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mattbrowne's avatar

What is your favorite question you think science will probably never be able to answer?

Asked by mattbrowne (31588points) February 25th, 2010

Some people think that questions like “Which of these flowers is prettier?” cannot be answered by science while other would say “perception of beauty” is a neurobiological feature of human brains.

Some think science can’t answer questions of morality, while others think that human altruism for example is the result of evolution when social groups were faced with selective pressures.

Some might even go as far as saying it’s only a matter of time, because science at least in principal has the potential to explain any (natural) phenomenon.

Here’s my own favorite question:

How exactly can we explain the meta-phenomenon of existence itself? I don’t think science will ever find an answer. But maybe I’m wrong. Oh, and here’s another one of course: Why is Fluther the absolute best website in the world?

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74 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Where, if it exists, is the soul and what is it?

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

Why did Carl Sagan like those turtlenecks?;))—yes,I said it!—also perpetual motion…

ucme's avatar

Why didn’t Einstein’s parents name him Frank.That would have been fun, relatively speaking.

UScitizen's avatar

If I am traveling at the speed of light, and I aim my flashlight ahead of me and turn it on, will it appear to me that the light accelerates away from me at the speed of light? Also, how would this appear to a stationary observer, watching me blast by at light speed?

Sandydog's avatar

Is the universe infinite? Is there anything beyond?

Sarcasm's avatar

“Why do kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch?”

gasman's avatar

It’s easy to state questions that will probably occupy humanity for some centuries before coming up with answers, such as: What is the Planck-scale structure of matter? How do self-awareness and free will emerge from the complexity of the brain? How did abiogenesis occur? Etc.

But I have confidence that, in time—if humanity doesn’t annihilate itself—all scientific questions will be answered, as suggested by John Horgan’s book The End of Science. Never is a long time…

The one exception: Where did all those unpaired missing socks when I emptied the clothes dryer?

@UScitizen: That question was answered by Einstein over a century ago! See, for instance, Cecil Adams .

Ria777's avatar

@Sandydog: I think science could answer that one. may have done so already.

Pazza's avatar

What is energy?

fireside's avatar

What would have happened in my life if I had done things differently?

Cruiser's avatar

Is there really a God or visa versa. Also where do all those single socks disappear to?? The 2 biggest mysteries of the universe.

ETpro's avatar

What caused the first cause?

Rufus_T_Firefly's avatar

What existed before the big bang?

Cruiser's avatar

@Rufus_T_Firefly That’s easy! The big match of course!

janbb's avatar

Will you still love me tomorrow?

ucme's avatar

@Rufus_T_Firefly In a Groucho voice.“I dunno but you can betcha life Mickey Rooney was there to see it”

Pazza's avatar

What is volume?
And why can’t you compress a solid?

Pazza's avatar

Where is the side?
My wife always tells me she’s left it on the side….....


Christian95's avatar

infinity really exist or is just a mathematical concept
does zero really exist or is again just a mathematical concept(Until know we couldn’t find the “nothing”,I mean even the vacuum is something)

Rufus_T_Firefly's avatar

@Cruiser – Maybe I should have been a little more careful when I lit my cigar.

@ucme – I don’t know about Mickey Rooney, but that joke was probably around back then.

ucme's avatar

@Rufus_T_Firefly Abso fucking lutely guaranteed.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll pop?

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

Is what we observe, reality?

Cruiser's avatar

@Rufus_T_Firefly That made me laugh! lol!

Shuttle128's avatar

@fireside It may be possible to simulate this at some point if an accurate scan of your brain was performed early on. I don’t think I’d ever want to know the answer though, the probability that I’d be disappointed is probably high.

lloydbird's avatar

@mattbrowneHow exactly can we explain the meta-phenomenon of existence itself?

That’s easy.

With words. (And perhaps a few numbers.)

