"Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and the most fortunate; for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish."
I have more fun discovering things for myself than reading about them in textbooks. This is right and proper, and only to be expected.
But discovering something that no one else knows—being the first to unravel the secret—
There is a story that one of the first men to realize that stars were burning by fusion—plausible attributions I've seen are to Fritz Houtermans and Hans Bethe—was walking out with his girlfriend of a night, and she made a comment on how beautiful the stars were, and he replied: "Yes, and right now, I'm the only man in the world who knows why they shine."
It is attested by numerous sources that this experience, being the first person to solve a major mystery, is a tremendous high. It's probably the closest experience you can get to taking drugs, without taking drugs—though I wouldn't know.
That can't be healthy.
Not that I'm objecting to the euphoria. It's the exclusivity clause that bothers me. Why should a discovery be worth less, just because someone else already knows the answer?
The most charitable interpretation I can put on the psychology, is that you don't struggle with a single problem for months or years if it's something you can just look up in the library. And that the tremendous high comes from having hit the problem from every angle you can manage, and having bounced; and then having analyzed the problem again, using every idea you can think of, and all the data you can get your hands on—making progress a little at a time—so that when, finally, you crack through the problem, all the dangling pieces and unresolved questions fall into place at once, like solving a dozen locked-room murder mysteries with a single clue.
And more, the understanding you get is real understanding—understanding that embraces all the clues you studied to solve the problem, when you didn't yet know the answer. Understanding that comes from asking questions day after day and worrying at them; understanding that no one else can get (no matter how much you tell them the answer) unless they spend months studying the problem in its historical context, even after it's been solved—and even then, they won't get the high of solving it all at once.
That's one possible reason why James Clerk Maxwell might have had more fun discovering Maxwell's Equations, than you had fun reading about them.
A slightly less charitable reading is that the tremendous high comes from what is termed, in the politesse of social psychology, "commitment" and "consistency" and "cognitive dissonance"; the part where we value something more highly just because it took more work to get it. The studies showing that subjective fraternity pledges to a harsher initiation, causes them to be more convinced of the value of the fraternity—identical wine in higher-priced bottles being rated as tasting better—that sort of thing.
Of course, if you just have more fun solving a puzzle than being told its answer, because you enjoy doing the cognitive work for its own sake, there's nothing wrong with that. The less charitable reading would be if charging $100 to be told the answer to a puzzle, made you think the answer was more interesting, worthwhile, important, surprising, etc. than if you got the answer for free.
(I strongly suspect that a major part of science's PR problem in the population at large is people who instinctively believe that if knowledge is given away for free, it cannot be important. If you had to undergo a fearsome initiation ritual to be told the truth about evolution, maybe people would be more satisfied with the answer.)
The really uncharitable reading is that the joy of first discovery is about status. Competition. Scarcity. Beating everyone else to the punch. It doesn't matter whether you have a 3-room house or a 4-room house, what matters is having a bigger house than the Joneses. A 2-room house would be fine, if you could only ensure that the Joneses had even less.
I don't object to competition as a matter of principle. I don't think that the game of Go is barbaric and should be suppressed, even though it's zero-sum. But if the euphoric joy of scientific discovery has to be about scarcity, that means it's only available to one person per civilization for any given truth.
If the joy of scientific discovery is one-shot per discovery, then, from a fun-theoretic perspective, Newton probably used up a substantial increment of the total Physics Fun available over the entire history of Earth-originating intelligent life. That selfish bastard explained the orbits of planets and the tides.
And really the situation is even worse than this, because in the Standard Model of physics (discovered by bastards who spoiled the puzzle for everyone else) the universe is spatially infinite, inflationarily branching, and branching via decoherence, which is at least three different ways that Reality is exponentially or infinitely large
So aliens, or alternate Newtons, or just Tegmark duplicates of Newton, may all have discovered gravity before our Newton did—if you believe that "before" means anything relative to those kinds of separations.
When that thought first occurred to me, I actually found it quite uplifting. Once I realized that someone, somewhere in the expanses of space and time, already knows the answer to any answerable question—even biology questions and history questions; there are other decoherent Earths—then I realized how silly it was to think as if the joy of discovery ought to be limited to one person. It becomes a fully inescapable source of unresolvable existential angst, and I regard that as a reductio.
