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MrHen comments on Explain/Worship/Ignore? - Less Wrong

34 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 September 2007 08:01PM

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Comment author: MrHen 20 January 2010 10:27:29PM 2 points [-]

They've both been taught a certain way to talk about it, but I doubt the average high school graduate's language give him a leg up in the actual manipulation of the phenomenon.

That surprises me. I would have come to the exact opposite conclusion. I suppose the follow up question is in what way can you explain it so that the explanation gives him a leg up in manipulation? Why wouldn't that be a better explanation?

Comment author: Morendil 21 January 2010 12:06:56AM *  7 points [-]

Agreed. Let's turn this into an operational test. If you can come up with a way to make it rain in your kitchen, you understand the phenomenon. (Compare Hacking's "If you can spray them, they are real.")

It doesn't really matter then what language you use. Some people might use "condensation" as a fake explanation, and that's no better than "sky spirits", which I guess was bgrah449's point.

Catching yourself in a fake explanation is trickier than it might seem. As my kids reach a certain age I find myself dealing with questions like "Dad, what's causing the rainbow?" You learn to cue on a certain tone of voice. "Well son, it's because of refraction." Ouch, too late, failed to catch that one in time.

"Well, it's....", and trailing off... "Buggered if I know right now, actually. It's something about angles and the shape of water droplets, and if you ask me again once I've stopped the car we'll draw a diagram together and see if we can work it out; the basic principle isn't too hard but there's a twist or two, like that second rainbow."

Better now. And I know that I don't really understand refraction; the geometric part of the optics here I know I can derive from scratch with what high school math I have left, but I don't have a good enough grasp of electromagnetism to explain why the refractive index varies. Even to a dedicated reductionist, all explanations are ultimately "fake", at least until we have a Theory of Everything and a mind capable of grasping the entire chain of its implications up to the rainbow; don't hold your breath.

But there is such a thing as "good enough".

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 January 2010 12:19:38AM 5 points [-]

An explanation stops being fake as soon as it tells you to predict something (or better yet, do something) you couldn't do before. For example, if you sketch out the refractive reflection on paper, your son will - hopefully! - know to look away from the Sun, and at what angle to expect to see the rainbow, and just a little about why. And just knowing that it's water droplets, at all, tells you that you might be able to use a garden hose.

Comment author: Morendil 21 January 2010 12:40:42AM *  6 points [-]

I'm embarrassed to be caught using "fake explanation" as a fake explanation. Thanks for straightening that out. I'll use my own words more.

Yes, optics are enough that I can predict something. Even this late in the game for me, I occasionally find some things I hadn't really, really known before; it took experimental evidence (a rainbow caused by one of the wonderful waterfalls of Iceland) to realize that a rainbow appears centered about a point - my eyes - that moves as I move. That has a particularly wonderful effect when the rainbow is close to a full circle, as was the case that day at Skogafoss.

For some reason, I experienced that moment of playing with my personal rainbow as a minor epiphany; it had all the hallmarks of the religious experience I hear people talking about, up to "feeling at one with nature". Except that this was a reductionist epiphany, where I realized that even though I was momentarily unable to recall all the details of why this rainbow danced with me, that knowledge was mine to reconstruct if I wanted to, down to almost the rock-bottom level of explanation. I felt as if the Universe belonged to me in that instant.

Previous to that I was something of a rationalist's mysterian, if the phrase makes any sense; I had (truth be told, likely still have) traces of the "science doesn't know everything so there might be magic" attitude.

I don't know (yet) how to pass on that kind of feeling to my kids, but I hope I figure it out, for their sakes. It's a great feeling, one I'd love to share with people I love, and knowing it has a neurological basis doesn't spoil it one bit.

This was last summer, about three months before I chanced upon LW and ultimately the sequence that includes "Joy in the merely real".

ETA: folks are sending karma here and to the grand-parent, I notice; I'd appreciate, if any of those upvotes mean "might like to see that worked into a post", your replying that explicity.

I've been thinking about writing up the rainbow epiphany for a while now, but didn't know how or for whom, and though I'm writing this at 2am and probably in for more revising than I care to admit, I feel better for having gotten it out.

Comment author: RobinZ 21 January 2010 01:04:00AM 4 points [-]

It occurs to me that there is at least one advantage of fake explanations based on science over fake explanations based on mythology: if someone tries to find out more based on a teacher's password, they might actually find a real explanation. "rainbows refraction" (no quotes) is a sufficient search term, for example.