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Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

66 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2007 10:27PM

Imagine looking at your hand, and knowing nothing of cells, nothing of biochemistry, nothing of DNA. You've learned some anatomy from dissection, so you know your hand contains muscles; but you don't know why muscles move instead of lying there like clay. Your hand is just... stuff... and for some reason it moves under your direction. Is this not magic?

"The animal body does not act as a thermodynamic engine ... consciousness teaches every individual that they are, to some extent, subject to the direction of his will. It appears therefore that animated creatures have the power of immediately applying to certain moving particles of matter within their bodies, forces by which the motions of these particles are directed to produce derived mechanical effects... The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on. Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms... Modern biologists were coming once more to the acceptance of something and that was a vital principle."
        -- Lord Kelvin

This was the theory of vitalism; that the mysterious difference between living matter and non-living matter was explained by an elan vital or vis vitalis.  Elan vital infused living matter and caused it to move as consciously directed. Elan vital participated in chemical transformations which no mere non-living particles could undergo—Wöhler's later synthesis of urea, a component of urine, was a major blow to the vitalistic theory because it showed that mere chemistry could duplicate a product of biology.

Calling "elan vital" an explanation, even a fake explanation like phlogiston, is probably giving it too much credit.  It functioned primarily as a curiosity-stopper.  You said "Why?" and the answer was "Elan vital!"

When you say "Elan vital!", it feels like you know why your hand moves.  You have a little causal diagram in your head that says ["Elan vital!"] -> [hand moves].  But actually you know nothing you didn't know before. You don't know, say, whether your hand will generate heat or absorb heat, unless you have observed the fact already; if not, you won't be able to predict it in advance.  Your curiosity feels sated, but it hasn't been fed.  Since you can say "Why? Elan vital!" to any possible observation, it is equally good at explaining all outcomes, a disguised hypothesis of maximum entropy, etcetera.

But the greater lesson lies in the vitalists' reverence for the elan vital, their eagerness to pronounce it a mystery beyond all science. Meeting the great dragon Unknown, the vitalists did not draw their swords to do battle, but bowed their necks in submission. They took pride in their ignorance, made biology into a sacred mystery, and thereby became loath to relinquish their ignorance when evidence came knocking.

The Secret of Life was infinitely beyond the reach of science! Not just a little beyond, mind you, but infinitely beyond! Lord Kelvin sure did get a tremendous emotional kick out of not knowing something.

But ignorance exists in the map, not in the territory.  If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. A phenomenon can seem mysterious to some particular person.  There are no phenomena which are mysterious of themselves. To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.

Vitalism shared with phlogiston the error of encapsulating the mystery as a substance. Fire was mysterious, and the phlogiston theory encapsulated the mystery in a mysterious substance called "phlogiston". Life was a sacred mystery, and vitalism encapsulated the sacred mystery in a mysterious substance called "elan vital". Neither answer helped concentrate the model's probability density—make some outcomes easier to explain than others. The "explanation" just wrapped up the question as a small, hard, opaque black ball.

In a comedy written by Moliere, a physician explains the power of a soporific by saying that it contains a "dormitive potency".  Same principle.  It is a failure of human psychology that, faced with a mysterious phenomenon, we more readily postulate mysterious inherent substances than complex underlying processes.

But the deeper failure is supposing that an answer can be mysterious. If a phenomenon feels mysterious, that is a fact about our state of knowledge, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. The vitalists saw a mysterious gap in their knowledge, and postulated a mysterious stuff that plugged the gap. In doing so, they mixed up the map with the territory. All confusion and bewilderment exist in the mind, not in encapsulated substances.

This is the ultimate and fully general explanation for why, again and again in humanity's history, people are shocked to discover that an incredibly mysterious question has a non-mysterious answer.  Mystery is a property of questions, not answers.

Therefore I call theories such as vitalism mysterious answers to mysterious questions.

These are the signs of mysterious answers to mysterious questions:

  • First, the explanation acts as a curiosity-stopper rather than an anticipation-controller.
  • Second, the hypothesis has no moving parts—the model is not a specific complex mechanism, but a blankly solid substance or force. The mysterious substance or mysterious force may be said to be here or there, to cause this or that; but the reason why the mysterious force behaves thus is wrapped in a blank unity.
  • Third, those who proffer the explanation cherish their ignorance; they speak proudly of how the phenomenon defeats ordinary science or is unlike merely mundane phenomena.
  • Fourth, even after the answer is given, the phenomenon is still a mystery and possesses the same quality of wonderful inexplicability that it had at the start.

 

Part of the sequence Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Next post: "The Futility of Emergence"

Previous post: "Semantic Stopsigns"

Comments (146)

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Comment author: Kevin_Reid 26 August 2007 01:35:09AM 10 points [-]

Nitpick:

The Secret of Life was infinitely beyond the reach of science! Not just a little beyond, mind you, but infinitely beyond!

But Kelvin (in your quote) qualified it with "... hitherto entered on". Whether or not "infinitely" is fitting, doesn't this imply that Kelvin did not think that future scientific inquiry could not succeed?

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:43:51AM 2 points [-]

Kelvin was smart enough to hedge his bets?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 January 2013 12:13:10PM 3 points [-]

(a) not when you say "infinitely"

(b) "Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms"

Comment author: Roy_Haddad 26 August 2007 06:54:28PM 12 points [-]

Could it not also have been partly due to earlier scientists underestimating the degree to which qualitative phenomena derive from quantitative phenomena? Their error, then, was in tending to assume this quality was immune to study, rather than in assuming the quality itself.

Since you can say "Why? Elan vital!" to any possible observation, it is equally good at explaining all outcomes, a disguised hypothesis of maximum entropy, etcetera.

But you say earlier 'Elan vital' was greatly weakened by a piece of evidence. In that light, it's hypothesis could be stated "the mechanisms of living processes are of a different kind than the mechanisms of non-living processes, so you will not be able to study them with chemistry". This is false, but I don't think it's entirely worthless as a hypothesis, since biochemistry is noticeably different from non-living chemistry.

I think 'elan vital' makes some sense, even in a modern light. Most of the reactions in our body would not occur without enzymes, and enzymes are a characteristic feature of life. So perhaps we can say that 'elan vital' is enzymes! There is at least one experiment I can think of that could have been interpreted to show this too: I believe it involved fermentation being carried out with yeast-water (no living yeast, but clearly having their enzymes).

Comment author: James_Bach 26 August 2007 07:25:36PM 2 points [-]

I like your list of signs of a curiosity stopper. I don't necessarily think that "elan vital" meets those requirements (as Roy points out), but perhaps it did for many people or at some times.

