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What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Edge Question Series) Paperback – February 28, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The title's question was posed on (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.)
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From Booklist

In this informative and often surprising book, more than 100 notable scientists and scholars answer the question, "What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?" The responses range from the thought-provoking to seemingly trivial (or just plain silly). Professor of cosmology and astrophysics Martin Rees, for example, admits that he believes intelligent life is unique to our world (in sharp contrast to many of his fellow contributors). Alun Anderson, senior consultant to New Scientist magazine, believes cockroaches are conscious. Mathematician and science-fiction novelist Rudy Rucker believes in a multiplicity of universes. Susan Blackmore, who has written widely on the subject of consciousness, appears to believe that she doesn't exist. The contributors touch on a broad spectrum of subjects, from religion to science and many points in between. Although some of the responses are arrogant or nitpicky, the majority are thoughtful, honest, and revelatory of the contributors' own intellectual and philosophical biases. And the book certainly gets us thinking about our own deeply held, if entirely unprovable, beliefs. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Edge Question Series
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (February 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060841818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060841812
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #285,133 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

91 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Rev. Thomas Scarborough on February 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
The title of this book is a question that was put to 109 leading scientists and thinkers. Some wrote a single paragraph in response, others wrote three to four pages.

A question behind the question recurs many times. That is, what do the authors believe belief to be? One of the more interesting comments is by Maria Spiropulu: "I would suggest that belief and proof are in some way complementary: If you believe something, you don't need proof of it, and if you have proof, you don't need to believe." Leon Ederman would seem to speak for many contributors with the comment: "To believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics," while Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi states: "I can prove almost nothing I believe in."

One's intuitive response to some of the contributors' beliefs might be that their beliefs would be considered to be facts. Gino Segre believes (to describe it shorthand) in the Big Bang. Stephen H. Schneider believes in global warming. Leonard Susskind believes in probability. Neil Gershenfeld believes in progress. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi considers: "I do believe in evolution," and David Buss states: "I believe in true love."

Among the beliefs that would seem to be particularly interesting are the following. Gregory Benford considers: "Why is there any scientific law at all?" Daniel Goleman believes that "todays children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress." Alison Gopnik believes that "babies and young children are actually more conscious . . . than adults are." George Dyson believes that bird dialects correspond to "indigenous human language groups", and Freeman Dyson believes that the reverse of a power of 2 is never a power of 5.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By STEPHEN PLETKO on September 10, 2006
Format: Paperback

"What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?"

This was what John Brockman, the editor and publisher of the online intellectual think-tank "Edge," asked leading thinkers. This book contains what this think-tank deems to be the best answers to this question.

Each contributor's answer is preceded by a brief profile of him or her. (There are 15 female contributors.)

The majority of the thinkers this book's profiles have more than one occupation. The most frequent job titles mentioned in each brief profile are as follows:

(1) author
(2) professor
(3) scientist (such as physicist, computer scientist)/social scientist (such as psychologist, economist)
(4) director (for example, a director of a laboratory)

Some other occupations mentioned are inventor, writer, editor, journalist, publisher, lecturer, and linguist.

Here is a typical profile:

"Freeman Dyson is professor emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author of a number of books about science for the general public including "Imagined Worlds" and "The Sun," "The Genome," and "The Internet."

Here is a sample of the beliefs that cannot be proved:

Contributor #1: I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth but has the potential to spread throughout the Galaxy and beyond it."
#109: "I can prove almost nothing I believe in."
#5: "I believe that evolution explains why the living world is the way that it is."
#20: "I'm pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can't prove."
#30: "I believe...that cannibalism and slavery were both prevalent in human history.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
The question posed by John Brockman was "What do you believe but cannot prove?" It might be classed as one of those Mediaeval "angels on the head of a pin" queries. However, this is the 21st Century and what we know of Nature now stands in stark contrast to what was known then. The responses show that serious questions remain to be resolved. Not all of them can be, as the issue concerned lies either in the past or is too remote for close study. Some, of course, lie in the realm of what we deem "consciousness". A vague term in its own right, made even more difficult when the various respondents offer their own definitions. That tactic, however, makes the answers more stimulating by creating fresh questions. By selecting novelist Ian McEwan to write the introduction, Brockman shows he doesn't consider the question limited to scientific speculation. McEwan demonstrates his knowledge of the scientific issues [would that more fiction writers matched that capacity!] and how "inspiration" has advanced our understanding of Nature.

Although he doesn't describe the process, the reader will soon learn that the editor has placed the responses in some general categories. The first area of interest is cosmology - who is out there? How might we learn of them? Can we ever reach worlds light years away? More to the point, how is the universe put together and why in that way and not another? Are there other universes we can't see? Since many of these questions touch on what we call "values", the next grouping addresses that sort of reply. What is "morality" and what are its origins? In this collection, the "divine" is bypassed, leaving only humans to provide the answer to those "eternals". Yet humans, the responders acknowledge, are the product of natural selection.
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