The Question

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A common theme of science fiction is speculation about the ultimate effects of technology on human existence. Some authors have imagined that all technological discoveries and changes will be accomplished in the distant future while others have suggested that technological change is a fundamentally exponential process that will culminate in the relatively near future (Technological singularity). Many such speculations involve a role for intelligent devices that might be able to catalyze technological change at a very rapid pace. Douglas Adams turned such speculations on their head and wrote about computing devices of the future that reveal the ultimate truth of the universe to be an absurdity[1]. Why is it natural for people to imagine that there are fundamental questions about the universe that we should be able to answer using technology?

Religion[edit | edit source]

Douglas Adams had fun with the idea that there is some technological way (such as a powerful thinking machine) to answer an ultimate single Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Within some religions there is an identifiable religious cosmology that provides answers to questions about the origin, structure or fate of the universe. "Cosmology" appears as a "universal element of human culture" in a list of such elements that was created by George Murdock. In some cultures, origin stories might remain part of the domain of informal folklore while in some cultures these issues of ultimate origins, structure and fate are taken up and formalized as elements of important religions.

The scientific and technological revolutions of Western European culture have produced a cultural environment in which it is common practice to explore the idea that technology might be able to answer fundamental cosmological questions. To what extent was the religious cosmology of Western Europe suited to the development of science and technology? How were important naturalists such as Newton and Darwin able to deal with the limits of religious cosmology and move their thinking into new areas that were important for the ultimate advancement of science and technology? How have the contributions of religious philosophers effected this process?

Philosophy[edit | edit source]

Philosophy attempts to answer the Question with logical induction: a combination of intuition and measured objectivity. The philosopher says: this is the answer because the world is like this and that, and I know the allegory to be true, in my heart. To the scientist, the philosopher questions the reliability of sensory perception. To the religionist, the philosopher wonders about the lack of appeal to objectivity.

Science[edit | edit source]

Science attempts to answer the Question with a measured analysis of the objective world. The scientist says: this is the answer because my experiment repeatedly proves it.

Technology is all we know today. Most, if not all of our advances in humanity as a whole, are very closely related to developing technology. With every new advance, we find new answers to dilemmas that have plagued us. Technology will not be the enemy in the future. Deciding on where to apply it, and knowing when to say stop, is where there will be a problem. Technology is nothing more than a tool humans use to get work done. Technology is an aid, not an oracle. Technology is not science. The striked-out text is nothing but conjecture and opinion, and furthermore is irrelevant to the discussion of science and "The Question".

There is a feedback process that links science and technology. Growth of scientific understanding supports the development of new technologies and technological advances make new scientific studies possible. Human experience with current technologies and awareness of how new advances in science and technology have in the past provided new insights into long-standing mysteries makes it natural for people to wonder if there are limits to what we can learn about the world by making use of science and technology. Are we unavoidably trapped in a universe that cannot be completely understood from "inside" or do science and technology have the power to eventually answer even the "ultimate" questions about everything? Are our intuitions about the power of science and technology hopelessly biased by recent history and is it silly to expect that our current expectations about "ultimate" questions might have any long-lasting importance?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.