I like the list because my brain feels a little more limber and a little more powerful, having pondered it. The list is a curiosity ENHANCER, and an anticipation SHARPENER.

-- James

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 August 2007 09:08:24PM 21 points [-]

Since you can say "Why? Elan vital!" to any possible observation, it is equally good at explaining all outcomes, a disguised hypothesis of maximum entropy, etcetera.

But you say earlier 'Elan vital' was greatly weakened by a piece of evidence

Heh. A fair point! Every mysterianism, though it may fail to predict details and quantities, is ultimately vulnerable to the one experience in all the world that it does prohibit - the discovery of a non-mysterious explanation.

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 27 August 2007 02:11:08PM 3 points [-]

These are the signs of mysterious answers to mysterious questions: Anothe good sign is that the mysterious answer is always in retreat. Suddenly, people explain some phenonmena, previously thought to be explainable only by "elan vitale" or "god" or "the influence of platonic Ideals". And the mysterious answer retreats to a smaller realm. And that realm just keeps on shrinking...

Comment author: Michael_Rooney 27 August 2007 03:26:57PM -3 points [-]

This post reads rather like a pastiche of Dan Dennett (on consciousness and free will).

Comment author: Nick_Bostrom2 27 August 2007 05:21:18PM 9 points [-]

And to continue the thread of Roy's comment as picked up by Eliezer, it might have been a fairly reasonable conjecture at the time (or at some earlier time). We have to be wary about hindsight bias. Imagine a time before biochemistry and before evolution theory. The only physicalist "explanations" you've ever heard of or thought of for why animals exist and how they function are obvious non-starters...

You think to yourself, "the folks who are tempted by such explanations just don't realize how far away they are from really explaining this stuff; they are deluded." And invoking an elan vital, while clearly not providing a complete explanation, at least creates a placeholder. Perhaps it might be possible to discover different versions of the elan vital; perhaps we could discover how this force interacts with other non-material substances such as ancestor spirits, consciousness, magic, demons, angels etc. Perhaps there could be a whole science of the psychic and the occult, or maybe a new branch of theological inquiry that would illuminate these issues. Maybe those faraway wisemen that we've heard about know something about these matters that we don't know. Or maybe the human mind is simply not equipped to understand these inner workings of the world, and we have to pray instead for illumination. In the afterlife, perhaps, it will all be clear. Either way, that guy who thinks he will discover the mysteries of the soul by dissecting the pineal gland seem curiously obtuse in not appreciating the magnitude of the mystery.

Now, in retrospect we know what worked and what didn't. But the mystics, it seems, *could* have turned out to have been right, and it is not obvious that they were irrational to favor the mystic hypothesis given the evidence available to them at the time.

Perhaps what we should be looking for is not structural problems intrinsic to certain kinds of questions and answers, but rather attitude problems that occur, for example, when ask questions without really caring about finding the answer, or when we use mysterious answers to lullaby our curiosity prematurely.

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:45:23AM 4 points [-]

We don't need to imagine. We are in exactly this position with respect to consciousness.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 August 2007 05:29:08PM 11 points [-]

People with the benefit of hindsight failing to realize how reasonable vitalism sounded at the time is precisely why they go ahead and propose similar explanations for consciousness, which seems far more mysterious to them than biology, hence legitimately in need of a mysterious explanation. Vitalists were merely stupid, to make such a big deal out of such an ordinary-seeming phenomenon as biology - consciousness is different.

This is precisely one of the ways in which I went astray when I was still a diligent practitioner of mere Traditional Rationality, rather than Bayescraft. The reason to consider how reasonable mistakes seemed without benefit of hindsight, is not to excuse them, because this is to fail to learn from them. The reason to consider how reasonable it seemed is to realize that not everything that sounds reasonable is a good idea; you've got to be strict about things like yielding increases in predictive power.

Comment author: MatthewB 27 December 2009 05:07:08AM 2 points [-]

Do you have something on the difference between Traditional Rationality and Bayescraft?

I am finally taking Prob. & Stats next semester (and have not yet looked at the book to see how Bayes figures into it yet. I am going to be pissed if it doesn't enter into the class at this point), so I figure that I will get my formal introduction to Bayes at that point. However, I do know the Basic P(A|B) = [ P(B|A) P(A) ] / P(B).

And, I can regurgitate Wikipedia's entries on Bayes, yet I don't seem to have any real context into which I can place the difference between Bayes and traditional Probability distributions... Can you help, please?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 December 2009 12:17:41PM *  4 points [-]

I am finally taking Prob. & Stats next semester

Never let the official curriculum slow you down! But still approach things systematically, find yourself a textbook.

Comment author: Celer 11 March 2011 02:59:23PM 3 points [-]

I am currently taking Stats(AP class in the USA, IB level elsewhere), and hope that I can help.
A traditional probability test will take four frequencies(Male smokers, female smokers, male nonsmokers, and female nonsmokers) and tell you if there is a correlation with an X^2 test.
Bayescraft lets you use gender as a way to predict the likelihood of smoking, or use smoking to predict gender. The fundamental difference, as far as I can tell, is that Statistics takes results about samples and applies them to populations. Bayescraft takes results about priors and applies them to the future. The two use similar methodology to address fundamentally different questions.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 27 August 2007 05:49:44PM 3 points [-]

Eliezer: It doesn't seem to me that you really engaged with Nick's point here. Also, I have pointed out to you before that there were lots of philosophers who believed that consciousness was unique and mysterious but life was not long before science rejected vitalism.

Comment author: nick2 28 August 2007 01:54:03AM 3 points [-]

The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on. Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms... Modern biologists were coming once more to the acceptance of something and that was a vital principle.

Given what we know now about the vastly complex and highly improbable processes and structures of organisms -- what we have learned since Lord Kelvin about nucleic acids, proteins, evolution, embryology, and so on -- and given that there are many mysteries still, such as consciousness and aging, or how to cure or prevent viruses, cancers, or heart disease, for which we still have far too few clues -- this rather metaphorical and poetic view of Lord Kelvin's is certainly a far more accurate view of the organism, for the time, than any alternative model that posited that the many details and functions of human body, or its origins, could be most accurately modeled by simple equations like those used for Newtonian physics. To the extent vitalism detered biologists from such idiocy vitalism must be considered for its time a triumph. Too bad there were to few similarly good metaphors to deter people from believing in central economic planning or Marx's "Laws of History."

