Two Ways To Believe
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
In 1959, the novelist and scientist C.P. Snow published a short book, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” arguing that scientists and humanists were no longer able to communicate with each other because of the loss of a common language. That observation has always been a useful paradigm. Many of us are unable to judge or even understand the science behind complex climate models. When faced with what we can’t explain, Lewis Wolpert tells us, we often turn to magic, or religion, or sometimes delusion, for an explanation.
Mr. Wolpert’s book-length essay, “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast” (Norton, 256 pages, $25.95) sets out, using the tools of evolutionary biology, to explore the nature of belief. Although he concedes several times that his argument is speculative and describes himself as a reductionist materialist atheist Mr. Wolpert offers a way, not to reconcile the sciences and all our other belief systems, but to see them as two different products of the human mind. The trip, while offering readers many opportunities for contentious mental arguments with his observations, more than meets Mr. Wolpert’s goal of providing an interesting and enlightening journey.
According to Mr. Wolpert, causal beliefs come to us early, usually in childhood, and are very hard to change. He argues that we seek evidence to prove them right, and ignore evidence to the contrary. We use a system of simple beliefs, or heuristics, to make snap judgments: availability (whether we can link an observation to something we already know), representativeness (whether a phenomenon is like something we already know), and anchoring (a fixed number, even an exaggerated one, makes a proposition seem more likely).
Mr. Wolpert argues that explaining how things happened allowed early humans to develop tools and that the use of basic tools and, later, technology encouraged brain development. In contrast to animals, we understand force. And understanding the impact that one thing can have on another, the effect of the accurately thrown rock on the fruit hanging out of reach, opens the mind to the next technological innovation.
Mr. Wolpert acknowledges that his view that tools drove mental development is a minority one; the more widely accepted theory is that social development drove tool-making. He poses a rhetorical question: If you were going into the jungle, would you want a friend or an ax? I think I would prefer the friend — I’d rather have two human minds solving innumerable problems together, rather than one tool, even if my mind would allow me to use it in novel ways. Mr. Wolpert doesn’t give enough credit to human networking or to its impact on creativity.
Scientific beliefs are different, in Mr. Wolpert’s view from other causal beliefs. Scientific belief is communal, with peer-reviewed contributions available from the entire community. Scientific beliefs can be falsified and modified. They require a deeper way of thinking about the mechanisms of cause and effect, and are frequently based on statistical and mathematical analysis. Science, Mr. Wolpert concludes, unlike religion or similar belief systems, must always leave unanswered questions, despite the intensely human need to understand the whys of the universe. Unlike C.P. Snow, and other philosophers of science, including Karl Popper, Mr. Wolpert argues that science has no ethical or moral content. It’s rather the use — technology — that gives rise to moral and ethical issues. Here he goes too far; because of the human nature of science, its practitioners have a responsibility to be open to the possibility that their hypotheses are wrong.
Still, Mr. Wolpert raises an interesting point: Many scientists profess to believe in a revealed religion (though their number is fewer than in the general population). Mr. Wolpert sees one world in which people share a way of believing. And he believes that, because it’s what we do that matters, this world has room for belief in God, belief in paranormal phenomena, and simultaneous trust, or belief, in the conclusions of science. This unexpected conclusion is one of many surprises Mr. Wolpert offers the reader. This is the book of an inquiring mind, resonant with many other works and eager to share its knowledge.
Ms. Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn.