Jump directly to the content

By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

icon1 of 3view all


I'm amazed at how the residue of the Enlightenment has endured postmodernism; faith is still widely considered to be a suspension of reason. There are logical, factual things, which can be empirically demonstrated, and then there's religious faith and other fantasies. So I was glad to see a recent feature* on scientists' leaps of faith in the New York Times Science section. The Times excerpted an intriguing collection at John Brockman's Web site Edge.org. Brockman asked prominent scientists and other thinkers this question: "What do you believe to be true, even though you can't prove it?" Brockman comments: "If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty," and adds, "Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the 'esprit de divination')."

You know the Intelligent Design crowd is going to have a field day with Richard Dawkins' statement that he can't prove that all life is the product of natural selection. ("See? It's just one leap of faith versus another!") Meanwhile, it was a brilliant move to bring in Hope College psychologist David Myers, one of the most underrated Christian thinkers alive. Note, too, Nicholas Humphrey's quasi-Cartesian claim that consciousness is a ruse. Here are their responses and others Brockman received, as featured in the Times:

• Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, Oxford University:

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. …

• Roger Schank, psychologist and computer scientist:

Irrational choices. I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. … When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

• Kenneth Ford: Physicist; retired director, American Institute of Physics:

I believe that microbial life exists elsewhere in our galaxy. …

• Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist, New York University:

I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. …

• Alison Gopnik, psychologist, University of California, Berkeley:

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. …

• David Myers, psychologist, Hope College:

1. There is a God.

2. It's not me (and it's also not you). …

• Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist, Stanford University:

There is no god(s) or such a thing as a soul. …

• Nicholas Humphrey, 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. …

• Philip W. Anderson, physicist and Nobel laureate, Princeton

String theory [is] a futile exercise. …

• David Buss, psychologist, University of Texas.

True love exists.

What I gathered from this collection was that science requires its own kind of faith. I don't mean that as an anti-intellectual dismissal, but rather an endorsement of the magnificence of the scientific enterprise. Science (which derives from the Latin word for "knowledge") is not just a business of measurements and rote facts; it is among humanity's deepest engagements with transcendence and mystery.

My unpublished essay, In Search of Certainty
Science and religion dialogue in Martin Marty's Sightings


From the New York Times:

CAPE TRAFALGAR, Spain* - Near this blustery headland where Admiral Nelson won his great naval victory over the French two centuries ago, a new battle of Trafalgar is brewing. But the ships involved today are only small fishing boats, wanting to protect their livelihood. Two companies plan to build large clusters of windmills in the sea just off this stretch of Spain's southern shore, a gritty place of sand dunes, lagoons and sharp brown reefs. .. Fishermen respond that the phalanxes of giant towers near the coast will make their tough jobs even tougher. … They say the towers, to be based some 10 miles offshore, will force their small vessels to make large detours in the already treacherous waters near the Strait of Gibraltar. … The windmill projects are part of a drive by Spain to expand its output of native renewable energy. Spain is already one of Europe's largest producers of wind power, second only to Germany.

icon1 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared