What Would Be Your Last Question?

What Would Be Your Last Question? April 1, 2019

Here is a sample from thinkers from the edge.com, asked by John Brockman:

John Brockman, Editor of Edge, each year asks scores of notable scientists and other intellectuals one very challenging question.

For 2018 he received 284 answers to: “What is the last question?” Most were about abstruse subjects.

But these six caught my eye as within reach of common sense and overflowing with profound implications for mankind.


To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

Sun, Mar 31, 2019



Jerry A. Coyne — Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago; Author, Why Evolution is True; Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

If science does in fact confirm that we lack free will, what are the implications for our notions of blame, punishment, reward, and moral responsibility?

Our present “notions of blame, punishment, reward, and moral responsibility” are totally upended.

But the utility of “blame, punishment, reward” remains, and accountability replaces “moral responsibility”.

The reason we do not have free will is because we are manufactured by our biological endowment and our experiences from the womb on through life as they interact to make us who we are. We had nothing to do with the biology, and even our choices of experiences were based on who we were shaped to be at the time of the choice. Therefore moral responsibility cannot be assigned for what we had no control over.

St. Augustine recognized that fact and invented free will to overcome that obstacle.

When we are blamed, punished, rewarded and held accountable – just as if we had free will (with one exception) – we are subjected to experience. That experience interacting with who we are at the moment will change our brains physically, and sometimes the change will be for the better, all too often for the worse.

 In that case, we must try something else. But in no case can we fail to realize that you are what you are because of luck – not free choice.



Itai Yanai — Director, Institute for Computational Medicine; Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology, New York University School of Medicine; Co-author (with Martin Lercher), The Society of Genes

How can we rebel against our genes if we are biological creatures without free will?

Because our genes created a mind capable of seeing beyond mere replication and our socialization showed us how cooperation and obeying certain norms were a better way to survive and flourish than strictly selfish behavior.


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein —Philosopher, Novelist; Recipient, 2014 National Humanities Medal; Author, Plato at the Googleplex; 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

 If we’re not the agents of ourselves (and it’s hard to see how we can be), how can we make sense of moral accountability (and how can we live coherently without it)?

We cannot live coherently without moral accountability, but we can know better than to assign moral culpability to one who had no choice over what made him/her who he/she is.


Robert Sapolsky —Neuroscientist, Stanford University; Author, Behave

Given the nature of life, the purposeless indifference of the universe, and our complete lack of free will, how is it that most people avoid ever being clinically depressed?

Because they don’t know or don’t believe that life is without purpose or that they lack free will. They know very well they make choices between alternatives dozens of times a day and they feel free in doing so. Of course, they are free of external compulsion but they cannot be free of the forces that made them who they are.


Steven Pinker — Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, Enlightenment Now

How can we empower the better angels of our nature?

By truly understanding that we are all creatures of luck, not to be hated for what we had no control over. As Darrow said, “hate the sin, not the sinner”. We cannot expect not to have powerful emotional reactions — even of hate – but at some point the intellect must and can rule.

Mine? It would be the goold ole: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

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