At a family party some years ago, one of my uncles remarked on how little science really knows. For example, we still have no idea how gravity works - why things fall down.
"Actually, we do know how gravity works," I said. (My father, a Ph.D. physicist, was also present; but he wasn't even touching this one.)
"We do?" said my uncle.
"Yes," I said, "Gravity is the curvature of spacetime." At this point I had still swallowed Feynman's line about being able to explain physics to one's grandmother, so I continued: "You could say that the Earth goes around the Sun in a straight line. Imagine a graph that shows both space and time, so that a straight line shows steady movement and a curved line shows acceleration. Then curve the graph paper itself. When you try to draw a straight line on the curved paper, you'll get what looks like acceleration -"
"I never heard about anything like that," said my uncle.
When was the last time, in history, when it was possible for a single human to know the knowledge of the most advanced civilization? I've seen various estimates for this - usually in the form of polymaths nominated for the position of "last person to know everything". One plausible candidate is Leonardo da Vinci, who died in 1519 - shortly after the printing press began to become popular, and shortly before Copernicus inaugurated the scientific revolution.
In the ancestral environment it was possible to know everything, and nearly everyone did. In hunter-gatherer bands of less than 200 people, with no written literature, all background knowledge was universal knowledge. If one person, in a world containing 200 people total, discovered how gravity worked, you could certainly expect to hear about it.
In a world of 6 billion people, there is not one person alive who can say with certainty that science does not know a thing. There is too much science. Our current lifetimes are too short to learn more than a tiny fraction of it, and more is being produced all the time.
Even if last week's technical journal doesn't contain the answer to a mystery, that doesn't mean that no one knows it. Maybe someone out there is typing up the paper at this very moment. You can't generalize over all 6 billion people in the world because you haven't talked to all of them - which is a non-ancestral condition! For the vast majority of humanity's evolutionary history, it was possible to meet everyone in your little world. Now there's 6 billion people who might know the answer to any question you care to ask, and you can't ask all of them.
No one knows anymore what no one knows.
My uncle is not an isolated phenomenon. I've met people who think that science knows nothing about the brain, that thought is a complete mystery unto us. (My favorite was the fellow who confidently asserted that neuroscience had been unable to assign any function "to the cerebral cortex".) As Tom McCabe put it: "Anyone who claims that the brain is a total mystery should be slapped upside the head with the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. All one thousand ninety-six pages of it."
I haven't seen the movie What The Bleep Do We Know, but if the horror stories are true, it's one long celebration of imaginary ignorance. Particularly the "mysterious effect of conscious observation" in quantum physics, which was explained away as ordinary decoherence in the 1950s, but let's not get into that again.
Ignorance should not be celebrated in the first place; I've made this point before. It is a corruption of curiosity to prefer the question to its answer. Yet people seem to get a tremendous emotional kick out of not knowing something. Worse, they think that the mysteriousness of a mysterious phenomena indicates a special quality of the phenomenon itself, inferring that it is surely different-in-kind from phenomena labeled "understood". If we are ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about our state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself.
In the ancestral environment, there was a certain permanence to the division between ignorance and knowledge. If none of your fellow hunter-gatherers knew what made rain fall, it was likely that no one would ever find out in your grandchildren's lifetimes. Today, the absence of knowledge is a fragile and temporary condition, like the darkness in a closet whose door happens to be shut. A single thought can shatter the absence of thought. Every scientific discovery ever made, destroyed an ancient absence-of-knowledge dating back to the dawn of time. No one knows what 6 billion people don't know today, and still less does anyone know what 7 billion people will know tomorrow.
So when a christian presuppositionalist claims we can only know anything because God exists, your answer would be? I mean to say their is clearly no epistemology which explains clearly and technically intelligence itself. What is the your answer to the assertion: you have no epistemology but God is the basis of epistemology? I don't agree at all, my question is simply how to respond since they assume one needs to justify logic itself.
Fogging indeed. If Matthew by his question meant "how would you honestly address that argument", then you didn't answer Matthew any more than that hypotetical presuppositionalist.
Does anyone know how to build a Friendly AI?
It seems perfectly possible to know a particular field well enough that you can predict with high confidence that nobody currently knows the answer to some question. You can never be certain of this, but that's trivial.
Nick that's an interesting thought, but it is possible that someone does know how to build a friendly AI, but may not know that he knows this. What I mean is that a person may be working on something unrelated to AI or is not interested in AI, but knows all the ingredients and technical things needed to make a friendly AI. Maybe he just doesn't know the implications of his own knowledge.
I think it's fair to say many scientists fall into this category, if only due to specialization. Maybe some inorganic chemist knows the cure to cancer. But simply due t... (read more)
Ken, logical ignorance is still ignorance; if this were not so, I would know a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis.
