What we believe but cannot prove

Sunday March 27, 2011

I read this starting shortly after I wrote my outline of a philosophy. I got it on the Kindle reader for my iPhone, and especially because if the very short "chapters" it's made for great train reading.

It's also been really fun and interesting. A good reminder that people believe all kinds of crazy things - even smart people. I've been able to compare a lot of ideas with my own. Some of them seem spot on, others totally delusional.

I kept short summaries of all the beliefs in the iPhone notes app, and now I'll rate them based on how cool I think they are. Things I don't agree with at all will be one star ("*") and things I think are really likely to be the case or really cool ideas I'll mark with five stars ("*****") and so on. Highlighting for the few that really stood out.

There's a range of interpretations of the question ("What do you believe but can't prove?") with some people going for "fundamentally unprovable" and some with "not yet proved." Both are pretty interesting. Here we go:

** Martin Rees: Humans are the only intelligent life, so we're special, let's colonize the universe. (As a kind of substitute for religious belief.)

**** Ray Kurzweil: We'll be able to circumvent the speed of light for communications.

** Douglas Rushkoff: Evolution has purpose and direction. (Sort of meaning-from-us...)

**** Richard Dawkins: Evolution precedes design everywhere in the universe. (A version of "there is no god ANYWHERE.")

**** Chris Anderson: Evolution explains everything. (Intelligent Design folks say I can't "prove" it.)

*** Stephan Petranek: Life is common in the universe and we'll find another earth-like planet within ten years.

** Carolyn Porco: "We are not alone." (by statistics)

** Paul C. W. Davies: "We are not alone." (because life is fundamental to nature somehow)

*** Kenneth W. Ford: Microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy.

**** Karl Sabbagh: Mathematics, or at least counting, is universal (not human-specific).
My qualification: I think this is because of physical constraints on what sort of things can be "alive," not because mathematics exists in some abstract sense as a perfect entity...

** J. Craig Venter: Life ubiquitous in universe, also panspermia.

**** Leon Lederman: Some beautiful symmetry or some such underlies the universe, we just haven't found it yet.

*** Maria Spiropula: gravity particle physics, after wasting a lot of time, christ...

**** Philip W. Anderson: String theory is a futile exercise.

**** Robert M. Sapolsky: No God(s) or soul.

**** Jesse Bering: No afterlife.

**** Ian McEwan: No afterlife.

***** Michael Shermer: Reality exists, etc. REALLY GETS IT.

***** Susan Blackmore: No free will / no self.

**** Randolph M. Nesse: People gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can't prove.

*** Tor Norrerranders: Having faith is good (not necessarily in god).

**** Scott Atran: There is no god that has existence apart from people's thoughts of god.

* David G. Myers: There is a god, and it's not me or you. (to pleasant consequences)
Included for completeness, I guess, to show that you can believe in god and not be an ass. Cool!

*** Jonathan Haidt: Religion is a side-effect, but hostility toward religion is an obstacle to psychological development.

*** Sam Harris: Belief is a content-independent process.

* David Buss: True love.

** Seth Lloyd: Science.

** Denis Dutton: Some art will have everlasting appreciation; universal (human) aesthetics.

**** Jared Diamond: Humans "recently" went to new places on earth, and killed most of the big animals.

***** Timothy Taylor: Cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory.

***** Judith Rich Harris: Cute babies are evolutionarily favored because parents abandon them at birth less. ("parental selection" affects skin color and hairiness)

**** John H. McWhorter: Little people on Flores helped simplify the languages there.

***** Elizabeth Spelke: People are basically the same - including racism - but we can rise above our inherent nastinesses.

**** Stephen H. Schneider: Global warming caused by humans.

*** Bruce Sterling: We're in for climatic mayhem.

***** Robert Trivers: Deceit and self-deception play a big role in human problems.

* Verena Huber-Dyson: The creative power of boredom / people will overcome packaged entertainment.

**** Keith Devlin: That he has pointed out uncertainty in the idea of proof.

*** Freeman Dyson: It never happens that the reverse of a power of two is a power of five.
Probably right but superbly uninteresting, like a lot of mathematics. Succeeds in showing that it is trivially easy to come up with things that are probably true but hard/impossible to prove.

** Rebecca Goldstein: Mathematical science does reflect deep truth about the nature of the universe, but is necessarily complete.
I feel like I wrote something down wrong here... Maybe it was necessarily INcomplete?

*** Stuart A. Kauffman: The diversity of things that can happen next increases as fast as it can: fourth law of thermodynamics.

**** Leonard Susskind: Laws of large numbers - probability - work and will go on working.
Interesting because it shows the lack of basis for this belief.

*** Donald D. Hoffman: Consciousness is all that exists.
Either crazy or just crazy enough to be right.

**** Terrence Sejnowski: We are looking in the wrong places for where long-term memories are stored - in extra-cellular matrix!

**** John Horgan: It will never be totally possible to read/write brains, because of complexity and individual differences.

** Arnold Trehub: Some theory about conscious states corresponding to biophysical brain states.

*** Ned Block: The hard problem of consciousness (aka mind body) will be resolved.

**** Janna Levin: The external, physical world exists.

**** Daniel Gilbert: "You!" (consciousness of other people)

** Todd E. Feinberg, M.D.: The human race will never decide that an advanced computer possesses consciousness. / only living beings can have minds

**** Clifford Pickover: No, it depends on the structure, not the materials.

**** Nicholas Humphrey: We think consciousness is so fancy because evolution tricked us into it.

*** Pamela McCorduck: New social modeling will understand but not predict human collective behavior.

**** Charles Simonyi: Generative programming is the future of software.

*** Alan Kay: Computers fundamentally advance beyond writing and printing.

**** Steven Pinker: The brain is full of specialized bits, and we'll work it out eventually.

**** Christine Finn: Humans underutilize some sort of more "primitive" mental capacities.

**** Daniel C. Dennett: Acquiring a human language is a pre-condition for consciousness.

*** Alun Anderson: Cockroaches are conscious. (not necessarily "self-conscious")
People don't seem at all to have "conscious" mean the same thing.

**** Joseph LeDoux: Animals have feelings and other states of consciousness.

*** George Dyson: Ravens co-evolved with Inuit groups, resulting in corresponding dialect-regions.
Why are there so many Dysons?

**** Alison Gopnik: Babies and children are actually more conscious and aware than adults, not less. And: The problem of Consciousness will disappear, like the problem of Life in biology.

*** Paul Bloom: The development of moral reasoning is the same sort of process as the development of mathematical reasoning. (Note: He seems to think math is "true" in some sense that I don't think it is.)

**** William H. Calvin: ACQUIRING language is a precondition for consciousness.

***** Robert R. Provine: We overestimate the conscious control of behavior.

** Stanislas Dehaene: We vastly underestimate the differences that set human brains apart from those of other primates.

*** Stephan Kosslyn: Your mind arises not only from your brain but from those of others around you, through social interactions.

***** Alex Pentland: Subconscious social signaling, by tone of voice etc. is more important than we realize.

**** Irene Pepperberg: Language evolved from gesture/noises + mirror neurons, and birds will help model our understanding of how.

***** Howard Gardner: Talents are the result of brain differences analogous to the ability to learn language.

*** David Gelernter: Scientists will understand the physiological basis of the cognitive spectrum within a generation.

**** Marc D. Hauser: Intelligence based on infinite generation from a finite set.

**** Gary Marcus: Algebralike abstraction is an essential feature of the human mind.

***** Brian Goodwin: Nature and culture are a unified thing, not two separate things. Type hippy-fied.

*** Leo M. Chalupa: The human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe, we'll discover everything to be known, the best tool is science.

*** Margaret Wertheim: There will always be things we don't know.

*** Gino Segrè: There are lots of big bang neutrinos.

*** Haim Harari: Electrons, neutrinos, and quarks are divisible.

**** Donald I. Williamson: The Cambrian explosion was the result of hybridization.

*** Ian Wilmut: It's possible to change the phenotype of an adult cell.

**** Daniel Goleman: Today's children are victims of economic and technological development. (social/emotional skill-wise)

Esther Dyson: We're living longer and thinking shorter. (No clear believe-but-can't-prove thesis.)
Fricking DYSONS.

***** James J. O'Donnell: Everything. Also, there may be better historical methods than the ones humans are capable of.

***** Jean Paul Schmetz: Most ideas taught in Economics 101 will be proved false.

***** Nassim Nicholas Taleb: There is a severe overestimation of knowledge in "ex-past" historical disciplines.

**** Simon Baron-Cohen: Cause of autism is assortative mating of hyper-systematizers.

* Kevin Kelly: DNA varies among cells in the same body, and with time.

***** Martin Nowak: A bunch of cool stuff, including: every special trait of humans is a derivative of language.

**** Tom Standage: The radiation emitted by mobile phones is harmless.

*** Steven Giddings: Some stuff about black holes. I don't care that much right now.

* Alexander Vilenkin: This guy seems like an idiot. Probably my fault I guess.
I don't remember why I said that.

*Laurence M. Krauss: Our universe is not unique.
Forgot what this meant.

** John D. Barrow: Our universe is infinite in size, finite in age, and one among many; all these are unprovable, and this unprovableness will eventually be taken as self-evident.

*** Paul J. Steinhardt: Our universe is not accidental. (string theory anthropomorphic principle is bunk)

**** Lee Smolin: Quantum mechanics is not a final theory. (and some more)

*** Anton Zeilinger: Quantum physics requires us to abandon the distinction between information and reality. (seems dull-headed)

** Gregory Benford: Our universe was bred for success, evolution-style, by prior universes with intelligence.

* Rudy Rucker: Multiverse of deterministic draft universes that consciousness can sort of shift around.

** Carlo Rovelli: Time (and space) do not exist in some absolute sense. And no objects, only relations. And humans have the collaborative instinct. Maybe.

*** Jeffrey Epstein: The mechanism for human perception of time will be discovered.

** Howard Rheingold: We lack a framework for understanding human cooperative behavior. Also such bs as: complex adaptive systems are non-deterministic.

*** Jaron Lanier: The potential for human communication is far beyond that of language etc. (post-symbolic communication) And: genetic racism etc. is linked to creativity etc. so we better make the best of it.

**** Marti Hearst: "The search problem is solvable." (computers will get REALLY good at Jeopardy)

**** Kai Krause: Then not Zen: anticipate and remember, the moment is too short.

**** Oliver Morton: The future will be better; more knowledge will help.

*** W. Daniel Hillis: People are getting better. (moral progress)

***** Martin E. P. Seligman: People are not purely evil. They're both good and evil, mixed.

*** Neil Gershenfeld: Progress.

*** Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Not much; but hope for the future.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.