Thinkers Lay Out the Beliefs They Can't Prove Our beliefs often come from established theories, but what about beliefs based on theories in progress? A new book asks literary and scientific thinkers about what they believe but cannot prove.
NPR logo

Thinkers Lay Out the Beliefs They Can't Prove

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Thinkers Lay Out the Beliefs They Can't Prove

Thinkers Lay Out the Beliefs They Can't Prove

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

Thesis: great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have the evidence to prove it. An example from psychologist Alison Gopnik.

Professor ALISON GOPNIK (Psychology, 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 we adults are. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world.

CONAN: Scientists on what they believe but cannot prove. Yet.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We all know that two plus two equals four, that the Earth is round, and that consciousness separates man from the beasts, and even if we might not know how to prove any of those assertions, we believe that there are scientists who can, no problem.

In some mathematical systems, though, the answer might be five, round may be more metaphor than fact, and consciousness is debatable. A new book argues that while we appear to live in the age of scientific certainty, proof can be an elastic concept, that imagination, assumption, even the inspired guess can be just as important in science as proof. The book then goes on to pose a provocative question to a stellar cast of intellects, what do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

That was the question of the year in 2005 on a website called It's publisher and editor is author and literary agent John Brockman. He began Edge eight years ago to promote intellectual inquiry and discussion. In other words, it's a place where smart people can send in their ideas and watch other smart people kick 'em around. Brockman collected more than 100 bite-sized responses to his question in a book titled What We Believe But Cannot Prove, and he joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, the church burnings in Alabama. The minister of a torched church joins us to respond to the news that he was the victim of a prank. And the miracle on grass that put Team USA on the brink of extinction in the World Baseball Classic.

But first, call us with your proposal. What do you believe but cannot prove? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is

And John Brockman joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOHN BROCKMAN (Editor, What We Believe But Cannot Prove): Good afternoon.

CONAN: How did you come up with this question?

Mr. BROCKMAN: Once a year we begin thinking about the question, at the end of the summer, and literally do hundreds of emails back and forth thinking of all the possible ramifications, the way people answer it, how they'll use it to advance their own careers as opposed to seeking out some kind of truth. And we were all set to go with this one when Nicholas Humphrey, a research psychologist at LSE who lives in Cambridge, England, sent in his question, which is started by saying great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or the arguments for it. What do you believe is true even though you can't prove it?

And instantly myself and my colleagues realized that's the question. And it goes to the heart of what science is all about in terms of your introduction. You mentioned the word proof. Well, scientists aim for proof but always knowing that what they're doing is falsifiable. It's a process. It's a methodology. It's not absolutely truth. For that we will rely on the current government and the fundamentalist followers. What science does is something very difference. It doesn't know something already. To quote Richard Dawkins, quote, "Science proceeds by having hunches, by making guesses, by having hypotheses, sometimes inspired by poetic thoughts, by aesthetic thoughts even, and then science goes about trying to demonstrate it experimentally and observationally." And that's the beauty of science, that it has an imaginative stage but then it goes to the proving stage, the demonstrating stage.

And what you have in terms of science is the best way we have to look at our experience intelligently and the best way we have to represent the world around us, including ourselves.

CONAN: Hmm. Some people might say that in fact the question itself is almost anti-scientific. I mean, what is the essence of science if it isn't at least you pose a theorem, you better have a pretty good argument, if not proof.

Mr. BROCKMAN: Well, it advances in stages. Success to most scientists is when you tell them they're wrong. A man could spend, or a woman could spend, 30 years working on a project and have it torn apart by a graduate student who comes up with a new realization. It's not that he was wrong, it's that he's been supplanted, and we go on to the next thing.

CONAN: Hmm. You yourself are not a scientist. I wonder how you developed this fascination.

Mr. BROCKMAN: One day I woke up and I realized I was in love with the universe and that anything less than everything was of no concern to me. So that's the only subject to me. Everything.


Mr. BROCKMAN: I was in the art world, and I was fortunate enough when I came to New York to wind up in the company of a group of young artists who had the opportunity to have dinner once a week with the composer-philosopher John Cage, who would cook mushrooms and then ask questions, suggest books, lead discussions from subjects ranging from Zen to cybernetics.

It was truly inspiring and interesting, and it led to a career in the art world and a deep interest in science, which I got from the artists of the New York art world, not from the intellectuals who are still regurgitating the same opinions that they had as to who was sleeping with whom in a Bloomsbury weekend.

