Jump to content
ProximaCentauri

Everything we know - could it be wrong?

Recommended Posts

Posted (edited)

Imagine an ant. It lives in a (relative to the ant) extremely large colony with lots of other ants. This is the whole universe according to the ant. The ant has no thinking brain or consciousness, and so is oblivious to the rest of the world. It can only see so far and is limited by its sight. It cannot see up into the sky and doesn't even know that whatever is 50 miles away exists. Not only can it get there and will it never get there - but it does not and cannot know that that part of the world exists. It doesn't even know the world exists as the world - a sphere in space - as it does not have the consciousness to know this or work this out, as previously mentioned. 

If the ant could indeed think, it may (would?) think that it knew everything there was to possibly know. It's life in the confines of the colony and in the nest are the whole universe - including the 200 metres or so they travel from the nest. There would never be any awareness of anything else. The ant may think it knows everything and this is the world.

But humans are aware of the whole planet on which they live - we know it is indeed a planet which orbits the Sun at roughly 108,000 km/h, and that we have a moon which orbits around us at approximately 3,683 km/h. We are able to see all parts of the Earth and travel across the whole planet, we know about the ants who do not and cannot know anything about the universe more than about 200 metres from their nest. We can study the ants and know about their behaviour and their anatomy. We have traveled to our moon and we study the universe, using mathematics to make sense of it all.

Now what if we are the ant? What do I mean by this? Well, we are conscious and aware of our limitations - this is true. Whereas the ant is not. So you may think we have advantage here and I suppose that's right. And yes we know the universe is vast - that it involves distances which the human mind struggles to comprehend - even our most skilled mathematicians say the distances involved in space are just so unfathomable. Indeed, they tell us that the universe may very well be infinite. And WMAP has confirmed that the universe is flat - with a margin of error of about 0.4% - which means physicists can confidentially say, pretty much, that the universe is infinite (it has no boundary and it just goes on, forever and ever and ever - it never ends). Since we know this, and we are aware that what we can see is only the observable universe and not the entire universe, it could be concluded that we have an advantage over the ant we were previously discussing. Because we know our knowledge is limited. That we cannot know beyond the observable universe.

And unlike the ant, we can study our world. We can use physical laws and mathematical calculations and equations to understand and know our universe. But here is where we could indeed be ignorant, like the ant. Indeed, here is where we could know nothing at all about our universe, like the ant!? What if, the laws of physics and the mathematics we use to learn about and make sense of this universe in which we live - this physics and mathematics -  only make sense to us and are valid to us as humans? And to take this even further - what if the results from which are derived from the physics and mathematics are, in fact totally wrong? Is it possible, that because the mathematical methods employed and applied to physics make sense to us and work for us in that they deliver results and conclusions - evidence, in fact - that also makes perfect sense to us in relation to the mathematics - could actually be wrong?

It could be tricky to really explain properly the question I am asking and the point I'd like to make. So let us consider an intelligent life form trillions of light years away from us in some other part of the universe we could never reach. They use different tools - which we cannot imagine - instead of physical laws and mathematics - which make 100% sense to them and deliver results which fit well with those methods and which, to alien life form, answers questions about the universe in ways which make absolute perfect sense. They are not using our physics or mathematics. They arrive at different conclusions but they are absolutely true conclusions to the aliens as much as our conclusions through physics/mathematics are to us. Whose interpretation of the universe is correct?

In this sense not only could we think we know the universe is infinite in extent, when it could be something even beyond infinite, and there could be something totally beyond our universe other than the universe itself as we know it - but we could be totally wrong in everything we know, could we not? We only make sense of things with what we have (mathematics) to understand the universe and this is all we can do and we should just accept that, whatever results our experiments and theories yield, are what we have to go with as being true? When, in fact, they may not be objectively true. They may only be true to us?

Edited by ProximaCentauri

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote

Everything we know - could it be wrong?

It could be, and that possibility is one of the cornerstones of science. 

25 minutes ago, ProximaCentauri said:

We only make sense of things with what we have (mathematics) to understand the universe and this is all we can do and we should just accept that, whatever results our experiments and theories yield, are what we have to go with as being true? When, in fact, they may not be objectively true. They may only be true to us?

For a long time we only had Euclidean ("flat") geometry and it was inconceivable that there could be any other sort. Then someone said, "what if we replace that fifth postulate with an alternative". And not only was a new branch of mathematics born, but also new ways of describing (and hence seeing) the world. 

