Can you know everything?

Human being is an intelligent animal. So intelligent, that he can split an atom and move genes from one gritter to an other. This requires a lot of knowledge.

But what is knowledge? What does it mean? And how can we know that our knowledge is correct and actually represent a valid model of the objective reality?

How much potential knowledge exists in the universe? Infinitely?

It is interesting to try to understand, what infinite knowledge could mean. Is it possible for a human being to understand Life, Universe and Everything? [1]. Absolutely, completely and without missing anything relevant.

What does the word “understand” even mean? We know, that our ability to understand varies greatly between individuals. A toddler sees the world differently and an elderly Alzheimer patient is loosing a grip of reality. Even the most ingenious human being cannot understand everything, right?

If an individual is apparently dump, is he or she really, or maybe just slower? Given enough time to learn he can “understand” as much as anybody.

It is problematic to try to understand what intelligence means, because it is not democratic and puts individuals to non-equal positions. It is scary and politically incorrect.

Even so, it would be unfair to claim, that everyone is capable to understand the same things.

As a matter of fact. I do not possess any understanding of this particular issue, but the question still keeps haunting me regularly, especially if you connect it to the question of potential existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

How intelligent is a horned tentacle-legged alien? I don’t think the looks matter, only it’s capability to analyze the surrounding reality. How much more clever can an E.T. be than Homo Sapiens is?

Is there a limit to intelligence and knowledge. Something, that after you reach it, you cannot possible know anything more?

Is our definition of intelligence, what ever that is, even meaningless?

Whatever the answers to these question might be, the questions themselves seem very relevant to me, even though I cannot hope to learn a single a answer to them during my lifetime.

Do radically different variations of intelligence exist in the universe, or do we have some kind of singularity of knowledge that everything converges towards to? If that kind of infinite knowledge exists, does it take an infinite amount of time to learn it?

What kind of a place would that cosmic university be, that could teach you everything that was, is and will be.

I bet you would need to spend a lot of time sitting on your ass anyways.


[1]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life,_the_Universe_and_Everything

Man, Moral and Baker’s Yeast

Moral is often defined as human capability to separate between good and evil. Ethics, on the other hand, is philosophy of moral, which suggests that moral needs some kind of definition, being not self evident.

But what does this mean, who defines moral?

At the time I was in the elementary school back in 1960’s, it was customary to read tales from the Bible in the classroom [1]. Tales about Josef in Egypt, fight between David and Goliath, or the golden calf.

They were though to have educational value and somehow connected to the origins of moral, thus part of knowledge all kids would need.

Without doubt these tales still have a meaning to many people and I don’t have much to say about that in this context. They are typically such stories, that have been told in all cultures: they all are supposed to include a moral, something we should either learn or take as a warning.

The Bible is supposed to be literal word of God, so these morals  supposedly originate from him. When you are seven years old, tales like these affect you very easily.

There is nothing basically wrong with these stories. Stories have  always been told. But these stories are written by man, not by imaginary entities. Similarly moral, and ethics for that matter, are human concepts,  maybe originally developed with evolution to benefit the species.

It can be argued, that the basics of moral are similar in all cultures and religions:
– Thou shalt not kill
– Thou shalt not steal
– Thou shalt not commit adultery..

.. well, maybe not always. When we come to sexuality and marriage, the rules can be very different indeed, especially in some so called primitive cultures. But generally, the basic view of what is good or bad to ourselves and other people around us, is quite universal. The rules have been molded by our cultures, but the idea of good always relates to our own,  as well as our neighbors, well being.

When you take a look at the world around us, you should immediately see that the idea does not work perfectly. That is an unfortunate fact. The Bible explains the problem with the original sin, which we are still  paying a high price for.

There should be a more reasonable explanation however, but not everyone is willing to see it. The origin of moral becomes apparent, if you watch the nature around you and remember that you are part of it.

For an atheist, a moral given by God cannot be an explanation. Nor is moral relativism[3] an acceptable idea. I don’t think all moral system can be treated as equally valid.

