As our tribe wanders through the grasslands, searching for fruit trees and prey, it happens every now and then that water pours down from the sky.
“Why does water sometimes fall from the sky?” I ask the bearded wise man of our tribe.
He thinks for a moment, this question having never occurred to him before, and then says, “From time to time, the sky spirits battle, and when they do, their blood drips from the sky.”
“Where do the sky spirits come from?” I ask.
His voice drops to a whisper. “From the before time. From the long long ago.”
When it rains, and you don’t know why, you have several options. First, you could simply not ask why—not follow up on the question, or never think of the question in the first place. This is the Ignore command, which the bearded wise man originally selected. Second, you could try to devise some sort of explanation, the Explain command, as the bearded man did in response to your first question. Third, you could enjoy the sensation of mysteriousness—the Worship command.
Now, as you are bound to notice from this story, each time you select Explain, the best-case scenario is that you get an explanation, such as “sky spirits.” But then this explanation itself is subject to the same dilemma—Explain, Worship, or Ignore? Each time you hit Explain, science grinds for a while, returns an explanation, and then another dialog box pops up. As good rationalists, we feel duty-bound to keep hitting Explain, but it seems like a road that has no end.
You hit Explain for life, and get chemistry; you hit Explain for chemistry, and get atoms; you hit Explain for atoms, and get electrons and nuclei; you hit Explain for nuclei, and get quantum chromodynamics and quarks; you hit Explain for how the quarks got there, and get back the Big Bang . . .
We can hit Explain for the Big Bang, and wait while science grinds through its process, and maybe someday it will return a perfectly good explanation. But then that will just bring up another dialog box. So, if we continue long enough, we must come to a special dialog box, a new option, an Explanation That Needs No Explanation, a place where the chain ends—and this, maybe, is the only explanation worth knowing.
There—I just hit Worship.
Never forget that there are many more ways to worship something than lighting candles around an altar.
If I’d said, “Huh, that does seem paradoxical. I wonder how the apparent paradox is resolved?” then I would have hit Explain, which does sometimes take a while to produce an answer.
And if the whole issue seems to you unimportant, or irrelevant, or if you’d rather put off thinking about it until tomorrow, than you have hit Ignore.
Select your option wisely.
Haha, that's a pretty good analogy. Unfortunately I think most people (myself in the past included and probably even still now) by default have their mouse cursor hovering over wherever the Ignore or Worship buttons appear when such a dialog shows up. And they click it in much the same way my grandparents would click a popup that installs malware on their computer, without thinking or paying attention. Clicking the Explain button requires effort (moving your cursor to a different spot and then waiting for an explanation), and knowing that it will bring up another dialog sooner or later makes it easier for people to just press Ignore or Worship.
I'm sorry, but why can't there simply be an infinite amount of explanations, why can't the regress just go on infinitely? (You say "must")
I say "must" in the Worship option. It is irony.
But if there is an infinite regress of causality, I should find that highly curious, and would like to hear Explained why it is allowed, and why this infinite regress exists rather than some other one.
I like the Ignore/Explain/Worship scenario for roughly describing our epistemological options. I will note that in this particular fable you do not distinguish between different approaches to the Explain option. Mythological and scientific explanations are produced by different methods and have different qualities. I would especially note that scientific explanations have the quality of being predictive where mythological ones are not.
My other note is that "Worship" is a loaded word. For you apparently it can mean contemplating mystery. For some the word worship could only imply one thing - the 'G" word, and you know where people go with that.
Mr. Rozendaal, should we reexamine the notion of "Explain"? Perhaps the ultimate goal (from a value perspective) is power, not knowledge as such. (This would obviously constitute a testability criterion.) Or, with Bacon, we could similarly say that Knowledge is Power. Either way, the sky-spirits answer is substantively different from, for instance, Lavoisier's explanation of combustion.
Perhaps "Explain" should be split into "delay" and "scientific answer"?
Suppose that rain actually was blood shed by large sky-going creatures? Only now, in later years, and with the conventional mistaken belief that religion is non-disprovable, do we think of "sky spirits" as a non-explanation. Back in the old days, it was a reasonable hypothesis. It's just that later it was found to be wrong.
On the other hand, it's not clear how to test "From the before time. From the long long ago." Even in the days when people actually believed their religions, this counts as hitting Worship.