Nick, it's possible, though not at all probable, that someone among Earth's 6 billions is putting the finishing touches on their quiet project right now.
I've spent a little time looking over some crank physics, particularly surrounding Maxwell's equations. Particularly quaternions applied to maxwell's equations. Note that maxwell's equations are very good at describing charges and electromagnetic radiation in terms of quantities in volumes, though they say nothing about how electromagnetic radiation interacts with charged or uncharged masses. Special relativity was designed to "fix" a problem with maxwell's equations, and lasers were invented after a derivation of maxwell's equations implied that... (read more)
"[L]ogical ignorance is still ignorance; if this were not so, I would know a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis." I understand what you mean by logical ignorance is still ignorance; as for the second part of your statement, I don't think that's necessarily true.
For example, if the RH were true you would need n statements in a particular order. Meaning that you have stated assumptions, then you proceed to S1->S2->...->Sn (where Si is the ith logical statement) and Sn is the conclusion of the proof. What you are saying is that you ... (read more)
Don't ever see 'what the bleep do we know'. The woo almost killed me.
Isn't "because of the curvature of space" just a curiosity stopper?
bjk, see General Relativity.
I guess General Relativity is a curiosity stopper, then. :) Actually, isn't one of the criticisms of science that it is a curiosity stopper? It takes the mystery out of the world. Lesson: we need to be careful about what we call a "curiosity stopper".
Longer version of PdB's answer: "because of the curvature of space" isn't "just a curiosity stopper" if you can actually say what that means, do the mathematics, and see how that leads to the phenomenon of gravitation. Of course when you do this you encounter other more fundamental things that you haven't explained yet. (See Eliezer's "Explain/Worship/Ignore" piece here some time back.) This is only curiosity-stopping if you then say "no point ever trying to go any deeper than this".
If the fact that there are not-yet-explained things underlying the curvature of space and how it produces gravity makes it improper to say "we do know how gravity works", then I think similar facts make it improper to say "we know how a windmill works" or "we know how a seesaw works", quod est absurdum.
Scientific explanations replace mysteries with smaller mysteries. You can call that "taking mystery out of the world" if you want to, but regarding that as a criticism is just preferring ignorance and stupidity over knowledge and understanding. If science took the wonder or the curiosity out of the world, that would be a criticism worth making, but oddly enough it's a criticism only ever made by people who don't know much science.
All of which seems to me to be merely repeating things Eliezer said -- and that were common knowledge before Eliezer said them, too -- so, bjk and/or Constant, maybe I'm misunderstanding you?
The allure of the incompletely understood has something to do with wonder. The state of being curious gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside that goes away when the curiosity eliminates itself. Assuming that others experience this as well, perhaps it is an evolutionary incentive to explore--to do some original seeing. This seems appropriate in the ancestral environment where, as you point out, going out and learning something new benefits the whole tribe.
In today's environment, however, most novel knowledge accessible to the average person is essenti... (read more)
"Because of the curvature of space" is, indeed, not a good explanation - especially for someone who doesn't know automatically that a curved line on a spacetime graph equals acceleration - but I did not properly realize this at the time.
The point of this essay is that someone knows the answer, not that I successfully explained it to my uncle. Someone else knowing the answer should not cause you to be any less curious, once you realize that there are no "inherently mysterious" phenomena.
Matthew, if you haven't been raised in the Christian tradition, it's simply a non-sequitur, a random unsupported claim. Like saying that the Tooth Fairy exists and only the power of the Tooth Fairy lets you know things. There's no evidence that the Tooth Fairy exists and moreover someone understands perfectly well how this "knowing" business works (see What Is Evidence?) and that's not it. If you rename the Tooth Fairy to the Truth Fairy or God it's the same problem.
g - if you think I was endorsing the criticism of science for taking the mystery out of the world, then yes, you misunderstand me. I was holding up a particular criticism of science for ridicule. It went without saying that it deserves ridicule. I was using it as a reminder of how easily valid points can be badly applied.
They would read 'what is evidence' and conclude you cannot trust your senses without justification through logic and since it takes logic to justify logic (which is circular) they would claim only God has that power (or the Truth Fairy). It simply feeds on ignorance of lower level processes - like how the brain uses logic or even how a modern computer chip uses logic. In the later case they could say, yes, computer chips are logical but their intelligence is very limited compared to man. Etc.
I've learned their is nothing you can teach a presuppositionalist... (read more)
Ignorance is the basic foundation of science. Without things we are ignorant of there is no point to science. Mystery (and the desire solve it) is the motavation that drives most scientists to do the hard (often unrewarding) work that makes science. "Because God made it that way," can be the end of curiosity and therefore harmful to further discovery. "What has God wrought?" on the other hand has been the question that motavated men like Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein. "Decoherence solved the observer problem in physics,&q... (read more)
"Decoherence solved the observer problem in physics," is an example of an incorrect statement Care to support that?
