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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mundane question evokes stimulating responses
The question posed by John Brockman was "What do you believe but cannot prove?" It might be classed as one of those Mediaeval "angels on the head of a pin" queries. However, this is the 21st Century and what we know of Nature now stands in stark contrast to what was known then. The responses show that serious questions remain to be resolved. Not all of them can be,...
Published on 28 Aug. 2006 by Stephen A. Haines

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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Such a good idea, so bright minds...but so little substance
I was quite dissapointed with this. Many prominent thinkers present their view on the title subject, but we get only around one-maybe-two pages from each 'contributor'. Even if there is a bit of insight in each short piece of text, I don't feel that this covers any ground at all, or that the book ever really tackles the question of provable science. This book is probably...
Published on 5 Mar. 2007 by Lieberoth (lieberoth.wordpress...


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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mundane question evokes stimulating responses, 28 Aug. 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
The question posed by John Brockman was "What do you believe but cannot prove?" It might be classed as one of those Mediaeval "angels on the head of a pin" queries. However, this is the 21st Century and what we know of Nature now stands in stark contrast to what was known then. The responses show that serious questions remain to be resolved. Not all of them can be, as the issue concerned lies either in the past or is too remote for close study. Some, of course, lie in the realm of what we deem "consciousness". A vague term in its own right, made even more difficult when the various respondents offer their own definitions. That tactic, however, makes the answers more stimulating by creating fresh questions. By selecting novelist Ian McEwan to write the introduction, Brockman shows he doesn't consider the question limited to scientific speculation. McEwan demonstrates his knowledge of the scientific issues [would that more fiction writers matched that capacity!] and how "inspiration" has advanced our understanding of Nature.

Although he doesn't describe the process, the reader will soon learn that the editor has placed the responses in some general categories. The first area of interest is cosmology - who is out there? How might we learn of them? Can we ever reach worlds light years away? More to the point, how is the universe put together and why in that way and not another? Are there other universes we can't see? Since many of these questions touch on what we call "values", the next grouping addresses that sort of reply. What is "morality" and what are its origins? In this collection, the "divine" is bypassed, leaving only humans to provide the answer to those "eternals". Yet humans, the responders acknowledge, are the product of natural selection. We have had a long time with even longer biological underpinnings to develop ideas of what is "moral". And moral issues are considered with other emotional aspects of our relations with others - including that favourite topic, "true love". As "love" is limited among humans without language, how we communicate and how language developed is another aspect of our evolutionary roots.

None of these behavioural characteristics of our species can be adequately explained until we have some notion of what drives them. Human consciousness is receiving greater attention through brain research. Cognitive science is revealing what is ticking over in our brains when we deal with such factors as "love" or "communication". A precise definition of consciousness has yet to emerge. The respondents here include one who feels consciousness doesn't even emerge until the language facility is fully developed. Others, using different criteria, even assign consciousness to the lowly cockroach. That consciousness may be at a different level, and operate in more constrained circumstances than that of our species, but consciousness it remains. It is in this segment of the collection where the respondents include the views of colleagues in their essays. That alone is enough to demonstrate the importance of the issues raised here. It may also portend deeper questions on wither the human species is bound. Will humans merge with computers as a means of enhancing their cognitive capacity?

Some more random responses to the "Edge" question conclude the collection. A few direct social issues are addressed, along with associated predictions. Is the human species "improving" and can that be directed are typical examples. Rounding out a fascinating collection, these last are wide-reaching and may be more immediate than the foregoing replies. With such a talented stable of commentators, Brockman's gathering is of immense importance. These are real questions under investigation by highly qualified thinkers. McEwan himself reappears in a thoughtful note all of us should consider. It has great impact on how we conduct our lives - and how novelists portray that behaviour. This is an enduring collection, and should be on every bookshelf. Add it to yours. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic and thought provoking, 16 July 2008
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
I loved this book. Because the essays are so short, I kept thinking "Oh, I'll just read another... and another... and another... and, oh dear, is that the time?!"

