Joy in the Merely Real

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2008-03-20T06:18:58.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 43 comments

                    ...Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
        —John Keats, Lamia

"Nothing is 'mere'."
        —Richard Feynman 

You've got to admire that phrase, "dull catalogue of common things".  What is it, exactly, that goes in this catalogue?  Besides rainbows, that is?

Why, things that are mundane, of course.  Things that are normal; things that are unmagical; things that are known, or knowable; things that play by the rules (or that play by any rules, which makes them boring); things that are part of the ordinary universe; things that are, in a word, real.

Now that's what I call setting yourself up for a fall.

At that rate, sooner or later you're going to be disappointed in everything—either it will turn out not to exist, or even worse, it will turn out to be real.

If we cannot take joy in things that are merely real, our lives will always be empty.

For what sin are rainbows demoted to the dull catalogue of common things?  For the sin of having a scientific explanation.  "We know her woof, her texture", says Keats—an interesting use of the word "we", because I suspect that Keats didn't know the explanation himself.  I suspect that just being told that someone else knew was too much for him to take.  I suspect that just the notion of rainbows being scientifically explicable in principle would have been too much to take.  And if Keats didn't think like that, well, I know plenty of people who do.

I have already remarked that nothing is inherently mysterious—nothing that actually exists, that is.  If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon; to worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance; a blank map does not correspond to a blank territory, it is just somewhere we haven't visited yet, etc. etc...

Which is to say that everything—everything that actually exists—is liable to end up in "the dull catalogue of common things", sooner or later.

Your choice is either:

(Self-deception might be an option for others, but not for you.)

This puts quite a different complexion on the bizarre habit indulged by those strange folk called scientists, wherein they suddenly become fascinated by pocket lint or bird droppings or rainbows, or some other ordinary thing which world-weary and sophisticated folk would never give a second glance.

You might say that scientists—at least some scientists—are those folk who are in principle capable of enjoying life in the real universe.


Comments sorted by oldest first, as this post is from before comment nesting was available (around 2009-02-27).

comment by Unknown · 2008-03-20T06:41:47.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's no proof--certainly not one with infinite certainty-- that everything has to follow rules. What if something could just do whatever it liked (which likes happened not to be governed by rules)?

Replies from: rkyeun
comment by rkyeun · 2011-04-11T00:23:45.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Assume there exists something which need not follow any rules. It claims that your assumption is false. Your assumption is false.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2008-03-20T07:13:30.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unknown: I'm not even sure what that sequence of words means. What I mean is, do you mean it would just "act randomly"? Hey, whatd'yah know? The Forbidden Science of frequentist probability can be dug out and used.

Do you mean something else? "like"? does its "likes" have some sort of structure? ie, rules?

What would it actually mean for something to literally have no rules but not be random either? ie, I don't even know what that sequence of words means. It "sounds like" something that should mean something, but when I actually try to think about it... I don't have a clue.

comment by Rolson · 2008-03-20T09:36:02.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This series of essays on John Keats is particularly interesting to me because I'm taking a British Literature class this semester (core requirement...) and we have covered Keats, though not this particular poem. If the class is to be trusted, then this Keats fellow is associated with an idea he termed "the negative capability. On my exam last week, I defined the term as "a state of mind that derives or maintains peace and tranquility in the face of unanswered and/or unanswerable questions".

In this essay you assert that everything that actually exists is knowable and explainable. However, in response to yesterday's essay I challenged that claim. An evolutionary explanation for much of human behavior may be beyond our capacity to ever know. This is because evolutionary explanations depend on organismic/physiologic evidence and environmental evidence. Problematically, the ancestral environment in which our brains were forged has been largely lost to time. Precious few fragments of that environment survive, and those elements forever lost will forever obscure a complete understanding of human behavior. Even as our technology advances and our technical ability to reconstruct that environment improves, it is nevertheless likely that some aspects of the past will never be recovered.

