Friday, January 2, 2009

Some of the Big Questions. Amenable to being answered by Science?

The Big Questions
1. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe, or why anything at all? Wouldn’t one expect the “lowest energy state” to be simply “nothing”?
2. Is there a God or gods, or anything agency of beings responsible for the universe? Where did they come from? If there can be such beings that are uncaused and eternal, couldn’t it just as well be the universe that is that.
3. What started life on Earth? Did it arise spontaneously, without any “supernatural” involvement? Has it arisen elsewhere in the universe?
4. Did Consciousness evolve through natural selection, or is there something “supernatural” about it? Can we humans engineer conscious systems (robots, computers, spacecraft, etc)? How would we ever know if such a fabricated entity was conscious?
5. Do we humans, or any conscious entities in the Universe, have free will? But how can it even be defined or understood, since all systems seem to be either hardware caused, software program caused, or randomly driven?
6. Do humans, or any animals in the universe, have any kind of life beyond the natural one? If so, what is the nature and duration of such a post life existence? Is there any external purpose to existence, or, perhaps as honest common sense would suggest, is the animal life all there is?

It is interesting to consider which of these questions the methods of Science might be able to answer. I am inclined to think that only #3 is amenable to being answered by Science. Some might add that #4 is, but I doubt it. The reason for my skepticism has to do with how consciousness is by its very nature a subjective experience. We use “Occam’s Razor” (the simplest explanation of something) to infer the Consciousness of other humans, but that will not work for other “platforms” or artificial systems.The other questions we cannot know the answers to (although of course we cannot stop speculating about them, and even having our own opinions and beliefs about them).


Jonny Stringer said...

Wouldn't "lowest energy state" imply that there is always going to be something there?

Tom said...

No, I do not think that is necessarily right. If there is something there, and if it has mass, that is some finite energy (E = mc^2). It would seem that the lowest energy state should be zero. Of course, one might argue that some kind of cosmic "uncertainty principle", similar to Heisenberg's in quantum mechanics, keeps the energy at some finite value, and that finite value accounts for the universe. But that is not very satisying, and it is not even clear that quantum mechanics can be applied to the universe as a whole.
Well, maybe "the lowest energy state" is not really the best way to pose what seems to me to be the mystery here. Rather, it is just why is there anything at all?.....why does something exist? In ordinary life, when we find something is somewhere, we naturally ask how and why it got there. Of course, maybe that isn't fair to ask about the universe as a whole. But intuitively the universe still seems to require an explanation.
In any case, it seems to me that this question will always remain a mystery, as it seems to be outside the scope of science---which after all can only address subsets of this universe.

efp said...

1. This question can not be answered by any means, because it doesn't mean anything. The long way to see this is to analyze questions of the form 'why x?', identify the valid semantic categories, and see that none apply. The short way is: come up with a possible answer. Not necessarily the right one, just one that would satisfy the question if it were true. If you can't, it's probably not a semantically valid question.

2. If there were, then science could address this. Since there are not, it can't.

3. (a) Science can address how it might have happened, but not how it actually happened. (b) No. By definition, 'supernatural' means imaginary. (c) Obviously amenable to being answered, but I don't expect to get one.

4. (a) See 3(b). (b) This entirely depends on the definition of 'conscious.'

5. You answer (a) in (b). Science can't answer an undefinable question. However, I suspect someone might invent a clever experiment to demonstrate the validity of something like a relativistic transactional quantum mechanics (along the lines of the entanglement experiments), which will verify the 'block time' picture and make the non-definition of free will moot.

6. See 3(b) and 2.