The Death of Mystery is an Illusion

There is an existential worry I’ve had. I don’t think of it often, but it creeps up from time to time and never fully goes away. It appears in many different forms, such as the following:

  • Have we already discovered the fundamentals of science? Is there much less left to discover than has already been discovered?
  • Given that we’ve already globalized the world, is our sense of awe or mystery about the world permanently gone or diminished?
  • In the near future, will scientists or technologists even be able to make new breakthroughs? Will everything worth discovering already be discovered? Will they be left, at best, to merely explore highly specialized niches?

I call this existential worry the death of mystery. In general, I don’t worry much about the first two bullets above, but I tend to feel the third bullet more: even if mystery is not dead yet, it often feels to me that it is dying.

But today, I had an epiphany that clarified this fear of mine and gave me strong reason to believe that the fear is much more of an illusion than I originally thought.

I got this epiphany while reading The Myth of Artificial Intelligence by Erik J. Larson. To give some context, the thesis of the book is that the vision of AI—portrayed, for example, by Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk, and Nick Bostrom—as a form of superintelligence that is imminent given our current technology, is in fact a myth and a myth that is often pushed with ulterior motives, such as to grow the AI bubble through fear-mongering, or more generally to profit from fear-mongering in some way. In reality, Larson claims, how to create a superintelligence is a complete scientific unknown. Our current approaches to AI, while useful computational methods, in no way indicate that we are heading towards anything resembling a so-called superintelligence. Based on my experience in the field, I must say that I completely agree with Larson.

But let’s return to the subject of this post before we stray too far… This is the passage that triggered my epiphany:

Mythology about AI is bad, then, because it covers up a scientific mystery in endless talk of ongoing progress. The myth props up belief in inevitable success, but genuine respect for science should bring us back to the drawing board. This brings us to the second subject of these pages: the cultural consequences of the myth. Pursuing the myth is not a good way to follow “the smart money,” or even a neutral stance. It is bad for science, and it is bad for us. Why? One reason is that we are unlikely to get innovation if we ignore a core mystery rather than face up to it. A healthy culture for innovation emphasizes exploring unknowns, not hyping extensions of existing methods—especially when these methods have been shown to be inadequate to take us much further. Mythology about inevitable success in AI tends to extinguish the very culture of innovation necessary for real progress—with or without human-level AI. The myth also encourages resignation to the creep of machine-land, where genuine invention is sidelined in favor of futuristic talk advocating current approaches, often from entrenched interests.

My god, what an insightful passage… We can see that this myth about AI is a specific case of the death of mystery. And in this case, it’s not a real death at all! It’s a hoax. A faked death. Entrenched interests are pushing this hoax because they benefit from it. And it’s easy to see how they could benefit: for one, positive speculation about technology means higher valuations of technology companies.

Similarly, the general death of mystery is not a real death either. It’s often a media fabrication, or simply the result of the current cultural attitude, which is constantly changing. I wonder if people in past generations—even hundreds of years ago—ever felt that mystery was dead; I suspect some did.

The simple fact is that if you fixate on what has already been discovered and consider it the end-all-be-all, you will feel that mystery is dead, and if you fixate on the obvious mysteries in front of your face, you will feel that mystery is everywhere. It’s as simple as that. So let’s stop reading or listening to “thought leaders,” and let’s focus on those obvious mysteries in front of our faces.

1 Comment

  1. ethanthebuilder says:

    Max Planck’s advisor Philipp von Jolly remarked to Planck about the field of physics some time around 1874 that “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes.” I would also be unsurprised if similar sentiments have been held throughout history by many.

    Liked by 2 people

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