What We Believe but Cannot Prove

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What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
AuthorJohn Brockman
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper Perennial
Publication date
February 28, 2006
500 22
LC ClassQ173 .W54 2006
Followed byWhat Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable 

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty is a non-fiction book edited by literary agent John Brockman with an introduction by novelist Ian McEwan and published by Harper Perennial. The book consists of various responses to a question posed by the Edge Foundation, with answers as short as one sentence or as long as a few pages.[1] Among the 107 published contributors are such notable scientists and philosophers as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Rebecca Goldstein, Steven Pinker, Sir Martin Rees and Craig Venter; as well upcoming convicted sex offenders like Jeffrey Epstein. Some contributions weren't published, including those by Benoit Mandelbrot and computer scientist John McCarthy. However theirs are among 120 responses available online.[2][3]


Each year, the Edge Foundation poses a question on its website to members of the "third culture", defined by Brockman as "those scientists and other thinkers...who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are".[4] In 2005, the Edge foundation asked, "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?[5] The essays and answers posted there make up the book. They are loosely grouped by subject area, though with no clear subject divisions.


The essays cover a broad range of topics, including evolution, the workings of the human mind, and science itself. A common focus of responders are the issue of extra-terrestrial life and the question of whether humanity has a supranatural element beyond flesh and blood.[6] Among the more esoteric topics is the question of cockroach consciousness.[7]

A pervasive theme, according to Publishers Weekly, is the discomfort responders felt in professing unproven beliefs, which Publishers Weekly declared "an interesting reflection of the state of science".[8] The question inspired implicit or explicit reflection in a number of responders about the scientific method's reliance on observable, empirical and measurable evidence, with a good many of what The Observer points out as largely American responders defending against "a return to an age of uncertainty in which creationism and intelligent design hold sway in the public mind".[6] "What's really at stake here", Wired said in its review, "is the nature of 'proof' itself".[9]


Reviews of What We Believe But Cannot Prove were primarily positive. The Boston Globe described the book as "astounding reading", stating that "[t]aken as a whole, this little compendium of essays will send you careening from mathematics to economics to the moral progress of the human race, and it is marvelous to watch this muddle of disciplines overlap".[10] In Paste Magazine's "Best Books of 2007" column, in which 13 notable authors were asked each to recommend a favorite book, Esquire columnist Tom Junod described it as "at once rigorous, exquisitely reasoned, untainted by mysticism, somewhat useless, and altogether mindblowing".[11] The Skeptical Inquirer stated that the book "offers an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists, and specialists alike".[12]

Several reviews focused positively on the invitation to speculate afforded respondents and the insight their speculations may offer into the future of scientific discourse. Science News and The Guardian described the book respectively as "a tantalizing glimpse into the future of human inquiry" and "[s]cientific pipedreams at their very best".[13][14] The Daily Telegraph praised the book as "refreshing" and "intriguing and unexpected", noting that "[b]y unleashing scientists from the rigours of established method we gain fascinating glimpses into the future directions of arcane disciplines few fully understand".[7]

While still generally positive, some reviewers did criticize certain aspects of the book, including redundancy and tone. The Observer described the essays as "compelling and repetitive by turns".[6] Publishers Weekly referred to the collection as "stimulating", but found it "unfortunate that the tone of most contributions isn't livelier and that there aren't explanations of some of the more esoteric concepts discussed", limitations which would "keep these adroit musings from finding a wider audience."[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dizikes, Peter. (June 11, 2006) Science Chronicle New York Times. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  2. ^ "The Edge Annual Question—2005". The Edge. 2005. p. 10. Archived from the original on 30 September 2012. Retrieved July 9, 2012.
  3. ^ "The Edge Annual Question—2005". The Edge. 2005. Archived from the original on 26 January 2006.
  4. ^ Brockman, John. (1991) The Third Culture Edge Foundation. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  5. ^ "The Edge Foundation". Archived from the original on 2012-09-30. Retrieved 2007-10-10.
  6. ^ a b c Adams, Tim. (December 11, 2005) John Brockman persuaded 100 of the world's great thinkers to answer the same big question in What We Believe by Cannot Prove. And, yes, aliens are involved, says Tim Adams The Observer. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  7. ^ a b Osborne, Charles, Sally Cousins, Jeremy Jehu, Matt Warman and Victoria Lane. (August 28, 2006) Paperbacks[dead link] The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-05-24.
  8. ^ a b "Publishers Weekly review". 2006. Retrieved 2008-05-24.
  9. ^ Hillner, Jennifer. (April 2006) Print: What We Believe But Cannot Prove Wired. Retrieved 2008-05-24.
  10. ^ Doerr, Anthony. (March 19, 2006) Deeply held (and unverifiable) beliefs The Boston Globe Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  11. ^ Paste Staff. (November 29, 2007) Signs of Life 2007: Best Books Paste Magazine. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  12. ^ Krause, Kenneth. (January 5, 2007) "Intellectual and creative magnificence.(What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers in the Age of Uncertainty)(Book review)" (abstract) The Skeptical Inquirer, March 1, 2007. Full article hosted by redorbit.com.
  13. ^ Science News staff. (April 15, 2006) What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty (Books: A selection of new and notable books of scientific interest) Science News. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.
  14. ^ Smith, PD. (August 19, 2006) Truth believers. The Guardian. Retrieved on 2008-05-24.


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