post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-09-02T20:01:45.000Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 85 comments

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.


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

comment by savagehenry · 2007-09-02T21:23:18.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Toni_Heinonen · 2007-09-02T22:48:10.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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")

Replies from: CrimeThinker, Eliyoole
comment by CrimeThinker · 2017-06-02T23:26:38.152Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed but the question is still how big of an infinity? An infinity of one? An infinity of five or eight or none?

comment by Eliyoole · 2020-05-10T01:43:55.232Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's part of the worship option, I would say. As he would otherwise be contradicting himself when he outlines the actual Explain option.

Edit: Whoops, the next comment is by Eliezer addressing this question but I'm going to leave this here for ease of reading.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-09-02T23:01:30.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: NickRetallack, Lethalmud, Idan Arye
comment by NickRetallack · 2013-06-27T04:32:19.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At some point, the answer may become "we cannot know". For example, in quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle tells us that there is a limit to the accuracy of our measurements, and once we hit that limit, attaining more accuracy is impossible. The big bang is similar -- if time makes no sense in a singularity, perhaps we can't know what happens before that point. Maybe at some point we will find a way around these limitations, in which case it was just another instance of hitting Explain and letting science grind along, but it could be that we have already reached the ultimate limit, and no more explanations will ever come.

Replies from: elharo, Miguelatron
comment by elharo · 2013-06-27T16:32:37.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is not what the uncertainty principle says. The uncertainty principle says that you can't measure two complementary observables such as position and momentum or energy and time to arbitrary accuracy at the same time. However it does not say that you can't measure any one observable such as position or momentum to an arbitrary degree of accuracy.

Replies from: NickRetallack
comment by NickRetallack · 2013-06-27T19:11:47.741Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you have a set of entangled particles, would it not be possible to measure one aspect of each particle in the set, and thus achieve a fully accurate observation?

Replies from: DSherron, Vaniver, fractalman
comment by DSherron · 2013-06-27T19:50:25.846Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not a physicist, and I couldn't give a technical explanation of why that won't work (although I feel like I can grasp an intuitive idea based on how the Uncertainty Principle works to begin with). However, remember the Litany of a Bright Dilettante. You're not going to spot a trivial means of bypassing a fundamental theory in a field like physics after thinking for five minutes on a blog.

Incidentally, the Uncertainty Principle doesn't talk about the precision of our possible measurements, per se, but about the actual amplitude distribution for the observable. As you get arbitrarily precise along one of the pair you get arbitrarily spread out along the other, so that the second value is indeterminate even in principle.

Replies from: NickRetallack
comment by NickRetallack · 2013-06-29T04:12:41.172Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't come up with it. It's called the EPR Paradox.

Replies from: DSherron
comment by DSherron · 2013-06-29T05:19:45.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Neat. Consider my objection retracted. Although I suspect someone with more knowledge of the material could give a better explanation.

Replies from: NickRetallack
comment by NickRetallack · 2013-06-29T08:45:00.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to read the QM sequence now. I have always been confused by descriptions of QM.

comment by Vaniver · 2013-06-27T19:58:00.663Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you know calculus? If so, it will be very easy to explain what the uncertainty principle actually means quantitatively, which should reduce any qualitative confusion.

Replies from: NickRetallack
comment by NickRetallack · 2013-06-29T05:26:28.028Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know calculus. Not enough to enjoy looking at the harmonic equation though.

It's a shame I never took a class on Quantum Mechanics. Most descriptions I've heard of it, even from professors, are indistinguishable from magical thinking.

Replies from: Vaniver
comment by Vaniver · 2013-06-29T17:03:54.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know calculus. Not enough to enjoy looking at the harmonic equation though.

