Faith v fact
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
Ian McEwan, novelist
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, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. I suspect that many 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. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.
Richard Dawkins, biologist
I believe 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.
Simon Baron-Cohen, psychologist
I believe that the cause of autism will turn out to be assortative mating of two hyper-systemisers. I believe this because we already have three pieces of the jigsaw: (1) that fathers of children with autism are more likely to work in the field of engineering (compared to fathers of children without autism); (2) that grandfathers of children with autism - on both sides of the family - were also more likely to work in the field of engineering (compared to grandfathers of children without autism); and (3) that both mothers and fathers of children with autism are super-fast at the embedded figures test, a task requiring analysis of patterns and rules. (Note that engineering is a chosen example because it involves strong systemising. But other related scientific and technical fields would have been equally good examples to study.)
We have had these three pieces of the jigsaw since 1997, published in the scientific literature. They do not yet prove the assortative mating theory. They simply point to it being highly likely. Direct tests of the theory are still needed. I will be the first to give up this idea if it is proven wrong, since I'm not in the business of holding on to wrong ideas. But I won't give up the idea simply because it will be unpopular to certain groups (such as those who want to believe that the cause of autism is purely environmental).
Martin Rees, astronomer royal
I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth, but that, even so, it has the potential to spread through the galaxy and beyond. If searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence fail, that would not render life a cosmic sideshow. Indeed, it would be a boost to our cosmic self-esteem: terrestrial life, and its fate, would become a matter of cosmic significance. Even if intelligence is now unique to Earth, there's enough time lying ahead for it to spread through the entire galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive.
There's an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6bn years, watching the sun flare up and die. But the forms of life and intelligence that have by then emerged would surely be as different from us as we are from a bacterium. That conclusion would follow even if future evolution proceeded at the rate at which new species have emerged over the 3 or 4bn years of the geological past. But post-human evolution (whether of organic species or of artefacts) will proceed far faster than the changes that led to emergence, because it will be intelligently directed rather than being - like pre-human evolution - the gradual outcome of Darwinian natural selection. Changes will drastically accelerate in the present century - through intentional genetic modifications, targeted drugs, perhaps even silicon implants in to the brain. Humanity may not persist as a single species for more than a few centuries - especially if communities have by then become established away from Earth.
But a few centuries is still just a millionth of the sun's future lifetime - and the entire universe probably has a longer future still. The remote future is squarely in the realm of science fiction. Advanced intelligences billions of years hence might even create new universes. Perhaps they will be able to choose what physical laws prevail in their creations. Perhaps these beings could achieve the computational capability to simulate a universe as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in.
My belief may remain unprovable for billions of years. It could be falsified sooner - for instance, we (or our immediate post-human descendants) may develop theories that reveal inherent limits to complexity. But it's a substitute for religious belief, and I hope it's true.
Jared Diamond, biologist and geographer
I'm convinced, but can't yet prove, that humans first reached the continents of North America, South America and Australia only very recently, at or near the end of the last Ice Age. Specifically, I'm convinced that they reached North America around 14,000 years ago, South America around 13,500 years ago, and Australia and New Guinea around 46,000 years ago; and that humans were then responsible for the extinctions of most of the big animals of those continents within a few centuries of those dates; and that scientists will accept this conclusion sooner and less reluctantly for Australia and New Guinea than for North and South America.
Alison Gopnik, psychologist
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.
This trade-off makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our species relies more on learning than any other, and has a longer childhood than any other. Human childhood is a protected period in which we are free to learn without being forced to act. There is even some neurological evidence for this. Young children actually have substantially more neural connections than adults - more potential to put different kinds of information together. With experience, some connections are strengthened and many others disappear entirely. As the neuroscientists say, we gain conductive efficiency but lose plasticity.
What does this have to do with consciousness? Consider the experiences we adults associate with these two kinds of functions. When we know how to do something really well and efficiently, we typically lose, or at least reduce, our conscious awareness of that action. We literally don't see the familiar houses and streets on the well-worn route home, although, of course, in some functional sense we must be visually taking them in. In contrast, as adults when we are faced with the unfamiliar, when we fall in love with someone new, or when we travel to a new place, our consciousness of what is around us and inside us suddenly becomes far more vivid and intense. In fact, we are willing to expend lots of money, and lots of emotional energy, for those few intensely alive days in Paris or Beijing that we will remember long after months of everyday life have vanished.
I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris.
Alun Anderson, editor in chief, New Scientist
I believe that cockroaches are conscious. That is probably an unappealing thought to anyone who switches on a kitchen light in the middle of the night and finds a family of roaches running for cover. But it's really shorthand for saying that I believe many quite simple animals are conscious, including more attractive beasts such as bees and butterflies.
Cockroaches, like the owners of the New York apartments who detest them, suffer from stress and can die from it, even without injury. They are also hierarchical and know their little territories well. When they are running for it, think twice before crushing out another world.
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