CONAN: Hmm. We want to get your input on this conversation. Listeners, what do you believe but cannot prove? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is And why don't we begin with Rocky. Rocky's calling us from Payson, Arizona.

ROCKY (Caller): Hello.


ROCKY: I'm an artist also. I find that that's interesting. I'm 60 years old, and what I firmly believe that I cannot prove is that the possibility that there's intelligence in outer space is very, very high, and I believe that based on my readings in science fiction, having taught science fiction, and because Asimov said so.

Mr. BROCKMAN: Asimov was a member of the Reality Club, which was the pre-Internet version of Edge. He was a very bright fellow, as you already know, and a lot of scientists would agree with you.

CONAN: Rocky, thanks very much for the call. I wonder, do you run into a lot problems with this belief in your life?

ROCKY: No, but many years ago, when I was 14 years old living in southern Idaho, I saw a few things there which really blew my mind. It may have been because I was living near the National Propulsion Laboratories, which have an office or a facility up there in Idaho, and which is where they developed the power system for the Nautilus submarine. And living up in the boondocks and that, I became a believer very early in life that there are things other than what all of us know about. I've seen some things that, like lights moving across the sky during broad daylight, just things that made me believe we are probably not alone.

CONAN: All right. Rocky, thanks very much.

ROCKY: You're welcome.

CONAN: And we've arranged to speak with us several of the contributors in John Brockman's book. Joining us now on the line from Oxford in England is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, the author of many books, including The Selfish Gene and, most recently, Unweaving the Rainbow.

And Professor Dawkins, very nice of you to join us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor RICHARD DAWKINS (Oxford University): Okay.

CONAN: Tell us what you wrote in response to question what do you believe that you cannot prove?

Professor DAWKINS: Well, I began by saying that it's an established fact that on this planet all of life evolves by Darwinian natural selection. That's just well-known.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Professor DAWKINS: I then went on to conjecture, and this is the bit I can't prove, that the same is true of life everywhere in the universe wherever life may be, and obviously I can't prove that because we don't know of any other life forms. But I think there are very strong reasons to believe that if there is life anywhere in the universe, it will be Darwinian life because I believe there is no other no other way for life to evolve.

CONAN: So that evolution is a force of nature, nature in capitals.

Professor DAWKINS: Well, I wouldn't quite put it like that. I think what I would say is that life is something complicated and improbable and elegant and carrying an overwhelming illusion of design.

And the only way we know for that to happen is certainly Darwinian natural selection, evolution by natural selection. It's possible that somebody may come up one day with another theory which will explain it. I very much doubt it. And for the moment, therefore, my strong conjecture is that all life everywhere in the universe is Darwinian life as we know it is on this planet.

CONAN: Does your statement then presume that God does not exist?

Professor DAWKINS: My statement doesn't, but I do.

CONAN: Do you believe that the two ideas, evolution and a creator could be compatible?

Professor DAWKINS: There are many people who think they are compatible. I actually don't. I think that complicated design, and a God would have to be a very complicated thing, can only come about by gradual incremental stages from simple beginnings. The way I think I put it in the book is that design comes late in the universe, after a period of evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe. I think there is very, very strong scientific reason to reject the hypothesis that any sort of God exists.

CONAN: Richard Dawkins, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Professor DAWKINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Richard Dawkins is among the contributors to the new book What We Believe But Cannot Prove. And he joined us on the phone from Oxford in England.

And John Brockman, let me ask you, there's an introduction to the book by Ian McEwen, and he posits an interesting theory that sometimes beliefs and theories are so elegant that they are believed simply because of their convincing elegance. And he points to, for example, Albert Einstein's views on gravity, which were universally accepted for 40 years, before anybody proved it.

Mr. BROCKMAN: That is true. But now these theories are coming into question. And the fact that certain explanations pertain for some matters of time does not necessarily mean it won't be disproved, because chances are they will.

CONAN: Hmm. So that all of these enormous theories that we have, and these giants on whom we believe, what you describe as this age of certainty, we're all likely wrong?

Mr. BROCKMAN: Yes, they'll all be wrong. You know, the certainties of the 15th century look like absurd ideas to us today, but they were as correct then as Einstein, Heisenberg and Bohr are correct now.

CONAN: We're going to take a short...

Mr. BROCKMAN: And we used to burn people at the stake if they deviated.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break while we conjure up that image just for just a moment and when we return take more of your calls as well. Join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; our e-mail address is TALK@NPR.ORG.

