Some concepts are like Newton's Gravity, others are like... Luminiferous Aether?

post by Locaha · 2015-08-09T15:10:17.895Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 10 comments

Let's compare two theories. One is Newton's gravity, the other Luminiferous Aether. When Einstein's theory of relativity arrived, Newton's Gravity turned to be a subset of it, an approximation that works under specific conditions.

On the other hand, Luminiferous Aether is just plain wrong.

Now, imagine that a scientist in the era before Theory of Relativity built a Strong AI (just roll with me here :-) ) and tasked it with finding out why Newton's Gravity doesn't work quite right around Mercury. The AI derived the Theory of Relativity.

Now, imagine this scientist asking the AI what Luminiferous Aether is made from. The AI is going to throw an OutOfLuminiferousAether exception (don't ask me why the AI is written in Java).


Humorous prelude aside, I am wondering which concepts we have today are only slightly wrong, and which are completely wrong? I am asking mostly about the concepts that are discussed on this forum.

Obviously, the more abstract is the concept, the more risk there that it will turn out to be bunkum.

Personally, I don't trust the concept of values. It's already so complex and fragile, I'm afraid it doesn't actually exist.


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comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-08-09T19:12:49.988Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One big difference between the theories is that Newton's theory of gravity was a fully mathematically worked out theory, whereas Luminiferous Aether was little more than a name for "the medium light waves traveled through".

comment by shminux · 2015-08-09T16:36:46.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I don't trust the concept of values. It's already so complex and fragile, I'm afraid it doesn't actually exist.

Depends on your definition of "exist", of course, but values certainly do exist in human society. Unlike with the aether, one can use the model of values to make testable predictions, and these predictions are confirmed more often than not. People who value integrity are less likely to lie and cheat, people who value knowledge are more likely to engage in research, etc.

The "more aethereal" concepts are those with little or no predictive power, such as Free Will, God and Many Worlds. Some of them still might turn out to be "right" if someone comes along and comes up with good definitions and clear predictions.

comment by Elo · 2015-08-09T22:10:59.352Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apologies for having to ask for a clarification of values

Taboos would return different things for:

  • personal values (or desires)
  • universal values
  • selfish values
  • societal values
  • object of value
  • economic value by scarcity/demand (gold is worth more than nitrogen)

I am not sure which one you mean.

comment by Jan_Rzymkowski · 2015-08-12T19:47:10.996Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good (not only Friendly, but useful to full extent) AI would understand the intention, hence answer that luminous aether is not a valid way of explaining behavior of light.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-08-09T18:06:43.890Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People invented the aether because all waves we see with our eyes need a medium. This is a very sound intuition, and in fact some people maintain that we can view spacetime itself as a type of medium for propagation of waves physicists study. In some sense the aether is "wrong," but in another sense, the approach behind it is right -- you use intuition with the familiar to guide your search and comprehension of weird stuff Nature throws at you.

comment by summerstay · 2015-08-12T15:27:16.778Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Under theories like loop quantum gravity, doesn't some "fabric of spacetime" exist? I would call that a refinement of the idea of the ether. It has odd properties in order to allow relativity, but it hasn't been ruled out.

comment by DanielLC · 2015-08-09T18:30:35.898Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't call luminiferous aether just plain wrong. Asking what it's made from doesn't make a lot of sense, but saying that that means it doesn't exist would be like saying electrons don't exist because they don't have a volume.

Personally, I don't trust the concept of values. It's already so complex and fragile, I'm afraid it doesn't actually exist.

It's something of a simplification. People are not ideal utility-maximizers. But they're close enough that it works well.

Replies from: Tem42
comment by Tem42 · 2015-08-10T00:52:09.605Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't call luminiferous aether just plain wrong.

But it was. Luminiferous aether was a fairly complex and detailed theory that was disproved in the late 1800s through rigorous scientific research. It is a shining example of how science catches its errors, no matter how useful it might be to keep the errors.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2015-08-20T15:52:02.816Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's more appropriate to say that it was found to be unnecessary, it wasn't disproven so much as made irrelevant. (Which is to say, there's no evidence against its existence, so much as that there is no longer any evidence -for- its existence.)

More, its presence is still felt in physics. What we call space-time shares the defining characteristic of the luminiferous aether, namely being, in some models' treatments of gravity, a universal transmission medium.

Retracting: This entire line of discussion is pedantry which doesn't actually address the topic at hand, and is way too common on this thread already.

comment by Val · 2015-08-09T17:57:18.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm afraid it doesn't actually exist

If a concept is held important by a large number of people, then it exists, regardless whether you personally believe in it or not. You can't compare concepts (or ways of thoughts, philosophies, etc.) to scientific theories, because a scientific theory doesn't become true because of how many people believe in it, but a social value does become true due to people believing in it or accepting it.