Admittedly, the "infinetely different" part is hyperbole, but "vastly different" would have turned out to be fairly accurate.

Comment author: bigjeff5 29 January 2011 04:39:18PM 5 points [-]

Is it better to say "The problem is too big, lets just give up" or "The problem is too big for me, but I can start with X and find out how that works"?

It seems to me Lord Kelvin was saying the former, while Wohler clearly believed the latter, and proved it by synthesizing urea.

Did Wohler understand the intricacies of biology? No, of course not, but he proved they could be discovered, which is exactly what Kelvin was saying could not be done. After almost 200 years we still aren't done, but we do know a whole lot about the intricacies of biology, and we have a rough idea of how much farther we need to go to understand all of it. Furthermore, we understand that while biology is incredibly complex, it follows the same rules that govern the "fortuitous concurrence of atoms" as Kelvin put it.

Kelvin was plain wrong, and worse, his whole point was to discourage further research into biology. He was one of the people who said it could not be done, while Wohler just went ahead and did it.

Comment author: projectshave 31 August 2007 10:24:37PM 0 points [-]

I just read "The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar" in Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau. He's responsible for intelligent design (that annoying "who made this watch?" story), and an early "who caused the big bang? GOD did!" argument. I think this falls into your "mysterious answer" category. Positing a supernatural being doesn't really answer anything, it just moves the mystery into a new, man-made construct.

Comment author: J_Thomas 08 September 2007 04:01:24PM 0 points [-]

I don't think "elan vital" needed to be a curiousity stopper. It could be a description.

Some things are alive. Some are not. Live things are different, they do things that dead things do not. It's a difference that's worth noticing. If "elan vital" is a synonym for "alive" and not an explanation, then it's useful. It doesn't have to stop you from asking what the difference is.

Urea is not alive. That was a red herring. But it suggested a new idea, one that will probably be realised someday soon. In theory there's nothing about cells that we can't understand in detail. Probably within 50 years we'll be able to create a living cell from nonliving components. If not 50 years, certainly within 200 years. We're very close.

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:47:47AM 3 points [-]

Not 50 years. Craig Venter did it already in 2010. So it took 3 years to do what you thought it would take 50.

Comment author: hylleddin 25 August 2013 03:33:22AM 0 points [-]

He didn't actually synthesize a whole living thing. He synthesized a genome and put it into a cell. There's still a lot of chemical machinery we don't understand yet.

Comment author: Shane_Legg 17 April 2008 09:18:42AM 3 points [-]

I think Kelvin gets a bit of a raw deal in the way people often quote him: "[life etc.] is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry".

By cutting off the quote there it sounds like he is claiming that science will never be able to understand life. However, as you show above, he continues with, "... hitherto entered on." Thus, the sentence is making a claim about the power of science *up to the time of his writing* to understand life. This is a far more reasonable claim.

Comment author: Lillian_Pelaggi 04 June 2008 11:03:32AM 0 points [-]

I am wondering what kind of force it is that causes ones shoes to come off during a forceful impact.

Comment author: amc 13 August 2008 05:26:08PM 1 point [-]

1) Great post and great comments.

2) Like a few people have mentioned, using a life force as an explanation isn't necessarily a bad thing. It depends what you have in mind. You could believe in the life force but not be breaking any of the four curiosity stoppers. It would be interesting to know how many people used life force as a curiosity stopper when it was popular. I would guess that most people did use it as a curiosity stopper. Sounds like a good job for those experimental philosophers to show they do more than just polls about intuitions.

3) "You have a little causal diagram in your head that says ["Elan vital!"] -> [hand moves]. But actually you know nothing you didn't know before. You don't know, say, whether your hand will generate heat or absorb heat, unless you have observed the fact already; if not, you won't be able to predict it in advance."

I disagree that you know nothing more than you did before. When I think of a life force I picture different things than, say, electrical force. Maybe your concept of life hasn't substantially changed, but it has been enriched slightly, and the more you enrich a concept the more falsifiable it becomes. I would argue that the more falsifiable a concept is, without being shown to be false, the more useful it is (in general). For instance, if I said meaning was holistic, I think this is somewhat analogous to saying motion in the living is generated by a life force. It loosely constrains other things you can believe about meaning or life.

Comment author: DanielLC 27 December 2009 04:16:01AM 0 points [-]

Phlogiston exists. We call it "absence of oxygen". Nobody acted like positive charge wasn't real when they found out it was the absence of electrons.

Comment author: MatthewB 27 December 2009 05:09:14AM 0 points [-]

Do you mean that a bottle full of Nitrogen would be Phogiston, in the same way that a Hyrodgen Ion⁺ is a proton(Absence of an electron)?

Why is the "Absence of Oxygen" Phlogiston in this case?

Comment author: DanielLC 27 December 2009 06:15:00AM 1 point [-]

Nitrogen would be phlogiston-saturated air, in which nothing would burn. Coal would be full of phlogiston and burn easily in any air that isn't phlogiston-saturated.

Comment author: MatthewB 27 December 2009 09:03:45AM 2 points [-]

I went and read up on Phlogiston a little bit, and this makes sense to me now. The Nitrogen (absence of Oxygen) is a good analogy for what is a very weird theory (Phlogiston - I can see why Steam-Punks are so drawn to this esoteric and wildly insane theory - and I can see why at the time it made sense to Stahl even though it was wildly wrong... The terminology tends to sound really ludicrous: Phlogisticated or Dephlogisticated... Uh, huh...)

I can now see where my analogy with the proton is off, as well.

Comment author: wedrifid 27 December 2009 08:21:01AM 0 points [-]

Do you mean that a bottle full of Nitrogen would be Phogiston, in the same way that a Hyrodgen Ion⁺ is a proton(Absence of an electron)?

Acknowledging, of course, that the nomenclature we are considering is among the most ridiculed of historical attempts of scientific explanation I don't think the analogy would call the absence of electron a proton. A proton is a specific particle that has a positive charge but not all positive charges are considered to be protons (even if protons are usually involved somewhere underneath in conventional matter).

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 December 2009 12:16:46PM 1 point [-]

This is a wrong reification in so many specific cases...

Comment author: Timwi 10 March 2011 01:03:37AM *  3 points [-]

Am I the only one who, while reading this post, thought “why doesn’t the same apply to anything else we ever discover”?

Elan vital (and phlogiston and luminiferous aether etc.) were particles/substances/phenomena postulated to try to explain observations made. How are quarks, electrons and photons any different? Just because we recognise these as the best available theory today, I am not sure I understand how one is a curiosity-stopper any more than the other.