This are many similar examples. And that is one reason why science is not concerned with 'truth" but just with the best descriptions we are currently able to produce. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

But it sure was a long-winded way of saying "We don't know everything".

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

We can have a lot of confidence in the things we know about the things we can observe and examine, directly and indirectly. The things we cannot observe and examine are less significant. Purely hypothetical things, having no known existence, can be completely insignificant; rather than being reason to doubt everything we know that lack of observable existence of things we cannot observe is reason to doubt the existence of things that are purely hypothetical and cannot be observed.

Edited by Ken Fabian

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

And I should add that it is monumentally unlikely that everything we know is wrong. Simply because there is so much consistent evidence of different sorts for all the models we have now. You couldn't overturn one without everything else also being wrong. 

There are probably many things that are inaccurate or incomplete. There may be a few things which are completely wrong. But that is vanishingly rare in science. I can only think of a couple of good examples in the history of science.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Posted (edited)

 

2 hours ago, ProximaCentauri said:

It could be tricky to really explain properly the question I am asking and the point I'd like to make. So let us consider an intelligent life form trillions of light years away from us in some other part of the universe we could never reach. They use different tools - which we cannot imagine - instead of physical laws and mathematics - which make 100% sense to them and deliver results which fit well with those methods and which, to alien life form, answers questions about the universe in ways which make absolute perfect sense. They are not using our physics or mathematics. They arrive at different conclusions but they are absolutely true conclusions to the aliens as much as our conclusions through physics/mathematics are to us. Whose interpretation of the universe is correct?

Invariability of physics and chemistry is one of postulates. If one region of the Universe would have different physical laws than other, observation of that region from Earth using telescopes would give different noticeable results. e.g. analyze of content of stars would not be possible. But it is giving consistent answers (at least locally). Scientists use spectral lines of known on the Earth elements to figure out composition of distant stars (including the Sun). You cannot fly to star and manually check its composition taking sample of it and fling back with it. Device would melt. What remains? Analyze of the light emitted by the star (or Sun).

Variability of physical laws would tremendously complicate understanding of the Universe. Perhaps even completely disallowing to understand it. Scientists, without any the real evidences, hypothesize how such theoretical variability of physical laws would behave. e.g. different number of dimensions, different kind of forces and/or with different strengths ("what would happen if electromagnetic force would be weaker or stronger than it is in this Universe"), different decay rates of radioactive isotopes and/or particles (it could lead to shorter or longer life of stars). To check such hypothesis there can be created simulation. Universes with hypothetical properties existing only in computer memory.

 

Edited by Sensei

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Everything I/you know could be wrong, but that depends on how much I/you think we know; if I know a lot about very little and I/you/them combine, we know a lot of reason's why that's unlikely.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/6/2020 at 2:56 PM, ProximaCentauri said:

What if, the laws of physics and the mathematics we use to learn about and make sense of this universe in which we live - this physics and mathematics -  only make sense to us and are valid to us as humans?

Forgive me if I'm wrong about this, but in my experience, people who've studied physics and maths formally and intensively don't ask this question. They all seem to understand at a fundamental level how science describes the natural world.

The folks who ask this question are the ones who haven't studied as rigorously, and I'm skeptical of their motives. If everything we know is wrong (black is white, up is down, and short is long^), then they were right to have avoided studying it in school. It seems like calling mainstream knowledge into question becomes a justification for skipping school. I could be wrong, but this is my impression after a number of years of discussion.

* Thanks, Weird Al!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, Phi for All said:

Forgive me if I'm wrong about this, but in my experience, people who've studied physics and maths formally and intensively don't ask this question. They all seem to understand at a fundamental level how science describes the natural world.

The folks who ask this question are the ones who haven't studied as rigorously, and I'm skeptical of their motives. If everything we know is wrong (black is white, up is down, and short is long^), then they were right to have avoided studying it in school. It seems like calling mainstream knowledge into question becomes a justification for skipping school. I could be wrong, but this is my impression after a number of years of discussion.

* Thanks, Weird Al!

I think it might just be that science is popularly presented as being about absolutes, so if science says X, then X must be true.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 minute ago, Strange said:

I think it might just be that science is popularly presented as being about absolutes, so if science says X, then X must be true.

What I keep seeing is very smart people who may have shrugged off science's importance in their early life, possibly after stumbling over some part of it in school. They make a decision NOT to become an egghead and choose other subjects.

