The questions one needs not address

post by George (George3d6) · 2020-03-21T19:51:01.764Z · score: 15 (9 votes) · LW · GW · 9 comments

This is a link post for https://blog.cerebralab.com/The_questions_one_needs_not_address

Contents

    1. I once visited Burj Khalifa and was told that the highest livable  floor in the building (158) is dedicated to a mosque. (Googling this  fact I find claims that it’s an urban myth, but I can’t find strong  evidence one way or another. For the purposes of this article let’s  assume the tour guide wasn’t lying).
    2. On 11-9-2001 a group of Sunni terrorists decided that Americans were  the worst possible evil and that harming them and their country is an  act so moral and just that it’s worth dying for.
    3. Avicenna deciphered and translated old texts in order to better  learn what dozens of generations before him thought about the world.
    4. Avicenna spent most of his life writing nonsense about his  interpretation of old religious texts. Coming up with unfounded and  useless systems to explain the soul. Producing a bunch of work that are  illogical and childish.
  Questions that need not be asked
  Answering questions that cannot be asked
None
9 comments

Two years ago, I would have proclaimed a cautious bias towards thinking religion is a bad idea.

Since then, having read a bunch of “religious” philosophers and observed a bunch of “religious” people, I came to the conclusion that “religion” is a term I will start shying away from using at all, because it’s ill defined. It encompasses too many ideas to be a useful point of discussion.

As a specific example, let’s look at Sunni Islam and some things most people would probably like and dislike about it:

1. I once visited Burj Khalifa and was told that the highest livable floor in the building (158) is dedicated to a mosque. (Googling this fact I find claims that it’s an urban myth, but I can’t find strong evidence one way or another. For the purposes of this article let’s assume the tour guide wasn’t lying).

I find this to be a very nice thing. Here you have the tallest building in the world and you could sell the top floor for billions of dollars, or have it be the king’s apartment, or show it off to important officials to brag and to flatter them… but instead you decide to build a place of worship.

It’s the sort of act that says “Yeah, we made this awe-inspiring thing, but we really owe it to thousands of of past generations. None of us can fully comprehend how we managed to do this, so let’s dedicate its highest floor to something transcendent, something that symbolizes the beautiful, impossible and absurd experiment that made it possible, our society”.

It’s the sort of thing I like about the Catholic faith or any other faith when I walk into their places of worship, adorned in such beauty that they really make you stop, calm down and contemplate in awe and wonder.

2. On 11-9-2001 a group of Sunni terrorists decided that Americans were the worst possible evil and that harming them and their country is an act so moral and just that it’s worth dying for.

This is the kind of action born out of an ethical smugness that even I can’t comprehend, and I’m quite an ethically smug person.

It’s thinking that you can be so right as to warrant doing an action which will be viewed as horrible by most of the world, but completely disregarding their opinion because you obviously have it right.

It’s the same kind of thing I dislike about an atheist SS officer murdering hundreds of Jews because he is certain his normally atrocious action serves “the greater good”.

3. Avicenna deciphered and translated old texts in order to better learn what dozens of generations before him thought about the world.

He observed, poked and prodded the world around him to learn its mysteries. He generated knowledge which was so precious it was taught in medical schools around the world more than half a millennium after his death.

He did this, as far as I understand, partially because of some mystical ideas about the will of God for man to master and understand his creation. I admire Avicenna for basically the same reasons I admire Francis Bacon or Richard Feynman or Alan Turing.

4. Avicenna spent most of his life writing nonsense about his interpretation of old religious texts. Coming up with unfounded and useless systems to explain the soul. Producing a bunch of work that are illogical and childish.

His quest to say something relevant about metaphysics is as irrelevant to anything we have today as those of Thales or Bostrom.

Out of this he gathered up a bunch of ideas about man’s purpose in life and ethics which are pointless at best and harmful at worst.

I dislike Avicenna for basically the same reasons I dislike Thomas Aquinas: he wasted his life and added pointless mental fluff to the zeitgeist, which materialized into nothing.

