[FoRK] God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Tue Jan 4 15:49:10 PST 2005

Oops...  now w/ missing link:



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.

  Roger Schank
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing World-Class 

Irrational choices.

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 

Richard Dawkins
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.

Kenneth Ford
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.

Joseph LeDoux
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 
is different.

  Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different 
than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior in rats rather than 
emotional feelings.

  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 

Lynn Margulis
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 

  David Myers
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.

Robert Sapolsky
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 
word). ...

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.

Donald Hoffman
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.

Nicholas Humphrey
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.

Philip Zimbardo
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.

Alison Gopnik
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.

  David Buss
Psychologist, University of Texas; author, "The Evolution of Desire"

True love.

  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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