It is not too surprising that our brains are smart enough to understand the world around us; evolution provides a reasonable explanation.
But it is surprising that we are also able to a large extent to understand the world far away from our everyday experience; from atoms down to particle physics and on the other hand astrophysics and cosmology.
There is no good explanation why we have this capability, or in other words, why the laws of physics are simple enough for us to understand them (mostly). Of course, we have to admit that some mysteries remain, we struggle somewhat with the interpretation of quantum physics, we cannot really imagine the size of the multiverse and we even struggle to understand our own consciousness.
But we do know enough math to describe the world to an extent that has no immediate (evolutionary) benefit to us humans. Why is that?
And why is it that what we find far away from our day to day experience is actually beautiful? I am not only talking about e.g. the colorful images of galaxies, but the symmetries we find in particle physics, the elegance of general relativity etc.
There is no explanation for that and there was no reason Galileo's project went as far as it did and worked so well beyond our Earth and the solar system he tried to understand (*).
Cardinal Barberini actually made the argument at the time that the physics of Galileo cannot be trusted, because why would God have created the world so that we can understand its mysteries? Yes, why indeed - I think this is a very good question.

(*) Btw I think that people who fantasize about the promises or dangers of artificial intelligence underestimate our own natural intelligence - which made the miracle of science possible.


Anonymous said...

Another interesting question is why did it take 500 to 2000 centuries before those brains understood much.

5371 said...

[And why is it that what we find far away from our day to day experience is actually beautiful?]

Schopenhauer would say that it is not those things that are beautiful, but that we find beauty in them because of the way we look at them, precisely because they are far away from our day to day experience.

wolfgang said...


One aspect I did not mention is the wide range of our intelligence or smartness, whatever you want to call it.

Even today there are neanderthals frightened by cartoons with no access to reason.

But the answer to your question is probably that humans were fully occupied for a long while with surviving - until they learned how to be farmers and had enough spare time to use their brains for something else than just looking for food.

But I think it is a miracle (for lack of a better word) that our brains were good for so much else, beyond just finding food.

And there are two parts to this miracle: 1) that there is so much else (from quantum theory to the P vs NP problem) beyond our day-to-day world 2) that we can figure it out.

wolfgang said...


I think Schopenhauer's argument is valid to some degree and if all the beauty we find would be of the kind (the image of) a spiral galaxy is beautiful then I would accept it as the explanation.

But there is much more than this. First of all, the world is not just a repetition of our every-day-experience on different scales.
But it is also not a 'complicated mess', no Rube Goldberg mechanism.
Instead there are all kinds of unexpected yet elegant laws to the extent that physicists have learned to distrust new theories which do not exhibit this 'elegance' (one reason people are uncomfortable with string theory as it is today).

The only (bad) analogy I have is Salieri vs. Mozart.
One of Salieri's better pieces are the variations, where he uses one idea and repeats it in many different ways. But the only thing he can do with it is arrange the idea either more complicated or use some grotesque instrumentation.

Mozart on the other hand, in his best pieces, has one idea, which is then followed by another idea, which then is modified by yet another idea etc. etc. - but it always stays simple in a way that we can enjoy it and it all fits together in an unexpected manner.

wolfgang said...

Btw here is the Salieri I mentioned and this is Mozart.

wolfgang said...

Btw let me clarify my remark about string theory: I was thinking about KKLT and the various Rube-Goldberg-like constructions to get to realistic models.

On the other hand, the various dualities, AdS/CFT, the connection to the monster group (*) etc. is exactly the sort of elegant surprise we would expect from a good theory.

(*) via Lubos

Anonymous said...

It's certainly kind of a miracle that brains evolved to find food and mates turned out to be good for making music, math, and understanding the universe.

I don't think anybody has any idea why that is so, but it probably says something deep about the universe.

Lee said...

>> But we do know enough math to describe the world to an extent that has no immediate (evolutionary) benefit to us humans. Why is that?

If you assume survival advantage is the main driving force in evolution, it would seem likely that it is a side effect of something that provided a survival advantage. Gene interaction is turning out to be very complicated. Any change would likely have many effects.