It is full of thought-provoking - and sometime contradictory - opinions on topics from the nature of matter, to economic theory, to consciousness. There were a few "D'oh! Of COURSE!" moments in there for me (e.g. you start dreaming before you are fully asleep), and I'm sure you will find a few of your own when reading it. I now have a burning urge to go track down more writings by several of the essayists!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A polemic about scientism, 3 Sept. 2009
By 
Dr. H. A. Jones "Howard Jones" (Wales, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
What we Believe but cannot Prove: Today's leading thinkers on science in the age of certainty, edited by John Brockman, Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster), 2006, 288 ff.

A polemic about scientism
By Howard A. Jones

Science has enabled us over the last four centuries to understand the way many aspects of the world function. But there are certain features of the natural world that may forever and in principle be beyond the capability of science to resolve. This book is a timely reminder of the limitations of scientism - the idea that science can, at least in principle, eventually solve the mechanism of any problem with which it is confronted concerning our natural environment, including human behaviour.

The contributions here are very short - no more than a couple of pages each, so there is no room to discuss any issue in depth: nor are all of the contributors scientists. This book is simply a `taster' of the kinds of problems that confront various disciplines and what experts in the respective fields think about them. Thus, philosopher Dennis Dutton speculates on aesthetic values, biologist Richard Dawkins rejects any idea of design in the universe, novelist Ian McEwan believes that death is the end, physicist William H. Calvin senses that the morality of humankind is improving . . . and there are many more - over a hundred in all.

This book is, by its very nature, speculative, so don't look here for any hard facts about anything. But as an indication of the sorts of conceptual challenges there are out there, in many different fields of human thought and endeavour, it makes a fascinating read.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant idea leading to a most fascinating and enlightening read, 13 May 2007
By 
Dennis Littrell (SoCal) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
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.

Some highlights:

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.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Such a good idea, so bright minds...but so little substance, 5 Mar. 2007
This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
I was quite dissapointed with this. Many prominent thinkers present their view on the title subject, but we get only around one-maybe-two pages from each 'contributor'. Even if there is a bit of insight in each short piece of text, I don't feel that this covers any ground at all, or that the book ever really tackles the question of provable science. This book is probably great for hunting for quotes without bothering with the proper work of the scientists, or for 5 minutes of toilet-reading once in a while, but don't expect to learn anything new on the subject. For the casual reader, however, this might offer a glimpse of many of the most important researchers, writers and thinkers of the 21th century, and thus the second star in my evaluation.

It is impressive how many important people from my bookshelf on neuroscience, psychology and cultural studies contributed to this, but ultimately the book seemed like a waste of money. Buy one book by Dan Dennett, steven Pinker, Scott Atran, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins or any other contributor instead.
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4.0 out of 5 stars So scientist do speculate (-:, 18 April 2013
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
This book was more entertaining than informative but it was very interesting to witness how the specialists in their given subject envisage/speculate advances in their particular field. Well written and easy to understand.
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5.0 out of 5 stars What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty by John Brockman, 1 Mar. 2014
By 
Chris Brown "C J M Brown" (Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
An excellent reference book on religion and free thought -- a must-have for all free thinkers/rationalists. Highly recommended. / .
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars believable, 2 Dec. 2009
This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
The book contents is of high quality. I am very glad for having purchased it. It arrived in the foreseen time and in good condition.The writers' opinion have the imprint of honesty and clear thinking.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars not very thought-provoking, 7 Nov. 2011
This review is from: What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Paperback)
What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" This was the question posed by John Brockman to a group of leading scientists and thinkers via his Edge.org website. The subsequent answers created a media storm and prompted a fiery debate about all aspects of science, technology and even the nature of "proof".

The book claims to be thought-provoking, but was not compelling, this collection is both a fascinating insight into the instinctive beliefs of some of the most brilliant minds alive today were not interesting.
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