Ok. Here's the brief sketch with slightly simplified details:

In classical mechanics, "position" and "momentum" are different features, and so can be totally independent. In quantum mechanics, "position" and "momentum" are both derived from the same source (the wavefunction), and thus are dependent. In QM, reality is the wavefunction. This is a complex-valued continuous function over the spatial dimensions of the universe which integrates to a certain amount. Let's consider a universe with only one particle in it:

If you want to find out something classically recognizable about that particle, you use an operator on the wavefunction. (The classical values now come with probabilities attached to them, and in realistic situations it only makes sense to ascribe probabilities to position and momentum ranges, even though energy is restricted to particular values.)

For the position of the particle, this corresponds to integrating the magnitude of the wavefunction across the part of space that you're interested in. For the momentum of the particle, the operator is the derivative, which cashes out as taking its Fourier transform. The more localized a particle is in location-space, the more spread out it is in momentum-space, because the Fourier transform of something narrow is broad, and the Fourier transform of something broad is narrow.

Now, what about entanglement? Let's add some more particles to our universe; now, the wavefunction is defined over three spatial dimensions per particle. In typical situations, we can factor the wavefunction of the universe into independent wavefunctions for each particle, which are then multiplied together. When particles are entangled, that means we can't factor the universe's wavefunction when it comes to the set of entangled particles- they're dependent on each other / unified in some way. This doesn't alter where position and momentum come from- they're both still the same functions of the wavefunction, with the same fundamental restriction.

[edit] My interpretation of the EPR Paradox is that it basically asserts the reality of the wavefunction, and that the wavefunction is over the universe, not particular particles. I think this is the majority view but I haven't paid too much attention to the issue.

comment by fractalman · 2013-06-27T20:51:27.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

erm...not quite...you technically run into "knowledge about each element of a system versus knowledge about the entire system" tradeoffs. Although...you CAN partially bypass "no quantum Xerox" if you have a large sample. It's the principle used in error-correction for quantum computers.

Take a laser. point it at a perfect polarizer of unknown orientation, and fire a pulse. Send the photons that get through one by one through filters of known orientation as you hone in convergently (hehe) on the orientation of the first polarizer.

There is a tiny chance that you won't have a remotely correct value, and you never get exact with a finite sample, but you can probably do well enough to satisfy the typical engineer with only a "couple hundred" photons.

comment by Miguelatron · 2015-03-16T04:42:49.422Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't believe that for a second though. Everything we know is likely as wrong a phlogiston, though our predictions are surely getting more accuate. "We cannot know" is just hitting the worship button - which I'm fine with if you are talking about "what's the meaning of life." However, this is the mechanics of the universe, so we should probably stay away from that particular button in this case. Don't forget a singularity is Not an anomaly in reality itself, it is an anomaly in our models' ability to predict was will happen in reality. So time makes no sense in a singularity - that means the model for time will need to be changed. That's not the same as there is no answer.

comment by Lethalmud · 2013-06-27T11:05:20.304Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand why you assign a lower probability to the possibility of an infinite regress of causality, than to the possibility of a non casual event or casual loop.

comment by Idan Arye · 2020-08-10T09:10:45.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To question the infinite chain of explanations you must first observe that it is indeed infinite. If the terminal explanation is always "just around the corner" you'll never reach that point.

comment by John_Mark_Rozendaal · 2007-09-03T00:39:09.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: wizzwizz4
comment by wizzwizz4 · 2019-06-18T19:26:25.147Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of those people would 'go' "worshipping is for God only; we shouldn't be worshipping other stuff" and then hit "Explain" or "Ignore".

comment by Benquo · 2007-09-03T02:39:15.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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"?

comment by James_Blair · 2007-09-03T04:25:48.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.
It doesn't have to. You request enough explanations and you start getting answers that make sense as they probe for the shortcomings of the answers you were given. Thorough investigation was not always the norm.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2007-09-03T04:41:09.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Robs · 2007-09-03T15:18:53.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by hrh · 2007-09-03T16:19:42.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 be to God for giving the sciences such a vast wealth of material for the highest form of human activity, study (or some other suitable expression of gratitude).

Or you could say (I) - the "bad" option - maybe I'll just try this regression using another specification and forget I ever saw this... and hit (W) to say either thank God no one else saw that or (W) I hope to God no one ever gets their hands on this dataset until it's substantively different...

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2007-09-03T22:12:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by anonymous8 · 2007-09-03T23:17:59.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: DanielLC
comment by DanielLC · 2009-12-27T06:39:17.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think he's using worship to mean that you believe it's beyond explanation. If you consider something to be the end of the recursion, you are worshipping it. Ignoring it would be if you hit that button before considering whether or not there's any explanation.

comment by michael_vassar3 · 2007-09-04T01:50:46.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by TGGP3 · 2007-09-05T02:18:55.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"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

Replies from: SpaceFrank
comment by SpaceFrank · 2012-02-01T22:14:49.867Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such a great game. Seeing this makes me want to play it again, having discovered this site and done some actual reading on transhumanism and AI. It might change the choice I'd make at the end...

Of course, this goes even further than just proving the old saying about Deus Ex, considering you never even mentioned the title!

I know this is a serious necro-post, but I felt compelled.

comment by jonvon · 2007-09-10T19:21:42.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 to worship, if they are really operating at top form. but this worship poets engage in is not irresponsible, not if it is good. it might be hard to figure out which poetry hits this mark, but i have a sneaky suspicion that a rationalist in top form would be well suited to see it happening, perhaps moreso than many poets.

comment by DanielLC · 2009-12-27T06:49:46.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 Ignore because you believe it's this possibility, and not because you're just tired of looking, then, in a way, you really hit Worship. I suspect the first possibility, that it just ends and you have to hit Worship.

comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-18T02:24:44.328Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Aren't "sky spirits" a good metaphor for the scientifically un-inclined? Why not think in terms of "spirits"? I'm not suggesting to believe "bearded elder" blindly or anything. Consider the difficulty of explaining things in SERIOUS SCIENCE to someone used to more intuitive reasoning. Why shouldn't things like "condensation" forming on "dust particles" be explained in metaphors like "the water god finds purchase on the earth goddesses' children" (or something)? It's important to be aware of the metaphor, I suppose...

Replies from: RobinZ, tut, Jack, RichardKennaway, bgrah449
comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-18T02:30:40.185Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We're not talking about quantum chromodynamics here - "clouds are made of water, and sometimes some of that water falls out" is pretty clear in any language.

Edit: Even if we were, I don't think supporting incorrect beliefs is wise, as a rule. Also, that wasn't the point of the post.

comment by tut · 2010-01-18T08:16:43.926Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is one disgusting metaphor. And if I was talking to somebody who had a problem undertstanding condensation I would not make up metaphors. I would hold a glass over a small pot of water on the stove. Or perhaps better, ask them to breath on a window if it is a somewhat cold day.

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-19T03:24:00.141Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ha ha, yeah, rain is the result of divine pedophilia. Didn't think that one through... I dunno, just playing with ideas. My point is that "sky spirits" as an explanation isn't "incorrect", just imprecise and prone to misinterpretation. I mean, there are many myths that have turned out to be pretty good intuitions of real phenomenon. for instance, the Hindu belief in "divine vibration" sounds uncannily like string theory- then there is an African tribe known as the Dogon that was aware of the fact that Sirius is a binary system hundreds of years ago. "the plants told us". I'd expect a Curandero in the amazon to know more about the ecology there than any "rational" (quotes to highlight subjectivity) scientist... Even though they would probably use terms like "spirit" to describe it. Holding a glass over a pot of water doesn't explain condensation, it just demonstrates it. "why does water gather there?" It's very possible to intuit things about nature. Strange but it's true. [As an aside, I know this isn't on topic, but I'm multi-attentional, so it's okay.] I'd recommend Jill Bolte Taylors' talk on TED for a pretty good explanation of what I'm referring to; you don't need to have a stroke to get to that state of consciousness. I guess what I'm getting at is, why is it so important to be "right" in the objective sense? If you're trying to build some kind of precise machine, I can see the value. Otherwise, a pretty story is way more than good enough, especially if it conforms to universal archetype... IMHO

Replies from: Mitchell_Porter
comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-01-19T04:39:40.005Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

there are many myths that have turned out to be pretty good intuitions of real phenomenon.

That might be true ...

for instance, the Hindu belief in "divine vibration" sounds uncannily like string theory- then there is an African tribe known as the Dogon that was aware of the fact that Sirius is a binary system hundreds of years ago.

... but all that is not true. There is a long list of distinctively modern concepts and discoveries - DNA, the Big Bang, black holes... - which are constantly being linked in spurious ways to ancient myth and scripture. It is actually a type of modern superstition that shamans already know all this, that God or aliens already told us about it in code, etc - in short, that the pre-scientific world already knew about what science has discovered.

Hinduism has nothing to do with string theory. A hundred years ago, you had spiritualists trying to link divine vibrations with the electromagnetic spectrum. In a few years they'll be trying to link it with cortical brain rhythms. These connections are completely superficial. As for the Dogon, the match between myth and astronomy is far more equivocal than you might have thought.

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-19T08:33:26.077Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's incredibly frustrating how all my comments get voted down so much... Anyway, how does that have nothing to do with string theory? I guess maybe I don't understand anything about either of them. It's not like I have a degree. That said, I believe string theory relates to the way that at a base level, all form is caused by vibration? (PLEASE correct me if this is wrong) I relate this to cymatics (google it if you're unfamiliar). You're saying that the concept of a universal creative vibration (om) doesn't sound anything like the concept of vibration creating all form? Really? Even if it's totally coincidence (whatever that means), it still works as an explanation. The concept of archetypes repeating themselves would possibly account for that... I think it's irrational to rule that out instantly. With the Dogon, admittedly I could've done more research. The thing is, we're all looking at the same whole. It's amazing how many similarities there are between myths of different cultures- most of them revolving around the worship of "projective" and "receptive" principals (God and Goddess) which obviously exist in the form of sun and earth or man and woman or whatever. Do you see where I'm coming from?

Replies from: CronoDAS, Mitchell_Porter
comment by CronoDAS · 2010-01-19T09:04:13.349Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, we do understand where you're coming from. We just think you're mistaken and confused.

You really need to go read the entire Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions sequence before you comment again, because you sound like a flat-earther asking questions at an astronomy conference. :(

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-20T21:58:30.294Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, well. You're mother wears combat boots. LOL I can't believe you're stooping to name calling. I'm just promoting alternate views.. I really don't give a damn which one is true. We just use the belief we find most useful. Beauty is truth. What does "objective" mean? My brain is clearly wired differently than yours. That's okay! I hope I haven't dropped below your "sanity threshold"... Pfft. I personally think I'm NOT mistaken and confused, even though there's a choir of "rationalists" preaching at me. It's not "rational" to subdue dialogue like that. The fact that a dogmatic comment like yours gets voted up while an open minded one like mine gets voted below the viewing threshold is part of the reason "rationalism" is still in the minority. You know what? I still love you. You should go outside more, and instead of explaining, just experience. No one has the slightest idea what's going on, not even you. What explanation will you give me if I ask you "Why"? You're succumbing to the worst parts of tribalism. I said something you think "rational people" don't believe, so "we" think I'm "irrational". Blah... I quickly lost faith (irony) in this website. Good articles, though.

Replies from: MrHen, wedrifid, CronoDAS
comment by MrHen · 2010-01-20T22:06:42.482Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really don't give a damn which one is true.

I do give a damn which one is true. I have not been following the whole thread, but that sentence sure jumped out at me.

