Spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast.

At present, our brains are incapable of processing such things through their normal, deductive, empirical paths of cognition. We can’t experience them ourselves or through our instruments, and so our logic is inclined to doubt their existence. However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, that they don’t have any effect on our lives, or that they couldn’t be understood by different or more evolved intelligences. Rees points to that in the Financial Times article, saying, “Some of these insights may have to wait for post-human intelligence.” That could be an artificial intelligence, though I think it’s up for debate whether any humanly-created A.I. could detect or process things beyond the human-science bubble, at least in the short-term.

I can also imagine that biological humans could evolve to attain a broader awareness of reality. Evolution is not over; Homo sapiens is not the supreme pinnacle of life. Three billion years ago, the pond scum floating in the primordial oceans of Earth could not conceive of the array of sights, sounds, and tastes that we take for granted. Three billion years from now, will our bubble of perception seem equally primitive? (I often think that telepathy, clairvoyance, and other “New Age-y” abilities, which at present seem so irregular and unprovable, are the first, halting steps of a species developing a new array of senses.)

So are there any limits? Could we, or some other intelligence, ever comprehend everything?

Maybe not. Science itself is coming around to the idea that understanding everything may be impossible. Developing a grand “Theory of Everything”—the holy grail of physics for over a century—might be beyond reach. In 2008, computer scientist David H. Wolpert, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, put forth a fascinating mathematical theory that any finite, physical intelligence within a universe could not learn every single fact about that universe. There will inevitably be some phenomena, some principles, that are undiscoverable by any method (which incidentally means that perfectly predicting the future is impossible). Scientific American ran a great article describing Wolpert’s theory in layman’s terms; a more mathematically inclined reader could check out Wolpert’s paper itself at ArXiv.org [PDF]. No finite brain, no matter how advanced, is capable of understanding its own universe in totality.

Ah, but I said no finite brain! Wolpert’s theory assumes a discrete, physical intellect, which could be mechanical, chemical, or purely energetic, but still finite. Many scientific theories admit the universe itself may well be infinite, and there could be an infinite number of universes beyond or within ours. In all that infinity, the idea of an infinite intelligence doesn’t look too crazy. An infinite intelligence could, presumably, understand everything (and then some) without breaking a sweat.

Perhaps that’s called God. Then again, religions have been talking for millennia about human beings transcending the physical, reaching nirvana, entering the Kingdom of Heaven, et cetera. Maybe they were right all along, and human intelligence could one day move from its current finite bubble to infinite comprehension.

Doubt it? Feel free to—but remember that, for all its awesomeness, human science, can’t possibly light that path.

The image at top shows the spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. By ESA/Hubble & NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.

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