The consistent solution which maintains the possibility of fun, is to stop worrying about what other people know. If you don't know the answer, it's a mystery to you. If you can raise your hand, and clench your fingers into a fist, and you've got no idea of how your brain is doing it—or even what exact muscles lay beneath your skin—you've got to consider yourself just as ignorant as a hunter-gatherer. Sure, someone else knows the answer—but back in the hunter-gatherer days, someone else in an alternate Earth, or for that matter, someone else in the future, knew what the answer was. Mystery, and the joy of finding out, is either a personal thing, or it doesn't exist at all—and I prefer to say it's personal.
The joy of assisting your civilization by telling it something it doesn't already know, does tend to be one-shot per discovery per civilization; that kind of value is conserved, as are Nobel Prizes. And the prospect of that reward may be what it takes to keep you focused on one problem for the years required to develop a really deep understanding; plus, working on a problem unknown to your civilization is a sure-fire way to avoid reading any spoilers.
But as part of my general project to undo this idea that rationalists have less fun, I want to restore the magic and mystery to every part of the world which you do not personally understand, regardless of what other knowledge may exist, far away in space and time, or even in your next-door neighbor's mind. If you don't know, it's a mystery. And now think of how many things you don't know! (If you can't think of anything, you have other problems.) Isn't the world suddenly a much more mysterious and magical and interesting place? As if you'd been transported into an alternate dimension, and had to learn all the rules from scratch?
"A friend once told me that I look at the world as if I've never seen it before. I thought, that's a nice compliment... Wait! I never have seen it before! What —did everyone else get a preview?"
A slightly less charitable reading is that the tremendous high comes from what is termed, in the politesse of social psychology, "commitment" and "consistency" and "cognitive dissonance";
Eliezer, what is your opinion on this? Do you think it's worth to do an extra effort to discover and really understand something you could read in the library? Or is it just a cognitive dissonance effect you will get?
Maybe my last comment wasn't entirely clear:
Is the extra effort you put into discovering something yourself as opposed to looking it up really worth it? I would say in most cases there is a point of diminishing returns after you spent some time trying to figure it out where it makes sense to look the solution up in the library/internet/wherever.
Roland: looking the solution up isn't discovery and neither does it exclude discovery. Discovery is the moment when things fit together and you go "oh yeah, I see how that relates". That's always personal.
Rather than pursuing every mystery, I think it's more important to remember you always have the potential to unravel it yourself (with a fulfilling journey). Even if you end up never pursuing a phenomenon, I still believe you can benefit from acquiring this mindset.
"But as part of my general project to undo this idea that rationalists have less fun,"
I hope you are doing this rationally by measuring peoples rational activity vs fun levels.
The joy of textbook-mediated personal discovery...
"If you had to undergo a fearsome initiation ritual to be told the truth about evolution, maybe people would be more satisfied with the answer." Sounds cool, im thinking of some sort of camp maybe ;)
Seriously, looking at the many cases of bitter competition in the history of science makes me think that status at least has been an important motivator of discovery. E.g Newton vs. Leibniz & also cases where there actually was a disagreement about the correct theory..
she made a comment on how beautiful the stars were, and he replied: "Yes, and right now, I'm the only man in the world who knows why they shine."
...and as she melted into his arms, his dilemma became clear. Did he keep his astonishing discovery to himself, or publish, become internationally renowned, and lose the best line in history?
I wonder how this relates to tracking down hard-to-find bugs in computer programs.
And that the tremendous high comes from having hit the problem from every angle you can manage, and having bounced; and then having analyzed the problem again, using every idea you can think of, and all the data you can get your hands on - making progress a little at a time - so that when, finally, you crack through the problem, all the dangling pieces and unresolved questions fall into place at once, like solving a dozen locked-room murder mysteries with a single clue.
