Cosmology and Comprehension

The non amateur stuff. Hawking, black holes, that sort of thing

Moderators: joe, Brian, Guy Fennimore

Lawrie
Posts: 264
Joined: Fri Dec 24, 2004 2:06 pm
Contact:

Cosmology and Comprehension

Post by Lawrie »

I wonder if in trying to understand the Universe we are attempting the impossible. We assume that we have infinite powers of comprehension and all will eventually be understood. I wonder. In contemplating the Universe are we trying to reason beyond our capabilities?
My dog, a very "intelligent "Collie. can see the clock on the wall but will never be able to tell the time from it or understand how it works.
Might we be in a similar condition, trying to find reason in the Cosmos, inventing imponderables such as Dark Matter, Gravity waves, Black Holes etc.
Nearer home, it is still not fully understood what magnetism or gravity are.
I am reminded of the old school story of the Physics master asking his young class if anyone knew what electricity was. There was a silence and then one youngster piped up and said, "Please Sir, I used to know but I've forgotten".
"Oh Dear". said the master. "The only person in the whole world who knew what electricity was - and he's forgotten!"
Lawrie
joe
Site Admin
Posts: 4382
Joined: Fri Dec 03, 2004 11:24 am
Location: Greenwich, London
Contact:

Re: Cosmology and Comprehension

Post by joe »

Lawrie wrote:I wonder if in trying to understand the Universe we are attempting the impossible.
There's only one way to find out.
My dog, a very "intelligent "Collie. can see the clock on the wall but will never be able to tell the time from it or understand how it works.
But humans can and we can look at something 10 billion light years away and have a fair idea of what we are looking at.
Might we be in a similar condition, trying to find reason in the Cosmos, inventing imponderables such as Dark Matter, Gravity waves, Black Holes etc.
I'm not so sure we are looking for reason just trying to understand. I have often heard similar comments Lawrie and I confess that I am constantly surprised that people can see on the one hand the wonders of human achievement and knowledge yet on the other they shake their heads and say "no we will never understand that". You say "might" therefore perhaps you still have a bit of faith in our scientists. In order to create a good model of how the universe might work scientists have to hypothesise and after tests and observations these can be discarded or developed. Dark matter, gravity waves and black holes are all part of this process, some are working better than others and the scientists in the field are aware of this, me.....I take my hat off to them.
200mm Newtonian, OMC140, ETX90, 15x70 Binoculars.
Cliff
Posts: 6600
Joined: Sat Dec 11, 2004 8:18 pm
Location: Manchester
Contact:

Post by Cliff »

Dear Joe and Lawrie
I have to say that much as I greatly admire what science as achieved.
I do tend to lean towards what Lawrie says.
My wife often mentions the intelligence of dogs (although we have not had a dog now for several years). There is what I think an interesting tale about a dog in the Lake District. Apparently many years ago a man ascended Helvellyn with his trusty dog. The man had some sort of accident (probably fell and died). The dog apparently stayed with the man untill eventually many days later rescuers found the man's body supposedly guarded by the dog. Subsequently a plaque was erected commemorating the event and in particular the faithfulness of the dog. However, it has subsequently been pointed out that when it was eventually found the dog was remarkably fit and well fed. However, the dead man was very much just a skeleton. I can only say clever dog.
However, despite that long winded only semi-relevant story. I do think like Lawrie that humans will not completely satisfactorily solve the mysteries of the Universe. There have been some very clever scientists over the history and arguably a exponential increase in or understanding of the Universe in the last few centuries. So I can see there is some argument for some people thinking a complete answer to everything will eventually be found.
However, I personally have very serious doubts. I go along with those who think it just as likely humans will wipe themselves out long before such knowledge will be gained. Irrespective of humans killing everything or not, there is a possibility that science will be overcome by ignorance.
Natural disaster or human cause there are looters. Genicide is an ongoing feature of human activities. Humans think they are getting cleverer but are they really and are moral values getting better and better?
I must say I personally have always wondered about this wonderful theory of everything that some scientists seem to be searching for?
Like I think Lawrie suggests the likes of Dark Energy and Dark Matter do not enhance my confidence in cosmology very much. By the way I apologise to you Lawrie in advance if I use any of your comments incorrectly. I have just recently read "A Briefer History of Time" and think it a great read (and particularly having had some disappointment reading the first "Brief History of time" about twen years back - though perhaps I should get hold of the new edition of that). "Briefer History" seems to suggest that even if scientists do eventually find "a theory of everthing" or whatever they call it, it will not be quite the holy grail that some people might hope it might be. the book also says that there is no guarantee that however much scientists try they will find such a theory.
Best wishes from the Grumpy Old codger Cliff
davep
Posts: 2814
Joined: Fri May 06, 2005 11:07 am
Location: South Lincolnshire
Contact:

