[Paleopsych] NYT: God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap

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God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap
New York Times, 5.1.4

"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove
it?"This was the question posed to scientists, futurists
and other creative thinkers by John Brockman, a literary
agent and publisher of The Edge, a Web site devoted to
science. The site asks a new question at the end of each
year. Here are excerpts from the responses, to be posted
Tuesday at www.edge.org.

Roger Schank
Psychologist and computer scientist; author, "Designing
World-Class E-Learning"

Irrational choices.

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.

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.

Judith Rich Harris
Writer and developmental psychologist; author, "The Nurture

I believe, though I cannot prove it, that three - not two -
selection processes were involved in human evolution.

The first two are familiar: natural selection, which
selects for fitness, and sexual selection, which selects
for sexiness.

The third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty
- not adult beauty. The ones doing the selecting weren't
potential mates: they were parents. Parental selection, I
call it.

Kenneth Ford
Physicist; retired director, American Institute of Physics;
author, "The Quantum World"

I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our

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.

I believe in the existence of life elsewhere because
chemistry seems to be so life-striving and because life,
once created, propagates itself in every possible
direction. Earth's history suggests that chemicals get busy
and create life given any old mix of substances that
includes a bit of water, and given practically any old
source of energy; further, that life, once created, spreads
into every nook and cranny over a wide range of
temperature, acidity, pressure, light level and so on.

Believing in the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in
the galaxy is another matter.

Joseph LeDoux
Neuroscientist, New York University; author, "The Synaptic

For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals
have feelings and other states of consciousness, but
neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We
can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less
other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at
least can have a little confidence since all people have
brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as
we turn to other species and start asking questions about
feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky
territory because the hardware is different.

Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be
different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior
in rats rather than emotional feelings.

There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can
help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we
can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially
now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm
not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical

Lynn Margulis
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis
in Cell Evolution"

I feel that I know something that will turn out to be
correct and eventually proved to be true beyond doubt.


That our ability to perceive signals in the
environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors.
That is, we, like all other mammals including our apish
brothers detect odors, distinguish tastes, hear bird song
and drumbeats and we too feel the vibrations of the drums.
With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun.
These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage
that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate
animals, indeed all animals.

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

Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that
some of my beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from
dust to dust, finite and fallible. We have dignity but not

And that is why I further believe that we should

a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain
tentativeness (except for this one!),

b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and

c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.

This mix of faith-based humility and skepticism helped fuel
the beginnings of modern science, and it has informed my
own research and science writing. The whole truth cannot be
found merely by searching our own minds, for there is not
enough there. So we also put our ideas to the test. If they
survive, so much the better for them; if not, so much the

Robert Sapolsky
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, author, "A Primate's

Mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an
unjustifiable belief, namely that there is no god(s) or
such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined
of the right persuasion mean by that word). ...

I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only
can, but should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to
not believe without requiring proof. 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 public health
problem, given the number of people who would then run
damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage
of folks running amok thanks to their belief. So that
wouldn't be a problem and, all things considered, such a
proof would be a relief - many physicists, especially
astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their
communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of
biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when
you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably
aggressive childhood leukemia.

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.

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.

Philip Zimbardo
Psychologist, emeritus professor, Stanford; author,

I believe that the prison guards at the Abu Ghraib Prison
in Iraq, who worked the night shift in Tier 1A, where
prisoners were physically and psychologically abused, had
surrendered their free will and personal responsibility
during these episodes of mayhem.

But I could not prove it in a court of law. These eight
Army reservists were trapped in a unique situation in which
the behavioral context came to dominate individual
dispositions, values and morality to such an extent that
they were transformed into mindless actors alienated from
their normal sense of personal accountability for their
actions - at that time and place.

The "group mind" that developed among these soldiers was
created by a set of known social psychological conditions,
some of which are nicely featured in Golding's "Lord of the
Flies." The same processes that I witnessed in my Stanford
Prison Experiment were clearly operating in that remote
place: deindividuation, dehumanization, boredom,
groupthink, role-playing, rule control and more.

Philip W. Anderson
Physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton

Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe
it to be? It is an interesting mathematical specialty and
has produced and will produce mathematics useful in other
contexts, but it seems no more vital as mathematics than
other areas of very abstract or specialized math, and
doesn't on that basis justify the incredible amount of
effort expended on it.

My belief is based on the fact that string theory is the
first science in hundreds of years to be pursued in
pre-Baconian fashion, without any adequate experimental
guidance. It proposes that Nature is the way we would like
it to be rather than the way we see it to be; and it is
improbable that Nature thinks the same way we do.

The sad thing is that, as several young would-be theorists
have explained to me, it is so highly developed that it is
a full-time job just to keep up with it. That means that
other avenues are not being explored by the bright,
imaginative young people, and that alternative career paths
are blocked.

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.

David Buss
Psychologist, University of Texas; 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.

While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that
few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads
of regular love are well traveled and their markers are
well understood by many - the mesmerizing attraction, the
ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound
self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love
takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows
no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to
define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically
woolly. But I know true love exists. I just can't prove it.


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