GOD (OR NOT), PHYSICS AND, OF COURSE, LOVE: SCIENTISTS TAKE A LEAP

[ Thu. Mar. 31. 2005 ]

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 of 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 atwww.edge.org.

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

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 them.

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 universe.

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 on.

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 emotionalist.

Lynn Margulis
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis in Cell Evolution"

I feel that I know something that will turn out to be correct and eventually proved to be true beyond doubt.

What?

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 animals.

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.

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