Edge.org annually composes a provocative open-ended question for about 1000
of the...edgiest...thinkers in the world (thinkers who are "scientists and
other empiricists who, through their work and expository writing, are taking
the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper
meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.") & then publishes
This very week, they published this year's batch. The NYT, Arts & Letters
Daily, leading science/econ bloggers, and other opinion leaders rightly
applaud the insights & stimulating speculations.
At least two SD Futurists independently found ourselves so drawn in that
we've each now looked at them all.
I'm excited about focusing our January meeting around considering many of
The Question: "Great minds sometimes guess the truth before they have either
the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the 'esprit de
divination'). What do YOU believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"
I've carefully arranged the passages I judge clearly worth our consideration
(though I don't think they're all on the right track; for one, they often
contradict each other!) in an order I find especially evocative. I'll expect
you to have at least skimmed over them here in e-mail at your leisure -- and
ideally to have printed yourself a copy for the meeting...
JOHN R. SKOYLES (neuroscience researcher, author): We've evolved a range of
capacities for fighting disease and recovering from injury, including a
variety of 'sickness behaviors'. Most "illness" is the body's response
[(self-defense)]. A rise in body temperature, for example, kills many
bacteria and changes the membrane properties of cells so viruses cannot
replicate. The pain of a broken bone [exists to make you] let it heal or
rest. Nature supplied our bodies in this way with a first-aid kit; but,
unfortunately like many medicines, bodies' "treatments" are unpleasant [and
also often life-threateningly costly]. Evolution therefore has put these
responses under some control from our minds. [This is mostly how placebos &
witch doctors work, and maybe much of how even our doctor visits work!]
DONALD HOFFMAN (cognitive scientist, author): The world of our daily
experience-the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their
attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds-is a species-specific user
interface to a realm far more complex. Evolutionary pressures dictate that
our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should
itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive
depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival. Consciousness
is a fundamental. The mind-body problem will be to physicalist ontology what
black-body radiation was to classical mechanics: first a goad to its heroic
defense, later the provenance of its final supersession.
MARTIN NOWAK (biological mathematician): Cooperation and language define
humanity. Every special trait of humans is derivative of language.
MARC D. HAUSER (psychologist, author): What makes humans uniquely smart?
Here's my best guess: we alone evolved a simple computational trick with far
reaching implications for every aspect of our life, from language and
mathematics to art, music and morality. The trick: the capacity to take as
input any set of discrete entities and recombine them into an infinite
variety of meaningful expressions.
Thus, we take meaningless phonemes and combine them into words, words into
phrases, and phrases into Shakespeare. We take meaningless strokes of paint
and combine them into shapes, shapes into flowers, and flowers into
Matisse's water lilies. And we take meaningless actions and combine them
into action sequences, sequences into events, and events into homicide and
heroic rescues. [...] open ended systems of expression.
ESTHER DYSON (editor of Release 1.0; Trustee, Long Now Foundation; author):
We're living longer, and thinking shorter. Businesses focus on short-term
results; politicians focus on elections; school systems focus on test
results; most of us focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone
knows about big problems, but their behavior focuses on the here and now.
"Mental diabetes": We're living in an information-rich, time-compressed
environment that often seems to replace imagination rather than stimulate
it. I posit that being fed so much processed information-video, audio,
images, flashing screens, talking toys, simulated action games-is akin to
being fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may seriously mess the
information metabolism and our ability to process information for
themselves. How do we stay motivated to discern cause and effect, to put
together a coherent story line, to think scientifically?
DAVID GELERNTER (computer scientist; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds
Technologies; author): We will soon understand the physiological basis of
the "cognitive spectrum," from the bright violet of tightly-focused analytic
thought all the way down to the long, slow red of low-focus sleep
thought-also known as "dreaming." We'll understand why we can't force
ourselves to fall asleep or to "be creative"-and how those two facts are
related. They'll understand why so many people report being most creative
while driving, shaving or doing some other activity that keeps the mind's
foreground occupied and lets it approach open problems in a "low focus" way.
In short, they'll understand the mind as an integrated dynamic process that
changes over a day and a lifetime, but is characterized always by one
continuous spectrum. You trace out some version of the spectrum every day.