Dr_Dredd's avatar

If a man says something and there is no woman around to hear it, is he still wrong? :-)


Val123's avatar

@UScitizen If I am traveling at the speed of light, and I aim my flashlight ahead of me and turn it on, will it appear to me that the light accelerates away from me at the speed of light? The closer to the speed of light you travel, the more the light from your flash light begins to “flatten out” as you catch up to it. If you’re going exactly the speed of light, it will pretty much be the same as if you turned the light off. No light will escape from the flashlight that you can see…...And if you were to exceed the speed of light, you would begin to see the light from your flashlight behind you…..Is that correct @mattbrowne

rebbel's avatar

The chicken or the egg?

josie's avatar

Is conciousness evidence that the universe is evolving with a purpose?
Is recognition and appreciation of musical harmony intrinsic, or learned?

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@rebbel It’s the egg. Chickens come out of chicken eggs. Pre-chicken could lay an egg that contained chicken, but not a pre-chicken egg that contained a chicken, as that would make it a chicken egg. The contents of egg define it.

rebbel's avatar

@JeanPaulSartre So, the question should be ”The pre-chicken or the pre-egg?” ?

candide's avatar

How to make “good human vibes,” or the right atmosphere over the whole planet so people wake up happy and in a good mood every morning and are good to each other every day

phoebusg's avatar

Assuming continuous development, I think everything is answerable. How much time it’d require to perceive the already connected world—that is another question altogether.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@rebbel heheh – sure… although by my erm “logic” I’d guess pre-chickens came after pre-eggs as well ;)

Bluefreedom's avatar

Why can’t we achieve Warp Drive and hasten our ability to make interstellar travel a reality?

tinyfaery's avatar

Animal consciousness. I believe we are truly ignorant to the true experiences of the other animals with which we share existence.

Nullo's avatar

Did the Big Bang really happen for reals?

Sarcasm's avatar

@Nullo Don’t you worry. We’re working on that. See this.

Jeruba's avatar

What accounts for consciousness? What is the nature of mind?

Nullo's avatar

—@Sarcasm There’s still conjecture at work, though, you see. They’re trying to create what they think the Universe was like; while this certainly proves that such a thing is possible, it does not mean that such a thing is actually the case.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I know!!! I know!!! Gravity, how can it be produced or replicated? What is gravity? A condition created by the density of matter? Magma generated? Some electro magnetic condition where non-metallic things are attracted? If it is elecro magnetic, can there be a negative or anti-gravity craft created that can fly, hover, and travel with out wings, or lift due to air foils?

mattbrowne's avatar

Thanks for all your wonderful answers!

@gasman – In addition to

How does self-awareness emerge from the complexity of the brain

I would also add

Why am I me?

mattbrowne's avatar

@lloydbird – Yes, explaining existence with words is relatively easy. But how do we test the validity of what those words mean? I think we can’t.

Fyrius's avatar

I find it pathetic interesting to see that so many people think there are so many “questions that science will probably never answer”, that either have already been answered, are easily answered on the spot, are not even valid questions, or will inevitably be answered at some point in the future. By science.

“Where, if it exists, is the soul and what is it?”
It’s an ancient mythological concept. There is no reason to believe it exists in real life.

“If I am traveling at the speed of light, and I aim my flashlight ahead of me and turn it on, will it appear to me that the light accelerates away from me at the speed of light? Also, how would this appear to a stationary observer, watching me blast by at light speed?”
No, the light would travel just as fast as you.
An outside observer will see nothing. No light will make it to him.

“Is the universe infinite? Is there anything beyond?”
I believe physics has answered this one, though I’m not sure of the answer.
There cannot be anything beyond the universe by definition, or it would be part of the universe.

“What is energy?”
Look it up.

“What is volume?
And why can’t you compress a solid?”
Again, look it up.
And you can compress a solid.

“The chicken or the egg?”
Eggs were around for millions of years before the first chicken existed.

“Is conciousness evidence that the universe is evolving with a purpose?”
Of course not.

“Is recognition and appreciation of musical harmony intrinsic, or learned?”
It’s intrinsic. That’s why it’s found all over the world.

“Why can’t we achieve Warp Drive and hasten our ability to make interstellar travel a reality?”
Perhaps we can. If not, certainly there’s a definite and knowable reason why not.

“Animal consciousness. I believe we are truly ignorant to the true experiences of the other animals with which we share existence.”
This is indeed complicated, but they’re working on it.

