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← Edge challenges leading thinkers to name their 'favourite explanations'

Edge challenges leading thinkers to name their 'favourite explanations' - Comments

mordacious1's Avatar Comment 1 by mordacious1

Relatively (small pun) soon, there will be a Theory of Everything and all these others will pale in comparison. Hopefully, this will occur in my lifetime.

But my favorite explanation has to be Natural Selection. It is magnificent in its simplicity, anyone can understand it, and yet majestic in its ability to explain how life evolved. Life, the most important aspect of our existence. And of all theories, it's the one that the most people would want to disprove and yet is still stands, 150 years old, unblemished.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 16:34:19 UTC | #908588

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 2 by Steve Zara

My favourite explanation is biochemistry. The accidental discovery that biological substances could be made from ordinary non-living chemicals should have been marked as one of the great turning points of science, and yet the event is little known. The discovery that biology is based on chemistry and that life is not made of a different kind of matter is still not as widely realised as it should be, and the revolution in thinking that the discovery of biochemistry started is far from complete.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 16:53:04 UTC | #908592

Sudipta Modak's Avatar Comment 3 by Sudipta Modak

Matters - observed in different states, structures, shapes, compositions, colors, smell and with other different properties are at their fundamental level nothing but different combinations of the same constituents (subatomic particles).

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 17:21:44 UTC | #908598

Corylus's Avatar Comment 4 by Corylus

I have a fondness for the 'Underpants Gnomes' explanation for missing underwear.

Don't hate me everyone :P

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 18:15:44 UTC | #908615

Kurt75's Avatar Comment 5 by Kurt75

Maybe there will be a theory of everything, and maybe not. If some kind of unified theory does emerge, I surely wouldn't understand it --other than extremely superficially-- without years of training. Obviously I wouldn't be able to say something is elegant or beautiful if I don't understand it at all. And a TOE needn't be elegant. It could correctly predict (in principle) the result of any experiment yet be a complete mess or impossible to use to make any predictions (in practice).

How about Lagrange mechanics? Newton's laws can be alternatively explained by an extremum principle. The math isn't much beyond calculus. And it immediately gives me a sense of wonder: The trusted rules of Newton have an alternate explanation. How does the minimization work? Are the particles somehow exploring paths close by to "know" they are in the minimum? And the answer to the second question is yes and leads to Feynman's path integrals.

Here's another one I like. Why are all electrons (or Hydrogen atoms, or whatever) identical? Someone once told me that God acts moment to moment to keep the masses exactly the same. (Because otherwise... what?) Here's the QFT explanation: electrons are excitations in a field (sort of like the electric field) spread throughout the universe. Electrons are all excitations of this single field, so they are all identical the same way that photons of light of the same frequency are all identical.

I think the explanations I most like are ones that explain something that I personally have grappled with for a long time.

But I'll have to go with natural selection for top honors. It's simple to understand -- the main roadblock is accepting the times necessary. Provoking a sense of wonder? How about: Realizing we are related to all life on earth, contemplating the immense time scales necessary, noticing the absurd amount of "research and development" and complexity that goes into every living thing, the stories of the evolutionary history of different organisms?

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 18:59:59 UTC | #908629

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 6 by ZenDruid

@ Corylus, that was "deep", not "derp". ;)

Thales' statement "God didn't do it," ca.600bce

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 19:04:40 UTC | #908633

Sample's Avatar Comment 7 by Sample

Off the cuff, and only perhaps because it's been on my mind recently, is why we grow old and die.

Senescence, as explained by antagonistic pleiotropy (still a leading answer), for me, is elegant, deep and beautiful.

Mike

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 19:07:52 UTC | #908635

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 8 by Steve Zara

comment 5 by Kurt75

But I'll have to go with natural selection for top honors. It's simple to understand -- the main roadblock is accepting the times necessary

I have a feeling about Natural Selection. It's one I can't back up with anything much at all, it's just a feeling. I have a feeling that Natural Selection is probably inevitably linked to thermodynamics. Once you get to the understanding that we live in a world make from various atoms, and that world contains factors such as temperature and entropy, then my feeling is that complexity will inevitably arise from simplicity because it seems like complexity can be a powerful catalyst for increasing entropy. There is nothing we know of as complex as life, and so in a world that is running down, becoming ever less ordered, life will appear and will be naturally selected. I'd love to be able to back up this feeling, or have someone point out that it is nonsense.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 19:09:31 UTC | #908637

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 9 by Peter Grant

The Gene-centered view of evolution http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene-centered_view_of_evolution popularised by Richard Dawkins.

