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Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability Essay Contest
December 24, 2019 - April 24, 2020
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What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation
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Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
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Media Partner: Scientific American

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How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
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It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
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The Nature of Time
August - December 2008
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RECENT POSTS IN THIS TOPIC

Luca Valeri: on 6/3/20 at 15:51pm UTC, wrote Hi Ian, On a final note and then I let you go. First of all thanks for...

Steve Agnew: on 5/24/20 at 23:20pm UTC, wrote I always enjoy reading Durham's essays because he is a very smart person...

Jeffrey Schmitz: on 5/20/20 at 17:28pm UTC, wrote Hi Ian, Thank you, any feedback would be helpful. Hope your essay does...

Luca Valeri: on 5/20/20 at 5:18am UTC, wrote Hi Ian, please have a look at my reply in my blog regarding closeability...

Ian Durham: on 5/20/20 at 0:49am UTC, wrote Hi Luca, I have a couple of papers that I co-authored on quantum reference...

Luca Valeri: on 5/19/20 at 13:52pm UTC, wrote Hi Ian, I found the theory of quantum reference frames is very interesting...

James Putnam: on 5/19/20 at 3:54am UTC, wrote "As long as the universe remains relatively stable, the first condition...

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FQXi FORUM
August 12, 2020

CATEGORY: Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability Essay Contest (2019-2020) [back]
TOPIC: Why is the universe comprehensible? by Ian Durham [refresh]
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Author Ian Durham wrote on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 15:01 GMT
Essay Abstract

Why is the universe comprehensible? How is it that we can come to know its regularities well-enough to exploit them for our own gain? In this essay I argue that the nature of our comprehension lies in the mutually agreed upon methodology we use to attain it and on the basic stability of the universe. But I also argue that the very act of comprehension itself places constraints on what we can comprehend by forcing us to establish a context for our knowledge. In this way the universe has managed to conspire to make itself objectively comprehensible to subjective observers.

Author Bio

Ian Durham is a physicist with Saint Anselm College who studies the foundations of physics, formal models of consciousness and free will, and relativistic quantum information. Incomprehensibly he has served as department chair for nearly a decade without committing a felony.

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 16:19 GMT
Hello,

An interesting essay about the comprehensibility and its limitations. Like said Feymann indeed, if that does not respect an experiment and its results, it is wrong indeed. We must Always respect this pure universal rational logic determinism after all. What we observe, extrapolate , conclude, imagine must Always respect this determinism and be proved, by mathematical rigourous...

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Jochen Szangolies wrote on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 16:54 GMT
Dear Prof. Durham,

you've provided an intriguing exploration of the notion of comprehensibility that makes many subtle and interconnected points. I'm not sure I've grasped everything correctly, but in outline, you seem to start out by something not too far from Wittgenstein's anti-private language argument---there's no meaning to the arbitrary terms an individual observer, or experimenter,...

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 17:44 GMT
Hi ,

Lol the universe is comprehensible Always when we respect this determinisn even for the color of hairs, even with an observation or many because we simply utilise all the parameter of deterministic observations and corrections, because after all the color blue is the color blue even if we see red. Now we can conclude that this universe is comprehensible at all scales with determinism if and only if we have analysed all the paramters and proved them with maths or experiments in respecting our foundamental axioms, laws equations, all the universe is rational, logic , comprehensible, deterministic and we have some limitations of course but when we can we prove. Now the humans are not really rational if I can and deterministic respecting a kind of universal consciousness, let s take the Vanity for example, is it deterministic and comprehensible, have you an equation or an algorythm to explain it you lol ? is it correlated with the dree will or is it a pure paramter correlated with the genetic, education, psychology and philosophy? so How can we consider the correlated choices and comportments in function of these parameters ? explain me Mr Durham or Mr Szangolies I am curious like I said, how can we explain the human conmportments like this Vanity for example because even in seeing a pure determinism, the choice can be odd due to this parameter, so that implies a conclusion, the humans are they deterministic in their free will and beleifs and what about the consciousness correlated ?

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 18:04 GMT
In fact , what I say is very comprehensible about the non conmprenhensibity of humans. The physics, maths, biology, Chemistry are purely deterministic and comprehensible accepting our limitations. But not the human comportments and its psychology and so the correlated free will and so the choices. I return about this Vanity for the comprehensibility and acceptations if I can say. Maybe th most...

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 18:08 GMT
ps dear thinkers, sorry for my English, I am french speaking and my grammar is not perfect. And I write too quickly without rereading, so sorry.I cannot reedit but you can understand what I tell. Regards, your essays were very well to both of you.

