John Brockman had a great idea. He asked today's leading scientists and thinkers to state what they believed but could not prove. The results are fascinating and well worth reading. The breadth of opinion is fascinating and as each contribution is limited to a page or two it makes for surprisingly light though informative reading.
The one - hundred scientists, educators, psychologists, linguists, and other professionals of the life of the mind who provide answers to the 'title- question' do so apparently with little knowledge of what other respondents are saying. Thus for instance when Martin Rees raises the possibility that mankind may be the only advanced intelligence that has yet come into the universe, Craig Ventner who supports a form of Crick's panspermic view( i.e. We got here by being seeded by more advanced intelligences from elsewhere in the universe) there is no opportunity for give and take between them. My sense is that is that this whole enterprise might have been more productively conducted had it involved a dialogue around several major questions now confronting humanity i.e. the extraterrestial life question, the artificial intelligence in place of humanity, question, the ' understanding everything' question. Another problem I had with the book is that while John Brockman has truly created an impressive enterprise with his 'Edge ' world and Third Culture, the Third Culture is largely devoid of religious thinkers, and of thinkers whose fundamental background is in the Humanities. Consider for instance the one great Idea the great majority of Humanity believes in without having Proof of i.e. the idea of a Creator Who is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End,that Mankind has the purpose of in some way serving . Consider too some of the other beliefs most important to Mankind for which there is no proof i.e. the belief in an Afterlife, the belief that our loved ones have some kind of continuation beyond the life of earth. These questions which burn in the heart of Humanity are by and large outside the consideration of those involved in 'The Third Culture'. Here it is possible to point out that many of the respondents here give answers which come directly out of their own work. That is what interests them is beliefs they have related to their own special enterprise and skill. This makes sense, but it does not necessarily make for startling revelations. Nonetheless, and here I come to what is truly praiseworthy in the enterprise this collection contains information on 'cutting edge' work now being done in various scientific areas. For instance on the whole question of ' extraterrestial intelligences' a number of respondents point to increasing evidence of a greater prevalence of earth- like planets, of conditions for life than was previously thought. While many of the respondents give one or two - sentence brief answers a number like Martin Rees, Michael Shermer ,John Horgan, Rebecca Goldstein present positions which outline and justify their fundamental attitude to their own scientific enterprise. Others like Ray Kurzweil who momentarily forgets about the 'Singularity' to seek out ways of abrograting the finite speed- of -laws, make speculative ventures . Stewart Kauffman for instance wonders if there will be a fourth- law of Thermodynamics, involving self- constructing non- equilibrium systems. What emerges from reading through the whole discussion is a sense of how much Mankind has come to know and understand about the Universe, and yet how open the major questions relating to Mankind's near , and if it gets to this, distant future are. On so many levels it seems that the more answers we have the more questions we open up for ourselves. And this as if to suggest that the scientific enterprise, the whole enterprise of Man's knowing and learning about the world is a necessarily unfinishable one. There will be no unified- theory of 'everything' at any time in any foreseeable future. What was encouraging was how , it seems to me, wise and humble many of the respondents were in acknowledging the limitations of understanding, while passionately engaging in their own efforts to know more.
I'm going to make this brief. Despite each essay being only two or three pages long, the book is of such an esoteric subject that its appeal is to te very few, scientists and those very interested in the specific areas covered by each essay. A brief history of time is like a childrens book in comparison.