Science Says You’re Wrong

Confused

37, day four.

Everything you know is wrong. You’ve heard this before; it is not a new idea. It was said some time ago, by one of the foundational philosophers of the modern age . Philosophers have posited that human knowledge is fundamentally flawed as far back as Socrates, perhaps much further. But as everyone it the modern world knows, ultimately philosophy is little more than clever thinking. It is interesting for its own sake, but it does not produce anything of practical value. For the last five hundred years, philosophy has increasingly lost ground in the discovering-truths department to its younger brother: natural philosophy, more commonly known these days as science. While it is true that the inherently skeptical nature of science means that it cannot provide us with Truth, it has given us more legitimate insight into the way the universe functions and how it is structured than any other approach in the history of humanity. When I say that everything you know is wrong, I am not being philosophical. I am being scientific. Imagine the following thought experiment. This is a bit abstract, so bear with me. Picture a closed room full of chemicals dispersed in the air. There is hydrogen, and neon, and sulfur hexafloride, and other gasses. They are of different density, so they are not all mixed together, and moving through the room will move the gasses about. It is a complicated and dynamic situation in there, but of course you cannot see it or interact with it in any way you can perceive. Now imagine you are inside of that room wearing a very specialized mechanical suit. The suit is equipped with various detectors and other devices. It provides you with visual and tactile feedback that corresponds to to the various gasses in the room. Hydrogen is blue and feels soft. Helium is green with red speckles and feels fuzzy and light. The heavy sulfur hexafloride in the corner is dark and feels viscous and your feet move sluggishly as you walk through it. Further more, the suit allows you to manipulate these gasses manually. You can move the hydrogen around, and separate it from the helium. The suit does this using filters, but to you it feels like you are using your fingers. Let us say further that you do not realize the room is full of gasses you would not normally be able to interact with in an observable manner. Furthermore, you do not know you are in a special suit. What would you think about the situation? You would think that what you were experiencing was objectively real. You would think you were in a room full of substances that you could touch and manipulate, with specific textures and colors that were intrinsic to the substance with which you interacted. But it is all an illusion. It is a model provided by the suit you do not even realize you are wearing so that you can perceive and interact with a world that would otherwise be outside of your sensory experience. This may seem like fanciful speculation. But the room full of gasses with the special suit, it turns out, is not so different than the world we live in. The universe is the room full of gasses, and the human body and brain are the suit. Scientists used to think the world really was more or less as it appears: Physical objects moving around in space forward in time. In future history books, it might be said that 20th century physics was a grand project in dismantling that very world view. We know now that matter is actually made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space. The particles themselves are made up of bundles of energy bound together through fundamental interactions. They only have mass at all because of interactions with an invisible field that stretches throughout the universe. Time is neither linear, directional, nor consistently extant throughout the universe. Most importantly of all, everything I just said is a ridiculous and largely inaccurate oversimplification. Of course, you know all of this. You know that matter is made of atoms. You know that atoms are made of subatomic particles that are themselves made of energy. You know that time and space are relative to movement. We are all taught this in school. Yet we still go around believing that pencils exist, that we can see them, understand them, pick them up and use them to write on pieces of paper. Of course they exist. You have one in your hand right now. But that does not mean it is not an illusion. Everything we see and do is an illusion created by the biological mechanisms of our brains in order to facilitate our ability to function in the universe. It is all there, but the form we perceive bears little to no similarity to whatever craziness is objectively, physically real. We are all the man in the suit, believing we are handling green and red speckled fuzzy stuff when we are actually wading through helium. There is no unifying theory as to what the universe is actually made of. The best models fundamental physics has produced to describe large and small things do not agree with each other. The best guess we have as to how to make them work together is riddled with holes. Not only do we know the world we see is very much not the world that is actually out there, we also know that our understanding of what is out there is fundamentally incomplete. Everything you know is wrong. People much smarter than either of us have said it, and some of them have demonstrated it using experimental data and millions of hours of mathematical computation. If you are uncomfortable with any of this, don’t blame me. Blame science. That’s what everyone else does.

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11 thoughts on “Science Says You’re Wrong

  1. Neither you nor I nor anyone we know is in the real world. They have never been in the real world and never will be. The real world is constantly on the other end of our sensors.

    • I’m not sure whether we’re in it or not, but it certainly doesn’t seem like we can access it in a meaningful way. We just have to accept that. I find it kind of liberating, actually.

      • The part of your brain that is ‘you’ cannot be in the real world, only to view it via the simulation that runs in your brain. It is not a popular view. Even Sam Harris has a problem with this thought. We live in the matrix, not of someone else’s making but of our own.

    • Erin says:

      @myatheistlife: Well… maybe, but not necessarily. It sounds like you’re referring to Kant or someone following in his footsteps. It’s a good argument, but it makes a problematic assumption: that our minds are capable of generating a reality from our senses. For most of us, a quick experiment will cast doubt on that assumption: the next time you’re in a crowded room, turn around and picture what everyone’s wearing.

