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The Comprehensible Universe

  1. Jun 28, 2009 #1
    Most people don't ever bother in their lifetimes to ask this question, yet i am sure it will become a prime issue in the Philosophy of Science in the near future(as we explain more aspects of reality).

    So, how would you answer the question - Why is the Universe comprehensible?

    Why do dumb quantum fields and particles behave through emergent properties in a way that can create what we call Life, that can in turn observe and comprehend how those quantum fields work?

    Do you feel we are self-organising and self-arising quantum fields(or a rather bizarre manifestation of them) in universe tailored for life, who are looking to find some Higher Goal/Truth or Purpose? Maybe the Truth about reality or something even more mind-boggling?(Yes, in QFT everything, the whole universe can be represented by quantum fields, and in principle, it should be possible to derive all the observed phenomena from their interactions).

    So why is the universe comprehensible? The universe(atheists call it Nature) created each and every single one of us in an environment that can be observed, interacted with, described and comprehended for millions of years on end. What is what you refer to as 'Nature' trying to accomplish by those emergent properties and could Nature have a plan that we are failing to see? Why would those quantum fields want to observe themselves, grow, develop, talk, laugh, sing, fall in love and make the utmost Sacrifice - lose the emergent properties that brought them to life because of an unreturned love(for example)?

    Theists and atheists, you are all welcome.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2009
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  3. Jun 28, 2009 #2


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    There are two parts to the answer - the epistemic and the ontic.

    Epistemology is about how we know the world (and so includes the reasons which shape our knowing). Here you have to ask not why is the universe so comprehensible but rather what kind of comprehension are we forcing onto the situation.

    So this is modelling relations. And mostly what we want is to be able to exert control on the world - to know the essential levers we have to pull to get things done.

    The point is that we do not actually comprehend the world. We construct a meaning that makes the most sense to us in the light of our purposes.

    Then there is the second ontic issue. It also seems true that the universe has global regularities, universal principles. It is a static object in this regard, not something always fluid and shifting.

    And this would make sense because in any great collection of patterns, only a far more limited set of patterns can actually persist. A collection of patterns is like a host of possibilities in competition. Then over time, all the variety must self-cancel largely away, fall towards some general state of equilbrium, some general sum-over-histories.

    So there is an argument based on self-organisation - the emergence of a dynamic equilibrium from a confused variety.

    This is why mathematics is "unreasonably effective". Shake down all the possible patterns and only some smaller subset can satisfy the collective emergent constraints. Only a few things can be globally true, even if once all things seemed locally possible.

    Quantum theory is actually not the story here. Or at least, it is a model of the confused variety out of which crisper sums-over-histories emerge.

    And this is what IMHO is lacking from current physics. A clear model of the system of mutual constraints - the universe as an emergent system - which then acts to equilibrate the quantum variety. Of course, selection rules exist - such as the decoherence interpretation of QM. But there is not yet a well worked out general theory here, just lots of bits and pieces.
  4. Jun 29, 2009 #3

    I don't think so. We are conforming and adjusting to the reality we find ourselves in, not vice versa. We can't force a wrong understanding on reality, this is ridiculous and hasn't been observed to work even once. Wrong theories in physics(or other fields of science) are neither right nor can they be forced "onto the situation" in any way, whatsoever.

    Yes, there are levers, there is a correct approach and we have to find it. But why is it so?

    And this meaning makes the most sense to us when and where it matches reality, i.e. when we have comprehended the world(reality), which is essentially the opposite of what you have just said.


    This doesn't make any sense.

    What competition? Who said something has to be in competition? Where is this idea of competition coming from and what do you mean by it?

    This is starting to look the fairy tales found in children's books. What variety must cancel what? And why? Why do you assume nature/reality has to be like that and couldn't be any other way? What gives you this totally unwarranted certainty?

    What is "confused variety" supposed to mean? High entropy?

    Why is it? You haven't provided a reason why it is "unreasonably effective".

    You can't explain the emergence and bahaviour of life by borrowing principles from quantum mechanics(sum over histories). This is a very stupid idea, do you really believe physicists wouldn't have already found this "explanation" for emergent properties?

    The question is why, not if they emerge. We all know that emergent properties do emerge.