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Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Apr. 25, 2020 @ 22:20 GMT
Dear Ian,

It is perhaps over simplifying to say that you begin with “Thus it would seem that comprehension is an inherently first-person, subjective act. Somehow the universe has conspired to make itself objectively comprehensible to subjective observers.” And you conclude that “ Comprehensibility is still the result of a combination of the mutual agreement between observers and the fact that the universe remains relatively stable.”

In between you focus on communication, semantics, interpretation, truth statements, and up to a hundred related terms and concepts.

I am not sure that you would label it ‘comprehension’, but I would ask how you explain, for instance, the comprehension of space, and particularly how one understands a 3D box versus a 3D sphere? Aside from the arbitrary ’names’, do any of those hundred terms come into play?

John Schultz’s essay suggests that non-algorithmic patterns do not impose the limitations on knowability that algorithmic patterns such as no-go theorems do. My essay focuses on ontology as a proper means of deciding physical issues, as opposed to purely math/logical means. One commenter stated that it is hubris to claim to know ontology. How does one comprehend ontology.

These are issues that I deal with in my essay, rewritten to include info that became available in the last ten days. I invite you to read my essay Deciding on the nature of time and space, and hope you will comment on it.

Best regards,

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:15 GMT
I think your question about a 3D box versus a 3D sphere is an interesting one. I don't have an immediate answer, though.

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Branko L Zivlak wrote on Apr. 26, 2020 @ 18:23 GMT
Dear Ian Durham

To quote one participant in this contest:

“The absence of mathematics is the absence of clarity.”

Who would be Newton with his extraordinary comprehending without his clear mathematical account of what he understands?

I agree with your view: The universe is a vast and interconnected place. Mathematically clear predictions should follow.

Regards, Branko

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Steve Dufourny replied on May. 1, 2020 @ 09:56 GMT
Hello, indeed it is sure that the mathematics are important and essential like the experiments to prove our assumptions, works, extrapolations, physical works and papers, but they can also imply confusions and false roads also.

I beleive strongly that the physics are the pure deterministic road and the maths a Tool wich must ne utilised with the biggest wisdom mathematically, physically and philosophically. The maths for me are not the main essence of this universe, but the physics yes.

Regards

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Steve Dufourny wrote on Apr. 28, 2020 @ 18:56 GMT
Interesting the number utilised in binary system, you can put these numbers on the spheres and after insert my reasoning about the 2 fuels made of spheres , one for the photons and one for the cold dark matter, the main serie is for the space, utilise also the same number than our cosmological finite serie of spheres and see that the space disappears , and play with the oscillations and nmotions rotations of these spheres…..And nor rank, sort, superimpose, synchronise the different phasis, and consider the Clifford algebras also and the Ricci flow , you shall reach interesting things even for the quantum computing.

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 29, 2020 @ 09:01 GMT
all this to tell that these pi digits seem important correlated with the spheres and specially these finite primordial finite series of 3D spheres, there is an important thing to know about this at my humble opinion, it is like a pure universal harmonical distribution but of course we have limitations in the calculations of these digits tending to infinity. Alexander Yee makes 5 trillion digits available via bittorrent. He also has a lot of other large numbers. I have calculated approximatelly the Number of cosmological spheres , the quantum finite series for me are the same, this finite number seems important and oddly the Dirac large number seems on this road, why I don t know but we approach it.

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 29, 2020 @ 09:08 GMT
In all humility , I beleive that the secret for a quantum computing is there, we must mimate the universal computing and its foundamental objects, if the 3D coded spheres and their finite series are the answer and that pi digits are important , so we must converge, if not we cannot create a quantum computer simply, for me with the Waves, fields, strings only we shall never reach it because the foundamental mathematical and physical objects must be correct, Points and geonetrodynamics, strings and geonetrical algebras or 3D spheres, all is there.

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Steve Dufourny replied on Apr. 29, 2020 @ 09:20 GMT
Now , if my reasoning is correct about these 3 main finite primordial coded spheres of 3D spheres, one for the space with the main codes and two fuels, the photons and the cold dark matter to have a balance , universal permitting these emergent topologies, geonetries and properties of matters and their particles and fields, like a balance between order disorder, negentropy entropy, heat and cold, electronagnetism and gravitation, matter and anti matter , so we can consider simple the binaries 1 and 0 and so correlated with the cold and heat, so the cold dark matter and photons encoded in nuclei and the relevance is to consider two different senses of rotation for these 3D spheres in motions and oscillations.These pi digicts correlated with 1 and 0 so can permit to reach this quantum computing simply.

