Monday, February 09, 2009

The fifth element

In the Western classical tradition there were believed to be four elements from which everything in the human world was made. They were earth, air, fire, and water.

Every object in the human world was believed to consist of different proportions of these four elements.

Of course in order to combine these elements together into objects there needed to be a fifth element, which Terry Pratchett calls the element of surprise.1

Surprise is a funny thing: an emotional response in a rational context. You think one thing, something changes, and then you think another thing. They've forgotten my birthday, every jumps out at you, they haven't forgotten your birthday!

Why do we feel surprise? Is it an evolutionary adaptation to finding out that things are other than they are? Does it act as a kind of exclamation mark for the mind to highlight the importance of a change in the universe or is it simply a high-order emergent property of consciousness that serves no really useful purpose?

Do animals feel surprise in the same way as humans? Are there qualitative difference amongst surprises?

Intellectual surprises are the most fun, over at Overcoming Bias Robin Hanson asks what would have surprised our hunter-gatherer ancestors about how we view the world today?

The answers boil down to a couple of basic points:
  1. The universe is far bigger and older than expected.
  2. Everything in the universe is actually composed of a surprisingly small set of items operating on the basis of a surprisingly simple set of rules. Complex things emerge from these simple rules.
The loss of determinism to quantum physics was also suggested.

As an SF fan I'd love to fast forward a few thousand years to see what things we will discover in the future that will surprise me.

There is a strong temptation to fall into the trap if thinking "we've got this science thing basically nailed down except for a few small details."

One of the most compelling things about life is surprise: the act of discovering something is other than you expected and that things are not as they initially seem.

{Incidentally if this post seems a little off it's because I've had difficulty sleeping recently and I'm currently very tired... ;)}

1: Actually the original fifth element was quintessence, which accounts for all the stuff in the "heavenly realm" of the sky that didn't obviously consist of any of the other four.

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