    Decoherence doesn't even touch the question what selects outcomes. It's of no help really to the question what might it be that Nature(the dumb quantum fields and particles) is trying to accomplish by emerging what we call and perceive as "life forms"(other quantum fields) in a comprehensible environment of other quantum fields, who will forever ponder the meaning of all this.

    Why am i dragging quantum field theory into all this? Before the arrival of perceiving life forms, what we now term 'the universe' was quantum in nature. The first life(possibly the RNA molecule) that has appeared on Earth, has been the result of quantum interactions.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2009
  5. Jun 29, 2009 #4


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    I don't think you get how trapped you are by the way you construct this issue.

    You presume the natural goal is indeed to com prehend - to grasp it all together. But the natural goal of a modelling relationship is to predict, anticipate, control. Not to know the world but to act upon it.

    Put simply, it is about maximising subjectivity, not objectivity.

    This changes the foundation of your argument and so cuts the ground from under some of the things that are bothering you. There is still an interesting discussion about what "objectivity" is all about of course. Why we now pursue this unnatural goal.

    As to the second part of the story, the ontic version of your question, the sum over histories is just a particular example of a more general stat mech principle. But a neat illustration as it depends on self-cancelling symmetries.

    I also fear you have only a bottom-up view of emergence. You ought to check out more sophisticated stuff like Howard Pattee on "downwards causation".

    Actually Pattee would be very good for you as he is also excellent on the modelling issue (his papers on the epistemic cut). And he was a pupil with von Neumann (so grappled with QM interpretation) before applying himself to systems science and theoretical biology.

    Another good book - if the philosophy of science actually interests you - would be Robert Nozick's Invariances. Well, I say good - I mean illustrative of the mainstream. Anyway he argues how objectivity is the emergence of invariance over transformations (a sum over histories of points of view so to speak).

    That's just two writers plucked from the pile. Moving along my book shelf, next there is Tor Norretrander's The User Illusion, Kelso's Dynamic Patterns, Hofstadter's Godel, Esher, Bach, Kauffman's At Home in the Universe, Whitehead's Process and Reality....

    Anyway a ton of people do make a living thinking about this stuff.
  6. Jun 29, 2009 #5

    And do you know how many books and textbooks people have on their shelves in the world? The Absolute Whole of science is based on the conviction that the universe is comprehensible, there is no science without this assumption. Yet people hardly think about the world they live in and which they think they know so well, when they pass by their overloaded bookshelves. That's surprising because only humans of all animals that have ever roamed the Earth, can match and comprehend the inherent rationality of the universe. And it's mind-boggling why people(mostly overly secular ones) underestimate the Power of this question, when Absolutely ALL of our technological progress and development is crucially dependent on its affirmative answer.

    Sooner or later, science becomes a problem for itself.

    A universe randomly 'drawn' from nothingness(non-existence) would very likely be an incomprehensible mess. I feel some scientists don't seem to deserve the beautiful and comprehensible universe they live in, if they fail to see the significance of this question.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2009
  7. Jun 29, 2009 #6
    What question?

    Comprehensible means able to be understood. There is an aspect of the universe which is comprehensible, because it has been observed by telescopes. There is also an aspect which is not currently comprehensible. What's the question?

    There is no mystery behind life, which is merely self-replication. I consider that to be a well understood, fairly basic and obvious emergent characteristic of a sufficiently complex and stable system. Self awareness is another story in my opinion. I see no evidence of a God, but I have no concept of how awareness could be represented or manifested in terms of physical particles. It is the second greatest mystery of the universe...the first greatest mystery being, why does the universe exist at all?

    I do not believe that our universe was created with a purpose or destiny. Such a belief is identical to a belief in God, and we have no evidence for a God specifically, other than the fact that we can't explain our existence. While a God would serve to explain our existence, explaining the existence of the God would be even more difficult, and therefore the explanation has no merit. I also do not believe that QFT is the lowest level of complexity. I think there's a more simplistic mechanism underlying it.

    First of all, atheists do not refer to the universe as "nature" any more than theists refer to apples as potato chips. Second, "observation" is simply a cataloging of sensory inputs, so that's obviously possible if it's possible to evolve senses, and evolution is possible if there is a sufficient quantity of diverse molecular reactions for autocatalytic sets to form.

