Visiting the Profound

  • Brian Greene on understanding reality as a collection of nested stories;
  • Recalling analogous thoughts by Sean Carroll and others;
  • Big Think’s Ethan Siegel on the success of modern fundamental science.

Perhaps today we can step back from the paranoid, delusional bickering of human tribalists, to sample some of the best ideas of the relative handful of profound thinkers who manage perceive the world as it really exists.

First of all — this is not the beginning of a review or summary of the Brian Greene book shown here. Well, maybe it is, but I’ve only read the first 30 pages, and while I may resume reading it later this month, at best any further review discussion won’t be along for several weeks. For now, there’s a key passage early in a book that relates to my continued interest in narratives, and stories. Pages 5 to 6:

We are a species that delights in story. We look out on reality, we grasp patterns, and we join them into narratives that can captivate, inform, startle, amuse, and thrill. The plural — narratives — is utterly essential. In the library of human reflection, there is no single, unified volume that conveys ultimate understanding. Instead, we have written many nested stories that probe different domains of human inquiry and experience: stories, that is, that parse the patterns of reality using different grammars and vocabularies. Protons, neutrons, electrons, and nature’s other particles are essential for telling the reductionist story, analyzing the stuff of reality, from planets to Picasso, in terms of their microphysical constituents. Metabolism, replication, mutation, and adaptation are essential for telling the story of life’s emergence and development, analyzing the biochemical workings of remarkable molecules and the cells they govern. Neurons, information, thought, and awareness are essential for the story of the mind–and with that the narratives proliferate: myth to religion, literature to philosophy, art to music, telling of humankind’s struggle for survival, will to understand, urge for expression, and search for meaning.

…Connected through they surely are, different stories, told with different languages and focused on different levels of reality, provide vastly different insights.

These early pages summarize the book to follow. Two key themes.

Clear across the collection of stories, we will find two forces sharing the role of leading character. In chapter 2 we will meet the first: entropy. (…) Asking how that current switched on takes us to the second of our pervasive influences: evolution.

Entropy is inevitable over the history of the universe, but life, almost by definition, consists of (temporary) exceptions to that trend. By the same token, all life must eventually pass. We know, as no other species does, that we will die. Nothing is permanent; the only answers of significant are those of our own making. (That is, the ‘meaning of life.’) This is a recurring observation by all thinkers who reject the stories of religion, such as the Christian one that our mission in life is to worship our creator.

Brian Greene is an American physicist best-known for three large tomes about modern physics and cosmology: THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS, and THE HIDDEN REALITY. None of which I’ve yet read. The book above is rather like Sean Carroll’s, below; a bit of a philosophical aside, casting the lessons of physical reality on humanity’s existence in that context.

This is the next big substantial book on my TBR stack for this year, following those by Pinker, Wilson, and Joshua Greene that I’ve discussed recently, plus another Pinker, THE BLANK SLATE, that I read in May and haven’t written up here yet. I had planned this Brian Greene to be my June big book, but I don’t think I’ll get back to it until after the next trip to Austin, finishing June 9th.

I expect this Greene to take a position on my Shelf of Best Nonfiction Books with those and other titles, such as Sean Carroll’s THE BIG PICTURE (reviewed here), whose central theme is analogous to Greene’s in the big para quoted above. Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” uses different kinds of ‘stories’ to describe the world at different levels of complexity:


  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

Poetic naturalism:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

More broadly, several of the books on my top shelf distinguish between intuitive and thoughtful takes on the world: Kahnamen’s fast and slow thinking; Haidt’s elephant and rider; tribal morality vs. Joshua Greene’s “deep pragmatism” to transcend tribal disputes. Also, Brian Greene’s focus on a couple deep principles (entropy and evolution) recalls David Deutsch’s four strands of explanation (in the book reviewed here) in the sense that, for all that science seems to get more and more abstruse and complex, in fact it increasingly falls into a consistent structure defined by a few basic principles. As Deutsch said, a small number of such deep theories explains everything, since there are analogies among those theories… reality is consistent, and thus can be understood.

Understood, I might add, as more than just another story. Humans may live by stories, but an objectively real universe exists independent of them. That humans, by applying rigorous self-checking principles (science), can understand. Wisdom entails understanding that all the stories humans live by are… just stories.


These thoughts align with a piece from Big Think a week or so ago.

Big Think, Ethan Siegel, 23 May 2024: Is fundamental science a victim of its own success?, subtitled, “Some think the reason fundamental scientific revolutions are so rare is because of groupthink. It’s not; it’s hard to mess with success.”

My first thought is that this aligns with another Ethan Siegel piece at Big Think that I mentioned here, concerning myths that cause people to abandon science. What I said then:

“Any scientist would give his eye-teeth, or even first-born child, or whatever, to disprove evolution, or relativity, or whatever. Anyone can do so, if they gather the evidence, have it validated by peer review, get it published so the world’s scientists can examine the evidence and conclusions for faults, and if they really could disprove evolution, or relativity, or whatever, they’d win a Nobel Prize. But this never happens. Non-scientists attack science because its conclusions contradict their religious stories. And that’s the only reason.”

(And they attack *only* the science that contradicts their religious stories. Though, come to think of it, that’s most of science.) The big ideas are products of decades and centuries of increasingly refined thinking, and that they’ve withstood the tests of time is evidence of their robustness.