TGGP- there is a paper by Rosenblum and Kutter on arxiv.org that goes into this. I believe they make a convining case that no existent theory does away with the problem. I like this paper because it goes into the problems without too much jargon. You could google "observer problem decoherence" (or words to that effect) and you will find any number of papers written and a somewhat lively debate on the subject. The von Nuemann- Wigner interpretation of QM is often refered to as the "standard" interpretation, and it has as a basic that t... (read more)
I'm not sure I follow your argument. It seems like you want to say, not that your uncle was wrong to claim that no one has any understanding of gravity because this claim is false, but rather that he was wrong to claim this because, in general, it is always wrong to claim that science doesn't know something. At this point, you seem to suggest that simply because it is always possible that someone has secretly or just recently explained a phenomena, that therefore, one is never justified in stating that a broad community of people lack such an exp... (read more)
Dmitri: As I read him, Eliezer is saying (1) that it's easy to be unaware of scientific progress even once it's made it into the literature, and (2) that at any given moment there's plenty going on that hasn't made it into the literature yet. #1 is sufficient to make his uncle wrong to say that no one knows how gravity works, and others wrong to say that no one's made any progress towards understanding consciousness. #2 isn't needed for those conclusions, but it's interesting in its own right.
Douglas: I had a look at the paper by Rosenblum and Kutter, and ... (read more)
Whether or not something is non-sequitur doesn't depend on Matthew's upbringing.
Appealing to a materialist set of assumptions to argue against some view other than materialism (such as Christianity) is question begging. Of course you can reason your way from "Materialism is true" to "Christianity is false," but so what? This only shows that materialism and Christianity are incompatible which is not a matter of dispute at all.
I could agree Jim about the question begging part if you haven't opened a neurology/neuroscience textbook.
You might as well have said: "Using materialist assumptions to explain chemistry is question begging. Of course christianity is incompatible with the laws of chemistry when one does not come from a materialist perspective."
This is one of the best articles I've read in a long time. I agree with every statement. Thank you and please keep producing more. There are many people who enjoy this level of intellect.
g- I think you've misread the article. There is nothing to worry about, of course, there are only possibilities to consider. The point the article makes is not dependant on any particular notion of free will. Stapp advocates the von Nuemann, Wigner formulation of QM, the only existing formulation that produces a rationally coherent idea of the reality that lies behind our experiences. IMHO Of course, one problem that people have with this formulation is that it agrees with with the experienced fact that our thoughts can influence our actions. Would anyone reading this post, or studying decision theory, or trying to overcome a bias, deny that?
Empricial findings in neuroscience or any other discipline don't change whether or not the structure of some argument presumes its conclusion. Neuroscience (which, by the way, brings materialism in as an assumption) or not, it's still question begging to draw on materialist assumptions to argue against Christianity. If you want to claim that drawing on Christianity to argue against materialism is also question begging, you'd be right, but that doesn't change the fact that the former is question begging also.
Douglas, perhaps I have indeed misunderstood the article; I was reading it in the hope that it would give some indication of why you think there's a real "observer problem", and perhaps that was wrong. Since you've clearly read it with more attention than I have, perhaps you'd care to explain how the article justifies the statements you've been making about QM and the "observer problem"?
I think propositions like "our thoughts can influence our actions" are too vaguely defined to be any use in contexts like this.
"Knowing" is different for christians versus scientists. A christian can "know" that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. A scientist who "knows" that gravity comes from the curvature of space is accepting a tentative hypothesis which he will discard when something better comes along. He's taken something that's compatible with the known facts and if he's active in that particular line of research then he's using what he "knows" to choose interesting things to look at.
At any given time some people will be behin... (read more)
Jim, if modern science works, it isn't begging the question. There is nothing circular about results...except this conversation, which is predicated on your ignorance of the topic. But here I am violating my own principles. I promise not to reply to your reply.
The bit about Copernicus inaugurating the scientific revolution -- is that an error, or part of an example-from-argument that I should have been quick enough to catch?
My understanding is that De revolutionibus was ignored when it was published, and didn't start making waves until the 1600s. This fits with your point that no one knows what science knows -- except that in this case, Copernicus can't properly be said to have known what he knew, either.
As I understand it, the secular Saint Nicolaus thought he had found a neat trick for computing where planets... (read more)
My understanding of Copernicus's argument is that it doesn't stand out for its superior coincidence with observed facts -- Ptolemy's calculations (and observations) may actually have been slightly more accurate -- but rather that the geometry in Copernicus explains as necessary things that are merely notable coincidences in Ptolemy.