    Stop using the word "Nature" to refer to "God." Nature is not a conscious entity. It is the set of flora and fauna on planet Earth, and it has no collective intelligence.

    Natural selection is not an intelligent force that selects traits out of choice. It selects on the basis of reproducibility, which led to intelligence for survival, and somehow self awareness came with intelligence, and once we had self awareness next came emotions and all the other human characteristics, and once people started getting judged on an emotional level this allowed members of the opposite sex to cause natural selection on a self-induced level.
  8. Jun 29, 2009 #7

    The question that was asked 6 times - Why is the universe comprehensible?

    It was immediately below the line you quoted. Here it is again(in case you've missed it):

    The universe here does not refer only to cosmological objects millions of light years away. It refers to everything we have access to, including our local earthly environment. Without the (evidenced)assumption that the universe is comprehensible, our science will collapse. This is a no-brainer.

    Ignorance convinces, you have already explained everything and science is apparently a closed chapter for you. Well done!

    For the record - Life is the greatest mystery of science. See E.Schroedinger's "What is Life" or the references in post 4 by aperion.

    Be honest, there are no creationists here and your agenda will not suffer if you said that an "Emergent system" is the same as saying - a "system that i have no idea about" uttered in a pseudo-scientific sounding way.

    God is not the best of all explanations(though the nist flexible one), and i never said god in this thread. And I am looking for a better explanation(though not with my eyes closed).

    Its derivative "natural" is in every 2nd sentence of every hardcore atheist's talk on the matter.

    Why are all of these processes possible? Theory says the singularity had nearly infinitely low entropy. Would you want to explain this infinitely low entropy?

    This is an assumption, while it seems likely, it's still an assumption. It does not give you the right to make definite statements on such matters. Unless you want to prove that you can prove anything by assuming that it is so(which is very reminescent of the talks i had in the past with radical atheists).

    This story can be found in 4-grader's biology textbooks, while it's true and good enough for the local muffler guy, it doesn't tell the whole story. It has absolutely No explanatory power as to why life had to emerge from quantum interactions and develop to its present state in a comprehensible environment perceived as such by fast progressing comprehending beings.
    Last edited: Jun 29, 2009
  9. Jun 29, 2009 #8
    The point wasn't about forcing a particular understanding on reality, but forcing the type of understanding to conform to reality. Note:

    "what kind of comprehension are we forcing onto the situation"

    That's asking what's the nature of the comprehension that we're forced to use in order for it to make sense?

    Essentially, our understanding is wrong. For instance, I have a concept of the soda can on my desk. I understand it as a discrete object, but the "reality" is that it is NOT a discrete object. In order to form a human-style "understanding", we have to break down our perceptions in to "chunks" and build conceptual models using those chunks. The universe in actuality is infinitesimal, and hence is incomprehensible to humans. Our particular "style" of comprehension by its very nature is erroneous as applied to reality.

    The reason we use it is because it's the most effective tool we have towards the goal of living better and living longer. But that doesn't mean it's "correct" in an objective sense.

    I disagree. I posit instead that of all known animals, humans have the highest degree of comprehension, and other animals have a more limited (but nonetheless valid) comprehension.

    You're implying that if there were verifiably no cohesion in the universe, that it would be incomprehensible to humans? I guess that's probably true. But effectively, the existence of humans guarantees some degree of cohesion because the human body is (to a certain extent) comprehensible. Therefore, in order for humans to have come into being, the universe by definition must have at least a limited sense of cohesion.

    If you're looking for an answer as to why the universe obeys at least some degree of cohesion, science can't give you an answer. It does, and that's all we know. It sounds to me like you want scientists to acknowledge some sort of unstated grandeur that you're implying to exist, presumably God?

    Humans comprehend the universe in a limited capacity because the structure of time and physical existence appear to obey relatively or absolutely consistent laws, AND because humans are capable of remembering their experiences, differentiating specific aspects of them, associating similar features of those aspects and experiences, and desiring particular outcomes.

  10. Jun 29, 2009 #9


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    Wavejumper - you are flailing about so it is hard to reply to your thread. The universe, along with any other subject, is only comprehensible if we approach it in a systematic way.

    There is a good reason why philosophy insists on splitting the epistemic questions from the ontic. You keep confusing both. And nowhere is this more dangerous than when QM seems to be the source of your quandry.