That is, it’s not about groupthink, except in incidental ways. (The politics of university science departments, dontcha know. Famous observation: Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small. The lesson here isn’t so much about academic departments in universities, as that humans are “political” in all the ways that term implies, all the time. No doubt the same is true at town hall meetings. Especially in small towns.)

So what is Ethan getting at in this piece? Well, the current unresolved questions in astrophysics.

Key Takeaways

• It’s been more than 25 years since the most recent revolutionary idea about our Universe, the existence of dark energy, was shown to fundamentally be a part of our reality. • In the realms of both particle physics and cosmology, many unsolved problems and theoretical conundrums remain, yet our fundamental understanding of the Universe hasn’t progressed in several decades. • Is this because of groupthink, following the herd, or just a lack of interest in general? No; it’s because our current best theories, despite their shortcomings, are so undeniably successful. Here’s how.

Longish piece; 18 screen downs on my monitor, though it includes some ads. The writer begins with an earlier period of scientific consensus.

Some 500 years ago, there was one scientific phenomenon that was, without controversy, extremely well-understood: the motion of the celestial objects in the sky. The Sun rose in the east and set in the west with a regular, 24 hour period. Its path in the sky rose higher and the days grew longer until the summer solstice, while its path was the lowest and shortest on the winter solstice. The stars exhibited that same 24 hour period, as though the heavenly canopy rotated throughout the night. The Moon migrated night-to-night relative to the other objects by about 12° as it changed its phases, while the planets wandered according to the geocentric rules of Ptolemy and, later, refinements put forth by others.

For over 1000 years, this Earth-centered view of our Universe went largely unchallenged, and became nearly universally accepted.

We often ask ourselves, “How was this possible?” How did this geocentric picture of the Universe hold up, without any of science’s greatest minds contesting it, for generation after generation for more than a millennium? There’s this common narrative that due to dogmatism, like the unchallengeable facts of Earth being stationary and the center of the Universe, no one was even allowed to question these so-called facts. But the truth is far more complex. The reason the geocentric model held sway for so long wasn’t because of the oft-ascribed problem of groupthink, but rather because the evidence supporting a geocentric Universe fit it so well: far better than any of the alternatives that had been put forth. The biggest enemy of progress isn’t groupthink at all, but the unrivaled successes of the leading, already-established theory. Today, although many complain about “groupthink” as a major problem in science, it’s actually the successes of our current picture of the Universe that present the greatest difficulties when searching for a scientific revolution.

That is, it was all about the available evidence at the time. Ethan goes on with how the ancients tried to explain basic observations about the motions of the stars and planets, yet clung to the notion that the Earth was stationary and that all the heavens rotated around it. And how they had evidence to support that conclusion. What changed, after 1000 years, was better, subtler, evidence, that came with the invention of the telescope. And so on. With an explanation of why the planets make retrograde paths.

There are always three hallmarks of any scientific revolution, where a new theory comes along looking to supplant and replace the old one.

  1. The new theory succeeds wherever the old theory did.
  2. The new theory explains an observed phenomenon that the old theory couldn’t account for.
  3. And the new theory, in comparison to the old theory, makes differing predictions that we can then go out and test.

This has in fact happened throughout history, though not as often as the skeptics think. As evidence becomes more and more difficult to accumulate — think those increasingly huge and expensive particle colliders — advances in theory take longer and longer to appear.

Ethan summarizes current unresolved scientific issues:

  • Are dark matter and dark energy real, or is this an opportunity for a revolution?
  • Do the different measurements for the expansion rate of the Universe signal a problem with our techniques, or are they an early indication of potential new physics?
  • What do non-zero neutrino masses indicate; a simple mixing, as in the case of quarks, or the first step toward a leap beyond the Standard Model?
  • And what of the muon g-2 experiment? Is this a case where experiment differs from theory, or a case where we’ve simply made theoretical mistakes in our calculations?

I’m familiar with the first two issues; the second two are below my radar. (All of these issues are below the radar of all the people who dispute science, and who are ignorant of all the undisputed conclusions of science over the past 200 years.)

But, for reasons I quoted above, all scientists are open to revolutions in thinking. Given those levels of understanding discussed above, perhaps there is another, perhaps (as many have speculated) some realm of nature, or physics, that humans simply cannot perceive. (This is where philosophical science fiction speculations come in.) There may indeed by some higher reality, outside of anything humans *can* perceive, that we might nevertheless deduce. (But it won’t be any kind of projection of human nature onto the universe, like father-figures, i.e. gods.) A basic rules applies: humans can, and should, change their minds, in a Bayesian kind of way, based on increased evidence and experience. (This principle came up reading recent books about morality.)

Ethan concludes along such lines:

It’s important to explore all possibilities, even the most wild ones, but to always ground ourselves in the reality of observations and measurements we can make. If we ever want to go beyond our current understanding, any alternative theory has to not only reproduce all of our present-day successes, but to succeed where our current theories cannot. That’s why scientists are often so resistant to new ideas: not because of groupthink, dogma, or inertia, but because most new ideas never clear even the first of those epic hurdles, and are inconsistent with the established data we already possess. Whenever the data clearly indicates that one theoretical alternative is superior to all the others, however, a scientific revolution is inevitably sure to follow.

The majority bicker; a minority tries to understand.

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