This sounds very similar to trying to track down a tricky bug to me. I was going to say that bug-hunting is also almost always original discovery, but the everett-branch/tegmark duplicate argument demolishes that idea. One important difference betwen bug-hunting and scientific discovery is probably the expected effort; even well-hidden bugs usually don't take months to track down if the programmer focuses on the task.
A good comparative example!
though I'd suggest that in the Age of Google, even bug-tracking has it's share of "previously discovered" canon.
It's much easier to track down a common bug these days. You only have to hand-hunt bugs that nobody's come across (and blogged about) before.
I'm not sure you can so easily will your motives to be what you wish they would be. If it turns out that you are motivated by status, that may not be a pretty picture, but can it be enough to simply declare yourself to be motivated by puzzle-solving instead?
"Sure, someone else knows the answer - but back in the hunter-gatherer days, someone else in an alternate Earth, or for that matter, someone else in the future, knew what the answer was."
I think the difference is that someone else knows the answer and can tell you.
It may be possible to shift your motives through a sustained act of will - but only if you have a deeper and stronger motive that makes such an action valuable.
No one can escape their deepest motivations. Anything we do is a dance to their tune.
"The really uncharitable reading is that the joy of first discovery is about status. Competition. Scarcity. Beating everyone else to the punch. It doesn't matter whether you have a 3-room house or a 4-room house, what matters is having a bigger house than the Joneses. A 2-room house would be fine, if you could only ensure that the Joneses had even less."
I'm afraid that I think this is the truth, and that it is an inescapable fact of human psychology that this is how all good human scientists work. I personally accept the fact that it's really status that motivates me, and think to myself "it's better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons than not to do the right thing at all!". I think that if I attempted to do science without the underlying emotional motivation of the big status reward at the end, I would be much less motivated, and i probably wouldn't get much done. Certainly not as much as if I work with my own psychology of status-reward.
I don't see that the sources of pleasure are mutually exclusive. Probably, in most normal humans, at least a little of all three are present. Also, the parallel universe stuff is meaningless, unless and until some way is found to communicate with them, or at very least, their existence is reasonably proven, not just hypothesized.
The most charitable interpretation I can put on the psychology, is that you don't struggle with a single problem for months or years if it's something you can just look up in the library.
This reminds me of the reason I can't really enjoy computer adventure games anymore, and which is probably part of the reason why they stopped being popular. Back in the old days, you'd beat your head against the puzzles for weeks until you finally figured out how to proceed, giving you a little high. But these days, when you start getting frustrated, you can just look up the solution at gamefaqs.com, which kinda ruins it. And since the experience is frustrating, you can't help cheating - but then you can't get the joy of having finally solved the frustrating problem.
Does this mean all the Wikipedia entries on science need spoiler alerts?
Honestly, I've had the experience of knowing something nobody else does for awhile (though in cryptography, not something world-shaking involving tides or planets), and it's kind of a cool feeling. I think part of this is anticipation of improved status, but a bigger part, at least for me, is that this gives me a way to measure myself against something external. If I'm discovering/inventing stuff that nobody else has managed to discover/invent, this gives me a sense that I'm doing a good job.
I agree with the above comment that our motivations for stuff like this are mixed; I love solving the puzzle, I get a bigger charge out of it when the puzzle is hard (but not so hard that I can't get anywhere on it and give up instead), I like the status of being the guy who did something cool, I like the knowledge that I know something nobody else does (and if I died right now, maybe nobody would figure this out for many more years), and I like the way of measuring myself against the best other people can do. And there are probably other sources of motivation for trying to discover new stuff, invent new stuff, understand things nobody else has ever understood, etc.
Trivia: The stars & girlfriend story was mentioned by Richard Feynman in "What Do YOU Care what Other People Think?"
I heard the stars & girlfriend story a little differently; it was Maxwell with a girlfriend, and he told her that he was the only person who knew what starlight really was (electromagnetic waves).
Anyway, isn't one difference between discovering something that's "new" and something that's already been discovered is that, well, when something new is discovered, it might be something that can "change the world", as it were, but something already known has "already changed the world" so the benefit is less. (I think I didn't say that very well...)
Those versions of the star story make one strongly suspect that it never happened at all, with anyone.