Our guest is John Brockman, who is the editor of the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove.

I'm Neal Conan, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing today things we believe even though we have no proof. Our guest is John Brockman, the editor of What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers in Science in the Age of Certainty. And of course you're invited to join us. Our number is 800-989-8255; our e-mail address is

And joining us now is another contributor to the book, Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley; her books include The Scientist in the Club: What Early Learning Tells us About the Mind.

And Professor Gopnik joins us on the phone from her home in Berkeley, California.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor GOPNIK: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: What is it that you believe but cannot prove?

Professor GOPNIK: Well, you can't really prove anything about what's going on inside the minds of babies. But I think that babies are actually more conscious than adults are. I think they're experience of the world is more vivid, more conscious, more tuned in than our experience is as adults.


Professor GOPNIK: Well, here's the reason. If you look at babies and adults, there seems to be this kind of developmental trade-off, so that we know that babies are learning new things every day, they're going out into the world and they're finding out all sorts of wonderful new things about the world.

What they're very bad at is doing anything very well. They can't tie their shoes, they can't do anything very efficiently and effectively and automatically and habitually, the way that we grown-ups do. And if you think about what it's like, our consciousness is like as grown-ups, there's a real difference between the kind of consciousness we have when we're plunged into a new situation, where we're desperately trying to learn new things, and that's the time when we feel like we're most alive, most aware, most conscious of what's going on around us, like falling in love for the first time in Paris, when everything seems to be incredibly vivid.

And also like the babies we wake up at three o'clock in the morning and cry.

CONAN: Babies are also lousy at communication.

Professor GOPNIK: Right. So the trouble is, of course, we can't really get the babies to tell us what they're feeling inside, what it's like inside to be a baby or a two-year-old or a three-year-old.

But I think even with two and three year olds, when you hang out with them a bit, you get the sense that they're sort of like William Blakes, paying attention to every single, tiny thing that's going on around them, in a way that we grown-ups can only envy.

CONAN: Every parent has had that feeling that their baby is, you know, somehow the vessel of profound wisdom and knowledge. But then, of course, they start talking and it's blah blah blah.

Professor GOPNIK: Right. So, you know, Wordsworth talked about the wings of glory that we come in on. And I think parents do have that feeling. But the truth is that science has shown that's actually, that feeling is actually perfectly accurate.

Even though they can't talk, and tell us what they're thinking and feeling, we've figured out ways of looking at their eye movements and their gestures and other things to find out that in fact they really are learning an incredible amount. They know much more about the world and learn much about the world, they really are little scientists in the crib, than we adults manage to do in our entire lifetime.

CONAN: Would you say...

Professor GOPNIK: If we think about what it's like for us to be learning new things, then I think that's the time when we're most conscious, we have the most attention. And it's when we do things just sort of automatically on auto pilot that are consciousness tends to fade away.

CONAN: Attention span might seem to be another problem for babies. Would you think that adults are better at paying attention than babies are?

Professor GOPNIK: I think adults are better at not paying attention than babies are. I think what adults are good at is focusing in on just one thing, putting all their attention on that one thing, and blocking out everything else. And our habits and automaticities actually help us to do that.

I think what's happening with babies is that they're alive and aware and paying attention to everything that's going on around them at once. And in a way that means that they look as if they're not paying attention to anything. But I think what's really happening is that they're in this kind of amazing Zen state of being in touch with everything that's going on around them at once.

CONAN: Alison Gopnik, thanks very much for being with us, we appreciate your time today.

Professor GOPNIK: Well, thank you for having me.

CONAN: Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. She spoke to us on the line from her home there in Berkeley.

Still with us is John Brockman.

And I should point out that in this book, it's not just scientists you have, but you have science fiction literary figures as well.

Mr. BROCKMAN: Yes it's an outgrowth of an idea I had in 1991 called The Third Culture. And the Third Culture is, consists of those people whose work and ideas have an empirical basis and the people who are replacing the so-called intellectuals as the people that are bringing meaning to our lives, to our existence, to the universe.

Around 1930, the word intellectual, to quote Durack, the scientist, physicist Durack, was hijacked by book critics to the point where he and Einstein weren't considered intellectuals anymore, and nobody ever called for their opinion.

I don't know how that happened, but it's certainly been the case. When I came to New York in 1960, I was at graduate school and running to the corner every month to get the latest Encounter or Partisan Review to read the arguments of a Steven Spender versus a Hanna Arendt on Eichmann and various other intellectual matters. It was very exciting.

