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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Is the Understandability of the Universe a Mirage?

Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) “expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight”. Albert Einstein (1870 – 1955) claimed: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. Indeed there is general consensus in science that not only is the universe comprehensible but is it mostly well described by our current models. However, Daniel Kahneman counters: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”.

Well, that puts a rather different perspective on Asimov’s and Einstein’s claims.  So who is this person that is raining on our parade? Kahneman is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his development of prospect theory. A century ago everyone quoted Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) to show how modern they were. Today, Kahneman seems to have assumed that role.[1]

Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning prospect theory, developed with Amos Tversky (1937 –1996), replaced expected utility theory. The latter assumed that people made economic choices based on the expected utility of the results, that is they would behave rationally. In contrast, Kahneman and company have shown that people are irrational in well-defined and predictable ways. For example, it is understood that the phrasing of a question can (irrationally) change how people answer, even if the meaning of the question is the same.

Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, really should be required reading for everyone. It explains a lot of what goes on (gives the illusion of comprehension?) and provides practical tips for thinking rationally. For example, when I was on a visit in China, the merchants would hand me a calculator to type in what I would pay for a given item. Their response to the number I typed in was always the same: You’re joking, right?  Kahneman would explain that they were trying to remove the anchor set by the first number entered in the calculator. Anchoring is a common aspect of how we think.

Since, as Kahneman argues, we are inherently irrational one has to wonder about the general validity of the philosophic approach to knowledge; an approach based largely on rational argument. Science overcomes our inherent irrationality by constraining our rational arguments by frequent, independently-repeated observations.  Much as with project management, we tend to be irrationally overconfident of our ability to estimate resource requirements.  Estimates of project resource requirements not constrained by real world observations leads to the project being over budget and delivered past deadlines. Even Kahneman was not immune to this trap of being overly optimistic.

Kahneman’s cynicism has been echoed by others. For example, H.L. Mencken (1880 –1956) said:  “The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind”. Are the cynics correct? Is our belief that the universe is comprehensible, and indeed mostly understood, a mirage based on our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance? A brief look at history would tend to support that claim.  Surely the Buddha, after having achieved enlightenment, would have expressed relief and contentment for living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight. Saint Paul, in his letters, echoes the same claim that the universe is finally understood. René Descartes, with the method laid out in the Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy, would have made the same claim.  And so it goes, almost everyone down through history believes that he/she comprehends how the universe works. I wonder if the cow in the barn has the same illusion. Unfortunately, each has a different understanding of what it means to comprehend how the universe works, so it is not even possible to compare the relative validity of the different claims. The unconscious mind fits all it knows into a coherent framework that gives the illusion of comprehension in terms of what it considers important. In doing so, it assumes that what you see is all there is.  Kahneman refers to this as WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).

To a large extent the understandability of the universe is mirage based on WYSIATI—our ignorance of our ignorance. We understand as much as we are aware of and capable of understanding; blissfully ignoring the rest. We do not know how quantum gravity works, if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe[2], or for that matter what the weather will be like next week. While our scientific models correctly describe much about the universe, they are, in the end, only models and leave much beyond their scope, including the ultimate nature of reality.

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[1] Let’s hope time is kinder to Kahneman than it was to Freud.

[2] Given our response to global warming, one can debate if there is intelligent life on earth.

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