You're most capable of analysis when you are most awake. As you grow less
wide-awake, your thinking grows more concrete. As you start to fall asleep,
you begin to free associate. (Cognitive psychologists have known for years
that you begin to dream before you fall asleep.) We know also that to grow
up intellectually means to trace out the cognitive spectrum in reverse:
infants and children think concretely; as they grow up, they're increasingly
capable of analysis. (Not incidentally, newborns spend nearly all their time
JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): While we're confessing
unprovable beliefs, here's another one: The study of the genetic components
of pecking order behavior, group belief cues, and clan identification
leading to inter-clan hostility will be the core of psychology and sociology
for the next few generations, and it will turn out we can't turn off or
control these elements of human character without losing other qualities we
love, like creativity. If this dark guess is correct, then the means to
survival is to create societies with a huge variety of paths to success and
a multitude of overlapping, intertwined clans and pecking orders, so that
everyone can be a winner from equally valid individual perspectives. When
the American experiment has worked best, it has approximated this level of
variety. Virtual worlds of post-symbolic communication could provide the
highest level of variety to satisfy the dangerous psychic inheritance I'm
guessing we suffer as a species.
ALEX (SANDY) PENTLAND (computer scientist): Together with my research group
I have built a computer system that objectively measures a set of
non-linguistic social signals, such as engagement, mirroring, activity, and
stress, by looking at 'tone of voice' over one minute time periods. [From
just that data,] we accurately predict the outcomes of salary negotiations,
dating decisions, hiring preferences, empathy perceptions & and interest
ratings. Even for lengthy interactions, we make accurate predictions by
observing only the initial few minutes of interaction, even though the
linguistic content of such 'thin slices' of the behavior have very little
predictive power. [I surmise that] a very large proportion of our behavior
is determined by unconscious social signaling, which sets the context, risk,
and reward structure within which traditional cognitive processes proceed -
[something I've started thinking of as a] Tribe Mind[!].
More JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): I believe the potential
for expanded communication between people far exceeds the potential both of
language as we think of it (the stuff we say, read and write) and of all the
other communication forms we already use. Suppose for a moment that
children in the future will grow up with an easy and intimate virtual
reality technology and that their use of it will become focused on invention
and design instead of the consumption of pre-created holo-video games,
surround movies, or other content. Maybe these future children will play
virtual musical instrument-like things that cause simulated trees and
spiders and seasons and odors and ecologies to spring up just as
manipulating a pencil causes words to appear on a page. If people grew up
with a virtuosic ability to improvise the contents of a shared virtual
world, a new sort of communication might also appear. It's barely possible
to imagine what a "reality conversation" would be like. Each person would be
changing the shared world at the speed of language, all at once, an image
that suggests chaos, but often there would be a coherence, which would
indicate meaning. A kid becomes a monster, eats his little brother, who
becomes a vitriolic turd, and so on. This is what I've called "post-symbolic
communication," though really it won't exist in isolation of or in
opposition to symbolic communication techniques. It will be something
different, however, and will expand what people can mean to each other.
Post-symbolic communication will be like a shared, waking state, intentional
dream. Instead of the word "house", you will express a particular house and
be able to walk into it, and instead of the category "house" you will peer
into an apparently small bucket that is big enough inside to hold all the
universe's houses so you can assess what they have in common directly. It
will be a fluid form of experiential concreteness providing similar but
divergent expressive power to that of abstraction. Why care? The acquisition
of post-symbolic communication will be a centuries-long adventure, an
expansion of meaning, something beautiful, and a way to seek cool, advanced
technology that focuses on connection instead of mere power. It will be a
form of beauty which also enhances survivability; since the drive for "cool
tech" is unstoppable, the invention of provocative cool tech that is lovely
enough to seduce the attention of young smart men away from arms races is a
prerequisite to the survival of the species. Some of the examples above
(houses, spiders) are of people improvising the external environment, but
post-symbolic communication might typically look a lot more like people
morphing themselves into varied forms. Experiments have already been
conducted with kids wearing special body suits and goggles "turning into"
triangles to learn trigonometry, or molecules to learn chemistry. It's not
only the narcissism of the young (and not so young) human mind or the
primality of the control of one's own body that makes self-transformation
compelling. Evolution, as generous as she ended up being with us humans, was
stingy with potential means of expression. Compare us with the mimic octopus
which can morph into all sorts of creatures and objects, and can animate its
skin. An advanced civilization of cephalopods might develop words as we know
them, but probably only as an adjunct to a natural form of post-symbolic
communication. We humans can control precious little of the world with
enough agility to keep up with our thoughts and feelings. The fingers and
the tongue are the about it. Symbols as we know them in language are a
trick, or what programmers call a "hack," that expands the power of little
appendage wiggles to refer to all that we can't instantly become or create.
