Edge in the News

The Sydney Morning Herald [7.31.05]


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".

Which 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.

Joseph LeDoux, a New York neuroscientist, said the question was easy: "I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it." Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley psychologist, wrote: "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."


The unproven belief of the Sydney physicist Paul Davies was that the universe is "teeming with life": "I make this sweeping claim because life has produced mind, and through mind beings who do not merely observe the universe, but have come to understand it through science, mathematics and reasoning. This is hardly an insignificant embellishment on the cosmic drama, but a stunning and unexpected bonus. Somehow life is able to link up with the basic workings of the cosmos, resonating with the hidden mathematical order that makes it tick. And that's a quirk too far for me."

My favourite answer came from David Buss, a psychologist from the University of Texas, who has spent two decades studying human mating. He has documented "phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery". He has studied "mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers". But, he wrote, "Throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.

"While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well travelled and their markers are well understood by many - the mesmerising attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. ... It's difficult to define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love exists."

Curious, isn't it, that the most important things in life can elude the abacus, the microscope, the hard drive, emboldening and frustrating the empirically driven. But we know they exist.

In his introduction, Brockman wrote that the answers were "a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty". We are in an age of "searchculture", he wrote, where Google and other search engines are leading us towards both correct answers and a naive sense of certainty: "In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it? This is an alternative path. It may be that it's OK not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis."

I'm not sure why that is such a comforting thought in January 2005, when we are stomaching a planet not just of terrorism, war and a wilting environment, but a tsunami that swallowed villages, islands and hearts whole. The world, both natural and man-made, seems brutal and nonsensical. It's hard to sustain belief in much (except, paradoxically, in that which sustains us) and this week - particularly since the thoughtless and ill-timed comments of Phillip Jensen, the Anglican Dean of Sydney, that "disasters of this world are part of God's warning that judgement is coming" - there has been chest-beating worldwide about how God could allow such devastation to occur, and how the deaths of 155,000 people can possibly make sense.

What is curious is how the incomprehensibility and uncertainty push people not away from, but towards, faith. And how many more have shadowed church doors since September 11, 2001, and Bali, and now the tsunami.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the difference between the poet and the mathematician was that the poet merely tried to get his head into the clouds while the mathematician tried to get the clouds into his head - and it was his head that split. A theology of conflict, which assumes to know the the mind of God, at a time of immense suffering, seems to me to be a split head.

All we can continue to do is defiantly believe - whether it is that animals have feelings, infants have souls, love can last forever, miracles occur, God is love. That the true expression of the face of God in the midst of horror is to stubbornly, and consistently, care for each other. On a personal note, this will be my last column for some time. I am going to Boston to take up a fellowship at the Joan Shorenstein Centre on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and will return in June. To all those readers who have sent emails and letters over the past three years, and provoked me to think, laugh, and mull over different points of view - thank you.

The Guardian [6.30.05]

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.

© Edge. www.edge.org

The Guardian [6.30.05]

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...

Singolare inchiesta in usa di un sito internet. Ha chiesto ai signori della ricerca di svelare i loro "atti di fede". Sono arrivate le risposte piu' imprevedibili i fantasmi dello scienziato: non ho prove ma ci credo.
La Stampa [5.31.05]

E' il caso del cosmologo Martin Rees di Cambridge. E' convinto che la vita intelligente esista solo sulla Terra, ma che, in un futuro indeterminato, si espandera' in tutta la galassia. La mancanza della prova fa spuntare teorie originalissime, come quella della matematica Verena Huber-Dyson, che sostiene il ""potere creativo della noia"". Judith Rich Harris, psicologa dello sviluppo, e' persuasa che sono tre, e non due, i processi di selezione relativi all'evoluzione umana. I primi due sono noti: la selezione naturale, che si basa sulla capacita' di adattamento; e la selezione sessuale, sulla capacita' di riprodursi. Harris aggiunge un fattore inaspettato: la bellezza. Che aiuterebbe la sopravvivenza, specie nei primi giorni di esistenza di un bambino.

