Things We Can Never Comprehend

Have you ever wondered what we don’t know?  Or, to put it another way, how many mysteries of the universe are still to be discovered?

To take this thought a step further, have you ever considered that there may be things that we CAN’T understand, no matter how hard we try?

This idea may be shocking to some, especially to those scientists who believe that we are nearing the “Grand Unified Theory”, or “Theory of Everything” that will provide a simple and elegant solution to all forces, particles, and concepts in science.  Throughout history, the brightest of minds have been predicting the end of scientific inquiry.  In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell lamented the sentiment of the day which he represented by the statement “in a few years, all great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will be left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals.”

Yet, why does it always seem like the closer we get to the answers, the more monkey wrenches get thrown in the way?  In today’s world, these include strange particles that don’t fit the model.  And dark matter.  And unusual gravitational aberrations in distant galaxies.

Perhaps we need a dose of humility.  Perhaps the universe, or multiverse, or whatever term is being used these days to denote “everything that is out there” is just too far beyond our intellectual capacity.  Before you call me out on this heretical thought, consider…

The UK’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees points out that “a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum mechanics.”  Despite the fact that Richard Feynman claimed that nobody understands quantum mechanics, as Michael Brooks points out in his recent article “The limits of knowledge: Things we’ll never understand”, no matter how hard they might try, the comprehension of something like Quantum Mechanics is simply beyond the capacity of certain species of animals.  Faced with this realization and the fact that anthropologists estimate that the most recent common ancestor of both humans and chimps (aka CHLCA) was about 6 million years ago, we can draw a startling conclusion:

There are certainly things about our universe and reality that are completely beyond our ability to comprehend!

My reasoning is as follows. Chimps are certainly at least more intelligent than the CHLCA; otherwise evolution would be working in reverse.  As an upper bound of intelligence, let’s say that CHLCA and chimps are equivalent.  Then, CHLCA was certainly not able to comprehend QM (nor relativity, nor even Newtonian physics), but upon evolving into humans over 8 million years, our new species was able to comprehend these things.  8 million years represents 0.06% of the entire age of the universe (according to what we think we know).  That means that for 99.94% of the total time that the universe and life was evolving up to the current point in time, the most advanced creature on earth was incapable of understand the most rudimentary concepts about the workings of reality and the universe.  And yet, are we to suppose that in the last 0.06% of the time, a species has evolved that can understand everything?  I’m sure you see how unlikely that is.

What if our universe was intelligently designed?  The same argument would probably hold.  For some entity to be capable of creating a universe that continues to baffle us no matter how much we think we understand, that entity must be far beyond our intelligence, and therefore has utilized, in the design, concepts that we can’t hope to understand.

Our only chance for being supremely capable of understanding our world would lie in the programmed reality model.  If the creator of our simulation was us, or even an entity a little more advanced than us, it could lead us along a path of exploration and knowledge discovery that just always seems to be on slightly beyond our grasp.  Doesn’t that idea feel familiar?

chimpscratching185 humanscratching185

Your Universe is Different than Mine

We used to be taught that the universe was everything there is.  But, over the past few years, it is beginning to have a new meaning.  The universe is now meant to be everything that we can possibly see or experience.  Let me illustrate with a story.  Imagine our protagonist Jack happily living in his little universe.  His astronomer buddies have used their most advanced equipment to peer into the deepest depths of space and have detected things a few billion light years away in all directions.  There could be things beyond that “practical observational horizon”, but we are limited by the state of the art of equipment in the year 2010.

However, there is another horizon beyond “a” which denotes the point at which it would be impossible to see beyond, due to the speed of light.  The light from objects at that distance has been traveling toward us since the beginning of the big bang.  This is our theoretical horizon, beyond which we can never see or detect anything no matter how advanced our equipment becomes.  It should be noted, that this statement presumes that nothing travels faster than the speed of light and even if it did, we would not be able to detect it.  Despite a century of hard evidence supporting Einstein’s famous assumption regarding the limitations of the speed of light, there are a number of physicists who don’t rule out the possibility that this barrier could someday be broken.  But that’s a topic for another post.  Setting such arguments aside, there is then a “theoretical observational horizon,” also known as the Hubble Volume, which is generally accepted to be about 42 billion light years in diameter.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing beyond the Hubble Volume.  In fact, the inflationary theory of the big bang allows for quite a bit of the material from the big bang to exist beyond that horizon because the inflationary period was superluminal. (We were just saying…?)  But, for all practical purposes, the Hubble Volume contains all that you can ever know about.  By convention, astronomers call that “The Universe.”

By definition, a Universe depends on what is identified to be its center.  So, for example, Jill, standing on a planet 1 light year away from Jack, actually lives in a slightly different Universe.  One which has one horizon one light year further away from Jack’s in the opposite direction and another horizon one light year closer than Jack’s in the direction toward Jack.  So Jack has some stuff in his Universe that Jill doesn’t have and vice versa.


The choice of a light year between Jack and Jill’s positions was arbitrary.  They could be standing next to each other and still have slightly different Hubble Volumes.  In fact, when you get down to it, we all live in different Universes.