Pity that most people still don't quite get it, but it's still my favourite. The almost limitless power of simple replicators is awe inspiring.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 19:27:10 UTC | #908642

Sudipta Modak's Avatar Comment 10 by Sudipta Modak

and that world contains factors such as temperature and entropy, then my feeling is that complexity will inevitably arise from simplicity because it seems like complexity can be a powerful catalyst for increasing entropy. There is nothing we know of as complex as life, and so in a world that is running down, becoming ever less ordered, life will appear and will be naturally selected.

Our body is not an isolated system. We intake food (mass) to grow and develop from a zygote to an adult. As we grow our body become more complex. Our body is complex but relatively ordered. This relative orderliness is at the cost of something getting disordered in the surrounding. When we take, for example rice, the big (and ordered) carbohydrate molecules are turning simple and simpler molecules (more in number as compared to the number of big carbohydrate molecules) and eventually get excreted and disorderliness arises at the surrounding.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 20:06:31 UTC | #908651

Chris Roberts's Avatar Comment 11 by Chris Roberts

I too am awed by evolution by natural selection, but growing up it was a given. It seems so obvious it hardly seemed noteworthy. In retrospect that might seem a little harsh.

For me, the most thought-provoking and beautiful idea I have read was the extended phenotype. (without wanting to suck up to much!)

The idea that a collection of genes - a mere string of chemical 'letters' - can change the flow of water over a continent or send probes into space is elegant and beautiful.

Sun, 15 Jan 2012 22:48:33 UTC | #908695

prolibertas's Avatar Comment 12 by prolibertas

My favourite idea is something that's probably going far beyond the pale for many on this website, because it comes from Buddhist philosophy (though I'm sure that if truly rational people reject this idea, they wouldn't reject it for no better reason than because it comes from a religion). Namely, it's the idea that the sense of 'self' in the sense of an 'I' that is independent of nature is an illusion, and that a lot of existential suffering arises from it. Negative states of mind like hate, envy, anxiety, arrogance, defensiveness, tribalism, dogmatism, etc. arise from and ramify 'I', while positive states of mind like love, compassion, empathy, equanimity, forgiveness, etc. arise from and ramify liberation from 'I' (the purpose of meditation, which strictly defined is nothing more than training the mind) into a sense of what the hippies call being 'one with nature'. I think this idea wins points - much like natural selection - for the ratio of its simplicity versus the wide applications that it can have. It's a simple life philosophy that selflessness is the path to personal happiness as well as the happiness of others, and by linking personal happiness to the happiness of others it also just happens to kill the arguments that we cannot be happy or moral without a belief in God.

As a side-note, I'm astonished that this idea was ever linked to supernatural religion rather than atheistic materialism. After all, supernatural religion has usually contended for dualism, the separation of mind and matter that is supposed to create the real, eternal 'I' in the form of the 'soul'; while atheistic materialism and science have both contended for monism, the inseparability of mind and matter, which combined with the fact that all the matter and energy that forms us is in a constant state of recycle and exchange with the matter and energy of the earth and beyond makes 'I' absolutely continuous with nature, and therefore an arbitrary and artificial construction. And, as noted, it's a gem to have as a rebuttal to theistic arguments about how atheism means misery, amorality, and immorality. I put this mis-association down to a quirk of historical contingency.

Mon, 16 Jan 2012 04:22:20 UTC | #908756

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 13 by Premiseless

Comment 8 by Steve Zara : I'd love to be able to back up this feeling, or have someone point out that it is nonsense.

Feelings seem, sometimes like a competition to shine that accumulates critical mass of others thereby reducing them to paid up observers, rendered the hydrogen of all emotion that lets the individual assume stellar status - sum of the parts - to then go emotionally nuclear, or as with religion 'black hole'. You seem to be saying you are less happy being some random atom that still has significant nuclear mass. You would hate to die 'unreduced' to hydrogen, your potentials still locked into several electron shells around your potential energies (emotional experiential nucleus). Best of all would be, or have been, to have gone 'atomic' and better still to have gravitated a chain reaction around oneself. Purple Rain anyone? Or did he venture too near a black hole and lose even his mind to a fictional dimension (theism)? One sun is not enough even?? An emotional sun got too near a black hole fiction?

