If you’ve ever had this thought that intelligent people never believe things they can’t prove, consider that some of the world’s sharpest and most skeptical minds have confessed in writing that they too believe things that they can’t prove. You can read all about it in the 2005 Annual Question at Edge.org. The question: “What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?”
Here are a few “confessions” from some many people whose works I have read and admired. What follows are quoted excerpts from each of the short essays mentioned:
NICHOLAS HUMPHREY (economist and author): 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.
STEPHEN KOSSLYN (Psychologist): Your mind may arise not simply from your own brain, but in part from the brains of other people. Compare with this article about Andy Clark’s concept of the extended self.
SUSAN BLACKMORE (Psychologist): It is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will. As Samuel Johnson said “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.”
W. DANIEL HILLIS (Physicist, Computer Scientist): I know that it sounds corny, but I believe that people are getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress. It is not a steady progress, but there is a long-term trend in the right direction—a two steps forward, one step back kind of progress.
ROBERT R. PROVINE (Psychologist and Neuroscientist): Human Behavior is Unconsciously Controlled. Until proven otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a role in human behavior?
STEWART KAUFFMAN (Biologist, Santa Fe Institute): 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?
SCOTT ATRAN (Anthropologist): There is no God that has existence apart from people’s thoughts of God.
JOSEPH LEDOUX (Neuroscientist): I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I, nor anyone else, has been able to prove it.
DANIEL C. DENNETT (Philosopher): I believe, but cannot yet prove, that acquiring a human language (an oral or sign language) is a necessary precondition for consciousness.
RANDOLPH NESSE, M.D. (Psychiatrist & Coauthor, Why We Get Sick): I can’t prove it, but I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove. I am dead serious about this. People who are sometimes consumed by false beliefs do better than those who insist on evidence before they believe and act.
MARGARET WERTHEIM (Science writer and Commentator): We all believe in something and science itself is premised on a whole set of beliefs. Above all, science is founded on the belief that things are comprehensible and that by the ingenuity of our minds and the probing of ever more subtle instruments we will ultimately come to know It All. But is the All inherently knowable? I believe, though I cannot prove it, that there will always be things we do not know—large things, small things, interesting things and important things.
I’m going to be using this set of essays by scientists and skeptics, someday, as a springboard for (what I feel is) an important point about human beliefs and human relationships: All of us, even the highly articulate skeptics among us, act upon beliefs we cannot prove.
Rest assured that I won’t be making a claim that all unproved beliefs are equal. Nonetheless, the above essays seems to serve as a good starting point for discussing the wideness of the intellectual chasm between (non-fundamentalist) Believers and non-believers. I suspect that once we exclude fundamentalists from the conversation, that chasm is not quite as wide as it is often portrayed to be by skeptics. More to come, someday . . .