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Timwi comments on Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions - Less Wrong

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

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Comment author: Timwi 10 March 2011 01:03:37AM *  4 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 10 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 7 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.