By Don Pelton
I bought a Kindle book today without browsing it first, assuming that it was a collection of essays, like all of John Brockman‘s previous books.
It’s actually a book of questions, one question per page, several hundred of them, by deep thinkers.
The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life
Here are some example questions:
“Has consciousness done more good or bad for humanity?” (asked by Joseph Ledoux, NYU professor of science and psychiatry)
My first reaction, “Duh! Of course it has done more good!”
But then I remembered this anecdote by Noam Chomsky:
“I’LL BEGIN with an interesting debate that took place some years ago between Carl Sagan, the well-known astrophysicist, and Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology. They were debating the possibility of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And Sagan, speaking from the point of view of an astrophysicist, pointed out that there are innumerable planets just like ours. There is no reason they shouldn’t have developed intelligent life. Mayr, from the point of view of a biologist, argued that it’s very unlikely that we’ll find any. And his reason was, he said, we have exactly one example: Earth. So let’s take a look at Earth.
“And what he basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. And he had a good argument. He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there, the organisms that do quite well are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. They do fine. And they may survive the environmental crisis. But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation. He also added, a little bit ominously, that the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.”
From “Human intelligence and the environment” by Noam Chomsky
Examples of other questions from this book:
“What can humanity do right now that will make the biggest difference over the next billion years?” (asked by Toby Ord, Oxford philosopher),
My answer: Survive!
“What will happen to religion on Earth when the first alien life form is found?” (asked by Kai Krouse, software pioneer, philosopher).
My answer: Evolve or die.
“Will the appearance of new species of talented computational intelligence result in improving the moral behaviour of persons and societies?”
My answer: It hasn’t so far!