“What accounts for consciousness? What is the nature of mind?”
Plenty of people are working on these things too.

“Gravity, how can it be produced or replicated? What is gravity? A condition created by the density of matter? Magma generated? Some electro magnetic condition where non-metallic things are attracted? If it is elecro magnetic, can there be a negative or anti-gravity craft created that can fly, hover, and travel with out wings, or lift due to air foils?”
This is just high school physics. Gravity is a force of attraction exerted by all mass, so weak that you only notice its effects if you have a whole planet’s worth of it.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Fyrius – Thanks for your effort for trying to find some answers to questions that science might never find! Looking at this long list, does this mean in your opinion such questions actually do not exist? You have not shared your favorite question you think science will probably never be able to answer. Do you support the metaphysical position of naturalism/materialism that nature is all there is, and all basic truths are truths of nature?

Fyrius's avatar

Surely the questions exist, and some of them are interesting questions too. They’re just not unanswerable. And it does no justice to science to say it can never answer a question if science has answered it decades ago.

I do believe nature and the physical are in a sense all there is. I do not believe in supernatural existence, if that’s what you mean. But you already knew that.
In another sense, I believe there also exists the world of human culture and thought, which is arguably not directly a physical sort of thing (even if it’s encoded in physical matter). But interestingly, even the unnatural, immaterial realm of human ideas is within the scope of science, and I believe science is quite capable of answering any question you might want to ask about it. It has been doing this too for centuries already.

On the other hand, I’d also agree there are issues that science is simply not for. Questions like that would include: how should we treat our livestock? Does democracy justify limiting an individual’s right? How can we solve the Palestine issue? How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
And that’s why mankind invented ethicists, political philosophers and song writers.

To address your actual question, I do not have a favourite scientifically unknowable question.
I find no delight in an unsolvable mystery. It makes me sad.

josie's avatar

I thought the question was “what is your favorite question that science will probably not be able to answer”. I didn’t realize that we were asking @Fyrius to be the official judge as to whether or not our questions were clever or dignified enough to be considered valid. Thanks for stepping in for science.

lloydbird's avatar

@mattbrowneBut how do we test the validity of what those words mean?

With our testing faculties.

Pazza's avatar

I thought you were on to something then, and you sent me to wiki….....
How rude ;-P

So, again I ask, what is energy, and what is volume?
Ps. I don’t believe time is anything more than a perception.

Black holes an revelations aye! :-)

Pazza's avatar

@Fyrius – re gravity. How can you be so convinced it is an attraction?

One should always question the public fool system.

Pazza's avatar

@Fyrius – I find it interesting that you seem to see science as some sort of omnipotent all knowing ‘thingie’, when really all it is, is man, conciousness, observation, understanding, interpretation of analysis? (too much blood in the alcohol system tonight I’m afraid, sorry!)

ETpro's avatar

@Sandydog’ asked: “Is the universe infinite? Is there anything beyond?”

@Fyrius wrote: “I believe physics has answered this one, though I’m not sure of the answer.”
“There cannot be anything beyond the universe by definition, or it would be part of the universe.”

There is a more interesting way of stating @Sandydog’s question. The early Greek philosophers wondered, If you went to the outer edge of the universe, and stuck your hand out past it, what would you find. Not such a stupid question, really.

It seems likely, though unproven at this time, that space-time as we know it ends at the outer reaches of the matter that constitutes our universe. But that is simply because we define space as the empty area between ‘things’. What if we instead define it as emptiness that a thing could penetrate?

Furthermore, the outer boundary of the universe has been, we think, expanding since the Big Bang. So things apparently don’t run into some fixed wall. Could they go on forever and forever if expansion keeps accelerating, as it currently seems to be doing? Or would they ultimately run into a limit? If there is such a limit, what imposes it, and what would lie beyond it if a specially designed thought machine were able to fly right through it?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fyrius The “how to” answer was not met in my opinion by that writing. It explained how the many concepts of gravity was determined and or how measured, but not what makes it specifically. If all objects emit gravity no matter how small what causes them to do so? Like electricity is the production of the gravity formed by the atoms or other sub atomic particles vibrating, clustering in certain pairs or arrangements? If a huge carbon asteroid has gravity and a small carbon planet has gravity but more of it, is it like candle power, the more you cobble together it has an amplifying effect? When you have smaller bodies like Super Novas, black holes and such that have higher gravity then some red starts or gas giants why? There chemical make up, the way their atoms stack up; which would lean back to there chemical signature. Just as you can say heat is caused by friction between two opposing bodies and electricity is caused by the stimulations of electrons, what stimulates what to cause gravity? That is a question they did not answer definitively.