The real curiosity-stopper is the suggestion that something is forever beyond our understanding and that attempting to research it is destined to be futile. Your quote from Lord Kelvin exhibits this mentality, but only very slightly. Certainly a lot less than some of that stuff you hear from religious people who think God explains everything but is beyond our understanding. I think the history of science shows that this mentality is continually diminishing, and Lord Kelvin’s quote may simply be a transitional fossil.

I still see traces of this mentality today. Ask a cosmologist what happened in the first few seconds after the big bang and they might say the particle horizon makes it fundamentally impossible to see beyond the point where the universe became optically transparent. I think many people think similarly about consciousness — not because they think we can’t dissect the brain and figure out how it works, but rather because they think we will never be able to come up wtih a coherent, useful definition of the term that reasonably matches our intuition. I think each of these are curiosity-stoppers.

Comment author: nshepperd 10 March 2011 02:45:42AM 11 points [-]

The difference between electrons and elan vital is that the former come with equations that let you predict things. If you said "electricity is electrons" that would be a curiosity-stopper, but if you said "electricity is electrons, and by the way they obey the Lorentz force equation [F = ...] and Maxwell's laws [del E = ...]" that would be an explanation.

I wouldn't call the luminiferous aether a curiosity-stopper, because it was an actual theory that did make predictions (it was essentially falsified in one experiment).

Comment author: AnonymousAutodidact 10 March 2011 03:02:21AM 5 points [-]

The luminiferous aether is also a brilliant example of how rationalists should and have formed hypotheses based on a combination of a priori logic, a hypothetical non-self-contradicting set of assumptions, and empirical evidence.

The expected statistical inference you could expect to get in which a theory is valid is very important to hypothesis formation.

A theoretical paradigm such as aether physics in all possible metalogical realities would be expected to be true more often than not, given what was known at the time.

At the time the theory was extremely apt in describing empirically-verifiable experiments. That's exactly why I'm glad I was taught about the luminiferous aether from a very young age even though it is not a part of current contemporary physics.

With respect to scientific pedagogy I would therefore say it is very important that we continue to teach students about the history of scientific paradigms, even those paradigms since lost to progress.

Comment author: omeganaut 11 May 2011 07:13:23PM 0 points [-]

While I understand how there are some questions that cannot be completely answered, I feel as though you have chosen to ignore the fact that science at that time was inadequate to really understand the underlying science. Even today there is no complete understanding of any field, just educated guesses based on experiments and observations. Elan vital was just one theory of attempting to describe why life happens, and it was based on the fact that life had something more than un-living matter. However, further experiments altered this theory. Would you say the same thing about Quantum Theory, or the Electromagnetic Spectrum, or even E=mc^2? So far, those theories, while truthful when modeling current events, have not been conclusively proven. However, by aggressively insinuating that anyone who uses a theory that has not be uncategorically proven as fact is lacking in rational thought, then you belittle the field of science and all that it has achieved.

Comment author: thomblake 11 May 2011 07:49:33PM *  3 points [-]

You're missing the point. 'Elan vital' was not even a theory of why life is different from non-life; it was merely a statement of the observation that life is different from non-life.

  • "Why are living things different from nonliving things?"
  • "Elan vital! (Where 'elan vital' is defined as 'whatever causes living things to be different from nonliving things')"

This exchange has not improved anyone's understanding of life, but it is actually worse since it feels like you've explained something and so it's a "curiosity-stopper".

Comment author: omeganaut 12 May 2011 06:48:18PM 2 points [-]

How is that a curiosity stopper. Either someone is satisfied with that explanation (like science), or they want to know more about elan vital. Then someone will find that the answer to what elan vital is is either mystical (and therefore bringing religion into the equation) or not known, in which case a curious person would want to find out how Elan vital functions, leading to new discoveries. Similarly now we have forces at the atomic level that we don't understand how they function, and yet quantum theory is generally accepted as truth. How is this different than Elan Vital at the time?

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 12 May 2011 07:05:36PM 4 points [-]

Similarly now we have forces at the atomic level that we don't understand how they function, and yet quantum theory is generally accepted as truth.

Please elaborate, because on its face that statement does not seem accurate. We do understand how the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces function. There are places where quantum field theory fails, but there are plenty of places where it succeeds and makes good predictions.

In contrast, "elan vital" doesn't make any predictions. It doesn't drive curiosity because there's no way to test it and get results that we can then try to understand better.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 12 May 2011 07:21:01PM *  9 points [-]

I'm in a very nitpicky mood today:

'Elan vital' seems to predict that there won't be things that are sort-of alive, like viruses; from what I've read about it it suggests that aliveness is all-or-nothing. It may also predict that things that are dead shouldn't be able to be made to move by electrical stimulation of the nerves.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 May 2011 08:53:21PM 2 points [-]

I think you're right. 'Elan vital' sounds like a falsified theory, not an unfalsifiable one.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 12 May 2011 08:51:28PM *  16 points [-]

In contrast, "elan vital" doesn't make any predictions. It doesn't drive curiosity because there's no way to test it and get results that we can then try to understand better.

Honestly, how much direct familiarity do you have with the actual historical vitalist theories, as opposed to third- or fourth-hand strawman accounts peppered with a few convenient soundbites, such as the one presented in the original post here?

One of the worst tendencies often seen on LW is the propensity to thrash these ridiculous strawmen instead of grappling with the real complexity of the history of ideas. Yes, historical scientific theories like vitalism and phlogiston have been falsified, but bashing people who held them centuries ago as dimwits who sought to mysticize the questions instead of elucidating them is sheer arrogant ignorance.

Even the original post itself lists an example where vitalism (i.e. its strong version) made concrete predictions that could be falsified, and which were indeed falsified by Woehler's experiments. Another issue where (weaker) vitalism made falsifiable predictions that lead to hugely important insight was the question of the spontaneous generation of microorganisms (and molds etc.). It was a vitalist model that motivated Pasteur's experiments that demonstrated that such generation does not occur and thus sterilized stuff remains such once sealed.

Yes, of course, nowadays we know better than all of these people, but bashing them is as silly as taking a sophomore course in relativity and then jeering at Galileo and Newton as ignorant idiots.

Edit: For those interested in the real history of vitalism rather than strawmen, here is a nice article:
http://mechanism.ucsd.edu/teaching/philbio/vitalism.htm

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 12 May 2011 09:32:04PM 3 points [-]

Yes, I see that in this case I was using "elan vital" as a stand-in example for "postulating an ontologically basic entity that just so happens to validate preconceived categories."

