« Bias Against Torture | Main | Bias as Objectification »

August 25, 2007



The Secret of Life was infinitely beyond the reach of science! Not just a little beyond, mind you, but infinitely beyond!

But Kelvin (in your quote) qualified it with "... hitherto entered on". Whether or not "infinitely" is fitting, doesn't this imply that Kelvin did not think that future scientific inquiry could not succeed?

Could it not also have been partly due to earlier scientists underestimating the degree to which qualitative phenomena derive from quantitative phenomena? Their error, then, was in tending to assume this quality was immune to study, rather than in assuming the quality itself.

Since you can say "Why? Elan vital!" to any possible observation, it is equally good at explaining all outcomes, a disguised hypothesis of maximum entropy, etcetera.

But you say earlier 'Elan vital' was greatly weakened by a piece of evidence. In that light, it's hypothesis could be stated "the mechanisms of living processes are of a different kind than the mechanisms of non-living processes, so you will not be able to study them with chemistry". This is false, but I don't think it's entirely worthless as a hypothesis, since biochemistry is noticeably different from non-living chemistry.

I think 'elan vital' makes some sense, even in a modern light. Most of the reactions in our body would not occur without enzymes, and enzymes are a characteristic feature of life. So perhaps we can say that 'elan vital' is enzymes! There is at least one experiment I can think of that could have been interpreted to show this too: I believe it involved fermentation being carried out with yeast-water (no living yeast, but clearly having their enzymes).

I like your list of signs of a curiosity stopper. I don't necessarily think that "elan vital" meets those requirements (as Roy points out), but perhaps it did for many people or at some times.

I like the list because my brain feels a little more limber and a little more powerful, having pondered it. The list is a curiosity ENHANCER, and an anticipation SHARPENER.

-- James

Since you can say "Why? Elan vital!" to any possible observation, it is equally good at explaining all outcomes, a disguised hypothesis of maximum entropy, etcetera.

But you say earlier 'Elan vital' was greatly weakened by a piece of evidence

Heh. A fair point! Every mysterianism, though it may fail to predict details and quantities, is ultimately vulnerable to the one experience in all the world that it does prohibit - the discovery of a non-mysterious explanation.

These are the signs of mysterious answers to mysterious questions:
Anothe good sign is that the mysterious answer is always in retreat. Suddenly, people explain some phenonmena, previously thought to be explainable only by "elan vitale" or "god" or "the influence of platonic Ideals". And the mysterious answer retreats to a smaller realm. And that realm just keeps on shrinking...

This post reads rather like a pastiche of Dan Dennett (on consciousness and free will).

And to continue the thread of Roy's comment as picked up by Eliezer, it might have been a fairly reasonable conjecture at the time (or at some earlier time). We have to be wary about hindsight bias. Imagine a time before biochemistry and before evolution theory. The only physicalist "explanations" you've ever heard of or thought of for why animals exist and how they function are obvious non-starters...

You think to yourself, "the folks who are tempted by such explanations just don't realize how far away they are from really explaining this stuff; they are deluded." And invoking an elan vital, while clearly not providing a complete explanation, at least creates a placeholder. Perhaps it might be possible to discover different versions of the elan vital; perhaps we could discover how this force interacts with other non-material substances such as ancestor spirits, consciousness, magic, demons, angels etc. Perhaps there could be a whole science of the psychic and the occult, or maybe a new branch of theological inquiry that would illuminate these issues. Maybe those faraway wisemen that we've heard about know something about these matters that we don't know. Or maybe the human mind is simply not equipped to understand these inner workings of the world, and we have to pray instead for illumination. In the afterlife, perhaps, it will all be clear. Either way, that guy who thinks he will discover the mysteries of the soul by dissecting the pineal gland seem curiously obtuse in not appreciating the magnitude of the mystery.

Now, in retrospect we know what worked and what didn't. But the mystics, it seems, *could* have turned out to have been right, and it is not obvious that they were irrational to favor the mystic hypothesis given the evidence available to them at the time.

Perhaps what we should be looking for is not structural problems intrinsic to certain kinds of questions and answers, but rather attitude problems that occur, for example, when ask questions without really caring about finding the answer, or when we use mysterious answers to lullaby our curiosity prematurely.

People with the benefit of hindsight failing to realize how reasonable vitalism sounded at the time is precisely why they go ahead and propose similar explanations for consciousness, which seems far more mysterious to them than biology, hence legitimately in need of a mysterious explanation. Vitalists were merely stupid, to make such a big deal out of such an ordinary-seeming phenomenon as biology - consciousness is different.

This is precisely one of the ways in which I went astray when I was still a diligent practitioner of mere Traditional Rationality, rather than Bayescraft. The reason to consider how reasonable mistakes seemed without benefit of hindsight, is not to excuse them, because this is to fail to learn from them. The reason to consider how reasonable it seemed is to realize that not everything that sounds reasonable is a good idea; you've got to be strict about things like yielding increases in predictive power.

Eliezer: It doesn't seem to me that you really engaged with Nick's point here. Also, I have pointed out to you before that there were lots of philosophers who believed that consciousness was unique and mysterious but life was not long before science rejected vitalism.

