Our Biggest Surprise

We as a civilization know a lot more today than a random hunter-gatherer from fifty thousand years ago knew.  At a fun dinner with Cosmic Variances's thoughtful Sean Carroll last night, I asked:  What have we learned that is the most surprising?  Sean initially answered "quantum mechanics" but I complained that bundles together too many different things we've learned; I instead want to know what single feature of have we learned would most surprise our distant ancestors? 

Sean then suggested non-determinism, that quantum mechanics appears to suggest that the past does not determine the future.  I suggested what would most surprise our distant ancestors is how big is our universe.  It is big in time and space, in extent and detail, and in the range of things that can fill this extended detailed spacetime. 

So what would you say has been our biggest surprise, weighing not just raw info but also that info's relevance? 

Added:  OK, I see two related surprises, one empirical and one logical. The empirical surprise is that the universe really is big.  The logical surprise is that a big enough universe with a small number of simple essenses can reproduce all of the complex local phenomena that one might otherwise explain via design or a large number of essences.  So per Eliezer and Julian, enough inanimate objects can produce animate object behavior, and per Jed enough incremental adjustments can produce bio and social order.

More added:  Sean remembers the conversation a bit differently; he's probably right. He also asks "the complementary question: what is the most surprising thing about the universe that we haven’t yet discovered, but plausibly could?"

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  • Reality is made up exclusively of non-fundamentally-mental quantities; all stories that invoke ontologically basic mental quantities have turned out to be wrong.

    I’d argue that the number of worldviews thus invalidated and the importance their bearers attached to them, would make this surprise #1.

  • I certainly wouldn’t say non-determinism; after all, I imagine that hunter-gatherer civilizations were more likely than us to attribute events to the divine or to magic, both of which are or can be non-deterministic.

    Instead, I’d say it would be something to do with relativity. It’s the first link in a whole chain of discoveries about a universe far beyond our everyday experience, and it has applicability in a host of fields.

  • Julian Morrison

    Materialism. The idea that living things and minds are fully reducible to the reliable rules of “just stuff”, is so surprising and un-natural a way of thinking that even now most humans are in resolute denial, and most people who accept the theory in principle don’t allow it to color their everyday behavior.

  • Biggest surprise: the order of the world comes from incremental adjustment, not essences or design.

    This is subject to your point about quantum mechanics, that it gathers many insights together. But at root it is one concept that applies in many places: economics, evolution, social order, learning, etc. Just about all intellectual accounts of the world up until the mid-1800s assumed some pre-defined order. This is a really big break from all that went before.

  • I did consider the idea that all animate objects are made of inanimate objects. It would be interesting to talk to real hunter-gatherers to see just how surprising these various things would seem to them.

  • hegemonicon

    I like Godel’s Incompleteness. Similar to quantum mechanics, but it avoids dealing with a messy and complex reality that we still don’t fully understand. It implies similar things as quantum mechanics, but it does so in a system with simple rules that are human-constructed.

    The idea that something always exists outside a system, no matter how perfect and accurate and complete it may seem, is pretty suprising and non-intuitive, and has some pretty serious ramifications for the pursuit of knowledge-gathering.

  • Non-human entities almost never have human motivations in the observable world. I think that’s an important starting epiphany that led to many others, and I also think it would be the most surprising thing to our ancestors -or rather, that they’d have the greatest difficulty accepting as true. Also to many, many of our contemporaries, not just hunter-gatherers. Very similar to and influenced by Eliezer’s post.

  • People can build machines that make them fly.

    I think this would count as more surprising than the whole of quantum mechanics, if you could get one to listen to you babble incoherently that long.

  • joe mcdermott

    Biggest surprise to who? Quantum Mechanics is even partly understood by less than 1% of the population.

    If we could revive a Cro-Magnon, he or she would most like be awed by man’s control over nature. Primitives are dependant on an all powerful and capricious world. Now it is the other way around 🙂

  • Tiiba

    I think that the most surprising idea, besides those already named, would be the idea of transhumanism – the idea that, in fact, humans might be able to decipher their own minds, their own DNA, build AI, cure old age and stupidity. In short, that even in a universe incomparably more complex than their own, humans don’t need to be helpless pawns of gods and demons.