Questions that need not be asked

There are questions which need not be asked, that is simply because they are ill-phrased, so answering them is just going to result in you playing around with words until you’ve convinced your brain that you found and answer or embedded them into your mind so much that they seem “sacred”.

The basic example of this is the whole “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound ?”.

This question has 4 ways of answering it:

See more on this here [LW · GW].

Out of those answers “4” is correct.

This is basically the case with all “grand” questions:

Deconstruct these questions and you will soon find out that they are ill posed. Once you try to further refine the terms in order to get to an answerable question you reach a very simple answer to a bunch of separate questions.

Those questions contain terms that upon further inspection are impossible to define (e.g. “free will”, “God”) or terms incompatible with one another (e.g. “meaning”, “life”).

Answering questions that cannot be asked

In the end, spending too much time answering questions that cannot be asked can lead down two paths.

Path number one is writing a bunch of philosophy and/or religious books, ending up being very uncertain about your answer and only being able to explain it in a format longer than the one required to understand all of modern physics.

Path number two leads to the mind tricking itself into thinking the answer existing and is certain, which leads to the kind of self-assured megalomania that can cause you to fly planes into towers in order to reach the kingdom of eternal bliss, or to torture and rape young single mothers because that is the only way their sins can be absolved (Hi, Irish Catholic Church!).

It’s like feeding code into a compiler, getting the compiler stuck in an infinite loop and, instead of pressing ctrl-C, waiting forever for an answer or getting an OOM error and interpreting that as the compiled code.

This is what I now assume I hate about religion.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources shoveling air in order to find a treasure.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources (and sometimes life and well-being) because they reached a nonsensical answer which they consider to be the absolute truth.

Both of these things might stem from trying to answer these “trick” questions.

This pattern is by no means sequestered to religion, however. It’s just that most of the questions seem to fall under the umbrella of religion.

But go to the opposite end of spectrum and look at something like the “rationalist atheist” community and you’ll basically find the same pattern. A bunch of people assuming an air of smugness because they think they’ve found an unshakable moral truth and a bunch of people wasting their time thinking about ill-phrased questions, just replacing “God” with “a simulation” or replacing “repenting for the end times” with “handling AI risk”.

Indeed, go to the extreme end of any movement, be it a far-right cult, a progressive propaganda machine, a libertarian echo chamber or a communist party… and you find the same pattern. A combination of “philosopher” getting trapped by unanserable questions and spouting nonsense and fanatics convinced they have the absolute moral truth and committing acts of violence and hate because of it.

Part of me thinks that the answer to this problem is simple and I’ve partially written about this in A Better Way of Understanding Systems and A short rant on personal memetic hygiene.

But that part of me is likely wrong. I’d be a hypocrite if I thought otherwise since a long time spent on these kind of questions is what got me to where I am… and I kind of enjoy the place where I am mentally. It feels cozy and happy and the ideas I’m able to generate from it, whilst almost certainly not yet useful for almost anything, at least feel to me like “the kind of things which I will be able to develop into useful works of engineering if I refine them for long enough”.

You can argue that Avicenna could have spent all his time researching medicine and astronomy and none looking into the nature of “the soul” and “God”, but it requires the same smugness that I warned against a few paragraphs ago to make that assumption. It might well be that Avicenna needed to waste his time on pointless questions in order to get the perspective and motivation that allowed him to create the closest thing to modern medicine that existed before late Renaissance.

I think the world need more Avicennas and if the price we must pay is a bunch of bad books about phenomenology and metaphysics it’s a very advantageous trade.

But the world could probably do without a bunch of Thomas Aquinas throwing away hereditary money on whoring and gambling then publishing nonsense about metaphysics due to thinking that “existence” is a characteristic the same way “blue” is. The world would almost certainly be better off without people committing genocide and flying commercial planes into tall buildings.

Maybe there is a sweet spot in terms of musing on these questions, around that sweet spot you get Edmund Burke or a Quaker doctor dedicating his life to curing tropical diseases in Rwanda. If you don’t venture into these kind of questions at all, you get an accountant or a store clerk; venture to deeply or go the wrong way and you get a Thomas Aquinas or a fundamentalist preacher who wants to kill homosexuals.

