Emily Baker

The Institute of Art and Ideas

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Can science uncover the origin of everything?

I started thinking about this when I came across this quote by Einstein:

“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”

And then I found this talk about the boundaries between science and philosophy when it comes to explaining the universe and nothingness:


So what do you think? Can science satisfy our craving for knowledge about our origins? Or would it be too dry? Do we need to hang on to a part of mystery?

  • Apr 18 2013: For every question science finds an answer for- a 1000 more questions pop up.
    Some lectures can be dry but the science its self isn't.
    So to answer your question: NO!!!
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    Apr 22 2013: I think that since Science constantly evolves, it might be able to uncover many mysteries of the Universe, maybe even its true nature. But we cannot base our research only on science -we have to base also on philosophy and other ways of explaining the world. Most of them might be creations of the mind but, still, for them to have been thought, they must have some basis. Scientists or non-scientists, we should expand our horizons and open our minds.
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    • Apr 22 2013: actually science is getting closer to being able to know "what" you dream.
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        • Apr 22 2013: now I'm not sure what kind of crap research you've been reading but it's something other than what I've seen.

          I also don't see what kind of messed up distinction you seem to imagine there to be between 'brain' and 'mind'.

          What I'm saying is that we can understand the physical brain, in a level of (rapidly increasing) degree, which already enables us to link brainwaves to actions in a fairly direct manner.

          For instance there are games which you can play with brainwaves (given that we can read the brainwaves usually with some measuring cap).
          Also there are really good results on creating artificial limbs which are controlled by the brain of the person who would need it.
          Next to that there are numerous other fields which use similar technologies which seem to be doing pretty good.
  • Apr 18 2013: Science can tell you how, but not why. Why is not part of the scientific method. So yes, science describes Beethoven's symphonies as waves of pressure in the air. I feel like our society is starting to worship science and give it all kinds of attributes and powers it just doesn't have by its nature. Science only deals with what is measurable, and it tries to do so as objectively as possible. It can tell you how the earth was made but not why it was made. That is not measurable.
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    Apr 17 2013: There are always so many unanswered questions from a scientific standpoint that I don't think you need to fear an end to mysteries. Further, there is no reason to think of scientific inquiry or a scientific lens as dry. To many science is full of the thrill of adventure, the solving of puzzles, and the finding of "treasure" in the form of understanding and new doors.
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    Apr 23 2013: Let's say for arguments sake that you have nothing. What is contained in this situation that will allow you to alter your situation?

    0 + 0 = 0

    The way I see it something has to exist to alter any situation. If something cannot come from nothing then something must have always existed.
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      Apr 23 2013: Would a single star cast a shadow?
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        Apr 23 2013: Sounds poetic. What are you implying?
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          Apr 23 2013: i guess i am implying that it would, So when the light travels back to its source how would that single star interpret it own light coming back to it's self?

          "Well I would trust that the Dean is educated enough to understand Einstein's point that any ray of light ( a straight line ) send out will eventually return to its origin and therefore he would understand that there are no "straight lines"" ~Ed Schulte
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      Apr 23 2013: You are correct metaphysically. Cognition, for example needs differentiation to come into existence. If there is only one being/thing and nothing outside of it, it cannot have cognition.
      But physically, something can come from nothing.
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        Apr 23 2013: Simply stating it as a fact is not proof.

        0 + 0 = 0. This is a fact.

        Neither Richard Dawkins nor any other person is an authority on where things come from or how they came into being.
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          Apr 24 2013: Are you referring to Lawrence's talk? If you are, I am surprised. Because to say some one is just stating a fact without proof for over 2 hours and in front of number of people in an audience which does not look like baseball fans to me, one has to assume some serious gullibility going there.
          0+0=0 is a mathematical triviality.
          I think you did not notice that I am not impressed with authority. I can listen to what a person is saying (Lawrence in this video) and see if it sounds authentic.
        • Apr 24 2013: 0 + 0 = 0 = 5 - 5 = x*0 = (x+y)*0 = x^0 - 1 = ......................

