Hidden Concepts – Edge 2017 – Let’s play Connections instead of Bulldog

There was a time when I followed John Brockman’s Edge regularly, it was a great way to pick up relationships between living thinkers you already knew and admired and others you didn’t, from across unlimited intellectual fields. The great thing about the annual Edge Question is that apart from the open question, there is no other agenda or direction and each thinker’s response is independent, even if some may compare notes. (Obviously, for the cynical, the overarching agenda is that Brockman is a publishing agent and they all have books to sell.)

It’s a while since I have, for no reason other than I am perpetually overwhelmed with unresolved references from people and topics I’m already working on, and there are now so many social channels that throw up unexpected links, that it hardly seems necessary to go looking for the unexpected. But I’m glad I did.

I think when I first encountered the Edge, there were maybe 20-odd participants each, to my naive position, already recognised authorities remote from my daily experience beyond their books and TV programmes. In 2017 there are 206 contributors, which still include a pantheon of authorities along with many with whom I’ve interacted in various levels of correspondence. Sometimes Q&A at talks, often blogging and Twitter threads and exchanges, and in several case direct exchange of correspondence and dialogue – still along with dozens I don’t recall previously encountering. Many I’ve written longer pieces of analysis and critique as part of my own project(s).

The choice of responses to the Edge Annual Question often says as much about the thinker as it does about the content of the response they’re intending to communicate. For some – especially those still trying to establish their position – the response, whatever the actual question, is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to reinforce the thesis on which the current state of their career depends. For others, more secure in their tenure, the response may reach further out from within their comfort zone, and for the old hands and mavericks it’s time to go off-piste, it’s party-time away from the day-job. For me this is as fascinating as the actual responses.

Here a selection that caught my eye and imagination:

Carlo Rovelli on Relative Information. Simply information as (any) significant difference at any fundamental level. Carlo zooming in at the root of all things. A man after mine own.

Dan Dennett on Affordances. One of the fruits of cognition, seeing things in the natural world as opportunities for advantage. Dan focussing on one old but easy to forget detail within his overall evolution of consciousness agenda.

Rebecca Goldstein on Scientific Realism. Scientific theories are ontologically committed, that is if we can’t treat a scientific theory as an explanatory part of what really exists, then science has more work to do. Being logically true (or metaphorically and even indirectly, empirically “true”) is not enough. Think Einstein and doubts over quantum’s Copenhagen. (A pet hate of mine is elaborate metaphorical CGI simulations of “science” – that publicly reify a metaphor too powerfully and too fast for the true state of the knowledge of reality. Think Einstein’s pencil sketches of the rubber sheet of curved space-time, or Feynman’s particle behaviour diagrams for simpler days, with three-human-generations timescale for public knowledge evolution.)

Hans Ulrich Obrist on The Gaia Hypothesis. Nice to see a non-naive non-scientist recommendation for Gaia. The earth is not literally “an organism” but we are an organic system. (Some nice name-drops on Lovelock links from Sagan to Margulis.)

Chiara Marletto on the Impossible. “Currently working with David Deutsch” – on constructor theory, as we’ve already noted elsewhere – so maybe no surprise here since I recall Deutsch cautioning that inconceivable might not be the same as impossible, or more starkly, the converse, conceivability is probably the same as possibility. Just think about that – maybe when some cock-sure commentator concludes …. “therefore X is impossible”. (Cf Goldstein above on realism.)

Max Tegmark on Substrate Independence. It’s all about the information, most details of physical embodiment don’t matter. (Tegmark is also on the trail of consciousness – “consciousness is substrate-independent twice over!” – Suck on that, you greedy determinists. Added post note here. Also noted him talking on the AI hype recently?) (Also post note – really need to dig deeper into Tegmark.)

Sabine Hossenfelder on Optimisation. Sabine takes Leibnitz’s “best of all possible worlds” for a spin. Optimisation is the result of natural selection from quantum physics to society at large, including all of science. But who decides what’s optimal? “Science,  doesn’t miraculously self-optimize what we hope it does – we have to decide what we mean by optimal. There’s no invisible hand to take this responsibility off us.”

Bart Kosko on Negative Evidence. Popular belief is that “You cannot prove a negative.” or that “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” – Both claims are false in general.

Jessica Flack on Coarse-Graining. At higher levels, material details don’t actually matter (again). A feature of the 2nd law from an information scientist (again).

Steven Pinker on The Second Law. “people seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them.” (Popper – “all life is problem-solving”.)

Stuart Kauffman on (absence of) Ergodicity. History matters. A concept we intuitively “know” but for which I didn’t know I had a word until yesterday (though Dennett uses it too). In evolved systems the number and sequence of states through which things occur matters, not just the final arrangement – causality is weird, you hard-determinists listening? Yet, I heard the word only yesterday from Nassim Taleb in the context of event ordering in risk-management, and here is Kauffman also ringing the alarm bell. Clearly very significant to so many discourses.

Lee Smolin on Variety. (And Leibnitz’ best of all possible worlds again)

John Naughton on Ashby’s Requisite Variety. Another golden oldie.

Ian McEwan on Navier Stokes. Ditto, but from a fiction writer. With “streetlight” metaphor another golden oldie.

Antony Garrett Lisi on Emergence. A new one to me, another physicist recognising the limits to greedy-reductionist determinism.

Martin Rees on Multiverse. Baffled why such an intelligent man would entertain this particular multiverse concept?Obviously need to digest further.

Nigel Goldenfeld on Scientific Method. About asking the right questions …. not sure that’s science particularly … but he got my goat with this opening gambit:- “… there are no cultural relativists at thirty thousand feet. The laws of aerodynamics work regardless of political or social prejudices, and they are indisputably true …” Er, no. We’ve done this one before with Dawkins.


I could go on, it’s a great collection to dip into, read in batches and look for the connections.


As a postscript, I couldn’t resist one classic and therefore totally predictable negative example, since it is topical to other recent blogging and social media discourse. I’m about cybernetics – how we use knowledge to govern life’s decisions – and our consciousness and free-will are evidently fundamental to that. Conscious will remains contentious both philosophically and scientifically and there are many camps working on explanations from the metaphysical to the neurobiological via the quantum-psychological and all points in between. My choice of contact points with this year’s Edge crop above no doubt says more about this, but here I give you – Jerry Coyne:

[Topic:] Determinism
[Opening sentences:] A concept that everyone should understand and appreciate is the idea of physical determinism: that all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics. The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”.

One camp that has stopped working on conscious will at all is the free-will deniers: – Free-will is impossible, so we’re not about to waste effort attempting to explain it – Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded. (See every positive example above!)

In fact, the two opening sentences quoted are almost exactly those I used to sum up the denial position in two of my last three posts. Before even taking issue with whether that’s a fair definition of determinism, it’s great to see that I’m not misrepresenting Coyne on that score. Sad however, given the open question in this multidiscipline environment, that Coyne falls into defending the core of his own position in this contentious space. A sign of insecurity if ever I saw one. If that’s confirmation bias, so be it – I’m open to further explanation of the actual position.

It seems we are a long-way from consensus not just on explanatory theory for conscious will, but from agreeing even what we’re talking about. The multiple camps are clustered around individuals and schools around an enormous range of possible ideas and theories in play, overlapping and related in any number of ways, such that no simple taxonomy is even possible. We may be a long way from consensus, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily a long way from a good explanatory theory, and I happen to think – with Rappaport’s charity – we’re very close. Why do so many behave like bulldogs in defence of prejudiced positions?

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