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TruePath comments on For progress to be by accumulation and not by random walk, read great books - Less Wrong

35 Post author: MichaelVassar 02 March 2010 08:11AM

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Comment author: TruePath 14 April 2010 11:43:00PM *  0 points [-]

Finally I just want to say that surely you don't disagree that there is something different about what happens in physics than what happens in astrology do you? I don't care about deep principled distinctions here but just at a purely practical level physics (and the other sciences) let us make strictly more things now than they did 10, 50 or 100 years ago.

The notion of progress I had in mind is much much weaker than yours. I just mean that sometimes we discover shit that we find very useful (transistor technology) and that the useful consequences of scientific discoveries (be it new theories or just accurate measurements of molecular weight) are rarely lost.

In other words all I'm saying is that if you wanted nifty fun gadgets to play with or technologies to save your sick wife or the like and you had the chance to pluck 10 great scientists from any time in history to help you out during development you'd pick them from the future not the past. That is physicists can now give engineers theories that let them build both chips and buildings while before they only gave them building theories.

Ultimately, however, the aim of my post was to establish that there isn't some kind of important knowledge best gained through the reading of original sources. The target of my argument was the frequently given argument that somehow spurning these great original works puts you at some kind of real (not just bad taste) intellectual disadvantage in terms of learning/knowledge relative to those who do.

Given that new 'great' originals continue to be published albeit quite slowly one can immediately conclude that either we are making progress or that there is no reason to believe reading great originals gives you a boost (i.e. helps you make progress). After all if we aren't making progress then these new books can't give later generations a boost (that would be progress) hence, one can't justifiably claim that reading great originals is an aid to academic/intellectual progress.

Given that my claim is an entirely negative one I need not make any assumptions as you allege. Rather I'm just offering a reducto of position that you are simply dismissing from the start.