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I Don't Know

Entry 783, on 2008-05-31 at 21:19:33 (Rating 2, Science)

During a recent discussion I was asked several questions about subjects which would normally considered to be on the cutting edge of science. In fact, they would be considered by many to be over the edge! They included things like multiple Universes (or parallel universes or the meta-universe) and what the dualistic wave-particle nature of matter really means. Actually, I'm not sure if the original intent of the questions was that deep, but it lead me in that direction anyway.

I do have a good amateur knowledge of these areas and I do try to keep up with the latest ideas, but I have to admit that I really can't provide any good answers. Of course, after listening to experts discussing these subjects in podcasts and reading about them in books and on-line I would have to say that I don't think anyone really has the answers!

Maybe the mistake that most people make is to assume that we should be able to understand and explain advanced ideas in easily understandable terms using the same language we use to talk about more mundane matters. Maybe its more realistic to use mathematics to describe the ideas or even to accept that maybe we will never truly understand what is going on at the most fundamental levels of reality.

After all, why should we assume that the human brain (or even the sum total of all human thought on the planet) is capable of ever understanding concepts such as what wave-particle duality really means or whether there are multiple Universes which possibly exist in higher dimensions.

I'm an optimist and I think that there is no limit to what can be explained as long as the right tools are used - and this tool would usually (maybe always) be maths. Unfortunately few people (including me) have the maths skills to understand most of the mathematical theory behind the latest advanced physics. And even if maths can explain a phenomenon I don't think its reasonable to be able to translate that into plain language that anyone can understand.

So we really have to have a certain amount of faith in the process. Wait a minute, did I use the word "f" word there? Yes, I did. But its not the blind faith used by followers of various religions, its the faith gained by experience through the continued success of various branches of science. And its a faith I am happy to abandon if the idea doesn't stand up to future scrutiny.

So if I hear that a sub-atomic particle (say the Higgs boson) is predicted by theory and that it is supported by indirect evidence from particle accelerator experiments (that hasn't happened yet, by the way) then I will accept that even though I don't understand all the maths involved. And I will accept wave-particle duality even though it doesn't make much sense in everyday terms. But I won't accept supernatural explanations because I don't have the type of faith required to accept ideas with that level of support (or lack of support).

And its also important to say that, in many cases, we just don't know. Multiple universes have some support from real science because of how the early Universe behaved during the inflationary phase, but in reality the idea can't really be called science at this stage because it can't really be tested. But its still an interesting metaphysical concept that can be discussed and maybe brought into the realm of science when better tools (maybe a quantum gravity theory) are available.

But there is one final comment I have to make here. The idea of giving interim acceptance to unprovable ideas doesn't apply to everything! We shouldn't consider every idea seriously just because its impossible to absolutely disprove. There is no evidence to show a multiverse exits but there is none to show it doesn't either. The same does not apply to supernatural and paranormal theories. They have been tested and contradict what we already know. They shouldn't be thrown out completely, but its safer to assume they are untrue as an interim hypothesis (as always until further evidence is found).

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