Re: Cosmology and Comprehension

Post by davep »

Lawrie wrote:I wonder if in trying to understand the Universe we are attempting the impossible.
That rather depends on what you think "trying to understand the Universe" entails.
Lawrie wrote:We assume that we have infinite powers of comprehension and all will eventually be understood.
Do we? What evidence is there for this?
Lawrie wrote:Might we be in a similar condition, trying to find reason in the Cosmos, inventing imponderables such as Dark Matter, Gravity waves, Black Holes etc.
What is this "reason" that you mention? You say "inventing", why is that?
Lawrie wrote:Nearer home, it is still not fully understood what magnetism or gravity are.
What is the significance of this?
Last edited by davep on Tue Nov 01, 2005 6:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
davep
Posts: 2814
Joined: Fri May 06, 2005 11:07 am
Location: South Lincolnshire
Contact:

Re: Cosmology and Comprehension

Post by davep »

joe wrote:Dark matter, gravity waves and black holes are all part of this process, some are working better than others and the scientists in the field are aware of this, me.....I take my hat off to them.
On top of this, I'm often a little bemused that people seem to think that they just make this stuff up for no reason. You don't have to go too far to start to understand the reasons why these things are first hypothesised. It seems to me that, more often than not, people who readily dismiss the more unusual hypotheses and theories do so with an argument from incredulity. Not that I think that people should blindly accept any of this stuff, but neither can you safely dismiss it from a position of ignorance.
Lawrie
Posts: 264
Joined: Fri Dec 24, 2004 2:06 pm
Contact:

Post by Lawrie »

It seems that I have ruffled a few feathers by daring to suggest that there might be some things which are beyond our comprehension. My original point was that our ability to understand is limited. We humans, in our egotistical way, assume that we are omnipotent, or nearly so. But I reason that we are only animals, just like my dog, and, like him, we too have our limitations, one of them being our ability to understand. We may see a galaxy 10 billion light years away but can we understand or ever be able to understand, its purpose (if it has one) or are we like my dog and the clock on the wall, we can see it without any hope of ever realising its far deeper purpose.
Perhaps too that concepts such as Dark Matter etc. are only manifestations of the same reaction as the ancients when they devised Supreme Beings, gods etc. to try to "explain" the world and the universe as they saw it.
Just some rather humbling thoughts, that's all.
Lawrie
davep
Posts: 2814
Joined: Fri May 06, 2005 11:07 am
Location: South Lincolnshire
Contact:

Post by davep »

Lawrie wrote:It seems that I have ruffled a few feathers by daring to suggest that there might be some things which are beyond our comprehension.
I don't see any evidence of this "feather ruffling". I don't even see anyone saying that there isn't a chance that there are things "beyound our comprehension". I do see a few questions and requests for clarification.
Lawrie wrote:My original point was that our ability to understand is limited.
This would appear to be a given and a useful default position. But what of it? What does this tell us and what does it have to do with some of the subjects that you raised?
Lawrie wrote:We humans, in our egotistical way, assume that we are omnipotent, or nearly so.
What evidence is there of this? While it's true that many cultures have a number of aphorisms that appear to amount to "you can do anything" I can't think of anything in the scientific method (for example) that says the same.
Lawrie wrote:But I reason that we are only animals, just like my dog, and, like him, we too have our limitations, one of them being our ability to understand. We may see a galaxy 10 billion light years away but can we understand or ever be able to understand, its purpose (if it has one) or are we like my dog and the clock on the wall, we can see it without any hope of ever realising its far deeper purpose.
This is one of the questions I asked earlier: what do you mean by "purpose"?
Lawrie wrote:Perhaps too that concepts such as Dark Matter etc. are only manifestations of the same reaction as the ancients when they devised Supreme Beings, gods etc. to try to "explain" the world and the universe as they saw it.
The difference between, say, applying the scientific method to a phenomena, and simply invoking the supernatural, especially the ramifications of doing so, seems rather obvious to me. Perhaps the difference seems obvious to me because I'm missing some subtle aspect of your point? Supposing I am, what do you think it might be?
Lawrie wrote:Just some rather humbling thoughts, that's all.
In what way are they "humbling" and where are they supposed to take us?

