(Because SC wasn't paying attention to the "post status" box, an early draft of this ended up published prematurely. No hiding of anything was intended.)
Yesterday, Arts & Letters Daily linked to an annual roundup of currently hot thinkers done by a website called Edge. SC likes Edge, doesn't read it nearly as frequently as he should, and usually enjoys the interviews that AL Daily links to from them throughout the course of the year.
The annual Edge New Year's article always revolves around some sort of question of general interest, and by posing it to specialists across numerous disciplines, the goal is to produce some genuinely interesting insights for lay readers. Some of the answers are serious and worthy of additional cogitation; others are depressingly political or small-minded. To give an example from a previous year, in 2003, the question was a hypothetical request from President Bush for guidance on science policy. Some of the responses, like that of John McWhorter, were excellent discussions of individual expertise (but not necessarily quite on point). Some responses really were serious meditations on specific problems of science policy, like Margaret Wertheim's comments on education, or Wired's Kevin Kelly on changing our perspective on funding priorities, and some were just cheap anti-Bush rants like that of Stuart Pimm.
This year's question was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?". SC likes the idea, and will throw out his own answer, in the spirit he thinks the question was meant to be taken in. Your host believes, but cannot prove, that the human mind will never be demonstrably reducible to brain states (plus assorted chemical reactions). This is hardly a unique position -- any philosophical dualist or idealist shares it -- but to hold it after taking courses in psycholinguistics and brain theory requires some conviction that the explanatory gaps of present neuroscience are not merely due to the relative crudeness of our tools. Almost nobody interviewed by Edge seems to hold this belief, with the notable exception of Donald Hoffman (whose position is far more radical, and absolutely thrilling -- SC will have to read more by him). There are others who are ambiguous on this point, like Daniel Gilbert, but suffice it to say that philosophical materialism is in -- which we'll get back to in a minute.
There are a number of other answers which interest SC as well: David Buss on true love, Dennis Dutton on permanent aesthetic value, Tom Standage on the safety of cell phones ([he didn't mention driving with them -- ed.]), Leon Lederman on the elegance of the universe, David Gelernter on the fundamental relationship of emotions to thought, and Roger Schank on the importance of unconscious thought.
A much larger group of responses, alas, displays all the classic signs of having been pounded out over the ol' Cracker Barrel. Let's agree at the outset that skepticism being part of the scientific mindset, a certain opposition to faith and belief is almost guaranteed to be the default position for people working in scientific fields. It is nevertheless impossible to not be stunned by the arrogance and moral obtuseness of many of the people who answered. Leave aside those people whose idea of something they believe but can't prove is merely a pet theory in their own field; that accounts for Jared Diamond's quibbling over the date that humans first made it to the Americas, or John McCarthy's speculation on the falsehood of the continuum hypothesis. No grander philosophical viewpoint follows from these beliefs, and they make for answers of largely personal interest.
No, what really raises SC's hackles are the smug post-humans who tediously rehash the extreme skepticism that they imagine is the sign of a truly refined mind, but that G.K. Chesterton could see was a sign of derangement 100 years ago (he does so even better in this book, not available online). Ian McEwan is sure that there is no afterlife, which he can't prove, but he wholly unjustifiably flatters himself with the assertion that it's believers in afterlives who commit all the worst atrocities. That's a rather 20th-century-free rendition of human history. A nearly identical point is made by Robert Trivers, who snidely raises the banner of "self-deception". Randolph Nesse backhandedly praises the achievements of those who, holding to "false beliefs", push on beyond those "who wait for proof before acting" (there is a much more humane, and less disrespectful, way to hold Dr. Nesse's views, as demonstrated by Tor Norretranders). Susan Blackmore comically claims to believe that she has no feeling of acting with free will, and that she is on her way -- albeit haltingly -- to believing that she doesn't exist. (Yes, yes, she acknowledges that it's hard for other people to buy it, but if she doesn't find anything ironic in saying "I don't exist", she might be right for the wrong reasons.) Daniel Dennett, meanwhile, is busy in Peter Singer-land arguing for reducing even further the scope of what we consider to be humanity (in fairness, he explicitly disclaims the ethical monstrosities he knows his position is perceived as licensing, but I think Singer is the one being honest about their inevitability, not Dennett). Chris Anderson scores half a legitimate point about just how far cirricula ought to be opened up to teach alternate theories (in complaining about Intelligent Design), but makes perfectly clear that despite claiming to believe in the skeptical attitude, insisting on a careful distinction between theory and fact is for people who disagree with him. Daniel Hillis comes out for the Whig interpretation of history -- people are getting better, and are evolving towards being morally perfect (a phrase he doesn't use, but which I think is a fair interpretation of his argument -- also, I am overstating Herbert Butterfield's meaning for that phrase). What is the maximum number of retrograde people that Dr. Hillis is prepared to sacrifice in realization of this vision?
None of this is meant to sggest that these people are indecent in their personal behaviors. But it's hard not to read these entries, and maybe a dozen more, without being overwhelmed by the hubris. More than a few claim not to believe anything true if it can't be proved, as does Maria Spiropulu, or to be uninterested in anything that isn't (dis-)provable, as does Simon Baron-Cohen. This sort of claim goes out the window on the first evidence of aesthetic judgments. Worse than the hubris is the scientism, though, the unprovable belief that petty bigotries and merely personal opinions have the same factual status as measured lab values, because the practice of the scientific method in one area of one's life must mean that one behaves the same way in all others. Such thought is not terribly tolerant of disagreement, which can only be seen as the product of bad measurement or mere irrationality, and judging by some of the assertions made, it's rather less amenable to skeptical self-examination than these people seem to think.