What is a way I can convince you that I am being open-minded? I am willing to read through the thread and add my thoughts but I want to know where your open-minded threshold begins and ends. If I don't make the cut I won't bother.

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-20T22:40:16.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First define "truth", and I'll start to worry about that.

Just don't start calling people names. It's not helpful in any sense. I'm not trying to lower the quality of discussion here, quite the opposite (not that it isn't high quality discussion). If we don't disagree, it's not cause I'm stupider than you (which is the implication in comparing me to a flat earther)... It's cause our experiences lead us to different conclusions. Maybe I am stupider than you. even then is that a reason to exclude someone from a conversation? Maybe I want to talk about the relationship between "mythos" and "logos". Maybe that makes me irrational? Why jump to the conclusion that I have no idea what I'm talking about? Why assume I'm attached to my ideas to the point where you can't point out their flaws without ad hominem attacks? really... You guys take everything so seriously.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky, RobinZ
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-01-20T22:44:46.892Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Truth: http://yudkowsky.net/rational/the-simple-truth

Please take the hint on all the negative ratings and stop commenting here. Future comments from you will be removed.

Replies from: RobinZ
comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-20T22:51:04.434Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be good to link "The Simple Truth" in What Do We Mean By Rationality?.

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-01-20T22:54:37.250Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is.

Replies from: RobinZ
comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-21T00:21:02.694Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, I missed it - thanks!

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-20T22:45:01.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

First define "truth", and I'll start to worry about that.

Truth is correspondence with reality. To quote the narrator:

Frankly, I'm not entirely sure myself where this "reality" business comes from. I can't create my own reality in the lab, so I must not understand it yet. But occasionally I believe strongly that something is going to happen, and then something else happens instead. I need a name for whatever-it-is that determines my experimental results, so I call it "reality". This "reality" is somehow separate from even my very best hypotheses. Even when I have a simple hypothesis, strongly supported by all the evidence I know, sometimes I’m still surprised. So I need different names for the thingies that determine my predictions and the thingy that determines my experimental results. I call the former thingies "belief", and the latter thingy "reality".

comment by wedrifid · 2010-01-20T23:41:47.203Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"You are mistaken" --> "you're stooping to name calling similar to your mother having indicators of low status"

It isn't surprising at all but it certainly illustrates how beliefs operate among groups of humans.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-01-21T05:50:57.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm sorry if I sounded like I was calling you names, but I'm not sure how to convey my meaning more politely. Is "You sound like a first-year student who walked into a fourth-year class by mistake" any better? You're asking me to explain the difference between a fake explanation and a deep theory, and that's something that can take an awful lot of words to explain. A whole book's worth, even. The answer to your original question is short, but the reasoning behind the answer is really complicated if you don't know it already.

If I said "Take my university course, and by the end of it, you'll know the difference between a real understanding and a fake understanding and be good at coming up with correct answers to Confusing Questions that had stumped philosophers for centuries," would you be up for it? Because, as far as I can tell from reading your posts so far, that's the kind of effort it would take to get you on the same page as many of the other people here. I'm willing to be your tutor if you're willing to be my student, but if you aren't willing to start with the basics, neither of us should waste any more time.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2010-01-19T10:33:44.920Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I could write a whole essay in response to that but it would be way off-topic. Mail me via mporter at gmail and I'll respond.

comment by Jack · 2010-01-19T04:15:02.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I see how "the water god finds purchase on the earth goddesses' children" is a metaphor for water coming to be on dust particles by way of condensation. What I don't see is how that metaphor explains shit. Yes the water god found purchase on the children of the earth goddess... but I knew that when I saw the water on the dust. Explaining condensation involves discussing phases of matter and how temperature affects them. Your metaphor hasn't told me anything other than "the water did something to the dust" (surely erosion or mud could be described with the same sentence). The metaphor only seems like it explains something if the person hearing the explanation reifies 'water god' and 'earth goddess'. Then there is a causal story ("Why is there water here? The water god did it. If you have a problem with it speak to the water god. Etc.").

