Ideas ahead of their time

post by Theist · 2019-04-03T22:15:20.673Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · LW · GW · 26 comments

Imagine a person in the ancient world who came up with the following idea: "What would the sun and moon look like if they were very very far away?" This idea would likely lead to the conclusion that they would look like tiny points of light, which then could lead to the question "What if the tiny points of light we call stars and planets are actually faraway suns and moons?"

Unfortunately, our ancient friend would likely be stuck at that point, due to the limitations of human vision and the lack of proper instruments for examining the nature of celestial objects. But our friend would be right, unlike nearly every other human until Giordano Bruno's cosmology of 1584.

My questions then are, what other ideas of similar power exist, how will we know them if we find them, and is there any way to search for them intentionally?

26 comments

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comment by avturchin · 2019-04-04T13:17:50.105Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Interestingly, the idea about stars as suns was known in antiquity in 3BC, before Ptolemy:

"Aristarchus suspected the stars were other suns[5] that are very far away, and that in consequence there was no observable parallax, that is, a movement of the stars relative to each other as the Earth moves around the Sun. Since stellar parallax is only detectable with telescopes, his accurate speculation was unprovable at the time."

and

"Ptolemy planetary hypotheses were sufficiently real that the distances of the Moon, Sun, planets and stars could be determined by treating orbits' celestial spheres as contiguous realities. This made the stars' distance less than 20 Astronomical Units,[6] a regression, since Aristarchus of Samos's heliocentric scheme had centuries earlier necessarily placed the stars at least two orders of magnitude more distant."

Ptolemy system gave better predictions and also was better supported by observations, intuition and even thought experiments (about wind).

comment by shminux · 2019-04-04T06:02:54.512Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is that the visionary ideas ahead of their time are indistinguishable from the crank ones: they are way outside the (scientific) Overton window and so are automatically misinterpreted and dismissed. Some of those that pan out centuries later were the germ theory of disease, soft inheritance, the idea that brain hosts the mind, etc. There are probably a few prophetic ideas published and ridiculed fairly recently, whose power will only become apparent decades or centuries from now.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-04-04T20:15:57.517Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

This is a very outside view on these ideas. I think from the inside there's a lot that often separates obviously bogus ideas from possibly real ones. Ideas that might pan out are generally plausible now given the evidence available, even if they cannot be proved, whereas bogus, crank ideas generally ignore what we know to claim something contradictory. This can get a bit tricky because ideas of what people consider "known" can be a little fluid, but the distinction I'm trying to draw here is between ideas that may contradict existing models but agree with what we observe and ideas that disagree with what we observe (regardless of whether they contradict existing models), the former being plausible, ahead-of-their-time ideas that might later be proven true, and the latter being clearly bogus.

(Of course sometimes, as in the case of not observing star parallax without sufficiently powerful instruments, even our observations are a limiting factor, but this does at least allow us to make specific predictions that we should expect to see something if we had more powerful instruments, and would lead us to conclude against a promising idea if we got really good observations that generated disqualifying evidence.)

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T21:26:34.219Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ideas that might pan out are generally plausible now given the evidence available, even if they cannot be proved, whereas bogus, crank ideas generally ignore what we know to claim something contradictory.

I think this is an important point to recognize. If an idea agrees with observation but makes predictions that can't currently be tested, it should be given more consideration than an idea which contradicts existing observations.

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T16:15:21.881Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is that the visionary ideas ahead of their time are indistinguishable from the crank ones

Expressed very succinctly, thank you.

I suppose what I'm really wondering is whether there's some feature which can be perceived in the structure of the idea and its ramifications which indicate that it is on the right track, which would distinguish it from crank. Clearly there's nothing obvious or someone would have found it by now and made a bunch of correct predictions a long time ago. Still, it makes me wonder if there's something remaining to be found there.

comment by shminux · 2019-04-05T02:03:31.017Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I have a physics degree and ran the Freenode #physics channel for a few years, and so had to deal with a lot of crackpots. It's easy to tell the obvious nonsense (it raises a lot of standard red flags, like proclaiming a well tested model wrong) but within a well informed professional community ideas ahead of their time are very hard to tell apart from the chaff. Is Tipler's Omega point nonsense? Is AI fooming nonsense? Is Tegmark's multiverse nonsense? Is string theory? If you read Not Even Wrong, you can get some idea how hard it is to tell promising ideas apart from the rest.

comment by Pattern · 2019-04-04T22:43:36.998Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Some things are dismissed as crank because of assumptions people make. Like "there's no way stars could be that far away!"

comment by Max Harris (max-harris) · 2019-04-04T08:13:44.716Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"What if the universe is made of many tiny atoms?" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomism

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-03T22:38:10.020Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

FYI, I'd frontpage this if the title was less ambiguous.

comment by Dagon · 2019-04-03T23:33:02.265Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think I would, unless the comment stream comes up with some really great things. It's a fine prompt for thinking outside the box, but it completely misses the mark on the way ideas and truth actually works, and would benefit from a read of https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/a7n8GdKiAZRX86T5A/making-beliefs-pay-rent-in-anticipated-experiences [LW · GW] .

In the ancient world, some people _DID_ wonder what the sun and moon looked like from very far away. Some of them actually _WENT_ very far away and looked (and saw minimal difference, but did do some clever calculations to measure shadows and times to figure out how far "very far away" was). Even if someone HAD postulated that there existed a distance so great that the sun would look like a point, and that our stars might be suns to them, they wouldn't be "right" in any useful sense of the word. There are zero predictions nor behavior changes to make based on that hypothesis.