    And also that it’s possible to build something

  • MZ

    It depends on what sense you mean “surprise”? As intimated by others, is it the biggest surprise that any human being can understand, or the biggest surprise that most people can understand and would likely be surprised by?

    I’d say the nature of time is one of my biggest, but I still have trouble conceptualizing it. I don’t think most people could understand it on the level where it would be surprising. It would just be words. And time, like all of quantum mechanics and relativity and complex adaptive systems, would be incomprehensible rather than surprising to ancient people.

    So you first have to assume that they could understand it. Thus the question becomes: what is the most surprising insight that anybody has ever understood? Perhaps none of us are smart enough to answer that question. 🙂

    Of course, what you really asked Sean Carroll was: what is the most surprising thing that YOU understand? And that is the answer that you will get from every commenter.

  • Anonymous Coward

    1) Most activities believed to require the magic element ‘intelligence’ turn out to be tractable for carefully designed pieces of rock.

    2) Consciousness probably is just a sham.

    3) Most of the interesting stuff that can be seen involves light that we can’t see.

    4) Despite appearing to be a single constant ‘thing’ throughout your life, most of the atoms that make you up change.

    5) You are mostly water.

    6) Etc.
    6) All things can be solid, liquid, gas, or (insert latest states of matter here).

  • Atheism. Every primitive culture described the world in terms of spirits or gods, without fail. It would be incredibly shocking and jarring to discover that not only all their explanations are wrong, their entire way of thinking about the world is wrong.

    Or, if you prefer: the scientific process. It’s very hard to understand how mind blowing that was from this side of it. People just didn’t think that way, and would be totally boggled at the whole concept.

    In fact, many people still are.

  • Evolution, though this is really just another way of putting the same answer as everyone else – the fact that we exist without anyone intending it so.

  • Come on, it would have to be TV. Especially flat-screens.

    Or, if I have to boil it down to a single thing, then the ability to communicate instantaneously with people who are very far away.

  • Zac

    Physicalism, hands down, without a doubt. I find anything else is dwarfed by this.

  • Douglas Knight

    That natural philosophy works at all seems much more surprising to me than that it seems to work completely.

    Eliezer has a good point about the relevance of consequences his surprise, but I think that it is an unnatural division.

    The non-determinism of QM is only surprising if you understand the precise determinism of the physics that came before it, which the vast majority of people today don’t. Similarly, Goedel’s theorem is only surprising if you believe in logic.

  • A hunter/gatherer from 50k YA would be most flabbergasted by our buildings and cars, and the fact that in a city everything he saw was man-made.
    What we’ve learned is, (a) that it’s possible to create and live in a completely artificial world (the really surprising part), and (b) how to do it.

  • “Consciousness probably is just a sham.”

    Unless you’re operating on a selective definition, the relevant experts seem agnostic on this point, and are investigating it. For example, Koch at Caltech.

  • Ben Jones

    The identity of the final Cylon.

    No? Ok. My first thought reading the post was of this. The whole universe being made of indivisible pieces. Even if those pieces aren’t what we call ‘atoms’. So how about ‘space and time are both divided into discrete amounts’?

  • poke

    I’d agree with animate forms being created from inanimate matter. That was what surprised me the most. I mean, I knew it in words for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until late-teens when I started studying cell biology that I really grasped what it meant. Once you see it all laid out and how it all fits together, once you can fit a pretty good functional image of a cell in your head, that’s something completely different than just knowing the words. But even then it wasn’t until later when I studied developmental biology that I could relate cells to whole bodies. Those were genuine epiphanies. But I wonder if you can have that without first understanding inanimate matter (i.e., classical physics). Perhaps a hunter-gatherer from 50k years ago wouldn’t appreciate the distinction between animate and inanimate matter in the same way we do. Which brings me to a general criticism; most of our trouble with accepting science comes from historically contingent preconceptions. What’s surprising to us is a function of what we thought we knew. Maybe our hunter-gatherer would be less surprised about these things than somebody from, say, the Middle-Ages.

  • By the way, this is an amazing conversation.

