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What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty [Paperback]

John Brockman
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 16 2006 0060841818 978-0060841812 1

More than one hundred of the world's leading thinkers write about things they believe in, despite the absence of concrete proof

Scientific theory, more often than not, is born of bold assumption, disparate bits of unconnected evidence, and educated leaps of faith. Some of the most potent beliefs among brilliant minds are based on supposition alone -- yet that is enough to push those minds toward making the theory viable.

Eminent cultural impresario, editor, and publisher of Edge (edge.org), John Brockman asked a group of leading scientists and thinkers to answer the question: What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it? This book brings together the very best answers from the most distinguished contributors.

Thought-provoking and hugely compelling, this collection of bite-size thought-experiments is a fascinating insight into the instinctive beliefs of some of the most brilliant minds today.


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What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty + This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works + Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction
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From Publishers Weekly

The title's question was posed on Edge.org (an online intellectual clearing house), challenging more than 100 intellectuals of every stripe—from Richard Dawkins to Ian McEwan—to confess the personal theories they cannot demonstrate with certainty. The results, gathered by literary agent and editor Brockman, is a stimulating collection of micro-essays (mainly by scientists) divulging many of today's big unanswered questions reaching across the plane of human existence. Susan Blackmore, a lecturer on evolutionary theory, believes "it is possible to live happily and morally without believing in free will," and Daniel Goleman believes children today are "unintended victims of economic and technological progress." Other beliefs are more mundane and one is highly mathematically specific. Many contributors open with their discomfort at being asked to discuss unproven beliefs, which itself is an interesting reflection of the state of science. The similarity in form and tone of the responses makes this collection most enjoyable in small doses, which allow the answers to spark new questions and ideas in the reader's mind. It's unfortunate that the tone of most contributions isn't livelier and that there aren't explanations of some of the more esoteric concepts discussed; those limitations will keep these adroit musings from finding a wider audience. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In this informative and often surprising book, more than 100 notable scientists and scholars answer the question, "What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?" The responses range from the thought-provoking to seemingly trivial (or just plain silly). Professor of cosmology and astrophysics Martin Rees, for example, admits that he believes intelligent life is unique to our world (in sharp contrast to many of his fellow contributors). Alun Anderson, senior consultant to New Scientist magazine, believes cockroaches are conscious. Mathematician and science-fiction novelist Rudy Rucker believes in a multiplicity of universes. Susan Blackmore, who has written widely on the subject of consciousness, appears to believe that she doesn't exist. The contributors touch on a broad spectrum of subjects, from religion to science and many points in between. Although some of the responses are arrogant or nitpicky, the majority are thoughtful, honest, and revelatory of the contributors' own intellectual and philosophical biases. And the book certainly gets us thinking about our own deeply held, if entirely unprovable, beliefs. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


Customer Reviews

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A juicy-bit read! Sept. 24 2006
Format:Paperback
This is a really good read to at last discover what some hardworking scientists & scientific interpreters really think about what they are doing & what is "really real". There's many authors, almost all of whom are names widely known, so the little book is perfect bedside or can-side. Sometimes it's a shock to discover that what you assumed someone really thought is nothing like his or her presumptions at all. Most times, it's pretty easy to guess where they're going to go. The weakness -- the one star penalty -- is that some of the scientists seem absolutely w/o imagination. "What I Believe But Cannot Prove" extends only as far as their immediate areas of research. Others, however, reach way out there, & that's where the contradictions in worldviews become blazingly apparent. Others, like Daniel Dennett, speak their beliefs straightforwardly w/o obfuscation for what may be the first time. I had thought I understood Dennett & disagreed profoundly with him. Now it seems I am in profound agreement. For anyone who likes to cut through the details & get to the underlying worldviews, this little book is -- if not a revelation -- at least great fun.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mundane question, provocative responses Aug. 28 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format: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.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  35 reviews
89 of 93 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise and Lively -- With Some Duplication Feb. 28 2006
By Rev. Thomas Scarborough - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The title of this book is a question that was put to 109 leading scientists and thinkers. Some wrote a single paragraph in response, others wrote three to four pages.

A question behind the question recurs many times. That is, what do the authors believe belief to be? 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." 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's intuitive response to some of the contributors' beliefs might be that their beliefs would be considered to be facts. Gino Segre believes (to describe it shorthand) in the Big Bang. Stephen H. Schneider believes in global warming. Leonard Susskind believes in probability. Neil Gershenfeld believes in progress. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi considers: "I do believe in evolution," and David Buss states: "I believe in true love."

