Tuesday, January 4, 2005

What Smart People Believe

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost directs us to a website called Edge which asks 120 well-known intellectuals "What do you believe even though you can't prove it?"

As Carter says, some of the answers are intriguing, many are banal, and others just plain absurd. Here are some samples:


"I can't prove it more than anecdotally, but I believe evolution has purpose and direction." -- DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, Media Analyst

"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." -- RICHARD DAWKINS, Evolutionary Biologist

"That our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors." -- LYNN MARGULIS, Biologist

"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." -- JUDITH RICH HARRIS, Writer and Developmental Psychologist


"I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery." -- NICHOLAS HUMPHREY, Psychologist

"I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness-in the strong sense of there being a subject, an I, a 'something it is like something to be.' It would follow that non-human animals and pre-linguistic children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, and cognitively competent in many remarkable ways-including ways that exceed normal adult human competence-are not really conscious (in this strong sense): there is no organized subject (yet) to be the enjoyer or sufferer, no owner of the experiences as contrasted with a mere cerebral locus of effects." - DANIEL DENNETT, Philosopher

"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." -- ALISON GOPNIK, Psychologist

"I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness,..." -- JOSEPH LEDOUX, Neuroscientist

"Strangely, I believe that cockroaches are conscious." -- ALUN ANDERSON Editor-in-Chief, New Scientist

"Your mind may arise not simply from your own brain, but in part from the brains of other people." -- STEPHEN KOSSLYN, Psychologist

"Tribal Mind." -- ALEX (SANDY) PENTLAND, Computer Scientist

"I believe, but cannot prove, that memory is inherent in nature. Most of the so-called laws of nature are more like habits." -- RUPERT SHELDRAKE, Biologist

"I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists." -- DONALD HOFFMAN, Cognitive Scientist

"If we believe that consciousness is the result of patterns of neurons in the brain, our thoughts, emotions, and memories could be replicated in moving assemblies of Tinkertoys. If our thoughts and consciousness do not depend on the actual substances in our brains but rather on the structures, patterns, and relationships between parts, then Tinkertoy minds could think. If you could make a copy of your brain with the same structure but using different materials, the copy would think it was you." -- CLIFFORD PICKOVER, Computer scientist


"I believe this correspondence between human language and raven language is more than coincidence, though this would be difficult to prove." -- GEORGE B. DYSON, Science Historian


"I believe our universe is not unique." - LAWRENCE KRAUSS, Physicist

"That our universe is infinite in size, finite in age, and just one among many." -- JOHN BARROW, Cosmologist


"I believe in belief-or rather: I have faith in having faith. Yet, I am an atheist (or a "bright" as some would have it)." -- TOR N?RRETRANDERS, Science Writer

"I believe, but cannot prove, that religious experience and practice is generated and structured largely by a few emotions that evolved for other reasons, particularly awe, moral elevation, disgust, and attachment-related emotions. That's not a prediction likely to raise any eyebrows in this forum." -- JONATHAN HAIDT, Psychologist


"I believe in science. Unlike mathematical theorems, scientific results can't be proved.They can only be tested again and again, until only a fool would not believe them." -- SETH LLOYD Quantum Mechanical Engineer


"Human Behavior is Unconsciously Controlled." -- ROBERT R. PROVINE Psychologist and Neuroscientist

"True love." -- DAVID BUSS, Psychologist

"Progress." -- NEIL GERSHENFELD, Physicist

"I know that it sounds corny, but I believe that people are getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress." -- W. DANIEL HILLIS, Physicist

Extraterrestrial Life

"I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy." -- KENNETH FORD, Physicist

"Life is ubiquitous throughout the universe." -- J. CRAIG VENTER, Genomics Researcher

"I believe that life is common throughout the universe and that we will find another Earth-like planet within a decade." -- STEPHEN PETRANEK, Editor-in-Chief, Discover Magazine

"Is there a fourth law of thermodynamics, or some cousin of it, concerning self constructing non equilibrium systems such as biospheres anywhere in the cosmos? I like to think there may be such a law." -- STEWART KAUFFMAN, Biologist

"Yet I don't believe that life is a freak event. I think the universe is teeming with it." -- PAUL DAVIES, Physicist


"The universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will." -- MICHAEL SHERMER Publisher, Skeptic magazine

"I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist."-- CARLO ROVELLI Physicist

"I believe nothing to be true (clearly real) if it cannot be proved." -- MARIA SPIROPULU, Physicist

We would have thought that the answer to the question would have been "almost everything that we believe" since very little in life can really be proved, but then we're not intellectuals and we lack the wit to say things like "time does not exist" or that "nothing is true if it cannot be proved." With regard to this last, one of the comments to the post at EO pointed out that:

"Maria Spiropulu (a physicist, no less) has a problem: The law of noncontradiction and the law of causality, basic to the scientific method, are axioms of rationality and not provable. According to her own statement she believes nothing that cannot be proven. She has just declared herself irrational."