Interpreting "Spirits", or "Gods" as physical creatures is completely missing the point, which is to attempt to describe natural phenomena in terms of human personality. Personality is more understandable to people in general than the numerical measurements and relational formulae that are the currently trendy ways of describing nature. Complaining that there are no observable physical creatures out there making rain, or whatever, is like complaining that there are no actual physical numbers or physical laws in nature, just observations, and that therefore science is nonsense.
I've found that hitting either (E) or (I) entails a bit of (W). If you're running regressions on some enormous dataset creating some elasticity estimates, and you're pretty sure that the estimate should be positive and not negative, and you find it's negative you can either hit (E) - systematize the anomalous result: what's driving it and why is this set of datapoints not what the theory would predict - which I suppose is joined by the sentiment toward God that's either (W) God, why the f--- did you make this universe so f----- complicated or (W) thanks b... (read more)
We can hit Explain for the Big Bang, and wait while science grinds through its process, and maybe someday it will return a perfectly good explanation. But then that will just bring up another dialog box.
I was reminded of "can the second law of thermodynamics be reversed?", here.
But why bother "worshipping" something entirely unlike and completely indifferent to yourself? Doesn't the "personality" of the creator in play matter a great deal in our choice of worship? You need a far more detailed argument to prove that whatever exists at the end of the recursion is worth our consideration, let alone our admiration. I see no need for anything remotely concious to end it. Unless, of course, you are just using the word "worship" as some hippy feel-good term for anything you can't explain and want to pretend not to ignore.
You know, modern computer science gives us lots of examples of questions that we can't ever know the answer to even though they have mundane answers. These could require halting oracles to answer, but could also simply need physically unrealizable computing power due to their complexity class. Maybe science ends when the next step in the causal chain is simply provably not answerable with realistic resources.
"God and the gods were apparitions of observation, judgment and punishment. Other sentiments towards them were secondary. The human organism always worships. First, it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others), next it will be self-aware systems you have built to realize truly omnipresent observation and judgment. The individual desires judgment. Without that desire, the cohesion of groups is impossible, and so is civilization."
A reply to anonymous from a fictional character
daaaaaaamn that's a good post. sums up exactly the way i feel about things. i'm not a scientist, but i do engage in observation, more as a poet than anything else in terms of what i end up doing or creating with that observation. the things i believe are the things i've observed. it wasn't always that way for me, but it is now.
i recently sat and listened to robert bly read lots of poetry. he talked a bit in an offhand way about writing poetry, and what he said was, if the last line you just wrote makes sense to you, cross it out.
somehow poets go straight t... (read more)
Each time you hit Explain, it tells how it's a special case of a more general, more accurate, and hopefully simpler problem. There are two possibilities: At some point you get a model that explains everything with perfect accuracy. When you have that in simplest form, there's no way to Explain. You have to Worship. The other possibility is that the model keeps getting slightly more accurate and slowly gets more complex. There is simply no way to explain everything perfectly with a finite model. You just have to eventually hit Ignore. That said, if you hit ... (read more)
Why couldn't there be a explanation that needs no explanation; an axiom? Why couldn't this list of explanations end with one of those?
Not sure if this is of any importance, but I thought I'd mention that this sentence is potentially syntactically ambiguous in a way that originally made me misread it. Since "hit" can be past or present tense, I originally read this sentence as saying "There - I just hit[present tense] Worship", i.e. "In that case, I'd just hit Worship", as though you were endorsing that rather than just demonstrating it; whereas presumably it was meant more as "Do you see what I did there? That constituted h... (read more)
Ignore is a perfectly fine option. Although "bookmark" might be a better option.
But either way, thinking and understanding can be as much of a obsessive compulsive, maladaptive behavior as anything else. It's certainly one of my maladies, and I doubt I am alone on that score around here.
Are Worship and Explain necessarily mutually exclusive?
“In many cultures, ....it is important to understand that stories are not explanations. They are neither true nor false because they do not describe ‘factual’ events; they do not claim that they do either. “
Any comments on the above?
Is the first one supposed to be "biology"?
This is also a nice complement to David Foster Wallace's speech, "This is Water". You will worship something - hitting Ignore just risks you Worshipping by default something that ends up eating you alive.
Is the mathematical universe "explained" to the last question? And is it specifically not mentioned in the post? And then I once thought that Yudkovsky did not like something in neural networks.