Failing to Learn from History


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Eliezer_Yudkowsky

Once upon a time, in my wild and reckless youth, when I knew not the Way of Bayes, I gave a Mysterious Answer to a mysterious-seeming question.  Many failures occurred in sequence, but one mistake stands out as most critical:  My younger self did not realize that solving a mystery should make it feel less confusing.  I was trying to explain a Mysterious Phenomenon—which to me meant providing a cause for it, fitting it into an integrated model of reality.  Why should this make the phenomenon less Mysterious, when that is its nature?  I was trying to explain the Mysterious Phenomenon, not render it (by some impossible alchemy) into a mundane phenomenon, a phenomenon that wouldn't even call out for an unusual explanation in the first place.

As a Traditional Rationalist, I knew the historical tales of astrologers and astronomy, of alchemists and chemistry, of vitalists and biology.  But the Mysterious Phenomenon was not like this.  It was something new, something stranger, something more difficult, something that ordinary science had failed to explain for centuries—

- as if stars and matter and life had not been mysteries for hundreds of years and thousands of years, from the dawn of human thought right up until science finally solved them—

We learn about astronomy and chemistry and biology in school, and it seems to us that these matters have always been the proper realm of science, that they have never been mysterious.  When science dares to challenge a new Great Puzzle, the children of that generation are skeptical, for they have never seen science explain something that feels mysterious to them.  Science is only good for explaining scientific subjects, like stars and matter and life.

I thought the lesson of history was that astrologers and alchemists and vitalists had an innate character flaw, a tendency toward mysterianism, which led them to come up with mysterious explanations for non-mysterious subjects.  But surely, if a phenomenon really was very weird, a weird explanation might be in order?

It was only afterward, when I began to see the mundane structure inside the mystery, that I realized whose shoes I was standing in.  Only then did I realize how reasonable vitalism had seemed at the time, how surprising and embarrassing had been the universe's reply of, "Life is mundane, and does not need a weird explanation."

We read history but we don't live it, we don't experience it.  If only I had personally postulated astrological mysteries and then discovered Newtonian mechanics, postulated alchemical mysteries and then discovered chemistry, postulated vitalistic mysteries and then discovered biology.  I would have thought of my Mysterious Answer and said to myself:  No way am I falling for that again.