Cover Story: Science and Faith

What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?

We put this question to four Humboldtians. Four personal responses and thoughts on the role of the uncertain, of intuition and of faith in research.

The power of expectation

Pia Johansson
Dr. Pia Johansson, neurobio-
logist from Sweden, is a
Humboldt Research Fellow
at the Institute of Stem
Cell Research at the
Helmholtz Zentrum München.
Foto: private

I am often less inclined to believe something that is shown in preliminary data even if it is fairly convincing. This is especially so if it was not expected. I think I am not the only one who then feels inclined to do a few more methodological tests, or repeat the experiment a few more times. Even though I feel happy about not believing in data until I have truly convinced myself, I think there is an inherent danger in this approach, in that I might not be as sceptical with the more predictable data, thus perhaps skewing the outcomes. Perhaps that is where intuition comes in. Or perhaps intuition is just a way of collating past experiences and predicting the most likely outcome.

What is truth?

Michael Goodhart
Professor Dr. Michael Goodhart,
political scientist from the USA,
is a Humboldt Research Fellow
at the Hertie School of Gover-
nance in Berlin.
Foto: private

Truth is a standard that applies to logical or empirical claims; such claims are “true” just insofar as they satisfy widely accepted objective criteria of validity – internal coherence (logical claims) or the scientific method (empirical claims).

Religious claims are typically held by believers to be “true” as well, though mistakenly: the criteria of validity (e.g. “spoken by the prophet”, “written in the holy book”) are not shared or even applicable outside the community of believers. Moral claims, for instance, are neither true nor false; they are rather “right” or “wrong”. For instance, I believe it is “wrong” to cause unnecessary suffering, but this cannot be “proven” because there is no truth claim at issue (versus the empirical claim that X constitutes unnecessary suffering, or the religious claim that we should not cause such suffering because the Buddha said so). The lack of “proof” does not make my belief deficient in any way, as implied in the question “what do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Moral claims are not of the right type to be proven; they can only be argued.

Let’s trust intuition

Georgi Dvali
Professor Dr. Georgi Dvali,
physicist and cosmologist
from Georgia, will continue his
research from November 2009
as Alexander von Humboldt
Professor at LMU Munich
and the Max-Planck-Institut
für Physik in Munich.
Foto: Humboldt Foundation /
Wolfgang Reiher

Belief and intuition often go hand in hand. Intuition plays a key role in our search for the truth. Thanks to it, we very often guess the answer that otherwise would require extremely hard (or even impossible) calculations. It also helps to avoid wrong paths of reasoning, saving a lot of research time, which would be spent on endless and fruitless analysis. In this way intuition makes it possible to navigate the unknown territory of fundamental science.

Everything happens for a reason

Karl Galinsky
Professor Dr. Karl Galinsky,
classical scholar from the
USA, cooperates as Max Planck
Research Award Winner 2009
with specialist colleagues at
Ruhr-Universität Bochum.
Foto: Humboldt-Stiftung /
Axel Griesch

Cultural historians like me are not scientists who can prove in a lab “wie es war”. Even if we use empirical methods we constantly bump up against the observer effect and Pilate’s famous question “quid est veritas”? That, however, does not mean capitulating to total relativism. Most of my work is in the dynamic force field between that pole and absolute truth, which is mostly impossible to authenticate. It comes back to the old adage that the journey is better than the destination; that, for once, is a truth I can prove. On a more spiritual and theological level, yes, I believe that everything happens for a reason, although, as inhabitants of a minuscule speck in the universe, we are far from having the capacity to prove it.


Comment on article

If you are an Humboldtian and have logged in, you have the option of commenting on this article or other Humboldtians' comments. (Please read the comment guidelines first)

Comment guidelines

After logging in, Humboldtians have the option of participating in discussion of articles in Humboldt Kosmos and contributing comments of up to 1,000 characters for publication in German or English. If the comment is published it will appear under your name.

Every comment will be checked by the editors and published as soon as possible unless there are objections on legal or content grounds. The editors reserve the right to abridge and revise comments where necessary. Please bear in mind that published comments can be accessed by anyone on the Internet and may be located by search engines.

The question “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” was put by the online portal in 2005 as question of the year in its World Question Center. To find the answers of more than 120 academics and intellectuals, visit:

Diesen Artikel bookmarken: