This seemingly modest little book with a cartoon like cover is in my (in this case clearly) humble opinion one of the best books of 2006. John Brockman, who is a man with a gift for editing the scientific mind and for getting the most from people who are not necessarily at their best when writing for a general readership, is the force behind the idea for this book. The idea is something close to a stroke of genius: get an all-star line up of today's leading scientists and cultural mavens to go on record about what they believe but cannot prove. Simple idea. Profound consequences.
Normally if you ask scientists to describe the future or what they think is really happening at the edge of their discipline, or what they think is going on scientifically in fields outside their area of expertise, you are liable to get some carefully worded, very guarded opinions. But free the scientists from the responsibility of scientific rigor for the moment and just let them tell us what they think based on their unique knowledge and long experience, and guess what? You are liable to get the kind of candor that otherwise would not be forthcoming. And what is more, you are going to get, as it happens, some very significant predictions about the future. That is what happened here.
Anthropologist Scott Atran writes, "There is no God that has existence apart from people's thoughts of God. There is certainly no Being that can simply suspend the (nomological) laws of the universe in order to satisfy our personal or collective yearnings and whims--like a stage director called on to improve a play." But, he adds, we can suspend belief in what we "see and take for obvious fact." He calls this the quest for "nonapparent truth." (p. 47)
Independent scholar Judith Rich Harris adds to nature selection and sexual selection the intriguing possibility of "parental selection" in which in tough times parents select which infants to keep. Stir this factor into the mix and evolutionary changes can take place very quickly. She cites skin color and hairiness as examples of the kind of superficial changes that we would notice. (p. 66)
Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes, "I believe that human consciousness is conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror, and what can be the point of such deception? The conjuror is the human mind itself, evolved by natural selection, and the point 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." (p. 111)
Cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik believes that "the problem of capital-C Consciousness will disappear in psychology just as the problem of life disappeared in biology...The vividness and intensity of our attentive awareness...may be completely divorced from our experience of a constant first-person I." (p. 139)
This reflects my belief that the so-called problem of consciousness is a problem of a confused conjoining of two or three aspects of awareness. Here Gopnik points to pure awareness AND self-identify, which are really separate phenomenon often thrown indiscriminately together as "consciousness."
Neurobiologist William H. Calvin in his essay beginning on page 142 makes a distinction between "our kind of consciousness" which depends heavily upon language, and other possible consciousnesses.
Psychology professor Robert R. Provine turns the consciousness question on its head with this: "Instead of wondering whether other animals are conscious, or have a different, or lesser, consciousness than ours, should we be wondering whether our behavior is under no more conscious control than theirs?" (p. 147)
Some of the essays by physicists are concerned with whether there are many universes instead of just one, or even if there are an infinite number of universes. Some of the other pieces by physicists concern the nature of time, string theory and quantum mechanics. Physicist Carolo Rovelli writes, "I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist..." (p. 229) This is consistent with an idea I got from one of my students some years ago: Time is a mathematical point.
I found some of the speculations not so agreeable. Philosopher Daniel Dennett's belief that "acquiring a human language...is a necessary precondition for consciousness..." seems almost silly, even in consideration of the qualifications that follow. (See page 124.)
I found philosophy professor Rebecca Goldstein's essay (pp. 84-85) on scientific theories mostly impenetrable, and I could not disagree more with neurobiologist Leo M. Chalupa's statement that "...we will eventually succeed in discovering all there is to discover about the physical world..." (p. 174) Science writer Margaret Wertheim shares what is clearly the majority opinion, writing, "...there will always be things we do not know--large things, small things, interesting things, and important things." (p. 176)
The essays are all short, the longest perhaps a thousand words, the shortest a sentence or two. They are arranged roughly by discipline or area of interest (the ones on consciousness, for example, are all more or less together, one after the other). It is evident that the contributors, before finalizing their essays, were able to read the other essays in the book because in some cases one writer would refer to something another wrote.
This is the kind of book that needs to be returned to after some serious thought and after further reading. Even though the essays are short they require deep reflection. Some of the essays are brilliant and reflective of some of best scientific and cultural thinking going on today.