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-19T08:22:59.302Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Respectfully, you're missing the point. A solid answer like that is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things- unless you need to use condensation for something, it doesn't matter exactly how it works; which is why people are content with metaphor. You've really got to not be so closed to other ways of seeing reality... I like science as much as the next guy, but my experience of reality is a work of art (creative commons attribution license, tee hee).

Also, it was a really crappy metaphor.

Replies from: Jack
comment by Jack · 2010-01-19T08:58:11.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Either someone cares how condensation works or they don't. If they care, then you should explain how it works. If they don't you should talk about something else. Neither option involves making up bad metaphors for phenomena. Under what circumstances would you share extremely bad explanations?

I like avante garde art, sensory deprivation chambers, and MDMA as much as the next guy but I don't propagate deceptive non-explanations.

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-20T22:27:50.502Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An explanation using myth is only "bad" from a rationalists' perspective. Devoid of "ism" it's as good as any... Maybe I only care about how condensation works far enough to make a painting of it, or write a song about it. As stated above, no one has the slightest idea what's going on... even if you can explain exactly how every phenomenon works and how it happens, tell me "why" it happens and I'll give you a virtua-lolipop. If I have a reality where I experience "ghosts" "god" "fairies" and "giant pyramid craft hovering over the kremlin" (hold on...) then I have a reality where those things happen to me. maybe evolutionary biology rules out fairies- that doesn't change the fact that they sometimes happen to people. If that experience can have meaning attached to it, in what sense is it not "real"? I mean, my dreams are "real". "reality" is very ambiguously defined.

Replies from: Vladimir_Nesov, thomblake
comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-01-20T22:48:01.431Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

All your comments get harshly downvoted. You should take a hint and stop posting for a while.

comment by thomblake · 2010-01-20T23:24:53.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An explanation using myth is only "bad" from a rationalists' perspective.

I'm willing to agree with you on this, but this is a community devoted to rationality. Please no basketball on the tennis court. Thus the downvotes.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-01-19T12:31:51.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The only good metaphor is a dead metaphor.

Replies from: Mycelia
comment by Mycelia · 2010-01-20T22:09:32.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you're joking... Otherwise this statement is incredibly ignorant. I guess art is worthless to you?

Replies from: RobinZ, RichardKennaway
comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-20T22:32:24.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to guess that Kennaway was criticizing argument by analogy, not rhetoric.

Replies from: RichardKennaway
comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-01-20T23:56:56.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actually, I'm wary of any sort of rhetoric. The simple truth should be simply said.

Replies from: RobinZ, RichardKennaway
comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-21T00:31:13.333Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Simple speaking is harder to abuse, as Orwell noted in "Politics and the English Language", but I would prefer not to make a categorical ban on imagery. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, a true metaphor (such as, I don't know, "the map is not the territory") is no less true because it is not literal. The problem lies when speech departs from reality, not in the fashion of speaking which does so.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-01-21T01:19:42.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

On further consideration, I have changed my view of this. Even simplicity can be a rhetorical device, and for its use by the Dark Side, just look at any political advertisement. The thing to be wary of is language that sounds like an argument without actually being one.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-01-20T22:54:08.552Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not joking, but speaking to a specific context, that of discourse whose purpose is to arrive at the truth of things. I can appreciate literary art in its place, but its methods tend to obscure the facts.

