Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?"
Editor of Release
1.0; Trustee, Long Now Foundation; Author, Release
living longer, and thinking shorter.
Since I'm not a scientist, I'm not even going
to attempt to take on something scientific.
Rather, I want to talk about something that
can't easily be measured, let alone proved.
second, though what I'm saying may sound gloomy,
I love the times we live in. There has never
been a time more interesting, more full of
things to explain, interesting people to meet,
worthy causes to support, challenging problems
all about time.
think modern life has fundamentally and paradoxically
changed our sense of time. Even as we live longer,
we seem to think shorter. Is it because we cram
more into each hour? Or because the next person
over seems to cram more into each hour?
a variety of reasons, everything is happening
much faster and more things are happening. Change
is a constant.
used to be that machines automated work, giving
us more time to do other things. But now machines
automate the production of attention-consuming
information, which takes our time. For example,
if one person sends the same e-mail message to
10 people, then 10 people have to respond.
physical friction of everyday life—the
time it took Isaac Newton to travel by coach
from London to Cambridge, the dead spots of walking
to work (no iPod), the darkness that kept us
from reading—has disappeared, making every
minute not used productively into an opportunity
finally, we can measure more, over smaller chunks
of time. From airline miles to calories (and
carbs and fat grams), from friends on
Friendster to steps on a pedometer, from realtime
stock prices to millions of burgers consumed,
we count things by the minute and the second.
this carries over into how we think and plan:
Businesses focus on short-term results; politicians
focus on elections; school systems focus on test
results; most of us focus on the weather rather
than the climate. Everyone knows about
the big problems, but their behavior focuses
on the here and now.
first noticed this phenomenon in a big way in
the US right after 9/11, when it became impossible
to schedule an appointment or get anyone to make
a commitment. To me, it felt like Russia (where
I had been spending time since 1989), where people
avoided long-term plans because there was little
discernible relationship between effort and result.
Suddenly, even in the US, people were behaving
like the Russians of those days, reluctant to
plan for anything more than a few days out.
course, that immediate crisis has passed, but
there's still the same sense of unpredictability
dogging our thinking in the US (in particular).
Best to concentrate on the current quarter, because
who knows what job I'll have next year. Best
to pass that test, because what I actually learn
won't be worth much ten years from now anyway.
can we reverse this?
a social problem, but I think it may also herald
a mental one—which I describe as mental
happening to adults, most of us grew up reading
books (at least occasionally) and playing with "uninteractive" toys
that required us to make up our own stories,
dialogue and behavior for them. Today's children
are living in an information-rich, time-compressed
environment that often seems to replace a child's
imagination rather than stimulate it. I posit
that being fed so much processed information—video,
audio, images, flashing screens, talking toys,
simulated action games—is akin to being
fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may
seriously mess up children's information metabolism
and their ability to process information for
themselves. In other words, will they be able
to discern cause and effect, to put together
a coherent story line, to think scientifically?
don't know the answers, but these questions are
worth thinking about, for the long term.
Psychologist, University of
Texas, Austin; Author, The Evolution
I've spent two decades of my professional
life studying human mating. In that time, I've
documented phenomena ranging from what men
and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical
forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered
the astonishingly creative ways in which men
and women deceive and manipulate each other.
I've studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers,
sexual predators, and spouse murderers. But
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 traveled and their markers are well understood by many—the
mesmerizing 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 knows no fences,
has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to define, eludes modern
measurement, and seems scientifically wooly. But I know true love exists.
I just can't prove it.
currently at CERN
believe nothing to be true (clearly real) if
it cannot be proved.
I'll take the question and make a pseudo-invariant transformation that
makes it more apt to my brain. When Bohr was asked what is the complementary
variable of "truth" (Wirklichkeit) he replied with no hesitation "clarity" (Klarheit).
Contrary to Bohr, and since neither truth nor clarity are quantum mechanical
variables, real truth and comprehensive clarity should be simultaneously
achievable given rigorous experimental evidence. [In particular since "Wirklichkeit" means
reality, and "Klarheit" is clarity in the sense of good understanding.]
fact I will use clarity (as in "clear reality"),
in the place of truth.
will also invent equivalents for proof and for
belief. Proof will be interchangeable with "experimental
scientific evidence". Belief is more tricky
given that it has to do with complex carbonic
life. It can be interchangeable with "theoretical
assessment" or "assessment by common
sense" (depending on the scale and the available
technology). In this process (no doubt in a path
full of traps and pitfalls) I have cannibalized
the original question to the following:
do you (commonsensical/theoretically)
assess to be clearly real even though
you have no experimental scientific
evidence for it?
this is hard: there are many theoretical assessments
for the explanation of the natural phenomena
at the extreme energy scales (from the subnuclear
to the supercosmic), that possess a degree of
clarity. But all of them are inspired by the
vast collection of conciliatory data that scale
by scale speak of Nature's works. This is so
even for string theory.
the answer is still...nothing.
