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

omeganaut comments on Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions - Less Wrong

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

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

Comments (152)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread. Show more comments above.

Comment author: omeganaut 12 May 2011 06:48:18PM 3 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 3 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 *  10 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 3 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 *  18 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 7 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 -2 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 *  14 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 0 points [-]

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 4 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 *  8 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 2 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 1 point [-]

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 author: Vladimir_M 13 May 2011 06:00:36PM *  3 points [-]

I don't think we have any real disagreement here. Clearly, if the present system is not in danger of breaking down catastrophically (and it doesn't seem to be, at least in the short to medium run), we're better off with specialization. Unlike in the 19th century, we are technologically far beyond the limit of what could be created from scratch without enormous numbers of people working in highly specialized roles, and barring a cataclysmic breakdown, old-fashioned versatile technical skills are not worth the opportunity cost of acquiring them.

(I think you are underestimating the difficulty of translating information from books into actually getting things done, though. Think just how hard it is to cook competently from recipes if you're a newbie.)

In the past, however, people didn't have this luxury of living in a complex world where you can create value and prosper by specializing, and where you can acquire correct scientific knowledge from readily available sources. Yet with their crude provisional theories and primitive and self-reliant technical abilities, they managed to create the foundations for our present knowledge and technology out of almost nothing. I think we do owe them respect for this, as well as the recognition that their work required amazing practical skills that few, if any people have today, even if only because it's no longer worthwhile to acquire them.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 May 2011 07:45:48PM 0 points [-]

Think just how hard it is to cook competently from recipes if you're a newbie.

I'm not sure this is a good example because I've had great success cooking out of the Fannie Farmer cookbook. However, this does not negate your point about difficulty, because kitchen cooking is not necessarily representative of the difficulty of things in general.

I think we do owe them respect for this

Yes, this is one of those other points that I'm not disputing.

Comment author: thomblake 13 May 2011 09:37:08PM -2 points [-]

I think we do owe them respect for this

I disagree. If Isaac Newton believes I owe him something, he can call my lawyer, but I'm pretty sure I didn't agree to anything of the sort.