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Hoy la cultura es la ciencia, los intelectuales de letras están desfasados
Lavanguardia [5.11.05]

En 1959 el científico y novelista C. P. Snow publicó el libro Las dos culturas:de un lado, estaban los intelectuales de letras; de otro, los de ciencias. Snow lamentaba que, en los treinta, los primeros se habían apropiado de la palabra intelectual y sugería que una tercera cultura emergería y llenaría el vacío de comunicación entre los intelectuales de letras y los científicos.

Hacia principios de los años noventa, John Brockman (Boston, 1941), que en los sesenta ya había sido una curiosa mezcla entre artista y promotor del panorama multimedia de la época, y que desde los ochenta ejercía como agente literario, lanzó un manifiesto por la Tercera Cultura, aunque con un concepto diferente al de Snow: "La tercera cultura reúne a aquellos científicos y pensadores empíricos que, a través de su obra y su producción literaria, están ocupando el lugar del intelectual clásico a la hora de poner de manifiesto el sentido más profundo de nuestra vida, replanteándose quiénes y qué somos".

El sábado, Brockman participó en un encuentro sobre la Tercera Cultura en el marco del festival Kosmopolis en el CCCB. La Vanguardia habló con él antes del debate.

CIENCIA Y CONDICIÓN. La ciencia se ha convertido en manos de Brockman en un ramillete de best sellers a cargo de las primeras cabezas de cada área, en el bien entendido de que "los pensadores de la tercera cultura son los nuevos intelectuales públicos" y de que "la ciencia es la única noticia hoy. Y para la gente es muy importante. Tener un presidente progresista es importante, pero nadie votó la electricidad, internet, las pastillas anticonceptivas o el fuego. Las grandes invenciones que lo cambian todo, la tecnología, están basadas en la ciencia". "Y es importante participar en sus preguntas - explica- porque hoy la cultura es la ciencia. Por primera vez la biología de la mente puede estudiar humanos y obtener conclusiones en las que podemos confiar, algo diferente a las ciencias sociales o a la aproximación psicológica", enfatiza.

La Tercera Cultura "trata de que todos se puedan comunicar, de que no escriban sus ideas en revistas minoritarias a las que no tienen acceso los demás, y de que se cree "una gran conversación" entre todos.


Entre las ideas que llegarán más tarde o más temprano por aquí, destaca las del libro Your inner fish (Tu pez interior) ,aún no publicado, de Neil Shubin, un paleontólogo de Chicago que cree que no necesitamos explorar el desierto de Gobi para saber de dónde venimos: nuestro interior guarda, según él, en los huesos, genes y órganos, una rama entera del árbol de la vida. Para Brockman, los intelectuales de letras de toda la vida están desfasados, siguen manteniendo las mismas batallas que cuando él era joven. Sólo hay una diferencia: "Están cada vez más marginados". Por el contrario, John Brockman se enorgullece de haber pasado de libros científicos en editoriales universitarias a best sellers, porque "la gente necesita conocer".

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El pais [5.11.05]

El compositor John Cage se inclinó desde el otro lado de la mesa y me entregó una copia deCybernetics, de Norbert Wiener. Era 1966. Estábamos en una cena semanal de jóvenes artistas en casa del pionero del grupo Fluxus, Dick Higgins. Cage solía preparar la comida -un plato de champiñones- y debatíamos sus últimas ideas. Me habían invitado a conocer a Cage por mi trabajo en el Expanded Cinema Festival de la Film-maker's Cinematheque de Nueva York, un programa de actuaciones a finales de 1965 presentadas por artistas, bailarines, poetas, cineastas e intérpretes de happenings, en las que el hilo conductor era la incorporación del cine en su trabajo.

El pintor Robert Rauschenberg montó un collage cinético, una versión viviente de sus famosas piezas artísticas de la década de 1960. El escultor Claes Oldenburg presentó un proyector de cine de curioso diseño que parecía una esfinge. El videoartista Nam June Paik, subido en una escalera detrás de una gran pantalla opaca durante horas, fue cortando lentamente un cuadrado que le iba dejando al descubierto ante el público. Yo estaba sentado junto a Joan Miró, que se encontraba en la ciudad por una cena en su honor aquella noche en el Museo de Arte Moderno. A pesar de los ruegos del director del museo, no hubo quien moviese a Miró y se quedó durante toda la actuación.