Battousai87's avatar

Serious: why are humans driven to kill one another for reasons other than food, water, and shelter?
Serious 2: what happened to start everything? in other words where/how did the universe start?
Joke: What women really want.

DrMC's avatar

@Battousai87 – that’s easy. Gotta try out them new weapons on something
2) the universe is just a burp in the multiverse. The number of dimensions would hurt your mind. You should not think to deeply about this, it could damage the hardware.
3) – Women of course, want whatever they want. Just like men, and pandas.

You will find these answers in the religion of tautology.

Fyrius's avatar

Someone has to do it, apparently, because people continue to belittle the competence of science.

What you ask is really only a matter of definitions. What is energy, and what is volume? Energy is “A quantity that denotes the ability to do work and is measured in a unit dimensioned in mass × distance²/time² (ML²/T²) or the equivalent”, and volume is “A unit of three dimensional measure of space that comprises a length, a width and a height.”
What a word means is never an unsolvable mystery, because we decide what it means. And if a branch of science uses a word all the time, you can count on it being more precisely defined than a legal disclaimer.

As for gravity, ask any physicist, if you don’t want to take high school’s word for it. Read Stephen Hawking, or Michio Kaku, or just Wikipedia. Or befriend a freshman physics student somewhere and ask him.

As for science being all-knowing: of course it’s not, but science is the pinnacle of the human search for knowledge. My faith in science is faith in humankind’s ability to learn.

I’ve read at some point that the universe is (possibly) bent in a higher dimension to have the shape of a ball. That means there is no outer boundary, and if you keep going for long enough (i.e. billions of years at light speed) you just end up where you started again.
I’m not sure about the credentials of that point of view.

That’s true, we don’t know how gravity could be manipulated, if at all. But the nature of gravity has stopped being completely unknown long ago.
The reason why small things can have stronger gravity than large things is density. Gravity is a product of mass, so if you can cram huge loads of mass into a very tiny package – like a black hole does – you’re going to have stronger gravitational forces than if you have a larger object containing less mass.
Furthermore if you have two objects with the same mass but one is smaller, the gravity at its surface will be greater, because you can get closer to the centre (and the closer to the centre, the stronger the gravity). This is why a black hole can pull harder than it could when it was still a star.
As for why mass generates gravity, I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m not sure if the physicists have the answer yet either. But I am sure they’ll figure out eventually.

ETpro's avatar

@Fyrius There is not much evidence to think the universe curves back into itself, but even if it does, that does not negate my thought experiment with the thought machine that is capable of flying forever in a straght line and flies right through its outer boundary.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@Fyrius That is why gravity is ome science mystery that won’t ever be unlocked because no one knows just what stimulates atoms into becoming gavitational.

Fyrius's avatar

If it does, doesn’t that mean there is no outer boundary?
A machine capable of driving forever in the same direction will never go over the edge of the earth. It’ll just follow the bent surface and end up where it began.

Are you even listening to yourself?
No one knows the answer now, therefore it is a mystery that won’t ever be unlocked? Do you even understand what science is at all?
Besides that, I’m not even certain if the answer is even really still unknown. And even if it is I’m sure there are at least tentative answers that are still to be verified. (But physics is not my field of expertise.)
There is really no reason to be so defeatist.

And as a side note, atoms don’t become gravitational, gravity is an inherent property of all mass.

lloydbird's avatar

@mattbrowne..explaining existence with words is relatively easy.”
Can you please demonstrate your assertion?

liminal's avatar

Why do we yawn?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@Fyrius In the spirit of the question it is a question I thnk science will probably never answer, that is not defeatist. Even if they found out how it worked I will be dead before they figured out how to make it benificial for mankind.

