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Comment by fez on Think Like Reality · 2007-05-04T02:52:19.000Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's unfortunate that this thread has veered off into debates about the inner workings of quantum theory and indignant defenses of what is and is not known in physics. Eliezer used quantum mechanics as an example to illustrate a larger point which has scarcely been mentioned here, a point which connects very clearly to the name of this blog -- Overcoming Bias, and yet everyone seems more interested in the metaphor than what it represents; they are mistaking the map for the terrain, as Eliezer might say =)

As I understand it, Eliezer is making a point about how short-sighted and self-centered it is to label a phenomena "weird". To call something weird is, in essence, identifying it as an outlier in our (woefully limited) data set of experiences. As Eliezer points out, this is a shortcoming of our model and not an inherent “eccentricity” in reality. Now I believe that being surprised is completely natural and in fact unavoidable, but what I believe Eliezer is really railing against is how fixated people can become with the “weirdness” of a universe which refuses to conform to our simple models and heuristics.

In cognitive psychology, there is a theory of cognitive growth espoused by Jean Piaget which describes learning as a dialectic of assimilation and accommodation. When faced with the unfamiliar, we have two options: assimilate the new data to fit our current models, or modify our models to accommodate the new data. Both of these processes are vital to cognitive development: assimilation allows us to use our limited experiences to generalize to the unfamiliar and make relatively quick decisions without a thorough investigation, and accommodation leads to more mature and nuanced thinking which takes more facts into account and is thus more "accurate". In fact, this is exactly how scientific progress is made--outliers disrupt the tidiness of old models, and the scientist must either explain the outlier as erroneous data points or expand the model to accommodate the new data; what the scientist cannot do, however, is ignore the errant data point altogether. What I think Eliezer is railing against is the mental stance we take towards this process. By fixating on our own incredulity, we are forgetting that nature has absolutely no obligation to fit into any models. As developing individuals who are constantly learning the dizzying depths of our own ignorance, we should be aware of the tenuous nature of human knowledge and thus not be paralyzed by cognitive dissonance in the face of “spooky” phenomena like quantum entanglement and other such boogeymen of science. In fact, we should be thankful that we have been able to generalize from experience at all. I like how Eliezer referenced billiard balls, which I’m pretty sure is a nod to David Hume and his artful deconstruction of causal inference as an innately irrational process with no essential basis in nature. I agree with Eliezer that we demonstrate a profound ignorance for the overwhelming complexity and mystery of the universe by expressing sustained surprise that reality has betrayed our expectations. Man is a hairless ape with a thicker neocortex than his primate cousins, occupying a single speck of matter in a single solar system in one galaxy in….you see where I’m going with this. Let us not forget our laughably insignificant place in the grand scheme of things, and let us not feign comprehension of that which is beyond us.

What I am advocating is that we accommodate more and assimilate less; as Eliezer says “spending emotional energy on incredulity wastes time you could be using to update”. Let us not cling to our ignorant beliefs as if they were prized possessions; to do so would be to prefer vanity and ego preservation over truth.

"We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood." -William James

Preach on brother.