Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Edge asks scientists a great question: what do you believe but cannot prove?

The New York Times > Science > God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap

The NYT synopsizes interviews published at Edge.org. The interviews are in answer to the question "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?". I asked Kip Thorne, a Caltech cosmologists, a similar question (except I asked about wildest speculation rather than belief) in 1981 during a symposium. His answer, which I now dimly recall, was that time travel was possible, but not into our universe. That was before such ideas became commonplace.

Here's my synopsis of the NYT article, I omitted the ones I thought were silly, dull, or obvious. Their audience seemed more cautious than the scientists I've known, perhaps because they are also public figures.
Roger Schank
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing World-Class E-Learning"
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.
SO-SO. All conscious action arises from desire/emotion, so at root all choices are non-rational. Pure rationality without desire is probably completely inert. Yeah, complexity overwhelms our limited capacity to analyze problems, but analysis isn't most people's strength to begin with.
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.
OK. I mostly agree, until he says the universe cannot be designed. Some cosmology models would allow one to configure the staring parameters of an artificial a universe. Of course if we live in a simulation then all bets are off.
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... Believing in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy is another matter.
WIMP! Almost everyone believes bacterial life exists elsewhere in the galaxy.
Lynn Margulis
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis in Cell Evolution"
That our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors.
DUH. This one seems too obvious.
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)...
I enjoyed reading his exposition. Sounds like he could be a quite interesting writer.
Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual Intelligence"
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.
The world of our daily experience - the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds - is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.
Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits.
Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival.
If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we should not be surprised that, despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant of minds, there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness, no theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be, or cause, conscious experience.
OMMMM. On the one hand, he sounds like he had a lot of fun in his undergrad days. On the other hand, this is pretty much what the 'world-is-a-simulation' folks would say, and I find them oddly persuasive.
Nicholas Humphrey
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author,"The Mind Made Flesh"
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
EXCELLENT. I've believed this ever since I did my UMinn Cognitive Science class about 8 years ago.

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