Thursday, November 12, 2009

Discuss 15

'... the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.'
Albert Einstein


  1. I thought that was Oscar Wilde. The footman in Lady Windermere's Synthesis Theory of Physical Cosmology and Quantum Gravity.

  2. The relationship between mind and cosmos is indeed an astonishing thing; that mathematics can yield predictions so effectively, miraculous.

  3. ...the most comprehensible thing about Einstein is that he is incomprehensible.--God

  4. It's sad, but inevitable, to see Einstein gradually drifting into the teeming ranks of "geniuses who turned out to be wrong." He had the best facial hair of them all.

  5. Might have been comprehensible to him.

  6. This puts me in mind of another quote, by Einstein's arch-foe in the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, Niels Bohr. He once said to a younger physicist:

    'We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.'

    The 'comprehensible by whom' question, that James raises, is deeper I think than it looks. It speaks of mankind as idealised community, at least that's what I think lies behind our language on the subject. Including Einstein's we above. And Bohr's. Let's face it, most of us don't comprehend as much as those two - but their disagreements suggest that they did not grok all either. Despite all, our shared language testifies of hope in the 'power of we', as Fritz Kunkel used to call it.

    This area is the source of some of the best jokes going and that, I feel sure, is by design - by a personality for whom community is not accident, but essence.

  7. The quotation, without context, is a sonic screwdriver with an empty battery chamber.
    After a night out with Marilyn Monroe, and to the sounds of constantly jeering students walking past his corner office window, Einstien reputedly muttered, '... the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.'

  8. I have always assumed that this was Einstein's pithy anticipation of Wigner's Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics argument. Sorry, I should have made it clearer.

  9. In a universe which supports the natural evolution of cognitive species, it's perfectly comprehensible that those species develop the capabilities to comprehend their universe.

    How are we to explain the effectiveness of mathematics in representing our own universe? Well, the mind supervenes upon the brain, and the brain is the outcome of evolution by natural selection, hence the basic cognitive operating system of the human mind has been shaped in response to the structure of the natural world.

    There may, of course, be other universes totally different to ours, which also support the existence of cognitive species. Those universes might be comprehensible to their endogeneous cognitive species, but totally incomprensible to us.

    There may also be universes which don't support the existence of any cognitive species, and which are comprehensible to nothing...

  10. In a universe which supports the natural evolution of cognitive species...

    But why would it? Is that also comprehensible?

    I'm sure Chris is right, Einstein was saying in typically terse fashion what Wigner said at much greater length. What Wigner called unreasonable, Einstein called incomprehensible.

    For me though the key words that distinguish people are a bit different.

    Some, surveying the vast span of the universe in time and space, or merely experiencing, from the inside, the resulting consciousness, cognition, free will - whatever you want to call it - have a tremendous desire to say "thank you". And others must definitely don't.

    The cool thing is, I don't think anyone can force another human being to say thank you. But I still think it does 'em a power of good if they finally do.

  11. There may be universes which don't support the evolution of cognitive species, just as much as our universe does support them.

    In those universes which do support the existence of cognitive species, the existence of such species follows from the physical properties of those universes, and the absence of contradiction in those properties.

    Those people who have no need to say 'thank-you' for our universe simply recognize the difference between people and the natural world.

  12. Einstein may have meant this:


    We can only comprehend those parts of the universe which are comprehensible. Anything else is beyond our ken. But, how amazing that there is just so much that we can comprehend, that we can do the math, figure out which stars are made of what, and so forth. As Sagan put it, "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." So there is always incomprehensibly more to comprehend.

    However, this type of thinking also leads to noting that there is the set of all that is comprehensible, and the set of things that are incomprehensible. Everything possible and impossible goes into one or the other set. And we know from Discuss 14 that per Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor "Florensky saw a relationship between the naming of 'God' and the naming of sets in set theory: both God and sets were made real by their naming. In fact, the 'set of all sets' might be God himself."

    So here we are pointing at what is incomprehensible, the possibility of God, and we would miss it through our inability to comprehend.

    But, I am not completely convinced that this line of thinking, with all the permutations and tangents that are left unmentioned, is what Einstein had in mind. He may also have meant this:


    "[T]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that" we can comprehend at all, that we are not zombies. There is no need for us not to be, when we look at the universe objectively, as if it is an object to comprehend. We would not say that a computer comprehends anything, that the best droid we could make could be like us. Why us. Why are we who?

    This second way of considering Einstein's use of "comprehensibility" makes sense, because the quote does not indicate that the universe is partially comprehensible, or so (whoa!) gosh darn comprehensible, but "that it is comprehensible" indeed. Furthermore, he indicates that we have our most trouble comprehending that the universe is comprehensible.

    Let's work this logically. If the universe is comprehensible, then the entire universe (not just parts of it, and certainly not just the figured-out parts of it, but the universe in total) is within the set of all things comprehensible. Besides the universe in this set of all comprehensible things, are items from our imagination. This brings up another Sagan quote: "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere." But, we have crossed the line, from objectivity to subjectivity, where lies our comprehension, in which we find our universe. The universe is within each of us. Imagine.

  13. Gordon:

    It says rather pithily at the start of the Gospel of John, 1:18, "No one has ever seen God." (It says more than that. It also uses exactly the same phrase in the first epistle ascribed to the same guy, 4:12, in a different, extremely fruitful context. I recommend both passages.)

    But is it not equally true to say "No one has ever seen another universe"? So this is an extra-scientific belief you have brought into the discussion. Or perhaps you would say it's a piece of the imagination, of the kind that would win approval from Carl Sagan (god among men)?