To illustrate, right now evolutionary biologists cannot resolve the question of whether or not homosexuality is "natural" or not (which is to say, was it shaped as an adaption by natural selection or a curious but accidental and random artifact of our historicity?). Some biologists have proposed speculative models answering the question one way or another, but no quantitative data have been produced. We have made virtually no progress on the problem in the past 40+ years. It's possible that we might never know the truth. Nevertheless, we cannot regard the phenomenon itself as unreal, even if it can never be fully explained. It pains me to side with Keats against you, but I think it best to grope in vain for answers beyond arms reach.

Replies from: pnrjulius
comment by pnrjulius · 2012-06-05T03:23:12.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is not that we will know everything someday; we probably won't. (Indeed, on a certain definition, we already know we can't, see also Uncertainty Principle, Halting Problem, etc.)

The point is that being unknowable is not a good thing. It's a very, very, bad thing in fact, because we can't control what we can't understand. If we never understand cancer, cancer will keep killing us. If we didn't understand astronomy, an asteroid could hit us at any time. If we never understand consciousness, we'll never invent AI.

(Also, your specific example is awful. We know that homosexuality is not unique to humans; in fact it is found in over a thousand species and counting. If it's not adaptive, it's got to be vestigial; and in fact it's probably adaptive. This is also morally irrelevant, but it's something we do in fact know.)

comment by Rolson · 2008-03-20T09:39:24.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is, best not to grope. :)

comment by Will_Pearson · 2008-03-20T09:43:40.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Your choice is either:

  • Decide that things are allowed to be unmagical, knowable, scientifically explicable, in a word, real, and yet still worth caring about;
  • Or go about the rest of your life suffering from existential ennui that is unresolvable."

A few comments. Do all people have this choice? What do you exactly mean about a choice anyway? Surely their past experience will determine their answer to this question.

Isn't there other paths people take? Immersing themselves into the fantasies of celebrities or WoW, ignoring the dull real.

Replies from: mraxilus
comment by mraxilus · 2014-11-05T09:54:57.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fair point, I never really considered that. It also tends to be the path followed by a large portion of our population.

comment by Unknown · 2008-03-20T10:02:34.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Psy-Kosh, I've already thought about that. Suppose the "ruleless" thing is picking a series of zeros and ones. There is no theorem of mathematics that as the series goes to infinity, there must exist a limit of the percentage of zeros and ones. It is possible that the proportion may wander back and forth from arbitrarily close to 100% zeros, and 100% ones (arbitrarily close, for example 99.9999%, not such that it reaches 100%, which would be a rule.) Nor does this wandering itself have to happen in any particular rule based way; in could be like a random walk. And at still other times (more or less random) it could pick the zeros and ones randomly. And so on.

comment by Latanius2 · 2008-03-20T10:17:56.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In what category does "the starship from book X" fit?

Definitely not into the "real, explainable, playing by the rules of our world" category. We can't observe it's inner workings more closely, although in the world of the book everything seems to be explained. (They know how it works, we don't.)

But also not in the "does'nt exist, is not worth caring about" category: we know that it doesn't exist in the real world even before reading the full book, but is nevertheless interesting and worth reading.

I personally would be less curious about bird droppings after reading such a book. (And read the sequel instead.) Does this count as self-deception?

So how should we overcome this "virtual reality bias"? Eliezer, you once wrote that reading sci-fi is one of the "software methods" to increase intelligence (and shock level). But to be accustomed to interstellar travel and AIs, and be interested in bird droppings and "mere reality" at the same time... If I could do that, I would be happy, but I can't, I think. So how do scientists manage to do that?

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2010-12-18T11:41:27.352Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So how do scientists manage to do that?

As a person that is interested in everything... I personally find that the more I learn, the more I'm interested in.

I suggest that you don't start by looking at bird-droppings (you'll probably get here in the end... or somewhere equally interesting).

You say you like SF? I'd suggest you start with "A brief History of Time". Or "Cosmos" by Sagan... from there move deeper into physics, maybe chemistry, then biology.

Eventually you'll find things that are interesting about everything (even bird droppings).

Replies from: bigjeff5
comment by bigjeff5 · 2011-02-02T03:21:18.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Cosmos" is absolutely fantastic. Can't recommend it enough.

I too can't understand the idea that knowing how a thing works can make the thing any less awe-inspiring.