          Strange... I can do a lot of things which are facts which disagree with your limited view on math.
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          Apr 24 2013: Welcome Richard K :) I can see what you are doing. You are making a wild guess about views. I think I have seen this before.
      • Apr 24 2013: Which guess do I make?

        I just show that John M is wrong in saying that you can't ever "get something" from "nothing". And he is even further off by using math to 'prove' his point.

        If you need to "create" something from "nothing" you just end up with the something and its negative creation.
        In math you can even do stranger stuff than that if you wish....
  • Apr 21 2013: The answer to your question is No! Science is based on observation and responds to what it observes. Even if it satisfactorily accounts for all observations it nevertheless cannot discount an anomaly, a new inconsistent observation.

    Language collects things together under single words. It therefore seems, to me, to be a more pertinent question to ask "What can language achieve?" or perhaps "What are the limits of generalisation?"
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    Apr 19 2013: Science is only one way of understanding ourselves and the universe - and as a stand-alone discipline for that end, it has limits. Those limits are science's self-imposed materialism and a refusal to accept that phenomena occur regularly outside the remit of its own understanding. Our own consciousness being one example: Neurons, synapses and neurochemicals can be analysed and MRI scanned ad nauseam - but the huge gulf of understanding lies in what we experience, relative to what appears in our assemblage of material parts.

    There certainly seems to be an unwillingness in science to cross-discipline into philosophy, which is odd, since philosophy is a major food-source for many hypotheses. If science is to progress, it simply has to jettison its intolerance of those things that form imperatives of human existence and experience, which really is where mystery lies - and I for one, would like to continue to contemplate life's mysteries, in the light of science admitting to itself it can go no further.

    It sounds like I'm anti-science. I certainly am not! I just think that if science is to get nearer to uncovering the origins of everything, it has to be much more receptive towards other disciplines and experiences that might at first seem to confound its own analysis.
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    Apr 19 2013: G'day Emily

    Look how just in the last hundred years how science has evolved in creating new science techniques to rediscovering ourselves all over again, if you look back a hundred years ago most of the world was still getting around on horse back or horse drawn carriages & so on......... Do we need to hold on to part of the mystery? What for because there will always be a mystery to figure out because nothing ever stays the same.

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    Apr 18 2013: Life without mystery, one with no questions left to seek the answers too because science had answered them would be without excitement and would not allow new discovery. Loads of things over the years have been discovered /created by accident out of curiosity, exploration and wanting answers. Science is a brilliant thing, but other things such as faith and the meaning of life have more value and substance, and they revolve around us hanging onto the mystery.
    I think that the roots of science is philosophy, and vice versa. Without science, people wouldn't form new questions, but without those questions people wouldn't seek to find meaning or sense of them.

    I much prefer being somewhat clueless to the unknown and even if science could uncover more than it is able to do so currently, I would want to know. Naivety is Bliss.
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    Apr 18 2013: I kind of feel its impossible. I mean i dont know, i suppose it may depend on your views of religion, the universe, and life itself. But if you believe that the universe is ever changing, mutations and adaptions occur, environments change, evolution takes place, well then i can't see how us or any form of inteligent life can possibly keep up with these changes. I agree with Gale, every question anwsered and problem solved is just a key unlocking a door to a room with 10 more locked doors. However i feel that is why science, knowledge, exploration, growth, learning and advancement is so excitting, there is always a new question to be anwsered, and a new frontier to be crossed. I also think that it is not just "human nature" but inteligent life nature/curiosity. (if such a thing exist) There is always that want and drive to know "everything" and the origins of it all. Of course all of that can be negated if you do believe if a spiritual creator or god, which then in some cases we could learn all there is the learn, and or we will come upon this knowledge after our death on Earth and a movement towards a higher being or place. Personally i have no clue, i really cant say one thing or another is certain, and i am not even sure we will ever definitively anwser your question. Excellent question, and topic.
  • Apr 18 2013: No
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    Apr 24 2013: No. Ultimately it can theorize, but cannot prove an ultimate origin.
  • Apr 24 2013: Here we are:

    past ------- now -------- future

    If we know the universe is governed by a set of laws....we should then come to the conclusion that everything has some sort of predefined path.

    Let's take it back to the beginning.