It was an overstatement to say that elan vital makes no predictions, and I thank you for pointing that out. However, I think the average person probably heard the theory and just took it as a confirmation of a stereotypical non-materialist worldview, i.e. a curiosity-stopper.

Comment author: CuSithBell 12 May 2011 09:44:34PM 6 points [-]

However, I think the average person probably heard the theory and just took it as a confirmation of a stereotypical non-materialist worldview, i.e. a curiosity-stopper.

Do you think this is significantly different from the average person's interaction with modern scientific theories?

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 12 May 2011 09:59:37PM 1 point [-]

Probably not, but it takes a much more significant degree of willful misinterpretation somewhere along the line to construe modern scientific theories as supporting non-materialist worldviews.

Comment author: CuSithBell 13 May 2011 05:33:09PM 0 points [-]

I suppose that's probably right - I guess people are more likely to think "science supports a materialistic worldview (but can't explain everything)" (except when, like, quantum mechanics or superstrings or whatever come into play). So, less "non-materialst", but still an appreciable degree of "curiosity stopping". Hmm.

Comment author: thomblake 12 May 2011 09:58:45PM -1 points [-]

bashing people who held them centuries ago as dimwits who sought to mysticize the questions instead of elucidating them is sheer arrogant ignorance.

I don't think that's what Eliezer is doing here (Except maybe Kelvin, but he deserved it).

The point is not to bash the people who held these beliefs; the point is to see how we can do better.

And for the most part, there isn't a point to "grappling with the real complexity of the history of ideas". From this particular parable, we see more clearly that a hypothesis must constrain our anticipated experiences, and as a side note nothing is inherently mysterious. Moving on.

Ignorance is not the source of my arrogance. It is deserved pride.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 12 May 2011 10:22:14PM *  12 points [-]

The problem is that the "parable" is presented as an account of the actual historical vitalist theories. As such, it seriously misrepresents them and attributes to them intellectual errors of which they were not guilty in reality. It's similar with other LW articles that use phlogiston as a whipping horse. If you look at a real historical account of these theories, you'll see that they implied plenty of anticipated experiences, and were abandoned because they made incorrect predictions, not because they were empty of predictive power and empirical content.

As for "deserved pride," if an exposition of your insight requires setting up strawmen to knock down, instead of applying it to real ideas actually held by smart and accomplished people, past or present, then something definitely seems fishy. Not to mention that pride is hardly a suitable emotion to feel just because you happen to live at a time in which you were able to absorb more knowledge than in earlier times -- especially if this means feeling superior to people whose work was the basis and foundation of this contemporary knowledge, and their theories that provided decisive guidance in this work. Yes, you do know more than they did, but while they made decisive original contributions, what have you done besides just passively absorbing the existing knowledge?

Comment author: thomblake 12 May 2011 10:55:55PM 1 point [-]

attributes to them intellectual errors of which they were not guilty in reality

Don't worry, we're not going to hang anybody for it.

especially if this means feeling superior to people whose work was the basis and foundation of this contemporary knowledge

But I am superior to them. I have a better understanding of the world. I can access most of human knowledge from a device that I keep in my pocket. I can travel hundreds of miles in a day. I have hot running water in my house. Yes, all these things are true because I "just happen" to live in this time. It makes me better than those who came before, and worse than those who will come after. Similarly, I am better than I was yesterday, and hopefully I am worse than I will be tomorrow.

Let us not forget Themistocles's taunt: "I should not have been great if I had not been an Athenian, nor would you, were you an Athenian, have become Themistocles." Perhaps Kelvin would have been greater than I had he been born in this time. But sadly he was not.

Rationality is no place for false humility, and we should not revere those who came before as though they were wiser than us. Be aware of your power and grow more powerful.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 12 May 2011 11:45:34PM 3 points [-]

Don't worry, we're not going to hang anybody for it.

I don't know who you mean by "we," but in any case, I don't think objecting to misrepresentations and strawmen is unreasonable even if they're directed against people who are long dead.

But I am superior to them. I have a better understanding of the world.

Then why the need to invent strawmen instead of discussing their actual ideas and theories?

What I want to emphasize is that grappling with reality successfully enough to make a great intellectual contribution is extremely hard. If a theory provides motivation and guidance for work that leads to great contributions, then it should be seen as a useful model, not an intellectual blunder -- whatever its shortcomings, and however thoroughly its predictions have been falsified in the meantime. Historically, theories such as phlogiston, aether, or vitalism clearly satisfy this criterion.

Now of course, it makes sense to discuss how and why our modern theories are superior to phlogiston etc. What doesn't make sense is going out of your way to bash strawmen of these theories as supposedly unscientific and full of bad reasoning. In reality, they were a product of the best scientific reasoning possible given the state of knowledge at the time, and moreover, they motivated the crucial work that led to our present knowledge, and to some degree even provided direct practically useful results.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 13 May 2011 12:02:17AM *  7 points [-]

But I am superior to them. I have a better understanding of the world.

Also, it is questionable if our supposedly better individual understanding of the world would survive any practical tests outside of our narrow domains of expertise. After all, these days you only need to contribute some little details in a greatly complex system built and maintained by numerous others, of which you understand only a rough and vague outline, if even that. How much actual control over the world does your knowledge enable you to exert, outside of these highly contrived situations provided by the modern society?

One could argue that a good 19th century engineer had a much better understanding of the world judging by this criterion of practical control over it. These people really knew how to bootstrap complex technologies out of practically nothing. Nowadays, except perhaps for a handful of survivalist enthusiasts, we'd be as helpless as newborn babes if the support systems around us broke down. Which makes me wonder if our understanding of the world doesn't involve even more "mysterious answers" for all practical purposes outside of our narrow domains of expertise. Yes, you can produce more technically correct statements about reality than anyone in the 19th century could, but what can you accomplish with that knowledge?

Comment author: thomblake 13 May 2011 12:15:17AM 3 points [-]

How much actual control over the world does your knowledge enable you to exert, outside of these highly contrived situations provided by the modern society?

Why would I want to assert control over the world outside of that context? I am in that context - that's part of my point. I am a better human in part because I am a human with a computer and a car and a cellphone and the Internet. My descendants might be better in part because they are robots/cyborgs/uploaded/built out of nanobots. And we are all better because we are connected and able to perform tasks together that no lone 'survivalist' can.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 May 2011 01:41:40AM 2 points [-]

Which makes me wonder if our understanding of the world doesn't involve even more "mysterious answers" for all practical purposes outside of our narrow domains of expertise.