ETpro's avatar

@Fyrius You’re dodging the point of my thought experiment. A machine capable of driving forever in a straight line would definitely not remain earthbound. It would take a lot of energy topower such a machine, but it could be done. The same would seem to apply to the outer boundaries of a spherical universe.

Fyrius's avatar

Lo and behold.

I do believe it is defeatist. You’re presenting something that you believe cannot be done. I believe human competence deserves more credit than that.
And if we’re talking about what will never happen, then whether any of us will be alive to see it is irrelevant.

Missing, perhaps. Dodging, no.

What I think is a key aspect of the comparison is what qualifies as a “straight line”. The car-on-earth comparison collapses our familiar three dimensions into two (so that a surface can be bent into a ball in a way we can visualise), and even if that makes the “straight line” that the car describes more like a circle in 3D, on the two-dimensional surface of the earth it is a straight line. Similarly if three-dimensional space is bent in a fourth dimension, then what qualifies as a straight line in our three-dimensional point of view will still never leave the “surface” of the “bal”, but will instead make a full circle in a fourth spatial dimension and end up where it started.
If your hypothetical space probe could fly in what would be a straight line from a four-dimensional point of view, and our universe really is curved into a “ball”, then it would exit our universe the instant it set sail.

liminal's avatar

@Fyrius I“ve always been partial to the thermoregulatory hypothesis, yet I am still waiting for an empirically definitive answer. Mirror neurons hold strong sway for me when it comes to the contagion issue. Your sentiment that science has the capability to answer my question and can eventually deduce a definitive one go further towards convincing me that my question has an answer than your link does.

mattbrowne's avatar

@josie – I never said anything about an official judge. When looking at all your favorite questions, I see three general categories

1) Science will indeed never be able to answer them (let’s say not even in 100 billion years when our sun turned from a white dwarf into a black dwarf and posthumans or superintelligent beings populate the entire Virgo supercluster of galaxies)

2) Despite your assumption, science will (most likely) be able to answer them at some point in the (near) future

3) Despite your assumption science can already answer your question today

I think @Fyrius tried to point out that some of the suggestions above actually fall into category 3.

Fyrius's avatar

Allow me to adjoin the belated P.S. that what I intended that link to show is that they’re working on it, and have a few possible answers already. I think we can trust the lab coats to figure it out sooner or later. They’ve tackled more difficult issues.
Excuse my clumsy presentation.

And I dare say it’s beyond any possible doubt that the question has an answer, even if we don’t know it. Even “for no reason at all” would be an answer.

And that others fall into category 2.

ETpro's avatar

@Fyrius Thanks for explaining your thought more fully. Of course, a thought vehicle wouldn’t be constrained by any dimensions. It can proceed wherever it wishes.

liminal's avatar

@Fyrius I sincerely like how this conversation turned into what I word as “Does every question have an answer?” I think about this question often. I am intrigued by the distinction you make between science questions and not science questions.

I am comfortable with mystery, not knowing, and that there are answers that may never be known/figured out/understood in my life time. I also understand the assurance of knowledge. I like seeing these sorts of exchanges, @mattbrowne, thanks for the question.

mattbrowne's avatar

@liminal – You’re welcome!

Aster's avatar

If God is all-knowing and omnipotent and thus knows what we’ll do next, how can He punish us (or even be angry) for what we do? Can he not control our actions? And if He Can , indeed, control our behavior, then how could He allow us to be punished for it?And if He Can control our behavior but chooses Not to, then is He culpable for any of it? ha.

ETpro's avatar

@Aster Theologists tie themselves into Gordian knots trying to explain that logical inconsistency. In the end, it is still a logical inconsistency.

Likewise, there is the one about God bening All Loving and Omnipotent, but allowing evil like the Hatii earthquake, and even the emergence of Satan and the rebellion of the Heavenly Angels of Evil to occur. I am not anti God. I do not know whether the universe got her by the work of a creator, by nothing suddenly exploding, or by having existed throughout infiinity. I am against logical inconsistency, though. I can’t embrace a religion that posits a God who has self-contradicting attributes.

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