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Hobbes's avatar

Why can we understand the Universe?

Asked by Hobbes (7368points) November 6th, 2008

Why is it that the Universe works in a way such as to permit us to develop theories about it? Why are patterns of events simple enough for us to catch on to them and predict and control other events by their discovery? The Universe certainly didn’t have to work in a way that is comprehensible to us. I can’t think of a reason why its workings shouldn’t be so complex and baffling as to defy understanding. So why are most of our attempts to understand it more or less successful?

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19 Answers

skabeep's avatar

well it didnt come over night… i promise you its not as easy to understand as you might think

wundayatta's avatar

Why? Evolution, and survival of the fittest. It turns out that beings capable of understanding the universe are also some of the strongest and most adaptable creatures on earth.

If we hadn’t been able to develop the scientific method, we’d be back in prehistoric times, living as hunters and gathers. That is, if we were alive at all.

fireside's avatar

Descartes and Bacon provided us with an analytic framework for understanding, and the scientific method. Newton, with the discovery of the laws of motion and gravity, provided us with a clockwork paradigm for understanding the universe. A paradigm which is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. The Newtonian paradigm embodies essentially a linear cause and effect relationship. A paradigm which is reinforced by the way in which we view daily events. The difficulty with this paradigm is that it provides a very limited short term perspective for understanding how things really work.

When we go beyond the linear cause and effect paradigm to study patterns of behavior and then to study the systemic interrelationships among the parts of systems we develop a much deeper understanding of the nature of the way things operate. An operational understanding which can allow us to work with the system rather than against it. An understanding which allows for the development of interventions to create lasting change within the system, if that is the desired intent.
There is but one Universe. The disciplines of science are a creation of ours, not the Universe.


elchoopanebre's avatar

I don’t believe we truly understand it. Science doesn’t offer definite solutions, only more questions and more things to look in to.

Hobbes's avatar

@skabeep – Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound as though I was belittling the work of scientists. I most certainly am not. I was just wondering why their work is even possible to begin with.

@daloon – Rational thought and the ability to understand and predict patterns in the world was certainly an evolutionary advantage. My question is, why are the patterns simple and consistent enough that it was even possible to develop such predictive abilities?

My question might be better phrased as “Why does Occam’s Razor hold?”. Why should the simpler of two theories usually be the correct one? Why is the universe not insanely complex? Why is it orderly and (relatively) easy to understand? Why are the laws which hold it together so elegant?

Of course, there are bits of it we’re not very good at understanding. Our brains aren’t built to have an intuitive grasp on astrophysics or quantum mechanics, and yet we can still at least get a grip on these areas.

wundayatta's avatar

@hobbes: all your questions are asking for comparisons to things that either don’t exist, or we have no knowledge of.

If the more complex theory held, then we would have developed a capacity for divining that, or else we would have died out. If the universe was insanely complex, we wouldn’t know that. It would be normal to us. In fact, one could say the universe is insanely complex.

Order and elegance? Again, value judgements. They make no sense in the absence of a comparison.

Hobbes, I hate to tell you, but what you are doing is poetry. You are waxing appreciation for the universe. You are nearly going religious on us.

Don’t mistake me. I think it’s wonderful to appreciated the beauty, complexity, and order of our universe. It is what allows us consciousness, after all. But I think you’re barking up the wrong tree when you phrase your question in terms of values, or a comparison to that which does not appear to exist.

fireside's avatar

Adolf Zeising wrote in 1854:

[The Golden Ratio is a universal law] in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.

Hobbes's avatar

Mmm. Good answer, daloon. And you’re right – I do wax poetic sometimes ;-) I was ignoring the anthropic principle without even realizing it.

@Fireside – the Golden Ratio is pretty damn cool.

fireside's avatar

@Hobbes – definitely.
remember this video on the golden proportions?

jodyr's avatar

All we can really understand is our thoughts about the universe. We may run an experiment 600 times and see the same result with each run, but that information is still dependent on a mind for its interpretation.

Spargett's avatar

For the same reason you can’t teach a dog algebra.

There are some things that are impossible to comprehend. Like infinity.

Siren's avatar

Perhaps the more we learn about the universe, the greater our understanding will be that we really DON’T know as much as we thought about it (ie the more we learn, the more we discover there is to learn). Just playing the devil’s advocate, don’t shoot me :)

mea05key's avatar

the universe is a very complex thing to understand. Its just that our mind is very flexible and imaginative and people with high creativity are able to come out with theories to explain what is going on out there. For example Albert einstein theory is just so magnificent that he develops it ahead of his time and just by thinking and doing calculations he is able to deduce what ‘s is happening out there. I somehow think every theory is not perfect and has a limitation or simply act in an ideal case. The Newton Law which is universal is an example which only applies for objects below the speed of light. Newton during his time would never imagine anything travelling faster than the speed of light therefore his theory remain as such and its still applicable to us till this day. Law of thermodynamics are all meant to be useful only in equilibrium condition that generally takes place in our life. so on and so forth. No idea is ever complete to explain ‘everything’ in the universe.

toyhyena's avatar

I’d say at the moment, science has more questions than answers. Humans are still a new kid on the block in the cosmos (supposedly), so we still, thankfully (hopefully?) have a lot of learning to do! I’d be willing to say 90%ish of physicists today would tell you “we don’t”, in response to “Why do we understand the Universe”.

okgowireless's avatar

we cant exactly

timothykinney's avatar

As an example of how little we know…astronomers have concluded that the mass of the universe differs by 95% depending on which way you measure it. That is a huge amount. And their idea to explain why? Invisible matter which doesn’t interact with anything except through gravity (dark matter). But if the universe is so heavy, why is it expanding so fast? Oh well that’s easy- there is an unknown energy that drives the universe apart called dark energy which we can’t explain and have no evidence for. Our Standard Model fails to describe our observations so we just make up invisible things to account for our observations.What’s the answer to that? Well, we make up a new theory (completely theoretical using math to to suggest what the universe could actually be like, but offering no experiments which can prove or disprove the theory): String Theory.

I have a friend (undergrad in math and chemistry, PhD in physics) who is a postDoc who believes that current astronomers must be loony. He has read a lot of the explanations for dark energy and dark matter and can’t believe that those are the best theories humanity can come up with.

We have come a long way. And as long as we have particles and waves to think about everything seems to work out pretty well. But we certainly have a long way to go before we can claim to understand the universe.

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

I like how it’s such a serious question and Hobbes’ picture is right next to it and he’s like “hmmmm”.

Anyway, I think parts of the universe we won’t be able to comprehend, but since we can understand some, we think we can understand all and we try. God gave us something to do.

astrocom's avatar

Heh, I think this is best answered by a quote from the man who is considered to be the great mind of the 20th century and who considerably furthered our understanding of the Universe:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”—Albert Einstein.

kess's avatar

The answer is so simple most will not believe it because of its simplicity.

The universe is actually within You and is YOU.

Understand yourself you and understand all things.

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