Another belief: The tongue that can speak could also someday control
fantastic forms beyond our current imaginings. (Some early experiments along
these lines have been done, using ultrasound sensing through the cheek. and
the results are at least not terrible.)
NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB (mathematical trader, author): We are good at fitting
explanations to the past, all the while living under mere illusion of
understanding the dynamics of history. We severely overestimate knowledge in
what I call the "ex post" historical disciplines, meaning almost all of
social science (economics, sociology, political science) and the humanities,
everything that depends on the non-experimental analysis of past data. I am
convinced that these disciplines do not provide much understanding of the
world or even their own subject matter; they mostly fit a nice sounding
narrative that caters to our desire (even need) to have a story. You do not
gain by reading the newspapers, history books, analyses and economic
reports; you get a misplaced confidence about what you know. The difference
between a cab driver and a history professor is [mostly] that the latter can
express himself in a better way.
The evidence can only be seen in the disciplines that offer both
quantitative data and quantitative predictions by the experts, such as
economics. Economics and finance are an empiricist's dream as we have a
goldmine of data for such testing. In addition there are plenty of
"experts", many of whom make more than a million a year, who provide
forecasts and publish them for the benefits of their clients. Just check
their forecasts against what happens after. Their projections fare hardly
better than random, meaning that their "stories" are convincing, beautiful
to listen to, but do not seem to help you more than listening to, say, a
Chicago cab driver. This extends to inflation, growth, interest rates,
balance of payment, etc. (While someone may argue that their forecasts might
impact these variables, the mechanism of "self-canceling prophecy" can be
taken into account). Now consider that we depend on these people for
governmental economic policy!
This implies that whether or not you read the newspapers will not make the
slightest difference to your understanding of what can happen in the economy
or the markets. Impressive tests on the effect of the news on prices were
done by the financial empiricist Victor Niederhoffer in the 60s and repeated
throughout with the same results.
If you look closely at the data to check the reasons of this inability to
see things coming, you will find that these people tend to guess the regular
events (though quite poorly); but they miss on the large deviations, these "unusual"
events that carry large impacts. These outliers have a disproportionately
large contribution to the total effect.
Now I am convinced, yet cannot prove it quantitatively, that such
overestimation can be generalized to anything where people give you a
narrative-style story from past information, without experimentation. The
difference is that the economists got caught because we have data (and
techniques to check the quality of their knowledge) and historians, news
analysts, biographers, and "pundits" can hide a little longer. Basically
historians might get a small trend here and there, but they did miss on the
big events of the past centuries and, I am convinced, will not see much
coming in the future. It was said: "the wise see things coming". To me the
wise persons are the ones who know that they can't see things coming.
ROBERT R. PROVINE (psychologist, neuroscientist, author): We overestimate
the conscious control of behavior. We are misled by an inner voice that
generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our
actions. The beam of conscious awareness that illuminates our actions is on
only part of the time. Since we are not conscious of our state of
unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware
of our own actions, whatever their cause.
ROGER SCHANK (psychologist, computer scientist, author): I do not believe
that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making
decisions in their own lives. People believe that are behaving rationally
and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are
made-who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to
attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try
to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional
thoughts take over and make the choice for them. We do not know how we
decide things, and in a sense we don't really care. Decisions are made for
us by our unconscious, the conscious is in charge of making up reasons for
those decisions which sound rational. We can, on the other hand, think
rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because
we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood
fantasies. As for making good decisions in our lives, when we do it is
mostly random. We are always operating with too little information
consciously and way too much unconsciously.
Yet More JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): Implicit in the
futures I am imagining here is a solution to the software crisis. If
children are breathing out fully realized creatures and skies just as they
form sentences today, there must be software present which isn't crashing
and is marvelously flexible and responsive, yet free of limiting
pre-conceptions, which would revive symbolism. Can such software exist? Ah!
Another belief! My guess is it can exist, but not anytime soon. The only two
good examples of software we have at this time are evolution and the brain,
and they both are quite good, so why not be encouraged?
JUDITH RICH HARRIS (developmental psychologist, author): I believe, though I
cannot prove it, that three-not two-selection processes were involved in
human evolution. The first two are familiar: natural selection, which
selects for fitness, and sexual selection, which selects for sexiness. The
third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty-not adult beauty.
