Say What?

The edgy Web site asked its contributors, an eclectic group of scientists and philosophers, its annual question for 2005, “What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?”

John Brockman, Edge editor and publisher, coined the term “the third culture” for the group “that consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world” who through their work and writing help in “rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Heavy stuff? Not all of it, by any means. Brockman himself says slyly, “I believe that the scientists of the third culture are the pre-eminent intellectuals of our time. But I can’t prove it.”

Among the responses so far (, physicists, computer scientists and psychologists are heavily represented. And some of the answers are indeed, “cosmic” (a term I tend to use, not as a compliment, to describe claims that are so lofty and abstract as to mean nothing at all).

Is the universe teeming with life, or are we alone in the universe? What is the nature of consciousness _ is the universe evolving toward it, whatever it is, will machines ever have it or do cockroaches have it now? Few theists are to be found in these precincts. Indeed, I found only one, though I haven’t read all 120 answers. And my answer to the 2005 question would be that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. But since several people gave that answer, or a variant of it, perhaps I should say instead that I believe the Internet will effect changes in society as revolutionary as the invention of the alphabet or movable type.

Physicist Carlo Rovelli points out that the question isn’t new. “Beliefs that one cannot prove are often wrong, as proven by the fact that this Edge list contains contradictory beliefs,” he says. “But they are essential in science and often healthy. Here is a good example from 25 centuries ago: Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedon, says, ‘… seems to me very hard to prove, and I think I wouldn’t be able to prove it … but I am convinced … that the Earth is spherical.’ ” Linguist John McWhorter, who is working on a book about Indonesian languages, says he happened to find a few very obscure languages spoken on one island that are much simpler than one would expect.

It’s interesting, McWhorter says, “that the island these languages is spoken on is none other than Flores, which has had its 15 minutes of fame this year as the site where skeletons of the ‘little people’ were found.

Anthropologists have hypothesized that this was a different species of Homo.

While the skeletons date back 13,000 years ago or more, local legend recalls ‘little people’ living alongside modern humans, ones who had some kind of language of their own and could ‘repeat back’ in modern humans’ language.”

What McWhorter suspects but cannot prove is that the reason these languages are “so strangely streamlined on Flores is that an earlier ancestor of these languages, just as complex as its family members tend to be, was used as (a) second language by these other people and simplified.” Modern human children “were hearing the little people’s rendition of the language as much as a native one,” he thinks, adding “interspecies contact” to the short list of reasons why languages sometimes get simpler.

Science historian George Dyson has another observation about interspecies linguistic contact. “During the years I spent kayaking along the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska,” he says, “I observed that the local raven populations spoke in distinct dialects, corresponding surprisingly closely to the geographic divisions between the indigenous human language groups.”

Irene Pepperberg says, “I believe, but can’t prove, that human language evolved from a combination of gesture and innate vocalizations …. and that birds will provide the best model for language evolution.”

Pepperberg studies the cognitive and communicative abilities of other species, including African Grey parrots. Her oldest parrot, Alex, can answer questions about shape and color, such as “which color bigger?” about, say, a small orange square and a big green triangle.

She and her colleagues are also training Alex on phonemes, speech sounds like “ssss” or “ssshh,” and at one point she was demonstrating her research to potential lab sponsors. Alex correctly identified a sound, she said, “Good parrot,” and Alex said, “wanna nut,” that being the usual reward.

“Well, I don’t want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait,” Pepperberg says. “We’re going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.”

That’s actually from a different Edge paper by Pepperberg, “That Damn Bird” (search for parrot), but it’s too delightful not to share.