Among the beliefs that would seem to be particularly interesting are the following. Gregory Benford considers: "Why is there any scientific law at all?" Daniel Goleman believes that "todays children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress." Alison Gopnik believes that "babies and young children are actually more conscious . . . than adults are." George Dyson believes that bird dialects correspond to "indigenous human language groups", and Freeman Dyson believes that the reverse of a power of 2 is never a power of 5.

Some subjects would seem to be over-represented, such as the belief that "there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe", that a physical basis for consciousness will soon be discovered, or that there are universes other than our own. Besides such duplication, which tends to be tedious, the concise nature of the contributions, and the calibre of the contributors, makes this an easy(ish) and lively read.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have...the evidence...for it" Sept. 10 2006
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
+++++

"What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?"

This was what John Brockman, the editor and publisher of the online intellectual think-tank "Edge," asked leading thinkers. This book contains what this think-tank deems to be the best answers to this question.

Each contributor's answer is preceded by a brief profile of him or her. (There are 15 female contributors.)

The majority of the thinkers this book's profiles have more than one occupation. The most frequent job titles mentioned in each brief profile are as follows:

(1) author
(2) professor
(3) scientist (such as physicist, computer scientist)/social scientist (such as psychologist, economist)
(4) director (for example, a director of a laboratory)

Some other occupations mentioned are inventor, writer, editor, journalist, publisher, lecturer, and linguist.

Here is a typical profile:

"Freeman Dyson is professor emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author of a number of books about science for the general public including "Imagined Worlds" and "The Sun," "The Genome," and "The Internet."

Here is a sample of the beliefs that cannot be proved:

Contributor #1: I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth but has the potential to spread throughout the Galaxy and beyond it."
#109: "I can prove almost nothing I believe in."
#5: "I believe that evolution explains why the living world is the way that it is."
#20: "I'm pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can't prove."
#30: "I believe...that cannibalism and slavery were both prevalent in human history."
#40: "I believe that scientific theories are a means of going...beyond what we observe of the physical world, of penetrating into the structure of nature."
#50: "I believe that the human race will never decide that an advanced computer possesses consciousness."
#60: "I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness."
#70: "I believe that human talents are based on distinct patterns of brain connectivity."
#80: "I believe that it is possible to change adult cells from one phenotype to another."
#90: "I believe that black holes do not...destroy information, thereby violating quantum mechanics."
#100: "I believe that the mechanism for the human perception of time will be discovered."

For the most part, all answers can be easily understood but some may require a dictionary to aid in understanding technical terms. Some contributors have the same beliefs so there is a bit of redundancy. However, I don't see this as something necessarily bad as the reader gets a different perspective on a prior mentioned belief. As well, all answers are "bite-sized," ranging from a sentence to a couple of pages.

I did find a few problems:

First, the table of contents. It simply lists all the contributors in non-alphabetical order with their first names first! Why not list them in alphabetical order with the first names last? Better still, put the answers in general categories. For example, those contributors whose answers deal with consciousness would have there names under this heading or those that deal with life in the universe would have there names under this heading.

Second, the book simply ends with the final contributor's answer. I couldn't understand this especially since there's a well-written introduction. There should have been a conclusion of some sort.

Finally, the book's subtitle states "Today's leading thinkers on science in the age of certainty." This gives the impression that this book deals exclusively with scientists. It does not. There are thinkers in other fields who contribute answers also.

In conclusion, I believe this is a good book of educated speculation and I've tried to prove it!!

(first published 2006; preface; introduction; 109 contributors; main narrative 250 pages)

+++++
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but not great April 5 2008
By Charlea Comway - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
As a scientist I approached this book with a lot of expectations. I wanted to know what the greatest minds in science believe but cannot prove. I was expecting a lot of cutting edge topics and revolutionary ideas. Yes, there are some pieces that fulfilled and even exceeded my expectations, but there were also others that I couldn't even get past the first paragraph.
I guess it is always difficult to put together a book with so many contributors and the result is always going to be a mix of, in this case, brilliant ideas and not so surprising monologues.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mundane question, provocative responses Aug. 28 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: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]
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good for collectors Jan. 4 2007
By Amy Hallberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I thought this book would be more than it was. But I still liked it because many answers were provocative and interesting. So many scientists are atheists and they occasionally pontificate (see H.Kimble), but at least they are slightly educated and using reason and established facts, unlike the vast majority of 'other' people who pontificate.

There were a few things I didn't like. First, there is no apparent order to the table of contents. Second, too many of the people believe the same things and it got a little repetitive.

I would recommend this book for a fun, thought-provoking quick read.
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