The other day I got caught in a conversation about the Royal Institute of Technology and how it deals with value added taxes. After the third round of explanation, I still hadn’t quite understood the Swedish tax regulations. This prompted my conversation partner to remark Swedish taxes are more complicated than my research.
The only thing I can say in my defense is that in a very real sense taxes are indeed more complicated than quantum gravity.
True, the tax regulations you have to deal with to get through life are more a matter of available information than of understanding. Applying the right rule in the right place requires less knowledge than you need for, say, the singularity theorems in general relativity. In the end taxes are just basic arithmetic manipulations. But what’s the basis of these rules? Where do they come from?
Tax regulations, laws in general, and also social norms have evolved along with our civilizations. They’re results of a long history of adaption and selection in a highly complex, partly chaotic, system. This result is based on vague concepts like “fairness”, “higher powers”, or “happiness”, that depend on context and culture and change with time.
If you think about it too much, the only reason our societies’ laws and norms work is inertia. We just learn how our environment works and most of us most of the time play by the rules. We adapt and slowly change the rules along with our adaption. But ask where the rules come from or by what principles they evolve, and you’ll have a hard time coming up with a good reason for anything. If you make it more than five why’s down the line, I cheer for you.
We don’t have the faintest clue how to explain human civilization. Nobody knows how to derive the human rights from the initial conditions of the universe. People in general, and men in particular, with all their worries and desires, their hopes and dreams, do not make much sense to me, fundamentally. I have no clue why we’re here or what we’re here for, and in comparison to understanding Swedish taxes, quantizing gravity seems like a neatly well-defined and solvable problem.