Sam Harris explores the origin of moral in his book ”The Moral Landscape – How Science Can Determine Human Values”.  I can’t say I absolutely agree with everything Harris writes, but I think he has the basic idea right.

Moral relativism[3] as such is of course an unbearable idea, and I believe the foundations of our moral system must be found from the nature and from our evolution. Where else?

But culture and religions add there own to the concept of moral. Some of these additions are necessary, some artificial, selfish or just exercise of power. Obviously no society can live without rules, but here we meet true relativism: even if killing is forbidden in all societies, it may become a desirable thing in some situations, in war for example. Some societies allow death penalty, some do not, even if the idea of “Thou shalt not kill” is common to them all.

We have always been good at circumventing our own rules and justifying exceptions for them. Doing that, we usually know when our choices may have been morally questionable, even if we do not openly admit it.

How about the nature and other animals? Yes, we can find altruism in the nature and that should not be very surprising [4].

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

 

Man and baker’s yeast had a common ancestor billions of years ago. Maybe we should just accept, that the origin of moral lies in the fact, that all living organisms on this beautiful planet are part of one big family.

Finnish Bakers’ yeast. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

___________________________________________________________________________

References:

[1] The Role of Religion in the Finnish Comprehensive School Curriculum
https://www15.uta.fi/FAST/FIN/REL/vh-relig.html

[2]
http://www.samharris.org/the-moral-landscape

[3]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism

[4]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altruism_in_animals

Why do I choose to doubt?

I was twelve years old, when I realized there is no God. I am not quite sure how I came to the conclusion, but I think I remember that spring day more than 40 years ago. Must confess thought, that this can be an illusion and a false memory, how can you ever be sure?

We all change and our memories change with us.

Abandoning the idea of God did not change much in my life, because my family was not very religious. It was a habit to go to church on Christmas, but that was about all there was to it.

However, I did not understand, that the world was full of similar things. Things, that we should not believe without questioning them first. Only later, after reading UFO and parapsychology literature, did I realize that a lot of written stuff is complete bullshit. It was a shock, because it was horrible for me not be able to trust what I read from the books.

Later I learned that it is probably not possible to understand everything in this universe. It was an other major disappointment to me, because understanding everything had been my primary goal when I decided to go study physics in the university.

I had been naive again.

Uncertainty and hard work is always present when you want to learn new things. Maybe this uncertainty is so unnatural to human mind, that we rather believe crazy things without questioning, than expose ourselves to tedious learning process and skeptical thinking.

I have no idea what my next shock will be, but whatever it is, I hope I can cherish it as an opportunity to learn still something new.

The fact that I did not achieve my childish goal of understanding everything does not depress me anymore, though at some point it did.  Now I think, that even if the universe may be incomprehensible to me, it does not mean it cannot be understood in principle.

It is a long climb that never ends.

climb

 

A lot of people believe in gods, evil spirits and even to ingenious ex-convicts, who craft solutions to worlds energy problems in their garage.

It is somewhat amazing, that most adult people are able to comprehend Santa Claus is not real, but at the end are somehow unable to generalize the idea.

______________________________________________________________________

Newton was wrong – And other scientific revolutions

When James Clerk Maxwell finished his famous equations describing electromagnetic waves, physics was ready and complete. Together with Newtons laws of motion they explained all known phenomena of the nature. Even Lord Kelvin said, that only thing to do with physics is to refine some measurements to get more accurate results.

Nothing could have been further from the truth and the great revolutions of 20th century, relativity and quantum mechanics, changed everything we know about the nature. Reality was not exact and deterministic after all, like Newton and Maxwell predicted. The reality of quantum mechanics was alien to human mind, the subatomic particles did not behave according to classical equations and you could only calculate probabilities for their properties.

But was it really a revolution, that trashed all that was before? No, it was not. Newton’s and Maxwell’s equations remain perfectly valid today and can still be used. Newton was never wrong, his model was completely correct and matched observations perfectly. Only when we started to make more sophisticated observations of reality became it obvious, that Newton’s and Maxwell’s laws were not complete in all situations.

