Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Strange Ideas

by Staffan A. Svensson

"I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics…. Do not keep asking yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it be like that?"… Nobody knows how it can be like that" - Richard Feynman

We humans have certain intuitive ways of seeing the world. We can be said to have a kind of intuitive physics, seeing the world as consisting of objects and being able to keep track of how an object falls and bounces (or breaks). We could also talk about a sort of intuitive engineering used to make tools and to understand how they work. There are others, such as a spatial sense to navigate the world with, a number sense, and a basic sense of probability. All of these are very useable to us and of course based in evolution. Unfortunately this intuitive thinking is better adapted to small groups of illiterate people who live off the land and depend on what they can carry than to todays society.

As much as these abilities have helped us survive and to overcome real world problems in the past, they also per definition limit our thinking. When it comes to understanding, these modern times practically necessitate dealing with objects on a daily basis whose inner working is a complete mystery to us. I have no idea how the computer I am writing on really works (and it makes a point of proving that on a regular basis), I do not know how my washing machine or even how my front door lock works, or what makes my wristwatch tick. But somebody does, the principles all these things are based upon are pretty basic, and the point here is that if I wanted to I could still learn it and understand it. Now instead take quantum mechanics, mentioned in the introductory quote. We have every reason to think these theories are true, but at the same time they go against many of our intuitions about space, time and matter. Even the experts now say nobody can understand the present theories. Does that tell us anything about how the possibilities of developing these ideas? Does it mean that we might reach a point where we can't develop our theories further because we don't really understand them?

If so, it is not really a question of complexity, but about incompatibility. We already have computers taking care of the complex calculations, and there seems to be lots of room for improvement on that front. Incompatibility with the way we are pre-wired is something different. You can't brute-force yourself out of it since you have no idea where to go (the expression of having "no idea" actually captures the point quite well). It is inevitable that the built-in restrictions prevent us from seeing a lot of things, and nothing says evolution has made us see the world around us more and more accurately.

But thinking about this subject, I can not help being reminded of the sometimes famous and historically reoccurring quotes from people saying we will soon have nothing more to invent, that ideas are running out. Fortunately, these estimates have always proven hilariously wrong, and I see no reason why this instance would be any different.

[The strange idea of writing this article came from reading chapter 13 ("Out of Our Depths") of Steven Pinker's book "The Blank Slate".]

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