Edge in the News

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.

The Sydney Morning Herald [1.7.05]

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'.
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, News Telegraph [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.

Slashdot [1.4.05]

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?  

bloomberg.com [1.3.05]

I call it "Broks's paradox": the condition of believing that the mind is separate from the body, even though you know this belief to be untrue

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

Alexander Vilenkin, a physicist, believes that our universe is just one of an infinite number of similar regions. But “it follows from quantum mechanics” that the number of histories that can be played out in them is finite. The upshot of this crossplay of finitudes and infinities is that every possible history will play out in an infinite number of regions, which means there should be an infinite number of places with histories identical to our own down to the atomic level. “I find this rather depressing,” says Vilenkin, “but it is probably true.” The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, on the other hand, believes that “consciousness and its contents are all that exists,” the physical universe being “among the humbler contents of consciousness.” But he can’t prove that either. Daniel Dennett sees consciousness as a scarcer commodity. His unproven belief is that, lacking language, animals and pre-linguistic children also lack self-awareness. He insists that neither is thereby morally demoted, but, I wonder, does this mean it is more acceptable to eat small children or less acceptable to eat animals?

This brings us to death. The psychologist Jesse Bering believes we will never get our heads around the idea. He calls it “Unamuno’s paradox,” after the Spanish existentialist Miguel de Unamuno, who was troubled not so much by the prospect of his own death as by his inability in life to get any kind of imaginative purchase on what the state of being dead would be “like.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness,” he lamented. And you can’t get out of this by saying that “it is like nothing at all” to be dead, because the point is precisely that we are incapable of imagining absolute nothingness. Our mental apparatus is tuned to states of being in the world. Non-being is simply beyond our ken. All of this is of no concern to those who believe in an afterlife. The conscious personality just floats on elsewhere. That most people hold to this bizarre belief is not simply due to religious indoctrination. The separateness of body and mind is a primordial intuition. It has sprung from our evolution as social beings and coalesced into the hardware of the central nervous system. Human beings are natural born soul makers, adept at extracting unobservable minds from the behaviour of observable bodies, including their own. Taking the next, false step, if mind and body are conceived as separate entities, it is easy to see the possibility of a mental life after physical death.

This leads me to “Broks’s paradox”: we are inclined to believe in mind-body dualism even though we understand it to be wrong. Neuroscientists are not exempt. Consider the following thought experiment, devised by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Some years hence you find yourself taking business trips to Mars. Teleportation is the usual mode of transport. It works like this. A scanner records the states of your body in atomic detail and digitally encodes the information for radio transmission. Your body is destroyed in the process but reconstructed on Mars using locally available materials as soon as the radio signals are decoded. The replication is perfect: identical body and brain, identical memory stores and patterns of mental activity. It is “you.” You are in no doubt. Most neuroscientists say they would readily submit to this process. Why should they worry about destruction and reconstruction of the body? As good materialists, they know that “the self” (secular cousin to the soul) is no more than a pattern of experiences and dispositions bundled together by the operations of the central nervous system. Now imagine this. There is a teleporter malfunction. You have been scanned and the information transmitted, but this time your body was not vaporised in the usual way. Your replica was automatically constructed and is going about its business. Worse still, the faulty scanner has left you with a fatal heart condition. You will be dead within days. Which would you rather be, the Martian replica or the moribund earthbound version? It should make no difference to a true materialist. In scenario two, the vaporisation process has been delayed, that is all. The personal trajectory of the individual arriving on Mars is the same for both scenarios. Psychological continuity has been maintained, as it is via the oblivion of sleep from one ordinary day to the next. But very few rest easy with scenario two. It shatters one’s complacency about unproblematic teleportation (and therefore materialism): “If the replica’s not me now…”

One might dismiss all this as “angels on a pinhead” stuff. But 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 [1.3.05]

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.

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.3.05]

(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."

Il Sole 24 Ore [1.1.05]

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 [1.1.05]

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.

News Telegraph [12.31.04]

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.

The Times Higher Education Supplement [12.31.04]

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

Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily [12.31.04]

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

Arts & Letters Daily [12.31.04]

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


The greatest virtual research university in the world.

QUARK [12.31.04]

What scientists believe but cannot yet prove

Time, space, aliens, and God...the views of 18 great minds give their answers

Guardian Unlimited [7.25.04]

A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists in a book developed from pieces that first appeared on the web forum Edge (www.edge.org).

Betraying that they were written for the screen, a leading role is given to the computer and the potential for machine intelligence.

Brockman, whose big black hat gives away his day job is as literary agent to scientists-turned-bestselling authors, argues in his introduction that his contributors have broken down the barrier of CP Snow's two cultures and found - echoes of Tony Blair - a third way. A number of chapters also echo the writers' latest books.

So you can dip into Jared Diamond trying to explain why human development proceeded at different rates in different continents, and appealing to biogeography to overcome historians' distaste for a question with racist overtones.

Or try Steven Pinker demolishing the idea that the human mind is a blank slate by pointing to the wastelands created by planners who omitted to cater for human aesthetic and social needs, and damning the postmodern arts for deliberate incomprehensibility.

