My Big Questions

Here (in no particular order) are ten questions or intellectual problem-areas that I find particularly exciting nowadays.

1. What is the role played by unintended effects in shaping history?

Partly this is a question about major unintended consequences, such as the way the world wars accelerated the emancipation of women, or the way the automobile dramatically reoriented the physiognomy and functioning of American cities.  At a deeper level, though, it is really a question about intentions, strategies, and the efficacy of human agency.  What kinds of historical actions are most likely to prove effective, that is, to bring about the results that the individuals or groups who undertook them actually intended?  Implicit here is a comparison of two forms of revolutionary power: slow, incremental, voluntary, nonviolent change processes brought about by persuasion or gradual shifts in perception – as opposed to rapid, violent changes brought about by coercion.

A wonderful quotation from William Morris’s 1888 novel, A Dream of John Ball, captures this theme very well:

I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

2. How does a human brain beget a human mind?

For centuries – going back to Descartes and in some respects as far as Aristotle and Plato – philosophers have wrestled with the ‘mind-body problem,’ the question of how a physical organism can give rise to, or somehow accompany, the astounding complexity of human thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  Today it seems that a historic breakthrough may be in the offing, because neuroscientists are making rapid progress toward mapping the functional architecture of the human brain.  It seems likely that over coming decades some of the most profound mysteries of the brain may finally come to be penetrated.

What will these discoveries mean for us?  Will we humans be compelled by the findings of neuroscience to see ourselves as ‘mere’ machines made of organic matter – extremely complex machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless?  Or is there something fundamentally misleading about using a machine metaphor for the operations that characterize the brain’s functioning?

From a practical standpoint, moreover, will our newfound knowledge allow us to reverse-engineer the human brain?   Will we develop technologies for manipulating the neural processes that underlie our own thoughts, memories, and emotions?  Might people use brain-machine interface devices to communicate directly with one another, brain-to-brain?  Will the citizens of the mid-21st century use technology to control or modulate the ‘flow’ of their own thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories?  What happens, in such a world, to the deepest qualities that make us human?

3. What can be done to reduce world poverty as effectively, humanely, and enduringly as possible?

A world in which poverty, disease, and illiteracy afflict billions of people will never be a peaceful or stable world – not to mention a just one.  Dealing with this age-old problem will pose an especially daunting challenge over the coming decades, because the spread of advanced automation means that the disparity between rich and poor is likely to get even worse as the years go by.  Many nations will probably be forced to start setting up a variety of Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) schemes for their citizens, as the rising pressure from chronic mass unemployment becomes irresistible.  This in itself will create a major planet-level problem, because such nations will become targets of greatly increased legal and illicit immigration.  The potential for heightened nativism, xenophobia, and outright conflict will grow swiftly; borders will become even nastier places than they are today.

Reducing world poverty has been on the international agenda for decades – with mixed results.  Extreme forms of poverty – outright starvation – have declined significantly, but billions of people still languish in terrible living conditions.  Poverty is known to development experts as a “wicked problem:” while its symptoms are stark and relatively simple to observe, its underlying causes tend to be extremely complex in nature.  Fighting poverty requires sophisticated, multi-pronged interventions that attack the problem simultaneously at multiple levels – from the economy to healthcare, from the laws to education, from culture to the environment.  No single “solution” in itself provides the key.

Could a system of Guaranteed Minimum Income ever be made to work well at the global level?  Five sets of questions arise in connection with this idea.

  • Why spend money on GMI as opposed to other forms of aid?
    • How might it work, in practice?
    • What might be the positive and negative impacts?
    • What are the principal obstacles to its implementation?
    • What are the moral arguments for and against such a program?

As I grapple with these kinds of questions, I’ve found the work of the following writers particularly helpful: Thomas Piketty, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, William MacAskill, Paul Collier, Annie Lowrey, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, Muhummad Yunus, and Roger Thurow.

4. How do new forms of emergent complexity arise from patterns in the interaction of simple parts?

One of the most exciting areas of contemporary research concerns the phenomenon of emergence, the bi-directional relationship between whole and parts in a complex system.