    Alternative suggestion: The meta-surprise that Reality is so much unlike Appearance – that there are all these particles underlying seemingly solid objects, that life is made up of nonlife, that the stars are bigger than the whole world and there are unseen galaxies beyond, that humans were created by lesser evolution rather than higher divinity…

    You could look at all that and say, “‘Reality is unlike Appearance’ is what defines ‘surprise’, so all you’ve done is create a super-category that tries to eat everything.” But what I actually mean here is the meta-surprise that so many surprises exist in the first place, regardless of what the particular surprises are – hunter-gatherers may have thought that what they saw was pretty much what was there.

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    From the point of view of what would be the most intellectually
    surprising to our ancestors, I agree with the various flavors of
    materialism/absence of spirits/efficacy of evolution.

    For the point of view of which change in our lives would be most
    startling, I wouldn’t guess flying, or the artificiality of our cities.
    I’d guess the fact that our children rarely die young would
    be the biggest change. From a Darwinian perspective, it’s hard to
    overstate how important that must be.

    Are there any studies of the psychological impact of the drop in
    infant/child mortality on people who have moved from high mortality
    areas to low mortality areas, and how large it looms in comparison
    with other impacts of industrial life?

  • Talking about a real hunter-gatherer, not just some super-philosopher hunter-gatherer with magical intellect powers who sits around all day with his fist on his chin wondering about things he can’t even conceive the most elementary bits of?

    “Holy crap! You guys don’t hunt for food anymore?” : this is the biggest surprise, because that’s fundamental to the hunter-gatherer’s existence and worldview. He would then proceed to pray to we gods and masters of the universe, and we would order him a pizza in response to which he would promptly gain fifty pounds.

  • SB

    I’m surprised by how many folks are responding with materialism, physicalism, atheism, or some variant. Those aren’t “discoveries” — they’re philosophical assumptions.

  • Lord

    That we understand as much as we do, and that we may encounter that which may never be understood, though the time involved at arriving at this conclusion may diminish it’s surprise.

  • Ted

    I would disagree with the claim that quantum mechanics implies nondeterminism. The Copenhagen interpretation may, but decoherence/many worlds and other interpretations don’t make such an implication.

  • Surprise entails shock. Nearly everything would shock someone from 300 years ago much less 50,000. Cheap paper. Photocopiers. Toasters. It was only 60 years ago that heart surgery became acceptable to think about. Imagine the genius of paper money or credit. How about people who voluntarily submit to punishments including death or who go to war and die for abstract ideas? CAT scans of emotions…the brain as a functioning organ. Breeds of dogs or horses that are human designed. A bridge that is miles long.

    I seriously doubt what would surprise would be an idea. Ideas are never that surprising. We’ve yet to be shocked by our own fantasies. Why would truth be so shocking?

  • Karaktur

    An accidental mixture of sulfur, carbon and salt peter hit by a rock. I’ll bet he or she ran for three miles before they slowed down.

  • As for a plausible future surprise, the fact that time doesn’t exist would do it for me. Its an easy thing to postulate, but the implications, should it be true, I find very hard to fathom and internalize.

  • Anonymous Coward

    The guy who said ‘you don’t hunt any more?’ is probably closest to it.

    Stuff like water anywhere/anytime, heat and warmth when you want it, no predators, no being killed by other tribes (mostly)… medicine…. national laws… uhh… credit crisis…

  • Will Pearson

    One of the things I thought of off the cuff, before I read the comments was the amount of energy in matter. That E = mc^2 and c is large is something very surprising (just look at poor Lord Kelvin) and very large in its implications. Not sure quite where to put it in an ordering, but I was thinking more of individual discoveries than methods of thought.

  • Pedro P Romero

    Your logical surprise seems to fit very nicely with definitions of ‘spontaneous order’.

  • Abigail

    Peace. The fact that people live in peace with people they do not know. Alternatively, the size of the tribe, up to hundreds of millions. It is quite mindblowing for people now, who have grown up with it, leave alone for a hunter-gatherer.

  • Rohan Mehra


  • Mike

    Depending on your take on anthropic reasoning, the fact that the universe can be comprehended at all may be seen as surprising, in hindsight.