I think the shot of adrenaline to the ego is what gives the sense of high in most cases, and what motivates most scientists. And it probably is almost entirely the source of the high of the non-world changing and minor discoveries.
Having said that, I do think that in some cases, very few, there is perhaps a stronger element of what Eliezer briefly touched on towards the end of the essay: that one has just added to the sum total of humanity's knowledge, and inched us toward the perfect understanding of the world around us that science constantly seeks.
To think that one has just discovered something that will affect all of humanity for the rest of time by adding to the knowledge we have and providing a foundation for all knowledge that builds upon it is a dizzying thought, and I think the high is not only that "I'm such a genius and I'll be remembered forever and be envied by all my contemporaries", but also consists in the realization of the incalculable consequences of what you have just discovered.
Of course, this applies to discoveries of the nature of Newton or Darwin, rather than lesser discoveries, and I'd attribute the high of lesser discoveries to more egocentric thoughts. (And perhaps in Newton's case as well, since he was an quite a self-centered individual, but that's another subject.)
To summarize, while it may be that the ego-centered explanations of the high is the dominant explanation in all minor or trivial discoveries, and is present in all greater discoveries, in some cases, the high may be even more strongly based on the sense of steering the future of mankind, or at least science, of leading us into new territory. If it feels good to help an old lady across the street, how would it feel to give a gift to the trillions of human beings that do not yet exist? And this explains why the high is probably that much greater -- at least upon reflection -- for something that one thinks might not have been discovered for a long time otherwise, as opposed to the things that were in the air at the time and would certainly have been discovered in the very near future by somebody else (e.g., Archimedes' method of exhaustion [if he'd have sensed the implications], close to the modern use of limits in calculus and analysis, versus Watson/Crick who were racing to beat Linus Pauling).
One of the things missing from your analysis, although it might not change it much, is the fact that there are few mysteries in the world: most things had explanations before they had true explanations. Part of the delight in discovery (being the only person who knows why the stars shine) is probably in knowing other people are wrong. Perhaps it's more of a humorous delight (how silly that I am the only one who knows why the stars shine).
I think this applies to your analysis of the poet's disenchantment too: really the poet laments the loss of a prior explanation (God's handiwork or some other literary construct) rather than the lack of a mystery. In a real sense something has been stolen from the poet; before the scientist got his hands on the rainbow people genuinely turned to the poet for explanation (or at least edification; which they'll take instead).
I often see people state, for example, that it's ridiculous to suggest that Newton discovered gravity: gravity is obvious! Any fool can observe gravity with his own eyes! Yet the concept of gravity was completely alien to a world in which Aristotelian physics held sway. And while it's not entirely accurate to say Newton "discovered gravity" (it was a cumulative discovery beginning with Kepler and Galileo); there was a time when gravity was unthinkable. There was a prevailing alternate theory (namely that certain objects moved toward their "home" at the center of the universe, others moved away, etc); it's ignorance of that theory (and its sophistication) that leads us to think that gravity is/was obvious. Science is always a problem of overcoming some other non-scientific explanation.
In that sense I think there's a very real adversary and being the first is a genuine triumph.
At least we'll always have new mathematics to discover. To quote Erdos: "Mathematics is the only infinite human activity. It is conceivable that humanity could eventually learn everything in physics or biology. But humanity certainly won't ever be able to find out everything in mathematics, because the subject is infinite. Numbers themselves are infinite."
Understanding can also be infinite. And the idea that we could run out of physics, but not mathematics, is inane. Mathematics IS physics.
The mathematics of physics is just an infinitesimal part of all of mathematics.
Physics could at some point be completely solved, which is to say that at some point, there would be no further knowledge that would ever allow us to do anything new, to make any better a prediction, to do anything more efficiently, etc.
There is no such limit to mathematics though, because mathematics, unlike physics, is not constrained by reality. It only needs to be self consistent (under perhaps limitless different conceptions of consistency) given a particular starting point, and there is no limit to the number of starting points or perspectives upon which can be built new systems. And there are concepts analogous to quantity, transformation, shape, etc., that that have not yet been invented but will be fertile ground for new branches of mathematics someday.
