27 February 2013

Knowing vs. Understanding

Came across this Slate post "Explain it to me again, computer" by Samuel Arbesman (Feb 25, 2013).  Here's the initial question:
But whether or not science is always moving forward or whether we think we have the final view of how the world works (which we almost certainly do not), we pride ourselves on our ability to understand our universe. Whatever its complexity, we believe that we can write down equations that will articulate the universe in all its grandeur.

But what if this intuition is wrong? What if there are not only practical limits to our ability to understand the laws of nature, but theoretical ones?
I don't think I concur with this intuition, but here's the interesting twist:
A computer program known as Eureqa that was designed to find patterns and meaning in large datasets not only has recapitulated fundamental laws of physics but has also found explanatory equations that no one really understands. And certain mathematical theorems have been proven by computers, and no one person actually understands the complete proofs, though we know that they are correct.
I think in some ways technology moves ahead in this way, by finding 'true' behavior (rules that work in the world), and exploiting it to enable new techniques.  Science can often come along later with theoretical justification and explanation.  But to think that we may never really understand some of these findings, and just accept them, does feel a little de-stabilizing.

(H/t Andrew Sullivan)

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