June 25, 2003
Optimism or positivism?

In continuation of the strong AI discussion David Weinberger talks aboutSimulated Life - and relates that to the man/machine discussion.

While I completely understand and agree with the hesitation in just accepting that the future doesn't need us, I think it is important for the discussion to distinguish between scientific optimism and scientific positivism.
Personally I am a scientific optimist. What that means is simply that I believe science works, and will continue to work. Science (and its illegitimate offspring, technology) is a vibrant and essential part of the way we understand our world. Understanding is an unconditional good thing. Application of an understanding on the other hand is not always a good thing.

In contrast to this blue eyed - but in my mind thoroughly undangerous - world view, positivism is an 'everything is science' scientific idealism that is as scary as it is ridiculous.
I think Weinberger and the people he agree with are confusing these two ways of thinking a great deal.
The debate has a 'First wave of the third culture' feel to it, if that means anything to anybody: I am referring to the slew of anti-reductionist books that came out in the late 80s and early 90s. Based on concepts such as 'emergent layers of explanation' (the cell, the body, society), chaos, and quantum mechanics all of these titles posited the impossibility of scientific explanation of various phenomena.
While it is true of the underlying scientific theories that they tell us that the world is not a gigantic 6 dimensional pool table, infinitely predictable through all time, what they did not produce is an end to scientific progress. The new theories are not the end of models. They are in fact the start of new and improved models. If the world is probabilistic, then our model of it - and simulations of that model - must be formulated probabilistically. If the cell cannot be explained through reference to lower layers of theory, lets start of life simulation by creating an efficient simulation of cells.

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Posted by Claus at June 25, 2003 10:36 PM | TrackBack (0)
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