The ones doing the selecting weren't potential mates: they were parents.
Parental selection, I call it. What gave me the idea was a passage from a
book titled Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, by the anthropologist
Marjorie Shostak. Nisa was about fifty years old when she recounted to
Shostak, in remarkable detail, the story of her life as a member of a
One of the incidents described by Nisa occurred when she was a child. She
had a brother named Kumsa, about four years younger than herself. When Kumsa
was around three, and still nursing, their mother realized she was pregnant
again. She explained to Nisa that she was planning to "kill"-that is,
abandon at birth-the new baby, so that Kumsa could continue to nurse. But
when the baby was born, Nisa's mother had a change of heart. "I don't want
to kill her," she told Nisa. "This little girl is too beautiful. See how
lovely and fair her skin is?" [Here, culture could most directly &
immediately affect genetic evolution.]
Coupled with sexual selection, parental selection could have produced
certain kinds of evolutionary changes very quickly, even if the
heartbreaking decision of whether to rear or abandon a newborn was made in
only a small percentage of births. The characteristics that could be
affected by parental selection would have to be apparent even in a newborn
baby. Two such characteristics are skin color and hairiness.
W. DANIEL HILLIS (physicist, computer scientist, author; Chairman, Applied
Minds, Inc.): I know that it sounds corny, but I believe that people are
getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress. People will get
more empathetic and more altruistic than we are. They will trust each other
more, and for good reason. They will take better care of each other. They be
more thoughtful about the broader consequences of their actions. They will
take better care of their future than we do of ours.
GREGORY BENFORD (physicist, author): Why is there scientific law at all?
What constrains the nature of physical law? Evolution gave us our ornately
structured biosphere, and perhaps a similar principle operates in selecting
universes. Perhaps our universe arises, then, from selection for
intelligences that can make fresh universes, perhaps in high energy physics
experiments. (!) Or near black holes (as Lee Smiolin supposed), where space-time
gets contorted into plastic forms that can make new space-times. Then an
Ur-universe that had intelligence could make others, and this reproduction
with perhaps slight variation "genetics" drives the evolution of physical
law. Selection arises because if firm laws yield [better] conditions to form
new intelligent life. Once very advanced life forms realize this, they could
intentionally make more smart universes with the right, fixed laws, to
produce ever more grand structures. There might be observable consequences
of this prior evolution: If so, then we are an inevitable consequence of the
universe, mirroring intelligences that have come before, in some earlier
universe that deliberately chose to create more sustainable order. The
fitness of our cosmic environment is then no accident. If we find evidence
of fine-tuning, then, [it would be] evidence for such evolution.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE (biologist, author): Memory is inherent in nature. Most of
the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. There is no need to
suppose that all the laws of nature sprang into being fully formed at the
moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code, or that they
exist in a metaphysical realm beyond time and space. Before the general
acceptance of the Big Bang theory in the 1960s, eternal laws seemed to make
sense. The universe itself was thought to be eternal and evolution was
confined to the biological realm. But we now live in a radically
evolutionary universe. The natural selection of habits will play an
essential part in any integrated theory of evolution.
JONATHAN HAIDT (psychologist) : I believe that religious experience and
practice is generated and structured largely by a few emotions that evolved
for other reasons, particularly awe, moral elevation, disgust, and
attachment-related emotions. That's not a prediction likely to raise any
eyebrows in this forum. But I further believe that hostility toward religion
is an obstacle to progress in psychology. Most human beings live in a world
full of magic, miracles, saints, and constant commerce with divinity.
Psychology at present has little to say about these parts of life. If
psychologists took religious experience seriously and tried to understand it
from the inside, as anthropologists do with other cultures, I believe it
would enrich our science. I have found religious texts and testimonials
about purity and pollution essential for understanding the emotion of
KAI KRAUSE (Software: Concepts, Artwork & Interface Design): I always felt,
but can't prove outright: Zen is wrong. Then is right. Everything is not
about the now, as in the "here and how", "living for the moment". On the
contrary: I believe everything is about the before then and the back then.
It is about the anticipation of the moment and the memory of the moment, but
not the moment. Make plans and take pictures. [or maybe, "Break things
and take pretty pictures"?! Heh.] I have no way of proving such a lofty
philosophical theory, but I greatly anticipate the moment that I might...
and once I have done it, I will, most certainly, never forget.
I'd love to hear any sudden insights/thoughts here in text as well!