Things that were once impossible…

This is something posted on the RationalWiki Facebook group. I figured I ploughed enough effort into the response to immortalise it here with some minor modifications to blogify it.

Sounds ridiculous? Of course it does, but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand. All manner of things would have seemed impossible once upon a time – steam engines, flying machines, space rockets, but they became a reality and now we take them for granted.

Here’s the difference between these “impossible things” and the woo this guy was actually talking about: those “impossible” things were eventually demonstrated to actually work.

Here’s a further difference: those “impossible” things were never really impossible to begin with. Unlikely, yes. Beyond the technology of the time, certainly. But the measure of “impossible”, as used by skeptics and closet rationalists, is considerably better defined than that.

No one dismisses things that might be shown to work in the future. There are plenty of examples; quantum computing, for instance, or discovering exactly what “dark energy” really is. We primarily, if not exclusively, outright dismiss things that people claim to work now and yet refuse to demonstrate, or are incapable of demonstrating. More often than not, the claim gets made, the demonstration is attempted and then fails. And a demonstration that fails is pretty good grounds to dismiss the assertion that the demonstration worked.

Say, for example, that I take leave of my senses and claim that I can lift large, heavy objects (like cars, trucks and X Wings) with my mind. The fact that, hypothetically, one day in the far flung future, there may be some mechanism by which this can be achieved (latent magical powers, some application of technology, or whatever fanciful idea you can conceive), does not in any way negate the fact that I cannot, at this moment in time, lift a car, truck or X Wing with my mind.

I can claim that I can do that all I like. But I can’t demonstrate it. This is what we call a “fact”. Indeed, that I can’t do it now will remain as such a fact long after someone has (hypothetically) demonstrated it happening in the future.

To use a more concrete and extant example, the fact that today we have jet fighters (and once, passenger aircraft) that can break the sound barrier doesn’t negate the fact that in the First World War no fighter planes could break the sound barrier. People had strong, and very reasonable, grounds to doubt that the technology of 1915 could achieve that.

But that’s an advance in technology. Technology is something that develops. This isn’t the same as most woo – not least because no skeptic doubts what technology can potentially achieve. The limits of our knowledge and ability are well defined, and we know what we can potentially do. What we can’t do, though, is retroactively remove what we know to be the case now. Just as someone demonstrating lifting a car with mind control in a thousand or a million years time doesn’t mean I can do that now, then no amount of new developments in the future will circumvent what we know to be impossible now. Whatever unifies quantum mechanics and special relativity won’t retroactively stop the Schrodinger equation accurately predicting the energies of a two-body atomic system. It won’t magically change all electronic orbitals so that they no longer obey spherical harmonics. Whatever mechanism allows us to get from A to B faster than light, it certainly won’t involve simply accelerating an object with conventional rocket engines. That wouldn’t require our understanding of the world now to be wrong, it would require every experimental observation of how the universe is, it’s very fundamental nature, to be somehow altered.

Now, those may seem like esoteric examples from science, but it’s true of far more basic things. What we know now won’t be negated by future discoveries and/or inventions. Everything we learn later will add to our current knowledge, not destroy it. And yes, this is even true of most protoscience. Old theories are reinterpreted through new information and new theories (the idea of current knowledge being “wrong” is heavily naive and simplistic) and develop accordingly. No one dismisses progress happening like this. Indeed, it’s embraced.

Rational people only dismiss assertions that our current knowledge will magically be invalidated in the future.

The tl;dr, though, is that the claim that people simply dismiss stuff “out of hand” because it hasn’t been demonstrated “yet” is just a bullshit excuse for the fact that they can’t demonstrate it. And, quite likely, never will.


2 thoughts on “Things that were once impossible…

  1. I disagree that future knowledge won’t prove current knowledge around. I’m positive that we have current misinterpretations leaving us with “wrong” knowledge. At one time, we believed the Earth was flat, and the center of the universe, that the sun and stars revolved around us. I’m sure future tech will allow us access to information that shows some our current reality to be absolutely incorrect.

    • At no point did any observations lead to the belief that the Earth was flat. There are a few cultural allusions to it, but a flat-earth belief was never widespread and is mostly an invention of the 19th Century to say “look how dumb and primitive people were when religion ruled the world”.

      As for heliocentrism, you probably have taken the wrong lesson from it. The apparent retrograde motion of Mars was always known, and pointed to a significant problem with geocentrism. Heliocentrism merely accounted for this, it didn’t generate the fact. So the actual facts, our knowledge, didn’t change at all. No actual facts or observations were altered in this. When people say skeptics shouldn’t dismiss patent nonsense like perpetual motion or water memory, they get this in reverse and assume that there is some magical shift in our thinking that will alter currently known facts (such as a total lack of evidence or logical basis for these things) – a fallacy akin to saying that apparent retrograde motion was a product of heliocentric theory, not the other way around.


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