements of the dubious position that the brain is the sole source of your mind.

But there's a glimmer of hope that some of these minds are questioning this dogma. For example, roboticist Rodney A. Brooks asks, “Can consciousness exist in an entity without a self-contained physical body?” And W. Brian Arthur asks, “Does consciousness reside only in our brains?” And psychologist David Goleman asks, “Is there a subtle form of consciousness that operates independent of brain function?” And Dave Morin asks, “Is the brain a computer or an antenna?” That's actually a good question, because of the difficulty of accounting for human minds and memory from brain activity, and the very substantial possibility that our intellects actually come from some mysterious unfathomable external source. 

 A better question would be: “Is the brain a computer, an antenna, or a receptacle?” The receptacle possibility (discussed here) allows for a one-time origin of consciousness from an external source, something different from the “continuous transmission” idea that seems to be involved in thinking that the brain is like an antenna. 

Thinking in such a heterodox vein, a good question to ask would be: is your body merely the genie bottle that temporarily imprisons your soul?

The question asked by philosopher Daniel Dennett seems rather revealing. He asks, “How can an aggregation of trillions of selfish, myopic cells discover the unwitting teamwork that turns that dynamic clump into a person who can love, notice, wonder, and keep a promise?” We might ask him four questions in response:

  1. How can you believe that the output of a curious, loving, wondering human is something produced merely by cells, given that no cell produces any trace of such a thing?
  2. How could cells possibly “discover” such an effect, when they aren't questing, inquiring agents?
  3. How can you maintain that such an effect is a “discovery” of cells when your question suggests you have no idea of how such a thing could happen?
  4. Does it not stretch credulity to suggest that that the “teamwork” supposedly producing such a stupendous output (teamwork vastly greater than we see in a Super Bowl champion team) is actually “unwitting,” since teamwork is in general something (indirectly or indirectly) the result of intentional purpose, and is not “unwitting”?
Two of the questions make it seem scientists are still scratching their heads about the appearance of complexity in nature, despite the pretentious noises to the contrary from many scientists. Physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis asks, “What is the principle that causes complex adaptive systems (life, organisms, minds, societies) to spontaneously emerge from the interaction of simpler elements (chemicals, cells, neurons, individual humans)?” Similarly, Nobel-prize-winning physicist John C. Mather asks, “What is the master principle governing the growth and evolution of complex systems?” These two don't sound like people persuaded that natural selection does much to explain such things; they're still wondering what “big principle” might explain complex things.

Physicist Leonard Susskind offers the surprisingly good question, Is there a design to the laws of physics, or are they the result of chance and the laws of large numbers?” The physicist Andrei Linde also offers the good question, “Where were the laws of physics written before the universe was born?”

But the great majority of questions in the Edge.org are pedestrian queries that aren't worth quoting here. An example is the question by Sam Harris: “Is the actual all that is possible?” That is a “lead you nowhere” kind of question. Thought-provoking philosopher Nick Bostrom disappoints us with the “lead you nowhere” question, “Which questions should we not ask and not try to answer?” Many of the authorities ask questions with a form “Will we be able to accomplish X?” (where X is some technological feat) or “What will happen when we accomplish X?” – a type of question that isn't particularly thought-provoking.

Let me suggest my own “Last Question,” hopefully fulfilling my suggestion that such a question should not be some “position statement” question but instead a question leading to thought or inquiry. My question would be: “Which 50 observations made by scientists or other reliable witnesses are most incompatible with the most popular assumptions and theories held by scientists, in what ways do such observations cast doubt on such assumptions and theories, and in what ways could such observations be used to help construct rival theories serving as alternatives to such assumptions and theories?” The posts here, here, here, and here (discussing fifty things science cannot explain) can be read (along with this post) to get some candidates for these 50 observations. The job of using such observations to help construct rival theories is a very complex one, but potentially a very fruitful line of activity. Fully answering my question would pretty much require a book-length response, but that would be a very interesting book to read. Little pieces of such a book can be found in past and future posts of this blog.