Just saw this article. It’s about scientists who found evidence of a 2 million year-old supernova in fossilized bacteria.
I’m struck by the ability of human beings to deduce the existence of a giant explosion millions of years ago from a complex chain of explanations.
When I yammer about science to people, I often hear things along the lines of “but science can’t know for sure that any evidence is real. How do we even know anything is real?”
Me: “We use our observations to make deductions about reality.”
Them: “But how can we trust our observations? Our senses? What I see as red isn’t necessarily what you see as red…”
I think most of us have had this nihilistic viewpoint at some point or another…. it seems that, in this physical reality we find ourselves in, nothing can be deduced for sure. It’s true: our senses are not reliable in the slightest. In fact, our brains and sense organs probably work quite a bit less reliably than assumed. The more I learn about our biological mind-bodies, the less faith I have in my own brain. Memories, for example, are almost entirely inaccurate! Sorry to break the news to you, if you didn’t know.
OK, but here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter all that much. What’s interesting about us conscious little hairy beings is that our minds create explanations. We don’t merely go around observing, we explain things. Simply navigating your every day activities requires a plethora of explanations, many that don’t require direct sensory input. For example, transferring money using an ATM at the bank requires no distinct “money”… in fact, you don’t even deal with individual dollars on any meaningful scale (in a 1,000 dollar account, it doesn’t matter which dollar is which). You don’t see your money. You don’t touch each dollar. You just have semi-accurate explanations of how an ATM works, how banks work, probably these deep concepts of cultural wealth representation, and so on.
The scientists didn’t use any of their sensory organs to deduce the supernova. They used, in a sense, a giant, slow eyeball (our planet). The million-year-old bacteria recorded an event and help us shape our explanation, our model, of the Universe.
And as intelligent self-aware beings, that’s what we do. Which is why (this is totally a tangent) I suspect artificial intelligence will actually be built around explanation-creating concepts. I believe that in contrast to these sci-fi visions we have of immediately intelligent, unemotional, non-unique robotic beings, actual artificially intelligent people will be emotional, flawed, and seek to improve their explanations of reality on a slower time scale. They will grow and learn and change just like humans (perhaps faster, longer, and better, but still unique and individual). I don’t think there is any other way…. if I’m right, I get to say “I told you so”.
Weirdly, I watched this lecture at random last evening, after starting this post, and the brilliant Sean Carroll talks directly about explanations and the philosophy of science (with much more nerd cred than I).