Move on through Andy Clark's provocative proposal for a future world of human/technology symbionts (be your favourite cyborg) and Marc Hauser's discussion of the mental tools with which we, and other animals, arrive in this world. He poses question upon question about the survival of species but none more affecting than: "Why is Homo sapiens the only species that sheds tears when it cries?"

And you may laugh at the query "what shape are a German shepherd's ears?" but Stephen Kosslyn has been studying the question behind that question, what imagery is, for 30 years and honestly concludes that: "Imagery just isn't one thing."

That's six out of 22, and all before Seth Lloyd asks if we could read information transformed by going through a black hole? And that's a really big idea.

· Science at the Edge, ed. John Brockman, is published today by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £18.99. To buy a copy for £16.99 plus p&p, phone the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875

· What did you think of this article? Mail your responses to[email protected] and include your name and address.

Traffic World [2.1.04]

The online group Edge.org started the year by asking scholars, writers and other people with time on their hands to dream up some new universal truths. You know, like Murphy's Law. We like the one from John Maddox, the longtime editor of Nature magazine, which our editors have shortened to this: "Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are ... prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

Universal. We'd like to offer out own little universal law of commercial shipping. Every discount is paid for in another way, but never in a way the accounting department cares about.

Prospect [1.31.04]

164 of the world's finest boffins have been asked by the "scientific salon" website Edge (www.edge.org) to produce their own eponymous laws (think Boyle, Newton, Murphy). Answers ranged from Richard Dawkins' observation that "Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrnsic simplicity" to Steven Strogatz's arch "When you're trying to prove something, it helps to know it's true." Andy Clark wins the brevity prize for "Evrything leaks."

Kansascity.com [1.30.04]

• www.edge.org:

A fascinating site that conducts an annual solicitation of new “natural laws” from a variety of people, most of them well-known in some field. Here's one from Gerd Gigerenzer, a behavioral psychologist: “The world cannot function without partially ignorant people.” This is a condensation of observations from many behavioral studies. For example, he notes: “Ordinary people who selected stocks by name recognition outperformed most market experts and the Fidelity Growth Fund.”

My own favorite “law,” not listed on this site but well-suited to computers and many other subjects, was iterated many years ago by science fiction author Poul Anderson, who noted: “There is no subject, no matter how complex, which if looked at in just the right way, cannot be made more complex.”

The Courier Mail [1.30.04]

JOHN Brockman is a New York literary agent specialising in those who practise and write about cutting-edge science and how it is changing the world. His website, www.edge.org, has a cult following and is a combination of magazine and online community.

Late last year he asked several hundred thinkers to propose laws about how the world works, some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that they had noticed in the universe that might be named after them. The results are coming in and they're fascinating.

They're not all about science. Yale University professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert proposed Gilbert's Law: "Happy people are those who do not pass up on an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards." Think about it.

Brian Eno, former member of Roxy Music, music producer and techno-artist, opined that: "Culture is everything we don't have to do." As an explanation, he noted: "We have to clothe ourselves but we didn't have to invent platform shoes or polka-dot bikinis." How true.

But it was science that inspired the most new laws, some distinctly cynical, such as this offering from Kai Kraus, a philosopher and software designer: "93.8127 per cent of all statistics are useless."

Some of the law makers were hard on their chosen profession. "Science can produce knowledge but it cannot produce wisdom," suggested New Scientist  editor-in-chief Alun Anderson.

As for science and communication, according to Anderson, who should know: "A scientist who can speak without jargon is either an idiot or a genius."

Yale University professor of computer science David Gelerntier observed: "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions." Gelerntier's other laws are: "Computers make people stupid," and "One expert is worth a million intellectuals."

Many of us might feel it would be stimulating to be at a dinner party with these people, provided you didn't have to contribute. But one man from Australia who'd feel at home would be Allan Snyder, professor of several things at the Australian National University. He has suggested: "Most creative science is wrong, but the deception ultimately leads to the benefit of mankind." Think Freud. Another of Snyder's laws is: "Everyone steals from everyone else, but they do so unconsciously. This has evolved for our very survival. It maximises the innovative power of society." He obviously doesn't teach undergraduates.

Leo Chapula is a professor of ophthalmology and neurobiology and has served on many research funding panels. He noted something that will surprise many lay people: "Don't underestimate the importance of fashion in doing science. There is a price to pay for originality, and every working scientist knows this."

There were more thoughtful comments on life outside science, including this one from University of California, Berkeley, associate professor Marti Hearst: "A public figure is often condemned for an action that is taken unfairly out of context but nevertheless reflects, in a compelling and encapsulated manner, an underlying truth about that person." Take that, Tony Blair.

Artist and lecturer Art Kleiner has noticed that: "Every organisation operates on behalf of the perceived needs and priorities of some core group of key people. This purpose will trump every other loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees, customers and other constituents."

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has perhaps explained the enormous sales of Mike Moore's books with this observation: "On any important topic we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

Author Mike Godwin noted the great truth that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one (that is, becomes certain)."

Brockman's project is a lot of fun, although if you tried to live by some of the laws thrown up by it you'd go mad.

As philanthropist Chris Anderson said: "Humans are engineered to seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there."


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