Christian Long

David Deutsch: A New Way to Explain Explanation

In TED Talks on April 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

Reflection by JENNA K.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

David Deutsch: A New Way to Explain Explanation

In this talk, David Deutsch doesn’t really describe a new way of explaining things as much as describe the best way.

He discusses the evolution of explanation, beginning with mythology, and then improvements that have been made in the way we describe the physical world. Before this video, I thought the main reason behind the scientific revolution, hundreds of years ago, was technological advancements. But Deutsch helped me understand that it was not our tools of discovery that led us to better explanations, as much as, a totally new way of thinking about the world.

Before, our ancestors chose to describe the unexplained using myths of an unseen and unknown world, as Deutsch described using the story of Hades and Persephone. Generally, people now know that these myths could not possibly be true. But back then, stories were handed down from generation to generation and people lived to accept these stories. Following these stories was the way of life, and everyone believed them completely. This was the first barrier we had to overcome to achieve the progress that we make now. Up until the point when people began questioning mythology, everyone believed that all knowledge was known and came from their authorities. Progress was made possible when people learned to reject the authority of “educated” men and question what they are being taught. As people began questioning these well-believed stories more, they discovered that the myths were inaccurate and highly variable. As more and more people began straying away from mythology they began leaning more on empiricism, yet another barrier we had to overcome.

Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is derived from our senses and experience, which we now know is untrue. Consider all the scientific theories we have calculated and discovered – all explain things in terms of the unseen. Gravity, the speed of light, these are things we have calculated without literally seeing them. Once we began realizing that everything in the physical world couldn’t be observed through our senses, we once again took a step further in making progress. Now, we are not limited by our senses, because we know that we cannot observe everything with our senses. Before we began explaining the physical world with the unseen, our explanations were limited by our senses. But now, we include things in our explanations that we can’t experience with our senses.

Another thing that Deutsch discussed was the difference between a good explanation and a bad one, which was apparant when comparing mythology to present day theories.

The problem with mythology was that it was higly variable, not every detail played an important role in explaining a phenomena. Before, we made an observation and then explained it. Now, scientific knowledge is all conjectural. We guess how to explain something and then test our guess by observation. Deutsch said, “the search for hard to vary explanations is the origin of all progress.” That means, as our explanations become more detail specific, more precise, we can make more progress. Our goal is to find truth. Truth is an explanation of reality that is impossible to vary.


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