Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Defense of Rationality Offsets?

A few months ago I posted that “progressives” treat their progressive opinions as “rationality offsets” which relieve them of the need to supply evidence. Currently, Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias has a series of posts defending the use of Bayesian reasoning as superior to the standard scientific method of making experimental predictions and waiting for evidence. I just realized this is a defense of those rationality offsets. After all, Einstein was able to get away with it … once. (Twice if you count Special and General Relativity as separate theories.)

On the other hand, Einstein apparently used the following method:

Rather than observe the planets, and infer what laws might cover their gravitation, Einstein was observing the other laws of physics, and inferring what new law might follow the same pattern.  Einstein wasn't finding an equation that covered the motion of gravitational bodies.  Einstein was finding a character-of-physical-law that covered previously observed equations, and that he could crank to predict the next equation that would be observed.


If you didn't have the concept of a "character of physical law", what Einstein did would look like magic - plucking the correct model of gravitation out of the space of all possible equations, with vastly insufficient evidence.  But Einstein, by looking at other laws, cut down the space of possibilities for the next law.  He learned the alphabet in which physics was written, constraints to govern his answer.  Not magic, but reasoning on a higher level, across a wider domain, than what a naive reasoner might conceive to be the "model space" of only this one law.

This reasoning style has had failures elsewhere. Aristotle tried the same thing and didn't quite succeed. Similar reasoning is also responsible for the Copernican litany, which is responsible for people tying Marx's and Freud's theories to Darwin's, which in turn gave Creationists an excuse.

If we go by past experience with theories of what scientific laws were supposed to be, we see a record of failure. I see a pattern running through science that says that previous patterns have pointed people in the wrong direction. The pattern of Aristotle said that science is simply organized common sense. That turned out to be wrong. The pattern of positivism said that science is based only on verifiable sense data and that meant we could never find out if atoms exist or what stars are made of. Since then we have. The pattern of skepticism said that ideals must be dethroned so the march of history would eliminate the dogmas of the bourgeoise or the conscious mind. The march of history has turned the dictatorship of the proletariat into just another Chinese regime and psychoanalysis into an obsolete joke. The pattern of determinism said that science was moving in the direction of predicting everything. Then quantum mechanics and chaos theory came along.

On the other hand, my pattern might run out someday.


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