What We Believe but Cannot Prove : Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
More than one hundred of the world's leading thinkers write about things they believe in, despite the absence of concrete proof
Scientific theory, more often than not, is born of bold assumption, disparate bits of unconnected evidence, and educated leaps of faith. Some of the most potent beliefs among brilliant minds are based on supposition alone -- yet that is enough to push those minds toward making the theory viable.
The title's question was posed on Edge.org (an online intellectual clearing house), challenging more than 100 intellectuals of every stripe-from Richard Dawkins to Ian McEwan-to confess the personal theories they cannot demonstrate with certainty. The results, gathered by literary agent and editor Brockman, is a stimulating collection of micro-essays (mainly by scientists) divulging many of today's big unanswered questions reaching across the plane of human existence. Susan Blackmore, a lecturer on evolutionary theory, believes "it is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will," and Daniel Goleman believes children today are "unintended victims of economic and technological progress." Other beliefs are more mundane and one is highly mathematically specific. Many contributors open with their discomfort at being asked to discuss unproven beliefs, which itself is an interesting reflection of the state of science. The similarity in form and tone of the responses makes this collection most enjoyable in small doses, which allow the answers to spark new questions and ideas in the reader's mind. It's unfortunate that the tone of most contributions isn't livelier and that there aren't explanations of some of the more esoteric concepts discussed; those limitations will keep these adroit musings from finding a wider audience. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 28, 2006
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Excerpt from What We Believe but Cannot Prove by John Brockman
I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth but has the potential to spread throughout the galaxy and beyond it -- indeed, the emergence of complexity could be near its beginning. If the searches conducted by SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) continue to come up with nothing, that would not render life a cosmic sideshow; indeed, it would be a boost to our self-esteem. Terrestrial life and its fate would be seen as a matter of cosmic significance. Even if intelligence is now unique to Earth, there's enough time ahead for it to permeate at least this galaxy and evolve into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can conceive.
There's an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6 billion years to watch the sun flare up and die. But the forms of life and intelligence that have by then emerged will 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 past 3.5 or 4 billion years. But posthuman evolution (whether of organic species or artifacts) will proceed far faster than the changes that led to human emergence, because it will be intelligently directed rather than 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 the brain. Humanity may not persist as a single species for longer than a few more centuries, especially if communities have by then become established away from Earth.