    Schrodinger's was another excellent book. But his point was that systems science is "bigger" than reductionist physics. And if you take his point, you would go study systems science to answer the big questions.

    As I said, bottom-up emergence is the view that reductionist physics sees. Everything real is constructed bottom-upwards from the smallest substantial parts - except, damn, QM shows there are no crisp foundational parts.

    Systems science (which takes in holism, hierarchy theory, cybernetics, etc) is the recognition that there is also a second story in the top-down constraints exerted from the global, or system, level.

    This is NOT emergence. Or at least it is a sophisticated emergence story.

    If you learn about the systems approach, you will see that we could say the universe is not just comprehensible but it is in fact a system that comprehends itself into being. It self-organises or bootstraps to use less contentious language.

    Your choice if you want to explore this way of thinking. Of course, it says a lot that so great a physicist as Schrodinger seems to have had about zero impact on the popular scientific imagination with that particular book.
  11. Jun 29, 2009 #10
    It must be, at least to a certain degree, or you couldn't form the question.
    I think implying intention to quantum fields is backwards thinking. They don't behave a certain way 'in order to' create anything. The fact they have behaved a certain way, or behave a certain way, has led to life.
    Being composed of quantum fields is not equivalent to being a quantum field.
    Not sure what you mean by bizarre.
    Human beings certainly value purpose, but we have pattern seeking brains, mostly because there is an evolutionary advantage to being able to predict what will happen next.

    The fact our little bit of the universe is relatively comprehensible does not imply that the universe is. You seem to be jumping around a lot here. Equating the quantum level, the cosmic level, and the everyday level, of existence is wrongheaded. Even our understanding how they relate to each other is still not well understood.
    Most atheists I know have no objection to the word universe. And many use it quite a bit.
    The universe didn't create anything, it is everything.
    Athropomorphizing the universe is not scientific.
    Human beings may want things... but attributing intention to quantum fields makes no sense.
  12. Jun 30, 2009 #11


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    While agreeing with you in general, I think here is exactly where systems science makes its interesting departure from standard issue scientific reductionism.

    It brings teleology - final causality - back into the picture. Or top-down, global, constraint.

    QM is of course incomplete because "intentionality" - the collapse issue, the observer exerting cosntraints - has been removed from the modelling. So it would be an improvement to have a larger model that included the observer, the wavefunction collapser.
  13. Jun 30, 2009 #12
    I agree, I think the discussion of emergent phenomena is fascinating.
    Although, so far, it still seems a bit thin.
    My gut tells me wavefunction collapse is just a useful descriptive model, definitely more to it, which is why gravity is still problematic for QM... The quantum world is just too different. Reductionism is a good strategy for human experience, but we've moved beyond what our evolved mammalian brains are good at dealing with into other worlds.
  14. Jun 30, 2009 #13
    This is an assumption. It can be either right or wrong.

    When you die, you are merely composed of quantum fields. 5 minutes before you died, those same quantum fields were more than the collection of the respective quantum fields. Life does look mind-boggling

    This is vague and incorrect. We have evolved pattern-seeking brains, because there are patterns in our universe(or should i say experience). In fact, the whole universe is a collection of repeating comprehensible patterns. That's what this thread is about

    I think it does. Science will most likely not collapse in future.

    I do not. I am merely discussing the mind boggling emergent behaviour in a comprehensible universe. This is a very interesting topic(to me).

    Why do atheists ALWAYS jump to unwarranted assumptions? Is this is a pattern of such brains? How do you know if we are not living in a multiverse?

    That's also an assumption, that you agree with. But it's an assumption nonetheless.
  15. Jun 30, 2009 #14


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    I'm not anti-reductionist as such as all modelling is of course an exercise in reduction - the shedding of local particulars to make plainer the global constraints. The laws of nature as they say.

    But the difference is that standard modelling seeks to reduce in just the one direction. A system always has two directions. And then through their interaction emerges the third thing of a middle ground.

    So we are used to monadic approaches to modelling that seek to reduce all description to something small, local and combinatorial like "atoms", "information", etc.

    But systems or hierarchical descriptions are dydaic - a dichotomy (and not that false thing, a disconnected dualism).

    So a system has the local combinatorial substances. Some set of stuffs. But it then also has its "emergent" set of global constraints, the global organisation form that acts downwards to focus the activity at locations.

