World Science Festival: Will Scientists Ever Know Everything?

By Jennifer Barone | June 8, 2010 10:35 am

Limits-of-UnderstandingA mathematician, a philosopher, a physicist, and an artificial intelligence expert get together to define the limits of human knowledge. Chaos ensues.

That’s the short version of Friday evening’s World Science Festival discussion, The Limits of Understanding, where panelists Gregory Chaitin, Rebecca Goldstein, Mario Livio, and Marvin Minsky bravely tackled the scientific and philosophical implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for a packed house.

Gödel’s work has perplexed thinkers for decades, but the on-stage team dispensed with the basics pretty quickly. As philosopher Goldstein put it, Gödel’s infamous proof from 1931 revealed that “there are true propositions [in mathematics] that can’t be proved.” Livio took a stab at incompleteness via analogy to physics: “We physicists look for a theory of everything in physics; Gödel showed that there is no theory of everything in math.”

In keeping with the theme of a theorem that overflows with philosophical implications, the ensuing conversation leapt from Gödel’s proof to evolution, the effectiveness of mathematics at describing the universe, and even the nature of consciousness. (Consciousness, Minsky insisted, is not a single thing, but is actually a catch-all term philosophers and psychologists use for 26 distinct problems about the human mind that they don’t fully understand. It was around this time that the moderator, Nobel-prize-winning biologist Paul Nurse, announced that he was “giving up” on corralling the discussion.)

One of the more interesting ideas that crept up was whether, in the wake of Gödel, math can reveal any objective, independent truths that exist “out there” in the real world, or whether it’s just a system of rules built by humans, relying on our peculiar perceptions of the universe. Livio proposed a compromise: “Are we discovering mathematics, or inventing them? It might be an intricate combination: We invent concepts and then discover the relations among them,” he said, pointing to the square root of negative one—the imaginary unit—as an invention that opened up whole new realms of discovery in math.

As for Gödel, mathematician Chaitin’s take was probably the most honest and salient: “Eighty years later, we still don’t know what the hell Gödel proved,” he said. The audience seemed happy to agree with him on that one.

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  • Pam Wilder

    I believe the “Big Bang” happened when Lucifer and his angels were kicked out of heaven and the explosion of that event created this universe. He and his angels created the physical life in this universe to become like God. Why we cross into this plane of existance and then return “home” I am not sure. Maybe just for the experience. Has anyone else expressed this belief when discussing the “Big Bang?”

  • AL

    Is there a video of this discussion anywhere?

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    We should stop chasing our own theoretical predictable metaphysical tales & question our received basic knowledge, by valentine s. goroshko.

  • abb3w

    So… what ARE the 26 problems?

    And Valentine, the scientists aren’t lost; it’s the rest of humanity that no longer sees the trail. In fact, most of humanity no longer understands the basic trail to the basic language: the derivation of mathematics (including Bayesian probability, computational complexity, and Gödel’s theorem) from Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms (and sufficient axioms for inference within a Boolean-equivalent lattice of truth values).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ AL:

    According to the World Science Festival, video of this event will be posted soon:
    http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/live-intro

    – Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Brian Too

    Science will never know everything. And wouldn’t it be tragic if it did? What mysteries, what exploration, what questions would we have left? Nothing. If science ever does know everything, we would be as the gods.

    On the other hand, I view Gödel, Zeno and the rest with suspicion. They are philosophers not scientists. Much of philosophy leads to dead ends, infinite loops, and baffling paradoxes. Philosophers are great at asking questions and lousy at providing answers.

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    Mr. Brian since word god is human metaphysical invention & measure of human ignorance we need not to burden ourselves to becoming God-like without jobs, superstition & ignorance will for a long time be with us. The Universe & reality is immeasurably interesting to worry about nothing to do, Mr. Brian!

  • Melvin Goldstein

    There are Physics Foibles – choas is one.

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    Mr. Melvin Goldstein You are right, it naively assumes a classical universal order versus unnatural aberration of chaos – both are groundless metaphysical fictions, v. s. goroshko.

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    Dear Pam Wilder you are amusingly witty & clever like a Devil; your GENESIS 2 VERSION is original & should & will have BigBangers support unfortunately I am not a believer, Pam so I can not verify your hypothesis, I hope this neoEarthlyCentrism will be embraced by Vatican, officially, sincerely, your Lucifer, v. s. goroshko…

  • http://www.liz-n-val.net valentine s. goroshko

    Dear Scientists, the story is already written of Everything, E=C, & 0C Relative Dimensional parameters of spacial/events which mathematically describe all possible outcomes, linguistically one can call them Strings, Quantum/wave/field/propagations, Clouds, Membrane etc. …. valentine s. goroshko

  • Melvin Goldstein

    Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. However Godel proved that we may not prove everything using numbers.  Physics needs numbers. There must be Physics Foibles.

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