Quotes of the Day

"Just a few centuries ago, the smartest humans alive were dead wrong about damn near everything. They were wrong about gods. Wrong about astronomy. Wrong about disease. Wrong about heredity. Wrong about physics. Wrong about racism, sexism, nationalism, governance, and many other moral issues. Wrong about geology. Wrong about cosmology. Wrong about chemistry. Wrong about evolution. Wrong about nearly every subject imaginable."

Luke Muehlhauser

(via Eliezer Yudkowsky)

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"The public's conception of new ideas: Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. Obvious." – Lant Pritchett.

13 Responses to Quotes of the Day

  1. John says:

    If by “wrong” you mean “had incomplete knowledge,” then the quote is still true today.

    But centuries ago people knew quite a bit about every subject listed. Take physics. No, they didn’t have Newton’s laws. But they built cathedrals that still stand. They must have had extensive knowledge of physics, though they couldn’t state it in modern form.

  2. Oh, this is too easy.

    Of course Luke Muehlhauser is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    No doubt centuries hence some other sneering PZ Myers clone will write that we were “wrong about nearly every subject imaginable.”

    We should expect an avowed atheist to be every bit as wrong as Billy Graham and his hell-fire brandishing zealots.

    But John is quite right.

    The Sumerian astrologer/astronomers weren’t “wrong” about their calendar. They predicted the equinoxes and eclipses.

    The Old Europe culture wasn’t “wrong” about metallurgy– they successfully smelted copper.

    No one now can show that the Confucian bureaucracy was “wrong” about governance in China. It worked efficiently for many hundreds of years.

    Funny that someone who rants about “fuzzy thinkers” can be so “wrong”.

    Luke Muehlhauser is a lousy defender of atheism and an even worse preacher.

  3. It’s not about right/wrong, it’s about learning- the evolution of knowledge. Focussing on whether something is or is not 100% accurate by current standards as if they are infallible (which is plain irrational, actually) is missing the point, and undermines the growth of knowledge as a result. This would not be a problem as a throwaway statement, but it underpins huge swathes of what we are actually trying to do right now, and that’s bad for real knowledge growth.

  4. Bill says:

    What Vince Williams said. And John. Rather depressing to learn that the past is so useless to us. Those ancient Greeks? Wrong about the demos! Cicero? If only he hadn’t been so wrong about the nature of the republic. The architects of the Parthenon? Wish they’d known about optical illusions sufficiently to correct the curvature of the columns.

    Speaking of architecture, thank goodness we’ve rejected the wrongness of the past and sailed into the new righteous world of beauty: brutalism, bauhaus and blobitecture.

    I’ve always thought Hitchens was great in a debate, because even to his bitterest opponents he can be appealing. Muehlhauser’s comments, even to his kindred spirits, must be appalling.

  5. If, as Muehlhauser thinks, the smartest of the ancients “were dead wrong about damn near everything”, then how did their successors, who built upon the foundations of knowledge they laid, ever get to be ‘right’ about anything?

    Even as we have progressed in some aspects of our understanding, we have regressed in others, as Bill suggests with irony.

    It’s true, as Alice said, that this is really about the evolution of knowledge.

    It was through trial and error that we and the ancients learned, and one would hope that we were closer to being done with the old scourges of war, disease, and famine.

    But this doesn’t seem likely.

    Witness the development of a culture of violence in the Western world and Japan, especially in the arts, as shown by the raising of the dregs of society in hip-hop music and cinema to social prominence.

    Those who, like Eminem and Quentin Tarantino, should be repudiated and vilified for their loathsome degeneracy are instead idolized by such fools as Ezra Klein.

    We need a modern-day Socrates to wander around the public commons in barefoot simplicity.

    We need a truthful philosopher who will fearlessly expose the hypocrisy and ignorance of our political leaders.

    We need a loud-voiced Demosthenes who will condemn the conscienceless greed of big business, the very same which orchestrates the rape of our children’s minds by the aestheticization of violence.

  6. Uhm.. If you go on to read the post, he says exactly that. That we are no different. The point of the quote is to show how little we know about the future, not how little we knew in the past.

  7. Krishna says:

    The real disservice done to our society by the culture of higher education and all their pet theorems is that we are denied knowledge that might unlock the secrets of our existence and reproduce ancient technologies that could be used for our benefit. Even today, we ignore alternative methods of healing and treatment in favor of toxic and life-threatening procedures that make no promise of a cure. While lightly-clothed cultures living in the Amazon rain forests are portrayed as mindless children in need of our rescue, pharmaceutical corporations secretly spend millions on expeditions to that area in search of secrets that allow many of these seemingly primitive people to live virtually disease free lives!

    The Roman Coliseum is a good example of smart technology. It’s now an accepted fact that elevators and lifting areas were used to quickly move people, animals and scenery on and off the main floor where all the action took place. It could even be flooded to recreate naval battles. But we still do not know exactly how they did it !

    If we say that archeology has provided us with no proof that ancients drove gasoline-powered vehicles, this doesn’t mean they weren’t more advanced then we are. It shows how poor we are at digging for stuff!

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    Very well said, Krishna.

  9. Umm…I did read the post, although I wasn’t inclined to read it when he said, “So now that you’re prepared to ignore everything I say, let me share my thoughts.”

    Did you read it?

    He repeated the statement:

    “Apparently, our inner sense was mankind’s primary (or only) method for finding truth for thousands of years, during which time we were dead wrong about damn near everything.”

    I generally ignore the pronouncements of professed atheists about truth, but
    I thought it was comical when he said, “…theologians and philosophers envy scientists…”.

    That convinced me he was probably dead wrong about nearly everything, but I read to the end anyway.

    Common sense tells me that someone who takes the stand that God does not exist “should not generally be trusted”.

    Agnosticism is the only tenable position for categorical statements about the existence or non-existence of God.

    I certainly agree that “scientific measurement, observation, experiment, and rigorous attempts to disprove hypotheses before they are accepted are… guides to the truth”, and that’s why I ignore the epistomology of atheists.

  10. I think the point is that these issues are more subtle and nuanced than Muehlhauser’s statement implies. It’s not about whether the solution to his dichotomy is correct: it’s about whether the dichotomy even exists, or whether things are more complex and subtle than that. Commenters here make some valid points about this subtlety, which I think Krishna and Ben are missing. The future of intellectual thought lies in exploring the nature of processes/ dynamic growth (hence my reference to the evolution of ideas), not in continually inventing then solving dichotomies, which over-simplify the reality and generally lead to stalemates or conflicts in the discussions.

  11. Krishna says:

    Alice,

    Thanks for airing your anxiety. I loved it.

    I do agree that focusing on accuracy by latest benchmarks is missing the point of natural evolution of knowledge as you brilliantly put. The aspect of subtlety has also not gone unnoticed. Kudos.

    I stress on the fact that such natural evolution of knowledge should in no way “bury” the past before it is even discovered in its entirety. Unfortunately that’s what generations end up doing progressively.

    Guess we are one?

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