Monday, January 17, 2005

Blessed are those who have not seen

The Edge Foundation, an online forum for scientists and intellectuals to share their thoughts on philosophical, artistic and literary issues, has published replies from 120 contributors to their 2005 annual question: "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" The conributors are a who's who of scientists, scientific popularizers and other creatures of the secular intelligentsia.

Asking such a question of people used to looking at the world with an eye for certainty would provoke, one would think, a bold excursion into the murky seas of the great, wooly questions of eternity, such as god, existence, free will, and all that. Disappointingly, many of the respondents chose the opportunity to merely plug their own pet theories, or to defend a long held dogma, as with this terse response from Richard Dawkins:

I believe 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.

Tell us something we didn't know about your ideas, Richard!

By responding to the question with theories from their current area of research or speculation, many of these thinkers implicitly confirm the theist critique that science is a faith. One scientist, Seth Lloyd of MIT, does so explicitly:

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.

I cannot prove that electrons exist, but I believe fervently in their existence. And if you don't believe in them, I have a high voltage cattle prod I'm willing to apply as an argument on their behalf. Electrons speak for themselves.

A few scientists take the bait and "go deep", sharing their thoughts on the implications of faith on the big question - God. Tor Norretrandrs, the author of The User Illusion, gives this perspective:

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). How can that be?

It is important to have faith, but not necessarily in God. Faith is important far outside the realm of religion: having faith in other people, in oneself, in the world, in the existence of truth, justice and beauty. There is a continuum of faith, from the basic everyday trust in others to the grand devotion to divine entities.

Recent discoveries in behavioural sciences, such as experimental economics and game theory, shows that it is a common human attitude towards the world to have faith. It is vital in human interactions; and it is no coincidence that the importance of anchoring behaviour in riskful trust is stressed in worlds as far apart as Søren Kierkegaard's existentialist christianity and modern theories of bargaining behaviour in economic interactions. Both stress the importance of the inner, subjective conviction as the basis for actions, the feeling of an inner glow.

One could say that modern behavioral science is re-discovering the importance of faith that has been known to religions for a long time. And I would argue that this re-discovery shows us that the activity of having faith can be decoupled from the belief in divine entities.

So here is what I have faith in: We have a hand backing us, not as a divine foresight or control, but in the very simple and concrete sense that we are all survivors. We are all the result of a very long line of survivors who survived long enough to have offspring. Amoeba, rodents and mammals. We can therefore have confidence that we are experts in survival. We have a wisdom inside, inherited from millions of generations of animals and humans, a knowledge of how to go about life. That does not in any way imply foresight or planning ahead on our behalf. It only implies that we have a reason to trust out ability to deal with whatever challenges we meet. We have inherited such an ability.

Therefore, we can trust each other, ourselves and life itself. We have no guarantee or promises for eternal life, not at all. The enigma of death is still there, ineradicable.

But we a reason to have confidence in ourselves. The basic fact that we are still here—despite snakes, stupidity and nuclear weapons—gives us reason to have confidence in ourselves and each other, to trust others and to trust life. To have faith.

Because we are here, we have reason for having faith in having faith.

This is as close to a formal definition of the secular creed as you are going to get. So what does it tell us about the differences between the secular and the religious mind? In a way, it says that they are very similar. Both minds have a need to believe in truths that are beyond the realm of proof. The main difference may be that the secular mind, when faced with the mysterious workings of the universe, asks "how". The theist mind, when facing the same mysteries, asks "why"? The secularist assumes a mechanistic universe with no purpose, the theist assumes a personal hand with purpose behind the mechanics, and wants to know his place within that purpose. Indeed, in attempting to discern the "how", it seems the secular mind has faith that the answer will definitively rule out the need to ask "why", as in this response from computer scientist Jordan Pollack:

I believe that that systems of self-interested agents can make progress on their own without centralized supervision.

There is an isomorphism between evolution, economics, and education. In economics, the supervisor is a central government or super rich investor, in evolution, it is the "intelligent designer", and in education, its the teacher or outside examiners. In economic systems, despite an almost religious belief in Laissez-Faire and incentive-based behavior, economic systems are prone to winner-take-all phenomena and boom-bust cycles. They seem to require benevolent regulation, or "managed competition" to prevent the "rich get richer" dynamic leading to monopoly, which leads inevitably to corruption and kleptocracy. In evolution, scientists reject the intelligent designer as a creationist ruse, but so far our working models for open-ended evolution haven't worked, and prematurely convergence to mediocrity. In education, evidence of auto-didactic learning in video-games and sports is suppressed in academics by top-down curriculum frameworks and centralized high-stakes testing.

If we did have a working mechanism design which could achieve continuous progress by decentralized self-interested agents, it would settle the creationist objection as well as apply to the other fields, leading to a new renaissance.

This discussion begs another question, and possibly a new area of research - are secular and religious minds different in some basic, biological or developmental sense? If belief is such a basic property of the human mind, what accounts for the different ways in which minds settle on the object of belief? In religious cultures, what factors account for the existence of atheism among a minority? In secular cultures, what factors account for the persistence of religious belief among a minority? Any pet theories?


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I saw this article, and was similarly surprised by how tepid most of it was. But since it was in Scientific American (an outstanding periodical until an outbreak of drooling editorial stupidity trashed it in the late-90s) I'm not completely surprised.

Okay. What do I believe true, but cannot prove?

Their will never be a better social order than that provided by secular, democratic government dedicated to the legal protection of private property rights and a Liberal (note the big-L) approach to individual rights. In other words, pretty much like anyplace in the Anglosphere.

That is true now. But I cannot prove it because throwing in the word "never" means having to prove a negative.

I also believe, but cannot prove, that as the ways of the Anglosphere eventually take over the world, that the resulting immense increase in material well being will cause a steady decline in the human population that will completely depopulate the climatologically unpleasant parts of the world, turn Africa into a theme park of continental scope. I believe that population decline will end in about 300 years with about 750 million people left on the planet.

I believe we will visit, but never inhabit, the Moon and Mars. I believe we will never leave the solar system.

As for the rest of your questions, the book Nature via Nurture (Matt Ridley) has some interesting things to say. Among them, the capacity for religious belief is inherited to the same extent as, say, athletic ability or height, with nearly all clustered around the mean (I can't remember, is that a large sigma?), but an irrevocable few several standard deviations away from the mean. No matter the religion or culture, the poem Aubade will guarantee a lot of believers.

January 17, 2005 6:05 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Aren't you cheating a bit? The article seems to be about things people believe to be true now, but you are talking largely about future predictions, which of course can't be proven.

January 22, 2005 6:14 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


It occurred to me, but only after pulling the trigger, that the mail I answered wasn't the mail I had received.

To make amends:

I believe, but cannot prove, that nearly all homosexuality is innate.

And that has profound theological implications.

I also believe, but cannot prove, Fermi's Paradox assumed away the undoable, and is therefore useless for concluding whether we are alone in the Milky Way galaxy.

January 24, 2005 8:51 AM  

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