The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on. Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms... Modern biologists were coming once more to the acceptance of something and that was a vital principle.

Given what we know now about the vastly complex and highly improbable processes and structures of organisms -- what we have learned since Lord Kelvin about nucleic acids, proteins, evolution, embryology, and so on -- and given that there are many mysteries still, such as consciousness and aging, or how to cure or prevent viruses, cancers, or heart disease, for which we still have far too few clues -- this rather metaphorical and poetic view of Lord Kelvin's is certainly a far more accurate view of the organism, for the time, than any alternative model that posited that the many details and functions of human body, or its origins, could be most accurately modeled by simple equations like those used for Newtonian physics. To the extent vitalism detered biologists from such idiocy vitalism must be considered for its time a triumph. Too bad there were to few similarly good metaphors to deter people from believing in central economic planning or Marx's "Laws of History."

Admittedly, the "infinetely different" part is hyperbole, but "vastly different" would have turned out to be fairly accurate.

I don't really see the problem here. the causal link from mind to body is not very much more understood today as it was in Lord Kelvins time. To propose that there is a life force involved may not have empirical basis but can be validated by personal experience. And to suggest that there can be nothing more than enzymes, nerve signals, molecules floating around etc. is perhaps also failure to admit ones own ignorance.

Secondly it seems to me that there is a philosophical/existential way of seeing things that is different from the more dry scientific point of view that one usually finds on this blog.

" If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. "

The problem with this statement is that reality is relative and our understanding of it depends on the our limited ways of knowing about it. So to state that something is a mystery or is unknown might also be a recognition of this limitation. Something at one level of understanding might be something different on another level.

But of course this should not prevent us from trying to find out what is hiding behind the mystery.

I just read "The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar" in Emile by Jean Jacques Rousseau. He's responsible for intelligent design (that annoying "who made this watch?" story), and an early "who caused the big bang? GOD did!" argument. I think this falls into your "mysterious answer" category. Positing a supernatural being doesn't really answer anything, it just moves the mystery into a new, man-made construct.

I don't think "elan vital" needed to be a curiousity stopper. It could be a description.

Some things are alive. Some are not. Live things are different, they do things that dead things do not. It's a difference that's worth noticing. If "elan vital" is a synonym for "alive" and not an explanation, then it's useful. It doesn't have to stop you from asking what the difference is.

Urea is not alive. That was a red herring. But it suggested a new idea, one that will probably be realised someday soon. In theory there's nothing about cells that we can't understand in detail. Probably within 50 years we'll be able to create a living cell from nonliving components. If not 50 years, certainly within 200 years. We're very close.

I think Kelvin gets a bit of a raw deal in the way people often quote him: "[life etc.] is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry".

By cutting off the quote there it sounds like he is claiming that science will never be able to understand life. However, as you show above, he continues with, "... hitherto entered on." Thus, the sentence is making a claim about the power of science *up to the time of his writing* to understand life. This is a far more reasonable claim.

I am wondering what kind of force it is that causes ones shoes to come off during a forceful impact.

I think you have overlooked the possibility of non rational knowledge. Maybe science is limited to the rational, empirical search for casuality, but there is meaning beyond this specific mode of cognition. This is to say, I don't think a exception of reductionism is necessarely admition of mystery. It may be acceptance of thought independent of matter, or, simply put, to believe that the mind comes before the material universe. Once again the old egg-chiken problem. You don't need a linear solution. A circular causality, where cause and effect are not ontologically absolute, but may adapt to the circumstances or points of view. Just as you mentioned, drawing diagrams of [cause]->[effect] do not amount to learning, for it has no influence on what you know. It has utility only if this takes place in a 'thingspace' where a network of ideas models the experience of the mind. In this case, those diagrams may operate as little brain apps, allowing for coherent behavior. This is rationality. Search for truth and beauty is not confined by reason. I think this is the whole point of doubting pure reductionism, not arguing for mystery and cherishing ignorance, as your words imply.

1) Great post and great comments.

2) Like a few people have mentioned, using a life force as an explanation isn't necessarily a bad thing. It depends what you have in mind. You could believe in the life force but not be breaking any of the four curiosity stoppers. It would be interesting to know how many people used life force as a curiosity stopper when it was popular. I would guess that most people did use it as a curiosity stopper. Sounds like a good job for those experimental philosophers to show they do more than just polls about intuitions.

3) "You have a little causal diagram in your head that says ["Elan vital!"] -> [hand moves]. But actually you know nothing you didn't know before. You don't know, say, whether your hand will generate heat or absorb heat, unless you have observed the fact already; if not, you won't be able to predict it in advance."

I disagree that you know nothing more than you did before. When I think of a life force I picture different things than, say, electrical force. Maybe your concept of life hasn't substantially changed, but it has been enriched slightly, and the more you enrich a concept the more falsifiable it becomes. I would argue that the more falsifiable a concept is, without being shown to be false, the more useful it is (in general). For instance, if I said meaning was holistic, I think this is somewhat analogous to saying motion in the living is generated by a life force. It loosely constrains other things you can believe about meaning or life.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Less Wrong (sister site)

May 2009

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30