Saturday, November 06, 2004

Incomprehensible world?

That's another light, physically philosophical posting from sci.physics.research where backdoorstudent replied to one of my texts.

When I wrote:

"You don't seem to appreciate how amazing it is that the world satisfies some simple enough comprehensible laws at all,"

backdoorstudent replied:
  • Of course I do. I think almost everybody reading this newsgroup does.
I've quoted his sentence in order to highlight that he contradicted himself below. The exchange continued like that:
  • I know. And I'm getting sick of hearing everybody parrot it around as their mantra. And if you insist on presuming that it must be that way you may miss out on finding out something more accurate about the world. Because our experience of the world being this way is a very short one so far, and it is an idealist extrapolation to think it will continue forever. I am not saying I believe it won't. I'm just saying keep your mind open to other possibilities.
I cannot really keep open mind about this question whether science should eventually declare the world incomprehensible. Of course that science cannot declare the world incomprehensible - simply because its purpose is just the opposite. If science ever does so and declares the world (or a piece of it) permanently incomprehensible, it would mean that science ceases to exist. What you say is a logical oxymoron, as I describe below in more detail.
  • Would you really be surprised if the world was ultimately incomprehensible?
First of all, the world is definitely not *completely* incomprehensible. It's not only largely comprehensible, but we have already understood quite a lot.

Your question contradicts reality, as well as Einstein's quote that you agreed with at the very beginning. So I suppose you wanted to ask whether I would have been surprised if *some* features of the world would remain incomprehensible.

But even this restricted question is actually nonsensical.

The essential point is that science can *never* lead to the conclusion that something is incomprehensible. It's just an oxymoron. Science can reveal that some aspects of the Universe are probabilistic; or they are environmental details that are hardly predictable because they depend on too many things that are more or less random.

But even in these two cases, the insight that implies these statements brings us a better *understanding* of reality, and it must be so, otherwise the argument would have no scientific value. The only real reason why we believe the statement of quantum mechanics that only probabilities can be predicted is the highly quantitatively successful agreement of quantum mechanics with experiments.

In science, something's being "incomprehensible" is always a temporary state of the affairs.

One can never prove, in science, that something is "incomprehensible", simply because the very meaning of science is to understand things better. Things may *look* incomprehensible to us until we comprehend them. But it's just logically impossible to imagine that someone proves that something is inherently and permanently "incomprehensible".

Therefore your question whether I would be surprised, if you ask it as a serious scientific question, does not really make sense - the answer can be both "yes" and "no" because the assumption of your sentence can never occur. There will never be a moment in which something in the Universe will be scientifically identified as "permanently incomprehensible", and therefore I will never have the opportunity to be surprised by this impossible insight.

What can happen is that someone will *claim* that some features of the world are permanently incomprehensible. In that case, I won't be surprised - I will only be skeptical about the value of this claim.

The idea that someone will make a discovery that something is incomprehensible (not just random, but hiding some important non-random facts that are inherently unavailable to the scientists) and science will be limited is just a totally non-scientific, medieval idea. No doubt, many powerful people in religion, philosophy, social sciences and humanities - both left-wing and right-wing people - would love to prove that science will never understand something about the material world around - but such an "insight" is simply impossible in science.

Even if one imagines that there exists a hypothetical pattern, insight, mechanism, or a piece of knowledge about Nature that can't be comprehended by the humans, in science, we will never know for sure that this insight is incomprehensible.
  • If this is really what you mean by "ugliness" then it looks to me as though we have indeed reached that place of being not robust with too many arbitrary components. Am I wrong?
By "too many arbitrary components", do you mean the field contents of the nu-Standard Model and its 30 parameters? Do you realize that these components explain all of the billions of observations we have ever made? It's amazing, and it's not the end of science yet. This is why we're working to understand even the last "incomprehensible" components of our theories of reality.


  1. Lubos,

    I'm in general sympathy with the point of view that you state. However, I think the question becomes much more interesting if we ask "what does "comprehensible" mean?" In physics, presumably the answer is relatively straightforward, but what does it mean with regard to, e.g., the functioning of our own brains?


  2. Lubos,

    I'm in general sympathy with the point of view that you state. However, I think the question becomes much more interesting if we ask "what does "comprehensible" mean?" In physics, presumably the answer is relatively straightforward, but what does it mean with regard to, e.g., the functioning of our own brains?


