PD Smith on What We Believe But Cannot Prove
What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty edited by John Brockman (Pocket Books, £7.99)
According to Richard Dawkins, science proceeds by hunches. John Brockman's cybersalon, Edge.org, invited members of the "third culture" - the scientists whom he considers to be the "pre-eminent intellectuals of our time" - to contribute their most cherished intuitions. As Ian McEwan (a rare non-scientist here) points out, this is rather intriguing because scientists, unlike "literary critics, journalists or priests", don't just believe things. They need proof. Indeed, Simon Baron-Cohen dismisses "ideas that cannot in principle be proved or disproved". But mathematician John Barrow is happy to believe that "our universe is infinite in size, finite in age, and just one among many", all "unprovable in principle". But the nature of consciousness turns out to be more controversial. Daniel Dennett argues that animals and prelinguistic children are not truly conscious, whereas Alison Gopnik claims young children are more conscious than adults: "every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide-and-seek is Einstein in 1905, and every day is first love in Paris". Scientific pipedreams at their very best.