Questions in science, questions of science

27 February 2021
27 Feb 2021

In technology (defined broadly), there are questions that are evergreen and related to the nature of science itself, and questions that are temporary and specific to the technological capabilities of a given era.

A simple example of a temporary question is when Moore’s law for scaling semiconductor performance no longer holds. It’s an interesting question, and one that has huge economic, industrial, and scientific consequences, but it’s a question whose answer is time-limited in its utility. Humanity will figure it out at some point, and then the question will no longer be useful or interesting.

Another interesting question is whether the computing technology humans have access to today is the only computing technology in the universe, and we’ve discovered it, or whether there are in fact infinitely many different computational powers we can harness, of which we’ve only discovered one.

A more extreme example is whether humans will ever become immortal. This question seems unsolvable, but I’ve argued before that this question really only has two answers: either humans will become immortal, or die trying, and face a species-wide extinction event. In a way, this question is also time-limited. We will either figure it out, or never have a chance to.

I don’t mean to dismiss the gravity and intellectual value of these deep questions about technology and humanity – these are obviously important and valuable scientific questions. But my point is that they are temporary, and they are concerned with the capabilities of science rather than the nature of it. The question of immortality is fundamentally about what science does today rather than about what science is, and what its fundamental limitations are.

Science cannot offer us an answer to these kinds of questions of how humans interact with science as an emergent phenomenon of intelligence. The answer is extra-scientific – exists outside of science itself. These questions are the most interesting for me to think about, because they speak to our ultimate fate as a strange little rare phenomenon in this universe, and they speak to the timeless nature of knowledge and science, as opposed to its temporary effects in this small corner of the universe we call home.

Thanks to Teresa Pho, whose thoughtful conversations with me sparked some ideas in this post.

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