Fue durante ese periodo cuando por primera vez tuve conocimiento de la ciencia. Los artistas, a diferencia de sus homólogos literarios, sentían un ávido interés por los científicos, y les leían. Empecé a leer a los físicos Jeans, Eddington, Einstein y poetas como Wallace Stevens, que manifestaban una profunda comprensión de las ideas científicas. Recibí una invitación para conocer a Marshall McLuhan. Recuerdo que hablamos mucho sobre su tema de que el arte puede servir como faro: un distante y temprano sistema de aviso que puede decir a la vieja cultura lo qué está empezando a ocurrir, interpretar lo que los científicos están haciendo. El valor no estaba en la explicación o en la popularización de la ciencia; más bien residía en la descripción, en hacer visibles las preguntas que formulaban los científicos.

En la primavera de 1966 organicé el que quizá fuera el primer encuentro entre arte y ciencia, cuando A. K. Soloman, presidente del departamento de Biofísica de Harvard, me pidió que llevara a un grupo de artistas, que habían sido colegas de Wiener, fallecido en 1964, a Cambridge para reunirlos con científicos de Harvard y del Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Entre los participantes estaban Walter Rosenblith, Anthony Oettinger y Harold Edgerton. Conservo dos vivos recuerdos del acontecimiento. Primero, que la reunión fue un completo desastre, ya que artistas y científicos tenían pocos puntos en común sobre los que mantener un debate. Segundo, nos condujeron a un edificio en el que nos vimos enfrentados a un recinto elevado unos 30 centímetros, detrás del cual había científicos y técnicos con bata y guantes blancos. Iban de acá para allá con el ordenador. En ese preciso momento supe adónde me encaminaba.

En 1992, en un ensayo titulado The Emerging third culture, expuse el siguiente argumento: "La tercera cultura consiste en aquellos científicos y otros pensadores del mundo empírico que, a través de su trabajo y de sus escritos expositivos, ocupan el lugar de los intelectuales tradicionales al hacer visibles los significados más profundos de nuestra vida y redefinir quién y qué somos. Durante los últimos años, el terreno de juego de la vida intelectual estadounidense ha cambiado, y los intelectuales tradicionales han quedado cada vez más marginados. Una educación de la década de 1950 en Freud, Marx y el modernismo no es una cualificación suficiente para un pensador de la de 1990. De hecho, los intelectuales estadounidenses tradicionales son, en cierto sentido, cada vez más reaccionarios, y orgullosamente (y perversamente) ajenos a muchos de los logros intelectuales verdaderamente importantes de nuestro tiempo. Su cultura, que desdeña la ciencia, a menudo no es empírica. Utiliza su propia jerga y lava sus propios trapos sucios. Se caracteriza fundamentalmente por el comentario sobre comentarios, la fuerte espiral de observaciones que acaba llegando a un punto en el que se pierde el mundo real".

Actualmente, esa cultura fósil sigue en declive, sustituida por la incipiente "tercera cultura" del título del ensayo, una referencia a la celebrada división que planteó C. P. Snow del mundo del pensamiento en dos culturas: la del intelectual literario y la del científico. Lo que presenciamos en 1992 fue la entrega del testigo de un grupo de pensadores, los intelectuales literarios tradicionales, a un nuevo grupo, los intelectuales de la nueva tercera cultura. Desde entonces, lo que tradicionalmente se había denominado "ciencia" se ha convertido en "cultura pública". Como ha señalado Stewart Brand: "La ciencia es la única noticia".

