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Excluding the Supernatural

37 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

Followup toReductionism, Anthropomorphic Optimism

Occasionally, you hear someone claiming that creationism should not be taught in schools, especially not as a competing hypothesis to evolution, because creationism is a priori and automatically excluded from scientific consideration, in that it invokes the "supernatural".

So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

It seems clear enough that this notion stems from the desire to avoid a confrontation between science and religion.  You don't want to come right out and say that science doesn't teach Religious Claim X because X has been tested by the scientific method and found false.  So instead, you can... um... claim that science is excluding hypothesis X a priori.  That way you don't have to discuss how experiment has falsified X a posteriori.

Of course this plays right into the creationist claim that Intelligent Design isn't getting a fair shake from science—that science has prejudged the issue in favor of atheism, regardless of the evidence.  If science excluded Intelligent Design a priori, this would be a justified complaint!

But let's back up a moment.  The one comes to you and says:  "Intelligent Design is excluded from being science a priori, because it is 'supernatural', and science only deals in 'natural' explanations."

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?  Is any explanation invented by someone with the last name "Cohen" a supernatural one?  If we're going to summarily kick a set of hypotheses out of science, what is it that we're supposed to exclude?

By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's:  A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

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Three Fallacies of Teleology

21 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2008 10:27PM

Followup toAnthropomorphic Optimism

Aristotle distinguished between four senses of the Greek word aition, which in English is translated as "cause", though Wikipedia suggests that a better translation is "maker".  Aristotle's theory of the Four Causes, then, might be better translated as the Four Makers.  These were his four senses of aitia:  The material aition, the formal aition, the efficient aition, and the final aition.

The material aition of a bronze statue is the substance it is made from, bronze.  The formal aition is the substance's form, its statue-shaped-ness.  The efficient aition best translates as the English word "cause"; we would think of the artisan carving the statue, though Aristotle referred to the art of bronze-casting the statue, and regarded the individual artisan as a mere instantiation.

The final aition was the goal, or telos, or purpose of the statue, that for the sake of which the statue exists.

Though Aristotle considered knowledge of all four aitia as necessary, he regarded knowledge of the telos as the knowledge of highest order.  In this, Aristotle followed in the path of Plato, who had earlier written:

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause.  It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it.  That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid.  As for their capacity of being in the best place they could possibly be put, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force...

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Possibility and Could-ness

34 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 June 2008 04:38AM

This post is part of the Solution to "Free Will".
Followup toDissolving the Question, Causality and Moral Responsibility

Planning out upcoming posts, it seems to me that I do, in fact, need to talk about the word could, as in, "But I could have decided not to rescue that toddler from the burning orphanage."

Otherwise, I will set out to talk about Friendly AI, one of these days, and someone will say:  "But it's a machine; it can't make choices, because it couldn't have done anything other than what it did."

So let's talk about this word, "could".  Can you play Rationalist's Taboo against it?  Can you talk about "could" without using synonyms like "can" and "possible"?

Let's talk about this notion of "possibility".  I can tell, to some degree, whether a world is actual or not actual; what does it mean for a world to be "possible"?

I know what it means for there to be "three" apples on a table.  I can verify that experimentally, I know what state of the world corresponds it.  What does it mean to say that there "could" have been four apples, or "could not" have been four apples?  Can you tell me what state of the world corresponds to that, and how to verify it?  Can you do it without saying "could" or "possible"?

I know what it means for you to rescue a toddler from the orphanage.  What does it mean for you to could-have-not done it?  Can you describe the corresponding state of the world without "could", "possible", "choose", "free", "will", "decide", "can", "able", or "alternative"?

One last chance to take a stab at it, if you want to work out the answer for yourself...

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How An Algorithm Feels From Inside

90 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 11 February 2008 02:35AM

Followup toNeural Categories

"If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?"  I remember seeing an actual argument get started on this subject—a fully naive argument that went nowhere near Berkeleyan subjectivism.  Just:

"It makes a sound, just like any other falling tree!"
"But how can there be a sound that no one hears?"

The standard rationalist view would be that the first person is speaking as if "sound" means acoustic vibrations in the air; the second person is speaking as if "sound" means an auditory experience in a brain.  If you ask "Are there acoustic vibrations?" or "Are there auditory experiences?", the answer is at once obvious.  And so the argument is really about the definition of the word "sound".

I think the standard analysis is essentially correct.  So let's accept that as a premise, and ask:  Why do people get into such an argument?  What's the underlying psychology?

A key idea of the heuristics and biases program is that mistakes are often more revealing of cognition than correct answers.  Getting into a heated dispute about whether, if a tree falls in a deserted forest, it makes a sound, is traditionally considered a mistake.

So what kind of mind design corresponds to that error?

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