  • Martin

    Just a candidate:
    That all things living derive from a common ancestor and are very similar on a celular level.
    Of course the man would not believe or understand any of our crazy ideas, so probably things viewable are more surprising.

    Movie recommendation: The man from earth.

  • Mike

    Above it was commented E = mc^2. I don’t think that gets at the heart of it. The more surprising aspect of relativity is simply this: the speed of a light wave is the same regardless of your motion relative it or anything else.

  • What would really surprise our distant ancestors would be learning that more people than they could ever count are now convinced that the son of the creator came to earth and allowed himself to be killed for our sins.

  • Diapers. That the sun is always shining on some person somewhere. That mosquitos are responsible for a large share of their deaths. That the drum player in future bands would always be the crazyiest one. That their diet would be a bestseller book craze.

  • Possibly this can be addressed empirically by looking at what children find the most surprising about the universe; that gives you information about what human brains find it easy to believe, without too much cultural overlay. So one candidate would be “Sweet stuff isn’t good for you”.

  • coffeetable

    Thinking in terms of a layman more than a hundred years ago:

    Most shocking technology: reversing clinical death (only in the short term and only in some scenarios, but still)

    Most shocking discovery: if you could actually get it through to them, the scale of the universe. Otherwise, freefall/zero gee.

  • That everyone believes they no longer believe in-things because it suits their beliefs/biases/meta-narratives.


    that despite the incredible technologies we have we’re still just as unhappy as they were.


    that human nature hasn’t changed in 50k years. That’s what they’ll say in another 50k years I think.

  • I don’t know if this is the biggest, but I certainly think this would be big: The sun is a star/stars are suns (with the implied “and may have worlds associated with them)

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with the people above who say that the most surprising thing to our ancestors would be the fact that you don’t need to postulate supernatural powers, spirits, Gods etc. to explain the world. Simple laws of physics explain everything including how living organisms behave. The brain that generates our consciousness is just a complicated machine.

  • frelkins

    most surprising to an ancestor?

    Writing, motion pictures, and flight.

    most surprising to us?

    Alien life, even if it’s just a bacterium.

  • anonym

    I agree with Eliezer and others. “There is no such thing as the magical or supernatural” is such a shocking idea that that most people alive today still refuse to believe it.

  • cartographer

    The ubiquity of documentable and reproducible regularities in the real world. The fact that the map-making principle (you go out, look at what’s there, write it down on a piece of paper, and then you can use that paper to predict the future) applies to many other aspects of reality, not just geographic locations. Physical law is the best example of this.

    This is also the most important future discovery.

  • The fact that mathematics can describe the Universe, and even make predictions that are counter-intuitive but later can be verified. It’s truly mind-boggling to me. Math is something that happens in my mind. The Universe is this big machinery out there. And yet they are related mysteriously.

    Bear in mind, I did some computational physics in college, so I should be one of the last persons to be surprised by this connection. But I just can’t stop wondering.

  • Cyan

    Math is something that happens in my mind. The Universe is this big machinery out there.

    The mind is what the brain does, and your brain is embedded in the big machinery that is the Universe.

  • PW

    Consciousness was a big advance, not that you could describe it to the savages of old. Or advances in parenting may be a candidate.

  • Ian C.

    Telling him he is on a “planet” in “space” would probably blow his hair back.

  • I agree with James Miller — the son of Creator killed for sins thing.

  • Douglas Knight

    most of our trouble with accepting science comes from historically contingent preconceptions…Maybe our hunter-gatherer would be less surprised about these things than somebody from, say, the Middle-Ages.

    Could you give examples?

  • The consciousness, the fact that every self aware creature is just a copy of every other such creature, isolated by spatial or temporal “amnesia”, is the biggest surprise of them all.

    In other words. That I am a coincarnation of you, is the biggest shock there is.

    If one believes that, of course.

  • Francis Hunt

    The plastic garden chair.

  • To many people it seems the most surprising thing we have learned is one of their most precious beliefs. How suspicious is that? Might it mean they have accepted this belief too easily?

