Friday, September 9, 2011

Explaining vs. Explaining away

I found myself wanting to link to http://lesswrong.com/lw/oo/explaining_vs_explaining_away/ to illustrate a point for a second time recently. There's nothing wrong with that post, but parts of it are hard to understand unless you've read enough of Yudkowsky's posts to grasp some of the terms he uses. So, this is a dumbed down version.

John Keats' Lamia reads, in part:
... 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.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—-
Unweave a rainbow, ...

According to Keats, the "mere touch of cold philosophy" (aka the truth, aka science) can:
  • Remove ghosts from the air
  • Remove gnomes from the mines
  • Unweave rainbows

Do you notice anything wrong with that list? Right: we don't see ghosts or gnomes, but rainbows are doing just fine.

Science explained how rainbows are formed, but this does not make rainbows less beautiful. If anything, it lets you appreciate their beauty more fully when you understand about light frequencies, absorption and dispersal, etc..

However, science explained away gnomes and ghosts. Do not think: in the beginning, there were gnomes; but then science danced across the scene, and now the gnomes are all gone. Therefore, science killed the gnomes. No. There never were any gnomes to be killed; science, if you listen, is killing your incorrect ideas. The only gnomes science could possibly have killed were the ones in your head.

In summary: science explained rainbows. They are still there, as pretty as ever. Science explained away gnomes and ghosts. They never were there to begin with. If we cannot find beauty in the "merely" real (i.e., rainbows), ours will be a poor sort of existence indeed.

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? --Douglas Adams

1 comment:

Tony Carlson said...

Very nice! I particularly liked the "science, if you listen, is killing your incorrect ideas" line.

I diligently checked your blog for updates for a long time and finally lost hope. I'll have to add you to my news feed just in case you continue to feel inspired.