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John David Crowell wrote on Apr. 29, 2020 @ 19:58 GMT
Dear Ian. In your essay you mentionedEinstein’s statement —the eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensability. In my essay I mention Einstein’s elaboration on that comment in his “Letters to Solovine” New York, Philosophical Library, 1987. From that reply one can see that Einstein considered the conversion of chaos to order (the overcoming of entropy) to be the “miracle” that makes the world comprehensible. In my essay, I introduce a self creating process that converts chaos into order. In its originating process, it created the foundations for the creation of intelligence, the physical world, mathematics, computations, life, humanity etc. - in the originalSuccessful Self Creating Unit (SSCU). Progressive scale-up by self replication and self organization then produced those entities. The point I am trying to make is that the SSC process created everything needed for us to comprehend the universe. You will find mere specifics in my essay. Let me know what you think (leave a comment or questions) and I will respond. John D Crowell

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Apr. 30, 2020 @ 09:33 GMT
Hi Ian, in your examination of the question of whether a falling tree makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it, you do not examine what it means to 'make a sound'. Is producing pressure waves enough to qualify as sound? Or is to make sound the processing of pressure wave sensory input into the heard experience necessary? Without the decision over what the phrase means it is ambiguous. I'd say the falling tree only produces potential sensory information that may or may not be received by an observer; that processes it into heard sound. Two observers might agree that there is an objective source of the sound, external to them, in the forest. However that objective by corroboration does not mean a true truth value can be given to the 'yes' answer. It only applies if you count sound wave production as sound. If not (sound is heard qualia),'no' has the true truth value.

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Georgina Woodward replied on May. 1, 2020 @ 00:19 GMT
Your point about consistency of reality is good. To reality check the second observer must generate the same observation product. Did you see that? may give a negative or positive response, if 'that' is for example a moving hare. Not having seen it does not mean there was not a hare in the first person's viewpoint. A subjective, uncorroborated viewpoint is not necessarily wrong. Replicating experiments many times helps by getting many corroborating results, if the experiment works, which minimizes the impact of erroneous ones. As you point out consistency of the meaning of language is also very important. That is where the issue of ambiguity comes in. The language of Physics does not usually distinguish between potential sensory information in the environment and the product generated by an observer. eg. Light, sound, smell, frequency.

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:18 GMT
Hi Georgina, I think you make a very good point about what it means to "make a sound". And I agree that a subjective, uncorroborated view is not necessarily wrong. My point is simply that it is precisely that: subjective and uncorroborated.

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Member Sabine Hossenfelder wrote on Apr. 30, 2020 @ 09:44 GMT
Thanks for a comprehensible essay!

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 11, 2020 @ 00:43 GMT
Thanks for the comprehensible reply! ;)

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Steve Dufourny replied on May. 12, 2020 @ 09:21 GMT
Lol let s go for a comprehensible politness inside a private small Community satisfying their own friendships , and I know that you don t like me both of you, on face book also, you Sabine because I have asked you to give maths about a good idea of you and a friend, a girl arrives and makes a hormonal comportment and after I have answered , because this girl had testoterones, so I was adapted to...

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Steve Dufourny replied on May. 12, 2020 @ 09:54 GMT
You know, what I tell is simple, instead to improve the sharing of ideas and this evolution, so you decrease it in having these kind of vanitious comportments simply, it is sad because now due to this, you cannot change your opinions and choices and discuss in transparence because this Vanity eats you and this anger against me. What I tell is true and you know it, and now in logic you have 3 comportments, the silence like if you were wise and more intelleigent but it is just your choice, not a truth, or you can compete and try to give me a lesson just due to this Vanity still and competition of intelliegnce or you can be humble and tell me , steve you exagerate there, we have nothing agianst you and we know the generality of this universe, the humility and this universalism and we are civilised and can discuss about things without fear, you see ? it is Always a question of psychology, but when we speak about this free will or the comprehensibility, so let s admit that this human psychology is non deterministic about many choices of comportments. I Think that you are better than these vanitious conmportments and that you can evolve and be deterministic , it is your choice now, show me who you are really, we are not in a game of vanitious competition but we search answers to this universe and its main unknowns and the complementarity is Always the best choice to reach relevant innovative results, I d like to know your general universal philosophy , don t fear to discuss, and show me what are these foundamental objects also for you, it d be easier to go deeper.

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Jason W Steinmetz wrote on May. 2, 2020 @ 20:32 GMT
I will begin by quoting Wolfgang Pauli (in a letter from Pauli to Niels Bohr, quoted from Wolfgang Pauli: Writings on Physics and Philosophy):

"..., it seems to me quite appropriate to call the conceptual description of nature in classical physics, which Einstein so emphatically wishes to retain, "the ideal of the detached observer."

It appears that this debate is on-going because it seems like many, if not most, physicists still emphatically wish to retain this conceptual description and call it objective reality.

