Tania Lombrozo, Ph.D.

Tania Lombrozo Ph.D.


What’s the Most Beautiful Explanation?

192 thinkers share their picks.

Posted Jan 17, 2012

Question mark.

Edge.org's annual question

The Edge question for 2012 is close to my heart and to the theme of this blog:

What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

The nearly 200 responses were released on January 15th, and ranged from mathematical principles and quantum theories to classic and contemporary ideas from psychology, with plenty of reflection on the nature of explanation in between.

I've chosen a small subset of my favorites to share in this post. First, a few by psychologists and cognitive scientists about psychology and cognitive science:

1. Gerd Gigerenzer's explanatory pick is the notion of unconscious inferences, which can explain visual illusions but also cognitive sophistication in the face of uncertainty. Gigerenzer suggests that "illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence." (Joel Gold's response likewise invokes the unconscious, with a more Freudian twist.)

2. Alison Gopnik explains "the woes of adolescence" as a consequence of the relationship between two systems with different developmental timecourses: a motivational/emotional system that kicks in to high gear during puberty and a control system that requires years of experience to become well-tuned. The problem, she suggests, is that these days the kinds of real-world experiences that tune the control system come after the motivational/emotional system is up and running, leading to the discombobulation of contemporary adolescence.

3. Stephen Kosslyn and Robin Rosenberg's favorite explanation is classical conditioning (remember Pavlov's dogs?). They explain how this basic psychological process accounts for phenomena as varied as the placebo effect and the increased risk of overdosing from drugs taken in a novel environment.

4. Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner offer the following twist on Descartes's "I think, therefore I am": "You think, therefore I am." Markus and Conner suggest that a great deal of our personal identity and behavior is actually explained by other people's expectations, for better or for worse. (My colleague Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton also discusses the power of expectations in this recent blog post from Psychology Today.) 

Next, some food for psychological thought from non-psychologists:

5. Musician Brian Eno provides some compelling examples to illustrate the wisdom and folly of intuition. He writes: "[I]ntuition is not a quasi-mystical voice from outside ourselves speaking through us, but a sort of quick-and-dirty processing of our prior experience."

6. Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith explains why movies appear to move by appeal to a blend of human perceptual psychology, clever engineering, and a mathematical theorem for good measure.

7. Physicist Giulio Boccaletti explains the mismatch between how our bodies actually work and how we think they work, citing observations from the Tasmanian actor behind the Alexander Technique.

And because I couldn't resist, a few that address more philosophical aspects of explanation:

8. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein considers whether an explanation's depth, elegance, and beauty are marks of truth, or themselves phenomena to be explained away.

9. Both Thomas Metzinger and Frank Wilczek grapple with attempts to define and understand simplicity, a feature of satisfying explanation addressed in my first blog post.

10. Amanda Gefter offers "structural realism" as an explanation for how scientific explanations – current and discredited – relate to the world and support useful judgments.

Finally, you can read my own reply here, and many, many more at the Edge.org's Annual Question website.

What's your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?