Edge World Question Center: Your Cognitive Toolkit

By Sean Carroll | January 15, 2011 10:46 am

This year’s edition of the Edge World Question Center asks: “What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?” There’s quite a collection of contributions, many from scientists but also from writers and an assortment of unclassifiable big thinkers.

I haven’t carefully perused all of the entries. As you do, please chime in with any that you think we should all be paying attention to. At a brief glance, here are some that caught my eye:

I have a contribution of my own, The Pointless Universe, after Steven Weinberg’s quote. Need to come up with better branding if this idea is really going to take off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Top Posts, Words
  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    I like Lawrence Krauss’s and Carlo Rovelli’s focus on “uncertainty” — if people could grasp how integral and far-reaching it is in the sciences maybe they could broaden it out to perceive it’s more obvious role in our political, economic, and social lives. Humans thinking they know things with certainty is a root of many societal problems.

  • Giotis

    Sean said:

    “None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it’s up to us to make sense of it and give it value.”

    Absolutely true but people create ideas too. A human who creates the idea of a Grand design or of a fundamental underlying truth of everything to make sense of the Cosmos or give it a value is in a prefect agreement with Sean: “it’s up to us to make sense of it and give it value.”

    Humans are out there playing in a Cosmos which unfolds as a game. There are no ground rules cause the rules, as everything else, are part of the game.

  • Aaron Sheldon

    Someone should ask Terence Tao to submit his series of posts on argument by contradiction, negation, falsification, and reductio ad absurdum; which he has titled No Self Defeating Objects.

    These are lessons well learned by everyone, scientist included. Or to quote Sir Author Conan Doyle:

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

  • spyder

    Perhaps efforts towards improving the accumulating knowledge of how our brains actually work might be good. In the last ten to fifteen years we have developed technology that is starting to open doors to: brain architecture, cognition, and how we humans learn to think. We have a long way to go learning how “cognitive toolkits” really work.

  • Matt

    My favorite one is Rob Kurzban’s essay on externalities:


    It’s a brutal (and much-needed) rebuke of the fantasy that is libertarianism.

  • Per

    Hi Sean,

    In your post you wrote

    “Life on Earth doesn’t arise in fulfillment of a grand scheme, but rather as a byproduct of the increase of entropy in an environment very far from equilibrium. Our impressive brains don’t develop because life is guided toward greater levels of complexity and intelligence, but from the mechanical interactions between genes, organisms, and their surroundings.”

    This is not a honest statement, and I think you know this. This is based on the assumption that we know the laws of nature to such an extent that a grand scheme can be ruled out.

    We do not. Saying we do is just another form of religion, this time in science, or scientism, instead of some old text from the desert.

    In my opinion its important to have an open mind and not allow oneself to say things like, now we know (and thus don’t have to ponder any more on it).

    best, P

  • thomas

    The problem with a thread like this is that in invites the crazies.

    Shecky R: Uncertainty in physics means something very specific, and incongruous with the real social problem you cite. Unfortunately, physics doesn’t have anything to say about that debate, except as a metaphor, and please be careful to not confuse people about physics in trying to get them to see other truths.

    Per: [impolite suggestion removed by moderator — don’t get nasty with fellow commenters, folks]

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    thomas, I realize ‘uncertainty’ has a specific meaning in physics… I was talking of the meaning of uncertainty more broadly in the sciences (read Rovelli’s piece, a physicist), and how if people could grasp a glimmer of that, than yes, it has metaphorical and epistemological application to how they think/behave in society.

  • psmith

    Thomas, you are rather quick to throw around the word ‘crazies’. Perhaps you would like to be more specific. I certainly think Per should not be calling Sean dishonest, but that is discourteous, not crazy.

  • psmith

    Missing from your list is Skeptical Empiricism. I have always thought of this as being quite foundational to the way we do science.

    Your contribution, The Pointless Universe, nicely sums up your basic attitudes and explains your well known atheistic stance. My comment is that this attitude is very necessary to the way we do science but that we should not confuse methodology with reality.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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