I think it's possible that all useful mathematics could someday be discovered (if you consider all art useless), but that would still be just an infinitesimal part of all of mathematics. To say that mathematics could be exhausted is to say that all stories may one day have been told, and fiction may be exhausted. It just can't happen.
Not the mathematics of physics. The mathematics is physics!
What do you think you're doing the mathematics with? Platonic substances? Souls? It's all done with physics, son. Every mathematical statement is a claim about the behavior of the physical world.
"I personally accept the fact that it's really status that motivates me, and think to myself "it's better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons than not to do the right thing at all!"."
I think it's a bit sad that status is one of the strongest motivators in discovery (and work in general). If it's not discovery/knowledge that you genuinely aim for, you might e.g. refuse to hire a new promising researcher/ purposely withhold information/ start to make all kinds of political plots etc.. I'd hope ppl would honestly think about their motivations. Is the status/power you're after just a method of achieving something else etc.?
"Physics could at some point be completely solved, which is to say that at some point, there would be no further knowledge that would ever allow us to do anything new, to make any better a prediction, to do anything more efficiently, etc."
It seems to me that ppl have a tendency to overstate their knowledge. What does a slug know about physics? Respectively, what does a human know about (possible) 101th dimension or travel through time or any of the stuff some posthuman might do "physics" about.
Tobbic: "I think it's a bit sad that status is one of the strongest motivators in discovery (and work in general). If it's not discovery/knowledge that you genuinely aim for, you might e.g. refuse to hire a new promising researcher/ purposely withhold information/ start to make all kinds of political plots etc.. I'd hope ppl would honestly think about their motivations. Is the status/power you're after just a method of achieving something else etc.?"
I think that my mind bases my emotional reward only on positive contributions which lead to status. For example, I think I would feel very happy if I discovered something new, but not happy at all if I stole the idea from someone else and then (somehow) caused everyone else to believe that I came up with it. I am trying to work out exactly why I work like this; I think it must be some need to prove myself, or validate my ability. Stealing ideas from other people does not validate my ability, rather it invalidates it. So really, it's not the status I'm after. It's validation I'm after, and it's just the case that status within the scientific community usually accompanies vindication of one's ideas and/or ability.
"I strongly suspect that a major part of science's PR problem in the population at large is people who instinctively believe that if knowledge is given away for free, it cannot be important."
FREE??? If only it were free...
Caledonian: Every mathematical statement is a claim about the behavior of the physical world.
Please interpret the following statements for me in terms of the behavior of the physical world, and tell me which branch of physics deals with the behavior of each:
The cardinality of the set of real numbers is greater than the cardinality of the set of natural numbers.
The continuum hypothesis is independent of ZF and ZFC set theory.
There are no solutions to the equation a^n + b^n = c^n for non-zero integers a, b, and c and integer n > 2.
Me: Physics could at some point be completely solved, which is to say that at some point, there would be no further knowledge that would ever allow us to do anything new, to make any better a prediction, to do anything more efficiently, etc.
Tobbic: It seems to me that ppl have a tendency to overstate their knowledge. What does a slug know about physics? Respectively, what does a human know about (possible) 101th dimension or travel through time or any of the stuff some posthuman might do "physics" about.
I didn't claim that it is a fact that physics could be completely solved. My point is that it is conceivable that it could be -- there is no apparent logical contradiction from believing this -- but it is absurd to say that every story could ever be told, every painting could ever be painted, or that we could run out of theorems to solve and new areas of mathematics to invent.
Reality does not constrain mathematics -- it doesn't have to have applications -- but it obviously does constrain physics, and sets an upper bound on what can be discovered.
Note: this argument says nothing about whether it is likely that we ever will completely solve it or not, as you seem to assume.
Behavior of: concept-representations constructed of activation patterns in neural nets
I think you can figure out the branches of science (and their relationships to the underlying physics) yourself.
Again: do you think you're doing mathematics with a magical soul? No! You have thinkmeat! And if you're not using that, you're using some other computational device - probably electronic - to push the concepts around.