I'm not disputing your other points, but for most typical practical purposes I as good as know things that I don't actually know, because I can make use of specialists, trading on my own specialty. The practical value of literally, on an individual level, knowing how to recreate technology from scratch is limited, outside of highly contrived situations such as those that are contrived by the scriptwriters of the MacGyver TV show. This could conceivably change in a sufficiently extreme survivalist scenario, though I have my doubts about the likelihood of an actual Robinson Crusoe scenario in which you literally have to do it all yourself with no possibility for specialization and trade. There are also books. If you have a good library, then you can have a lot of information at your fingertips should the need arise without literally having to have it in your head right now.

Comment deleted 07 July 2011 03:06:13AM *  [-]
Comment author: Alicorn 07 July 2011 03:06:40AM 1 point [-]

You can quote things by starting a paragraph with >.

Comment author: tripstah 07 July 2011 03:08:59AM 0 points [-]

And how do I unretract my comment? haha

Comment author: tripstah 07 July 2011 03:23:56AM 0 points [-]

Thanks for your help. You can delete this thread if you'd like.

Comment author: tripstah 07 July 2011 03:20:35AM 2 points [-]

I'm new to reading this blog and am slowly going through the sequences. Eliezer, I'm enjoying your writings a lot and they are really helping to change my way of thinking.

A thought I had while reading this and figured I'd ask for other thoughts:

To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.

I know people who are perfectly content to "worship their own ignorance." Why do you think they don't value knowing enough to go further? Is it just because they have hit a semantic roadblock and don't realize it?

Comment author: buybuydandavis 22 September 2011 09:33:36AM *  3 points [-]

Your hand is just... stuff... and for some reason it moves under your direction. Is this not magic?

Yeah, I think it is. The one model we start with is the model of ourselves. Our hand moves because we will it to do so. If that were the only model I had, that's how I'd interpret the universe - every event was the result of the will of some being.

And stopping at "The Wizard Did It" makes perfect sense. We experience our own decisions as sufficient causes for our own actions.

I wonder how long it took for the concept of mechanism to take hold.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 September 2011 05:12:53PM 3 points [-]

The quotation feature works by preceding a paragraph with >, not by typing a pipe manually.

Comment author: buybuydandavis 29 September 2011 02:32:08AM *  1 point [-]

Thanks. I eventually found the page on markup. And the little envelope under my Karma that shows me the responses to my comments.

Comment author: Ab3 09 February 2012 07:00:47PM *  1 point [-]

I would like to suggest that the concept of "beauty" in art, relationships and even evolutionary biology seems to satisfy EY's criteria of being a mysterious answer.

If I ask, "how does the male peacock attract female peacocks" and one answers "because his tail is big and beautiful", haven't they failed to answer my question? Beauty in this response is a 1- curiosity stopper, 2- has no moving parts, 3- Is often uttered by people with a great deal of pride (the painting is so beautiful!), and 4- leaves the phenomenon a mystery (In the case of the peacock, I still don't really know why female peacocks like big colorful tails).

Comment author: APMason 09 February 2012 07:20:56PM *  0 points [-]

The Handicap Principle is one possibility.

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:53:26AM 0 points [-]

Also, symmetry is a sign of health in bilaterians such as we; so it makes sense that we'd evolve to find symmetry beautiful.

Comment author: Ab3 05 March 2012 07:07:55PM 0 points [-]

I understand why elan vital is a mysterious answer, but what makes the question mysterious? Isn't the question "why does living matter move?" a perfectly intelligible one, and the point is simply that we can do a lot better in answering it than "elan vital"?

Comment author: Origin 21 March 2012 09:12:34PM -2 points [-]

Funny to see how perfectly dark matter is used as a mysterious answer, in the sense of "How could the universe be expanding? Dark matter!" And I always thought that everything NGC told me as a kid was true and logical and rational. Another childhood memory crushed...

Comment author: MagnetoHydroDynamics 21 March 2012 09:20:20PM 0 points [-]

Dark matter and energy are theories that are a little more complicated than that, in that astronomers can observe gravitational clustering more powerful than the regular matter allows for; dark energy is beyond the areas of my understanding. So far it seems to me the best guess is Shut up and Calculate.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 March 2012 12:02:02PM 0 points [-]

Funny to see how perfectly dark matter is used as a mysterious answer, in the sense of "How could the universe be expanding? Dark matter!"

I thought the mysterious answer to that particular question was 'dark energy'. I don't think dark matter is enough to (not particularly) explain it.

Comment author: raptortech97 12 April 2012 01:44:04AM 0 points [-]

What would you have had these biologists use instead? Would you prefer they had no model? It seems clear to me, though I may be wrong, that these scientists had a model (elan vital), and when later evidence came along (modern biology?), they discarded it in favor of a different model. Would you have them instead have picked a different model in the first place? Or have no model at all?

Comment author: DSimon 12 April 2012 01:58:40AM 0 points [-]

Well, if by "no model" you mean something like the contemporary folk model of biology ("Blood is what keeps you alive, we're not quite sure how though, but in general try not to lose your blood"), then elan vital is definitely worse, in that it (a) adds no new information but (b) sounds wiser, and therefore harder to unseat.

Comment author: Vaniver 12 April 2012 02:24:18AM 3 points [-]

the contemporary folk model of biology ("Blood is what keeps you alive, we're not quite sure how though, but in general try not to lose your blood"),

This sounds sensible, though it should be mentioned that bloodletting (hm, there's clearly too much blood here) seems like a candidate for folk biology as well.

(I once had a small, dark bruise underneath a partially healed cut- so it looked like there was this black thing inside my finger, though I was reasonably confident it was just a pool of blood. The urge to cut it open and drain it was unbelievably strong, and I had to put a bandaid on it just so that I couldn't look at it. After that I had a lot more sympathy for people who thought bloodletting was a sensible treatment. I suspect that particular incident was an anti-parasite impulse which mistakenly pattern-matched the pool, and I imagine most bloodletting was inspired by "you're way redder than is healthy- let's fix that!".)

Comment author: raptortech97 20 April 2012 10:00:37PM 0 points [-]

Are you suggesting that we apply a punishment to any theory that sounds wise? Or that we apply a punishment only for those that also satisfy (a)?

Comment author: DSimon 20 April 2012 10:36:35PM 0 points [-]

Well, ideally we ignore b and focus only on a. B only matters in the context of being a more virulent meme.