A lot of those people that were in those discussions are still alive today, still talking about the same stuff. The world has changed. We're talking about cloning, energy resources, stem cells, various facets of life and medical stuff that is all over the front pages.

This is what the culture is, it's science. On the other hand, these so-called intellectuals just want it to go away. If you read the New York Times, there's essays on scientism, there's essays on evolutionism. All of which is indication they'd rather hear from what ignorant people don't know about science than to have science write about science, scientists writing about science. These are the people that are at the heart of the action. These are the people that I think are today's intellectuals, and that's what I believe and can't prove.

And in this area, there's room for debate; the hallmark is debate. Like Alison Gopnik makes some very good points, a lot of people in science will agree with her. But in the very same book, Daniel C. Dennett, the philosopher, cognitive scientist, he says, I believe but cannot prove that acquiring human language, an oral or sign language, is a necessary precondition for consciousness in the strong sense of there being a subject, an I, quote, "Something it is like something to be. You will then follow that non-human animals and pre-linguist children, although they can be sensitive, alert, responsive to pain and suffering, and cognitively competent, in many remarkable ways, including ways that exceed normal adult's human competence, are not really conscious in the strong sense. There's no organized subject yet to be the enjoyer, or sufferer, no owner of the experiences as contrasted with the mere cerebral locus of effects." End quote.

So I mean, that's dead set against Alison Gopnik, and yet were the two of them in a room together they would have a very civil discussion. And eventually we'll find out who's right.

CONAN: Here...

Mr. BROCKMAN: It's not a matter of opinion.

CONAN: Here's an email proposition from Robert in Little Rock, Arkansas.

I believe that our souls interact with our bodies, and vice versa, by manipulation of the smallest points in our brain on an atomic level.

There are things you cannot prove on any number of levels in that email.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Veron(ph), Veron calling from Cupertino, California.

VERON (Caller): Hi, basically from a scientific principle saying that every action has got equal and opposite reaction, I believe that in the human life also, each and every individual, whatever we do in our life, we are accountable to somebody, and after that, if you do good things, good things will happen to, you may all it God, or you may call it by whichever name.

CONAN: Well, it sounds like karma to me, Veron.

VERON: That's right, this is exactly what karma's about, what we do in our life, they get back to us and maybe God rewards us after our life form. If people believe there is another life, or you know, we are punished or whatever it is. I'll take the comments off line.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much.

VERON: Thank you.

CONAN: Did you get contributions like that, John Brockman?


CONAN: Was religious speculation any part of this?

Mr. BROCKMAN: I would say that most of these people don't have religious genes. A few do, and that's fine with me. But basically the mandate was to stick to empirical areas where you have some competence. And so that would preclude a discussion about a religion.

CONAN: Let's bring in another of the contributors. Paul Steinhardt is a theoretical physicist and the Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University. He is with us from the studios on the campus there at Princeton.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor PAUL STEINHARDT (Theoretical Physicist, Princeton University): Hi, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Tell us what you believe that you cannot prove.

Mr. STEINHARDT: Okay. Well, what I believe very strongly is that the universe is not accidental. That is, that I believe that the universe is governed by simple physical laws that are the same everywhere, and that produced a universe that has roughly the same properties almost everywhere. There's nothing special about where we are or what we see.

Now, until recently I think this is what most physicists believed. I mean, it's an idea that traces back to the Newton and Copernicus, and even further back to ancient philosophers. However, over the last decade, some of my most esteemed colleagues have changed their views. In fact, I think it's fair to say that there is today a developing schism among physicists who think that everything we see is typical of the universe as a whole and those who think that what we see is a rare accident.

The second group holds that most of the universe is entirely unlike ours, or maybe even a bolder idea, that there's a multitude of universes, a multiverse, and that we live in an oddball section of an oddball member of this multitude.

And this schism is in fact reflected in this very exciting book that John has put together. Several of the physicists contributing to the book expressed the opposite belief to mine, expressed, you know, their views that the universe is likely to be accidental.

CONAN: If the universe is not accidental, some might conclude then that it was a creation.

Professor STEINHARDT: Well, what it means is that there might be physical principles yet to be discovered that would cause it to have the particular properties we see that it has. The interesting situation is that as we've begun to learn more and more about the universe that we can see, over the last decade, what's within our visible horizon, it turns out to be incredibly uniform and simple.