Taboo "physics". We could, and probably will, discover a perfect model of the fundamental level of reality (or the lowest level we have access to), but that doesn't mean everything in reality will become predictable or boring. Any Turing-complete system contains in potential an infinite number of unpredictable behaviors, some of which will be interesting.
Caledonian, that's mere sophistry to say "mathematics is physics because it is performed by a brain or analogous physical device".
According to that definition, no matter what you study at university, you are really doing physics. Every single human being that has ever earned a university degree earned a physics degree (since English is Physics, Art History is Physics, etc.), and every individual whose work involves use of her brain (even if only for respiration and basic metabolic processes) is a physicist.
I think I'll stick with the understanding of physics that the rest of the world uses.
I would guess that most people who feel this high haven't really solved a major mystery, but just think that they did, because for every person who truly solves a big mystery, there are many others who erroneously think that they did. For me, whenever I think I may have solved some problem, I'm always worried that I have made a mistake in my reasoning somewhere, and it takes days to years to convince myself that I was right after all, so I never really get that big momentary high. (One exception is when I'm doing crypto optimization, where I can easily verify the correctness of some idea just by benchmarking the resulting code.)
I think I'm motivated to work on a problem mostly because I want to get rid of a feeling of confusion, and I'd be happy to let others do the work for me and just learn from textbooks. So I'm quite alarmed at Eliezer's suggestion that in the future, knowledge should be hidden from people to make their life more fun.
When I was in primary school (year 5 or 6) I struck upon the idea that humans could have variable perceptions. My friend, Charlie, had colour blindness, I did not know what this meant and assumed after a cursory explanation that he mistook red for green and green for red. Being a relatively inquisitive kid I struck upon a problem immediately and could not work out how he'd ever know he was colour blind.
It wasn't until later that day I was informed as to how colour blindness works. Still, I felt incredibly clever for several years until I was informed that the problem had been thought of before, I thought I had encountered a true wonder of the human mind for the first time and to me it was a pretty big high especially considering my age.
Quite a while ago, I was working on a toy OS kernel that I was writing, trying to implement proper multitasking, and ran into a consistent bug--every time I booted with multitasking enabled, the machine would immediately page fault. I struggled with this for several weeks, and eventually solved it by looking through the assembler dump of the kernel as I ran it instruction-by-instruction--which is really hard, tedious work. When I eventually solved it, I got a really great feeling, perhaps analogous to the first-discovery that you describe. The difference, of course, being that this problem, while quite probably something no one else (or at least, no one else in this particular universe) knew the answer to, was not really significant in any way; it related solely to my own inability to sufficiently visualize the actions of the compiler. Still got a great feeling. I'm inclined to believe that the first-discovery high is mainly a function of finding the solution to a problem you've worked on for a long time.
I find part of the joy of discovery is the feeling of power over the world. I have understood something! I can do more!
This works even though I don't think I've ever discovered anything big and original. I've improved myself.
There's another thing, too - new discoveries change things. Not just your understanding of the world, but our understanding of it.
The problem with routine discoveries, like my most recent discovery of how a magic trick works or the QED-euphoria I get after getting a proof down, is that it doesn't last long. I can't output 5 proofs/solutions an hour.
If by “before” you mean ‘in the past light cone of’, I wouldn't be that surprised if nobody had discovered gravity before our Newton did.
It is, I think, the satisfaction of both utility and curiosity, Engineering and Science, that makes the new discovery the best.
To know that this was the easiest way, and thus not diminish the discovery with futility, but yet to finally succeed in overcoming mental hardship, which is a joyous release. Not least due to the excitement in accomplishment, nor the pride of creating new advancements in aid of ethical positivity.
Or perhaps because having something that no-one else does is far too ingrained in our psyches, as a species.
I find that the realization of consilience can be "as" good as original discovery; for me, the discovery that an idea about the world - even one posited centuries ago - comprehensively makes sense in the context of everything else known about reality is, itself, an original discovery.
It's just one that's unique to you or me.
"Mystery, and the joy of finding out, is either a personal thing, or it doesn't exist at all—and I prefer to say it's personal." I don't see why this is the case. Can't one only have joy from finding out what no one in the Solar System knows? That way, one can still have joy, but it's still not personal.