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October 25, 2007


So when a christian presuppositionalist claims we can only know anything because God exists, your answer would be? I mean to say their is clearly no epistemology which explains clearly and technically intelligence itself. What is the your answer to the assertion: you have no epistemology but God is the basis of epistemology? I don't agree at all, my question is simply how to respond since they assume one needs to justify logic itself.

Does anyone know how to build a Friendly AI?

It seems perfectly possible to know a particular field well enough that you can predict with high confidence that nobody currently knows the answer to some question. You can never be certain of this, but that's trivial.

Nick that's an interesting thought, but it is possible that someone does know how to build a friendly AI, but may not know that he knows this. What I mean is that a person may be working on something unrelated to AI or is not interested in AI, but knows all the ingredients and technical things needed to make a friendly AI. Maybe he just doesn't know the implications of his own knowledge.

I think it's fair to say many scientists fall into this category, if only due to specialization. Maybe some inorganic chemist knows the cure to cancer. But simply due to his ignorance/uninterest in biochemistry or organic chemistry or whatever subject that's relevant is unaware of the implications of his own specialized knowledge on topics outside his area of expertise.

Ken, logical ignorance is still ignorance; if this were not so, I would know a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis.

Nick, it's possible, though not at all probable, that someone among Earth's 6 billions is putting the finishing touches on their quiet project right now.

I've spent a little time looking over some crank physics, particularly surrounding Maxwell's equations. Particularly quaternions applied to maxwell's equations. Note that maxwell's equations are very good at describing charges and electromagnetic radiation in terms of quantities in volumes, though they say nothing about how electromagnetic radiation interacts with charged or uncharged masses. Special relativity was designed to "fix" a problem with maxwell's equations, and lasers were invented after a derivation of maxwell's equations implied that they should be possible.

After reviewing a fraction of the online literature on this topic, I can confidently say that there are a whole lot of things here that a few people know that most physicists do not know. And I can say with considerably less confidence that some of those things might actually be true.

If someone truly knows how to make an inexhaustible battery, or reliable working cold fusion, etc -- I can confidently say that it hasn't passed sufficient peer review to make a big splash. There may be such things that most people don't know about. Almost certainly there are. But when they actually get tested enough to be believable, they'll stop being secret -- unless some government manages to classify them.


"[L]ogical ignorance is still ignorance; if this were not so, I would know a proof of the Riemann Hypothesis." I understand what you mean by logical ignorance is still ignorance; as for the second part of your statement, I don't think that's necessarily true.

For example, if the RH were true you would need n statements in a particular order. Meaning that you have stated assumptions, then you proceed to S1->S2->...->Sn (where Si is the ith logical statement) and Sn is the conclusion of the proof. What you are saying is that you know all n statements, but not the order and you're trying to figure that out or possibly could if you thought about it. BUT, you may not know all n statements, which is what the second part of your statement claims. Your statement, also, assumes the RH is true, which is what the fuss is all about. No one really knows if it's true.

What I was trying to say is that you may know all n statements, even their order and have come up with them to solve some other problem. But you may never have heard of the RH, so don't know that you can solve it. I understand that this is still a form logical ignorance, but the second part of your statement (that you know a proof of the RH) doesn't follow from the first part.


Don't ever see 'what the bleep do we know'. The woo almost killed me.

Isn't "because of the curvature of space" just a curiosity stopper?

bjk, see General Relativity.

I guess General Relativity is a curiosity stopper, then. :) Actually, isn't one of the criticisms of science that it is a curiosity stopper? It takes the mystery out of the world. Lesson: we need to be careful about what we call a "curiosity stopper".

Longer version of PdB's answer: "because of the curvature of space" isn't "just a curiosity stopper" if you can actually say what that means, do the mathematics, and see how that leads to the phenomenon of gravitation. Of course when you do this you encounter other more fundamental things that you haven't explained yet. (See Eliezer's "Explain/Worship/Ignore" piece here some time back.) This is only curiosity-stopping if you then say "no point ever trying to go any deeper than this".

If the fact that there are not-yet-explained things underlying the curvature of space and how it produces gravity makes it improper to say "we do know how gravity works", then I think similar facts make it improper to say "we know how a windmill works" or "we know how a seesaw works", quod est absurdum.

Scientific explanations replace mysteries with smaller mysteries. You can call that "taking mystery out of the world" if you want to, but regarding that as a *criticism* is just preferring ignorance and stupidity over knowledge and understanding. If science took the *wonder* or the *curiosity* out of the world, that would be a criticism worth making, but oddly enough it's a criticism only ever made by people who don't know much science.

All of which seems to me to be merely repeating things Eliezer said -- and that were common knowledge before Eliezer said them, too -- so, bjk and/or Constant, maybe I'm misunderstanding you?

