[FoRK] God (or Not), Physics and, of Course,
Love: Scientists Take a Leap
jbone at place.org
Tue Jan 4 15:48:00 PST 2005
January 4, 2005
God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap
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hat do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"
This was the question posed to scientists, futurists and other
creative thinkers by John Brockman, a literary agent and publisher of
The Edge, a Web site devoted to science. The site asks a new question
at the end of each year. Here are excerpts from the responses, to be
posted Tuesday at www.edge.org.
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing World-Class
I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it
comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are
behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when
major decisions are made - who to marry, where to live, what career to
pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with
the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options,
their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for
Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University; author, "The Ancestor's Tale"
I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all
creativity and all "design" anywhere in the universe, is the direct or
indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design
comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution.
Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the
Judith Rich Harris
Writer and developmental psychologist; author, "The Nurture Assumption"
I believe, though I cannot prove it, that three - not two - selection
processes were involved in human evolution.
The first two are familiar: natural selection, which selects for
fitness, and sexual selection, which selects for sexiness.
The third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty - not
adult beauty. The ones doing the selecting weren't potential mates:
they were parents. Parental selection, I call it.
Physicist; retired director, American Institute of Physics; author,
"The Quantum World"
I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy.
I am not even saying "elsewhere in the universe." If the proposition I
believe to be true is to be proved true within a generation or two, I
had better limit it to our own galaxy. I will bet on its truth there.
I believe in the existence of life elsewhere because chemistry seems to
be so life-striving and because life, once created, propagates itself
in every possible direction. Earth's history suggests that chemicals
get busy and create life given any old mix of substances that includes
a bit of water, and given practically any old source of energy;
further, that life, once created, spreads into every nook and cranny
over a wide range of temperature, acidity, pressure, light level and so
Believing in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy
is another matter.
Neuroscientist, New York University; author, "The Synaptic Self"
For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings
and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has
been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are
conscious, much less other animals. In the case of other people,
though, we at least can have a little confidence since all people have
brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as we turn to
other species and start asking questions about feelings and
consciousness in general we are in risky territory because the hardware
Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different
than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior in rats rather than
There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can help people
with emotional disorders. And there's lots we can learn about feelings
from studying humans, especially now that we have powerful function
imaging techniques. I'm not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis in Cell
I feel that I know something that will turn out to be correct and
eventually proved to be true beyond doubt.
That our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved
directly from our bacterial ancestors. That is, we, like all other
mammals including our apish brothers detect odors, distinguish tastes,
hear bird song and drumbeats and we too feel the vibrations of the
drums. With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun.
These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage that preceded
the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate animals, indeed all
Psychologist, Hope College; author, "Intuition"
As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms:
1. There is a God.
2. It's not me (and it's also not you).
Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that some of my
beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from dust to dust, finite
and fallible. We have dignity but not deity.
And that is why I further believe that we should
a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain tentativeness (except
for this one!),
b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and
c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.
This mix of faith-based humility and skepticism helped fuel the
beginnings of modern science, and it has informed my own research and
science writing. The whole truth cannot be found merely by searching
our own minds, for there is not enough there. So we also put our ideas
to the test. If they survive, so much the better for them; if not, so
much the worse.
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, author, "A Primate's Memoir"
Mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an unjustifiable
belief, namely that there is no god(s) or such a thing as a soul
(whatever the religiously inclined of the right persuasion mean by that
I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only can, but
should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to not believe without
requiring proof. Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there
were a proof that there is no god. Some might view this as a potential
public health problem, given the number of people who would then run
damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage of folks
running amok thanks to their belief. So that wouldn't be a problem and,
all things considered, such a proof would be a relief - many
physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on
about their communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of
biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your
time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists.
Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of
the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the
humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very
The world of our daily experience - the world of tables, chairs, stars
and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds - is
a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm
whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the
contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.
Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they
do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on
a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because
this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of
software or toggling voltages in circuits.
Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface,
this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical
simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but
for the mutable pragmatics of survival.
If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we should not
be surprised that, despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant of
minds, there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness, no
theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be,
or cause, conscious experience.
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author,"The Mind Made Flesh"
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to
fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable
mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is
natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human
self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we
each place on our own and others' lives.
Psychologist, emeritus professor, Stanford; author, "Shyness"
I believe that the prison guards at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, who
worked the night shift in Tier 1A, where prisoners were physically and
psychologically abused, had surrendered their free will and personal
responsibility during these episodes of mayhem.
But I could not prove it in a court of law. These eight Army
reservists were trapped in a unique situation in which the behavioral
context came to dominate individual dispositions, values and morality
to such an extent that they were transformed into mindless actors
alienated from their normal sense of personal accountability for their
actions - at that time and place.
The "group mind" that developed among these soldiers was created by a
set of known social psychological conditions, some of which are nicely
featured in Golding's "Lord of the Flies." The same processes that I
witnessed in my Stanford Prison Experiment were clearly operating in
that remote place: deindividuation, dehumanization, boredom,
groupthink, role-playing, rule control and more.
Philip W. Anderson
Physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton
Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe it to be?
It is an interesting mathematical specialty and has produced and will
produce mathematics useful in other contexts, but it seems no more
vital as mathematics than other areas of very abstract or specialized
math, and doesn't on that basis justify the incredible amount of effort
expended on it.
My belief is based on the fact that string theory is the first science
in hundreds of years to be pursued in pre-Baconian fashion, without any
adequate experimental guidance. It proposes that Nature is the way we
would like it to be rather than the way we see it to be; and it is
improbable that Nature thinks the same way we do.
The sad thing is that, as several young would-be theorists have
explained to me, it is so highly developed that it is a full-time job
just to keep up with it. That means that other avenues are not being
explored by the bright, imaginative young people, and that alternative
career paths are blocked.
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley; co-author, "The
Scientist in the Crib"
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are
actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and
internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong
evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children
are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly
changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are
much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and
automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't
tie their shoelaces.
Psychologist, University of Texas; author, "The Evolution of Desire"
I've spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating.
In that time, I've documented phenomena ranging from what men and women
desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've
discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women
deceive and manipulate each other. I've studied mate poachers, obsessed
stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers. But throughout this
exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained
unwavering in my belief in true love.
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people
are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are
well traveled and their markers are well understood by many - the
mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow,
profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love
takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences,
has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to define, eludes modern
measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love
exists. I just can't prove it.
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