This is a question that was asked of a fairly impressive number of different scientists and their answers are at www.edge.org.

There are some pretty interesting responses, even though I haven’t had a chance to read through too many. But I thought it was an interesting question that we might try to answer here as well.

For me I think the universe doesn’t require any supernatural events and can be understood in a entirely rational way. I don’t think there is anything that is beyond the possible comprehension of us.


Yeah, I saw that article a while ago and thought it rocked, too. 🙂

Hmmm… what do I believe…
* Absolutely everything is connected in a real, physically meaningful way– In one way of look at things, there is only one “thing”
* Humankind isn’t unnatural or intrinsically “evil”, and our expansion and growth is at least somewhat positive
* Memetics will become an increasingly insightful and useful field of study, providing rigor to the social sciences

Good question!

Paradoxdruid - January 8th, 2005 at 2:52 pm

Interesting question. Hmmmm…
*If consciousness and free will are more than epiphenomena, there must be a supreme being (The “If” part is the basis of my agnostic status)
*Love is more than pheremones

Owen - January 10th, 2005 at 9:31 am

Owen, I must admit I find this absolutely fascinating: “If consciousness and free will are more than epiphenomena, there must be a supreme being”. I’m not sure I agree, but a lot of philosophers tend to lean your way when pressed hard. Not sure if that makes you feel better, though.

Personally (as I think you know), I think consciousness IS probably just an epiphenomenon. Not sure about free will, but then again, I’ve never heard a satisfactorily rigorous definition of free will.

Last but not least: Welcome back to the blog, McMillan and Owen!

Paradoxdruid - January 10th, 2005 at 9:40 am

“Personally (as I think you know), I think consciousness IS probably just an epiphenomenon. Not sure about free will, but then again, I’ve never heard a satisfactorily rigorous definition of free will.”

I think it’s always interesting to hear a scientist defend their beliefs in rather philosophical language, with only implying, but not directly stating, the evident scientific backing…

Teisha - January 10th, 2005 at 10:29 am

“a lot of philosophers tend to lean your way”
“I�ve never heard a satisfactorily rigorous definition of free will.”

Just as a thought… would either of you two (Owen or PD) care to post a link to a site that talks about these specitic theories so the rest of us can actually intelligently *gasp* chime in, or are you two philosophy junkies just that heartless? 😉

(And PD, is there a better way to quote things on here? I miss the forum method… )

As a more direct response: “If consciousness and free will are more than epiphenomena, there must be a supreme being.� I’d like to say that it is more than an epiphenomena, but I’m sure this is how the vast majority of the human race would like to look at themselves as well. Otherwise, what are we? Nothing special. Most of us just can’t accept that… hence religion and the idea of a higher being or force in virtually every culture. I think it’s mostly an idea invented to comfort. But then again, one thing we still know very little about is the workings of the human brain… I really don’t think we – can – state for certain whether it is an epiphenomena or more (and yes, it leads to the creation of many agnostics). Anyway, I just basically more lengthily restated what was said above.. but.. I wanted to feel involved, damnit!

Teisha - January 10th, 2005 at 10:50 am

Like usual, the Straight Dope has all the answers: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a990611.html

Paradoxdruid - January 10th, 2005 at 11:14 am

I guess my last response was a tend glib…

Basically, if you think that consciousness is just the mechanistic process of the brain and not something “else”, you think consciousness is an epiphenomenon.

As to free will– I stand by my first statement. We all throw the term around, but what does it mean, really?
Meriam-Webster says:
1 : voluntary choice or decision
2 : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

Not determined by prior cause? If I see a fire and decide to avoid it, there was prior cause– the fire, or my being born and existing and being there in the first place.

Voluntary choice or decision? Every choice is voluntary. That’s what choice means.

See what I mean?

Paradoxdruid - January 10th, 2005 at 11:28 am

Yup. Thank you. 🙂

(Um, why is everything in italics now?)

Teisha - January 10th, 2005 at 11:59 am

By no means do I want to stop people from waxing philosophical on their beliefs, but I need to commment on the initial post. I find it interesting that people will take the time to interview a bunch of scientists about philosophy and expect their responces to be significantly different than a general cross section of the population (ok… probably adjusted for socioeconomic factors).

I’m reminded of a great anecdote:
An astronomer got onto a plane and noted that there appeared to be a problem with the seal on his window. He called the stewardess’s attention to it and she assured him that everything was ok. He persisted, finally announcing to the plane that he had a Ph.D. in astrophysics and there was something wrong with the plane. He got up and stormed off, followed my most of the rest of the passengers. After a long delay in which the technicians inspected the plane they determined that nothing was wrong.

Being a scientist doesn’t make your opinions more valid than anyone else’s, it just for some reason makes people bother to spend the time to listen to you.

Laika - January 10th, 2005 at 1:26 pm

“Being a scientist doesn’t make your opinions more valid than anyone else’s, it just for some reason makes people bother to spend the time to listen to you.” –Laika

I respectfully disagree, Laika.

