"Getting it Less wrong"

While reading “From the Head to the Heart” , I was reminded of a discussion in my Behavioral Neuroscience class about getting the right answer. I think it is important here to state that it is not important to find an answer, but to “get it less wrong”. I absolutely love this phrase we used in Professor Grobstein’s class. Instead of looking at getting the right answer about Emergence and whatever else we are thinking about, we should be trying to figure out what it is not. We have all discussed what we think Emergence is and how it relates to the world. Professor Grobstein states, “…any give phenomenon does have multiple causes, including ones unsuspected by investigator, and that these do interact with each other in unknown and complex ways. ( “From the Head to the Heart” )” It is important to keep in mind that we will not be able to figure out ever little detail and get it right, but we can keep figuring out what it is not. Professor Grobstein also states, “The task is and has always been to try and make better and better sense of the world: not to establish truth but to create hypotheses which effectively summarize wider and wider sets of observations. ( “From the Head to the Heart” )” Lets keep getting it “less wrong” and keep making observations to get us closer!


LauraKasakoff's picture

I do believe that the best weapon that scientists, and indeed humans, have in the pursuit of knowledge is the process of getting it less wrong. i.e. we are safest in testing hypotheses, and we may never know whether or not a hypothesis is true, but we can be sure in declaring a hypothesis false. All that is needed is a counterexample. In this way we can eliminate false theories thus "getting it less wrong", but we can never know concretely what is true. This process (while epistemically sound) leaves something to be desired. Deep down don't we want to know absolute truths? Isn't part of the appeal of emergence that it has the potential to be a theory of everything that could provide us with solid answers that science has not provided us with thus far? Getting it less wrong is certainly a more feasible goal, and it definitely has practical value, but is it possible that emergent theories could lead us to finding definite answers? Perhaps it is not possible to pinpoint definite answers in general. A prominent component of emergence seems to be its evolutionary nature: time is necessary to recognize the presence of emergence, and from one point in time it is not possible to predict what systems will display emergence in the future. Furthermore, absolute definitions and concrete truths may indeed be figures of a human mind grasping for reason where there is none. Perhaps it is a pitfall of my human nature, but I want to believe that it could be possible to get every detail of some question right, and perhaps the interdisciplinary nature of emergence could provide a means to this end.
Jesse Rohwer's picture

Sarah, Laura, and Laura... after reading through Wolfram's NKS, I, too was moved by the idea that the phenomena manifested in cellular automata might be the key to a deeper, possibly even complete understanding of reality. Wolfram certainly seems to think so. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if all of the mathematical knowledge that our human race has accrued is in fact only a subset of a more general, complete system which can be explained in terms of information and computation? A system that is in the process of being discovered, through experience with simulations? As LK observes "we are safest in testing hypotheses." Indeed, it is the only acceptable scientific attitude today. But after pondering the whole situation for a few depressing minutes last night, I have come to the sad conclusion (for now at least) that it is not just Possibly impossible to pinpoint definite answers, as LK postulates in her post (a lot of alliteration there), but that it is definitely impossible. We will never have any way of being sure of what's going on. Consider this: the game of Life is a sort of self-contained world--a virtual reality that we have, in a way, created. But the funny little gliders and blinkers and chaotic masses of cells have no idea that we are watching them play out their inescapable fate, or even that they exist as binary electronic code on silicon chips in a plasic box, or even what electricity is! They know only what we gave them, but for them it is as complete a universe as they can ever hope to understand. Say that one day we run a massive Life game on a huge computer, so that their world is big enough and runs fast enough that they can evolve little cellular-automata-scientists in their computer world. Computer-DougBlank might say to Computer-PaulGrobstein, during iterations 5.1102 to 5.1104 quadrillion, "Hey Paul, how do we know that our world isn't just a virtual reality contained within some greater reality?" After which a flaming meteorite (in our world) might make it through the atmosphere and crash, by chance, through the roof of the super-computer-building, incinerating the memory bank that had been responsible for holding Professor Grobstein's 1's and 0's. The program would just make those cells empty by some default error-handling routine, and Professor Blank would perceive that Professor Grobstein had just vanished. Now this might be perceived as a case of computer-person schizophrenia (Because Professor Blank would insist to the computer-psychiatrists, "No really, I knew him for years, I saw him almost every day, he was my colleague and then he just dissapeared!"), when really it was evidence of, FINALLY, some contact with a previously unknown part of reality! I'm not sure how relevant that was... My point is just that we ourselves could exist in such a virtual reality. And our unexplained glimpses of contact with the infinitude of "higher" levels within which we are contained could be anything from dreams, to hallucinations, to unexplained miracles and acts of God, to the times I can occasionally really, actually fly like in kung-fu movies. I'm just saying--I think it's possible. I sort of got side-tracked there. Actually, what I wanted to say was that I agree with Laura in that it may not be possible to fully understand our world, but emergence and its implications certainly seem as though they may shed light on a lot more of it, and this is as exciting to me as kung-fu movies.
Laura Cyckowski's picture

I'll agree with the above two points about "getting it less wrong". But I prefer the process of, not declaring something false (or going about things in a 'process of elimination' kind of way, nor defining something only by 'what it's not', which to me still reeks of an 'ultimate truth'-- whether ever provable... correction, i mean one ultimate correct explanation/not nec. truth), but rather a less definitive way of discarding one idea for the time being to explore another, leaving the possibility of coming back to the former at a later time when new understandings/observations/perspectives may be had. I don't think of emergence as exactly leading to a "theory of everything" but, at least for me, the concept seems to open a plethora of new (simpler?) ways of thinking about relationships & interactions within and between systems, and that any one idea may give a better account of something that now is explained by multiple/separate ideas; so, similar to a "theory of everything" in the sense of more encompassing, but not quite so extreme. I was also thinking of some of the discussion prompted by Flora and Professor Grobstein about the unpredictability of future states of emergent systems-- that right now it seems a (computer) simulation is our only way to know future states, but whether or not this is in fact a property of the systems themselves or if it just reflects our current understanding of emergent systems-- that somewhere down the road, with enough examination, we might be able to predict states. This was mentioned, but just thought I'd add that I share Flora's hope/concern (?) over the predictability.