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Good Thinking
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
John Brockman's The Edge is always exciting to read but today he really outdoes himself, asking a wide range of scientists and visionaries, "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?" The excerpts below are teasers.

Skip this post if you're short on time or don't enjoy conceptual thinking!

Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Author, Designing World-Class E-Learning

Irrational choices.

I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe that are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made—who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

Psychologist, London School of Economics; Author, The Mind Made Flesh

I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose 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.

Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The User Illusion

I believe in belief—or rather: I have faith in having faith. Yet, I am an atheist (or a "bright" as some would have it). How can that be?

It is important to have faith, but not necessarily in God. Faith is important far outside the realm of religion: having faith in other people, in oneself, in the world, in the existence of truth, justice and beauty. There is a continuum of faith, from the basic everyday trust in others to the grand devotion to divine entities.

Communications Expert; Author, Smart Mobs

I believe that we humans, who know so much about cosmology and immunology, lack a framework for thinking about why and how humans cooperate. I believe that part of the reason for this is an old story we tell ourselves about the world: Businesses and nations succeed by competing well. Biology is a war, where only the fit survive. Politics is about winning. Markets grow solely from self-interest. Rooted in the zeitgeist of Adam Smith's and Charles Darwin's eras, the scientific, social, economic, political stories of the 19th and 20th centuries overwhelmingly emphasized the role of competition as a driver of evolution, progress, commerce, society.

I believe that the outlines of a new narrative are becoming visible—a story in which cooperative arrangements, interdependencies, and collective action play a more prominent role and the essential (but not all-powerful) story of competition and survival of the fittest shrinks just a bit.

Physicist; Institut Universitaire de France & University of the Mediterraneum; Author, Quantum Gravity

I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist. I mean that I am convinced that there is a consistent way of thinking about nature, that makes no use of the notions of space and time at the fundamental level. And that this way of thinking will turn out to be the useful and convincing one.

Finally, I am also convinced, but cannot prove, that we humans have an instinct to collaborate, and that we have rational reasons for collaborating. I am convinced that ultimately this rationality and this instinct of collaboration will prevail over the shortsighted egoistic and aggressive instinct that produces exploitation and war. Rationality and instinct of collaboration have already given us large regions and long periods of peace and prosperity. Ultimately, they will lead us to a planet without countries, without wars, without patriotism, without religions, without poverty, where we will be able to share the world. Actually, maybe I am not sure I truly believe that I believe this; but I do want to believe that I believe this.

Computer Scientist; Founder, Intentional Software; formerly Chief Architect, Microsoft

I believe that we are writing software the wrong way. There are sound evolutionary reasons for why we are doing what we are doing—that we can call the "programming the problem in a computer language" paradigm, but the incredible success of Moore's law blinded us to being stuck in what is probably an evolutionary backwater.

What can be done? Follow the metaphor. First, refocus on recording the problem statement—the "cleartext" in our metaphor. This is not a program in any sense of the word—it is just a straightforward recording of the subject matter experts' contributions using their own terms-of-art, their jargon, their own notations. Next, empower the programmers to program not the problem itself, but to express their software engineering expertise and decisions as a computer code for the encoder that takes the recorded problem statement and generates the code from it. This is called generative programming and I believe it is the future of software.

Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Infinity and the Mind

Reality Is A Novel.

I'd like to propose a modified Many Universes theory. Rather than saying every possible universe exists, I'd say, rather, that there is a sequence of possible universes, akin to the drafts of a novel.

We're living in a draft version of the universe—and there is no final version. The revisions never stop.

Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied Minds, Inc.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone

I know that it sounds corny, but I believe that people are getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress. It is not a steady progress, but there is a long-term trend in the right direction—a two steps forward, one step back kind of progress.

I believe, but cannot prove, that our species is passing through a transitional stage, from being animals to being true humans. I do not pretend to understand what true humans will be like, and I expect that I would not even understand it if I met them. Yet, I believe that our own universal sense of right and wrong is pointing us in the right direction, and that it is the direction of our future.

I believe that ten thousand years from now, people (or whatever we are by then) will be more empathetic and more altruistic than we are. They will trust each other more, and for good reason. They will take better care of each other. They be more thoughtful about the broader consequences of their actions. They will take better care of their future than we do of ours.

Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

Human Behavior is Unconsciously Controlled.

Until proven otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a role in human behavior? Although it may seem radical on first hearing, this is actually the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions. The null position is an antidote to philosopher's disease, the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over processes that may be irrational and unconscious. The argument here is not that we lack consciousness, but that we over-estimate the conscious control of behavior.

The discovery of lawful but unconsciously controlled laughter produced by people who could not accurately explain their actions led me to consider the generality of this situation to other kinds of behavior. Do we go through life listening to an inner voice that provides similar confabulations about the causes of our action? Are essential details of the neurological process governing human behavior inaccessible to introspection?

Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence

I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Spacetime, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.

The world of our daily experience—the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds—is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm. Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits. Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival.

There is no sun or moon unless a conscious mind perceives them, for both are constructs of consciousness, icons in a species-specific user interface.

Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness

The "rotten-to-the-core" assumption about human nature espoused so widely in the social sciences and the humanities is wrong. This premise has its origins in the religious dogma of original sin and was dragged into the secular twentieth century by Freud, reinforced by two world wars, the Great Depression, the cold war, and genocides too numerous to list. The premise holds that virtue, nobility, meaning, and positive human motivation generally are reducible to, parasitic upon, and compensations for what is really authentic about human nature: selfishness, greed, indifference, corruption and savagery. The only reason that I am sitting in front of this computer typing away rather than running out to rape and kill is that I am "compensated," zipped up, and successfully defending myself against these fundamental underlying impulses.

Editor of Release 1.0; Trustee, Long Now Foundation; Author, Release 2.0

We're living longer, and thinking shorter.

[Disclaimer: Since I'm not a scientist, I'm not even going to attempt to take on something scientific. Rather, I want to talk about something that can't easily be measured, let alone proved.

And second, though what I'm saying may sound gloomy, I love the times we live in. There has never been a time more interesting, more full of things to explain, interesting people to meet, worthy causes to support, challenging problems to solve.]

It's all about time.

I think modern life has fundamentally and paradoxically changed our sense of time. Even as we live longer, we seem to think shorter. Is it because we cram more into each hour? Or because the next person over seems to cram more into each hour?

For a variety of reasons, everything is happening much faster and more things are happening. Change is a constant.

And finally, we can measure more, over smaller chunks of time. From airline miles to calories (and carbs and fat grams), from friends on Friendster to steps on a pedometer, from realtime stock prices to millions of burgers consumed, we count things by the minute and the second.

Unfortunately, this carries over into how we think and plan: Businesses focus on short-term results; politicians focus on elections; school systems focus on test results; most of us focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone knows about the big problems, but their behavior focuses on the here and now.

Money Manager and Science Philanthropist

The great breakthrough will involve a new understanding of time...that moving through time is not free, and that consciousness itself will be seen to only be a time sensor, adding to the other sensors of light and space.

Check the Edge archive for 152 articles dating back to December 1996.


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