You wrote: "If the Principle of Comprehensibility is valid it would seem to imply that there might exist problems that are undecidable for physical reasons. That is, if Wheeler is right and all that exists derives its very existence from "apparatus-elicited" answers to yes-or-no questions, then there are elements of the physical universe that are simply unknowable. Furthermore, the origin of that unknowability is both logical and physical. Some aspects might be unknowable because we cannot construct an algorithm that is guaranteed to lead to a correct truth value for some truth-conditional statements. Other aspects might be unknowable because the universe's fundamental fabric is such that no machine can be constructed to produce a correct truth value for some truth-conditional statements. These are distinct points unless the universe itself is a Turing machine."

That certainly is the question, is it not?

You wrote: "Any attempt to comprehend it must necessarily depend on the fact that we are a part of it. Indeed the very act of comprehension is itself a part of it and is thus shaped by it."

And this is the answer to the question, but is really an answer or is it just an unsubstantiated statement; a means by which to attempt to comprehend reality?

Certainly a very interesting and insightful essay. My only complaint is that it does not go far enough. I wish you the best in the contest.

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 11, 2020 @ 00:46 GMT
Thanks for your comments, Jason. I agree that I probably could have gone further, but I was pushing the page limit as it was and had to cut several references just to fit that on a single page. Perhaps in a future form I will expand on it.

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Yutaka Shikano wrote on May. 4, 2020 @ 20:50 GMT
Hi Ian,

This is the good essay while the essay contents themselves feel to be different from the contest title. I would like to ask you about the relationship between this context and anthropic principle.

Best wishes,

Yutaka

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 11, 2020 @ 00:50 GMT
Hi Yutaka! It's great to hear from you! I think the contents of my essay are directly related to the contest though, since I am essentially presenting a physical analogy of Gödelian incompleteness. But anyway, as for the anthropic principle, that's a good question. I do personally think that there is an objective reality outside of human existence and perception. That is, I absolutely believe that the universe will continue to be here once humans are long gone. But I think my aim with this essay is, rather, to say something about the limits of human knowledge, which is entirely different from the limits of objective reality.

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John Joseph Vastola wrote on May. 5, 2020 @ 21:09 GMT
Your central question seems to me among the most important in all of science! Did the universe have to be comprehensible? I don't think it did, since physics allows us to conceive of all sorts of crazy alternatives (many of which do not include us); this makes us quite lucky.

I also wonder about whether science can really be reduced to sharply worded and contextualized questions. I am inclined to believe that it can, for the most part, but it's hard to think of a way to test a philosophical claim like this.

Great point about it being important for observers to have some kind of consensus (for example, on the meaning of a question and whether a given test is appropriate for determining an answer); this is something I never thought about before, possibly due in part to physics thought experiments tending to only consider one or two observers at a time. If you had to define scientific knowledge, would it be something like a collection of 'justified' consensus beliefs among some particular group of people?

John

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 11, 2020 @ 00:56 GMT
Hi John,

Thanks for the comments!

"If you had to define scientific knowledge, would it be something like a collection of 'justified' consensus beliefs among some particular group of people?"

To some extent that's essentially what the anonymous reviewer (quoted by Eddington) said: science is the rational correlation of experience. But Eddington takes pains to define what each of those terms actually mean and so I think it's important to note that it's difficult to reduce it to a singular sentence. It is entirely possible for a group of people to act irrationally while thinking they are acting rationally. There is a certain level of "good faith" that is built into this entire enterprise. That is, we are assuming that the majority of scientists are acting in good faith.

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Flavio Del Santo wrote on May. 5, 2020 @ 22:39 GMT
Dear Ian,

thank you for an(other) excellent, very enjoyable essay.

I particularly liked your lapidary concluding remark "The universe has fundamental limits baked into it. But it is these very limits that allow for the universe to be comprehensible."

Best of luck for the contest!

Cheers,

Flavio

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 11, 2020 @ 00:57 GMT
Thanks Flavio! Best of luck to you as well! (Your essay is on my reading list for this week...)

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Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza wrote on May. 11, 2020 @ 19:39 GMT
Dear Professor Ian Durham,

It was a joy reading your essay, and I think your emphasis on how we posit scientific questions, and how it constrains scientific answers is brilliant!

Though, if I hazard a guess as a layperson ( I am merely an undergrad), that would anchor science to logic and mathematics at a formal level, would it not?

And perhaps make the 3 un's constraining factor in our scientific quest?

Lastly, I want to give praise to your conclusion:

"Like the god Odin from Norse mythology, who is said to have

sacrificed an eye in order to attain wisdom, our quest for comprehension limits our very ability to

comprehend, and the universe remains always partially veiled."

My submission co-authored with my brother ( Rastin Reza) speaks of an veil, and we argue such a veil concealing nature is inherently mathematical.

I hope you find time to read it.