Bohr's complementarity I would spot that belief
and proof are in some way complementary: if you
believe you don't need proof, and (arguably)
if you have proof you don't need to believe.(I
would assign the hard-core string theorists who
do not really care about experimental scientific
evidence in the first category).
But Edge wants
us to identify the equivalent(s) of the general
theory of relativity in today's scientific thinking(s).
Or a prediction of what are the big things in
science that come at us unexpectedly. In my field,
even frameworks that explain the world using
extra dimensions of space (in extreme versions)
are not unexpected. As a matter of fact we are
preparing to discover or exclude them using the
data. My hunch (and wish) is that in the laboratory
we will be able to segment spacetime so finely
that gravity will be studied and understood in
a controlled environment, and that gravitational
particle physics will be a new field.
Researcher; Founder & President, J. Craig Venter
is ubiquitous throughout the universe. Life on
our planet earth most likely is the result of
a panspermic event (a notion popularized by the
late Francis Crick).
RNA and carbon based life will be found wherever
we find water and look with the right tools.
Whether we can prove life happens, depends on
our ability to improve remote sensing and to
visit faraway systems. This will also depend
on whether we survive as a species for a sufficient
period of time. As we have seen recently in the
shotgun sequencing of the Sargasso Sea, when
we look for life here on Earth with new tools
of DNA sequencing we find life in abundance in
the microbial world. In sequencing the genetic
code of organisms that survive in the extremes
of zero degrees C to well over boiling water
temperatures we begin to understand the breadth
of life, including life that can thrive in extremes
of caustic conditions of strong acids to basic
pH's that would rapidly dissolve human skin.
Possible indicators of panspermia are the organisms
such as Deinococcus radiodurans, which can survive
millions of RADs of ionizing radiation and complete
desiccation for years or perhaps millennia. These
microbes can repair any DNA damage within hours
of being reintroduced into an aqueous environment.
human centric view of life is clearly unwarranted.
From the millions of genes that we have just
discovered in environmental organisms over the
past months we learn that a finite number of
themes are used over and over again and could
have easily evolved from a few microbes arriving
on a meteor or on intergalactic dust. Panspermia
is how life is spreads throughout the universe
and we are contributing to it from earth by launching
billions of microbes into space.
Editor-in-Chief, Discover Magazine
believe that life is common throughout
the universe and that we will find another
Earth-like planet within a decade.
mathematics alone ought to be proof to
most people (billions of galaxies with
billions of stars in each galaxy and around
most of those stars are planets). The numbers
suggest that for life not to exist elsewhere
in the universe is the unlikely scenario.
But there is more to this idea than a good
chance. We've now found more than 130 planets
just looking at nearby stars in our tiny
little corner of the Milky Way. The results
suggest there are uncountable numbers of
planets in our galaxy alone. Some of them
are likely to be earthlike, or at least
earth-sized, although the vast majority
that we've found so far are huge gas giants
like Jupiter and Saturn which are unlikely
to harbor life. Furthermore, there were
four news events this year that made the
discovery of life elsewhere extraordinarily
the NASA Mars Rover called Opportunity
found incontrovertible evidence that a
briny--salty-sea once covered the area
where it landed, called Meridiani Planum.
The only question about life on Mars now
is whether that sea—which was there
twice in Martian history—existed
long enough for life to form. The Phoenix
mission in 2008 may answer that question.
a team of astrophysicists reported in July
that radio emissions from Sagittarius B2,
a nebula near the center of the Milky Way,
indicate the presence of aldehyde molecules,
the prebiotic stuff of life. Aldehydes
help form amino acids, the fundamental
components of proteins. The same scientists
previously reported clouds of other organic
molecules in space, including glycolaldehyde,
a simple sugar. Outer space is thus full
of complex molecules—not just atoms—necessary
for life. Comets in other solar systems
could easily deposit such molecules on
planets, as they may have done in our solar
system with earth.
Third, astronomers in 2004 found much smaller planets around other
stars for the first time. Barbara McArthur at the University of Texas
at Austin found a planet 18 times the mass of Earth around 55 Cancri,
a star with three other known planets. A team in Portugal announced
finding a 14-mass planet. These smaller planets are likely to be rock,
not gas. McArthur says, "We're on our way to finding an extrasolar
astronomers are not only getting good at
finding new planets around other stars,
they're getting the resolution of the newest
telescopes so good that they can see the
dim light from some newly found planets.