    Many believe that our entire universe is the result of a massive explosion or (BANG). This may not have been an explosion at all. It could have just been a (BIG EXPANSION).

    So let's take a look at that. If we know matter is governed by laws...we can then set a table of extremes to choose from.

    (Mass 1) ---- meets (Mass 2) and the outcome is defined by {Law}.

    (Mass 1 is Molecule 10487)
    Molecule 10487 has a set of attributes.
    {Atom 1 - Set Variables}
    {Atom 2/Connected to Atom 1/ Set Variables}

    Since atom 1 and 2 are connected they now call for a new {law} since they no longer act on their own.

    {Atoms 1 - 1047492384723} Create mass A(Rock).
    {Rock is a general term for this combination/configuration of atoms}
    {Rock now has laws that define it}

    (Rock - Density - Heat - Size)

    The laws only apply when energy is present.

    So let's go back to the big bang.

    {Initialize expansion}
    {Laws Govern Movement}
    {Outcomes are defined by laws} - (If ROCK A hits ROCK B - New trajectory/energy for rock A)
    (Rock A change mass - (-10%)
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    Apr 24 2013: Pabitra said, "... Are you referring to Lawrence's talk?..."

    I think I'm a bit smarther than Lawrenxc Pabitra. In the US, people get up and speak for over 2 hours and accomplish absolutly nothing all the time (see congress).

    Math itself is just a discriptive language. Math without reference is just numbers. You may sepereate the reference from the math if you choose but it doesn't affect me in anyway.

    I see you are not impressed with authority yet you strive to be an authority..........
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    Apr 24 2013: I'm not sure Casey.... I do have a question..... does a light beam lose energy as it travels through space a great distance?
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    Apr 24 2013: Richard...... Mark Twain said it best:
    "In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. Therefore ... in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long... seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long... There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." ~Mark Twain.

    Yes richard.... 5-5= 0 but you are supposing you had 5 and -5 to begin with. Try doing that and only having nothing to work with.

    Math is a language.... X times 0 means: x multiplied - times = zero. My question is what happened to the X elements you started with.... did zero somehow vaporize them into nothing? You have to have an idea first then seek the math to substantiate it somehow. Playing with numbers is just play.

    With this in mind, try to explain to me what your simple equation means. 0 + 0 = 0 = 5 - 5 = x*0 = (x+y)*0 = x^0 - 1 = ; that is, what does it relate to?

    My math, describes a situation where you start with nothing, 0 (zero) and you alter it somehow with nothing.... which implies you can't get something [from] nothing.
    • Apr 24 2013: You don't need anything to split 0 into something other than 0.
      Both sides of the = sign are equal (by definition).

      So if you want to "get something" (x) from "nothing" (zero) you can do so simply by adding x and - x.
      You think that you need to do something to get from 0 to some other state.... but x - x = 0.... the = is not some action you need to do it is already equal.

      I can't write it down even more simplistic than this.

      Mark Twain was good with words... but perhaps not that great in science... which is why he wrote books rather than equations.
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        Apr 24 2013: I guess you don't understand the rules of this game we are playing Richard.

        1. Nothing can offer nothing, that is, Something can not come from nothing.
        2. Something is anything you prefer it to be but it can't be nothing.
        3. You may alter something in any fashion you desire.

        If you can't get something from nothing (see rule #1) where does something come from?
        Please do not quote Mark Twain and use only science to prove your point.
        Thank you.
        • Apr 24 2013: I understand the rules just fine.

          0 = x - x

          I want to create x from 0... it's no problem... as long as I also create -x.

          I don't see what you can possibly not understand from that.
  • Apr 24 2013: Some things exist of themselves.

    Math is not created, it is discovered - it is already there. Understanding of math can be built up, starting with next to nothing. There are awesome and beautiful objects in math, such as the Mandelbrot Set, which don't change and have always existed, and they arise from a few simple rules. We can look at these objects, but not fully understand or fully calculate them.