"Sky spirits" are not a good metaphor for rain, they are a bad explanation. At some time in the distant past it might have been the only explanation that anyone had come up with, but we know better now. There are no sky spirits and there never were. To teach people falsehoods because they cannot understand the truth does them a disservice. The truth is a rock, and though the rain come down, and the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against a house builded on that rock, yet it does not fall, because it hath a sound foundation. But to understand things by fictions and myths, is like a foolish man who build his house on sand. The rain shall come down, and the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against that house, and lo, it falls with a great crash, because it hath no foundation. (Ahem. Metaphor. Shamelessly repurposed from another source.)

comment by bgrah449 · 2010-01-20T22:14:52.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More to the point, I'm not convinced that most people really know the difference between those two things. If you asked the average Neolithic villager, and they explained it in terms of spirits, and then asked the average high school graduate, who could explain it with the right language - does the average high school graduate really understand it more deeply? They've both been taught a certain way to talk about it, but I doubt the average high school graduate's language give him a leg up in the actual manipulation of the phenomenon.

Replies from: MrHen
comment by MrHen · 2010-01-20T22:27:29.769Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

They've both been taught a certain way to talk about it, but I doubt the average high school graduate's language give him a leg up in the actual manipulation of the phenomenon.

That surprises me. I would have come to the exact opposite conclusion. I suppose the follow up question is in what way can you explain it so that the explanation gives him a leg up in manipulation? Why wouldn't that be a better explanation?

Replies from: Morendil
comment by Morendil · 2010-01-21T00:06:56.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. Let's turn this into an operational test. If you can come up with a way to make it rain in your kitchen, you understand the phenomenon. (Compare Hacking's "If you can spray them, they are real.")

It doesn't really matter then what language you use. Some people might use "condensation" as a fake explanation, and that's no better than "sky spirits", which I guess was bgrah449's point.

Catching yourself in a fake explanation is trickier than it might seem. As my kids reach a certain age I find myself dealing with questions like "Dad, what's causing the rainbow?" You learn to cue on a certain tone of voice. "Well son, it's because of refraction." Ouch, too late, failed to catch that one in time.

"Well, it's....", and trailing off... "Buggered if I know right now, actually. It's something about angles and the shape of water droplets, and if you ask me again once I've stopped the car we'll draw a diagram together and see if we can work it out; the basic principle isn't too hard but there's a twist or two, like that second rainbow."

Better now. And I know that I don't really understand refraction; the geometric part of the optics here I know I can derive from scratch with what high school math I have left, but I don't have a good enough grasp of electromagnetism to explain why the refractive index varies. Even to a dedicated reductionist, all explanations are ultimately "fake", at least until we have a Theory of Everything and a mind capable of grasping the entire chain of its implications up to the rainbow; don't hold your breath.

But there is such a thing as "good enough".

Replies from: Eliezer_Yudkowsky, RobinZ
comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-01-21T00:19:38.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An explanation stops being fake as soon as it tells you to predict something (or better yet, do something) you couldn't do before. For example, if you sketch out the refractive reflection on paper, your son will - hopefully! - know to look away from the Sun, and at what angle to expect to see the rainbow, and just a little about why. And just knowing that it's water droplets, at all, tells you that you might be able to use a garden hose.

Replies from: Morendil
comment by Morendil · 2010-01-21T00:40:42.258Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm embarrassed to be caught using "fake explanation" as a fake explanation. Thanks for straightening that out. I'll use my own words more.

Yes, optics are enough that I can predict something. Even this late in the game for me, I occasionally find some things I hadn't really, really known before; it took experimental evidence (a rainbow caused by one of the wonderful waterfalls of Iceland) to realize that a rainbow appears centered about a point - my eyes - that moves as I move. That has a particularly wonderful effect when the rainbow is close to a full circle, as was the case that day at Skogafoss.

For some reason, I experienced that moment of playing with my personal rainbow as a minor epiphany; it had all the hallmarks of the religious experience I hear people talking about, up to "feeling at one with nature". Except that this was a reductionist epiphany, where I realized that even though I was momentarily unable to recall all the details of why this rainbow danced with me, that knowledge was mine to reconstruct if I wanted to, down to almost the rock-bottom level of explanation. I felt as if the Universe belonged to me in that instant.

Previous to that I was something of a rationalist's mysterian, if the phrase makes any sense; I had (truth be told, likely still have) traces of the "science doesn't know everything so there might be magic" attitude.