And so, you know, my point of view would be that it's very likely that when we finally understand the physical laws, we'll understand why it had to be that way, and that it has to be that way not just within the limited horizon which we can see, but has to be that way in almost everywhere in the universe.

Now, the opposite point of view would say no, we live in a very rare, unusual place in the universe. Almost everywhere else in the universe is entirely different.

CONAN: And let me ask you, do you think that this is ultimately provable and is it a matter of the power of our instruments, how much we can observe, how far back in time, in fact, we can look through our telescopes, like the Hubble Space telescope or its successors, or would it be in terms of understanding the physics?

Professor STEINHARDT: I think it's a combination of improving our observations and experiments and also giving time for our ingenuity to develop. The reason why people have been led to this idea of the accidental universe is that there are certain features we've recently discovered about the universe which are puzzling given our present understanding of physical laws.

So maybe you conclude that the laws that we have now are correct, but then the universe must be, where we live is a rare place in the universe. Or you try to exercise a little patience, wait for better ideas to develop that naturally explain why we live in a natural place.

CONAN: Hmm. Paul Steinhardt, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us today. Fascinating.

Professor STEINHARDT: You're quite welcome.

CONAN: Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University, with us from studios there on the campus at Princeton University. We're talking about what we believe but cannot prove. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Chris in Lakeville, Minnesota. I believe without proof that my wife loves me. One could argue that if I'm in trouble she would give of herself to get me back on track because she doesn't want the burden of having to take care of her and the kids alone or because the additional income would be beneficial to her or any number of selfish reasons. However, I believed she would do any of those things primarily and perhaps only because she wishes me to be well and healthy. Granted there's more to love than that, but she's given me her word years ago that we would be together and help each other because we loved each other. On the other hand, I know I love her.

We're talking today with John Brockman, the editor of this book. And as you're talking about the third way in this amalgam of intellects, and I think that might be the way to put it, that you've assembled, it's clearly one of the things that has given this, I don't know if the word is critical mass or not, is the Internet.

Mr. BROCKMAN: Certainly true. We call it the third culture. And the Internet allows you to reach all these dispersed people in a very connected way. It's also important to see each other and in that context you haven't lived until you've heard Paul Steinhardt debate Leonard Susskind, which happened two years at the T.E.D. conference, which stands for Technology Entertainment Design, in Monterey.

The panel was moderated by Alan Guth, the father of the Inflationary Scenario, which still pertains after 25 years. Susskind is the father of String Theory. And you just heard Paul's ideas. And you had two hours of ferocious argument. I've never really heard anything quite like it. It was simply thrilling. Who's right? Well, we don't know. We won't know. But it's the quality of the questions. And that's what this project is all about.

It comes out of something called the World Question Center, established by the artist James Lee Byars in 1971, who came up with the thesis that to arrive at an axiology of the world's knowledge it's folly to read the 6 million volumes in the Widener Library. You simply identify the hundred brightest people in the world, lock them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they're asking themselves.

CONAN: There's an important corollary that I wanted to ask you about. And that is that Richard Dawkins or Alison Gopnik or Paul Steinhardt, in their own disciplines I wouldn't understand necessarily what they're talking about. By putting them in this context they share a common language, we call it English.

Mr. BROCKMAN: That's right, and one of the hallmarks of this culture is that it exists in this world of complexity where the sciences are overlapping and the evolutionary biologist has to write in a language free of the jargon of the field so the physicists can understand it. The mathematician has to be able to write in a way which the equations aren't going to be too daunting for the psychologist. So there is communication and it has to be in a common language.

And that's led to the market for the books of these people, in which many are big bestsellers internationally, and the public interests. There are at least five or six million people in America that work in the sciences and that alone is enough to create a strong interest in these kinds of ideas. But I think people are definitely hungry for information, hungry for new ways of thinking, and this is where they're going to get it.

CONAN: We'll leave you with one more email. This from Olivia in Charlottesville, Virginia. I believe that everyone gets a cold at the same time for this reason. The cold viruses are already all around us, maybe even inside our noses, but they spring out of dormancy when the outdoor temperature hits a certain number or when the hours of daylight or darkness hit a certain number. Anyway, that's what she believes, but cannot prove.

John Brockman, thank you so much for being with us today.

Mr. BROCKMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: John Brockman is the editor of What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers in Science in the Age of Certainty. It's published by Perennial, Harper Perennial Books. I'm Neal Conan. When we come back from a short break we're going to hear from one of the ministers of a burned Alabama church and we're going to hear about the miracle on grass in Arizona. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.