The allure of the incompletely understood has something to do with wonder. The state of being curious gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside that goes away when the curiosity eliminates itself. Assuming that others experience this as well, perhaps it is an evolutionary incentive to explore--to do some original seeing. This seems appropriate in the ancestral environment where, as you point out, going out and learning something new benefits the whole tribe.

In today's environment, however, most novel knowledge accessible to the average person is essentially trivial. If it were important and easy enough to learn, someone would already have found it. So people find ways to push their warm-fuzzy buttons by contemplating the implications of knowledge they don't really understand, such as quantum mechanics. This is then just a candy bar or a supermodel--a superstimulus.

"Because of the curvature of space" is, indeed, not a good explanation - especially for someone who doesn't know automatically that a curved line on a spacetime graph equals acceleration - but I did not properly realize this at the time.

The point of this essay is that someone knows the answer, not that I successfully explained it to my uncle. Someone else knowing the answer should not cause you to be any less curious, once you realize that there are no "inherently mysterious" phenomena.

Matthew, if you haven't been raised in the Christian tradition, it's simply a non-sequitur, a random unsupported claim. Like saying that the Tooth Fairy exists and only the power of the Tooth Fairy lets you know things. There's no evidence that the Tooth Fairy exists and moreover someone understands perfectly well how this "knowing" business works (see What Is Evidence?) and that's not it. If you rename the Tooth Fairy to the Truth Fairy or God it's the same problem.

g - if you think I was endorsing the criticism of science for taking the mystery out of the world, then yes, you misunderstand me. I was holding up a particular criticism of science for ridicule. It went without saying that it deserves ridicule. I was using it as a reminder of how easily valid points can be badly applied.

They would read 'what is evidence' and conclude you cannot trust your senses without justification through logic and since it takes logic to justify logic (which is circular) they would claim only God has that power (or the Truth Fairy). It simply feeds on ignorance of lower level processes - like how the brain uses logic or even how a modern computer chip uses logic. In the later case they could say, yes, computer chips are logical but their intelligence is very limited compared to man. Etc.

I've learned their is nothing you can teach a presuppositionalist in terms of a reductionist, materialist worldview. I've also learned its useless to have a debate between laymen. In addition, it's probably useless to have a debate between experts and non experts.

Ignorance is the basic foundation of science. Without things we are ignorant of there is no point to science.
Mystery (and the desire solve it) is the motavation that drives most scientists to do the hard (often unrewarding) work that makes science.
"Because God made it that way," can be the end of curiosity and therefore harmful to further discovery.
"What has God wrought?" on the other hand has been the question that motavated men like Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein.
"Decoherence solved the observer problem in physics," is an example of an incorrect statement that hinders people from looking into and, hopefully, solving some of the greastest myseries of the universe.
Ignorance of ignorance is the greatest problem for science of them all.
(By the way, the phrase 'what science really knows' made me think this post was a parody at first)

"Decoherence solved the observer problem in physics," is an example of an incorrect statement
Care to support that?

TGGP- there is a paper by Rosenblum and Kutter on arxiv.org that goes into this. I believe they make a convining case that no existent theory does away with the problem. I like this paper because it goes into the problems without too much jargon.
You could google "observer problem decoherence" (or words to that effect) and you will find any number of papers written and a somewhat lively debate on the subject.
The von Nuemann- Wigner interpretation of QM is often refered to as the "standard" interpretation, and it has as a basic that the observer injects a bit of information into the system with each subjective experience.
The "quantum erasure" is an example of an experiment that might lead one to consider that the problem has not been solved.
If you are technically minded, Stapp (you can just google stapp to get to his web page with its numerous papers) is a good source of information as to validity of various claims for various "interpretions" of QM. He's my personal favorite because he's been at it forever and knows the stuff cold.
Need more?


I'm not sure I follow your argument. It seems like you want to say, not that your uncle was wrong to claim that no one has any understanding of gravity because this claim is false, but rather that he was wrong to claim this because, in general, it is always wrong to claim that science doesn't know something. At this point, you seem to suggest that simply because it is always possible that someone has secretly or just recently explained a phenomena, that therefore, one is never justified in stating that a broad community of people lack such an explanation. On the face of it, this is simply an invalid argument.

Perhaps you are interpreting claims like "neuroscience has not yet explained subjective consciousness" as saying "Nobody on planet earth, as of the time of this utterance, has any understanding of subjective consciousness." Then, perhaps, you are claiming that no such person can make a claim like that, because they have not surveyed every living person. I don't think that claims like "neuroscience has not yet explained subjective consciousness" ought to be interpreted as referring to each and every thinker as of the moment of utterance - rather, they seem to be referring to the epistemic situation of a broad community of specialists. However, even if we take the above interpretation as correct, I don't think your argument holds water.