Hoy tenemos nuevas y radicales formas de entender los sistemas físicos, y de pensar en el pensamiento que ponen en duda muchas de nuestras suposiciones básicas. Una biología realista de la mente, los avances en la física, la tecnología de la información, la neurobiología y la química de los materiales cuestionan supuestos básicos sobre lo que significa ser humano. Por primera vez, tenemos las herramientas y la voluntad para emprender el estudio científico de la naturaleza humana. Algo nuevo flota en el aire: nuevas formas de comprender los sistemas físicos, nuevos intereses que nos llevan a cuestionar muchos de nuestros fundamentos. Una biología realista de la mente, los avances en la física, la tecnología de la información, la genética, la neurobiología, la ingeniería, la química de los materiales: todas son cuestiones de importancia capital con respecto a lo que representa ser humano.

En 2005, la tercera cultura está viva y en buen estado, e impulsa el reconocimiento de esta evolución. Pueden encontrarse pruebas de ello. En el mercado, la gente vota con la cartera. Los libros de Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Brian Greene, Stephen Pinker, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees y E. O. Wilson no sólo son lecturas indispensables, sino también grandes ventas. En lo relativo a la ciencia, la tercera cultura es de alto relieve: el genetista J. Craig Venter intenta crear genes sintéticos como respuesta a nuestras necesidades energéticas; el biólogo Robert Trivers explora la base evolutiva del engaño y el autoengaño en la naturaleza humana; el biólogo Ian Wilmut, que clonó a la oveja Dolly, utiliza la transferencia nuclear para producir células madre embrionarias para investigar; el cosmólogo Lee investiga la evolución darwiniana del universo; el físico cuántico Seth Lloyd intenta crear ordenadores cuánticos; el psicólogo D. Hauser examina nuestra moralidad, y los informáticos Sergey Brin y Larry Page, de Google, alteran tanto el modo en que buscamos información como nuestra forma de pensar.

La tercera cultura es un concepto con mentalidad científica; no es propiedad de nadie. Otros parten de estos fundamentos y aplican su propia visión. Éste ha sido el caso de Kosmopolis, el Festival Internacional de Literatura de Barcelona, que ayer se clausuró, en el que la ciencia se sentó a la mesa con Marc D. Hauser, Lee Smolin y Robert Trivers, que presentaron sus ideas como parte de un programa global "que va desde la luz duradera de Cervantes a la (ambigua) crisis del formato libro, desde un trazado literario del barrio barcelonés del Raval hasta el dilema planteado por la influencia de Internet en la cocina de la escritura, y desde la aparición de un nuevo humanismo de la tercera cultura hasta las prácticas que sitúan a la literatura en el centro de la creatividad".

Está naciendo de la tercera cultura una nueva filosofía natural, cimentada en la comprensión de la importancia de la complejidad, de la evolución. Los sistemas muy complejos -ya sean organismos, cerebros, la biosfera o el propio universo- no se construyeron siguiendo un diseño; todos han evolucionado. Existe una nueva serie de metáforas para describirnos, a nuestra mente, al universo y a todas las cosas que conocemos, y son los intelectuales con estas nuevas ideas e imágenes los que impulsan nuestros tiempos.


John Brockman es editor y director de Edge (www.edge.org), página web en la que los pensadores, líderes de lo que ha bautizado como tercera cultura, exploran la ciencia de vanguardia.

Slashdot [4.30.05]

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?  

Corriere Della Sera [4.3.05]

he main thesis of this book is very interesting and challenging: modern science is blowing fresh air into the contemporary cultural agenda, making a very important contribution, sparkling and polychromatic. (...) A book like this one may be read in many different ways, following different propensities and needs. I was enlightened by the windows it opens on our future.

[From a review in Corriere della Sera of I Nuovi Umanisti (the Italian translation of The New Humanists, Garzanti Libri ) — the best of Edge— now available in a book.]

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Frankfurter Allgemeine [3.31.05]

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 as 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."

Prospect [3.31.05]

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.

The New York Times [3.31.05]

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 of Edge, 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 atwww.edge.org.

Roger Schank
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing World-Class E-Learning"

Irrational choices.

I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made - who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

Richard Dawkins 
Evolutionary biologist, Oxford University; author, "The Ancestor's Tale"

I believe, but I cannot prove, 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.