    Scientists have learned that much of our physical universe and its dynamics can be described by a few fairly short chunks of math. So perhaps the dynamic universe is like the Mandelbrot Set - a complex eternal object arising from fairly simple rules. So I think this "spirit of the universe and all its possibilities" exists already, just like the Mandelbrot Set, before we can see or discover it. I think this immutable, rich, universal spirit is "God", and the universe comes from and is a part of it.

    This spirit transcends the finite, and this might explain how it can be 'alive', although we would not say that simpler math objects are alive.

    We don't see the whole universe directly, we are a part of it, at a certain place and time in it.

    Several sacred texts describe God as an unchanging, immortal spirit, for example the Bhagavad Gita.
  • Apr 23 2013: It is assumed that science is thought to prove anything and everything, and with enough given time and brain or computational capacity theoretically, it can. But, in our lifetime, or our childrens lifetime, very doubtful.
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    Apr 23 2013: What We Believe but Cannot Prove .
  • Apr 23 2013: the question is loaded. It presupposes a time when there was nothing and attempts to invalidate the idea of infinity. There also seems to be a consensus that religion and science are diametricly opposed or of ultimate import. I submit that they are both human attempts to describe and relate to a Reality far beyond our ability to comprehend. Neither have validity beyond the human experience but it is in this capacity they have their ultimate usefulness. Origins have origins and both religion and science are ill equiped to discuss concepts they cannot describe.
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      Apr 24 2013: But the answer has always been the same. Why would it matter what path was taken?
  • Apr 23 2013: ''The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know''......spiral...As a rule, information comes partially...spiral...
  • Apr 23 2013: Yes, but I fear, one wont like what one finds, or what's shown to one. Let alone if one has the ability to understand it and all it's implications.
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    Apr 23 2013: I don't think so. Science does not entertain ALL questions. For example Psychology is not considered mainstream science.
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    Apr 23 2013: First of all, I wish that I could put aside more time for this site, TED. I find the people here fascinating and eager to put forward their inner thoughts. In our everyday life, at least in mine, this kind of frankness is difficult.... ok, before I rumble further I shall address this question.
    My answer to this is NO. When one implies in the origin of EVERYTHING that would have to mean just that, EVERYTHING with nothing left behind, the likes of, 'where does the universe come from, and beyond that, and beyond that, and so on and so on'.... if we go back, far back in time, we will approach a period where there is no time. Since there is no time, how can science or any other doctrine answer that question??...... yes, yes, I have read other contributions to this question, and, I respect all these views however, I find that some wander way off the topic.... interesting the same. :)

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    Apr 22 2013: Science and Religion have been and will continue to explain existence from 2 different perspectives, one is top down(gods perspective) and bottom up(man's perspective). The interesting thing about perspective is truth is a matter of perspective. And all anyone can do man or god is tell the "story" from their individual perspective. The best part of this is both perspectives have been talking about the same answer since before the beginning of time. Science is self-refuting, Religion is self fulfilling, why does the path matter? Which is ultimately a circle.

    What would like to know about the origins of existence?
    Out of many, one = The material world
    Out of one, many = The big bang
  • Apr 22 2013: Science, as currently understood, cannot uncover the origin of everything. It's ken of expertise and instrumentation, measurement and theory, is tone-deaf to the primacy of consciousness in the evolution of the universe. Unitary consciousness is the ultimate source and origin of everything that there is. By looking for consciousness as an epiphenomenon emerging out of neural networks, scientists are looking for it through the wrong end of the cosmoscope. Till they correct this fatal fallacy in their world-view, till they recognize that consciousness is the perennial subject that refuses to be objectified by their theories, the mystery of the ultimate origin will elude their most diligent searches.
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    Apr 22 2013: It’s like the battles of man vs computer in that it is base of on a false premise, in that one or the other is the strongest.
    In fact when they work together and its man & computer that is the strongest.

    So alone both science and philosophy are weaker, than if both science and philosophy would work together.
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    Apr 22 2013: I think science will, and is going to uncover what the history's Victors have neglected to carry on in what we call our collective History, since the Victors write history we only have a one sided view of it, science is our judge and jury in matters relating to origin since humanity and / or organic intelligent life in the 1st place may neatly leave key points out for various reasoning..

