Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

DilGreen comments on The Virtue of Narrowness - Less Wrong

56 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 August 2007 05:57PM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (61)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: DilGreen 30 September 2010 06:18:19AM *  8 points [-]

In point of fact, Isaac Newton did not "explain just gravity" - he also invented the calculus and developed important insights into the nature of light, among numerous other contributions to science.

During the same life (presumably as indivisible to him as mine seems to me - but that's another issue), he apparently wrote more on aspects of religiosity than he did on science (according to a lazy skim through the wikipedia entry), dabbled extensively in alchemical investigations, ran the Royal Mint (and as such was in fact deeply concerned with the "role of money in society" - to significant practical effect at the time), and became an MP.

Of course, this might not impact upon the point you are trying to make - you might just have selected a poor example.

However, casting about for a better example (immediately recognisable names who have made a singular contribution to science but did nothing else of note/had no significant, tangential side interests) - I find it hard to come up with one. Even if there is one, I think that s/he might well be an exception, rather than a rule.

So what's my point?

I feel that your defence of narrowness is too narrow, and that your denunciation of "everything is connected" is too broad.

Everything is indeed connected - this is trivially true; philosophically, logically and physically. As you say, though, the statement only becomes interesting when we start to examine what the connections are; how they function, what the relationship of different connections is, what networks these connections form which can be recognised as recurring patterns that have real effects/can be affected.

In the context of these investigations, narrowness is just a question of perspective, and any notion that operating only at particular level of perspective is 'correct' seems fatuous. Even the suggestion that one level of perspective is generally to be preferred would need careful justification.

In a current, 'real-world' context, consider the designer of a functional aspect of, say, a transport system. We expect the designer to produce something efficient, safe, economical, and practical. We might say; that's it - you have no other responsibility. But each of those requirements can be viewed more or less narrowly.

For the last three hundred years or so, western culture has been tending to suggest to people that they should view the requirements of their task more and more narrowly. And this has appeared to be highly 'successful' - in terms of valuable and significant parameters such as mortality, increasing education, enlarged franchise, standard of living etc. - so that the trend becomes reinforced.

However, it has become evident that this narrowness has led us to ignore the wider network within which we live - the ecosystem of the planet. Our transport designer should no longer consider environmental impacts as 'externalities' that can only distract from the task at hand.

It is becoming incumbent upon us to develop a range of perspectives, and to understand the usefulness and application of them, and how to change perspective while working on a single task. This is hard for an individual. For it to become a cultural mode is monumental.

Narrowness is an effective mode of operation only when it is appropriate. Opening our eyes wide and jumping into a sea of possible connections without prejudging them is another viable mode in appropriate circumstances.

As an architect, I find I need to employ a range of modes, from extreme breadth to extreme narrowness. One metric of an effective architect might well be to look at how well s/he judges what level of breadth/narrowness is appropriate in a given situation.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 20 November 2010 04:56:15AM *  4 points [-]

In point of fact, Isaac Newton did not "explain just gravity" - he also invented the calculus and developed important insights into the nature of light, among numerous other contributions to science.

[ ...]

Of course, this might not impact upon the point you are trying to make - you might just have selected a poor example.

However, casting about for a better example (immediately recognisable names who have made a singular contribution to science but did nothing else of note/had no significant, tangential side interests)...

Eliezer was not trying to give examples of people who made singular contributions but did nothing else. Rather, he was trying to give examples of singular contributions that had a lot to say about some things, but nothing of note to say about other things. His example was not Isaac Newton, but rather Newton's theory of gravity.

Comment author: ChristianKl 22 November 2012 05:24:56PM 1 point [-]

Inventing calclus could be said to be an integral element of Newton inventing his theory of gravity.

Comment author: gwern 22 November 2012 06:50:02PM 0 points [-]

I see what you did there.

But seriously, the role of calculus is kinda interesting because he did it all geometrically, apparently: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophi%C3%A6_Naturalis_Principia_Mathematica

In formulating his physical theories, Newton developed and used mathematical methods now included in the field of calculus. But the language of calculus as we know it was largely absent from the Principia; Newton gave many of his proofs in a geometric form of infinitesimal calculus, based on limits of ratios of vanishing small geometric quantities.

Comment author: David_Gerard 06 December 2010 11:03:21AM *  4 points [-]

ran the Royal Mint (and as such was in fact deeply concerned with the "role of money in society" - to significant practical effect at the time)

This would be the precise point that immediately occurred to me too. So no, it's not just you.

Tyrrell seems correct about the point being made, but nevertheless this wasn't a great example.

It couldn't possibly be that your abysmal ignorance of modern evolutionary theory is so total that you can't tell the difference between a carburetor and a radiator. That's unthinkable. No, the other guy - you know, the one who's studied the math - is just too dumb to see the connections.

This is the point at which it became apparent that this is one of those EY essays where I think "so who annoyed him in this particular way?" It appears to be the sort of essay that's a reaction to (or, more generously, strongly inspired by) a particular incident or person, rather than a careful attempt to speak much more broadly. This does not make it incorrect or not useful; it is, however, important in trying to sufficiently duplicate the conditions in the writer's head to understand it properly.

Comment author: stripey7 30 July 2015 01:27:21AM 0 points [-]

It may be a particular incident or person in EY's head, but it's not a unique one. It was very reminiscent of a crank interviewed for a segment of This American Life, who evidently wasn't unique judging from the way physicists reacted to his communications. It's also reminiscent of at least one conversation I've had.