The Last Questions (Part 1)
The Reality Club was an informal gathering of intellectuals who met from 1981 to 1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms and elsewhere. Reality Club members presented their work with the understanding that they will be challenged. The hallmark of The Reality Club has been rigorous and sometimes impolite (but not ad hominem) discourse. The motto of the Club was inspired by the late artist-philosopher James Lee Byars:
"To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
Edge.org is the online version of the Reality Club — they get the world’s leading scientists, philosophers, and artists into a room (often a virtual one) and post videos and transcripts of their discussions. In addition to hosting events and conversations, Edge.org also solicits and collects essays on particular themes or questions. For 20 years, they have asked their roster of contributors (essentially an all-star team of the world’s best thinkers — Dawkins, Dennett, Cowen, and some personal favorites of mine like Thomas Metzinger and Robert Sapolsky) an annual question and compiled their responses. Some examples:
The website is a little wonky — click “View All Responses” right under the title to see all of the short essays that people produce in response to the questions (each question typically has around 200 essays). The essays can be a little hit-or-miss (but what isn’t though), but there are some real gems if you dig around a bit. Overall, it’s a pretty cool resource for quickly imbibing ideas from a diverse pool of the world’s smartest people.
The final annual question they did (2018) was a simple, but profound one:
One of the blurbs on the page calls it "one of the most stimulating pieces of (collective) writing ever.”; that might be taking it a little too far but I do find the list of Last Questions to be a unique and thought-provoking collection that should be probably more widely known than it is — hence this post. What follows is part 1 of my curated list of the best Last Questions (part 2 coming in a few weeks), but if you want to read all the responses just head over to Edge.org.
The title of this post is also a reference to Isaac Asimov’s fantastic short story “The Last Question”; if you haven’t read the story then please stop wasting your time on this and go read it.
What is the biological price of being a species with a sense of humor?
— Isabel Behncke Izquierdo
How do our microbes contribute to that particular combination of continuity and change that makes us human?
— Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
Is our continued coexistence with the other big mammals essential to furthering our understanding of human cognition?
— John W. Krakauer
Is the cumulation of shared knowledge forever constrained by the limits of human language?
— Nick Enfield
Can major historical events, from the advent of moral religions to the industrial revolution, be explained by changes in life history strategies?
— Hugo Mercier
Will we ever be replaced by another earthly species capable of evolving to a similar degree of social and technical sophistication that effectively fills the biocultural niche we vacated?
— David Edelman
Why is Homo sapiens the sole non-extinct species of hominin?
— Timothy Taylor
Will the process of discovery be completed in any of the natural sciences?
— Mary Catherine Bateson
Will some things about life, consciousness, and society necessarily remain unseen?
— Nicholas Christakis
What is the optimal algorithm for discovering truth?
— Joscha Bach
Can behavioral science crack the ultimate challenge of getting people to durably adopt much healthier lifestyles?
— Eric Topol
Are there limits to what we can know about the universe?
— Priyamvada Natarajan
What will be the literally last question that will preoccupy future superintelligent cosmic life for as long as the laws of physics permit?
— Max Tegmark
How will predictive models in the social sciences achieve the accuracy and precision of those in the natural sciences?
— Robert Kurzban
Is it possible to control a system capable of evolving?
— Nigel Goldenfeld
What would the ability to synthesize creativity do to cultural evolution?
— Nina Stegeman
Will human psychology keep pace with the exponential growth of technological innovation associated with cultural evolution?
— Christina H. Legare
Can technology tame evolution?
— Buddhini Samarasinghe
How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of the year 1900?
— Tyler Cowen
How do contemporary developments in technology affect human cultural diversity? — Victoria Wyatt
Which facets of life will we never understand once biological and cultural diversity has vanished?
— Daniel Haun
In which century or millennium can all humanity be expected to speak the same primary language?
— Richard Wrangham
Will humanity end up with one culture?
— Matthew O. Jackson
Messing with Minds
Are complex biological neural systems fundamentally unpredictable?
— Anthony Aguirre
Is a human brain capable of understanding a human brain?
— René Scheu
How will advances in mental prosthetics that connect us with other human and machine minds change the way we think about expertise?
— Tania Lombrozo
Is the botscape going to force us to give up the use of the first-person singular nominative case personal pronoun, I?
— Gianluigi Ricuperati
What new cognitive abilities will we need to live in a world of intelligent machines?
— Tom Griffiths
Will the behavior of a superintelligent AI be mostly determined by the results of its reasoning about the other superintelligent AIs?
— Jaan Tallinn
Is there a way for humans to directly experience what it’s like to be another entity?
— Ian Bogost
Will a machine ever be able to feel what an organism feels?
— Joshua Bongard
Can we acquire complete access to our unconscious minds?
— Joel Gold
Can consciousness exist in an entity without a self-contained physical body?
— Rodney A. Brooks
How many incommensurable ideas can we hold in our mind simultaneously?
— Stuart Firestone
Is there a subtle form of consciousness that operates independent of brain function?
— Daniel Goleman
Technology and Society
Will we ever find an organization form that brings out the best in people?
— Olivier Sibony
How can we reap the benefits of the wide and open exchange of data without undermining the values that depend upon the scarcity of information?
— Charles Seife
Can we create technologies that help equitably reduce the amount of conflict in the world?
— Jon Kleinberg
Are people who cheat vital to driving progress in human societies?
— Alun Anderson
Can we design a modern society without money which is at least as effective economically and politically as our current system?
— Jaeweon Cho
What systems could be put in place to prevent widespread denial of science-based knowledge?
— Jennifer Jacquet
Can we re-design our education system based on the principle of neurodiversity?
— Simon Baron-Cohen
Why should we prize the original object over a perfect replica?
— Vilayanur Ramachandra
Are stories bad for us?
— Jonathan Gotschall
Will reading and writing survive given the seduction of video and audio?
— Marti Hearst
The Weinstein Section
Can humans set a non-evolutionary course that is game-theoretically stable?
— Bret Weinstein
Does something unprecedented happen when we finally learn our own source code?
— Eric Weinstein
Love and Sex
When in the evolution of animal life did the capacity to experience love for another being first emerge?
— Abigail Marsh
What will happen to human love when we can design the perfect robot lover?
— Kurt Gray
Can natural selection's legacy of sex differences in values be reconciled with the universal values of the Enlightenment?
— Helena Cronin
Will scientific advances about the causes of sexual conflict help to end the "battle of the sexes"?
— David M. Buss
If we discover another intelligent civilization, what should we ask them?
— Yuri Milner
What will happen to religion on earth when the first alien life form is found?
— Kai Krause
How much would surrendering our god(s) strengthen the odds of our survival?
— Tim White
How do we create and maintain backup options for humanity to quickly rebuild an advanced civilization after a catastrophic human extinction event?
— Albert Wenger
How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?
— Samuel Arbesman
Why do we get to ask questions at all?
— Timo Hannay
i = we ?
— Koo Jeong - A
Must we suffer and die?
— David C. Queller
Is the assertion "Nothingness is impossible" the most fundamental statement we can make about our existence?
— Bruce Parker
Why be good?
— Oliver Scott Curry
How could one last question possibly be enough?
— Judith Rich Harris