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:

2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

2013 : WHAT *SHOULD* WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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:

What is the Last Question?

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.

(This article was originally posted at Secretum Secretorum)


Being Human

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

Scientific Progress

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

Cultural Evolution

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

Art

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

Aliens

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

Survival

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

DEEP

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

 

By Franz Fdez

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