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nick2 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: nick2 28 August 2007 01:54:03AM 4 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.