Case in point: supermassive black holes. I understand the basics of what they are, but I find the idea that the mass sometimes in the neighborhood of billions of suns could be compressed into sphere smaller than I could ever hope to see, even if it didn't prevent all light from escaping its grasp, to be absolutely amazing. That the gas falling into these black holes can move so fast and so forcefully that the friction generates the most powerful bursts of energy known to exist in the universe, sending bursts of gamma rays lancing across the universe.

How can anybody find such things anything but amazing and worthy of wonder?

Replies from: awe-lotta
comment by awe lotta (awe-lotta) · 2021-02-16T02:23:50.059Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel that I have linked my self-esteem or something to how new something is to me. I.e., if I already understand something, I might tell myself that "I shouldn't be excited about this."

I think more generally, our emotions might seem like they should correspond to certain facts (like whether something is "magical" in the case of awe), when in fact our emotions do not.

comment by J. · 2008-03-20T10:18:16.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Suppose God hands a you a 4-d map of the universe that shows all of the events that occur and all of the things that exist. On a common (but by no means only reasonable) interpretation of what lawfulness means, the idea is that if given the laws of nature, the state of affairs in one time slice implies the state of affairs in any other. So, given Ln (laws of nature), if S0 (state of affairs at time slice 0) then S1 (state of affairs at time slice 1). That kind of thing. (Complications: no unique time-slices due to relativity, perhaps some laws of nature might be time-reversal variant, etc.)

However, it's logically possible that the 4-d map doesn't admit of those sorts of laws. It might just be that there is no non-trivial set of rules about the relationship between the state of affairs at one time slice versus another. (Trivial laws will still hold. Imagine a lengthy disjunctive law of nature that simply says something like if S1 then S2, then S3...if S2 then S1 then S3... etc.)

Whether the universe is going to admit of non-trivial rules or not is an empirical thing, not a logical point. It's a good methodological assumption that the universe is lawlike, but it's not logically necessary.

comment by Tobbic2 · 2008-03-20T11:34:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fascinating points. However, it seems to me that the underlaying definition of "real" (which is a bit unclear) is not satisfying in an ontological sense. Do mean that our models/patterns fitted on observations are somehow real?

Maybe if a thing is a part of a pattern it is less interesting than before we found this particular pattern. OTOH, the pattern maybe more interesting than separate things. In any case, it is unclear to me in what sense this pattern is "real".

comment by a._y._mous · 2008-03-20T12:34:17.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Decide that things are allowed to be unmagical, knowable, scientifically explicable, in a word, real, and yet still worth caring about

Language always reveals your biases. You must overcome the bias. Not be clever with language constructs.

You see, there would be no need for these choices, if you consciously change your mindset to remove the words 'and yet still' and replace them with 'because they are'.

Moving on, categorization as the holy of holies has been attempted before. It has met with mixed results.

comment by Andrew4 · 2008-03-20T18:16:43.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post made me remember an article I read sometime back about the proof to Fermat's last Theorem. I think Andrew Wiles said something of the sort that he felt sorry for taking a mystery of mathematics away from everyone else. I guess a lot of people took a lot of pleasure with possibility of a simple proof with 17th century mathematics; that mathematics was still be attainable to the amateur. Just something it made me think of.

comment by poke · 2008-03-20T21:06:48.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Studying biology gave me endless examples of reverse cases of this supposed phenomenon (call it "disenchantment"). When I first learned of the structure of the cell, I found it incredibly edifying, I remember walking home from school and seeing everything around me with "new eyes." Reality became "thicker."

Studying molecular and developmental biology later in life had a similar effect. Studying perception is an obvious example too; how many poets have found fascination in their blind spot or their peripheral vision? How many even have a good grasp of the size and shape of the world on which they stand or the vastness of the atmosphere when they gaze up at the sky (let alone its composition or the variety of atmospheric effects beyond rainbows)?

When I run in the morning, all of this is very apparent to me, I often gaze up at the vastness of the clear blue sky, watch cloud formations, muse on the differences in lighting, look at the various things growing around me, and so forth, it has become an unconscious part of my experience of the world. Without this knowledge the world would be for me, as it is for most people, merely a stage on which peoples' actions played out. As far as I'm concerned the poet can keep his insular enchantment; I'm here for the science.