Kind Regards,

Raiyan Reza

(PS: Both my brother and I are open to the idea that our guess based on our rudiment knowledge is crude and of course, reading all the marvelous entries at FQXI, along with further readings in, will lead us to re-evaluate our stance)

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:12 GMT
Thanks for your comments Syed! I think you make a good point. It is possible to interpret what I say as formally anchoring science logic and mathematics, though I think it would be in a rather unusual way. It might be more correct to say that logic and mathematics are anchored to physics, rather than the other way around. Just a thought. Anyway, thanks again for the comments!

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Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza replied on May. 15, 2020 @ 01:12 GMT
Dear Professor Ian Durham,

Thanks for replying and sharing your thoughts!

Well, the way I interpreted this is when posing questions and constraining the universe of answers, we make sure it corresponds well to certain underlying grammar and semantics; and thus physics gets anchored to logic and mathematics.

In other words, science is projection of our observation onto the canvas of formal systems, such as logic and mathematics; hence why I stated physics gets anchored to mathematics and logic rather than the other way around.

In many way your work resonates well with Wittgenstein's seminal work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where he emphasis the centrality of language in understanding the world.

Best Wishes,

Raiyan Reza

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 16, 2020 @ 21:09 GMT
Hmm. I'll have to think about that. It's a very interesting observation. Thanks for offering some stimulating ideas!

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Member Kevin H Knuth wrote on May. 12, 2020 @ 18:18 GMT
Dear Ian,

I am very glad that you were able to submit an essay to this contest.

I was delighted to read it and, as expected, it was interesting and thought-provoking, which I think are the two most important qualities.

That being said, you can correctly infer that it has me thinking, which means I have a lengthy response.

In the essay, you focus on the topic of...

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:00 GMT
When this whole Covid-19 thing is over, I need to drive out to Albany again and have a beer with you. Thank you for the great comments. I need to know more about some of your Boolean stuff.

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Member Dean Rickles wrote on May. 13, 2020 @ 23:40 GMT
Hi Ian.

I enjoyed this.

Your conclusion is remarkably similar to mine, though you get there through a different route.

Couple of questions/comments:

You write that "Other aspects might be unknowable because the universe’s fundamental fabric is such that no machine can be constructed to produce a correct truth value for some truth-conditional statements."

This seems to imply some realm of "things in themselves" (independent of context/questions/etc). I doubt Wheeler would have thought that, being influenced by Bohr and all. "It from Bit" also means "No ifs if no Bits".

You also write: "“Yet it is wrong to say that there was any change in the underlying physics between then and now. What changed was our knowledge of that physics, i.e. we increased our information."

Well now: given what you say, the fact that contexts have changed, so that the kinds of questions we put have changed (on which we must agree to generate objectivity), you might say that the physics has changed too as a result of that. In Eddingtonian terms, the "Physical Universe" changes between then and now.

Best

Dean

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:08 GMT
Thanks for the comments, Dean. And that's rather sneaky of you to pull out Eddington as a counter-argument! ;-) Seriously, though, you're absolutely right that you could interpret his "physical universe" definition in that manner. I guess I am simply showing my admitted bias towards an objective reality (and I suppose I am doing the same thing in my implication of a realm of "things in themselves").

On the other hand, it's useful to note that really the physics itself *didn't* change. Newton's laws are as true now as they were then. Engineers use them every day to build machines and buildings and all sorts of things. What Einstein found was that their realm of applicability was limited or, rather, they were a limiting case of a more general theory (and there's an argument that could be made that they can even be generalized anyway). What changed was our understanding of the variables involved (in this case, time).

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Member Dean Rickles replied on May. 14, 2020 @ 01:50 GMT
Sneaky indeed.

Just a quick follow up: you write "On the other hand, it's useful to note that really the physics itself *didn't* change. Newton's laws are as true now as they were then"

True, but, if we push the Eddington line, it's because we still know how to ask those questions and construct those experimental contexts (and agree on the invariants) as before.They are now stable, in terms of phenomena generated. Though that aspect has not changed, there were new phenomena (e.g. QM) that were generated as a result of new contexts/questions that could be posed, and on which objective agreement is reached. So the Physical Universe has expanded its list of characters and its plot.

I know you are not buying into something as extreme is this kind of Eddingtonianism, but it seemed that you wanted to say that the objective facts were in some sense co-created by the subjective elements along with the universe. In this sense, I think you might have to say there is change in the objective facts as the subjective elements change.

Cheers

Dean

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 16, 2020 @ 21:12 GMT
Fair enough. I can see how that comes across. Maybe my thinking has evolved on the subject. I absolutely firmly believe in objective reality, but maybe my work on consciousness has gotten me to realize just how constrained our view of the world is.

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Michael James Kewming wrote on May. 14, 2020 @ 20:02 GMT
Hi Ian,

Thank you for a wonderfully written essay. I enjoyed it and I am largely in agreement with your conclusion, particularly when you wrote ``The fact remains that in order to say we comprehend some element of the universe we must necessarily obtain some information about that element. But obtaining that information is a physical process that necessarily has a context which constrains the nature of that information; the very act of acquiring information shapes the information acquired''.

