At the beginning of the week, I mentioned I’m reading Our Mathematical Universe (2014), by Max Tegmark. His stance on inflation, and especially on eternal inflation, got me really thinking about it. Then all that thinking turned into a post.
It happened again last night. That strong sense of, “Yeah, but…” With this book, that’s happening a lot. I find something slightly, but fundamentally, off about Tegmark’s arguments. There seems an over-willingness to accept wild conclusions. This may all say much more about me than about Tegmark, which in this case is perfect irony.
Because what set me off this time was his chapter about human intuition.
So I must preface my thoughts about his preface to his thoughts by saying I may very well be completely full of crap. It wouldn’t be the first time, so caveat lector. (In truth, this rule always applies.)
But I just know I’m right. 😀 😉
Tegmark’s argument, one I’ve heard before, is:
Firstly, that our perceptions, our senses, are both untrustworthy and vastly incomplete. They are easily fooled into illusions, and we at best perceive reality only dimly through a dark glass.
For one example, our eyes perceive photons only in a very narrow range. We can’t even see ultraviolet or infrared photons, which are “right next door” — some animals can. And that’s a tiny slice of the spectrum from radio frequency photons to gamma frequency photons.
Another example is high-frequency sound that animals such as bats use to navigate, but which are beyond our ability to perceive. (And dogs live in a scent-based world also beyond our ken.)
Secondly, our entire model of reality comes from this tiny subset of reality that we can perceive. The implication is that our understanding of reality is thus limited by our perceptions and mental models.
It’s a bit like the idea that South Seas Islanders couldn’t even see Captain Cook’s ships because they had no cognitive framework for them. (I suspect they would have seen something. I’m dubious the ships would have been invisible to them.)
Thirdly, our “intuitions” (a word worth unpacking), because they’re based on the above faulty senses and incomplete world model, are limited to our evolutionary past and can’t be trusted in science.
Which yes, absolutely.
It is true our internal model of reality is but a wireframe of the real thing. It is true our intuitions are based on the low-speed, low-energy macro world of our senses and evolution. It is true we’re prone to illusions, external and self-induced, in our perceptions and thinking.
But that doesn’t mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Imperfect does not mean worthless.
Reality shines through in our perceptions, and our intuitions are based on an apparently factual, consistent, lawful and casual reality. The proof is in the pudding: Our models work.
Even on a simple level. Part of my model of reality (and I’m sure part of yours) involves the persistence of objects. Things don’t appear without cause; they don’t disappear without cause; they don’t even move without cause.
This lawful behavior is so consistent that it’s a fundamental tenant of physics: The laws of reality are identical in all frames of reference.
The bottom line is that rational thought applies in a lawful universe.
Mathematics, which seems to somehow be the language of that law, is the ultimate in rational thought. (One reason to learn math is that it teaches rational analytical thinking. I highly recommend it.)
My gripe is that I hear this as an argument most often in two places: As a preface to a very speculative theory, or as a vaguely ad hominem counter-argument when lacking a good argument against the actual topic.
In the latter case, it deflects from the points of the argument to the person making the argument. That’s just not a valid argument.
In the former case, it attempts to forestall disagreement: If you think this idea is crazy, that’s just a failure of your intuition. (I’m not crazy! You just can’t see what I can see.)
Maybe so. (Maybe not.) This argument always comes with the examples of Copernicus and others who, by gosh, turned out to be right when everyone said they had to be wrong. But historically, most speculative ideas turn out to be wrong. The path behind is littered with incorrect ideas.
Even some of the ideas that were right, were right for the wrong reasons. Consider the case of Einstein’s cosmological constant. First it was right according to the perceived (incorrect) model, then it was a greatest blunder, finally it was right for a completely unexpected reason.
And in all cases what made us change our minds, what got past the fortress of our intuition, was facts. Or, at the least, unassailable argument based on facts.
I agree my intuitions are limited. I change them — have changed them — when presented with sufficient evidence. But certainly not just because someone questions my intuition.
I think it’s worth looking into what the word intuition really means.
It can have a pejorative sense, that intuitions are based on thin air or emotions. There used to be a phrase “woman’s intuition” that seemed to wave away the deeper social perceptions most women have compared to most men.
For that is what intuition is, our deeper perceptions.
Intuition is not from thin air or emotion, it’s from the underlying cognitive processes of our mind. Some studies have shown that at least some of our intuitions are more accurate than our more considered opinions.
What’s often missed is that intuition can be informed by years of experience or knowledge. Many of the most brilliant scientific discoveries have come from intuitions. It can also be the key to success in athletics or music.
The power of a savant is an intuitive power. That’s the sort of analytical strength intuition can have.
I see the human brain as the most powerful active tool nature ever produced. Human brains, in a brief time span, have sent two spacecraft out beyond the reaches of the Solar system, not to mention robots on Mars and the Moon.
We’ve developed theories of the smallest of small (quantum mechanics) and largest of large (cosmology, general relativity). We are something the universe created that is figuring out the universe. This tool, this brain, is the mechanism of our intuition.
It’s true we perceive only a narrow slice of reality. It’s true we are prone to illusions. But that slice allows us to manipulate the world very effectively, and we can often recognize illusions for what they are.
We have the accounts of others, which provides a consensus view and which leads to convergence of the human view of reality. We also have our instruments, which have far greater observational range than we do.
The power of this view is demonstrated in those spacecraft and robots. It’s demonstrated in every aspect of our technology. It’s demonstrated in how you are reading these words right now.
In my eyes, a related issue involves the tendency to see people as no more than Pavlov’s dogs.
There is truth to the idea that we can be unconsciously conditioned, and to the extent it is true, I loath it and actively resist it. I think it doesn’t need to be as true with us as it is with animals, because humans have self-awareness.
The light bulb on this point went on when I was reading an article about how saying “thank you,” can be detrimental, if there’s a large power imbalance, on the premise it conditions subservience. I question the idea that appropriate gratitude must lead to a false self-identity.
This tendency to see humans so slavish to our inner programming seems to deny our ability to rise above that programming — which is something that living in civilized society calls upon us to do. It seems to excuse us from working to be better.
A post for another day.
In closing, I must give Tegmark kudos for being upfront from the start about what is real physics and what is his speculation. He has a chart in front of the book laying it out. (That said, I think his dividing line and mine on mainstream physics aren’t quite the same.)
He’s even upfront about his idea being extreme. (Which it totally is.)
Stay intuitional, my friends!
 Unless the whole point is being perfect. Which is really hard.