    The magic of real systems is that the local ground is also "emergent" as it is indeed produced by the top-down constraints. So both the local and the global scales emerge together via mutual causality - the synergy of a dynamic interaction.

    Think of this as the turbulence that erupts in a stream when the banks close in to constrict the flow. The global form (the banks) are causing the local structure of the whorls - the system's dissipative "atoms". The larger scale creates the smaller (while the smaller in turn shapes the larger over time - turbulent waters erode river beds and banks to widen them and return them to smoother laminar flows).

    Anyway, the point is that systems approaches always seek to reduce dyadically, in both directions of scale.

    And then because there is interaction, we actually end up with a triadic ontology, one with the three levels of a hierarchy. You have global constraints, the local construction, and then the thirdness which is the equilibrated action of these two causal actions. Something further and greater emerges in-between, making the whole thing actually a system.

    A marvellous thing is that physics has sort of already got it. You have the local view in QM, the global view in GR and then the emergent in-between that (via decoherence and renormalisation etc) is Newtonian/Euclidean classical flat physics.

    The upwards constructions of QM and downwards constraints of GR equilibrated over all spatiotemporal scales.

    Monadic theorists have the instinct to want to collapse GR to QM. Where they find two (or even three) things, they must reduce them back to just the one.

    The systems theorist would say a dyad is what you would expect. Now instead you need a theory of how they relate over all scales (as with decoherence interpretations). Indeed how they equilibrate as complementary "actions" to create the flat classical space which we see over most scales of observation.
  16. Jun 30, 2009 #15
    Not all assumptions are created equal. As human beings we have good reasons, good evidence, for thinking we can intend things. A quantum field may have this ability, but without any evidence or reason to believe it is so, you might as well equate the assumption that gravity will continue working with the assumption you can fly. The fact assumptions can be right or wrong doesn't make them valid or invalid.
    Yes, I am, and so is an apple pie, but I would rather you eat the apple pie, if its all the same to you.
    In fact, you know no such thing. There are certainly patterns in the universe, but the existense of the truly random is not something we have, or I think could have, ruled out.
    If the universe is trully as big as it seems, from a science point of view, your sample size for making that statement is too miniscule to support your claim. Its like saying flipping a coin will always come up heads, simply because the first toss resulted in a head.
    Multiverse is a useful term, because it describes a specific model, different from the standard conception of the universe, but one could just as easily call the multiverse, the real universe.
    Assumptions can be useful things. I'm not sure why you seem to think all have equal value though.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2009
  17. Jun 30, 2009 #16
    That's interesting, I've been wondering myself if the reason gravity doesn't work well with QM is because it simply doesn't exist at that scale. I'm not if that is what you mean. How would the dyadic system explain black holes?
  18. Jun 30, 2009 #17


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    I'm not offering anything definite here, just some reactions from a different perspective.

    But the argument would be along the lines that QM and GR represent opposing limits. So QM would be the local limit - as discrete and point-like as you can get. GR would be the global limit - as continuous and smoothly connected as you could get.

    Or another way I see it is as opposing extremes of geometry. GR is hyperspheric curvature - so a closed geometry, fully self-connected over the global view. QM is instead hyperbolic, open and self-disconnecting (so discrete and pointlike) at every point - so open geometry. Then exactly inbetween, equilabrating these opposed tendencies, would be the average geometry - flat euclidean space.

    So a triad again, a triple decker sandwich of open/flat/closed. Or discrete/fractal/continuous. Or QM/Newton/GR.

    You could still imagine bringing QM and GR very close together, so to speak. Nearly map one on to the other. But then something else would happen - according to a certain brand of systems thinking I favour. And this is that the two limits would dissolve together to become a vagueness.

    This is a technical idea that I started up a thread on elsewhere in this forum. It replaces the idea of a singularity. So when things are collapsed back towards their limits, we encounter not singularities but increasingly vague states of pure unformed potential.

    It is a different kind of view, but also very ancient. And a few like Smolin and Rovelli are sniffing around some of the key figures like Peirce and Anaximander at the moment.

