Saturday, January 15, 2005

Unprovable truths (The Edge Question for 2005)

There's been some reporting about The Edge Annual Question for 2005. Though some articles assume that everyone knows about The Edge Annual Question, I hadn't previously encountered it myself. The question is an interesting one but there are far too many responses; more, anyway, than I wish to read. I did find one I particularly liked, however, so here is a citation for the The Edge Annual Question and a copy of one response. At bottom of this post I've put extracts from a review of a book about intuition, a tool used by many who responded to the Edge question.
"Big, deep and ambitious questions....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center." — New Scientist

The Edge Annual Question—2005


Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the "esprit de divination"). What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

The 2005 Edge Question has generated many eye-opening responses from a "who's who" of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers. The 120 contributions comprise a document of 60,000 words.

This year's Edge Question was suggested by Nicholas Humphrey.

(120 contributors; 60,000 words:)

Response from
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, Author, A Primate's Memoir

Well, of course, it is tempting to go for something like, "That the wheel, agriculture, and the Macarena were all actually invented by yetis." Or to do the sophomoric pseudo-ironic logic twist of, "That every truth can eventually be proven." Or to get up my hackles, draw up to my full height and intone, "Sir, we scientists believe in nothing that cannot be proven by the whetstone of science, verily our faith is our lack of faith," and then go off in a lab coat and a huff.

The first two aren't worth the words, and the third just isn't so. No matter how many times we read Arrowsmith, scientists are subjective humans operating in an ostensibly objective business, so there 's probably lots of things we take on faith.

So 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 very impressed, moved, by one approach of people on the other side of the fence. These are the believers who argue that it would be a disaster, would be the very work of Beelzebub, for it to be proven that god exists. What good would religiosity be if it came with a transparently clear contract, instead of requiring the leap of faith into an unknowable void?

So 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.

Finally, just to undo any semblance of logic here, I might even continue to believe there is no god, even if it was proven that there is one. A religious friend of mine once said to me that the concept of god is very useful, so that you can berate god during the bad times. But it is clear to me that I don't need to believe that there is a god in order to berate him.


From The New York Sun January 11, 2005 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters
You Can Judge This Book by Its Cover

January 11, 2005

excerpts from this review:

Malcolm Gladwell has penned an absolutely delightful summary of all the important research in the study of intuition. His title, "Blink," is apt, for we humans have a remarkable - and heretofore unproven - capacity for making judgments in the metaphorical blink of an eye that are often superior to those we might have made had we taken the time to assess all possible variables.

Evaluating whether someone is trustworthy or not, or whether someone is lying or telling the truth, is more accurately done by intuitive "feel" in a brief interaction than by subjecting them to a polygraph test.

We are especially good at snap judgments when it comes to human relations, because we evolved as a social primate species living in small tribes in which social relations were extremely important. We needed (and still need) to know whom we can trust and whom we cannot trust; in the prehistoric world of our Paleolithic environment we had only our wits and intuitions, the "sense" or "feeling" we had for someone's trustworthiness, to rely on.

Mr. Gladwell has the ability to synthesize a large body of scientific data into a highly readable, page-turning narrative, and to convert the raw numbers of research and statistics into meaningful facts for our personal lives. I thought he did this brilliantly with "The Tipping Point," and I think he does it even better in "Blink." For this feat all of us in the scientific community should be grateful, because the craft of writing good science is just as important as the skill of producing good science.

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