Comprehending reality – Should we give up so easily?

The Edge question is an annual event. Publisher John Brockman poses an interesting question to a large number of scientists, thinkers, academics and writers. He publishes their answers on the Edge website and usually, later,  as a book*

The 2012 question is:

What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, Or Beautiful Explanation?

Andrei Linde, Stanford University

There are answers from 190 people – many you will know, some you won’t, but all are thoughtful and stimulating. I am starting to read through them and found the first really intriguing. It’s from Andrei Linde, Professor of Physics at Stanford University and originator of the Chaotic Inflation Cosmological theory, and has the title Why Is Our World Comprehensible?

Here’s an extract:

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” This is one of the most famous quotes from Albert Einstein. “The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Similarly, Eugene Wigner said that the unreasonable efficiency of mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Thus we have a problem that may seem too metaphysical to be addressed in a meaningful way: Why do we live in a comprehensible universe with certain rules, which can be efficiently used for predicting our future?

One could always respond that God created the universe and made it simple enough so that we can comprehend it. This would match the words about a miracle and an undeserved gift. But shall we give up so easily? Let us consider several other questions of a similar type. Why is our universe so large? Why parallel lines do not intersect? Why different parts of the universe look so similar? For a long time such questions looked too metaphysical to be considered seriously. Now we know that inflationary cosmology provides a possible answer to all of these questions. Let us see whether it might help us again.

I like his point, his response to a “god did it!”answer provided by the theologically-inclined.

Should we give up so easily?

Linde explains how modern cosmological theory leads to the possibility of regions of the universe where “different laws of the low energy physics operate” – the “multiverse” concept.

“In some of these universes, quantum fluctuations are so large that any computations are impossible. Mathematics there is inefficient because predictions cannot be memorized and used. Lifetime of some of these universes is too short. Some other universes are long living but laws of physics there do not allow existence of anybody who could live sufficiently long to learn physics and mathematics.”


“We can only live in those universes where the laws of physics allow our existence, which requires making reliable predictions. In other words, mathematicians and physicists can only live in those universes which are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”

And he concludes that while some people may dismiss his ideas as “wild speculation:”

 It seems very intriguing, however, that in the context of the new cosmological paradigm, which was developed during the last 30 years, we might be able, for the first time, to approach one of the most complicated and mysterious problems which bothered some of the best scientists of the 20th century.

*Previous questions/books include:


And so on – back to 1998.

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15 responses to “Comprehending reality – Should we give up so easily?

  1. Postulating a deity isn’t “giving up” as you claim, but a logical inference based on the data. Earth just happens to be in the Goldilocks zone of our star. This cosmos just happens to be the ONE in 10^500 universes that is stable enough to support life. Humans just happened to be the fortunate species that developed minds to comprehend all this. Fluke or put-up job? Of course science doesn’t stop there, because the question of “How” and “Who” is very much alive.


  2. Ropata, historically it has been and still is. Newton said his god did it when he couldn’t explain the planetary plane and stability mathematically.

    This is also the approach taken by the ID people like Behe and Plantinga – basically the argument from ignorance.

    It’s a science stopper.

    That’s why Libde’s comment appealed to me.


  3. The “multi-universe” theory runs the risk of also beinf a science stopper unfortunatly.

    If the answer is always “because we happen to be in a universe such that this happens” then this could also potentially stop people from asking questions.


  4. Max, only if it is approached in the theological manner of predetermined idea to support a conclusion.

    “Multiverse” ideas are basically science speculation – but they are more than faith or religious conviction. This is because they arise naturally as predictions from inflationary cosmological theories and particle physics theories (which are very much evidence based). They are speculative because, as yet, there is no firm verification against reality. There are some provocative bits of evidence from the cosmic microwave radiation. But I suspect we will have to wait for the ability to detect gravitational waves before we can get reliable evidence one way or the other.

    My impression is that the acceptance of this speculative idea is actually gathering support – because of it’s theoretical basis – not for any religious reason at all.

    However, it is rightly classified as speculation – the usual attitude is not to spend time lamenting our evidential limits in this regard but to get on with observing and understanding this universe. That will keep us going for a very long time.

    I see no evidence of any “science stopping” in this regard. Science must always have room for speculation and for weird and wonderful, fanciful, speculation, at that. But because of it’s epistemological reliance on interaction with reality such speculation is recognised for what it is and given the harsh sort of critique customary in science.

    In general, scientists are quite happy to say “We don’t know!” (Partly because it keeps us in the job of finding out). But speculation is very much allowed. It’s just that we recognise it for what it is.

    Notice Linde used the approach: “we might be able, for the first time, to approach “

    He wasn’t claiming his speculation was “gospel” was he? He wasn’t being “theological!”


  5. Postulating a deity isn’t “giving up” as you claim, but a logical inference based on the data.

    It’s magical thinking.
    Looking at a tree and remarking on how pretty it is does not translate into evidence of Vishnu.

    (1) Isn’t X amazing!
    (2) I don’t understand how X could be, without something else (that I don’t really understand either) making or doing X.
    (3) This something else must be God because I can’t come up with a better explanation.
    (4) Therefore, God exists.

    Earth just happens to be in the Goldilocks zone of our star. This cosmos just happens to be the ONE in 10^500 universes that is stable enough to support life.

    Dumb. Deeply, madly dumb.
    The cosmos is big.
    Very, very big.
    We have a planet. Just a tiny planet.
    Cosmos big. Our planet small. Ok?
    The cosmos is filled with stuff that can kill us. We only get a planet (more specifically only parts of a planet) where we can live in relative stablilty.

    Neil Degrasse Tyson – Stupid Design


  6. If you prefer to think of the universe as hostile (filled with stuff that kills us!) and stupid, that’s your problem.


  7. If you prefer to think of the universe as hostile (filled with stuff that kills us!) and stupid, that’s your problem.

    It’s not just the Universe. Our own planet is inhospitable.
    We only get to live safely on a small part of it.
    You are indulging in magical, childish thinking and focusing on the nice pretties. There is no science there. It’s just Jack Chick Creationism.

    Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. – Douglas Adams


  8. The ability to comprehend the world, at least in part, is a survival characteristic, a result of natural selection. So it’s not so much that the world is comprehensible but that we are tailored to a suitable level of understanding of it by natural selection.


  9. Richard Christie

    yes, I know enough to get by, so does my goldfish.


  10. Cedric. Your response seems to have little to do with what I actually said.


  11. Your response seems to have little to do with what I actually said.

    Get used to disappointment, you liar.


  12. Richard Christie

    > Your response seems to have little to do with what I actually said.

    Get used to disappointment, you liar.

    ? ?

    Calm down chaps 🙂 , until this Cedric appeared to be addressing Ropata’s contributions to the comments.


  13. What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, Or Beautiful Explanation? Here is mine for the ultimate Reality which emanates and sustains this Universe:

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.


  14. Max, Lee Smolin agrees with you (as I linked above without comment)


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