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George Bernard Shaw once said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” At the essence of Shaw’s quote lies the notion that questions matter. However, not all questions are created equal and in order to extract the most usefulness from it, the right question needs to be formulated. It’s a case of lock and key. The right question opens doors and allows people to explore what was once stowed away. The Last Unknowns (William Morrow) is a veritable treasure trove of these type of questions.
The idea for the book emerged from edge.org, a website that features interviews with some of the brightest contemporary minds in the Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1996, it represented the cyber-version of an informal meeting of intellectuals dating back to 1981, called the “Reality Club.” Every year, a question is posed to the individuals interviewed for the site and the subsequent answers are compiled in book form.
How smart does another animal have to be for us to decide not to eat it? — Diana Reiss
2018’s prompt: What is the last question?
The Last Unknowns is a loosely organized compendium of queries. One page, one question. Without any guidance, the topics meander but like a flâneur on the streets of Paris, aimlessly wandering but with the solitary purpose of discovery. They run the thematic gamut. Here are a few examples —
Moral: 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? (Jerry A. Coyne); Why be good? (Oliver Scott Curry); Why are people so seldom persuaded by clear evidence and rational argument? (Tim Maudlin).
Whimsical: Why do we experience feelings of meaning in a universe without purpose? (James Croak); How smart does another animal have to be for us to decide not to eat it? (Diana Reiss).
Philosophical: Can consciousness exist in an entity without a self-contained physical body? (Rodney A. Brooks); What is the most important thing that can be done to restore the general public’s faith and trust in science? (Irene Pepperberg); Will the frontiers of consciousness be technological or linguistic? (Dustin Yellin).
Scientific-Experimental: How much biodiversity do we need? (Giuliano’s Boccaletti); Is our brain fundamentally limited in its ability to understand the external world? (Stanislaw Dehaene); How do our microbes contribute to that particular combination of continuity and change that makes us human? (Elizabeth Wrigley-Field).
Technological: Will reading and writing survive given the seduction of video and audio? (Marti Hearst).
Eternal: Are stories bad for us? (Jonathan Gottschall); Will post-humans be organic or electronic? (Martin Rees); Was agriculture a wrong turn for civilization? (Douglas Rushkoff).
As you’d expect, The Last Unknown is subject to trends in thought. It’s clearly a product of its times. For example, Tom Griffiths asks, “What new cognitive abilities will we need to live in a world of intelligent machines?”
The question reflects the growing influence artificial intelligence and machine automation have on everyday life. Nobody denies that intelligent machines will soon share an equal load of work with humans, if not more. Financial algorithms already account for a significant portion of stock market trading, buying and selling equities on headline keywords. Self-driving cars are not that far off and will soon make the roads safer than humans could ever dream.
Questions are invitations to investigate, to dig deeper, even to learn. In the case of The Last Unknowns, it is an invitation we eagerly accepted.
So does The Last Unknowns provide any answers? Not in a single instance. That isn’t what the book was designed to accomplish. Does it get the mental wheels turning in directions they may never have done before? Absolutely.
On the surface, many of the questions posed in the book require a bit of a learning curve. They presuppose a basic knowledge of the field in question, e.g. ecology, neurology, biology, genetics, artificial intelligence. Is that a problem? Not at all. Questions are invitations to investigate, to dig deeper, even to learn. In the case of The Last Unknowns, it is an invitation we eagerly accepted.
WORDS: Brice Marsters
IMAGE SOURCE: William Morrow (Cover); Creative Commons