"Fantastically stimulating...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — Broadcasting House

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[ Wed. Aug. 31. 2005 ]

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.