Edge in the News

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Katinka Matson's flowers are magnificent and surreally real.

Richard Dawkins, BBC Radio4 [1.8.05]

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.

[male voice:] What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it? Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch and to perceive on that basis.

BBC Radio 4: Well, the author and the novelist Ian McEwen gave the site the following answer:

[male voice:] What I believe, but cannot prove, is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing. I suspect that many contributors to Edge will take this premise as a given—true, but not significant. However, it 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".

BBC Radio 4: And here's the response from Dan Dennett, who is a philosopher at Tufts University:

[male voice:] "I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness. It would follow that non-human animals and pre-linguistic children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, are not really conscious in this strong sense. This assertion is shocking to many people, who fear it would demote animals and pre-linguistic children from moral protection, but this would not follow."

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?

Richard Dawkins: Well, my response was about Darwinism, which is my own field. Darwinism is the explanation for life on this planet, but I believe that 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. That was my response.

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. 

Richard Dawkins: I think first one should say that the Archbishop of Canterbury was traduced and maligned by various people who said that he had questioned his own faith in God, which of course he did not. He said something much more cautious than that. And I'm sure he's right that this will cause people to question their faith in God.

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 stage.

BBC Radio 4: The Edge foundation, and the website, makes this statement that great minds can guess the proof before they have evidence or arguments for it. But is it only great minds? Don't most people function on a series of things they believe to be true, but never even seek to prove.

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 bh@bbc.co.uk.

Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question. It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world. 

The Sunday Times [1.8.05]

Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives.

So here is what I believe, without being able to prove it. If there are any answers to life's greatest questions, or if there are other questions that we should be asking instead, it is science that will provide them.

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.

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.

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?  

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.

QUARK [12.31.04]

What scientists believe but cannot yet prove

Time, space, aliens, and God...the views of 18 great minds give their answers

News Telegraph [12.31.04]

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.

Arts & Letters Daily [12.31.04]

What do you believe to be true, even though you can’t prove it?John Brockman asked over a hundred scientists and intellectuals...

The Times Higher Education Supplement [12.31.04]

"It is like having a front-row seat at the ultimate scientific seminar series."
— Matin Durani (Deputy Editor, Physics World)

Guardian Unlimited [7.25.04]

A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists in a book developed from pieces that first appeared on the web forum Edge (www.edge.org).

Betraying that they were written for the screen, a leading role is given to the computer and the potential for machine intelligence.

Brockman, whose big black hat gives away his day job is as literary agent to scientists-turned-bestselling authors, argues in his introduction that his contributors have broken down the barrier of CP Snow's two cultures and found - echoes of Tony Blair - a third way. A number of chapters also echo the writers' latest books.

So you can dip into Jared Diamond trying to explain why human development proceeded at different rates in different continents, and appealing to biogeography to overcome historians' distaste for a question with racist overtones.

Or try Steven Pinker demolishing the idea that the human mind is a blank slate by pointing to the wastelands created by planners who omitted to cater for human aesthetic and social needs, and damning the postmodern arts for deliberate incomprehensibility.

Move on through Andy Clark's provocative proposal for a future world of human/technology symbionts (be your favourite cyborg) and Marc Hauser's discussion of the mental tools with which we, and other animals, arrive in this world. He poses question upon question about the survival of species but none more affecting than: "Why is Homo sapiens the only species that sheds tears when it cries?"

And you may laugh at the query "what shape are a German shepherd's ears?" but Stephen Kosslyn has been studying the question behind that question, what imagery is, for 30 years and honestly concludes that: "Imagery just isn't one thing."

That's six out of 22, and all before Seth Lloyd asks if we could read information transformed by going through a black hole? And that's a really big idea.

· Science at the Edge, ed. John Brockman, is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99. To buy a copy for £16.99 plus p&p, phone the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875

· What did you think of this article? Mail your responses tolife@guardian.co.uk and include your name and address.

Traffic World [2.1.04]

The online group Edge.org started the year by asking scholars, writers and other people with time on their hands to dream up some new universal truths. You know, like Murphy's Law. We like the one from John Maddox, the longtime editor of Nature magazine, which our editors have shortened to this: "Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are ... prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

Universal. We'd like to offer out own little universal law of commercial shipping. Every discount is paid for in another way, but never in a way the accounting department cares about.

Prospect [1.31.04]

164 of the world's finest boffins have been asked by the "scientific salon" website Edge (www.edge.org) to produce their own eponymous laws (think Boyle, Newton, Murphy). Answers ranged from Richard Dawkins' observation that "Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrnsic simplicity" to Steven Strogatz's arch "When you're trying to prove something, it helps to know it's true." Andy Clark wins the brevity prize for "Evrything leaks."