Fast forward a few years, and they read a pop-sci article and find it's pretty interesting. They actually understand more than they thought they would. But the information isn't cohesive the way it would be if they'd studied science formally. They're forced to piece together the bits they know to make sense of it. Many keep adding to their base of knowledge, and fill in the gaps that way, but it takes time.

Some choose to let their imaginations take over, and they start filling those ignorance gaps with stuff they've made up, based on the little they've studied. And many of those come to this same conclusion, that maybe the stuff most people study is wrong, because the ideas they've made up seem to make more intuitive sense. 

There are similar phenomena, like "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like", and "I don't have the education to be a scientist, but anyone can philosophize."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
18 minutes ago, Phi for All said:

What I keep seeing is very smart people who may have shrugged off science's importance in their early life, possibly after stumbling over some part of it in school. They make a decision NOT to become an egghead and choose other subjects.

Fast forward a few years, and they read a pop-sci article and find it's pretty interesting. They actually understand more than they thought they would. But the information isn't cohesive the way it would be if they'd studied science formally. They're forced to piece together the bits they know to make sense of it. Many keep adding to their base of knowledge, and fill in the gaps that way, but it takes time.

Some choose to let their imaginations take over, and they start filling those ignorance gaps with stuff they've made up, based on the little they've studied. And many of those come to this same conclusion, that maybe the stuff most people study is wrong, because the ideas they've made up seem to make more intuitive sense. 

There are similar phenomena, like "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like", and "I don't have the education to be a scientist, but anyone can philosophize."

Hey, I have a philosophy... 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
24 minutes ago, dimreepr said:

Hey, I have a philosophy... 

In which, hopefully, you dream of more than Heaven and Earth, but not more than is reasonable.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
4 minutes ago, Phi for All said:

In which, hopefully, you dream of more than Heaven and Earth, but not more than is reasonable.

I do not know about dim. For myself, I am willing to accept that the big Spaghetti Monster in the sky is capable of doing anything it wants. But at least from experience, I am mostly pretty sure what it will do in any given circumstance.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 

On 4/8/2020 at 4:58 PM, Phi for All said:

If everything we know is wrong (black is white, up is down, and short is long^), then they were right to have avoided studying it in school.

Couldn't have put it better myself. You reminded me of a Seinfeld episode titled The Opposite.

I agree and sympathize with what I think may be the OP's general intention. It's the bit "everything we know is wrong" that bothers me, and I would have downgraded with "grading logical operators" like "most of" and "not quite true."

On 4/7/2020 at 12:51 AM, Sensei said:

Variability of physical laws would tremendously complicate understanding of the Universe. Perhaps even completely disallowing to understand it.

That worries me quite a bit. Multiverses and pre-big-bang scenarios come to mind. One concept that I find quite interesting is that of hidden assumptions. It is conceivable that in every scientific perspective we have a blind spot for some hidden assumption. Like, e.g., that you can always separate system/environment, or similar.

On 4/6/2020 at 10:56 PM, ProximaCentauri said:

They are not using our physics or mathematics. They arrive at different conclusions but they are absolutely true conclusions to the aliens as much as our conclusions through physics/mathematics are to us. Whose interpretation of the universe is correct?

I don't think aliens in another part of the universe would reach very different conclusions from us. Think about it this way: Scientists and mathematicians from different centuries and under very different cultures have reached the same conclusions, theoretical structures, and experimental results, over and over: Madhava and Leibnitz, Hero of Alexandria and James Watt... And Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac stumbled upon the same quantum mechanics from very different lines of reasoning.  And Dirac was certainly an alien. ;)

Whatever it is science is doing, it doesn't seem to depend on who's doing it.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 4/6/2020 at 9:56 PM, ProximaCentauri said:

If the ant could indeed think, it may (would?) think that it knew everything there was to possibly know. It's life in the confines of the colony and in the nest are the whole universe - including the 200 metres or so they travel from the nest. There would never be any awareness of anything else. The ant may think it knows everything and this is the world.


This reminds me of a misattributed quote of (and injustice to) Lord Kelvin:

Quote

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.


If the ant could "think" then IMHO it's not a tremendously large leap to assume it might become inquisitive and start exploring, questioning and developing theories to try and understand it's observations.  In the same way humans (and potentially kindred species) have done since prehistory.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.