Edward Dougherty in American Affairs Journal:
Physicist Richard Feynman had the following advice for those interested in science: “So I hope you can accept Nature as She is—absurd.”1 Here Feynman captures in stark terms the most basic insight of modern science: nature is not understandable in terms of ordinary physical concepts and is, therefore, absurd. The unintelligibility of nature has huge consequences when it comes to determining the validity of a scientific theory. On this question, Feynman also had a concise answer: “It is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense.”2 So put reasonableness and common sense aside when judging a scientific theory. Put your conceptual models and visualizations away. They might help you formulate a theory, or they might not. They might help to explain a theory, or they might obfuscate it. But they cannot validate it, nor can they give it meaning.
Erwin Schrödinger made a similar critique of the simplified models widely used to explain scientific concepts in terms of everyday experience, such as those used to illustrate atomic theory:
A completely satisfactory model of this type is not only practically inaccessible, but not even thinkable. Or, to be more precise, we can, of course, think it, but however we think it, it is wrong; not perhaps quite as meaningless as a “triangular circle,” but much more so than a “winged lion.”3
“Do the electrons really exist on these orbits within the atom?” Schrödinger asks rhetorically. His answer: “A decisive No, unless we prefer to say that the putting of the question itself has absolutely no meaning.”4
Feynman and Schrödinger were concerned about the extremely small scale, but what about the extremely large scale? A single human cell has more than twenty thousand genes. Therefore, assuming one protein per gene, the number of different non-modified proteins exceeds twenty thousand. Add to that the many more different proteins resulting from alternative splicing, single nucleotide polymorphisms, and posttranslational modification. No conceptual model is conceivable for the interactions among all of these genes and proteins, or for even a tiny portion of them, when one considers the complex biochemistry involved in regulation. What is the meaning of the intricate and massive pathway models generated by computer algorithms? Is this even a meaningful question to ask? And the human body contains on average an estimated thirty-seven trillion cells!