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All that stuff that we really don't know anything about, and never will, but are compelled to contemplate anyway.

So that's why my life flashed before my eyes...

In 1992, Thaler shocked the world with bizarre experiments in which the neurons within artificial neural networks were randomly destroyed. Guess what? The nets first relived all of their experiences (i.e., life review) and then, within advanced stages of destruction, generated novel experience. With this very compelling model of near-death experience (NDE) hopes for a supernatural or mystical explanation of this much celebrated phenomena were forever dashed.

Dr. Stephen Thaler, President & CEO, Imagination Engines, Incorporated

A Question of Belief have posed an interesting question [courtesy MeFi] to a collection of "scientists and science-minded thinkers": "WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?" (It's just the latest in a series of annual questions.) Many of the answers are thought-provoking, or instructive (even though most are simply restatements of that thinker's area of interest in the form of an "unprovable" "assertion"). The zeitgeist implicit in their answers is interesting, too. John Brockman writes:

This year there's a focus on consciousness, on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof. If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty.

We are in the age of "searchculture", in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it?

This is an alternative path. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis.

Maybe it says that. Maybe it says that this is how science actually works: Having hunches, then trying to prove them, which is really what most of the answers are about. Some of them get more fundamental, as when Richard Dawkins answers:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.

... which is a remarkably blunt and honest thing for him to say, since it faces head-on the core weakness of his anti-ID positions. I personally think ID is a load of horse-hockey, but I don't think it can be countered with "proof" that it can't work any more than we can solve the first-mover conundrum. I'm glad Dawkins doesn't shy away from that. I'm not always crazy about the way he formulates ideas ("selfish gene" theory still seems too simplisticly reactionary to me, nearly 20 years after I first heard of it), but he is nevertheless one of the most able and vigorous opponents of ID, so it behooves me to pay attention to what he's saying out there.

In any case, while the Q&A is intriquing, in many cases (and as I've noted) it's largely a matter of researchers restating their research-focus as though it were a controversial idea. [bonehead @ MeFi observes, "... scratch post-docs or hungry assistant profs for real wild-eyed speculation. Of course, most of them will be wrong (entertainingly so), but that's where the future Nobels are too."] And I don't think Brockman is really giving credit to scientific process: Believing something you can't prove is usually how anything valuable and previously unknown gets to be learned. Call it a hunch, call it belief; the process whereby that belief is substantiated (though hardly evern "proved" in a strict logicalist sense) is what we know as science. And I'm not altogether sure that Brockman groks that.

Brockman also seems to think there's a new way of being an intellectual:

... There is also evidence here that the[se] scientists are thinking beyond their individual fields. Yes, they are engaged in the science of their own areas of research, but more importantly they are also thinking deeply about creating new understandings about the limits of science, of seeing science not just as a question of knowing things, but as a means of tuning into the deeper questions of who we are and how we know.

It may sound as if I am referring to a group of intellectuals, and not scientists. In fact, I refer to both. In 1991, I suggested the idea of a third culture, which "consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world 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. "

I believe that the scientists of the third culture are the pre-eminent intellectuals of our time. But I can't prove it.

This idea of "Third Culture" scientists is worth exploring, but it's a topic for another time. Suffice for now to say that I don't see anything sufficiently new that a new organizing principle is required; in fact, I think a concept like "third culture" has more potential to alienate thinkers from cross-pollination than it does to encourage them. A bit like "brights" in that regard.

But that's an issue I haven't got time to take on right now....

We Are All Nought But The Fantasies Of Tommy Westphall

According to Keith Gow (and, apparently, prolific producer Tom Fontana), the lion's share of American television since 1951 were imagined by St. Elsewhere character Tommy Westphall.
"Here's the thing," Fontana has remarked:

[...] "It's my personal plot that all of television exists in the mind of Tommy Westphall, to this day. So 'Homicide' is still the musings; it's just that instead of looking at a hospital snow globe," as he did in the "St. Elsewhere" finale, "now he's looking at the police headquarters building snow globe.

"And because," Fontana adds, "we did the 'Cheers' crossover" â?? a few "St. Elsewhere" characters visited the Boston bar â?? "it would make all of 'Cheers,' which would then make all of 'Frasier,' also in the mind of Tommy Westphall. It only gets bigger and bigger and bigger."

Another conspiracy Fontana supports, with Richard Belzer, is placing Belzer's character of Munch on as many shows as possible. So far, the wry "Homicide" detective has appeared on "The Beat," "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "The X-Files" and, in cartoon form, "The Simpsons."

Keith Gow and compatriots at places like Crossovers and Spin Off Master List [CSOML] have taken the ramifications of St. Elsewhere [imdb] and Homicide: Life On The Street [imdb] crossovers out to many layers of hierarchy, extending as far back as 1951 [xls] (I Love Lucy), and including (so far) 164 television shows.

The St. Elsewhere/Homicide crossover universe are at the core of "Group 2" in the taxonomy of "shared realities" at the CSOML, and some of the ramifications can get mind-bending. For example, St. Elsewhere crosses over with the original Bob Newhart Show; since Newhart's 'Bob Hartley' actually dreamed an entire series, that made the entire run of Newhart a dream within a dream.

Somehow, I find the idea that we're all the imaginings of a fictional autistic child strangely comforting. It's so much more accessible and sensible than the notion that we're all the creation of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and yet somehow interested deity... Contra Descartes, the universe suddenly seems to me to make more sense if I assume that God is a deceiver. Or a playful child.

[original link courtesy MeFi]

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