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Saturday Feature
The twilight zone of thought
Syed Fattahul Alim

          Do people always think rationally? There are certain fundamental questions in life that can bring even the most powerful tool of human thought under scrutiny. These are but some very fundamental beliefs, ideas and perceptions of things people accept without further questioning.
John Brockman, publisher of a science-based website named Edge, put such questions to thinkers of different disciplines including scientists and philosophers on his website: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" He asks similar questions at the end of each year to a targeted audience. A wide cross-section of people from among the social thinkers, psychologists, physicists and others responded to this fundamental paradox of our life. Love, existence of God, consciousness and life were the issues that came within the purview of the posers. The following are some of the opinions put forward by rationalists as well as the believers in response to the question.
Joseph LeDoux
Neuroscientist, New York University; author, "The Synaptic Self"
For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at least can have a little confidence since all people have brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as we turn to other species and start asking questions about feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky territory because the hardware is different.
Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behaviour in rats rather than emotional feelings.
There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm not a radical behaviourist. I'm just a practical emotionalist.
Lynn Margulis
Biologist, University of Massachusetts; author, "Symbiosis in Cell Evolution"
I feel that I know something that will turn out to be correct and eventually proved to be true beyond doubt. What?
That our ability to perceive signals in the environment evolved directly from our bacterial ancestors.
That is, we, like all other mammals including our apish brothers detect odours, distinguish tastes, hear bird song and drumbeats and we too feel the vibrations of the drums.
With our eyes closed we detect the light of the rising sun. These abilities to sense our surroundings are a heritage that preceded the evolution of all primates, all vertebrate animals, indeed all animals.
David Myers
Psychologist, Hope College; author, "Intuition" As a Christian monotheist, I start with two unproven axioms:
1. There is a God.
2. It's not me (and it's also not you).
Together, these axioms imply my surest conviction: that some of my beliefs (and yours) contain error. We are, from dust to dust, finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity.
And that is why I further believe that we should
a) hold all our unproven beliefs with a certain tentativeness (except for this one!),
b) assess others' ideas with open-minded skepticism, and
c) freely pursue truth aided by observation and experiment.
This mix of faith-based humility and scepticism helped fuel the beginnings of modern science, and it has informed my own research and science writing. The whole truth cannot be found merely by searching our own minds, for there is not enough there. So we also put our ideas to the test. If they survive, so much the better for them; if not, so much the worse.
Robert Sapolsky
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, author, "A Primate's Memoir"
Mine would be a fairly simple, straightforward case of an unjustifiable belief, namely that there is no god(s) or such a thing as a soul (whatever the religiously inclined of the right persuasion mean by that word). ...
I'm taken with religious folks who argue that you not only can, but should believe without requiring proof. Mine is to not believe without requiring proof. Mind you, it would be perfectly fine with me if there were a proof that there is no god. Some might view this as a potential public health problem, given the number of people who would then run damagingly amok. But it's obvious that there's no shortage of folks running amok thanks to their belief. So that wouldn't be a problem and, all things considered, such a proof would be a relief - many physicists, especially astrophysicists, seem weirdly willing to go on about their communing with god about the Big Bang, but in my world of biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukaemia.
Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist, University of California, Irvine; author, "Visual Intelligence"
I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Space-time, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being.
The world of our daily experience - the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds - is a species-specific user interface to a realm far more complex, a realm whose essential character is conscious. It is unlikely that the contents of our interface in any way resemble that realm.
Indeed the usefulness of an interface requires, in general, that they do not. For the point of an interface, such as the Windows interface on a computer, is simplification and ease of use. We click icons because this is quicker and less prone to error than editing megabytes of software or toggling voltages in circuits.
Evolutionary pressures dictate that our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival.
If this is right, if consciousness is fundamental, then we should not be surprised that, despite centuries of effort by the most brilliant of minds, there is as yet no physicalist theory of consciousness, no theory that explains how mindless matter or energy or fields could be, or cause, conscious experience.
Nicholas Humphrey
Psychologist, London School of Economics; author,"The Mind Made Flesh"
I believe that human consciousness is a conjuring trick, designed to fool us into thinking we are in the presence of an inexplicable mystery. Who is the conjuror and why is s/he doing it? The conjuror is natural selection, and the purpose has been to bolster human self-confidence and self-importance - so as to increase the value we each place on our own and others' lives.
Philip Zimbardo
Psychologist, emeritus professor, Stanford; author,
I believe that the prison guards at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, who worked the night shift in Tier 1A, where prisoners were physically and psychologically abused, had surrendered their free will and personal responsibility during these episodes of mayhem.
But I could not prove it in a court of law. These eight Army reservists were trapped in a unique situation in which the behavioural context came to dominate individual dispositions, values and morality to such an extent that they were transformed into mindless actors alienated from their normal sense of personal accountability for their actions - at that time and place.
The "group mind" that developed among these soldiers was created by a set of known social psychological conditions, some of which are nicely featured in Golding's "Lord of the Flies." The same processes that I witnessed in my Stanford Prison Experiment were clearly operating in that remote place: deindividuation, dehumanization, boredom, groupthink, role-playing, rule control and more.
Alison Gopnik
Psychologist, University of California, Berkeley; co-author, "The Scientist in the Crib"
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.
David Buss
Psychologist, University of Texas; author, "The Evolution of Desire"
True love.
I've spent two decades of my professional life studying human mating. In that time, I've documented phenomena ranging from what men and women desire in a mate to the most diabolical forms of sexual treachery. I've discovered the astonishingly creative ways in which men and women deceive and manipulate each other. I've studied mate poachers, obsessed stalkers, sexual predators and spouse murderers. But throughout this exploration of the dark dimensions of human mating, I've remained unwavering in my belief in true love.
While love is common, true love is rare, and I believe that few people are fortunate enough to experience it. The roads of regular love are well travelled and their markers are well understood by many - the mesmerizing attraction, the ideational obsession, the sexual afterglow, profound self-sacrifice and the desire to combine DNA. But true love takes its own course through uncharted territory. It knows no fences, has no barriers or boundaries. It's difficult to define, eludes modern measurement and seems scientifically woolly. But I know true love exists. I just can't prove it.
The above are the opinions of experts on profound issues of love, consciousness, existence of God. However, the laypeople, too, reach a similar conclusion with the help of their common sense, which are often vague, prejudiced, and what an expert would term as irrational. Paradoxically, the rational as well as the irrational mind reaches a similar conclusion though from the opposite directions. What is then the path to truth?


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