And Joe Carter reflects upon Daniel Dennett's contribution which says in part that "I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness". Carter asks whether Dennett would tell Helen Keller that she wasn't conscious until she had learned a language.

What makes reading the pontifications of intellectuals so much fun is that they are often so unconsciously loopy.

The Marketplace of Ideas

John Leo gives us a taste of life on one American college campus:

In the fall of 2000, I promised my daughter the freshman that I wouldn't write about Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) until she graduated. As a result, you readers learned nothing from me about the naked dorm, the transgender dorm, the queer prom, the pornography-for-credit course, the obscene sidewalk chalking, the campus club named crudely for a woman's private part, or the appearance on campus of a traveling anti-Semitic roadshow, loosely described as a pro-Palestinian conference. Instead of hot news items like these, you usually just hear that Wesleyan is very "diverse." Newsweek once hailed the school as the "hottest" diversity campus in America, apparently using the word diversity in its normal campus meaning of "no diversity at all." A one-liner about the campus is that "Wesleyan is so diverse that you can meet people here from almost every neighborhood in Manhattan." And the students tend to have opinions from every known corner of MoveOn.org.

After the 2000 election, my daughter told me that 80 percent of the students had voted for Al Gore. "Bush got only 20 percent of the vote?" I asked. "No, Dad," she explained, "the 20 percent was for Nader." Visiting speakers who challenge any aspect of campus orthodoxy are as rare as woolly mammoths. However, columnist Nat Hentoff, whose son had gone to Wesleyan, showed up in 2002 and criticized the lack of intellectual diversity and free speech.

At a Manhattan holiday party last week, hosted by a friend with Wesleyan ties, I overheard my daughter explaining that no real debate takes place on campus. This was a major frustration, since she is feisty and brilliant and loves to argue ideas. She is politically liberal but wonders how Democrats of her generation will be able to speak convincingly to the middle of the political spectrum when so many of them shun the complexity of arguments and simply spout the party line.

Two years ago the Argus, the student newspaper, ran a survey and found that 32 percent of the students feel "uncomfortable speaking their opinion." Orthodoxy plays a role, of course, but so does an exaggerated fear of giving offense. Identity politics is so strong that criticizing other students' ideas can seem like a faux pas, if not a challenge to their core identity. Better to keep your head down and stick to standard opinions.

The naked dorm and the porn course were both examples of Wesleyan's determination to accommodate as much sexual confusion as possible. The porn course, which had some students filming S&M scenarios, ended when the teacher died. The popularity of the naked dorm, which featured nude wine and cheese parties, seems to have faded. "I just sometimes feel the need to be nude," a Wesleyan male told the New York Times in 2000. "If I feel the need to take off my pants, I take my pants off." The obscene chalkings, which included colorful references to the sexual practices of professors, are now forbidden, possibly because they were upsetting donors and enraging some faculty.

But the Wesleyan campaign to stamp out diversity continues, this time in a move against fraternities. The university is pressuring its frats to accept women as members or pay a stiff financial price. The anti-fraternity campaign is standard on the politically correct campus these days, usually with an announced aim of reining in a boozy, sexist, right-wing culture. But this is Wesleyan, which has no right-wing culture and no sexist, out-of-control frats. The Argus has quoted gays and women saying mild and kind things about the Wesleyan frats, some of which are receptive to gays and set rooms aside for female residents. Much of the opposition to the frats seems to depend on the gross national image of fraternities, not the essentially harmless frats at Wesleyan.

The administration and radical feminists oppose the frats for violating the campus nondiscrimination rule by not allowing women as members. However, they don't bother to apply the same objection to Womanist House (a residence for females) or Malcolm X House, which caters to blacks.

And how much are you paying to send your child to college this year?

Is God Punishing the Tsunami Victims?

Poll results at BeliefNet are discouraging.

Thirty eight percent of those who participated in the online poll said they believed that God caused the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

Eleven percent of those said that God was either testing us or punishing us. This isn't a big number, to be sure, but the fact that anyone intelligent enough to regularly access Belief Net would think that God deliberately triggered the earthquake in order to kill so many, including so many children, is depressing. What crime were those thousands of children guilty of that God decided to destroy them? What sin had their parents committed that parents all over the world haven't committed that God chose to visit this grief upon them? To think that this horror was somehow a Divine punishment is complete nonsense.

We don't presume to possess exhaustive understanding of God's ways, of course, but nevertheless we find it most unlikely that God deliberately visits suffering and grief upon people. God has created a world that, for whatever reason, is subject to natural laws, and those laws are blind to the moral goodness of the people affected by them.

Good people sometimes suffer painful illnesses and experience horrible grief. Bad people often live opulently and die seemingly happy at a ripe age. God doesn't bring this injustice about. He may permit it to happen for reasons that have mystified believers for thousands of years, but He doesn't cause it. He may "use" it when it happens, but He doesn't make it happen.

God, we suspect, intervenes less frequently in the world than some apparently believe, and we doubt that He ever intervenes to deliberately cause innocent people harm. To think otherwise is to imagine Him to be a cruel and vindictive deity, and that is not the God of Christian belief.