      *Spoiler alert* You’ll (almost certainly) be wrong. Ludicrously wrong, in fact. You won’t know where people are, what they look like, or much else. Our minds (at least, as far as we can tell) aren’t actually capable of forming mirror-universes for us to live in. There’s been a great deal of cognitive experimentation on these lines that has demonstrated just that.

      In fact, a better model of the mind treats it as though it encompasses the area around us, sort of a combination of our bodies, brains, senses, and whatever those senses are detecting (say, just for argument’s sake, matter composed on tiny particles which are the byproducts of the interactions of forces). This is counter-intuitive, but attempts to develop AI point in this direction, as well.

      Of course, that model’s accuracy is dependent on whether or not the sources of our perceptions really are what they seem. If so, we actually kind of are experiencing “the real world”, at least in a manner of speaking. We’re part of reality, not a mind encompassing a shadow reality; in fact, that sort of inner world seems to be a delusion.

      If are senses aren’t providing us with actual information… then things are quite a bit crazier. If that’s the case, we have no idea what reality is, we’re not experiencing it directly, nor are we necessarily experiencing it from one of Kant’s black boxes. Most people will tell you that’s far too depressing to consider: I kind of think it’s a fun thought experiment (but that’s me).

      We can’t prove we’re interacting with the world, nor should we entirely dismiss Kant’s description. However, it’s far less clear-cut than you make it sound. We may, in fact, be experiencing the real world as a part of it; we may not.

      • Perhaps I’m wrong but the idea that our brains model the world around us in our heads seems agreed upon.

        My questions to yourself and others here would be this: How do our brains model the world around us in a fashion suitable enough for us to operate in the world?
        What mechanism creates that model? What process analyses it?

      • Erin says:

        “Perhaps I’m wrong but the idea that our brains model the world around us in our heads seems agreed upon.”

        It’s a common assumption, but…. At the very least, it’s no longer agreed upon. You wouldn’t have been wrong a few decades ago, but the models for cognition have changed quite a bit.

        “How do our brains model the world around us in a fashion suitable enough for us to operate in the world?”

        Ah, I’m glad you asked. The answer seems to be… they don’t. At least not in a grand scheme. Our brains do seem to create models, but those models are simplistic and incomplete. We rely on real time sensory input to navigate the world around us: most of which we gloss over without storing.

        To put it another way, we’re not building a three-dimensional model in our brains and living in that: it’s not how we evolved. Instead, we’re actively sensing the world and responding to key data points.

  2. Nice post 

    I’d edit the statement a little and say that it’s not that “everything we know is wrong” (because we do understand aspects of relativity and quantum mechanics), more that we can’t have an intrinsic feel for the physics beyond our everyday experience and that our everyday experience works against us when we try to understand more complicated and esoteric topics in physics.

    We have evolved to have an innate “feel” for aspects of classical physics. We needed to understand the movements and interactions of macroscopic objects to throw spears, avoid predators and build tools. However, we didn’t need to understand the quantum level behaviour inside the spear to throw it, so we don’t have a natural understanding of these regimes. Robert Heinlein described this intrinsic understanding of classical physics as the ability to “grok” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok. We cannot grok speeds close to the speed of lights or microscopic objects, as we do not deal with them on an everyday basis. Hence, special relativity and quantum mechanics seem hard, spooky and odd.

    It’s not that everything we know is wrong, more that we can exist and function in the world without understand its true underlying nature. We exist happily in a simplified version of the true world, like a character in a videogame.

    We could say, we’ll always be wrong. However complete our understanding of physics and mathematics becomes, it is still only a model of the real world. It is an increasingly accurate model, but a model nonetheless. Let’s leave this last point aside 😉

    • I’m certainly not going to pretend I am not using the word “wrong” to be dramatic. However, I think it is still accurate. We did not exactly evolve a feeling for classical physics as much as evolve a way to invent classical physics as the way the universe operates. It is, as you said, a fundamentally simplified version of reality. Or, to put it another way, it is an inaccurate version of reality, and therefore wrong. It is “close enough” to let us operate. Frankly, that is pretty amazing. I am certainly not disputing that.

      In other words, I don’t disagree with you at all! I just thought it was worth pointing out that, with a large cultural focus on how awesome science is, it’s worth talking about the fact that we are always only interacting with the video game mechanics around us, and it is a wide misconception that those mechanics are real in some meaningful way, when they’re really not.

      • “We did not exactly evolve a feeling for classical physics as much as evolve a way to invent classical physics as the way the universe operates.” That is subtle…very subtle, but I see what you are saying 🙂

        I also agree that this is a point worth highlighting and intrinsically interesting in its own right. We never really see the real world, we see the “matrix” that our senses and brain produce and we attempt to model that matrix using the same brain.

        It might be a bit low level, but have you seen the “Through the wormhole” show on conciousness? Here is a clip from it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRs72OXRLIc. You can Google for the full episodes I think. It makes some very interesting points!

        Very interesting stuff. Keep up the good work 🙂

        S

  3. Selrisitai says:

    I am not intelligent enough to understand.

    • I’m sure that’s not true. But some people’s minds focus better in some forms of thinking than others, for what that’s worth. I get utterly lost whenever spatial relationships come up. Even when they are fairly simple and most people can understand them. I’m just very dumb in that context.

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