Judith Rich Harris
Writer and developmental psychologist; author, "The Nurture Assumption"

I believe, though I cannot prove it, that three - not two - selection processes were involved in human evolution.

The first two are familiar: natural selection, which selects for fitness, and sexual selection, which selects for sexiness.

The third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty - not adult beauty. The ones doing the selecting weren't potential mates: they were parents. Parental selection, I call it.

Kenneth Ford
Physicist; retired director, American Institute of Physics; author, "The Quantum World"

I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy.

I am not even saying "elsewhere in the universe." If the proposition I believe to be true is to be proved true within a generation or two, I had better limit it to our own galaxy. I will bet on its truth there.

I believe in the existence of life elsewhere because chemistry seems to be so life-striving and because life, once created, propagates itself in every possible direction. Earth's history suggests that chemicals get busy and create life given any old mix of substances that includes a bit of water, and given practically any old source of energy; further, that life, once created, spreads into every nook and cranny over a wide range of temperature, acidity, pressure, light level and so on.

Believing in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy is another matter.

Joseph LeDoux
Neuroscientist, New York University; author, "The Synaptic Self"

For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at least can have a little confidence since all people have brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as we turn to other species and start asking questions about feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky territory because the hardware is different.

Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior in rats rather than emotional feelings.

There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical emotionalist.

Lynn Margulis
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis in Cell Evolution"

I feel that I know something that will turn out to be correct and eventually proved to be true beyond doubt.


That our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors. That is, we, like all other mammals including our apish brothers detect odors, distinguish tastes, hear bird song and drumbeats and we too feel the vibrations of the drums. With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun. These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate animals, indeed all animals.

David Myers 
Psychologist, Hope College; author, "Intuition"

As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms:

1. There is a God.

2. It's not me (and it's also not you).

Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that some of my beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from dust to dust, finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity.

And that is why I further believe that we should

a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain tentativeness (except for this one!),

b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and

c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.


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

Kosmopolis, literatura a la ultima
Elmundo [3.11.05]

Kosmopolis 2005. Celebration of International of Literature in the Center of Contemporanea Culture of Barcelona (CCCB).

...The relation between science and the third culture was another one of the subjects of debate of this Celebration of Literature. Four personalities of the scientific world participated in the Third Culture event. They are Robert Trivers, John Brockman, Marc Hauser and Lee Smolin. They demonstrated that Literature is not is not just the province of the old school of the humanities culture.

Read the full article →

El pais [2.19.05]

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…

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.31.05]

Fate largo alle «beautiful minds» 
di Roberto Casati

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.

La terza cultura di John Brockman
di Armando Massarenti

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 [1.15.05]

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.

The Financial Express [1.14.05]

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.

telegraph.co.uk [1.10.05]


History abounds with examples of how instinct, not data, led to discoveries. Even Einstein's theory of relativity had to wait decades for verification, says Ian McEwan

...This collection, mostly written by working scientists, does not represent the antithesis of science. These are not simply the unbuttoned musings of professionals on their day off. The contributions, ranging across many disparate fields, express the spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best - informed guesswork that is open-minded, free-ranging, intellectually playful.

Many replies offer versions of the future in various fields of study. Those readers educated in the humanities, accustomed to the pessimism that is generally supposed to be the mark of a true intellectual, will be struck by the optimistic tone. Some, like the psychologist Martin Seligman, believe we are not rotten to the core. Others even seem to think that the human lot could improve.

Generally evident is an unadorned pleasure in curiosity, a collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world which does not have an obvious equivalent in, say, cultural studies. In the arts, perhaps lyric poetry would be a kind of happy parallel.... [click here to continue]

Copyright © Ian McEwan, 2005. Excerpted in The Telegraph from Ian McEwan's introduction to What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, edited by John Brockman (UK: Free Press); (US: HarperCollins, forthcoming).

Ad Plus [1.9.05]




Katinka Matson's flowers are magnificent and surreally real.

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.