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What We Believe But Cannot Prove

What We Believe But Cannot Prove | Book Review

Reviewed by Thomas Scarborough

The title of this book stands for a question that was put to 109 leading scientists: “What do you believe but cannot prove?” Some wrote a single paragraph in response, others wrote three to four pages. This is not a Christian book, and would at times tend in the opposite direction. However, there are two major issues which might be of particular interest to Christians.

The first is a question behind the question, which recurs many times. That is, what do the authors believe belief to be? Leon Ederman would seem to speak for many contributors with the comment: “To believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics,” while Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi states: “I can prove almost nothing I believe in.” One of the more interesting comments is by Maria Spiropulu: “I would suggest that belief and proof are in some way complementary: If you believe something, you don’t need proof of it, and if you have proof, you don’t need to believe.” That is, proof and belief share in each other. This being so, neither could be said to be an adequate basis for religious conviction. Does this suggest that all belief must be of this (inadequate) kind, or that a different category of faith — a different category altogether — exists? Some of the greatest Christian theologians have hinted that this may be so — among them Augustine, who wrote of “an unchangeable Light above this light of my soul . . . different, entirely different” (Farina 1984:10).

Some of the contributors’ beliefs might seem to some to be well-established facts. It should be of particular interest that scientists themselves consider many “facts” to be beliefs. Gino Segrè believes (to describe it shorthand) in the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory predicts the presence of some 200 neutrinos in every cubic centimetre of the universe, yet “we eagerly await . . . the observation of [primordial] neutrinos.” Stephen H. Schneider believes in global warming. “In fact,” he says, “I can prove it — or can I?” While he believes this with “high confidence”, there is no “beyond-a-reasonable-doubt criterion” to do so. Leonard Susskind believes in probability. He would “bet my life and soul” that a million coin flips would not turn up all heads. In fact, “All of science is based upon it. But I can’t prove it.” Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi considers: “I do believe in evolution.” And similarly, Kevin Kelly considers: “When it comes to understanding how variation arises in Darwinian evolution . . . we don’t know exactly.”

This is a mere sampling of some of the fascinating issues discussed in the book. While some subjects are undoubtedly over-represented (among them belief in extra-terrestrial life, or that a physical basis for consciousness will soon be discovered), the concise nature of the contributions, and the calibre of the contributors, makes this an easy(ish) and lively read.

John Brockman, Ed.

2005 What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers in the Age of Certainty. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.

Farina, John, Ed.

1984 Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press.


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