Edge in the News: 2005 Annual Question


To celebrate the new year, online magazine Edge asked some leading thinkers a simple question: What do you believe but cannot prove? Here is a selection of their responses...


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

...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.


John Brockman, writer, publisher and events manager for the science elite, has asked a hundred researchers the question, What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? The answers are posted at his e-magazine Edge (www.edge.org), and they exert an unquestionable morbid fascination—those are the very ideas that scientists cannot confess in their technical papers.

Since the Big Bang, matter has been busy organizing itself on particles, atoms, stars, planets, organic compounds and (on Earth at least) bacteria, animals and conscious brains. That is what scientists think proved. But their unproven beliefs tell another story, or thousand others.

“I doubt that the Big Bang is the beginning of time, I strongly suspect that our history extends backwards before that”, writes in Edge Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist. He cannot prove it, but he believes it. As his colleague Lawrence Krauss believes, without proofs too, that “there are likely to be a large, and possibly infinite number of other universes out there, some of which may be experiencing Big Bangs at the current moment”.

God does not play dices, said Einstein, but Alexander Vilenkin thinks he played dices too much…


In a front-page article, Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's largest financial daily, announced the "Edge Question Forum" in "Domenica", the weekend Arts & Culture section. The Forum, an ongoing project designed to bring third culture thinking to Italy, features excerpts from the Edgeresponses in addition to articles solicited rom Italian humanist intellectuals and scientists.


A wide cross-section of people from among the intelligentsia responded to this fundamental paradox of life. The cynic and the optimist, the agnostic and the believer, the rationalist and the obscurantist, the scientist and the speculative philosopher, the realist and the idealist-all converge on a critical point in their thought process where reasoning loses its power. Love, existence of God, primacy of the entity called consciousness or life were the issues that came within the purview of the deliberation.

Richard Dawkins, [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 [email protected].

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


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.


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, [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.


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?  


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.


(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."


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.


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.


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

Denis Dutton, [12.31.04]

"The greatest virtual research university in the world."
— Denis Dutton, Editor, Arts & Letters Daily


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