  3. Hi Arun,
    thanks, it's of course a good question.

    I don't know whether one can define the word "comprehensible" objectively, or whether we need subjective notions about our feelings and brains.

    First of all, comprehensible means "able to be understood". That's clear how these words are used, so the question is what it means to understand something.

    OK, operationally, by understanding I mean being able to predict all aspects of an object or a phenomenon that look regular - or, alternatively, the psychological feeling that there is no mystery waiting for us that underlies the way how something works.

    Do you have a better definition?

    All the best

  4. Hi Lubos,

    Arun's point is excellent!

    I surmise the following
    further points (to back Arun up):

    In the brains of most fairly mature humans [or IOW, amongst the "actention modules" (~= fairly discrete neural program structures) that constitute the "Actention Selection System" (ASS) of advanced anthropoids ;>] there is approximatley a module (underpinned by complementary sub modules) that, especially when endogenously and environmentally sufficiently energized to fire in a focused and predominant (partly because of its active "lateral inhibitory" exclusion of other functionally/adaptively incompatible actention modules) neuropsychological pattern within the ASS, correlate with (or constitute) a pronounced scientific/reductionistic mindset and ditto type of preoccupation.

    Other "actention modules" supply, for example: a sense of curiosity (about certain things); positive or eustressful (another module a negative or distressful) excitement; a sense of beauty; and a feeling of understanding.

    This somewhat separate existence, of "a module for feeling that one understands", provides the possibility that such a feeling can eventuate whether OR NOT one's thinking/ideas do (in a rational/scientific or intuitive way) accurately reflect some aspect (any aspect other than the ideas
    themselves) of 'What Is'.

    Whether these ideas pertain to fundamental physics or to 'neuropsychophysics' does not matter.

    A labyrinthine metaphor:

    As we run in the narrowing direction down the 'enlightment cone', psychology reduces to biology and biology to physics and physics to
    psychology. And, (as we all know :>) this
    cone is can not only be considered to be a "Moebious Band-like" but "an *empty* Kline Bottle-like" construct [one that especially no claustrophobic or agoraphobic string/M (or K) theorist would like to imagine themselves caught within] in which we can hear Logic having the last laugh as it asks: "What is What Is?".

    Conclusion: A toe is to a foot what a TOE is to a 'Foremost Overview Of Truth'



  5. Fascinating. I'm not a hard science person unfortunately but I really enjoy these kinds of epistemological questions.

    Reviewing your post (but not the previous discussion that provoked it) I had a couple of thoughts, some of which might be out of left field to you since I'm definitely a layman here.

    * "Incomprehensibility" would seem to me to be affected a great deal by the perpective of the observer in terms of the scale of magnitude of their frame of reference.

    * The act of selecting or using a previously understood and commonly accepted frame of reference to try and understand incomprehensible phenomena creates an automatic bias that mitigates strongly against recognizing the most significant aspects of the phenomena we find incomprehensible ( If we could see the aspects it would comprehensible).

    * We might be more productive, cognizant and creative observers/thinkers if we more actively tried to turn our common assumptions on their head before engaging in thought experiments with incomprehensible characteristics.

    * I wonder to what extent having our five senses/3 dimensionally driven cognitive development ( in terms of heritable brain structure and environmental response neuronal connections/adaptions)creates enormous blind spots in terms of recognizing what is truly significant phenomena. I suppose that's the purpose of mathematics, to get around human perception and subjective interpretation but we are still framing our original questions around that frame of reference.

    Is this an intractable problem or one that can be solved either by new forms of math or new forms of intelligence like AI ?

    * Drawing political or moral conclusions from the current epistemological limitations of human comprehension is a logical error. For one thing the state of human comprehension is dynamic, not static. Secondly, much of these limitations exist on extremes of scale and bear little relative analogy to normal human scale actions in which we make moral or political judgements

    Very interesting post. I'll be adding you to my blogroll !

  6. Hey Mark! Thanks for your interesting and deep comments, your warm words, and for your having signed yourself. ;-) Unfortunately i'm too busy now for the kind of answer that would be appropriate after your insightful reasoning...


  7. Understood ! Time is a harsh taskmaster.

    best !