Sunday, October 21, 2007

What Do You Believe?

All my life, I’ve been bothered by the nature of truth. Who gets to say what’s true? And how come, anytime somebody declares something to be True, everybody else starts shouting Untrue! at the top of his or her lungs? Even as a little kid, I reasoned there had to be a way to figure out, once and for all, what was True. And then we could all stop arguing.

No wonder I took to the scientific method like a duck to water. From the very first I learned about it—in sixth grade, I think—the scientific method felt logical and right. As a way to make sense of the world, it…well, it makes sense. It’s simple and elegant and, if followed with integrity, its results are untainted with superstition, personal bias, or emotion. In a twisty world, it’s the straightest ruler we’ve got.

And yet, even the staunchest scientist has beliefs he or she can't explain with the scientific method. And that’s the premise for one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. This gem of a book was sent to me by my good friend Walter, and from the first essay, I couldn’t put it down. The essays are short—a few pages, at most—and in each one, a prominent scientist or expert describes something he or she knows to be unproveable, and yet believes to be absolutely, incontrovertibly true. That intelligent life is unique to Earth. That intelligent life is spread throughout the galaxies. That there is life after death. That there isn’t. That God exists. That He doesn’t. That there is an external reality. That nothing exists except our own consciousness.

The essays are fascinating in and of themselves, but what I love best about this book is their tone. The writers may be scientists steeped in the scientific method—logical, rational, show-me kind of folks—but they write with such passion, such optimism and hope, that the book as a whole becomes much more than a collection of random musings. It’s a shout-out of human curiosity, spirit, and endeavor. It’s a distillation of everything contradictory, wonderful, frustrating, and inspiring about the search for truth. It doesn’t exactly have a three-hanky moment—it is written by scientists, after all—but for this geek, it’s the feel-good book of the year.
What do I believe that I cannot prove? That we are not the only sentient beings on this planet. That some animal species are intelligent, feel emotions, and are conscious of themselves as individuals.

What do you believe that you cannot prove?


Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the conscious critters. I promise you my dog and cat are fully aware of who they are - the rulers of my world. Need I say more?

Oh. And extraterrestrials. Just seems too silly to think that in this VAST universe we're the only semi-intelligent life.

I'm sure I could come up with more, but I belive I've got work to do!

See you next month at Wordstock!

Anonymous said...

A related question is, "What is it really that makes human beings unique?" Over the years I've expoused and had rejected several possibilities, some involving certain aspects of family, humor, or thinking. My latest belief is that we are the storytellers. Even if this is only a matter of degree, I think it works.

I am so pleased you liked the book so much. I found especially intriguing the suggestion that all we perceive is just a GUI. Wow!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like another word for 'divorced'...