Thursday, June 30, 2011

Negative Knowledge

To my mind, one of the most useful functions of the internet is vastly simplifying the search for negative knowledge. How do you verify that something doesn't exist? Obviously in the full philosophical sense, this is quite difficult to do (outside of mathematics). This is related to the problem of induction. David Hume captured this with the example of black swans - the fact that all the swans found so far are white is not proof that all swans are white (an example made more poignant by the fact that black swans do indeed exist, but Hume didn't know this at the time). The question 'Are all swans white' is essentially the question 'Are there any black swans?'. Because we can't prove the first proposition, we can't definitively prove that there aren't any black swans.

Consider the example of the great song 'You Found Me', by The Fray.

The opening lines are:
I found God,
On the corner of First and Amistad
The question occurred to me 'I wonder if that's a real place, and if so, where it is?'

Now, go back 30 years and this would be a very hard problem to solve. How do I search all the cities of the world (or just the US) for '1st and Amistad'. Even worse, what if there is no '1st and Amistad'? How do I ever verify that I've checked everywhere and that it actually doesn't exist?

Today, I just type in '1st and Amistad', and google maps directs me to an intersection in Quernado, Texas (which is the only suggested location). I'm also directed to Yahoo Answers, where some mentions that lead singer Isaac Slade actually made up the name, not knowing about the place in Texas.

It works, because I'm harnessing the power of the thousands of other people who've wondered the same question, thankfully some of them much more dedicated and knowledgeable than me. If all of them have searched and found nothing and written as much on the internet, it's not proof that the thing doesn't actually exist, but it makes for a reasonably good assumption.

I wonder if somewhere Zombie David Hume is reprising his argument about the problem of induction, while some Zombie modern teenager killed in a car crash is responding 'No, you just google "Are all Swans White", and it tells you the answer".'

Interesting times we live in.

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