Replies from: pnrjulius
comment by pnrjulius · 2012-06-05T03:25:34.598Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my experience, people who are disenchanted by science are people who don't understand science very well.

comment by Aaron_M. · 2008-03-20T21:36:58.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Poke, thank you. I feel the same way. If the world is beautiful to behold, then the clearer view which science give us should only increase the elegance of the world we perceive.

comment by Psy-Kosh · 2008-03-20T23:30:19.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unknown: You're right about that bit. There may not me any well defined frequency as whatever it is goes to infinity.

But either way, looks like the options are "structure/rules" or "random"

Besides, even the "random walk" thing... that'd still just be a type of random, not directly applied to, say, the sequence of bits but to a certain property of the sequence of bits.


That would then just fall under the category of, well, random. At least in my view. That is, those sequences of "rules" are where the randomness is instead.

comment by Justin · 2008-03-21T04:54:10.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I look at Keats' quotation in almost the exact opposite way that you do. I think the greatest, or at least most efficient scientific minds are the ones that delight the most in mystery, and are most dulled by the explained.

If our brains are a limited resource, and what we deem "interesting" is where we devote the bulk of our mental processing power, then it would be optimal for the brain to dull-ify anything once we have fully explained it. Once we know everything about rainbows, we should immediately cease thinking about rainbows. We are then free to redirect our reasoning powers against the remainder of the mysteries in our world.

I think our brains' wiring to find mystery "interesting" and the explained "dull" is the engine that directs scientific progress.

comment by Caledonian2 · 2008-03-21T13:08:23.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

People who are satisfied by and delight in the explained are unlikely to push themselves to the cutting edge of understanding to confront the unexplained. There's more that has been explained than anyone could learn in a hundred lifetimes. Someone whose joy is to understand would therefore not be a driving force behind scientific investigation.

Similar arguments apply to people who are satisfied by and delight in the unknown.

By repeating this process of exclusion, we can conclude what relationship to the known and unknown scientists have - assuming, of course, that they're motivated by such things at all, as opposed to motives like simple status competition.

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2010-12-18T11:51:54.909Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Someone whose joy is to understand would therefore not be a driving force behind scientific investigation.

Unless their Joy is to be the first to understand something... in which case they would quite happily push at the boundaries of knowledge and thus drive scientific progress. Of course you may have hinted at this in the "motives like simple status competition".

[Edit: and of course (as I've noticed happens a lot), the very next post in this series says much what I tried to say above... only better: ]

By contrast, somebody that merely delighted in mysteries would be satisfied by becoming a theologian. After all, somebody satisfied with mere mysteries doesn't want those mysteries taken away by actually finding out the truth.

From what I actually observe of scientists, they (we) start out by just searching out answers to our questions - not yet knowing if they've been "explained" or not. That this is what we delight in.

The current state of Science is that a lot of the questions have been answered already - and so it happens that at first we delight in finding out about what turns out to have already been explained... but the questions don't stop, and eventually we reach a point where the information is still being investigated... and so the scientist becomes part of the cutting edge.

comment by Kat2 · 2008-06-13T03:24:12.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we cannot take joy in things that are merely real, our lives will always be empty.

That's what I want. Vast emptyness. Suffering isn't suffering if there's nothing to compare it to.

comment by Leonardo_Boiko · 2008-06-13T12:48:41.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Immersing themselves into the fantasies of celebrities or WoW, ignoring the dull real.

I find escapism only works for so long until you realize it’s also made of merely real things. Games are objects: sprites and models and integers and strings. Once your suspension of disbelief is broken, it cannot be remade, and then your fantasies end up in the catalogue as well.

comment by Martin2 · 2008-06-13T13:56:50.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is it possible that all things are real, but yet some things remain perpetually unknowable? That is, all things may have the same property that known things have: they can (theoretically) be described in a scientific and mathematical sort of way. In other words, I agree with the basic premise of naturalism and materialism and non-mysteriousnessism of all things in their actuality. But with the speed and complexity of the universe as it is, might there be be some high level phenomena that can never be pinned down, no matter how great our intelligence? Some fleeting pattern that cannot be fully apprehended? Isn't this where mysteriousness can legitimately reside?

comment by Richard_Hollerith2 · 2008-06-13T14:58:26.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's what I want. Vast emptyness. Suffering isn't suffering if there's nothing to compare it to.