Examples of the kinds of questions in which emergence plays a role: How does the symphony of molecules and energy in our cells sustain life? How do groups of cells develop into interlocking systems that generate the organism of our body? How do a hundred trillion synapses firing in the brain beget the dazzling array of experiences, memories, and ideas that characterize the mind? In a body composed entirely of physical processes following the laws of causality, where does the experience of free will come from? How does human nature emerge from the myriad contradictory traits that characterize homo sapiens? How do individual persons, seemingly acting on their own, generate the layered complexity of human social institutions and culture?

The quest to gain a better understanding of these baffling synergies has engaged the minds of thinkers across the gamut of human knowledge, from anthropology to neuroscience, from poetry to mathematics, from philosophy to engineering, from history to cognitive psychology. I am interested in those contemporary thinkers who are “looking under the hood” of emergence, seeking a better grasp of how it arises: the conditions under which it tends to occur, the patterns of its behavior, the rules that seem to govern its development. I find the writings of John Holland, Mark Bedau, Melanie Mitchell, Alicia Juarrero, Steven Johnson, John Miller, Scott Page, Jaegwon Kim, and Robert Laughlin particularly exciting and challenging in exploring this topic.

5. How distinctive is human personhood?

What traits set humans apart from other animals? Are these distinctive traits mere matters of degree, or do they imply a deeper qualitative boundary?  In what ways are humans like, and unlike, complex machines?

Anthropologists like Donald Brown have identified certain “human universal” traits that have characterized virtually all persons throughout history and across all cultures.  How does the unique constellation of our abilities emerge via the interaction of innate and environmental influences?

What exactly do we mean by the concepts of human personhood and human dignity?  Could personhood and dignity ever be instantiated in a robot or artificial intelligence?  Could the functions of a human brain be downloaded someday into an advanced computer?

Exciting developments in fields ranging from anthropology to neuroscience, from cognitive psychology to behavioral genetics to artificial intelligence, have cast new light on these questions in recent years.  A key idea that cuts across all these fields is that of emergence, or “emergent properties” – a conception of reality as a layered phenomenon, in which distinct levels of order interact with each other in nested fashion.  At each higher level, a new kind of entity manifests itself, irreducible to its constituent elements, but supervenient upon them: the new ‘whole’ is greater than the sum of its parts.

I find the works of Robert Sapolsky, Wendell Berry, Antonio Damasio, Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum, Philip Kitcher, John Dupré, Marvin Minsky, Thomas Metzinger, Steven Pinker, Douglas Hofstadter, and Christian Smith particularly stimulating in carrying forward our understanding of these issues.

6. What are the most fruitful ways to think about human flourishing?

An older way of formulating this question was: What is a good life?  It is simultaneously deeply personal and viscerally practical – and it lies at the heart of civic engagement and collective purpose in our broken world.

Two new areas of academic research are exploring this age-old question in fascinating ways: the “capabilities” theory pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, and the relatively novel field of positive psychology, in which some of the most prominent figures have been Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Jonathan Haidt.

The capabilities approach has sought to define tangible qualities of human flourishing universal enough to serve as goals to guide public policy in matters of international welfare economics and ecological governance.  The problems of world poverty and ecological sustainability have become a bit more tractable as a result of these theoretical innovations.

Positive psychology has sought to offset, and complement, the traditional bias of psychological research, moving the field beyond its primary emphasis on human pathologies, and focusing instead on what makes human lives happy, healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling.  These thinkers have brought a systematic and eclectically scientific approach to the question of what constitutes wisdom.

These two fields – the “capabilities approach” and positive psychology, suggest that ten key factors play a decisive role in human flourishing:

Individual dimensionSocietal Dimension
DignityInterpersonal connectedness
AutonomyCivic engagement
Personal fulfillmentTranscendence
Pursuit of practical wisdom

7. How does music bring forth such strong emotions in us?

Why does every society have music?  Why does music seem to cross cultures so easily (– or is this not even really the case)? 