    Dry is a very relative term, considering people drink Dry gin, yet it's wet? Or a dry suit meant for going in water, to a historian any history is like watching the 4th quarter of a football game, or the last leg of a race for race fans.

    Science will tell us through hardwork and dedication ( passion ) that of what we seek, it's up to us to ask the correct questions, so we don't get answers like 42.
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    Apr 22 2013: Hi Emily,
    Science can take us a lot farther, but probably not the whole way. It does however have to loosen up a bit. Probably for financial reasons, origins science at least, seems to get bogged down in dogma, rather than following the actual evidence.
    The Big Bang scenario has become pretty much compulsory. Hydrogen gas clumps together under gravity to form stars. Really ? This contradicts all tried & tested gas laws. Oh well, maybe a star went supernova close to the gas cloud. No that wouldn't work . Well it must have been two adjacent stars going off together with a cloud between them. Unlikely to work, well perhaps 3 or 4 going off together. Don't ask awkward questions; it just clumps, ok.
    When we look at the universe, we understand how it works. It holds together by gravity operating via dark matter, dark energy, & dark flow. This dark stuff makes up 95% of the mass of the universe. Unfortunately we cannot detect it. It is invisible & non material. Ever tried "selling" God; you know the being who is invisible & non-material? Don't be silly, there can be no God; we can't detect him. Dark stuff however is different; it must be there, or we have to admit we have no idea what's going on.
    I think origins science has a ways to go yet.

  • Apr 22 2013: It could very well be that we can understand and explain everything in the universe at some point.

    But knowing that won't really make us happy. Experiencing things and knowing/understanding things are 2 completely seperated issues.
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    Apr 22 2013: I hope yes. I strongly hope yes. Why not? If we consider the human discovery tracks, the super-strong pulse for knowing which sometimes pushes us to face danger only for knowing a lillte bit more, I must say, 'Yes'
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    Apr 21 2013: No. There is a domain of questions science can answer which is smaller than every possible question. Other questions may simply not be answerable, or require non science to answer them according to the question itself.

    I think science can answer where our universe came from and where we came from. I do not think it is possible to say whether it would be too dry until we know what the explanation is. But the explanation will be what it will be, whether or not we find it too dry.
  • Apr 21 2013: If we assume that we are biological organisms (and not angels or gods), it automatically follows that we must have a nature the same way a cow has a nature. We know that Shakespeare sounds like random noise to cows. In fact they can't distinguish between human language and random sounds by humans. Therefore, it seems obvious that there must be things in the world that are outside of our comprehension. As Kant mentioned, we are bound to space and time and that puts a sharp limit on our understanding. As Einstein showed, there is no real distinction between space and time.

    We understand the world with the tools we have. Our science forming capability is one of those tools. Modern science does not seek to explain the nature of the world, it strives to fit theories that can explain some observable phenomena. What is observable is bound to our cognition.

    I believe the scientific method is the most reliable tool for understanding the world because it is independent of personal experience (i.e. objective) and it is falsifiable meaning if you propose a false theory, others can pursue a line of reasoning or experimentation to prove you wrong. But science, just like all of our tools for understanding, falls fundamentally short of explaining all things. Some things will remain mysteries but you will not know until you try. Newton spent most of his time on Alchemy because it was a reasonable pursuit back then. Posterity will laugh at us for what they will perceive as wasted effort but you make do with what you have.
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    Apr 20 2013: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
  • Apr 19 2013: Eventually. Yes. I believe so.
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    Apr 19 2013: I think the reason the Higgs Boson was nicknamed The God Particle was because it was believed that proof of its existence would make Man like God. I think Stephen Hawking said God would no longer be necessary. The point is that to know Everything would make Man God. That cannot be, so the answer is NO, science may conjure-up a Theory of Everything, but science (Man) cannot uncover the origin (operation, purpose and fate) of Everything. God's ways are not our ways.
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        Apr 22 2013: Thanks, Chris, for posting this link. I was also aware of this origin of the label in popular culture for the Higgs Boson, but it is a great example of how the public can be misled by the spin some people- journalists and others- like to give to science stories, either for entertainment value, for commercial value, or to promote an ideology..