I don't know (yet) how to pass on that kind of feeling to my kids, but I hope I figure it out, for their sakes. It's a great feeling, one I'd love to share with people I love, and knowing it has a neurological basis doesn't spoil it one bit.

This was last summer, about three months before I chanced upon LW and ultimately the sequence that includes "Joy in the merely real".

ETA: folks are sending karma here and to the grand-parent, I notice; I'd appreciate, if any of those upvotes mean "might like to see that worked into a post", your replying that explicity.

I've been thinking about writing up the rainbow epiphany for a while now, but didn't know how or for whom, and though I'm writing this at 2am and probably in for more revising than I care to admit, I feel better for having gotten it out.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-01-21T01:04:00.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It occurs to me that there is at least one advantage of fake explanations based on science over fake explanations based on mythology: if someone tries to find out more based on a teacher's password, they might actually find a real explanation. "rainbows refraction" (no quotes) is a sufficient search term, for example.

comment by drow · 2010-12-13T23:09:55.519Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

Replies from: ata
comment by ata · 2010-12-13T23:14:35.856Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it's metaphysically possible that there's some explanation that needs no explanation, but how would we know if a particular explanation qualifies?

Replies from: drow
comment by drow · 2010-12-13T23:17:13.706Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would produce no 'why' questions, there would be nothing else to explain, ignore, or worship.

Replies from: Nornagest
comment by Nornagest · 2010-12-13T23:29:22.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Axioms give the starting assumptions for generating consequences within logical systems. If our reality is defined in terms of such a system (which is entirely possible), the rules generating it could be expected to point back toward a small set of irreducible axioms, but that doesn't mean no "why" questions would be left; it means that definitive answers to them would be unavailable within the context of the system.

comment by ata · 2011-05-18T07:13:49.953Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There - I just hit Worship.

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 hitting Worship."

At least one other person seems to have misread it that way, which suggests that there are probably plenty of other people who did too but didn't say anything.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2011-09-22T11:06:28.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: bjfar
comment by bjfar · 2012-12-10T22:24:05.648Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Maladaptive" is subjective though. One's utility function may be such that their utility is only increased by explaining/understanding things. Of course if you mean that this drive supercedes eating and drink (I exaggerate), so that you undermine your ability to increase this utility in the long run, then I of course agree.

comment by Capla · 2014-11-19T03:09:23.636Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are Worship and Explain necessarily mutually exclusive?

Replies from: 1point7point4
comment by 1point7point4 · 2020-01-02T13:29:19.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this article's sense, yes - Explain means "try to make something less mysterious". For example, Newton Explained when devising the laws of physics, and a student who learns them is also doing some Explaining. Worship, on the other hand, means (in here, not in general) "revel in something's mysteriousness" (e.g. Newton seeing an apple fall from a tree, and saying "I guess phlogiston did it".) Ignore is the boring but sometimes practical option, saying "Eh, an apple fell from a tree" and leaving it at that.

comment by Arun Gupta (arun-gupta) · 2018-12-16T06:29:08.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

“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?

Replies from: 1point7point4, jeronimo196
comment by 1point7point4 · 2020-01-02T13:29:59.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are you looking for an explanation or opinions?

comment by jeronimo196 · 2020-02-23T09:00:31.127Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Neither true nor false..." Not so. We gather such stories and treasure them. But at the end of the day, we label them fiction (or mythology, if some portion of humanity believed them to be true at some point) and know better than to go looking for Hogwarts. We know fiction is not corresponding with reality, not part of the map, in other words - not true. In every sense that matter, we treat fiction as false.

All that is good and proper - as long as such works don't claim to describe factual events.

comment by skagedal · 2021-09-10T03:57:35.678Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You hit Explain for life, and get chemistry; you hit Explain for chemistry, and get atoms

Is the first one supposed to be "biology"?