Science 'solves' mysteries
Eusapia Palladino online

Mysterian thinking

Rees_portrait.small Humans may be incapable of solving the ultimate mysteries of the universe. So says Martin Rees, cosmologist and president of the Royal Society, in an interview with the Sunday Times yesterday - a view that the paper treated as headline news.

Rees thinks problems such as the existence of parallel universes, the cause of the big bang, or the nature of our own consciousness are just too difficult for our puny brains to resolve. He points out that the discoverers of relativity and quantum mechanics were able to use mathematical models developed by mathematicians decades earlier, whereas the maths does not yet exist which could unify the two.

The Times wheeled in BBC science presenter Brian Cox to provide the more 'optimistic' view, that the idea that some things are beyond us to understand is too bleak, and history does show we can eventually overcome the most difficult of problems. And my sense is that a lot of scientists, likewise, despise 'mysterian' thinking. People like Rees, they think, just want there to be something rather mysterious about the universe, something that is beyond us to figure out, that makes it altogether more grand than if we brought it down to our level.

I'm with Rees on this, but not at all for the reasons the despisers give, which I think is just their way of explaining the paradox to themselves. With the Big Bang it's the old question: how does one explain how something comes from nothing. With consciousness, how does one explain how chemical reactions generate a sense of awareness. Specifically, what would the explanations look like? Would they be expressed mathematically, in terms of equations? What would that explain, exactly? 

The boundaries of rational thinking as a means to understand everything seem too obvious to be worth stating.  But it's not at all the done thing to point them out, and I can sort of understand why. After five centuries of breathtaking advances in human thinking, science can't afford to impose limits on itself; if it could see the barriers ahead it would slow down and lose momentum. Better to hurl itself headlong at the problems, and only admit defeat if the mysteries are still unresolved - when? By the middle or end of the century?

Rees's remarks stimulated a couple of other reflections. One is how closely the universe he describes matches the model in spiritualist literature, for instance when he talks about other 3-D universes embedded alongside ours. "In theory," he says," there could be another entire universe less than a millimetre away from us, but we are oblivious to it because that millimetre is measured in a fourth spatial dimension and we are imprisoned in just three."  This echoes the idea, which seems to derive from channelling, that the deceased inhabit exactly the same space as ourselves, a world of their own superimposed on ours.

Then we might remember that, for some, mystical contemplation has been regarded as the true way to complete knowledge. Mind control and spiritual practice - or in the case of people like Meister Eckhart - just being born with a certain kind of consciousness, can bring - so they tell us - insights into the ultimate nature of Being and Reality. An understanding that is intuitively felt is clearly different from one that can be written down on a piece of paper, but I wonder if it would seem, to those who experience it, any less meaningful. My guess is that, on the contrary, it would seem a lot more so.





Comments

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It strikes me as illogical to dismiss another person's experience based on the fact that we have never experienced a similar event and cannot envisage it. I am not saying that means we must accept their reports, but dismissing them without adequate explanation seems unreasonable.

Rees simply seems open-minded to me. I find Cox somewhat patronising and hard to listen to for long.

"The boundaries of rational thinking as a means to understand everything seem too obvious to be worth stating."

And even more obvious is that irrational thinking gets us into the realms of fantasy. While rational thinking gets us technology, vaccines and a chance that our civilization can last long enough to become spacefaring.


"But it's not at all the done thing to point them out, and I can sort of understand why. After five centuries of breathtaking advances in human thinking, science can't afford to impose limits on itself; if it could see the barriers ahead it would slow down and lose momentum."

Science already has imposed limits on itself, with particle physics. Certain energies used to probe smaller and smaller regions of spacetime get so high that we may never be able to produce them. This isn't having the effect on science you describe; science isn't losing momentum.

"Better to hurl itself headlong at the problems, and only admit defeat if the mysteries are still unresolved - when? By the middle or end of the century?"

Science should never admit defeat, as all discoveries are provisional. Science is ongoing and the universe is a mystery that acts like a siren call to scientists. Even if the minds we evolved with are incapable of grasping how the deep workings of the (multi?)universe functions we could create artificial minds at some point, or genetically engineer our own specifically to understand the more weird aspects of deep reality.

We are the species that sees itself as god-like. Maybe this is just because our hands let us do all kinds of things the other animals can't. We naturally feel superior to them. But just because we are the cleverest thing on 3-D Earth doesn't mean we are really all that clever! Like all the other creatures here, we are very limited. We are certain abilities, and they are not infinite.

The singularity movement is pure fantasy. We cannot create anything more intelligent than ourselves. We didn't create our own intelligence and we don't even know what it is.

"The singularity movement is pure fantasy. We cannot create anything more intelligent than ourselves. We didn't create our own intelligence and we don't even know what it is."

Not all of the transhumanists are guilty of wishful thinking. Some are more practical.
Saying that we can't create anything more intelligent than ourselves is mere assertion. It may take us a few centuries but as we gain more understanding of our own neural complexity and quantum computing we may be able to construct minds greater than ours.

@realpc

There's no reason why artificial intelligence won't eventually overcome human intelligence. Determinism suggests that our brains are experience and decision engines, constantly building models. If we can create rudimentary AI using environmental modelling techniques (and such simple learning software is already used in off the shelf robot vacuum cleaners), then we can be fairly optimistic that we can create more complex decision engines in the future as technology advances and our knowledge of the mechanisms of organic intelligence grows.

"And even more obvious is that irrational thinking gets us into the realms of fantasy. While rational thinking gets us technology, vaccines and a chance that our civilization can last long enough to become spacefaring."

Yeah, imagine, using irrational thought-experiments involving people riding on beams of light to try to obtain practical knowledge! That kind of nonsense won't get us anywhere! What did that silly impractical fellow Einstein really have to offer us, anyway?

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