This is an excellent point and the principle of comprehensibility is certainly a reflection of the physical limitations handed down by the uncertainty principle. As you point out, if the context of the questions being asked don't agree because we choose two incompatiable measurements---say x and p---then their is a fundamental limit to the comprehension we can achieve.

You then moved onto the price about the price of comprehension which fundamentally boils down to errors arising due to incompatible measurements. As you point out, if I'm computing pi to 50 trillion decimal places using two different algorithms, then surely they will reach different conclusions if they are not identical.

The uncertainty principle is certainly the fundamental limit of your essay, as it it in contextuality. If you ask an incomprehensible question, then it requires an infinite amount of energy to extract all the information about a particular variable. That is, localising your particles position does requires that you infinitely squeeze along p.

I largely agree with you and your essay and wrote a very similar essay focusing on the limits of computation, although focused from the perspective of open systems and dissipation---the errors arising from incomprehensible questions if you like---titled noisy machines. I hope you get a chance to take a look!

Well done on the great essay! I really enjoyed it!

Cheers,

Michael

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 16, 2020 @ 21:15 GMT
Thank you for your wonderful comments, Michael! I think that the uncertainty principle may be related to what I say, but I'm not entirely certain if it is the logical limit of my argument. Technically the uncertainty principle is related to non-commuting observables so there would have to be some way to represent comprehensibility in this manner. It might be possible, but I'm not sure. But, yes, I do believe the two ideas are related.

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Jeffrey Michael Schmitz wrote on May. 16, 2020 @ 17:42 GMT
Dear Ian,

This is a well-written essay for a general science readership that explains and defends thought provoking ideas. In other words, a perfect fqxi contest essay. It was fun to read and I think you had fun writing it. I hope you do well.

You do blame the state of the Physics on observers in the Universe, but your statements would offend only people in that category. On the serious side, the mechanics of creating valuable questions is the most important skill needed in science.

Sincerely,

Jeff Schmitz

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 16, 2020 @ 21:17 GMT
Hi Jeff, thank you so much for your kind comments! I am so glad it was an accessible essay. I think the art of creating valuable questions and its importance to science, is vastly underappreciated. I tell my students that knowing which questions to ask is often more important than obtaining the answers.

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Jeffrey Michael Schmitz replied on May. 16, 2020 @ 21:52 GMT
Hi Ian,

My essay "Why your Robot is just not that into you" is mathematically out of the running, but I would like your opinion (bad or good). Any comments would be helpful for the next contest.

Sincerely,

Jeff

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 00:09 GMT
Hi Jeff, I'll try to give your essay a read this week.

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Lachlan Cresswell wrote on May. 17, 2020 @ 06:00 GMT
Dear Ian,

“Why is the Universe so comprehensible?” A great topic to which you have written a most stimulating essay.

I think our world is comprehensible because humans are good at searching out and then explaining patterns. First in natural science, then in our own creation – mathematics. As our science progressed, some of the patterns, or our deductions about them became established as our principles or laws – especially where symmetry was involved.

I believe, like Einstein, that `comprehensibility' means a scientific understanding of the universe's functional composition. In my essay I cover how the 3 Un’s have impinged on my thinking as I work towards my goal of ‘Structural Physics’.

If a condition of comprehensibility is one of measurement, and as you quoted “Feynman once famously said, if something disagrees with experiment then it's wrong”, then isn’t defining the experiment and its measurement in a truth-conditional way extremely important. Some might argue that is where EPR experiments have come unstuck. Part of the price of comprehensibility is the way we design our experiments.

On another thought-line, you stated: “Markus Muller recently constructed a self-consistent theory in which an objective external world emerges from more fundamental observer states.” Isn’t this similar in some way to applying Susskind and ‘t Hooft’s idea of a holographic black hole event horizon to the Universe through multiple observer states? After all, Muller thinks the link between entropy and information remains, possibly leading to a holographic principle.

Thanks for your essay as it has extended the boundaries of my thinking.

Lockie Cresswell

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 00:13 GMT
Thanks for the comments! I'm not entirely sure I agree that Müller's observation is quite the same thing as that of Susskind and 't Hooft. In the latter, the one is a holographic projection of the other, whereas in Müller's view it's not a projection of any kind. They observer states are physically distinct from the objective reality that they are observing.

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Member Simon DeDeo wrote on May. 18, 2020 @ 06:17 GMT
Dear Ian,

I am absolutely delighted by this essay. One of the things you touch on is the separability (for lack of a better word) of the universe. We can make sense of it because of how explanations remain "in their proper bounds".