    Anyway, on black holes, this is where GR spins in on itself to form a singularity protected by an event horizon. If you could go inside the black hole as an observer, you would have lost the dyadic reality outside. But we are prevented being in communication with this centre and instead we have a dyadic relation - the event horizon that encloses the black hole marks out some local limit. And its global limit is then the event horizon that marks out the greater lightcone within which the black hole sits. So you have two limits in interaction.

    Note here how there is no particular problem connecting GR and QM - when we are dealing with event horizons. This is the expanded systems view where we can see the two things in interaction. It is only when we try to see a world without its event horizons - so monadically rather than dyadically - that we enter the confusion of singularities and ultraviolet divergences, etc.

    Again the stream analogy may be useful. Take away the banks and local whorls of turbulence just can't form. The structure you expected to find goes missing, becomes a puddle of water, becomes vague and unformed. Or shrink the banks in to try and trap a single whorl and again the local features become over constrained. They have no room to exist.

    GR and QM would become well behaved limits only once the universe expands to a certain scale - one large enough for them to break apart and then interact to make the third thing which was our big bang universe. This is like Hawking's imaginary time story I would say. Get small enough (and hot enough) and it all dissolves into something vaguer.

    QM is about uncertainty, but crisp uncertainty. Melt the world back to its pre-bang state and you would instead be disolving QM and GR jointly into vague "uncertainty". Or rather the perfect symmetry of vague potential.
  19. Jun 30, 2009 #18

    What you call abiogenesis is supposed to be just that - Life created by dumb quantum fields and particles(presumably because of some hidden or unknown properties or something that will forever remain a mystery).

    By reality being littered with patterns i meant - symmetry. You'd expect that when you land on the Moon, your bag will not start jumping up and down or start yelling at you in Yemenese. Reality is predictable because of this symmetry, all known laws of physics are location symmetrical, at least to where we have managed to probe so far. We find the same comprehensible patterns of behaviour everywhere in our Solar system.

    We have no reason to believe otherwise, do we? It's still a belief but i have not heard good reasons why the rest of the universe would not be comprehensible(even if it had different set of laws of physics).

    No no, don't get me wrong, they are certainly useful, it's just that it's annoying when people try to pass them as facts to force a certain agenda on the gullible.
  20. Jun 30, 2009 #19
    I think Joe's point was that we don't have enough information to make a claim either way. Just because the known universe is in some part comprehensible does not imply that the rest is comprehensible nor that it is NOT comprehensible. Personally, I think it implies (to a minor degree) that the rest of the universe is comprehensible, but it's by no means anything more than a weak opinion-- and not a very useful one at that.

    To what agenda and what assumptions are you referring?

  21. Jun 30, 2009 #20
    I had to read your post 5 times till i saw what you mean.

    Our level/realm of reality is pretty well comprehensible. Our perceptions are all that matters to gain control and comprehend reality. If our embodied(fake, or not) reality is comprehensible - we have to ask - What is it that makes this possible if Life is completely random(unmitigated) occurrence? Is our logic entangled(correlated) with the laws that govern the universe? Or are we a somehow a system with our environment?

    It is correct as far as our experience is concerned. And as far as our experience of reality goes - the universe(not only our local environment) does seem to be comprehensible.

    Why do you say that? The human body is comprehensible to whom? To humans? Why should the universe be comprehensible to humans? It does not follow from the fact that the human body is comprehensible. It's seems like circular logic. Have looked Boltzmann brains? The theory says that because of the infinite amount of time, the quantum fluctuations of a space-like medium can at very rare occurrences cause the emergence of whole atoms. Wait billions of years and a whole molecule might appear out of this quantum boiling. Now you have eternity on your side, wait 1000 billion trillion years, and a whole human brain will appear and fizz away into non-existence. Wait more and a whole human body will appear, or the whole universe might emerge through a Singularity(this is close to the universe being the result of a giant quantum fluctuation). Even if this were plausible, what are the odds that the resultant universe be comprehensible to its inhabitants?

    It's in the philosophy forum, maybe someone will see this thread and come up with some wonderful idea. I am not looking for answers, i am looking for ideas. As Einstein says - Imagination is more important than knowledge. Sometimes imagination is all that's necessary to bridge 2 incompatible concepts.

    To me God is a lot different concept than in religions. To me God is simply the Unknown that brings about the order(the laws of physics), predictability and comprehensibility in our experience. Other than that, you could say that i am a sort of mild atheist.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2009
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