All of science procedes via inductive generalizations. We observe the behavior of an unimaginably small percentage of the electrons in the universe, and see that they have a certain charge, mass, etc., and then induce that all electrons have that charge, mass, etc. This is a justified conclusion. I would submit that surveying a large number of neuroscientists and discovering, not only that each of them have no understanding or explanation of subjective consciousness, but that each of them tells you that they have not heard of any neuroscientists who has an understanding or explanation, is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that no one has such an understanding. Of course this claim is defeasible, of course it could be false, but that does not mean that it is not justified.

It seems to me that your uncle had not even attempted to survey the scientific community (else he certainly would have discovered that he was incorrect). And it is for this reason that his presumptions were spurious, and not because one is always incorrect to claim that something is as-yet unexplained.

Dmitri: As I read him, Eliezer is saying (1) that it's easy to be unaware of scientific progress even once it's made it into the literature, and (2) that at any given moment there's plenty going on that hasn't made it into the literature yet. #1 is sufficient to make his uncle wrong to say that no one knows how gravity works, and others wrong to say that no one's made any progress towards understanding consciousness. #2 isn't needed for those conclusions, but it's interesting in its own right.

Douglas: I had a look at the paper by Rosenblum and Kutter, and I don't see how it offers any reason to think that there's an "observer problem" that we need to worry about. The only "problem" is that it's difficult to reconcile some quantum phenomena with naive ideas about free will; but naive ideas about free will are notoriously difficult to make clear good sense of anyway, so this just looks like one more strike against those ideas. It sounds like Stapp instead wants to make some hand-wavy notion of consciousness fundamental to his model of the universe; if he manages to make this into an actual scientific theory with actual testable predictions, good luck to him, but it doesn't seem like that promising a project.


Whether or not something is non-sequitur doesn't depend on Matthew's upbringing.


Appealing to a materialist set of assumptions to argue against some view other than materialism (such as Christianity) is question begging. Of course you can reason your way from "Materialism is true" to "Christianity is false," but so what? This only shows that materialism and Christianity are incompatible which is not a matter of dispute at all.

I could agree Jim about the question begging part if you haven't opened a neurology/neuroscience textbook.

You might as well have said: "Using materialist assumptions to explain chemistry is question begging. Of course christianity is incompatible with the laws of chemistry when one does not come from a materialist perspective."

This is one of the best articles I've read in a long time. I agree with every statement. Thank you and please keep producing more. There are many people who enjoy this level of intellect.

g- I think you've misread the article. There is nothing to worry about, of course, there are only possibilities to consider.
The point the article makes is not dependant on any particular notion of free will.
Stapp advocates the von Nuemann, Wigner formulation of QM, the only existing formulation that produces a rationally coherent idea of the reality that lies behind our experiences. IMHO
Of course, one problem that people have with this formulation is that it agrees with with the experienced fact that our thoughts can influence our actions.
Would anyone reading this post, or studying decision theory, or trying to overcome a bias, deny that?


Empricial findings in neuroscience or any other discipline don't change whether or not the structure of some argument presumes its conclusion. Neuroscience (which, by the way, brings materialism in as an assumption) or not, it's still question begging to draw on materialist assumptions to argue against Christianity. If you want to claim that drawing on Christianity to argue against materialism is also question begging, you'd be right, but that doesn't change the fact that the former is question begging also.

Douglas, perhaps I have indeed misunderstood the article; I was reading it in the hope that it would give some indication of why you think there's a real "observer problem", and perhaps that was wrong. Since you've clearly read it with more attention than I have, perhaps you'd care to explain how the article justifies the statements you've been making about QM and the "observer problem"?

I think propositions like "our thoughts can influence our actions" are too vaguely defined to be any use in contexts like this.

"Knowing" is different for christians versus scientists. A christian can "know" that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. A scientist who "knows" that gravity comes from the curvature of space is accepting a tentative hypothesis which he will discard when something better comes along. He's taken something that's compatible with the known facts and if he's active in that particular line of research then he's using what he "knows" to choose interesting things to look at.

At any given time some people will be behind the times about what science "knows". I met a mathematician who didn't believe me about molecular biology in 1982. She simply didn't know there was any such thing. She went off and researched it, and the next time we met she apologised for disbelieving me and she admitted that there was such a field. It's easy for scientists to be just as far behind as anybody else about things outside their own specialities.

This is related to people not keeping up with fashions and fads. The latest ideas in another field -- things you believe somebody "knows", the current default hypotheses -- often are just not very important to what you're doing.

Jim, if modern science works, it isn't begging the question. There is nothing circular about results...except this conversation, which is predicated on your ignorance of the topic. But here I am violating my own principles. I promise not to reply to your reply.

The bit about Copernicus inaugurating the scientific revolution -- is that an error, or part of an example-from-argument that I should have been quick enough to catch?

