Monday, June 7, 2010

Things People Believe

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about religious belief. Today I want to talk about other beliefs that people have. Things that cannot be proven, but that people still believe to be true.

For example, a lot of people believe that scientists will one day discover a unified theory of everything. This belief relies on the assumption that all of nature has an underlying order to it and that human beings can, through careful study, determine what that order is.

It seems reasonable to think that this is the case, but what evidence do we have that this is true? The only evidence we have is that past scientific theories have made some very successful predictions. We assume that science will continue to produce better, more complete theories until they have found an ultimate theory that explains everything.

It seems likely that scientific progress will continue to advance, but it is difficult to prove that science will necessarily advance.

To give another example, many people believe that human history is a story of continuous progress; that human beings today are morally and intellectually superior to human beings a thousand years ago, and that human beings a thousand years from know will be even further along, both morally and intellectually.

This belief is even more problematic. We can certainly make the case that technology has advanced in the past thousand years, but it is hard to make the case that moral knowledge has advanced in that time. If anything, advances in technology and industry have allowed us to commit even worse atrocities in modern times.

Another common belief people have is that we will one day create human-level artificial intelligence; that we will one day program computers to perform all of the mental tasks that a human being is capable of.

This last belief seems likely to me. It seems probable that we will one day have computers able to perform all the same tasks as the human brain. Either computer scientists or neurologists could one day understand the human brain well enough to simulate it in a computer.

This last belief raises a lot of interesting ethical questions. If this belief is true, and we do develop such intelligences, we will need to consider what rights they have and how they deserve to be treated.

There are, of course, many more beliefs people hold that I could talk about. the world is full of interesting ideas that remain unproven.

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