    Isn't it also true to say that within the one universe we can see, the beings you call cognitive are the ones we know of that talk, and do science, and pray, and tell jokes, and invent other worlds? (And talk angrily among themselves about those that pray and refuse to listen to the really good scientists, or the other way round, and organize armies, etc, etc.)

    These are a few of the strange facts we actually have to deal with. I have never found the idea of other universes, most of which don't have the complication of cognitive beings in them, helps me much with the difficult stuff in this one. (If I want another world, I much prefer Tolkien to Everett, not least because the latter multiplies the critters something rotten, and never tells a decent story in any of them. And that's before one starts changing the laws of physics before positing another darned multitude of the things.)

    It may be my personal problem but it always feels to me like the guy who can't answer the very difficult questions in the exam paper so prefers to make one up on a mystical note that he has gotten used to talk airily about, for which he hopes nobody quite has the guts to fail him.

    Comments from within another universe especially appreciated.

  14. It's difficult to determine whether the postulated existence of other universes is scientific or not. There's one line of argument, for example, which goes as follows:

    If you have a theory which explains the nature of our universe, and which entails, as a by-product, the existence of other universes, and if such a theory makes a prediction about our universe which is subsequently confirmed by observation or experiment, and if there is no other theory available with the same explanatory and predictive power, then this constitutes indirect evidence for the existence of those other universes. In other words, even if one cannot directly confirm the existence of other universes, the confirmation of a theory which predicts other universes constitutes indirect confirmation of the multiverse hypothesis.

    However, irrespective of whether the postulated existence of other universes is scientific or not, the possible existence of other universes has to be acknowledged simply from the absence of contradiction in their definition. In this sense, it's a logical issue rather than a scientific one.

  15. I'm not convinced the situation is as difficult as you suggest. The line of argument you outline (and to be fair if you're right there are bound to be better and more complete arguments being made in other universes as we speak) has a singular lack: you fail to identify the theory that has made those unexpected but successful predictions in the one universe we can actually test and that also, incontrovertibly, predicts the existence of others - not just that they might exist or would be nice-to-have, but that they actually bother to do so, in Hawking's phrase.

    Unless you are more forthcoming we could be left guessing which area of intellectual effort you are hoping will fit the bill. How long that will take ... well, how long's a piece of string? Am I warm?

  16. Proponents of 'chaotic inflation', which postulates that our universe is merely one of the 'domains' spawned by the decay of the 'false vacuum', claim that the theory makes testable predictions about the statistical fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

  17. This got me on the questioning of string theory, that it can only be postulated and not tested. Thus, it is not science but philosophy.

    Richard Feynman:

    In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compare the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is--if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.

    Joe Lykken:

    It's certainly possible that string theory is wrong. We will need experiments to tell us that. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, it doesn't matter how elegant your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are, if the experiment says it's wrong, it's wrong. This could happen with string theory, and it wouldn't be the first time. It has already happened in the history of physics several times that there have been periods of many years where all of the smart people, all of the cool people, were working on one kind of theory, moving in one kind of direction, and even though they thought it was wonderful, it turned out to be a dead end. This could happen to string theory. It doesn't matter how enthusiastic we are about it, eventually it has to work out as a physical theory with testable consequences or it will again be a dead end of physics. I don't think that will happen with string theory, but we don't know yet.

    String theory is where experiments and philosophies behind hypotheses seems to have been heading. We have here a case presented to us of a hypotheses that may never be able to be tested, and is thus outside science.

    The beautiful quote from Steven Hawking:

    The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

    The never-ending "why" questions, as Sheldon Glashow gives us:

    All kinds of questions remain. Many have to do with cosmology. How did the universe originate? How did the galaxies become distributed in space like the suds in the kitchen sink, as one of my colleagues has described it? Why is the cosmological constant apparently very tiny but non-zero and has a peculiar value that leads the universe to expand more rapidly?

    These are some of the questions. I can give you a list of 30 or 40 questions. If they answer three or four of them, I get interested in string theory. They're answering a bunch of questions, but their questions lie completely within string theory, which has nothing to do with experiment. I want to see the questions answered that puzzle me, that affect me, like why are there six quarks?

    (Thanks to Mr. Flip.)

  18. Ah yes, chaotic inflation. What happens when the unprecedented and totally unforeseen experiment with quantitative easing and very low interest rates spins out of control.

    Still, I have more faith in the Bank of England guiding us through the current cognitive-being-stupidity situation than in speculations whose primary motivation seems to be to remove the astounding fine-tuning of the universe at Planck time from plain sight - though the fine-tuning needed to make chaotic inflation 'work' (and even then it doesn't) makes a nonsense of all that. Add superstrings to the morsel of time before Planck and ... well, of course, Feynmann was right, as usual. And note he wasn't a theist, just a good scientist. This is all about good science versus (at best) the mediocre variety.

    But it's also about the genuine 'shock and awe' of those good (often non-theistic) scientists like Hoyle in the second half of the 20th century - the discovery of the background radiation, though ignored as instrument error for a long while, was surely more important to what the sixties became than the Beatles - as they realised where the data was taking us all, to the most remarkable set of coincidences at Planck time as the only possible way of leading to something as unlikely and wondrous as us (wondrous even with the world-changing-data-ignoring and inflation-stoking-quantitative-easing stupidity factors fully taken into account).

    It's a complex business all the way down the line but when I wrote earlier about the desire to say thank you I probably didn't do it justice. It's more like "THANK YOU, THAT IS STUPENDOUS, YOU ARE INCREDIBLE, JESUS!" Incredible indeed, as others would say, as they postulate not just one but multiverses, with a 'zero measure' of awe. Which shows to my mind that they don't really believe it at all, they're just running scared of the astounding improbabilities that have turned up in their own backyard, more or less for certain, through nothing more than the trusty old scientific method.