Natural selection certainly has frameworks for each of our ambitions to accomplish emotional/experiential gravitas, along the lines of thermodynamics. And it factors in a lack of free will in spite of how we might feel charged to be more rather than less. That's the odd quanta - this consciousness about wanting to shower everyone with ones energies and for them to reciprocate.

Ultimately you seek complete reciprocal synchronicity, which is why of course so many are consumed by free radical representations of their own consciousness, often disabled by someone or other groups cosmic violence/electromagnetism/gravity or what have you.

What I'm still less clear about, is the desire to procreate hatreds, rather than feel goods per se. What 'thermodynamics are these in terms of consciousness? Where does one persons hatred rely on another's pain? Which people start out with your 'feeling' needing to be backed up by others suffering, or is this an acquired potential? Why doesn't my 'desire for pacifism' or equitability NOT understand someone elses 'desire for violence' or criminality per se? What of thermodynamics, natural selection and reciprocal synchronicity expresses these consciousness existentials and the ranges each gravitas has on those who harbour aspects of the other?

Where does the boundary lie between one persons potentials being within the one set rather than the other? Has brain mapping anything to declare about desire ( or your 'feeling') and whether the 'common good' or 'common suffering' are ultimately bound up as the collateral damage of what each persons potentials aspire to accomplish = cosmic market share? Is a sense of market share a consciousness that consumes the anxieties between desires for good and bad as necessary stages in accomplishing its critical mass? Are our potential ranges to do good, per se versus our potential ranges to do bad, per se pre biased in each of us by personal biological consciousness, or by the entropy consciousness or by the weighting of the two in relation to the potentials of each competing to chaotically reduce themselves for maximum 'feeling release'. How do our feelings factor in cosmic terms? ( this last question remains for me , one to which "I will return")

At which point my proximity to a helium nucleus has been reached and return to the slumber of inertness I will. i.e. my eye lids do rest upon my aging cheeks. Nighty night - 2nd shell.

Mon, 16 Jan 2012 05:00:58 UTC | #908763

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 14 by keyfeatures

comment 8 by Steve Zara

It's entropy combined with causality.

Entropy = mess Causality = patterns

Entropy allows from more combinations of 'events' - or 'x+y's if you like. Causality patterns the 'events' - or 'x+y=z''s if you like.

Mon, 16 Jan 2012 09:03:15 UTC | #908791

keyfeatures's Avatar Comment 15 by keyfeatures

My favourite explanation is David Icke's Babylonian Brotherhood. I recommend anyone feeling despair at the futility of humanity seeking answers to the ultimate questions to take a look.

Mon, 16 Jan 2012 09:16:06 UTC | #908794

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 16 by Premiseless

Comment 15 by keyfeatures :

My favourite explanation is David Icke's Babylonian Brotherhood. I recommend anyone feeling despair at the futility of humanity seeking answers to the ultimate questions to take a look.

I think this an excellent example of how ancient peoples misapplied scientific method to the unending questions the mind poses plus the unending trickery other groups persistently employ to impose their 'reductive psychologies' on out group individuals. It resulted in the thousands of myths and other 'feeling' forces we find ourselves in the midst of. The individual cannot help but begin to attempt to catalogue some of this information and even develop 'personal theories' from as in fact scientists have learned to do due their more reproducible methods and measuring instruments. Scientific method is perhaps one of the most beautiful theories of how to 'correctly' utilise the mind I can think of.

Of course misapplied empirical information can be very misleading. I recall staying at a hotel on the outskirts of Oxford and a Bible being the only unnecessary article in the room. The next day I set off to see Richard and Brian Eno give a talk (interrupted by a few technical problems) by taking the bus parked at the terminus by the hotel. There was just me, in the few minutes I walked up and sat down - no others to break the sequence. My ticket was handed me reading 666! I was utterly amused. One shudders to think what others might read into this. 'Feelings' are an odd cosmic force. One wonders how science will ever describe them completely, though I think we are nearing such a landmark.

Mon, 16 Jan 2012 14:09:42 UTC | #908830