Alas, I can’t speak much as to how you can find that sweet-spot, besides the vaguely-related article I linked above. So this train of thought about unanswerable questions leads me to an unanswerable question. Possibly because I’m asking it in the wrong way or because my assumptions are completely wrong to being with… On which I just wasted almost 2,000 words saying almost nothing at all, the very thing I am railing against.

9 comments

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comment by Donald Hobson (donald-hobson) · 2020-03-22T17:59:43.468Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem is that questions don't come with little labels saying whether or not they are answerable. Ban all deep philosophy and you don't get Francis Bacon or Isaac Newton. We can now say that trying to answer questions like "what is the true nature of god" isn't going to work. We now know that an alchemist can't turn lead into gold by rubbing lemons on it. However, it was a reasonable thing to try, given the knowledge of the time, and other alchemical experiments produced useful results like phosphorus.

Celebrating the people who dedicated their lives to building the first steam engine, while mocking people who tried to build perpetual motion machines before conservation of energy was understood, is just pure hindsight, and so can't be used as a lesson for the future.

Go ahead and mock those who aim for perpetual motion in the modern day.

people wasting their time thinking about ill-phrased questions, just replacing “God” with “a simulation” or replacing “repenting for the end times” with “handling AI risk”.

Given current evidence, I suspect that this field is a steam engine not a perpetual motion machine. I suspect that good answers are possible. We might not be skilled enough to reach them, but we know little enough about how much skill is needed that we can't be confident of failure. At least a few results, like mesa optimisers, look like successes.

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2020-03-22T18:12:47.974Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Logical positivism asserted only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof should be considered meaningful. As a philosophical position, it's self-refuting (if it's true, it's meaningless). As a rule of thumb about which questions are likely to reward investigation, it works pretty well.

For example, "AI risk" is incredibly vague. "AI" is a large class of possible devices and there are many forms of "risk". If a problem can't be clearly stated then logical proof is not a useful approach, and direct observation only works on things that actually exist. So I'd say that "AI risk" is not likely to be a tractable question, although "the effect of algorithmic trading on US agricultural commodities markets" or "the effect of social media ranking algorithms on the 2020 US elections" probably are.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-03-22T18:59:44.202Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
We can now say that trying to answer questions like "what is the true nature of god" isn't going to work

I mean, I don't think and I'm not arguing we can do that. I just think that the question in itself is mistakenly formulate, the same way "How do we handle AI risk ?" is a mistaken formulation (see Jau Molstad's answer to the post which seems to address this).

All that I am claiming is that certain ill-defined question on which no progress can be made exist and that they can be to some extent easily spotted because they would make no sense if de-constructed or if an outside observe were to judge your progress on them.

Celebrating the people who dedicated their lives to building the first steam engine, while mocking people who tried to build perpetual motion machines before conservation of energy was understood, is just pure hindsight

Ahm, I mean, Epicurus and Thales would have had pretty strong intuitions against this, and conservation of energy has been postulated in physics since Issac Newton and even before him, when the whole thing wasn't even called "physics".

Nor is there a way to "prove" conservation of energy other than purely philosophically, or in an empirical way by saying: "All our formulas make sense if this is a thing, so let's assume the world works this way, and if there is some part of the world that doesn't we'll get to it when we find it".

Also, building a perpetual motion machine (or trying to) is not working on an unsanswerable problem/question of the sort I refer to.

As in, working on one will presumably lead you to build better and better engines, and/or see your failure and give up. There is a "failure state", and there's no obvious way of getting into "metaphysics" from trying to research perpetual motion.

Indeed, "Can we build a perpetual motion machine ?" is a question I see as entirely valid, not worth pursuing, but it's at worst harm-neutral and it has proven so in the last 2,000+ years of people trying to answer it.

comment by Dustin · 2020-03-21T23:55:11.376Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It’s the sort of act that says “Yeah, we made this awe-inspiring thing, but we really owe it to thousands of of past generations. None of us can fully comprehend how we managed to do this, so let’s dedicate its highest floor to something transcendent, something that symbolizes the beautiful, impossible and absurd experiment that made it possible, our society”.

