According to the new indictment charging Jeffrey Epstein with sex trafficking, in 2004, the financier “enticed and recruited multiple minor victims … to engage in sex acts” at his homes in Manhattan and Palm Beach, paying them “hundreds of dollars in cash for each encounter.” Also in 2004, Epstein was spewing pseudo-intellectual online advice in a forum run by the Edge Foundation, a salon of sorts where editor and literary agent John Brockman invited members of the “digerati” to render “visible the deeper meanings of our lives.”
With its high-minded attitude, excess of platitudes, and a heavily male list of contributors, Edge’s “annual question” series was a sort of hybrid between a TED Talk and the dorm-room musings of the intellectual dark web. Occurring annually from 1998 to 2018, impressive thinkers like Brian Eno, Nick Bostrom, Nicholas Carr, and Carl Zimmer would answer big-picture questions like “What is your dangerous idea?” and “What have you changed your mind about?” According to its criterion for choosing contributors, Edge looked “for people whose creative work has expanded our notion of who and what we are. A few are bestselling authors or are famous in the mass culture. Most are not.”
One was Jeffrey Epstein. Along with contributors like Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “financier and science philanthropist” Epstein got in on the 2004 query — “What’s your law?” — answering with a short, venture-capitalist koan.
Epstein’s First Law
Know when you are winning.
Epstein’s Second Law
The key question is not what can I gain but what do I have to lose.
At the Edge Foundation’s “billionaire’s dinner” in 2004, Epstein also offered some cosmic wisdom. MIT “quantum mechanic” Seth Lloyd recalled that:
Jeffrey Epstein joined the conversation and demanded to know whether weird quantum effects had played a significant role in the origins of life. That question pushed me way out of the sumo ring into the deep unknown. We tried to construct a version of the question that could be answered. I was pushing my own personal theory of everything (the universe is a giant quantum computer, and to understand how things like life came into existence, we have to understand how atoms, molecules, and photons process information). Jeffrey was pushing back with his own theory (we need to understand what problem was being solved at the moment life came into being). By pushing from both sides, we managed to assemble a metaphor in which molecules divert the flow of free energy to their own recreational purposes (i.e., literally recreating themselves) somewhat in the way Jeffrey manages to divert the flow of money as it moves from time-zone to time-zone, using that money for his own recreational purposes (i.e., to create more money). I’m not saying it was the right way to describe the origins of life: I’m just saying that it was fun.
These 2004 contributions were compelling enough to bring Epstein back for a second year. For the 2005 question — “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” — Epstein responded with some ontological gibberish that would give Rust Cohle a run for his money.
The great breakthrough will involve a new understanding of time … that moving through time is not free, and that consciousness itself will be seen to only be a time sensor, adding to the other sensors of light and space.
Epstein was booked up for the next few years, dealing with an FBI investigation into his predation in 2006, communicating with a legal team that struck plea-deal gold in 2007, and going to prison six days a week beginning in 2008. Still, he was able to answer the 2008 question: “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”
The question presupposes a well defined “you”, and an implied ability that is under “your” control to change your “mind”. The “you” I now believe is distributed amongst others (family friends, in hierarchal structures,) i.e. suicide bombers, believe their sacrifice is for the other parts of their “you”. The question carries with it an intention that I believe is out of one’s control. My mind changed as a result of its interaction with its environment. Why? because it is a part of it.
Perhaps it’s telling of Epstein’s character that — facing jail time for molesting children — he responded with a few sentences about the limits of one’s agency. Certainly it’s telling of the circle that Epstein ran in — presuming the 2008 question was asked in 2008 — that the Edge Foundation contacted him to contribute to the project after his 2007 indictment, in which one detective described Epstein as running a “sexual pyramid scheme.” (Or, for the conspiracy-minded, they could have been too intimidated not to reach out to the power broker.)
Also telling is Epstein’s philanthropic relationship with academic and medical institutions, which kept accepting his money, even after he registered as a sex offender and his conspicuously lenient plea deal was made public. According to BuzzFeed News, gifts from Epstein in 2016 and 2017 included a $225,000 donation to the Melanoma Research Alliance; $150,000 to MIT; $50,000 to the University of Arizona Foundation; $25,000 to NautilusThink; $20,000 to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation; and $10,000 to the Icahn School of Medicine. There are also more personal examples: One of Epstein’s foundations reportedly made a $250,000 donation to Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss’s Origins Project after its founding in 2010. Krauss and Epstein’s relationship goes back to at least 2006, when he helped organize a conference in the Virgin Islands on understanding gravity, which was funded by Epstein. In 2014, Krauss and Pinker were pictured with Epstein at a dinner party. In 2011, Krauss, who recently retired from ASU after allegations of sexual misconduct, defended their relationship: “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”
Though the Edge Foundation’s series wanted to provide answers to life’s big, stoned concerns, it did raise one major question about Jeffrey Epstein. Multiple accounts from academics and financiers peg him as a genius. His benefactor, Leslie Wexner, told Vanity Fair in 2003 he was “very smart with a combination of excellent judgment and unusually high standards.” “Jeffrey has the mind of a physicist,” biology and math professor Martin Nowak told New York in 2002. “It’s like talking to a colleague in your field.”
Do Epstein’s musings at the Edge Foundation offer a glimpse at what inspired his friends in finance and academia?
This post has been updated to reflect that Lawrence Krauss has been connected to Epstein as early as 2006, not 2002.