May 11, 2006

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What We Believe But Cannot Prove, edited by John Brockman (HarperPerennial, 2006, 252 pages)

John Brockman, the editor of Edge (www.edge.org), asked a few dozen scientists and thinkers “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” The book is a collection of their answers, which include the following (with elaborations):

That reality exists.

That consciousness and its contents are all that exist.

That there is no god.

That there is a god.

That true love exists.

That electrons exist.

That we will beat the speed of light.

That all people have the same fundamental values.

That it will never be possible to read people’s minds without their consent.

That only living beings can have consciousness.

That computers can have consciousness.

That consciousness requires language.

That cockroaches are conscious.

That human consciousness is an illusion.

Paul C. W. Davies says that “no known scientific principle suggests an inbuilt drive from matter to life.” In the very next essay Kenneth W. Ford marvels that “chemistry seems to be so life-striving.” Despite the opposite assumptions, both believe that the universe contains life beyond Earth.

Leo M. Chalupa, a neurobiologist, believes that “we will eventually succeed in discovering all there is to discover about the physical world.” Margaret Wertheim, a prolific science writer, in contrast believes “there will always be things we do not know.”

Everyone gives good reasons for his belief – except one, Bruce Sterling, whose entire response comprises five words: “We’re in for climatic mayhem.”

Each essay is brief, one or a few pages. The collection is suitable for browsing but works nicely when read front-to-back, because of the frequent contrast between sequent essays.

A few are quite technical, speaking of how human language evolved, for instance, but even so they are short. A few amount to “there’s no such thing.”

These are not cute novelties; these are some of the deepest thoughts you can have.

Here’s one of my favorites; it’s from physicist Leonard Susskind: “If I were to flip a coin a million times I’d be damn sure I wasn’t going to get all heads. I’m not a betting man, but I’d be so sure that I’d bet my life or my soul on it. I’d even go the whole way and bet a year’s salary. I’m absolutely certain that the laws of large numbers – probability theory – will work and protect me. All of science is based on it. But I can’t prove it, and I don’t really know why it works.” A

—Lisa Parsons


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