It feels like this is something you're reading into it more than what people creating it necessarily thought. You can easily tell a bunch of other just-as-plausible stories about it that are not nearly as positive-sounding.

comment by George (George3d6) · 2020-03-23T11:22:21.712Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, not really, since the way they get talked about is essentially searching for a "better" definition or trying to make all definitions coincide.

Even more so, some of the terms allow for definitions but those definitions in themselves run into the same problem. For example, could you try to come up with one or multiple definitions for the meaning of "free will" ? In my experience it either leads to very boring ones (in which case the subject would be moot) or, more likely, to a definition that is just as problematic as 'free will' itself.

comment by Dustin · 2020-03-23T19:31:03.169Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm having a hard time understanding how your comment is applicable to mine. AFAICT, definitions have little to do with my comment.

comment by TAG · 2020-03-22T19:37:33.500Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of your undefinable terms have multiple definitions. That's a problem, but it's not the same problem as having no idea what you are talking about.

comment by RedMan · 2020-03-21T23:58:58.000Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that people have to use abstractions and beliefs taken on faith just to exist in the world. I also think that if you are not really disciplined about stating your 'I just assume blank to be true' beliefs, you will end up with a bunch of unstated assumptions worming their way into your psyche that will lead you to weird and unhealthy places (would SSC categorize this as 'Moloch'?)

Puritanical sexual beliefs (those practiced by 1600s Puritans in Massachusetts Bay) are in my opinion a good example of potentially healthy, but utterly irrational dogmas. To summarize (I have a source somewhere):

Married sex is a sacrament, unmarried sex is a grave sin. (Married being a social state that is easy for two people to enter but hard for them to leave)

Conceiving children is important and good.

Both parties much achieve orgasm during the act of intercourse to conceive a child.

Lack of sexual satisfaction is grounds for divorce by either party.

The details of 'sex' are explicitly left undefined.

One of those beliefs (orgasm and conception) is objectively false, but may be socially useful. The others are simply communally agreed upon truths.

Rationalism that leads to nihilistic hedonism and acrasia seems like a bad idea, even if life is pointless and the universe is actively hostile. I think I'm in step with this community's ethos when I assert that most people accidentally end up with a variety of false beliefs. I think I break with the rest of this community in my assertion that maintaining carefully chosen, but objectively false, beliefs is a good idea.

Life has been way better since becoming an adherent of https://warhammer40k.fandom.com/wiki/Chaos_Undivided

You should try it!

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2020-03-22T18:38:45.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Married sex is a sacrament, unmarried sex is a grave sin. (Married being a social state that is easy for two people to enter but hard for them to leave)

You realize that they didn't have birth control, right? Sex makes babies. Marriage provides the legal infrastructure for parents to raise kids; for example a married woman is likely to have a man around when she's too pregnant for agricultural labor. All known human societies have something like marriage (in considerable variations), and it's hardly surprising that they thought sex without marriage was a bad idea.

Conceiving children is important and good.

If our ancestors hadn't, we literally wouldn't exist. Also remember that sex and conception back then were one decision, not two separate decisions.

The details of 'sex' are explicitly left undefined.

Even squirrels figure out sex well enough to get by. They seem to have managed.

Overall, the Puritan attitude toward sex doesn't seem that irrational to me. There are fairly obvious reasons to adopt each of their policies, even if they were substantially ignorant of biology.

carefully chosen, but objectively false, beliefs

If you believe they're objectively false, you don't believe them. You believe that they're convenient, not that they're worth living for. If you ever get in a situation where everything has gone sideways and you really need an answer to what it's all about, as most people eventually do, they won't be enough.

Life has been way better since becoming an adherent of (Warhammer 40K lore)

If you have any pull with Nurgle the Plague Lord, could you ask him to knock it off?