I think the idea is that education gives you both a wider fact-base and a greater ability to synthesize and problem-solve, as emphasized by most college’s “arts & humanities” requirements for even engineering students. I’m sure not everyone who gets a degree is necessarily better at analyzing available data and drawing relevant conclusions about life, but I’d be willing to bet it IS statistically higher than average.

So their exercise is relevant, at least to me. And I much prefer scientists getting praise and attention than, say, sports stars. So there. 😛

Paradoxdruid - January 10th, 2005 at 2:37 pm

Almost forgot, though– It’s nice to see you posting again, Laika. 😀

Paradoxdruid - January 10th, 2005 at 3:27 pm

I think the reason they selected scientists to answer the question “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” is not simply because scientists’ opinions are viewed as being more “valid,” but because scientists would seem to be the most objective group for this particular issue. Of all people, scientists aren’t supposed to really “believe” in things — they’re supposed to prove and analyze and support their ideas with hard facts. (Compare them to say, for example, some televangilists.)

Teisha - January 10th, 2005 at 6:05 pm

Teisha- I think in the truest sense of what Owen is saying is the basic laws governing the universe have no exceptions. Now we probably don’t know all the laws exactly but when we do…. oh boy it will be exciting. The primary example of this type of law is entropy for which, as far as I know, is not violated.

PD and Laika- I think I am going to side with Laika on this one. My feeling is that sciencetis are just as likely to have have faulty opinions as everyone else. Their opinions in their area are likley to be more accurate but on the universe as whole? I doubt it. How many times have we had discussions about how the current this professor is convinced that mushrooms cause cancer? Or that Nixon was the greatest person? Or that the only practical approach to living with the enviroment is living within the regions limits? Or the Veterinarians trying to tell a horse breeder with 50 years+ of expereince that his horse doesn’t have colic? (ok the last one doesn’t really count because thats a doctor). Shrug I think that scientists believe that they opinions are more reasonable and accurate but in reality outside there area of expertise I doubt they do better then the average joe on the street.

Of course sadly I do tend to over-esitmate the average Joe.

PD-I thought you were a good liberatrain? If so doesn’t mean that you believe the market should determine the worth of products? If so doesn’t also follow that market believes that sports stars are worth more money then sciencetists? Thus of course sports stars should get more press? 😉

Gilvoro - January 11th, 2005 at 7:57 am

Welcome back, Gilvoro!
Nah, my libertarianism has mostly faded over the years, replaced by socialism mixed with capitalism– Western Europe and Canada both seem to be doing very well with that mix.

I still think, despite your protests, that most everyone who frequents this site believes education gives you better opinions– almost all of you went to college, and I have never heard any of you say that it was “just for a slip of paper so I can get a job”. Usuually, it was because you wanted to know things and be able to solve problems the “average joe” cannot solve. Yes, educatated people have as many blind-spots and faults as anyone else, but hopefully they can better acknowledge those faults and limitations and work around them.

Paradoxdruid - January 11th, 2005 at 9:00 am


I don’t have any website handy (Luckily for us, PD does). I just developed my own philosophy through some long thought and bullshitting sessions with Megan, Dr. Dubin, Jenny, and others.

Basically, I ascribe more to the:
“2 : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention”
version of “Free will”.
But even that isn’t quite right. I go by a “tape rewind” definition. If you had the Great Tape of Life and watched it through, say, me deciding whether or not to get my latte this morning. If you could rewind it, replay it, and there be any chance of me not deciding the exact same way, that would be indicative of “free will”.

I used “if” in my original statement because I alternate between being a scientific determinist and being… er… not.
On my determinist days, I figure that given the tenets of science (and I should have listed those, as well, among my unprovable beliefs) then everything that happens only happens because of the laws of nature, including human behavior.
On my “not” days, I entertain the possibility that if consciousness is a valid phenomenon unto itself and free will is a real thing, consciousness must exist outside of the physical world, or else it would be controlled by physical laws and we’re back at the deterministic phase. If there is, then, this “other space” where consciousness exists, it opens the possibility for a creator of that other space. A deity.

And now to add those “tenets of science” to my list:
*All things in the physical world proceed according to fundamental, immutable laws of nature

Owen - January 10th, 2005 at 10:06 pm

“All things in the physical world proceed according to fundamental, immutable laws of nature” – Owen

Um, aren’t there a lot of exceptions to these “laws”?

Teisha - January 10th, 2005 at 11:20 pm


However why is a scientist view point more valid then say some one with a degree in English or Economics? Or for that matter native to the amazon who is well versed in the local plants and animals?

Gilvoro - January 11th, 2005 at 12:06 pm

I agree with you that not only physical scientists should be considered, Gilvoro… but if you check out the article, they interview all sorts of educated people– including psychologists, historians, writers, a “communications expert”, an editor, a media analyst… etc. I don’t think the article displayed ANY bias towards the physical sciences. It does, however, show one towards largely educated people, whom I have defended the merits of asking.

We’ve gotten sidetracked, though: What else do people believe without proof?

Paradoxdruid - January 11th, 2005 at 1:02 pm

Well Touche again.

Gilvoro - January 12th, 2005 at 7:19 am

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