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Rolson comments on Joy in the Merely Real - Less Wrong

62 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 March 2008 06:18AM

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Comment author: Rolson 20 March 2008 09:36:02AM 1 point [-]

This series of essays on John Keats is particularly interesting to me because I'm taking a British Literature class this semester (core requirement...) and we have covered Keats, though not this particular poem. If the class is to be trusted, then this Keats fellow is associated with an idea he termed "the negative capability. On my exam last week, I defined the term as "a state of mind that derives or maintains peace and tranquility in the face of unanswered and/or unanswerable questions".

In this essay you assert that everything that actually exists is knowable and explainable. However, in response to yesterday's essay I challenged that claim. An evolutionary explanation for much of human behavior may be beyond our capacity to ever know. This is because evolutionary explanations depend on organismic/physiologic evidence and environmental evidence. Problematically, the ancestral environment in which our brains were forged has been largely lost to time. Precious few fragments of that environment survive, and those elements forever lost will forever obscure a complete understanding of human behavior. Even as our technology advances and our technical ability to reconstruct that environment improves, it is nevertheless likely that some aspects of the past will never be recovered.

To illustrate, right now evolutionary biologists cannot resolve the question of whether or not homosexuality is "natural" or not (which is to say, was it shaped as an adaption by natural selection or a curious but accidental and random artifact of our historicity?). Some biologists have proposed speculative models answering the question one way or another, but no quantitative data have been produced. We have made virtually no progress on the problem in the past 40+ years. It's possible that we might never know the truth. Nevertheless, we cannot regard the phenomenon itself as unreal, even if it can never be fully explained. It pains me to side with Keats against you, but I think it best to grope in vain for answers beyond arms reach.

Comment author: pnrjulius 05 June 2012 03:23:12AM 6 points [-]

The point is not that we will know everything someday; we probably won't. (Indeed, on a certain definition, we already know we can't, see also Uncertainty Principle, Halting Problem, etc.)

The point is that being unknowable is not a good thing. It's a very, very, bad thing in fact, because we can't control what we can't understand. If we never understand cancer, cancer will keep killing us. If we didn't understand astronomy, an asteroid could hit us at any time. If we never understand consciousness, we'll never invent AI.

(Also, your specific example is awful. We know that homosexuality is not unique to humans; in fact it is found in over a thousand species and counting. If it's not adaptive, it's got to be vestigial; and in fact it's probably adaptive. This is also morally irrelevant, but it's something we do in fact know.)