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sediment comments on Rationality Quotes June 2013 - Less Wrong

3 Post author: Thomas 03 June 2013 03:08AM

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Comment author: sediment 02 June 2013 07:58:49PM *  64 points [-]

Hofstadter on the necessary strangeness of scientific explanations:

It is no accident, I would maintain, that quantum mechanics is so wildly counterintuitive. Part of the nature of explanation is that it must eventually hit some point where further probing only increases opacity rather than decreasing it. Consider the problem of understanding the nature of solids. You might wonder where solidity comes form. What if someone said to you, "The ultimate basis of this brick's solidity is that it is composed of a stupendous number of eensy weensy bricklike objects that themselves are rock-solid"? You might be interested to learn that bricks are composed of micro-bricks, but the initial question - "What accounts for solidity?" - has been thoroughly begged. What we ultimately want is for solidity to vanish, to dissolve, to disintegrate into some totally different kind of phenomenon with which we have no experience. Only then, when we have reached some completely novel, alien level will we feel that we have really made progress in explaining the top-level phenomenon.


I first saw this thought expressed in the stimulating book Patterns of Discovery by Norwood Russell Hanson. Hanson attributes it to a number of thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, who wrote, in his famous work Opticks: "The parts of all homogeneal hard Bodies which fully touch one another, stick together very strongly. And for explaining how this may be, some have invented hooked Atoms, which is begging the Question." Hanson also quotes James Clerk Maxwell (from an article entitled "Atom"): "We may indeed suppose the atom elastic, but this is to endow it with the very property for the explanation of which... the atomic constitution was originally assumed." Finally, here is a quote Hanson provides from Werner Heisenberg himself: "If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell." So, although it is not an original thought, it is useful to bear in mind that greeness disintegrates.

— from the postscript to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (his lovely book of essays from his column in Scientific American)

Comment author: fburnaby 03 June 2013 11:22:10AM 11 points [-]

Why Opium produces sleep: ... Because there is in it a dormitive power.

Moliere, Le Malade Imaginere (1673), Act III, sc. iii.

Comment author: DysgraphicProgrammer 03 June 2013 02:20:29PM 10 points [-]

A lesson here is that if you ask "Why X?" then any answer of the form "Because <synonym of X>" is not actually progress toward understanding.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 04 June 2013 01:18:41PM 23 points [-]

Synonyms are not good for explaining... because there is no explanatory power in them.

Comment author: ZankerH 04 June 2013 07:50:43PM 10 points [-]

I found your post funny... because it amused me.

Comment author: DanArmak 08 June 2013 07:21:29PM *  0 points [-]

I upvoted your comment, because I wished for it to have more upvotes.

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 June 2013 07:26:15PM -3 points [-]

Sometimes a downvote will lead to more overall upvotes than an upvote would have. Just like you can increase the probability of a sentence being quoted by including a typo, on purpose (try it!). Mind games!

Comment author: DanArmak 08 June 2013 07:33:07PM *  -2 points [-]

OK, I'm trying it on your comment.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 08 June 2013 07:40:30PM 3 points [-]

Unfortunately, even if the effect is real, hanging a lantern on it probably neutralizes it.

Comment author: Kawoomba 08 June 2013 07:47:26PM 1 point [-]

Shooting the messenger! :-(

Alas, our poor community! It’s too frightened to look at itself. LessWrong is no longer the land where we were born; it’s the land where we’ll die. Where no one ever smiles except for the fool who knows nothing. Where sighs, groans, and shrieks rip through the air but no one notices. Where violent sorrow is a common emotion. When the funeral bells ring, people no longer ask who died. Good men die before the flowers in their caps wilt. They die before they even fall sick.


(In all earnestness, it works better with comments for which no downvotes would be expected -- unlike mine --, the counter-voting will in my experience often overcompensate the initial downvote. So downvote your friends, but only the high status ones on their best comments! It's a bit like upvoting by proxy, except the proxy is a fellow LWer you're secretly puppeteering!)

Comment author: bentarm 30 June 2013 09:18:04PM 0 points [-]

Is this even possible? How would someone know that a comment has been downvoted once it had been voted back up to 0 points?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 June 2013 12:05:17PM 0 points [-]

"If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell." So, although it is not an original thought, it is useful to bear in mind that greeness disintegrates.

Does this imply that there's no bottom level, just layer after layer of explanations with each layer being very different from the ones above? If there is a bottom level below which no further explanation is possible, can you tell whether you've reached it?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 June 2013 12:37:58PM 2 points [-]

The principle here is that an attribute x of an entity A is not explained by reference to a constituent entity B that has the same property. The strength of an arch is a property of arches, for example, not of the things from which arches are constituted.

That doesn't imply that theremust be a B in the first place, merely that whether there is or not, referring to B.x in order to explain A.x leaves x unexplained. (Of course, if there is no B, referring to B.x has other problems as well.)

I suspect the "top"/"bottom"/"level" analogy is misleading here. I would be surprised if there were a coherent "bottom level," actually. But if there is, I suppose the sign that I've reached it is that all the observable attributes it has are fully explainable without reference to other "levels," and all the observable attributes of other "levels" are fully (if impractically) explainable in terms of it.

At any level of description, there are observable attributes of entities that are best explained by reference to other levels of description, but I'm not sure there's always a clear rank-ordering of those levels.

Comment author: ParanoidAltoid 21 October 2013 08:48:34PM 0 points [-]

"If atoms are really to explain the origin of color and smell of visible material bodies, then they cannot possess properties like color and smell."

I want to point out that in this post, you were quoting sediment quoting Hofstadter who was referencing Hanson's quoting of Heisenberg. Pretty sure even Inception didn't go that deep.