Re: Limits and Capabilities.

From: Mark Walker (
Date: Wed Jun 12 2002 - 15:20:48 MDT

----- Original Message -----
From: "Ben Goertzel" <>
> In the late 1800's, prior to Planck's experimental work on radiation, and
> prior to the discovery of the Michelson-Morley effect, leading physicists
> *did* declare that "physics was over, except for putting a few more values
> of precision on constants." I don't have the quote handy, but there's a
> famous one from a leading physicist (whom I believe was an administrator
> the university where Michelson made his discoveries).
> Then, as the turn of the century neared, new experimental discoveries were
> made, leading to new theories, and surprising a lot of people.
> This is not controversial, it's the standard history of physics!

It is I think standard history of physics as told by physicists. Historians
of science will tell you that there was very little agreement in the late
19th century as to whether physics was more or less over. An interesting
although (IMO) very uneven book relevant to the subject is John Horgan's
"The End of Science" (1996). He's a journalist who went around and asked a
bunch of big names when or if they thought science would end. I still
betting on Hawking's 1980 prediction: that a TOE will be discovered by the
end of the 20th century (sic).:) Weinberg in a Sci. American article a few
years back is on record for saying about 2050 for a TOE. My own opinion is
that the very nature of the scientific enterprise is such that we would
never be in a position to claim to know that we have reached the "final" TOE
unless we have first attempted to create superintelligences and
superscientists. The reason I say this is that we have no way of knowing
whether what we take to be a TOE really is a TOE or simply the best that
our puny brains can come up with. In "Dreams of a Final Theory" Weinberg
toys with the idea that there might be congenital limitations of what humans
can know: he makes the analogy that we are never going to get dogs to
calculate atomic energy levels. (His reasons for rejecting the conjecture
are not worth mentioning). Of course, the problem is not simply that we can
get them to give the right answers, it's that we can get our canine friends
to ask the questions. Similarly, if our TOE answers what looks to us like
all the relevant questions we still have no guarantee that we have asked all
the relevant questions. Experimenting to create superintelligences is one
way to confirm or infirm our best candidates for the TOE. If our TOE really
is a TOE then even a creature with the brain the size of a football field
ought not be able to improve on it in any significant manner. In short,
unless we attempt this experiment we have no way to adjudicate between the
hypothesis that we have in fact discovered the TOE, and the hypothesis that
our conjectured TOE merely describes the limits of our minds. (I develop
this argument in the latter parts of "Naturalism and Skepticism"
( I will probably be posting a revised
version of the paper later tonight. I try not to do HTML work without a beer
or two in me. :))


Dr. Mark Walker
Research Associate (Philosophy), Trinity College, University of Toronto
Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Evolution and Technology,
Editor-in-Chief, Transhumanity, (
Home page:

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