Edge in the News: 2005

The Sydney Morning Herald [1.7.05]

We all have hunches, beliefs we can barely explain, or even simply hopes or dreams that some might think of as crazy, or scoff at as irrational, or unproven. But that's just the point of hunches, isn't it? Sometimes we're even right. Diderot called the gift of those who guess the truth before being able to prove it the 'esprit de divination'.
hich is why the latest "grand question" posed by the publisher of the scientific website edge.org, John Brockman, to 120 scientists and thinkers, is so wonderful: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

The answers, which spill to 60,000 words and were published this week, provide a fascinating insight into conjecture - and the power of imagination. Even the empirically driven, it seems, have their own leaps of faith.

Many scientists and researchers believe in the unseen and the unknown - in true love, the power of a child's mind, in the existence of aliens.

Slashdot [1.4.05]

from the that-she-is-out-there dept.
An anonymous reader writes "That's what online magazine The Edge - the World Question Center asked over 120 scientists, futurists, and other interesting minds. Their answers are sometimes short and to the point (Bruce Sterling: 'We're in for climatic mayhem'), often long and involved; they cover everything from the existence of God to the nature of black holes. What do you believe, even though you can't prove it?  

Roger Highfield, News Telegraph [1.4.05]

Prof Richard Dawkins, the scourge of those who maintain their belief in a god, has declared that he, too, holds a belief that cannot yet be proved.

In a recent letter to a national newspaper, Prof Dawkins said believers might now be disillusioned with an omnipotent being who had just drowned tens of thousands of innocent people in Asia. "My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him."

Now the Oxford University evolutionary biologist is among the 117 scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers who have responded to the question: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" posed by John Brockman, a New York-based literary agent and publisher of Edge, a website devoted to science.

bloomberg.com [1.3.05]

I call it "Broks's paradox": the condition of believing that the mind is separate from the body, even though you know this belief to be untrue

I’ve been browsing the “World Question Centre” at edge.org, the website for thinking folk with time on their hands. The 2005 Edge question is a good one: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”

Alexander Vilenkin, a physicist, believes that our universe is just one of an infinite number of similar regions. But “it follows from quantum mechanics” that the number of histories that can be played out in them is finite. The upshot of this crossplay of finitudes and infinities is that every possible history will play out in an infinite number of regions, which means there should be an infinite number of places with histories identical to our own down to the atomic level. “I find this rather depressing,” says Vilenkin, “but it is probably true.” The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, on the other hand, believes that “consciousness and its contents are all that exists,” the physical universe being “among the humbler contents of consciousness.” But he can’t prove that either. Daniel Dennett sees consciousness as a scarcer commodity. His unproven belief is that, lacking language, animals and pre-linguistic children also lack self-awareness. He insists that neither is thereby morally demoted, but, I wonder, does this mean it is more acceptable to eat small children or less acceptable to eat animals?

This brings us to death. The psychologist Jesse Bering believes we will never get our heads around the idea. He calls it “Unamuno’s paradox,” after the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, who was troubled not so much by the prospect of his own death as by his inability in life to get any kind of imaginative purchase on what the state of being dead would be “like.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness,” he lamented. And you can’t get out of this by saying that “it is like nothing at all” to be dead, because the point is precisely that we are incapable of imagining absolute nothingness. Our mental apparatus is tuned to states of being in the world. Non-being is simply beyond our ken. All of this is of no concern to those who believe in an afterlife. The conscious personality just floats on elsewhere. That most people hold to this bizarre belief is not simply due to religious indoctrination. The separateness of body and mind is a primordial intuition. It has sprung from our evolution as social beings and coalesced into the hardware of the central nervous system. Human beings are natural born soul makers, adept at extracting unobservable minds from the behaviour of observable bodies, including their own. Taking the next, false step, if mind and body are conceived as separate entities, it is easy to see the possibility of a mental life after physical death.

