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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Science and The Argument from Lack of Imagination

Most people think of learning as the discovery of what is, but in truth it's much more about the discovery of what isn't.

Tabula rasa, we begin with a model of the world in which all things are possible. Our visual imagination is just white noise. We quickly learn that most of those combinations of pixels never happen, and so our visual imagination becomes confined to the domain of image-like collections of colored dots. And so on.

As a child we begin to put names on the ever shrinking islands of possible reality that are left over after we remove all the things that aren't. Bird island and Horse island were connected for a while, but eventually we hunt all the flying horses to extinction, along with the talking dogs and ninja cats. And by the time we are adults, our map of reality has become an archipelago dotted with the few tangible, real bits of a vast sea of imaginary possibilities.

If we're especially good at this, especially good at pruning away the imaginary and remaining constrained by the actual, we become scientists. We carve away at these islands of reality, find every strait and river, and then name all these newly orphaned islands. And so our grand map of reality evolves in ever finer detail, and we have learned "more" than we ever knew before.

And if you ever wondered why science progresses one death at a time, this is why. If you ever wondered why so many academics seem certain that something they don't understand can't be true, this is why.

I used to be baffled by the regularity with which scientists, skeptics, and rationalists would use the Argument from Lack of Imagination, which goes something like "the mouse couldn't possibly have fit through that crack, so somebody must have left a door open" which, more honestly stated, should be "I can't imagine how the mouse could fit through that crack, so I have no option left but to assume somebody left a door open."

But now I realize, this is the very nature of the scientific mind. We like to idealize scientists as explorers, but we forget that most of exploring is about sailing down the coast and charting everywhere the ocean eats away the land. The one who sails out to sea looking for new land is a maverick! And too many of those just drown at sea.

No doubt the skeptics reading this would cite the Einsteins and Feynmans of history. But those are precisely the mavericks--the lucky or especially skilled ones that didn't drown at sea. And I certainly encourage all to be more like them--to re-admit the vast sea of possibilities, to re-ignite your imaginations so you are open to theories outside of your current model.

But I'm learning not to expect it... Along with the flying horses and talking dogs, imaginative scientists are becoming extinct on my world map.

So many arguments, so many debates, are entirely and easily explained by: They just can't imagine the alternatives, because they've spent so much time on their chosen islands that their map shows nowhere else to go.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com