Why is the universe intelligible? Things aren’t as clear as we think

We have made huge progress in understanding some bits of the cosmos, but we’ve hit a brick wall with things like quantum theory and our own minds. Is there a way round?

Physics 17 November 2021

WHY is the universe intelligible? X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. DiStefano, et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/Grendler

NASA/CXC/SAO/R. DiStefano, et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/Grendler

ONE way to look at why the universe is intelligible is to ask where we would be if it weren’t. We certainly wouldn’t be asking the question; we probably wouldn’t be aware of it being a sensible question to ask. “What we call ‘intelligibility’ is a cognitive relation we happen to have with the universe,” says Carlo Rovelli at Aix-Marseille University in France. “This isn’t a question about the universe, it is a question about ourselves.”

We are natural pattern-seekers, this argument goes, because seeking and understanding patterns in the world around us has survival value. “Our species, in its evolution, found it advantageous to be curious, so we are curious,” says Rovelli. Applying that curiosity to the universe allows us to see patterns there. Its intelligibility is a product of biological evolution.

For others, that is only half the story. “The remarkable thing is that the world is not arbitrary or absurd,” says Paul Davies at Arizona State University. “There’s a scheme of things that we can uncover using science and mathematics – that’s already one enormous thing.” It seems a fair bet that an inverse-square law of gravity, say, exists in our universe without us being there to say so. Why?

One answer might be some form of anthropic selection principle (see “Why is the universe just right?”): only a regulated, predictable universe is likely to provide the conditions for questioning observers to arise. Then again, some specific aspects of our universe aid our comprehension of it, but don’t seem to be particularly crucial …

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