Saturday, January 17, 2004

What's your law?

On John Brockman's wonderful website Edge, this year's annual question, put to their broad stable of contributers from the sciences and the arts, is "What's Your Law?".

Brockman explains:

There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy.

Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy. Remember, your name will be attached to your law.

There are 164 responders, and I haven't gone through them all yet, but here's a sampling of some that I found interesting or provocative. [For the sake of consistency and legibility, I've reformatted these somewhat, without, I hope, distorting the ideas. -- Ed]

James J. O'Donnell: O'Donnell's Law of History

There are no true stories.

Story-tellers are in the iron grip of readers' expectations. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends, heroes, villains, clarity, resolution. Life has none of those things, so any story gets to be a story (especially if it's a good story) by edging away from what really happened (which we don't know in anywhere near enough detail anyway) towards what makes a good story. Historians exist to wrestle with the story temptation the way Laocoon wrestled with the snakes.

George B. Dyson: Dyson's Law of Artificial Intelligence

Anything simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently, while anything complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand.

Howard Gardner: Gardner's First Law

Don't ask how smart someone is; ask in what ways is he or she smart.

John Allen Paulos: Paulos' Law of Coincidence

People often note some unlikely conjunction of events and marvel at the coincidence. Could anything be more wonderfully improbable, they wonder. The answer is Yes. The most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of coincidence.

David Berreby: Berreby's First Law

Human kinds exist only in human minds.

Human differences and human similarities are infinite, therefore any assortment of people can be grouped together according to a shared trait or divided according to unshared traits. Our borders of race, ethnicity, nation, religion, class etc. are not, then, facts about the world. They are facts about belief. We should look at minds, not kinds, if we want to understand this phenomenon.
Berreby's Second Law

Science which seems to confirm human-kind beliefs is always welcome; science that undermines human-kind belief is always unpopular.

To put it more cynically, if your work lets people believe there are "Jewish genes'" (never mind that the same genes are found in Palestinians) or that criminals have different kinds of brains from regular people (never mind that regular people get arrested all the time), or that your ancestors 5,000 years ago lived in the same neck of the woods as you (never mind the whereabouts of all your other ancestors), well then, good press will be yours. On the other hand, if your work shows how thoroughly perceptions of race, ethnicity, and other traits change with circumstances, well, good luck. Common sense will defend itself against science.

Nicholas Humphrey: Humphrey's Law of the Efficacy of Prayer

In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not.

[Think about it.]

Art Kleiner: Kleiner's Law

Every organization always operates on behalf of the perceived needs and priorities of some core group of key people. This purpose will trump every other organizational loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees, customers, and other constituents.

Beatrice Golomb: Golomb 's Law

Everything in biology is more complicated than you think it is, even taking into account Golomb's Law.

Henry Warwick: Warwick's First Law

Art takes you out of town, and gives you a destination. Science builds the bus that takes you there.

Art, at its best, takes you out of your town, your home, your living room, your armchair, your mind, and brings you some place?a destination, a wonderful place, a new way of looking at things, a deep shift in your understanding of what it means to be human with a sense of profundity and awe at the Creation, pointing toward a new and better environment for living, smiling a new smile?all by altering your consciousness in some useful and insightful way.

Cooking up the better paint or programming didn't make the better paintmaker a better painter, or the better word processor-maker a better writer, but the great painter required the skills of the better paint makers and the great writer needs the tool of the trade. If we are to go to these grand destinations, artists need the insights and tools provided by science?the " bus" to take us there. And we need to heed Art.
Warwick's Second Law

Art tells the jokes that science insists on explaining.

Roger Schank: Schank's Law

Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard.

Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal.

Daniel C. Dennett: Dennett's Law of Needy Readers

is an extension of Schank's Law

On any important topic, we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.

Needy readers have an asymptote at illiteracy; if a text doesn't say the one thing they need to read, it might as well be in a foreign language. To be open-minded, you have to recognize, and counteract, your own doxastic hungers.

Richard Dawkins: Dawkins's Law of Divine Invulnerability

God cannot lose.

Lemma 1

When comprehension expands, gods contract?but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo.

Lemma 2

When things go right, God will be thanked. When things go wrong, he will be thanked that they are not worse.

Lemma 3

Belief in the afterlife can only be proved right, never wrong.

Lemma 4

The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility.
The following law, though probably older, is often attributed to me in various versions, and I am happy to formulate it here as

Dawkins's Law of Adversarial Debate

When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.

Philip W. Anderson: Anderson's Law

More is different.

Susan Blackmore: Blackmore's First Law

People's desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger than all the evidence that it does not exist.

Blackmore's Second Law

Humans are not in control of the web; the memes are.

Antonio Damasio: Damasio's First Law

The body precedes the mind.

Damasio's Second Law

Emotions precede feelings.

Damasio's Third Law

Concepts precede words.

Brian Eno: Eno's First Law

Culture is everything we don't have to do

We have to eat, but we didn't have to invent Baked Alaskas and Beef Wellington. We have to clothe ourselves, but we didn't have to invent platform shoes and polka-dot bikinis. We have to communicate, but we didn't have to invent sonnets and sonatas. Everything we do?beyond simply keeping ourselves alive?we do because we like making and experiencing art and culture.
Eno's Second Law

Science is the conversation about how the world is. Culture is the conversation about how else the world could be, and how else we could experience it.

Science wants to know what can be said about the world, what can be predicted about it. Art likes to see which other worlds are possible, to see how it would feel if it were this way instead of that way. As such art can give us the practice and agility to think and experience in new ways - preparing us for the new understandings of things that science supplies.

Marvin Minsky: Minsky's First Law

Words should be your servants, not your masters.

Steven Pinker: Pinker's First Law

Human intelligence is a product of analogy and combinatorics.

Analogy allows the mind to use a few innate ideas -- space, force, essence, goal -- to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows an a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.
Pinker's Second Law

Human sociality is a product of conflicts and confluences of genetic interests.

Our relationships with our parents, siblings, spouses, friends, trading partners, allies, rivals, and selves have different forms because they instantiate different patterns of overlap of ultimate interests. History, fiction, news, and gossip are endlessly fascinating because the overlap is never 0% or 100%.

Matt Ridley: Ridley's First Law

Science is the discovery of ignorance. It is not a catalog of facts.

Ridley's Second Law

Experience affects an organism largely by switching genes on and off. (Nurture works through nature.)

Michael Shermer: Shermer's Last Law

Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.

Any ETI that we might encounter would not be at our level of culture, science, and technology, nor would they be behind us. How far ahead of us would they be? If they were only a little ahead of us on an evolutionary time scale, they would be light years ahead of us technologically, because cultural evolution is much more rapid than biological evolution. God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!
Shermer's Three Principles of Provisional Morality and Evolutionary Ethic

1. The ask-first principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

2. The happiness principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness.

3. The liberty principle:it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty.

0. The Zeroeth principle: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

(These principles were derived from a scientific analysis of the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments and the historical development of evolutionary ethics. The Zeroeth Principle, which precedes the three principles, first evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago but was first codified in writing by the world's great religious leaders and has come down to us as the golden rule. The foundation of the Zeroeth Principle, and the three derivative principles is, in evolutionary theory, reciprocal altruism and the process of reciprocity.)

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