Edge’s Last Question

Edge’s Last Question

The guy who runs Edge, the site we’ve had some fun with over the years, has decided he’s run out of interesting questions. So to go out with a noise, which you’ll have to judge is a bang or a poof, he asked his quiver of intellectuals What is the last question?

Answers, or rather questions, go on for fourteen pages. If there is any one theme, it is the conviction that (as we said earlier) scientists need training in not just physics, but metaphysics. Toss in a healthy dose of history, too. I know this not only because the questions demonstrate this lack, but by experience. I’ve mentioned many times that it is possible for a person to graduate with a PhD in the sciences from (what is considered to be) a top university with no requirement, or even expectation, of having learned any philosophy. Or history. Or much of anything else, really.

On the other hand, there are many non-scientists, philosophers and the like, asking questions, too. Not too much curiosity among the of what used to be considered The Big Questions.

Browse yourself. Here are some examples.

Samuel Arbesman: “How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?” Given any reading history, the easy prediction is that it ain’t gonna happen.

Of course, you can’t read too much into this, or any other, question. It’s tough being put on the spot and coming up with something that doesn’t sound trite or thick-headed. Avoiding that obvious trap is why some ducked into humor. Like Scott Aaronson. “Can we program a computer to find a 10,000-bit string that encodes more actionable wisdom than any human has ever expressed?” No, Scott, we can’t. Or Stewart Brand: “Can wild animals that are large and dangerous be made averse to threatening humans?” Yes. Tax them for every attack.

But then (still on the first page!) we have Noga Arikha asking “Will it ever be possible for us to transcend our limited experience of time as linear?” Just stand in front of a microwave and wait for it to beep. Or listen to Symphonie fantastique.

Lisa Feldman Barrett asks “How does a single human brain architecture create many kinds of human minds?” There are many questions like that, all assuming we are nothing but moving bits of matter. If you assume that, you can’t ask the last question. You’ll end up asking things like Ian Bogost asked: “Is there a way for humans to directly experience what it’s like to be another entity?” Or what Joshua Bongard asked: “Will a machine ever be able to feel what an organism feels?” No and no.

Our boy Jerry Coyne is back, arguing he doesn’t exist. “If science does in fact confirm that we lack free will, what are the implications for our notions of blame, punishment, reward, and moral responsibility?” None, Jerry. For if we do not have free will, there’s nothing anybody can do about anything.

Emanuel Derman: “Are accurate mathematical theories of individual human behavior possible?” No.

Jared Diamond: “Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?” Because, Jerry, science is 99% meaningless to most people, and always will be. Knowing the weight of a neutrino won’t tell you what kind of Christmas present to buy your mother-in-law.

P. Murali Doraiswamy: “How will we know if we achieve universal happiness?” Look for the smiles, Murray.

Daniel L. Everett: “Will humans ever embrace their own diversity?” Good grief, Danny boy, good grief.

Hans Halvorson: “Is scientific knowledge the most valuable possession of humanity?” No, Hans, it isn’t.

Bruce Hood: “What would the mind of a child raised in total isolation of other animals be like?” Not to self. Do not ask Bruce to be the babysitter.

Some questions are great. Giulio Boccaletti: “How much biodiversity do we need?” Love it! Given we’ve lost a lot of dinosaurs, and so forth, yet few would wish them still roaming about, what is needed? Needed for what?

Tyler Cowen: “How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of the year 1900?” There’s a great scene in They Drive by Night, favored by the Blonde Bombshell, in which Skipper’s dad, Alan Hale, is frantically trying to work a radio dispatch machines. “I wish they’d stop inventing things,” he said.

Now I gave up quoting after page six or seven—there’s a limit to the amount of fun I allow myself—but I read through all the questions. When there wasn’t indifference, there was hostility to religion. Here are two representative questions.

Ed Regis: “Why is reason, science, and evidence so impotent against superstition, religion, and dogma?” Tim White: “How much would surrendering our god(s) strengthen the odds of our survival?”

Not one person asked The Question. What a depressing bunch.


  1. Joy

    “This is the first answer.”

  2. “What shall we have for dinner?” – RatEotU
    “Why?” – every three year old.

  3. The problem is manifold. Firstly, scientists are trained in universities, well known to be ProgSoc hives of scum and villainy. Secondly, scientists are trained to ask “how?” when all the interesting questions are “why?” Thirdly, scientists tend to be narrowly focused button counters of merely moderate intellect.

    Fun fact – Einstein first came up with his theories of relativity by thought experiments – day dreams. He then spent years (re)inventing the mathematics to explain it to other scientists, because they don’t like simple, non-mathematical solutions. Modern physicists are taught very little of the world, and are mathematicians rather than natural philosophers. Interdisciplinary efforts are almost unknown as the disciplines spiral down ever more narrow corridors of interest and expertise.

  4. Joy

    Materialist dogmatists are really the only people who are in conflict with metaphysics.

    Some do believe in experience and empirical evidence. Philosophy isn’t just two ideas.
    It’s all empirical, actually. Some of it’s trustworthy and some of it isn’t.

    Depends what you call empirical.

    Philosophy is not just two ways of thinking rolling back in time to give credit to someone who can be held in a state of ideal perfection. People are really out there today! Some think they aren’t or that they don’t matter. I sympathise.
    The internet is a great place for those who think ‘I and it’ rather than ‘I and thou’.

