"Fantastically stimulating...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4
What do you believe to be true but cannot prove? And what kind of problem does that pose to Scientists? Professor Richard Dawkins joins us for that and we invite your thoughts on the subject.
Fi Glover, Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4: Now, what do you believe is true, but cannot prove? This enormous query has been posed by the big thinkers' website edge.org as their question for 2005. Now the website is the technological organ of The Edge Foundation, which set itself up in 1988 with the mandate to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society. And so far hundreds of big thinkers have been answering this question.
BBC Radio 4: Well, the author and the novelist Ian McEwen gave the site the following answer:
BBC Radio 4: And here's the response from Dan Dennett, who is a philosopher at Tufts University:
BBC Radio 4: Well, now it's your turn. We at Broadcasting House would love your thoughts on this. Perhaps you could send them whilst I chat amicably to Professor Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist at Oxford University. Very good morning, Professor.
Professor Richard Dawkins: Good morning.
BBC Radio 4: What was your own response to the question?
BBC Radio 4: So this might take us toward a discussion
of faith and the notion of faith. And being able to prove the
substance of that faith is particularly relevant at the moment.
I mean the Archbishop of Canterbury last week alluded to the
fact that the tsunami should make every Christian question
the existence of God. Would you or could you follow the same
path of thinking, given what you have just told us.
However, the Edge question is about beliefs that are true even though you can't prove them. Faith is obviously an aspect of that and quite a number of the responses were beliefs that probably will be proved one way or the other one day, but we don't have yet the evidence to prove them. For example, more than one person conjectured that there was life elsewhere in the universe than here and that's a belief which doesn't require faith; it's something which in principle one day could be demonstrated.
On the other hand, if somebody said, "I believe that the way you see red is the same as the way I see red," then that seems to me to be in principle unprovable, which is a different kind of unproveability.
BBC Radio 4: It is a fantastically stimulating question isn't it? And although we might believe that science acts as a bastion of provable theory in a world that contains many mysteries, as you've just said, this often isn't the case, is it? Scientists start out with theories and seek to build the proof around them. And that's the excitement of science often.
Richard Dawkins: Very much so. It would be entirely
wrong to suggest that science is something that knows everything
already. Science proceeds by having hunches, by making guesses,
by having hypotheses, sometimes inspired by poetic thoughts,
by aesthetic thoughts even, and then science goes about trying
to demonstrate it experimentally or observationally. And that's
the beauty of science; that it has this imaginative stage but
then it goes on to the proving stage, to the demonstrating
Richard Dawkins: Well, they do; you've got to be very careful about that because a lot of people really do simply assume things to be true, without really having any evidence, and that can be very dangerous. So, these intuitive feelings always should be followed up by an attempt to gather evidence. We should never go to war, we should never take drastic action on the basis of what we just, as a matter of faith, believe.
BBC Radio 4: One of our listeners, Adam, has sent us the following this morning; I wonder whether you could cast your big brain over it. He says, "I believe there is no such thing as time, even though we experience progression; in fact it is because there is no time that we can experience progression, and this includes acceleration and travel".
Richard Dawkins: Well that's fascinating. One of the contributors, I forget which, did actually say something rather similar and I think it's also the thesis of the physicist Ian Barbour in his rather stimulating book on the subject of time. This is a subject for a physicist to answer, rather than me. I guess that your correspondent probably is a physicist, actually. I think that physicists do have a rather different view of time from the view that we in the common sense word have.
BBC Radio 4: Another one comes from Margaret, who says, "I believe, but cannot prove that most of the viewing audience of Jerry Springer the Opera watched as a result of the protest and the protesters shot themselves in the foot." Would you agree?
Richard Dawkins: [Laughs] Well, that's a nice opinion and I think I do agree with that, but that's not of the same type as one of these statements that are true although you can't prove it. That's an opinion.
BBC Radio 4: Yes. It's just delightful to talk to you, Professor Dawkins; thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.
We'd love to hear some more of your thoughts on this; what is it that you believe, but can't prove. Please send all of those to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question.
It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.