My understanding is that De revolutionibus was ignored when it was published, and didn't start making waves until the 1600s. This fits with your point that no one knows what science knows -- except that in this case, Copernicus can't properly be said to have known what he knew, either.

As I understand it, the secular Saint Nicolaus thought he had found a neat trick for computing where planets would appear in the night sky, which was sometimes more accurate that the Ptolemaic model (ellipses > Fourier series epicycles > circles). He may have believed in a heliocentric universe, but given the evidence available to him at the time, his view could have been no more true than Newton's corpuscular theory of light.

It seems un-Bayesian to give much credit to Democritus.


My understanding of Copernicus's argument is that it doesn't stand out for its superior coincidence with observed facts -- Ptolemy's calculations (and observations) may actually have been slightly more accurate -- but rather that the geometry in Copernicus explains as necessary things that are merely notable coincidences in Ptolemy.

Ptolemy was aware of contemporary heliocentric theories, though. He admitted in Almagest that he had no knock-down argument against such theories, except that it's plainly ridiculous to think that the Earth moves -- after all, how would birds keep up with it while flying through the air? His astronomy is also justified by a quasi-Aristotelian metaphysics/theology, which he was probably aware was highly speculative. (There's a minority opinion among scholars of Ptolemy that he secretly was a heliocentrist.)

I think a lot of Copernicus's importance might be symbolic, showing that 1) empirical science can deny received truth, and 2) human life (and therefore life in general) is not the center of the universe. The second, especially, makes teleological physics much more difficult.

g- Perhaps a more rigorous paper would be appropriate. Try PCE Stamp (2006) It's on the web.
After covering many new experiments and discussion of the current formulations the conclusion goes something like this:
"Decoherence, according to the older ideas, is supposed to explain away the quantum measurement problem..." "There are many things we still do not understand about decoherence and what causes it, and it should now be clear this is a pressing problem."
(Some people use the 'measurement problem', others the 'observer problem'-- it depends on their philosophical bent)
The bigger and more important point is this: ignorance and mystery are what makes good science. They give us something to learn.
Knowing and no mystery are comforting and give us religion.
I don't have any problem with religion, as long as we don't turn science into one.
I doubt that was the point of the original post-- but when I read 'science knows' I just getting a yucky feeling, and I was using this example of why it's not such a good phrase.

Obviously science doesn't "know" anything in the sense of making it impossible or forbidden to question it. Eliezer wasn't saying it does, and the examples of saying "science doesn't know X" he quoted are ones where people are saying science *has no understanding of* X, when in fact it does. (Even though never a complete or unquestionable one.)

Stamp argues that the mechanisms underlying decoherence aren't fully understood and there's more decoherence going on than we have good models for, and that this might just turn out to indicate that QM needs some revision. OK, fine, I'll take his word for all that. None of it invalidates what Eliezer said, namely that we now know of ways in which almost any interaction with the environment (conscious or not) can produce just the sort of observations that were formerly described in terms of wavefunction collapse due to observation, and that there's therefore no longer any reason to suppose that conscious observation as such produces special effects.

The idea that "decoherence solves the observer problem" would be bad if it resulted in too little effort going into (say) looking at consciousness-centric views of QM. It seems to me (though evidently not to you) that the plausibility of such a view is so low that the small but nonzero amount of such effort we actually have isn't too little.

I've no idea why you say that "no mystery" leads to religion. (Even if you actually mean it the other way around.) The religion that's currently (and has been for ages) most popular is crammed full of mysteries. It might be true that the idea that everything needs an immediate explanation leads to religion (if you can't think why X happens, say "X happens because the gods made it so") but I don't think anyone is advocating such an idea.

In so far as religion (or anything else) gives us statements that we're supposed to believe in ways the evidence doesn't warrant, I *do* have a problem with it. If science, or some people's idea of science, starts doing that, something's wrong and needs fixing, but I don't see that what Eliezer says about "science knows X" has that problem.

Beautiful piece.

(Owing to blogs' unfortunate chronological set-up, there's a good chance no more than three or four people will ever read this comment and an even better chance that no one will follow up on something that I write here. This refrains my passion from expressing itself further on this subject in this particular cyber-location. May the future of blogging be kinder to the intellectual/literary output of who were yesterday.)


Curvature of spacetime was not present in the previous theory of gravitation. We can see that another paradigm-shift in the theory of gravity will likely be needed when gravity and quantum theory are combined. It is widely predicted that relativity will come off worse in this future tussle - it is the theory with
the singularities in. I would not bet much on the longevity of the "curvature of spacetime" explanation - maybe it is an unfortunate example.

Why is it that if you tell a lie over and over again that the majority of people will except it as fact?

actually i have a concern. science does not know God!

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