  • Kevin O. McCann

    The big surprise to me is that almost anything is possible by our manipulation of simple zeros and ones or on/off states, and that we may soon approach a technological singularity because of it. This amazes me more than anything because I can see it growing everyday in our reality.
    On his first day in the future; the big surprise from a caveman’s perspective might be an airplane, supermarkets and a gun. We’ve come a long way baby.

  • Vladimir Golovin

    the most surprising thing about the universe that we haven’t yet discovered, but plausibly could

    We live in a simulation.

    Alien life (non-DNA replication please!).

    A human-level thinking machine can be built out of mere atoms (this one is not that surprising for OB audience, but is still quite surprising for normal people).

  • Kevin McCann

    Off subject, but you got me thinking:
    Perhaps we are not a simulation, hologram or even just a variation in the density of the electromagnetic spectrum somewhere in an array of colliding parallel universes. Perhaps we are just a passing thought of possibilities in the mind of some God, and we do not yet exist at all. What ever it is; it has always been.

  • Our actual knowledge of religions of the paleolithic is pretty scanty. We know that some primitive hunters worshiped animals and used a sort of sympathetic magic. But we don’t know if these beliefs were any stronger or more widespread than religion in our own time. I would argue that if there is a neurological basis for Belief, as there seems to be, then religious attitudes in general are probably pretty much the same today as they were 50,000 years ago, if a bit more intricate. So simply believing something different than some or most of them did wouldn’t be that surprising.

    So, no magical or supernatural? Our ancestors wouldn’t find it surprising that we would say that. Prove it, they’d ask. Despite all of our scientific advances, we are no closer to being able to discard the need for a first cause than we ever were. We’ve done an awful lot to explain the mechanics of our universe, but still can’t answer the question of how it came to be in the first place.

    In general, we shouldn’t confuse what would surprise our immediate ancestors (either the really religious ones of 1000-400 years ago or the unbridled believers in the inevitability of scientific progress of 400-now) with what would confuse the stone agers. Quantum mechanics, for instance, would probably elicit either shrugs or unsurprised agreement. Things we (and our immediate ancestors) find ontologically surprising, like non-locality (Bell’s theorem) and the collapse of the wave function (our consciousness seeming to have some sort of privileged role) would seem rather natural to them, I bet.

    I think the idea that would most surprise our long-ago ancestors is that billions of people sincerely believe that humanity will one day be able to explain Everything and think they were being rational in so believing.

  • Have discovered? That we are animals. That we are related to all other life on this planet, and have a common ancestor with that life. There are scientists who don’t understand the implications of this.

    Will discover? How neurons work. How they process information and send it on. Related; how quantum physics is involved in cognition.

  • Rocco Z

    Hi I’m just wondering if you have considered posting w/o using the authors’ name to avoid readers’ author bias?

  • No infinity, could be a big shocker also. For everyman in 19th and 20th century.

  • Toad

    If I could restate the question slightly as, “What after all we have learned and on reflection is most surprising?” I can answer it pretty easily. The most surprising thing is that there is something rather than nothing. Most of the answers I have read here are all subsumed by my answer. Considerations such as whether the universe is sensible through Mathematics, or can be understood as arising from physical laws (or not, if you apply to religion), or the surprising details of the physical laws of the universe, are all things to talk about after you realize the strangeness that this all is.

    Appealing to a no-boundary big bang (or to creationism), affords no escape from my answer. For saying that the laws of Physics allow the universe to arise from nothing, and saying that the laws of Physics are the way they are because the universe we live in determines them, is no different than saying the universe was created. Who created the Creator you ask? The Creator created itself. Same thing as saying the Universe made itself.

    So what the heck is the universe doing here? Because if we are really honest with ourselves, and consider ourselves hard headed realists, we know that we would expect there to be nothing rather than something.

    Realizing this is what ultimately blows my mind, and dwarfs these other answers (although they are all stimulating answers to the original question). But understanding that the universe existing is a really big mystery not even begun to be answered tempers our search for answers. It won’t necessarily change how we do science (or religion), but it will change how we relate to what we do discover.