This leads me to “Broks’s paradox”: we are inclined to believe in mind-body dualism even though we understand it to be wrong. Neuroscientists are not exempt. Consider the following thought experiment, devised by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Some years hence you find yourself taking business trips to Mars. Teleportation is the usual mode of transport. It works like this. A scanner records the states of your body in atomic detail and digitally encodes the information for radio transmission. Your body is destroyed in the process but reconstructed on Mars using locally available materials as soon as the radio signals are decoded. The replication is perfect: identical body and brain, identical memory stores and patterns of mental activity. It is “you.” You are in no doubt. Most neuroscientists say they would readily submit to this process. Why should they worry about destruction and reconstruction of the body? As good materialists, they know that “the self” (secular cousin to the soul) is no more than a pattern of experiences and dispositions bundled together by the operations of the central nervous system. Now imagine this. There is a teleporter malfunction. You have been scanned and the information transmitted, but this time your body was not vaporised in the usual way. Your replica was automatically constructed and is going about its business. Worse still, the faulty scanner has left you with a fatal heart condition. You will be dead within days. Which would you rather be, the Martian replica or the moribund earthbound version? It should make no difference to a true materialist. In scenario two, the vaporisation process has been delayed, that is all. The personal trajectory of the individual arriving on Mars is the same for both scenarios. Psychological continuity has been maintained, as it is via the oblivion of sleep from one ordinary day to the next. But very few rest easy with scenario two. It shatters one’s complacency about unproblematic teleportation (and therefore materialism): “If the replica’s not me now…”

One might dismiss all this as “angels on a pinhead” stuff. But Ian McEwan” makes a telling point. “What I believe but cannot prove,” he says, “is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death.” His enlightened fellow Edge contributors will take this as a given, but they may not appreciate its significance, which is that belief in an afterlife “divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere.” The natural gift of consciousness should be treasured all the more for its transience.

The New York Times [1.3.05]

Fourteen scientists ponder everything from string theory to true love. 

"What 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 ofEdge, 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.

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.3.05]

(Woran glauben Sie, ohne es beweisen zu können?) 

It can be more thrilling to start the New Year with a good question than with a good intention. That's what John Brockman is doing for the eight time in a row. The New York based literary agent and pionieer of the "Third culture", in which the natural sciences and the humanities are meant to fuse, has posed a question to researchers and other scientific literati in 1998 for the first time. Then the question was: "Which questions do you ask youself?". In the meantime, Brockman has set up a World Question Center" at the internet site of his intellectual foundation Edge (www.edge.org). It is no accident that this years question refers to believes after a year in which America has shown its strong believing side. But what is it the reason-driven members of the Third Culture believe in? We supply a small selection of answers to this year's question."

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.1.05]

Domanda intrigantissima, cui hanno già risposto, tra gli altri, intellettuali come John Barrow, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel C. Dennett, Keith Devlin, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, Leon Lederman, Janna Levin, Joseph LeDoux, Benoit Mandelbrot, Martin Rees, Steven Pinker, Carlo Rovelli, Craig Venter. I loro interventi saranno resi disponibili sul sito nei prossimi giorni. Il dibattito sarà seguito a livello internazionale, con anticipazioni in contemporanea di diversi interventi, dal «New York Times», dal «Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung» e, per l’Italia, dal Domenicale
del Sole-24 Ore. 

Una nuova figura di intellettuale pubblico è venuta alla luce, e vi è un luogo in cui essa può esprimersi con grande libertà. Siamo certi che anche nel nostro Paese, più di quanto hanno fatto finora, non saranno in pochi a voler approfittare di questa opportunità.

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.1.05]

L’interesse dei mezzi di comunicazione per questo tipo di figure intellettuali ha preso tre vie principali. La prima è la più evidente ma in un certo senso anche la più sorprendente; si tratta della pubblicazione di opere di divulgazione scientifica di altissimo livello, affidata non a divulgatori di professione ma a scienziati cui si chiede di presentare al grande pubblico il loro lavoro, senza fare troppe concessioni. Nata da un’idea di un agente letterario, John Brockman, ha permesso di far venire alla luce best-seller come L’istinto del linguaggio di S. Pinker, Armi acciaio e malattie di J. Diamond, I vestiti nuovi dell'imperatore di R. Penrose, L’universo elegante di B. Greene. Hanno sorpreso sia la qualità della scrittura che le vendite; evidentemente c'era un bisogno di opere di alto livello che le case editrici hanno saputo individuare.