Does music tap into something universal in the human experience?  How does a specific piece of music “work” in making us emote in specific ways?  Why do listeners respond with such different emotions to the same piece of music?  How does the interaction between human physiology and shifting societal and cultural contexts shape the way we hear and listen?

What role does technology play in the making and experiencing of music?  How have new instruments and new recording and dissemination technologies changed the nature of music itself?

What roles does music play in our lives? 

These kinds of questions have long fascinated me, and I’ve found the works of Philip Ball, Daniel Levitin, Joshua McGuire, David Byrne, and Patrik Juslin particularly insightful as I grappled with them.

8. Will our grandchildren live in a world populated by bioengineered superhumans and intelligent machines?  What kind of world would that be?

I am keenly interested in new technologies for human biological enhancement.  These technologies, designed to reconfigure or boost our physical and mental capabilities, are developing rapidly in three distinct but interconnected domains: pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics.  Over recent decades, as innovations in these fields have accumulated, they have begun reaching into our lives with increasing force, raising profound questions about what it means to be human.

My underlying theme here is the blurring of boundaries: human and machine, plant and animal, mind and physical matter, nature and artifice.  Humankind is entering a world – a new form of civilization, really – in which those boundaries, long considered solid and stable, are increasingly breaking down.  The essential gesture underlying this topic was already given shape two hundred years ago in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: the creation of a new life form through one man’s scientific insight, technological invention, and sheer hubris.  My own basic questions follow forth from this: What happens when the powers of Dr. Victor Frankenstein become standard practice for an entire society?  How much control do we have over the direction in which science and technology are taking our civilization?

To speak the word “Frankenstein” is of course to summon up images of the monstrous.  But this is no longer realistic: things are not so simple.  What we have begun creating today – what we will create over the next hundred years – may well take the form of medicines that heal as if by miracle, machines that speak and think with us, human bodies and minds re-engineered to match our dreams.  It may also take more undesired and unintended forms: weird and powerful chimeras that mock their makers, the crumbling of human dignity, a fragmentation of the species into mutually hostile successor cultures.  The monstrous and the miraculous, in other words, will lie together in the same bed.  Our grandchildren will be their progeny.

9. What is the foundation on which ethics stands?

I am uncomfortable with the idea that moral judgments are purely conventional in nature – that they are culturally specific, historically contingent, and therefore at some level arbitrary.  But I am also keenly aware of the danger of taking the opposite position, asserting that ethical judgments are grounded in some form of divine revelation or other transcendent plane of reality.

At the same time, I am dissatisfied with the state of debate about meta-ethics in philosophical discourse.  One finds several rival theories in the literature – consequentialism, Kantian-derived deontology, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics – and each theory helps illuminate key aspects of our ethical life.  Is it possible to build a theory that encompasses persuasively the four key elements in all ethical judgments – intentions, consequences, context, and virtue? And how would such a theory stand in relation to our theories of epistemology, metaphysics, and cosmology?  How would it reflect, and underpin, our understanding of human nature?

10. What can we know, and what does it mean, to *know* something, in today’s world?

Just because philosophers have been wrestling with this question for millennia, this does not render it any less burningly relevant for each of us, at a very personal level, today.  What resources can we bring to bear, post-Nietzsche, post-Heidegger, post-Foucault, post-linguistic and cultural turns, post-Rorty, post-post-post everything?  Where is a good place for an educated person to stand on this question today?

I am attracted to the works of process philosophers like Hegel and Whitehead (and more recently Bruno Latour), who sought to synthesize the key elements of historicity and the transcendent, of epistemology and metaphysics, of agency and structure, in a single conceptual scheme.  Can there exist a structure that perpetually renews itself from within, thereby marrying the qualities of fluidity and solidity?  What are the pitfalls in seeking this kind of metaphysical/epistemological synthesis?

Here is a quotation from Whitehead’s Process and Reality that captures the gist of what I seek.

Order is not sufficient. What is required, is something much more complex. It is order entering upon novelty; so that the massiveness of order does not degenerate into mere repetition; and so that the novelty is always reflected upon a background of system.