One thing I'm curious about: are there examples in "normal" life where explanations go out of bounds? i.e., you write "While it is impossible to prove that the answer to the question “what color is my hair?” will never be “narrow” or “dog”, the fact remains that it is highly unlikely." It is possible to come up with an example that (however unlikely) violates the Principle of Comprehensibility?

Yours,

Simon

(You can find some remarks on "mutual explainability" in my contribution this year, for which I'd love to have your thoughts—please feel free to drop me a line by e-mail or as you please, because I think there's a lot of philosophical literature for me to learn from.) https://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/3492

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 00:21 GMT
Hi Simon! Thanks for the fantastic comments! I'm so glad you enjoyed the essay. Yours is on my list to read (I'm a little behind due to the semester catching up with me).

Anyway, I do not know of an example that violates the Principle of Comprehensibility. Since I think of it a bit like I think of the Second Law, it seems that any example would be exceedingly rare (if it exists at all). If such an example did exist, my guess is that it would only exist at the quantum level much like any potential violation of the Second Law would be.

On the other hand, I wonder if we would even know of such a violation in that most scientists would be more likely to simply dismiss any violation as experimental error on their part. It raises a lot of intriguing questions, though, when you stop to think about it.

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Luca Valeri wrote on May. 18, 2020 @ 13:25 GMT
Hi Ian,

I waited a while to read your essay as I thought, comprehensibility is a too incomprehensible expression in order to get something comprehensible out of it. I was wrong. It was a clear enjoyable read. A few questions however remained that I would like to ask and a few remarks I would like to make.

It seems to me, that you the context, under which a question can be...

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 01:00 GMT
Hi Luca, thanks for the thought-provoking comments. I think it is very interesting to ask whether the questions we're asking need to be classical (or produce classical answers). In a sense this is related to the question of reference frames. In asking a question, we must agree on a reference frame. Normally this is considered to be a classical concept, but there is a theory of quantum reference frames that puts limits on this. So I could perhaps see that there might be problems with this at the quantum level.

Regarding Wigner's friend, this is also very interesting. I've spent a lot of time thinking about Wigner's friend and some related ideas and there are situations where it is possible to show (using Wigner's friend-like experiments) that it is possible to know that a fact about the world exists, and yet not be able to access that fact. It's a bit like Gödel's theorems in that you can know that a truth value exists and yet not have any way to learn that truth value.

Finally, regarding the stability of the universe, that's a good question. I don't have a good answer for that, but perhaps your essay offers some potential ideas. I'll have to take a look.

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Luca Valeri replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 13:52 GMT
Hi Ian,

I found the theory of quantum reference frames is very interesting (as you might imagine after having read my essay). I heard in a talk you gave at a FQXI conference, that you are working on quantum reference frame. But sadly, I could not find any paper you published on the topic.

Thanks also for the interest and reply on my essay. I tried to gave an answer to the point you raised about the existence of semantically closed theories, if you are interested.

Luca

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 20, 2020 @ 00:49 GMT
Hi Luca,

I have a couple of papers that I co-authored on quantum reference frames that came out awhile ago. One is in PRL and the other is in PRA. I have some long-standing plans to continue this work with some other folks, but have gotten distracted by other research over the years. But I do expect to pick it up again eventually.

Ian

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Peter Jackson wrote on May. 18, 2020 @ 16:03 GMT
Dear Ian,

Good essay, interesting view. I agree there "..exist problems that are undecidable for physical reasons" and "The universe has fundamental limits baked into it." but can we not reduce them to 'infinitessimals'? If you interact with a spinning sphere at the equator and I ask; 'Is it + or - rotation?' Can you tell me? But how CLOSE to the equator must we be get 50:50 certainty? Is that not, as I think you suggest, just a matter of experimental precision, so can be reduced!? Now that +/- decidability also INCREASES, by CosTheta Latitude, from 0 to 1 towards the poles.

So now consider your Stern-G Fig.1.; We know all light has ellipticity, as do all orbitals, so if we hypothesise polariser interactions can change ellipticity (major axis orientation) as well as polarity, then we can say the magnets divert the 'state' BOTH WAYS, but only ONE channel corresponds to major axis amplitude so can 'click'.

Now in THAT case, with some simple conditions (shared axis, and vector additions) we can surely reduce 'quantum uncertainty' to the physical limit you suggest!? I've found that a powerfully resolving hypothesis, as I discuss in my own essay, giving Bells inequalities physically, as he always suggested was possible.

We can then ask the truth value question; "is my hair blond?" and get answers of recursively reducing precision of HOW blonde!? So a 'reducing' not 'excluded' middle between Blonde and Brunette.

You struggled with that concept last year, perhaps even ran from it as some do. Now I think it should be more comprehensible from your own viewpoint. Do let me know.