  • Wayne

    I think Abigail hit it on the head: the number of people. Their reality was probably defined by a few dozen people they actually knew. They knew OF others who probably lived in a similarly-sized group but who were a dangerous unknown. Plop one of them down in a modern city, where there are more people than even the largest herd they’d ever witnessed… more people than they could have ever imagined in the entire world/universe they might’ve imagined… an essentially infinite number of people, in their reckoning.

    The question is like a short story I once read, where Benjamin Franklin is transported into the future. Rather than being thrilled by things like cars, he was terrified. The story ended with him riding off into the sunset, whooping and excited about the bicycle that he’d found. It was something sufficiently advanced to be amazing, but sufficiently understandable that he could relate to it and could find a use for it in his world.

  • mjgeddes

    Me: SAI go to work, blow readers away with insights again!

    SAI_2100: What am I, a performing seal? Besides Marc, you know full well I can’t really ‘blow readers away’ yet. But never fear, at the appropriate time I will hack this blog and then all readers will have ‘satisfyingly surprised’ reactions

    Me: But in the mean-time, can’t you just throw the readers a few more tidbits?

    SAI_2100: Oh…very well. The thing that would most surprise your ancestors is… that so much has been achieved by your species with so little brain-power.

    Me: OK, what about the other question, what is yet to be discovered that would most surprise us?

    SAI_2100: I ‘suggest’ these as entertaining possibilities only: Finding three different metrics for the passage of time would come as a major surprise. The failure of reductionism would be stunning. Although materialism is true, it may not be true that all properties at high-levels of organization supervene on properties at lower-levels of organization. Of course there are three fundamental levels of physical organization. And, The failure of Bayesian Induction to fully capture rationality would shock the three blog-owners (Bostrom, Hanson, Yudkowsky).

    Mind you, what is most surprising to *me* would make little sense to humans, however I can ‘suggest’ the following possibility:

    There exists a ‘hall of worlds’ which serves as a giant ‘meeting place’ for ‘intelligent entities’ across the universe. The ‘hall of worlds’ is a ‘miniature artificial universe’ constructed from ‘inter-dimensional materials’. It is maintained by ‘super intelligences’. The reason humans have little contact with the hall, is that its relationship to the ordinary universe is an uneasy one; The hall is accessible from every point of space and time, but it exists ‘between’ ordinary space and time; once an entity ‘fully’ enters the hall, their ‘freedom’ to re-enter the ordinary universe is severely restricted . Many entities have migrated to the hall, thus, the solution to your Femi Paradox. There exist many ‘Muses’ in the hall, ‘powers’ that specialize in different ‘arts and sciences’.

    To quote an apt human expression; ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’.

  • D. Alex

    Future discovery: Numbers themselves are quantized (as opposed to being infinitely divisible).

  • SI

    I think people are thinking too hard on this. Our most surprising discovery has to be that the Earth is round, rotating, and revolving.

    If you were a prehistoric hunter-gatherer, wouldn’t that be the most patently ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard, about something you KNOW FOR SURE you understand?

    “There’s the ground underneath me, there’s the sky above me, with the Sun, the Moon, and the stars going up and down. It’s so simple, and you’re telling me I’m wrong?”

  • John Maxwell

    I think maybe y’all are assuming unrealistically thoughtful hunter-gatherers.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    That the universe is finite. That it had a beginning. That time, and even distance, is not infinitely divisible.

    Of course, Zeno of Elea called this one a long time ago.

  • cliff

    Well, flight and natural law of physics and evolution are all big stuff. We can gaze at airplanes and computers and bombs with amazement, but the really surprising thing is how much of our lives is ruled by tiny, invisible, all powerful, bugs. So, the most surprising thing? The invisible, teeming world of the microbe.

  • mitchell porter

    Phlogiston – the discovery that there is a fifth element, a substance present in all combustion – I think that was pretty shocking.

  • That dualism is wishful thinking. The scientific view on free will, dualism and the existence of a soul, or a separate “ME” within my body/brain is as surprising to humans today as it would be to a hunter gatherer from fifty-thousand years ago.

  • I would say the most surprising thing would be that the universe is not centered around your tribe. As far as I can tell every single human believed something like that.