Tuesday, January 04, 2005


I believe...

Scientists, for obvious reasons, are usually reluctant to use the word "believe" to describe what they accept as a true statement about the universe. Scientists look for proof before accepting anything as true. If you can prove it, it doesn't matter whether or not you believe it.

But scientists are also human beings (presumably) and therefore susceptible to fits of irrationality and all the other normal deficiencies in logic and levelheadedness that befall human beings in general.

Also, before you can prove something, you need to speculate about it.

Edge is a Web site that defines its mission thusly: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."
The Edge Annual Question—2005


Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the "esprit de divination"). What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?
A whole bunch of scientists submitted examples, including Freeman Dyson, Clifford Pickover, Richard Dawkins, Rudy Rucker, Jared Diamond, Benoit Mandelbrot, and many others.

Rather than recapitulate what they wrote (since you can easily go read for yourselves what they wrote), here is what I believe is true even though I can't prove it:

I believe we are not alone in the universe. I believe there are intelligent alien beings (i.e., non-terrestrial, did not originate, evolve, or ever live on Earth) somewhere out there.

At the moment, I can't prove this. (Nor can anyone disprove it.) It not be proved during my lifetime. (I doubt it will be disproved during my lifetime, either; and, if it were, I can think of little that would be more dispiriting.)

This belief is the stuff of at least half of all science fiction, of course. I can't think of anything that would be more momentous in the history of our race than the day we made a genuine first contact. I would love to be alive the day it happened.

I know all the arguments on both sides, especially Fermi's Paradox ("If the aliens are out there - where are they?"), also here, here, here, and here.

It makes sense - an alien race only 500 years more advanced than us should certainly be able to colonize as much of the surrounding galaxy as it wanted to, and 500 years is scarcely more than nothing on a cosmic time scale. So where are they?

That's why it is called belief - I have nothing to go on, the odds are not in my favor - yet I persist.

There is little reason for me not to, of course - no major negative consequence that attends to my persistence. I am not squandering vast sums of money on a futile search for my aliens that I could be expending on more rational, fruitful pursuits. I am not wasting years looking to the heavens and missing wonders and marvels on the ground.

It's probably more accurate to say that I want there to be aliens than that I really believe in them. There is no evidence that Earth has ever been visited by starfaring extraterrestrials. The people who think they've been abducted are, in my opinion, either deluded or are sad seekers of attention (or both). UFOs are exactly that - unidentified.

But yes. I want there to be aliens. I don't want us to be all alone in the cosmos. I want there to be Spock and G'Kar and the Doctor and the Tokra. Yes, and the Klingons and the Daleks, too. Even the Gou'ald and the Wraith. I want the universe to be wildly teeming with more kinds of life than our best fantasists can imagine. I want to be surprised and astonished.

Mostly I want to see it all for myself.

And so, I believe. And hope. And dream.
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