Very best

Peter

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 01:04 GMT
Hi Peter, I'm not sure how we can reduce some of these fundamental limits to infinitesimals. In fact even philosophers of mathematics still struggle with infinitesimals. This is something Flavio del Santo addresses in his essay and it's worth a read. He has to step outside the entire real number paradigm to even countenance a solution to that problem. So I don't think it is as simple as reducing such limits to infinitesimals.

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Peter Jackson replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 01:21 GMT
Ian,

OK, the hypothesised mechanism seems still beyond your analytical skills. Or did having to decide + or - rotation exactly at an equator confuse you? No surprise as you're in the vast majority, just a little disappointing a possible answer before our eyes still seems invisible to most!.

Best

Peter

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H.H.J. Luediger wrote on May. 18, 2020 @ 18:46 GMT
Dear Ian,

which color of hair would a pre-colonial Bantu have assigned to Marilyn Monroe? And what about an alien from a planet orbiting Sirius ?

"The universe has fundamental limits baked into it." Isn't it rather so that these 'limits' are constitutive means for there being something at all - FOR US?

Heinz

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Neil Bates wrote on May. 18, 2020 @ 23:35 GMT
Hello Ian, Neil Bates here. I am very impressed by the literary quality of your piece, as well as the broad interdisciplinary scope and variety of picking various conceptual metaphors and points to make. Certainly something worthy of publication in a semi-popular science education forum. I must agree that issues of language in science and even basic description of experience can't be brushed aside. Too often, authors take the material of their discussions as simple clear givens. This is so despite decades of wrangling over the philosophical problems of quantum mechanics and even the scientific method. It is important in issues of the peculiar "Renninger null measurement" where we presume a "wavefunction" must have rearranged because a detector that COULD have found a particle showed a negative result. And what about unreliable detectors? Can they have ontological significance?

I haven't seen much similar to your speculations about the effective relativity of calculation. Some would say "so what" because math is conceived as a perfect Platonic thing in itself, yet foundational mathematicians still argue over discovery versus construction, the viability of unmet counterfactuals, etc.

Also: If you or other readers might take at look at my own piece, addressing the issue of the strong correlations of entanglement and how neo-mechanistic models of quantum physics aren't enough - it could use some votes on this last day. Thank you.

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Author Ian Durham replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 01:07 GMT
Thanks for the comments Neil. I'm not surprised that this resonated with you. I know you have long tried to make a point about our language in science. I will take a look at your essay.

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Neil Bates replied on May. 19, 2020 @ 02:02 GMT
YW. BTW folks, sorry if I offended anyone by mentioning the "v" word. The deadline sneaked up on me (can I say "snuck"?) and I worried about it (and is it really EST, or EDT?) Yeah, just commenting or mentioning one's own essay is an implicit invitation to that very thing, but appearances are what they are - as we might haggle over in physics.

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James A Putnam wrote on May. 19, 2020 @ 03:54 GMT
"As long as the universe remains relatively stable, the first condition implies the second. The fact that the universe remains relatively stable, thus ensuring that the second condition is met in the aggregate, was originally proposed as a “principle” of comprehensibility in [7]. It asserted that the nature of a physical system under investigation will always remain within the bounds of the...

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Luca Valeri wrote on May. 20, 2020 @ 05:18 GMT
Hi Ian,

please have a look at my reply in my blog regarding closeability of SR.

Luca

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Steve Agnew wrote on May. 24, 2020 @ 23:20 GMT
I always enjoy reading Durham's essays because he is a very smart person and knows his field quite well. Noramlly, Durham writes about consciousness and free choice (see Fxqi 2019 conference in Italy), and now about comprehension, and comprehension, of course, is a part of consciousness and free choice.

The tell for a fundamental question is in its identity. The universe is, simply, the way that it is. Likewise consciousness is simply because we are conscious...and so comprehensibility is because we comprehend. Of course, this is much too simple and so Durham feels the need, like any good philosopher, to argue endlessly about the meaning of nothing...

Instead of free choice and consciousness, Durham states that "...each individual is free to declare whatever they wish to declare." Oh, and a single observer is also "...free to simply deny any result..." Well, the result could be wrong, right? The result could be uncertain or it could be contradicting other work.

Is this all Durham has? Consciousness and comprehensibility are both words that mean free choice. Free choice is the key to both consciousness and comprehension and many other complex terminologies. Without unpredictable free choice, we would not be conscious nor would we ask about comprehension...

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Luca Valeri wrote on Jun. 3, 2020 @ 15:51 GMT
Hi Ian,

On a final note and then I let you go. First of all thanks for your interest and your reply in my blog. Time is just the hardest thing to understand. So I think it is better to leave time as external parameter until some ideas have been clarified. This does not hinder the argument.

In a static picture one can apply the ideas of semantically closed theories on quantum...

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