Wednesday, January 05, 2005

What Do You Believe?

Each year since 1998, John Brockman has posed a single provocative question to a wide selection of scientists and other thinkers, and then published their responses on Edge, his Web site devoted to matters scientific. (I'm providing the site link at the bottom of this piece, because if you happened to hit it in the middle of this paragraph, you might not be back for week.)

I've only begun to dip into the hundreds of responses, but I've seen enough to add Edge to my recommended sites. I expect to return there to graze when I'm momentarily stuck or want to find an interesting book to read. I now realize that it was his 1999 question, "What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?," that prompted my to come up with my own answer: spectacles.

The latest question was: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

Although posed in a scientific context, it's a pertinent question here, because one defining aspect of the Great Divide is that some people want to advance positions or make policy decisions based on reason, while others argue from beliefs ("values"). Both ardently believe the other side ignores important evidence. And one of the respondents, Roger Schank—psychologist, computer scientist and author of "Designing World-Class E-Learning"—seems to agree:

"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."

It would be easy to answer this question for the Party in Power (PIP), of course. WMD in Iraq, gay marriage as harmful to heterosexual marriage, Social Security is failing, Heaven and Hell... The list would be a long one, and we rational progressives could have a good chuckle over it, while missing the vital point. The PIP doesn't feel the need to prove anything.

Belief is not stupid or inherently intolerant. As the answers to Brockman's question illustrate, belief can be adventurous and provocative, not simply medieval. But what happens when virtually every decision is based upon belief, not objective standards, evidence or scientific proof?

In the next four years, we may find out. But meanwhile, let's have some fun with a compelling question.

What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? Please add your comments below. To get you started, here are a few samples from the scientists:

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.

Alison Gopnik
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley; co-author, "The Scientist in the Crib"

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.

Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Columnist, Scientific American; Author Science Friction

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.

Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual Intelligence"

I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists...

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.

David Buss
Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin; Author, The Evolution of Desire

True love.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that men are dirt. Whether I can prove this may be academic, since there is overwhelming evidence in favor of my hypothesis.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe in the music of the spheres. That someday we will discover new, profound relationships between music, time and living things. That music is an early manifestation of telepathy or a larger consciousness. Maybe it's cultural, maybe cosmic.

Here's a quote from "Beyond Culture," by Edward T, Hall.

A student of his filmed "children dancing and skipping in a school playground during their lunch hour. At first, they looked like so many kids each doing his own thing. After a while we noticed that one little girl was moving more than the rest. Careful study revealed that she covered the entire playground..."

He viewed the film over and over at different speeds. Gradually, he perceived that the whole group was moving in synchrony to a definite rhythm and the beat seemd familiar. They found a tune that fit the rhythm and synched the music to film. It stayed synchronized for the entire 4-1/2 minutes of the film clip.

If you are a musician you know how much easier it is to play in time with other musicians than with a click track. But here, there was no music, just kids running around playing and screaming in random games. They generated their own beat somehow.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no cognitive scientist, but here's what I believe that I can't prove:

That the "golden rule," arguably humankind's simplest and oldest moral imperative, is also the most difficult to honor.

Thanks, and keep up the good work. Your blog is a beacon.

Debra Kendall

5:24 PM  

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