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:57:11AM *  0 points [-]

It may make sense to apply some penalty to the logodds of "profound ideas", to compensate for the bias.

Likewise, maybe we should assume that beautiful people are stupid to compensate for the halo effect---though that one is a bit trickier, because IQ actually is correlated with attractiveness, just not as strongly as people tend to assume.

Comment author: pnrjulius 29 May 2012 03:55:05AM 1 point [-]

Having no model can be good, if it inspires you to search for a good model. Far worse to think you have a model when you actually don't.

Comment author: BigAl 11 June 2012 07:45:21PM 1 point [-]

For all the posts implying that people who came up with the concepts of phlogiston and elan vital were just using science without the benefit of today's education is missing the point.

Today's scientists come up with ideas like string theory or dark energy, but they don't stop there: they are frantically trying to find evidence for them and so far failing. So they are just neat ideas that might explain a lot if shown to be true,, but not much more than that. General relativity goes on providing evidence supporting it, including the new evidence for "frame dragging".

Phlogiston and elan vital were ideas that died for the LACK of evidence. The discoveries of oxygen and electrochemistry killed them. However, when the ideas were proposed, if you didn't know the answer, you left it there or made something up. I might mention also caloric, which was a pure guess based on very little but quashed by science in the form of experiments whose results fitted the concepts of energy much better.

Comment author: aspera 09 October 2012 11:07:45PM 11 points [-]

My mother's husband professes to believe that our actions have no control over the way in which we die, but that "if you're meant to die in a plane crash and avoid flying, then a plane will end up crashing into you!" for example.

After explaining how I would expect that belief to constrain experience (like how it would affect plane crash statistics), as well as showing that he himself was demonstrating his unbelief every time he went to see a doctor, he told me that you "just can't apply numbers to this," and "Well, you shouldn't tempt fate."

My question to the LW community is this: How do you avoid kicking people in the nuts all of the time?

Comment author: shminux 09 October 2012 11:20:52PM 1 point [-]

Pick your battles. Most people happily hold contradictory beliefs. More accurately, their professed beliefs don't always match their aliefs. You are probably just as affected as the rest of us, so start by noticing this in yourself.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 09 October 2012 11:29:27PM 2 points [-]

How do you avoid kicking people in the nuts all of the time?

(grin) Mostly, by remembering that there are lots of decent people in the world who don't think very clearly.

Comment author: aspera 10 October 2012 12:16:07AM 2 points [-]

I jest, but the sense of the question is serious. I really do want to teach the people I'm close to how to get started on rationality, and I recognize that I'm not perfect at it either. Is there a serious conversation somewhere on LW about being an aspiring rationalist living in an irrational world? Best practices, coping mechanisms, which battles to pick, etc?

Comment author: [deleted] 10 October 2012 09:24:31AM 0 points [-]

"if you're meant to die in a plane crash and avoid flying, then a plane will end up crashing into you!"

I often say stuff like that, but I don't mean it literally. When someone says “What if you do X and Y happens?” and I think Y is ridiculously unlikely (P(Y|X) < 1e-6), I sarcastically reply “What if I don't do X, but Z happens?” where Z is obviously even more ridiculous (P(Z|~X) < 1e-12, e.g. “a meteorite falls onto my head and kills me”).

Comment author: MugaSofer 10 October 2012 01:09:38PM 0 points [-]

Strictly speaking, if you somehow knew in advance (time travel?) that you would "die in a plane crash", then avoiding flying would indeed, presumably, result in a plane crash occurring as you walk down the street.

If you know your attempt will fail in advance, you don't need to try very hard. If you don't, then it is reasonable to avoid dangerous situations.

Comment author: wedrifid 10 October 2012 01:37:28PM *  3 points [-]

If you know your attempt will fail in advance, you don't need to try very hard.

I actually don't believe this is true, for most mechanisms of "mysterious future knowledge", including most (philosophical) forms of time travel that don't allow change. Unless I had some specific details about the mechanism of prediction that changed the situation I would go ahead and try very hard despite knowing it is futile. I know this is a total waste... it's as if I am just leaving $10,000 on the ground or something! (ie. I assert that newcomblike reasoning applies.)

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 October 2012 03:14:59PM 0 points [-]

I don't understand this.

In Newcomb's problem, Omega knows what you will do using their superintelligence. Since you know you cannot two-box successfully, you should one-box.

If Omega didn't know what you would do with a fair degree of accuracy, two-boxing would work, obviously.

Comment author: wedrifid 16 October 2012 11:48:38PM *  2 points [-]

In Newcomb's problem, Omega knows what you will do using their superintelligence. Since you know you cannot two-box successfully, you should one-box.

In this case you are trying (futilely) so that you, very crudely speaking, are less likely to be in the futile situation in the first place.

If Omega didn't know what you would do with a fair degree of accuracy, two-boxing would work, obviously.

Yes, then it wouldn't be Newcomb's Problem. The important feature in the problem isn't boxes with arbitrary amounts of money in them. It is about interacting with a powerful predictor whose prediction has already been made and acted upon. See, in particular, the Transparent Newcomb's Problem (where you can ourtright see how much money is there). That makes the situation seem even more like this one.

Even closer would be the Transparent Newcomb's Problem combined with an Omega that is only 99% accurate. You find yourself looking at an empty 'big' box. What do you do? I'm saying you still one box the empty box. That makes it far less likely that you will be in a situation where you see an empty box at all.

Comment author: MugaSofer 17 October 2012 04:35:05PM 0 points [-]

Being a person who avoids plane crashes makes it less likely that you will be told "you will die in a plane crash", yes.

But probability is subjective - once you have the information that you will die in a car crash, your subjective estimate of this should vastly increase, regardless of the precautions you take.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 October 2012 10:42:58PM 1 point [-]

But probability is subjective - once you have the information that you will die in a car crash, your subjective estimate of this should vastly increase, regardless of the precautions you take.

Absolutely. And I'm saying that you update that probability, perform a (naive) expected utility function calculation that says "don't bother trying to prevent plane crashes" then go ahead and try to avoid plane crashes anyway. Because in this kind of situation maximising expected utility is actually a mistake.

(To those who consider this claim to be bizarre without seeing context, note that we are talking situations such as within time-loops.)

Comment author: MugaSofer 18 October 2012 08:09:16AM 0 points [-]

Because in this kind of situation maximising expected utility is actually a mistake.

So ... I should do things that result in less expected utility ... why?

Comment author: wedrifid 18 October 2012 09:28:20AM 0 points [-]

So ... I should do things that result in less expected utility ... why?