I'd argue that we _do_ have a start at some ideas that might pan out in the same way (good models for questions we can't yet ask) - simulation argument, quantum immortality, etc.), and the big problem isn't finding more ideas, but in deciding which ones are worth giving up immediate resources to pursue sooner.

edit: this came out way more negative than I intended. I like the topic, and even though I'm skeptical that we'll identify any novel ideas or ways to evaluate them, I do hope that I'm wrong.

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-04T00:02:21.309Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair, perhaps (haven't thought about it in strong enough detail to have an opinion). But the frontpage criteria aren't meant to judge posts on that axis. (i.e. the question is "does the post make arguments that fit certain meta-guidelines", not "are the arguments actually valid")

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T16:07:40.409Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Even if someone HAD postulated that there existed a distance so great that the sun would look like a point, and that our stars might be suns to them, they wouldn't be "right" in any useful sense of the word. There are zero predictions nor behavior changes to make based on that hypothesis.

On the one hand, I agree that beliefs should guide our expectations and in general should be required to "pay rent" as in the post you reference. On the other hand, truth is truth, regardless of whether it can be perceived as such. I am reminded of https://www.readthesequences.com/Belief-In-The-Implied-Invisible , though as written it doesn't directly apply.

I don't like the outcome of "this is too far beyond our current capabilities so it is irrational to think about". Is there a place in rational thought for considering ideas that cannot presently be tested, but may point the way for future explorers who are better equipped?

Perhaps you've got the best conclusion given the constraints:

the big problem isn't finding more ideas, but in deciding which ones are worth giving up immediate resources to pursue sooner

Though I find that ever so slightly depressing to consider.

comment by Pattern · 2019-04-04T22:46:17.433Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
completely misses the mark
would benefit from a read of

I didn't read it as a piece making a claim, but as a question, which you answered with a link/phrase.

comment by Theist · 2019-04-03T23:32:33.177Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My apologies, it's the best I could come up with. I'm open to suggestions.

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-04T04:13:12.537Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Nod. I don't actually have one, and it may be that this sort of post is actually best suited for a (not currently existent) short form feed, where things don't need to have titles.

comment by Ikaxas · 2019-04-04T03:19:08.301Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As one suggestion, how about something along the lines of "Ideas ahead of their time"?

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T15:55:17.085Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perfect! And done.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-04T19:59:07.514Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

To start with, the idea as it's expressed is wrong. The objects on the sky that we call planets are proper planets and not stars or moons. 

It's quite common for ideas to exist where we lack the ability to prove whether or not they are true. It's true for many mathematical theorems that they exist for years without there being a proof whether or not the theorem is true.

Unfortunately, I knowledge of how the mathematical community deal with theorems where the truth status in unknown is limited but it might be possible that how it deals with them might be useful for other domains where unproven ideas might currently have a higher chance of being seen as crank ideas.

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T20:07:03.046Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

To start with, the idea as it's expressed is wrong. The objects on the sky that we call planets are proper planets and not stars or moons.

I disagree, but perhaps I was not clear enough in my description of the idea. In particular I was not using the modern definitions of sun, star, moon, and planet. The ancient definition of "planet" was an object that wanders across the sky. Also, by "moon" I was trying to mean a body which shines by reflected light rather than producing light of its own like the sun does.

I do like your suggestion to look at mathematics for how to deal with statements whose truth is unknown.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-05T07:34:52.828Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you care about ancient definition, shining light by reflection doesn't seem to be a popular way to think about moons.

comment by Theist · 2019-04-06T03:08:30.941Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good point. I really could have done a better job of getting my point across.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-04-04T17:44:09.982Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect panpsychism is in this boat. We have lots of philosophical reasons to think it makes sense, but making it the consensus requires overcoming two related difficulties:

  • convincing ourselves that "consciousness" is less special and magical than we currently think it is
  • reducing consciousness to something easily observable

Part of the problem seems to be we don't have the ability to adequately inspect the most complex conscious systems, and until we do it will remain possible to keep claiming "yeah, but real consciousness is special and not everything has it" because we imagine the simple pattern that strong theories of panpsychism propose explains consciousness is insufficient to explain the specialness of humans, animals, etc.

(This is not to be confused with weak theories of panpsychism, which are woo and reasonably dismissed (based on current evidence) because they propose the existence of phenomena we have not observed, like plants, rocks, and systems being as agentic as animals, but you know, in secret, or only on another plane of existence.)

comment by Theist · 2019-04-04T18:11:45.420Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's an interesting point of view. It makes me wonder if there's a useful definition of consciousness along the same vein as the "negative entropy" definition of life (meaning something is alive if it reverses entropy in its local environment).

comment by Pattern · 2019-04-04T22:55:48.718Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's a theory called IIT which Scott Aaronson rejected because he didn't think "every time you start up your DVD player you’re lighting the fire of consciousness."

comment by Joris · 2019-04-05T08:25:21.545Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Are there still undiscovered / unrecognized sources of energy that we can meaningfully tap into ?

We'll know when they are available for public scrutiny.

One way to search for them is to organise a black swan energy prize.

This is not just a scientifically fascinating question, it also comes with a bonus of being potentially rather useful.

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ogZyrQ9SHpyvAEwdh/a-black-swan-energy-prize

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-04-06T10:23:52.140Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think it's bad to pitch your own ideas in a thread like this, but your comment seems to me like it doesn't really address the OP.