Meanwhile, even better telescopes are being
built, like the large binocular scope on
Mt. Graham in Arizona that will see more
planets. With light we can analyze the
spectrum a new planet reflects and determine
what's on that planet—like water.
Water, we also discovered recently is abundant
in space in large clouds between and near
everything life needs is out there. For
it not to come together somewhere else
as it did on earth is remarkably unlikely.
In fact, although there are Goldilocks
zones in galaxies where life as we know
it is most likely to survive (there's too
much radiation towards the center of the
Milky Way, for example), there are almost
countless galaxies out there where conditions
could be ripe for life to evolve. This
is a golden age of astrophysics and we're
going to find life elsewhere.
Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University;
am not interested in ideas that cannot in
principle be proven or disproven. I am as
capable as the next guy in believing in an
idea that is not yet proven so long as it
could in principle be proven or disproven.
In my chosen field of autism, I believe that the cause will turn out
to be assortative mating of two hyper-systemizers. I believe this because
we already have 3 pieces of the jig-saw: (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 systemizing. But other related scientific
and technical fields [such as math or physics] 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 onto
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). I will hold onto the idea until it has
been properly tested. Popperian science is about being able to let go
of an idea when the evidence goes against it, but it is also about being
able to hold onto an idea until the evidence has been collected, if you
have enough reasons to believe it might be true.
The causes of autism are likely to be complex, including at the very
least multiple genes interacting with environmental factors, but the
assortative mating theory may describe some contributing factors.
Editor, The Economist
believe that the radiation emitted by
mobile phones is harmless.
argument is not based so much on the scientific
evidence—because there isn't very
much of it, and what little there is has
either found no effect or is statistically
dubious. Instead, it is based on a historical
analogy with previous scares about overhead
power lines and cathode-ray computer monitors
(VDUs). Both were also thought to be dangerous,
yet years of research—decades in
the case of power lines—failed to
find conclusive evidence of harm.
phones seem to me to be the latest example
of what has become a familiar pattern:
anecdotal evidence suggests that a technology
might be harmful, and however many studies
fail to find evidence of harm, there are
always calls for more research.
The underlying problem, of course, is the impossibility of proving
a negative. During the fuss over genetically modified crops in Europe,
there were repeated calls for proof that GM technology was safe. Similarly,
in the aftermath of the BSE scare in Britain, scientists were repeatedly
asked for proof that beef was safe to eat. But you cannot prove that
something has no effect: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
All you can do is look for evidence of harm. If you don't find it,
you can look again. If you still fail to find it, the question is still
open: "lack of evidence of harm" means both "safe as
far as we can tell" and "we still don't know if it's safe
or not". Scientists are often unfairly accused of logic-chopping
when they point this out.
Looking back even further, I expect mobile phones will turn out to
be merely the latest in a long line of technologies that raised health
concerns that subsequently turned out to be unwarranted. In the 19th
century, long before the power-line and VDU scares, telegraph wires
were accused of affecting the weather, and railway travel was believed
to cause nervous disorders.
The irony is that since my belief that mobile phones are safe is based
on a historical analysis, I am on no firmer ground scientifically than
those who believe mobile phones are harmful. Still, I believe they
are safe, though I can't prove it.
and Nobel Laureate; Director Emeritus, Fermilab;
Coauthor, The God Particle
friend, the theoretical physicist, believed
so strongly in String Theory, "It must
be true!" He was called to testify in
a lawsuit, which contested the claims of String
Theory against Quantum Loop Gravity. The lawyer
was skeptical. "What makes you such an
authority?" he asked. "Oh, I am without
question the world's most outstanding theoretical
physicist", was the startling reply. It
was enough to convince the lawyer to change
the subject. However, when the witness came
off the stand, he was surrounded by protesting
"How could you make such an outrageous claim?" they asked. The theoretical
physicist defended, "Fellows, you just don't understand; I was under oath."