I am happy to continue the conversation if you are interested. I am trying to unpack just where your intuitions diverge from mine. I'd like to know what your choice would be when faced with Newcomb's Problem with transparent boxes and an imperfect predictor when you notice that the large box is empty. I take the empty large box, which isn't a choice that maximises my expected utility and in fact gives me nothing, which is the worst possible outcome from that game. What do you do?

Comment author: MugaSofer 18 October 2012 12:36:02PM *  0 points [-]

Oh, so you pay counterfactual muggers?

All is explained.

Comment author: Strange7 18 October 2012 01:51:24PM 0 points [-]

Two boxes, sitting there on the ground, unguarded, no traps, nobody else has a legal claim to the contents? Seriously? You can have the empty one if you'd like, I'll take the one with the money. If you ask nicely I might even give you half.

I don't understand what you're gaining from this "rationality" that won't let you accept a free lunch when an insane godlike being drops it in your lap.

Comment author: Strange7 18 October 2012 04:27:12PM 2 points [-]

In the specific "infallible oracle says you're going to die in a plane crash" scenario, you might live considerably longer by giving the cosmos fewer opportunities to throw plane crashes at you.

Comment author: MugaSofer 19 October 2012 09:01:43AM 0 points [-]

I was assuming a time was given. wedrifid was claiming that you should avoid plane-crash causing actions even if you know that the crash will occur regardless.

Comment author: shminux 17 October 2012 12:29:49AM -1 points [-]

Since you know you cannot two-box successfully, you should one-box.

Not if you mistakenly believe, as CDTers do, in human free will in a predictable (by Omega) universe.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 October 2012 12:42:31AM *  1 point [-]

Not if you mistakenly believe, as CDTers do, in human free will in a predictable (by Omega) universe.

"Free will" isn't incompatible with a predictable (by Omega) universe. I also doubt that all CDTers believe the same thing about human free will in said universe.

Comment author: aspera 10 October 2012 03:57:11PM 1 point [-]

I think this is the kind of causal loop he has in mind. But a key feature of the hypothesis is that you can't predict what's meant to happen. In that case, he's equally good at predicting any outcome, so it's a perfectly uninformative hypothesis.

Comment author: MugaSofer 16 October 2012 03:10:04PM 0 points [-]

That was exactly my point. If he could make such a prediction, he would be correct. Since he can't...

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 10 October 2012 06:46:56PM 10 points [-]

Think of them as 3-year-olds who won't grow up until after the Singularity. Would you kick a 3-year-old who made a mistake?

Comment author: Strange7 18 October 2012 03:36:28PM 2 points [-]

Simply consider how likely it is that kicking them in the nuts will actually improve the situation.

Comment author: ExAequali 11 April 2013 01:25:42AM 0 points [-]

No credit to Nietzsche for the analogy?

Comment author: MathieuRoy 21 January 2014 02:01:41AM 1 point [-]

Another example: during the conversation between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins, Deepak Chopra thinks that our lack of a very good understanding for the origin of language or jumps in the fissile record for example means that an actual discontinuity happened.

Comment author: Capla 17 October 2014 04:33:57PM *  0 points [-]

If a phenomenon feels mysterious, that is a fact about our state of knowledge, not a fact about the phenomenon itself.

I completely accept and (I think) understand this, however there are some phenomena that cannot, by their nature, be known.

A typical example is Cantor's proof that it is impossible to prove that there are "mid-sized infinities. More generally, Godel's incompleteness theorems prove that some things are ever unknowable. (If I'm misunderstanding or misrepresenting, enlighten me. I'm no mathematician.)

More controversially, I suspect that consciousnesses may present a similar problem (for different reasons).

These might be described as inherently mysterious phenomena.

Comment author: Marcus_Oz 11 November 2014 06:59:23AM *  1 point [-]

Hi Capla - no that is not what Godel's theorem says (actually there are two incompleteness theorems)

1) Godel's theorems don't talk about what is knowable - only about what is (formally) provable in a mathematical or logic sense

2) The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an any sort of algorithm is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers. In other words for any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

3) This doesn't mean that some things can never be proven - although it provides some challenges - it does mean that we cannot create a consistent system (within itself) that can demonstrate or prove (algorithmically) all things that are true for that system

This creates some significant challenges for AI and consciousness - but perhaps not insurmountable ones.

For example - as far as i know - Godel's theorem rests on classical logic. Quantum logic - where something can be both "true" and "not true" at the same time may provide some different outcomes

Regarding consciousness - I think I would agree with the thrust of this post - that we cannot yet fully explain or reproduce consciousness (hell we have trouble defining it) does not mean that it will forever be beyond reach. Consciousness is only mysterious because of our lack of knowledge of it

And we are learning more all the time

http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_kanwisher_the_brain_is_a_swiss_army_knife? http://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness?

we are starting to unravel how some of the mechanisms by which consciousness emerges from the brain - since consciousness appears to be process phenomena rather rather than a physical property

Comment author: Capla 11 November 2014 04:34:36PM 0 points [-]

Thank you, A little bit more informed.

My issue with consciousness involves p-zombies. Any experiment that wanted to understand consciousness, would have to be able to detect it, which seems to me to be philosophically impossible. To be more specific, any scientific investigation of the cause of consciousness would have (to simplify) an independent variable that we could manipulate to see if consciousness is present or not, depending on the manipulated variable. We assume that those around us are conscious, and we have good reason to do so, but we can't rely on that assumption in any experiment in which we are investigating consciousness.

As Eliezer points out, that an individual says he's conscious is a pretty good signal of consciousness, but we can't necessarily rely on that signal for non-human minds. A conscious AI may never talk about it's internal states depending on its structure (humans have a survival advantage to social sharing of internal realities). On the flip side, a savvy but non-conscious AI, may talk about it's "internal states" because it is guessing the teacher's password in the realist way imaginable: it has no understanding whatsoever of what those state are, but computes that aping them will accomplish it's goals. I don't know how we could possibly know if the AI is aping conciseness for it own ends or if it actually is conscious. If consciousness is thus undetectable, I can't see how science can investigate it.

That said, I am very well aware that “Throughout history, every mystery, ever solved has turned out to be not magic” and that ever single time something has seemed inscrutable to science, a reductionist explanation eventually, surfaced. Knowing this, I have to seriously down grade my confidence that "No, really, this time it is different. Science really can't pierce this veil." I look forward to someone coming forward with somthign clever that dissolves the question, but even so, it does seem inscrutable.