Notion of “Scientific revolutions” is often used to argue against scientific method. Doesn’t the fact that old theories are replaced by new ones prove, that science is limited and we can not reach true knowledge of the universe. I tend to think, that it proves just the opposite.

Modern technology already enables us to utilize quantum phenomena, but this is only the beginning. Within next 50 years we start to see technologies, that have belonged to domain of science fiction only. The universe will open up to mankind in a way, that we could not even imagine a hundred years ago . Physics, evolution theory, computer technology, have all crafted our view of the reality in revolutionary ways.

But is this really a Scientific Revolution in a sense, that Thomas Kuhn meant in  his famous book? [3]

The true power of science is, that our knowledge and understanding increases progressively, not through revolutions. The power of scientific method, not a well defined term, is that science is able to fix itself. Even if Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories are known to be incomplete, they have never been wrong [4]. Who claims that they are, does not understand physics and physical models. These old theories describe the reality so well, that they are still used where they are applicable, because they are easier to use than quantum electrodynamics or theory of relativity. They still describe every day phenomena in many cases very accurately.

Often we fail to see, that physicists do not necessarily claim that the equations are the same thing than the underlying reality. The equations, are just tools to model the reality and make useful predictions. If  simple tools are good enough for the task at hand, you will use them instead of more complicated ones.

Today, we know that physics is far from complete. We cannot explain everything, maybe never can. But this does not mean we have stopped making progress or that there are no natural processes, that we do not know of. Of course there are.

But it also does not mean, when new processes are recovered, that we would have to abandon all our previous knowledge in the fires of all consuming scientific revolution.

Looking back to history of science it is easy to see, that the case will quite probably be just the opposite.

________________________________________________________________

References:

[1]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Clerk_Maxwell

[2]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton

[3]
https://pathoskeptic.com/2014/10/06/philosophy-thomas-kuhn-and-pseudo-science/

[4]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories

Philosophy, Thomas Kuhn and Pseudo-science

While cleaning up my bookshelf I stumbled on a volume of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[4]. It is an important book, and Kuhn’s impact on philosophy of science was remarkable.

According to Kuhn, science does not progress steadily, but instead through big and revolutionary changes, paradigm shifts. We stay in the era of normal science as long as the current paradigm is sufficiently compatible with the observations. When the situation ceases to be so, we have a need for revolution, which will eventually replace the current paradigm with a new one. Gradually, when the new paradigm is accepted by the scientific community, we re-enter the era of normal science.

An other philosopher of science, Karl Popper, approached the problem from an other direction. He was concerned of something that is known as the demarcation problem [7]. That is, how to make a difference between what is science and what is for example religion, politics or pseudo-science. He devised a term falsification, which means that a scientific claim must be such, that you can at least in principle to be able to prove it wrong [8]. If this is not a case, we are not dealing with science.

The Mad Scientist. Picture: Wikpedia.

Kuhn did not believe falsification was not any more plausible than proving something was real and thus all views we might have of reality must be treated as equal.

Personally, I have not been a great fan of Kuhnian philosophy and many scientists tend to agree, that the idea of scientific revolution is actually very problematic. Irish physicist Cormac O’Rafferty has written a very nice article about the subject: Was Kuhn more wrong than right? [5]. Same blog also has an introduction to Karl Popper’s philosophy [9].

I am not very surprised, that Kuhn is more popular with pseudo-science practitioners that Popper. At least, Kuhnian philosophy gives you an option, or even an obligation, to trash all that was and start a new brave world.

Kuhn was an important philosopher of science and his book still has a great influence, but even Kuhn was known to say, that nobody actually understood his true meaning and he is much fonder of his critics than his fans [6].

Thomas Kuhn. Picture: Wikipedia.

___________________________________________________________________

References:

[1]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn
[2]
http://fi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Popper
[3]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imre_Lakatos
[4]
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962
[5]
http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/was-kuhn-more-wrong-than-right/
[6]
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/05/23/what-thomas-kuhn-really-thought-about-scientific-truth/
[7]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demarcation_problem
[8]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falsifiability
[9]
http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/popper-and-falsification/