To believe without knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of
physics. Guys like Einstein, Dirac, Poincaré, etc. extolled the
beauty of concepts, in a bizarre sense, placing truth at a lower level
of importance. There are enough examples that I resonated with the arrogance
of my theoretical masters who were in effect saying that God, a.k.a.
the Master, Der Alte, may have, in her fashioning of the universe, made
some errors in favoring of a convenient truth over a breathtakingly wondrous
mathematics. This inelegant lack of confidence has heretofore always
proved hasty. Thus, when the long respected law of mirror symmetry was
violated by weakly interacting but exotic particles, our pain at the
loss of simplicity and harmony was greatly alleviated by the discovery
of the failure of particle-antiparticle symmetry. The connection was
exciting because the simultaneous reflection in a mirror and change of
particles to antiparticles seemed to restore a new and more powerful
symmetry—"CP" symmetry now gave us a connection of space
(mirror reflection) and electric charge. How silly of us to have lost
confidence in the essential beauty of nature!
The renewed confidence remained even when it turned out that "CP" was
also imperfectly respected. "Surely," we now believe, "there
is in store some spectacular, new, unforeseen splendor in all of us." She
will not let us down. This we believe, even though we can't prove it.
Skeptic magazine; Columnist, Scientific American;
Author Science Friction
believe, but cannot prove...that reality
exists over and above human and social constructions
of that reality. Science as a method, and
naturalism as a philosophy, together form
the best tool we have for understanding that
reality. Because science is cumulative—that
is, it builds on itself in a progressive
fashion—we can strive to achieve an
ever-greater understanding of reality. Our
knowledge of nature remains provisional because
we can never know if we have final Truth.
Because science is a human activity and nature
is complex and dynamic, fuzzy logic and fractional
probabilities best describe both nature and
the estimations of our approximation toward
understanding that nature.
There is no such thing as
the paranormal and the supernatural;
there is only the normal and the natural
and mysteries we have yet to explain.
What separates science from
all other human activities is its
belief in the provisional nature
of all conclusions. In science, knowledge
is fluid and certainty fleeting.
That is the heart of its limitation.
It is also its greatest strength.
There are, from this ultimate unprovable
assertion, three additional insoluble
1. There is no God, intelligent
designer, or anything resembling the
divinity as proffered by the world's
religions (although an extra-terrestrial
being of significantly greater intelligence
and power than us would be indistinguishable
After thousands of years
of the world's greatest minds attempting
to prove or disprove the divinity's
existence or nonexistence, with little
agreement or consensus amongst scholars
as to the divinity's ultimate state
of being, a reasonable conclusion is
that the God question can never be
solved and that one's belief, disbelief,
or skepticism ultimately rests on a
2. The universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will.
As with the God question,
scholars of considerable intellectual
power for many millennia have failed
to resolve the paradox of feeling free
in a determined universe. One provisional
solution is to think of the universe
as so complex that the number of causes
and the complexity of their interactions
make the predetermination of human
action pragmatically impossible. We
can even put a figure on the causal
net of the universe to see just how
absurd it is to think we can get our
minds around it fully.
It has been computed that
in order for a computer in the far
future of the universe to resurrect
in a virtual reality every person who
ever lived or could have lived, with
all causal interactions between themselves
and their environment, it would need
10 to the power of 10 to the power
of 123 bits (a 1 followed by 10^123
zeros) of memory. Suffice it to say
that no computer within the conceivable
future will achieve this level of power;
likewise no human brain even comes
The enormity of this complexity
leads us to feel as if we are acting
freely as uncaused causers, even though
we are actually causally determined.
Since no set of causes we select as
the determiners of human action can
be complete, the feeling of freedom
arises out of this ignorance of causes.
To that extent we may act as if we
are free. There is much to gain, little
to lose, and personal responsibility
3. Morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces,
not divine command.
The moral feelings of doing
the right thing (such as virtuousness) or
doing the wrong thing (such as guilt) were
generated by nature as part of human evolution.
Although cultures differ
on what they define as right and wrong,
the moral feelings of doing the right
or wrong thing are universal to all
humans. Human universals are pervasive
and powerful, and include at their
core the fact that we are, by nature,
moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic
and selfish, cooperative and competitive,
peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and
non-virtuous. Individuals and groups
vary on the expression of such universal
traits, but everyone has them. Most
people, most of the time, in most circumstances,
are good and do the right thing for
themselves and for others. But some
people, some of the time, in some circumstances,
are bad and do the wrong thing for
themselves and for others.
As a consequence, moral
principles are provisionally true,
where they apply to most people, in
most cultures, in most circumstances,
most of the time. At some point in
the last 10,000 years (around the time
of writing and the shift from bands
and tribes to chiefdoms and states
around 5,000 years ago) religions began
to codify moral precepts into moral
codes, and political states began to
codify moral precepts into legal codes.
In conclusion, I believe,
but cannot prove...that reality exists
and science is the best method for understanding
it, there is no God, the universe is
determined but we are free, morality
evolved as an adaptive trait of humans
and human communities, and that ultimately
all of existence is explicable through
Of course, I could be wrong...
