Thursday, January 19, 2012

2012 Edge Question

The 2012 Edge Question is What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation? The answers to Edge Questions are often a mixed bag at best, althought the 2011 one ("What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?") actually had a lot of good answers. This year, I think, is one of the worst; most of the answers are not very good. For one thing, many of the answers seem to have weird assumptions about what an explanation is; they often propose something that, however useful, wouldn't be useful as an explanation at all (e.g., purely descriptive models, redescriptions of the explanandum, heuristics, practical arguments, metaphors, existence or nonexistence proofs for symptoms or correlations, and so forth). And, further, it seems clear that many of these people are simply unable to convey coherently what they mean by calling something deep, elegant, or beautiful, much less able to explain what it is about an explanation that makes it any of these things.

There are a handful of answers that are interesting, mostly from a few of the physicists. Dawkins's, I think, was actually the most interesting proposal; most of the others, at least the others that could be seriously considered as explanations of some kind and whose depth, elegance, or beauty was given an explanation, were rather trite examples of the sort you would expect -- not necessarily wrong, but also not necessarily indicative of having put any serious thought into the question.

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