The question posed by John Brockman was "What do you believe but cannot prove?" It might be classed as one of those Mediaeval "angels on the head of a pin" queries. However, this is the 21st Century and what we know of Nature now stands in stark contrast to what was known then. The responses show that serious questions remain to be resolved. Not all of them can be, as the issue concerned lies either in the past or is too remote for close study. Some, of course, lie in the realm of what we deem "consciousness". A vague term in its own right, made even more difficult when the various respondents offer their own definitions. That tactic, however, makes the answers more stimulating by creating fresh questions. By selecting novelist Ian McEwan to write the introduction, Brockman shows he doesn't consider the question limited to scientific speculation. McEwan demonstrates his knowledge of the scientific issues [would that more fiction writers matched that capacity!] and how "inspiration" has advanced our understanding of Nature.
Although he doesn't describe the process, the reader will soon learn that the editor has placed the responses in some general categories. The first area of interest is cosmology - who is out there? How might we learn of them? Can we ever reach worlds light years away? More to the point, how is the universe put together and why in that way and not another? Are there other universes we can't see? Since many of these questions touch on what we call "values", the next grouping addresses that sort of reply. What is "morality" and what are its origins? In this collection, the "divine" is bypassed, leaving only humans to provide the answer to those "eternals". Yet humans, the responders acknowledge, are the product of natural selection. We have had a long time with even longer biological underpinnings to develop ideas of what is "moral". And moral issues are considered with other emotional aspects of our relations with others - including that favourite topic, "true love". As "love" is limited among humans without language, how we communicate and how language developed is another aspect of our evolutionary roots.
None of these behavioural characteristics of our species can be adequately explained until we have some notion of what drives them. Human consciousness is receiving greater attention through brain research. Cognitive science is revealing what is ticking over in our brains when we deal with such factors as "love" or "communication". A precise definition of consciousness has yet to emerge. The respondents here include one who feels consciousness doesn't even emerge until the language facility is fully developed. Others, using different criteria, even assign consciousness to the lowly cockroach. That consciousness may be at a different level, and operate in more constrained circumstances than that of our species, but consciousness it remains. It is in this segment of the collection where the respondents include the views of colleagues in their essays. That alone is enough to demonstrate the importance of the issues raised here. It may also portend deeper questions on wither the human species is bound. Will humans merge with computers as a means of enhancing their cognitive capacity?
Some more random responses to the "Edge" question conclude the collection. A few direct social issues are addressed, along with associated predictions. Is the human species "improving" and can that be directed are typical examples. Rounding out a fascinating collection, these last are wide-reaching and may be more immediate than the foregoing replies. With such a talented stable of commentators, Brockman's gathering is of immense importance. These are real questions under investigation by highly qualified thinkers. McEwan himself reappears in a thoughtful note all of us should consider. It has great impact on how we conduct our lives - and how novelists portray that behaviour. This is an enduring collection, and should be on every bookshelf. Add it to yours. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]