    Most women are innately ‘I and trousers’. Most boys are ‘I and otters’. Some who grow up learn to think like goldilocks. Just right.

  5. Joy

    Itters not otters.
    It’s all about the otters.

  6. “Jared Diamond: “Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?” Because, Jerry, science is 99% meaningless to most people, and always will be. Knowing the weight of a neutrino won’t tell you what kind of Christmas present to buy your mother-in-law.”

    IF this is THE Jared Diamond….then the provenance of his question becomes more clear.

    Diamond peddles social theories “Guns, Germs, Steel…etc” as if he was some sort of “scientist.”

    He opines “authoritatively” and he probably thinks he’s a “scientist.” Reading his twaddle is painful.

    So, IF that’s the Jared Diamond quoted above, he probably does have a dim view of Americans. He must be disappointed that the mouth breathers have not put him in charge of planning for utopia. Fools!

    On the other hand, if that is NOT THE Jared Diamond….never mind.

  7. Ye Olde Statistician

    Opposition to scientific reasoning extends even to scientists, these days. This is especially true of social “scientists.”

  8. Brad Tittle

    There are things we cannot quite explain. How is it that there are people who can violate the rules egregiously and get off with a warning, and there are other people who will follow the rules pretty tightly, get pulled over for a cracked taillight and manage to have 7 other tickets handed to them because they tried to talk politely to the nice officer.

    The first type can watch the second and internally tell you why. The second type will listen to explanation from the first type and say “BUT THAT IS WHAT I DID!”

    Which is when the first type backs slowly up and wanders to another part of the house, maybe to a different party in a different house.

  9. Ye Olde Statistician

    People like Einstein and Heisenberg were among the last scientists trained in philosophy. This may be because they were trained in European universities of the late 19th cent. The US had earlier fallen for the philosophy of “pragmatism” and its battle cry, “What would I ever use that for?” Ideas were judged on their usefulness, not on their truthiness. And as long as he could say, “It works,” he was satisfied. Lack of grounding in history meant he missed the irony that the Tychonic model of the cosmos also “worked.”

  10. Sander van der Wal

    Arbesman should quantify his ‘long term’. In one billion years the Sun will be too hot for life on Earth. So, making plans for surviving the decay of protons makes no sense if you don’t plan for surviving the Sun doing its thing in the short term. Or the glaciers returning with the next ice age.

  11. Joy

    “Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?”
    False assertion,,false question.
    They aren’t and there isn’t.
    The US is not a leader in every major area of science. It is amongst the leaders and people like to trot out that they are the best at everything but it isn’t the case remotely. Their patent lawyers are sharper than knives and not averse to time travel in their recording methods!

    Neither is there a big push against ‘science’. There’s just what’s true and what isn’t and that’s not always down to science to determine. Sscience isn’t a single entity. Theists fall into a trap, or pretend to, for the sake of argument. What a waste of time.
    There is modern verification by physical means of proof, there is balance of evidence, there is experience, there is innate sense of right and wrong in case of ethics. There are other ways to knowing truth.

    People are not as ignorant as some like to pretend. Once presented with a set of facts and logically sound argument trust the taxi driver over the academic.

    The Jury system has relied upon this for years, public, lay person’a judgement. It has been emulated everywhere sensible and civilised although more would be gaoled if judges were arbiters of guilt. I can think of a few.

  12. Joy – “People are not as ignorant as some like to pretend. Once presented with a set of facts and logically sound argument trust the taxi driver over the academic.” – While this may narrowly be true, as there are none so stupid as those educated beyond their ability to reason, it is remarkably untrue generally. If you believe that people are swayed by logic, facts, and reason, then you haven’t met enough people.

    Try talking to a New York liberal about gun control, or black crime rates, or the concept that America should, perhaps, belong to Americans and not The World. Talk to them about what Islam and the Quran really tell Muslims to do to infidels. Talk to them about the morality of aborting healthy infants. Talk to them about taxing working people to pay for generations of “useless eaters”, both here and abroad.

  13. Joy

    Maybe you’re right. Perhaps I’m envisaging a different kind of scenario and perhaps don’t have a lot of experience trying to convince people about politics. New Yorkers are naughty. My sister warned me when I went the first time that they’re all very rude! They were the opposite, Just like London. If you’re a tourist, you’re smiling and if you’re an inmate/native it’s very different.

    I do have a long experience in persuading people to do what they don’t want to do or talking them out of false notions when they’re frightened or and especially angry.

    One on one is a whole different ball game to distant, frank, proper, formal argument such as in a class or in a piece of writing. Mainstream media rarely deal with whole truth and that’s where so many derive their information and then form ideas/opinions. Good information is vital, although no guarantee, as some logical and intelligent people come to different conclusions when their received information is different.

    Face to face, where not affected by a group, like the playground, they are very different animals.
    When it’s personal and they are in a ‘safe’ clinical setting, maybe people’s emotion is attended to properly and this cuts the nonsense.
    If the source isn’t trusted and enough fear is generated the most clear of thinkers will not reason so well.
    There’s none so queer as folk.

  14. Chaeremon

    Are “we” alone in the universe (no matheological bunkum please).

  15. Per

    Depends on what we encompasses.

  16. Joy

    “Are “we” alone in the universe (no matheological bunkum please).”
    because it’s improbable!

  17. Garbanzo Bean

    CS Lewis provided the real last question: “So it was you, all along?”

  18. John Watkins

    Last question; welcome to eternity – smoking, or non-smoking?

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