Your points seems to be born of the idea that a desire to understand, well, anything, is predicated on the idea that we believe we hold some special place in nature and, as such, we alone (modulo extraterrestrial life) are capable of understanding everything. While it's true that there are individuals out there who hold this opinion I'm not aware of anything in the scientific method (and this does boil down to the scientific method) that says or requires this.
joe
Site Admin
Posts: 4382
Joined: Fri Dec 03, 2004 11:24 am
Location: Greenwich, London
Contact:

Post by joe »

Lawrie wrote:It seems that I have ruffled a few feathers by daring to suggest that there might be some things which are beyond our comprehension.
I would suggest that none of the things you mentioned in your original post are beyond our comprehension. There may be some (physical) things that are beyond our comprehension - the way in which the universe came into existence, for example - but that doesn't stop us from having a theory. Some things could be unverifiable.
we too have our limitations, one of them being our ability to understand.
I always thought that this was our greatest quality.
We may see a galaxy 10 billion light years away but can we understand or ever be able to understand, its purpose (if it has one)
It doesn't have a purpose to my knowledge (which is limited :lol: )
Perhaps too that concepts such as Dark Matter etc. are only manifestations of the same reaction as the ancients when they devised Supreme Beings, gods etc. to try to "explain" the world and the universe as they saw it.
Absolutely not. They are different things altogether. Gods, etc. cannot be disproved (let alone proven) therefore unscientific. They do not belong in this conversation if we are talking about what can be known. Dark matter can be proved or disproved - a gaining of knowledge.
200mm Newtonian, OMC140, ETX90, 15x70 Binoculars.
spodzone
Posts: 56
Joined: Tue Jun 28, 2005 1:42 pm
Location: Perth, Scotland
Contact:

Post by spodzone »

Lawrie wrote:It seems that I have ruffled a few feathers by daring to suggest that there might be some things which are beyond our comprehension. My original point was that our ability to understand is limited. We humans, in our egotistical way, assume that we are omnipotent, or nearly so. But I reason that we are only animals, just like my dog, and, like him, we too have our limitations, one of them being our ability to understand.
take a large enough sample of dogs, make a clock a signficant enough feature of their environment, make a pavlova appear at 3pm. natural selection says that those who learn to be nearer the source of the pavlova will survive longer. then they'll move on to the next problem. after iterating this a few times for a few *different* times, who's to say that you'll be able to "read a clock" any better than they?
We may see a galaxy 10 billion light years away but can we understand or ever be able to understand, its purpose (if it has one) or are we like my dog and the clock on the wall, we can see it without any hope of ever realising its far deeper purpose.
why does everything have to have a "purpose"? isn't the quest for knowledge itself sufficient and self-sustaining?
Perhaps too that concepts such as Dark Matter etc. are only manifestations of the same reaction as the ancients when they devised Supreme Beings, gods etc. to try to "explain" the world and the universe as they saw it.
if you mean they stand a fair chance that someone will come along in 400yrs' time, point a finger and laugh, well sure, we're open to that. the point is that they're the best explanations for things we observe here & now, so we hope the better theories will last beyond a lifetime.

as far as scientific understanding of the universe goes, i think there will *always* be something that's yet to be understood. but that's no reason not to investigate more.
~Tim
joe
Site Admin
Posts: 4382
Joined: Fri Dec 03, 2004 11:24 am
Location: Greenwich, London
Contact:

Post by joe »

Cliff wrote:"Briefer History" seems to suggest that even if scientists do eventually find "a theory of everthing" or whatever they call it, it will not be quite the holy grail that some people might hope it might be.
Hi Cliff,

You of all people should know that much of what we read in popular science literature is exaggerated, or rather it is simplified, to enhance the "story". Not much emphasis is put on to the fact that science rarely advances by giant steps and "paradigm shifts" of the Copernican or Einsteinian variety. Theories are adapted, modified or thrown out all the time and I imagine that the first person to say that a Theory of Everything is not going to be what it says it will be will be the very scientists who are working on it.
200mm Newtonian, OMC140, ETX90, 15x70 Binoculars.
spodzone
Posts: 56
Joined: Tue Jun 28, 2005 1:42 pm
Location: Perth, Scotland
Contact:

Post by spodzone »

joe wrote:Theories are adapted, modified or thrown out all the time and I imagine that the first person to say that a Theory of Everything is not going to be what it says it will be will be the very scientists who are working on it.
Thinks: . o O ( The ToE that is written down is not the true ToE. )
:D
~Tim
davep
Posts: 2814
Joined: Fri May 06, 2005 11:07 am
Location: South Lincolnshire
Contact:

Post by davep »

spodzone wrote:if you mean they stand a fair chance that someone will come along in 400yrs' time, point a finger and laugh, well sure, we're open to that. the point is that they're the best explanations for things we observe here & now, so we hope the better theories will last beyond a lifetime.
The thing I find very interesting (and I'm not attributing this to Lawrie) is when people point at "science" (and when they do that they often seem to be aiming at a community rather than a method -- but that's a different issue) and say "How can we trust it? Look how many times <insert theory of choice here> has been overturned! They can't make their minds up! Science doesn't work!". They seem to miss the crucial fact that that's what's supposed to happen.

It seems to me that it's generally about a fear of uncertainty.
Lawrie
Posts: 264
Joined: Fri Dec 24, 2004 2:06 pm
Contact:

Post by Lawrie »

Greetings Gentlemen
In referring to "ruffled feathers" I was merely meaning that, for once, I seemed to have started a lengthy "thread" with very interesting arguments.
(This makes a change a change from some of my postings which elicit no response at all!)
I am really questioning if there is a limit to our intellects and thus our powers of comprehension. To investigate our universal environment we have, I think, only three approaches:

1. Observation.
2. Calculation (i.e logical deduction)
3. Speculation

And that is all we can do. But are they enough to for us to fathom the mysteries of the Universe? Are there other approaches of which we have no conception (like fourth , fifth etc. "dimensions") I would suggest that there are and probably very many.

As for the ancients and their ideas, well they thought that they had the answers too.

Thankyou all for your interest,
Lawrie
davep
Posts: 2814
Joined: Fri May 06, 2005 11:07 am
Location: South Lincolnshire
Contact:

Post by davep »

Lawrie wrote:I am really questioning if there is a limit to our intellects and thus our powers of comprehension.
Is it actually a question that needs to be asked? Is there any doubt that there is probably a limit?
Lawrie wrote:But are they enough to for us to fathom the mysteries of the Universe?
What are these "mysteries"? What did you have in mind?
Lawrie wrote:As for the ancients and their ideas, well they thought that they had the answers too.
Why "too"?
Lawrie wrote:Thankyou all for your interest,
I'm still rather interested in this business of "purpose".
spodzone
Posts: 56
Joined: Tue Jun 28, 2005 1:42 pm
Location: Perth, Scotland
Contact:

Post by spodzone »

Lawrie wrote:As for the ancients and their ideas, well they thought that they had the answers too.
That would be falling straight for what davep said - scientific ideas are expected to evolve.

That's if it were true, anyway. At least some of "the ancients" generally held a view that experiment were unnecessary and that everything could be worked out through philosophy and deduction. Thank you for confirming that we have indeed evolved since then. ;)
~Tim
Post Reply