Ptolemy was aware of contemporary heliocentric theories, though. He admitted in Almagest that he had no knock-down argument against such theories, except that it's plainly ridiculous to think that the Earth moves -- after ... (read more)
g- Perhaps a more rigorous paper would be appropriate. Try PCE Stamp (2006) It's on the web. After covering many new experiments and discussion of the current formulations the conclusion goes something like this: "Decoherence, according to the older ideas, is supposed to explain away the quantum measurement problem..." "There are many things we still do not understand about decoherence and what causes it, and it should now be clear this is a pressing problem." (Some people use the 'measurement problem', others the 'observer problem'-... (read more)
Obviously science doesn't "know" anything in the sense of making it impossible or forbidden to question it. Eliezer wasn't saying it does, and the examples of saying "science doesn't know X" he quoted are ones where people are saying science has no understanding of X, when in fact it does. (Even though never a complete or unquestionable one.)
Stamp argues that the mechanisms underlying decoherence aren't fully understood and there's more decoherence going on than we have good models for, and that this might just turn out to indicate that... (read more)
(Owing to blogs' unfortunate chronological set-up, there's a good chance no more than three or four people will ever read this comment and an even better chance that no one will follow up on something that I write here. This refrains my passion from expressing itself further on this subject in this particular cyber-location. May the future of blogging be kinder to the intellectual/literary output of who were yesterday.)
Curvature of spacetime was not present in the previous theory of gravitation. We can see that another paradigm-shift in the theory of gravity will likely be needed when gravity and quantum theory are combined. It is widely predicted that relativity will come off worse in this future tussle - it is the theory with the singularities in. I would not bet much on the longevity of the "curvature of spacetime" explanation - maybe it is an unfortunate example.
Why is it that if you tell a lie over and over again that the majority of people will except it as fact?
I agree with the message of the article, but I do not think it is forever going to be impossible to query what science currently knows.
Improvements in search technology cause a decrease in the time taken to do a reasonable search for any existing knowledge on a topic. Before the internet you might have had to read dozens of journals to have a vague idea of whether a field had discovered something in particular. Now you can do an online search. Conceivably, a future search engine could be good enough that it could take some imprecise (non-jargon) search ... (read more)
Apparently the full quote from Richard Feynman is:
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
This was in 1965. Everett's first paper was in 1957 IIRC. So not only was Feynman mistaken about nobody at that time understanding quantum mechanics, but he thought this could be said safely? When there are billions of people in the world, and all ignorance and confusion is a property of the map rather than the territory?
Feynman was one of the great Traditional Rationalists, but sometimes he really does manage to get it completely wrong. Einstein was much worse in the same department: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother"!?
Why are you so sure Feynman is ignorant of Everett, rather than talking about him?
I'd expect that Wheeler, who liked Everett's work enough to write a companion piece, would have told his other students about it. Steve Hsu points to a 1957 conference where Wheeler talked about Everett and Feynman made it clear he was interested in this stuff.
That's probably a misquote, it turns out. I can't find any source for it and Wikiquote agrees. The closest they could find was Ronald W. Clark claiming that Louis de Broglie claimed that Einstein believed "that all physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description 'that even a child could understand them.'" (I'm interpreting this to mean that Clark attributed the outer quote to de Broglie, who attributed the inner quote to Einstein while giving his own explanation of the context.) Could be true, but our knowledge of it is a few degrees away from the primary source, so there's room for it to get corrupted or taken out of context along the way. And even if it is correctly attributed and interpreted, the "their mathematical expressions apart" bit redeems it somewhat (not completely). Though that does dilute the meaning of "understand[ing]" as used, or it identifies it with (as you've termed them) verbal understanding rather than technical understandin... (read more)
I don't think you understand something until you understand the mechanism. This is what empiricism is about: if something is the result of an interaction, how does that interaction work? We don't know yet how gravity is the result of an interaction. We can only describe the result of this interaction.
You jump into the air -> Earth expands -> voila, now you're touching the Earth again.
"... people seem to get a tremendous emotional kick out of not knowing something. " Could be simple schadenfreude: asserting that "no one" knows a thing, even those demonstrably more intelligent than yourself, has the emotional effect of knocking them down into the same mud in which you already believe yourself to be mired. Not productive, but good solace for those unwilling to be productive.
Can this article be used to defend to idea that one day we may do things we currently believe are "physically impossible" such as build perpetual motion machines or alter physical constants?
New here. Trying to sort out the jargon and what not, but have immensely enjoyed reading through the posts. Stumbled upon this one and, I realize it's ten years old, but I have criticism: In the initial example, the example upon which the rest of the post was built, the Uncle was actually correct. We do NOT know how gravity works. We know how it acts upon the physical world, but as we've never discovered gravitational force carriers, we've zero knowledge of the mechanism through which it manifests.
Also, this certainly depends on how extreme you car... (read more)