Money Manager and Science
The great breakthrough will involve a new understanding of time...that
moving through time is not free, and that consciousness itself will be
seen to only be a time sensor, adding to the other sensors of light and
Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont
Graduate University; Author, Flow
I first read your question, I was sure
it was a trick—after all, almost
nothing I believe in I can prove. I believe
the earth is round, but I cannot prove
it, nor can I prove that the earth revolves
around the sun or that the naked fig tree
in the garden will have leaves in a few
months. I can't prove quarks exist or that
there was a Big Bang—all of these
and millions of other beliefs are based
on faith in a community of knowledge whose
proofs I am willing to accept, hoping they
will accept on faith the few measly claims
to proof I might advance.
But then I realized—after reading some of the early postings—that
every one else has assumed implicitly that
the "you" in: "even if you
cannot prove it" referred not to the
individual respondent, but to the community
of knowledge—it actually stood for "one" rather
than for "you". That everyone seems
to have understood this seems to me a remarkable
achievement, a merging of the self with the
collective that only great religions and
profound ideologies occasionally achieve.
So what do I believe that no one else can prove? Not much, although
I do believe in evolution, including cultural
evolution, which means that I tend to trust
ancient beliefs about good and bad, the sacred
and the profane, the meaningful and the worthless—not
because they are amenable to proof, but because
they have been selected over time and in
different situations, and therefore might
be worthy of belief.
As to the future, I will follow the cautious weather forecaster
who announces: "Tomorrow will be a beautiful
day, unless it rains." In other words,
I can see all sorts of potentially wonderful
developments in human consciousness, global
solidarity, knowledge and ethics; however,
there are about as many trends operating
towards opposite outcomes: a coarsening of
taste, reduction to least common denominator,
polarization of property, power, and faith.
I hope we will have the time and opportunity
to understand which policies lead to which
outcomes, and then that we will have the
motivation and the courage to implement the
more desirable alternatives.
Perimeter Institute; Author, Three Roads
to Quantum Gravity
am convinced that quantum mechanics is not
a final theory. I believe this because I have
never encountered an interpretation of the
present formulation of quantum mechanics that
makes sense to me. I have studied most of them
in depth and thought hard about them, and in
the end I still can't make real sense of quantum
theory as it stands. Among other issues, the
measurement problem seems impossible to resolve
without changing the physical theory.
mechanics must then be an approximate description
of a more fundamental physical theory. There
must then be hidden variables, which
are averaged over to derive the approximate,
probabilistic description which is quantum
theory. We know from the experimental falsifications
of the Bell inequalities that any theory
which agrees with quantum mechanics on a
range of experiments where it has been checked
must be non-local. Quantum mechanics is non-local,
as are all proposals for replacing it with
something that makes more sense. So any additional
hidden variables must be non-local. But I
believe we can say more. I believe that the
hidden variables represent relationships
between the particles we do see, which are
hidden because they are non-local and connect
widely separated particles.
fits in with another core belief of mine,
which derives from general relativity, which
is that the fundamental properties of physical
entities are a set of relationships, which
evolve dynamically. There are no intrinsic,
non-relational properties, and there is no
fixed background, such as Newtonian space
and time, which exists just to give things
consequence of this is that the geometry
of space and time is also only an approximate,
emergent description, applicable only on
scales too large to see the fundamental degrees
of freedom. The fundamental relations are
non-local with respect to the approximate
notion of locality that emerges at the scale
where it becomes sensible to talk about things
located in a geometry.
these together, we see that quantum uncertainty
must be a residue of the resulting non-locality,
which restricts our ability to predict the
future of any small region of the universe.
Hbar, the fundamental constant of quantum
mechanics that measures the quantum uncertainty,
is related to N, the number of degrees of
freedom in the universe. A reasonable conjecture
is that hbar is proportional to the inverse
of the square root of N.
how are we to describe physics, if it is
not in terms of things moving in a fixed
spacetime? Einstein struggled with this,
and my only answer is the one he came to
near the end of his life: fundamental physics
must be discrete, and its description must
be in terms of algebra and combinatorics.
what of time? I have been also unable to
make sense of any of the proposals to do
away with time as a fundamental aspect of
our description of nature. So I believe in
time, in the sense of causality. I also doubt
that the "big bang" is the beginning of time,
I strongly suspect that our history extends
backwards before the big bang.
I believe that in the near future, we will
be able to make predictions based on these
ideas that will be tested in real experiments.