- 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: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 42 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #604,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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From Publishers Weekly
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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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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That aside, as a book, this one has its pleasures and problems. The main pleasure is to hear emminent scientists speculate about things in their field--some humbly, some more brashly, but all with a great respect for what they do. It is always wonderful to hear people talk about things they really love, whether you agree with them or not. It is also interesting to see that great minds often differ in their feelings about where science will ultimately lead us. Again, it reminds us that science, self-correcting as it is, knowledge-widening as it is, by no means generates universal agreement, even among its practitioners. Most of the articles are quite brief, being at most a few pages, so a reader rarely gets overwhelmed or bogged down, even if one is not familiar with the ideas being discussed.
On the other hand, there are some themes hit upon repeatedly by the writers here that the repitition gets somewhat boring. I almost put the book down after the first 50 pages because reading about whether or not God exists or if there is life (intelligent or otherwise) somewhere else in the universe are old questions covered better elsewhere. However, things got better as the book went on (except for a brief digression into the mind/body problem), and some of the writers here addressed some questions I found very interesting, some outrageous and some that got me thinking, which is the highest compliment I can give.
Overall, it may not be a great book, but it's easy to read and has enough bright spots to make it worthwhile.
"What we believe but Cannot Prove". Essays from top scientists on topics such as Consciousness (is there such a thing, does language bring it about?), quantum mechanics (is the electron composed of any smaller particles?), astronomy (is there more than one universe), time (is everything predetermined) just to name a few from memory. I had gotten this book because i enjoyed "What is your most dangerous idea" so much from the same "edge dot com" group/ editor. I wasn't as into this book I believe because "What is your most dangerous idea" was just more interesting and similar. Some topics overlap. For example this book may have the argument that they believe consciousness does not exist while "dangerous idea" will have the dangerous idea that the soul does not exist. (This book did come out before "what is your most dangerous idea"). Some great ideas in here regardless to ponder.
109 well-known scientist/journalist/educator types were persuaded by Brockman to answer the question: "What do you believe but cannot prove?" I have read books by 17 of them and have heard of another 30 or 40. The average answer takes about a page and a fourth - inadequate space to develop a scientific thesis, so layman's language prevails, making this book accessible to anyone. Like themes seem to be arranged together. God issues first, SETI themes next, consciousness has a big section - but you can open it and start anywhere you want and not suffer loss of continuity.
The topics covered were diverse: Prehistoric life was rife with cannibalism and slavery; passionate people (within reason) do better; we're in for climatic mayhem; radiation emitted by mobile phones is harmless; the laws of large numbers - probability theory - work and protect the individual; scientific results can't be proved. They can only be tested again and again until only a fool would refuse to believe them...
Much damage has been done by those who are certain that there is a life - a better, more important life - elsewhere; religious experience and practice is generated largely by a few emotions that evolved for other reasons; hostility toward religion is an obstacle to progress in psychology; and this from Robert Sapolsky: "Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is no God. Some might view this as a potential health problem, given the number of people who would then run damagingly amok. But there's no shortage of folks running amok already, thanks to their belief in God, so it wouldn't be much of a problem"...
Intelligent extraterrestrials exist and will be found to use the same math we know and love; five recent developments suggest the discovery of extraterrestrial life is not far off; life itself is a fundamental feature of our universe, along with dark matter, supernovae, and black holes; no known law of physics or chemistry favors the emergence of the living state over other states; Whether or not intelligent life has staying power, it is for sure that microbial life does; panspermia is how life was and is spread throughout the universe...
String theory is a futile exercise in physics and will die on the vine; if there are subtle ways around the speed-of-light limit, we will discover and leverage them to great effect; electrons, neutrinos, and quarks are divisible; quantum mechanics is not a final theory; our history extends backwards before the Big Bang; time does not exist; the mechanism for the human perception of time will be discovered...
Future human evolution will proceed at a much faster pace than its predecessor (ordinary natural selection) because it will be intelligently designed by us; The DNA in your body varies from part to part; every special trait of humans is a derivative of language; not all the properties of nature are mathematically expressible - there are aspects of nature we will never conquer with science; evolution has direction, that is, life increases in its complexity; Homo Florensia had a simplified language that still exists today; Neanderthals were furry...
For every experience, thought, question, or solution there is an analog in the biophysical state of the brain; reality exists independent of its human and social constructions; consciousness and its contents are all that exists - spacetime, matter, fields all depend on consciousness for their very existence (the guy who wrote this teaches, you guessed it, philosophy); soon we will be able to construct robots that give every appearance of consciousness - systems that act like us in every way; advanced computers will never possess consciousness; human consciousness is a conjuring trick; acquiring a human language is a precondition for consciousness; cockroaches are conscious...
It is possible to life happily and morally without believing in free will; a common human nature will eventually be supported by evidence as strong and convincing as the evidence that the earth is round - with this evidence, we will overcome our misconceptions of human differences; Deceit and self-deception play a disproportionate role in human-generated disasters; We will soon grasp in a deep way how collective human behavior works, whether it's action by small groups or by nations; meaning and purpose of life may not be a precondition for humanity as much as a by-product of it; people are getting better...
From David Myers: "newborns are not so dumb, electroconvulsive therapy sometimes works for depression, America's economic growth has not improved our morale, the automatic unconscious mind dwarfs the conscious mind, traumatic experiences rarely get repressed, most folks don't suffer low self-esteem, sexual orientation is not a choice"...
It's possible to change adult stem cells from one phenotype to another; today's children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress; most of the ideas taught today in Economics 101 will be proved false; there is a severe overestimation of knowledge in the "soft" sciences. Mostly, they fit a narrative that satisfies our desire for a story.
There are a few duds, but overall it's fascinating to find out what these high achiever types are thinking about when they are not working. You will enjoy it.
The late John Brockman of the Edge Institute produced a series of these books, with experts responding to different questions or propositions (one was "This Will Change Everything"). I've read three or four of them, but "What We Believe But Cannot Prove" is far and away the best. I carry a copy in the car, for reading at coffee shops or restaurants.