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Vladimir_M comments on Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions - Less Wrong

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

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Comment author: Vladimir_M 13 May 2011 12:02:17AM *  9 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.