I am sorry to hear that you suffer so much.

comment by Bryan_McCloskey · 2008-08-18T22:39:39.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent? --Richard Feynman

comment by retired_urologist · 2008-08-18T23:12:55.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was led to this post and thread by the recent comment list. Not having read the series before (apparently along with Mr. McCloskey, whose Keats quote is the opening feature used by Mr. Yudkowsky in the post two days prior), I find it elegant. Strangely missing, as far as I can tell, is any reference to Richard Dawkins' book, Unweaving the Rainbow, a beautifully written treatise on the joy of knowledge for its own sake.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-09-30T03:33:40.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's odd that you mention rainbows.

When I was a child, I saw my first rainbow. I had rainbows on all my binders and lunch boxes but this was the first real one and I was enthralled. Of course I knew how it worked, but it was still magic. It was actually when my mother wanted to say a prayer that I became irritated -- I didn't want it to be God's rainbow, I wanted it to be my rainbow.

For some reason that still bothers me mildly. Existential ennui goes the other way too. A rainbow that's out there, that I can see, is pretty wonderful. I can think what I like about it; I can write my own poem; I can find out about the physics. A rainbow that's already pre-installed into a complete worldview, all finished and laden down with duty -- that's profoundly depressing.

comment by ata · 2010-10-18T21:05:18.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At that rate, sooner or later you're going to be disappointed in everything - either it will turn out not to exist, or even worse, it will turn out to be real.

From a poetic standpoint, I think this sentence is excellent — I love the phrase "even worse, it will turn out to be real"; it makes its point very strongly — but, in case you're using it in your book (which I hope you are), I think that the sentence would flow better and have a higher impact if "turn out to be real" contrasted with a similarly-structured but opposite phrase, instead of "turn out not to exist". Something like "...either it will turn out to be imaginary, or even worse, it will turn out to be real."

comment by JWG · 2012-01-15T05:58:08.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon; to worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance; a blank map does not correspond to a blank territory, it is just somewhere we haven't visited yet, etc. etc..."

Brilliant and eloquently spoken! Shared to my immediate circles, and yes I cited your name unlike most people running amok on Facebook comment quotes these days! He he.

comment by juliawise · 2012-02-16T15:53:10.140Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Jeff [? · GW] noticed the other day that Disney's The Little Mermaid riffs on this - the protagonist is literally a princess in her own world, but is dissatisfied with the ocean and dreams of life on land with exotic things like forks and fire. There's kind of a charming sequence where she gets to walk around a city for the first time and is totally excited about the road, the horse, the puppet show, etc.

But then, kids do this a lot. Children are the real experts at enjoying life in the real universe.

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2012-02-16T16:38:28.199Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Disney's The Little Mermaid riffs on this

But from the main character's point of view, it seems like it's doing the opposite. Her father has a magical trident and she dreams of dinner forks.

Replies from: Raemon, juliawise
comment by Raemon · 2012-02-16T17:22:52.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Her father has a magical trident and she dreams of dinner forks.

That is a particularly brilliant way of framing it.

Replies from: thomblake
comment by thomblake · 2012-02-23T15:16:20.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by juliawise · 2012-02-16T18:00:28.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And we have airplanes but we dream about flying on brooms.

Replies from: Vamair0
comment by Vamair0 · 2015-11-13T09:50:43.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Broom is to an airplane as a motorcycle is to a train. Also, I'd guess a lot of people want their own broom exactly because nobody else has one.

comment by MTGandP · 2012-10-03T23:56:15.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here is the full Feynman quote that was used above:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-02-08T19:16:06.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wanted to link someone to something that would explain how nihilism and cynicism original in a religious idealism--that the people who say "life is meaningless" are all people who want something out of life that transcends meaning, and hence say they are looking for meaning when they're literally looking for something without meaning to give their lives meaning.

This is related, but it's not quite what I'm looking for. There's another aspect of dissatisfaction with reality that has to do with the insistence on finding a logos. Is there a post on that?