The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Certain Questions

post by ig0r · 2017-07-04T03:37:38.560Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 2 comments

Cross-posted on my blog: http://garybasin.com/the-unreasonable-effectiveness-of-certain-questions/

About a year ago I was sitting around trying to grok the concept of Evil — where does it come from and how does it work? After a few hours of spinning in circles, I experienced a sudden shift. My mind conjured up the question: “Is this a thing out in the world or just a projection?” (Map vs Territory). Immediately, a part of my mind replied with “Well, this may not be anything other than a story we tell about the behavior of people we dislike”. Let’s ignore the truth value for today and notice the process. I’m interested in this mechanism of how a simple query — checking if I’m looking at a confusion of map with the territory — was able to instantly reframe a problem in a way that allowed me to effortlessly make a mental leap. What’s fascinating is that you don’t even need someone else’s brain to come up with these questions (although that often helps) — you can try to explain your problem to a rubber duck which creates a conversation with yourself and generates queries, or just go through a list of things to ask yourself when stuck.

 

There are a few different categories of these types of queries and many examples of each. For instance, when thinking about plans we can ask ourselves to perform prehindsight/inner simulator or reference class forecasting/outside view. When introspecting on our own behavior, we can perform sentence completion to check for limiting beliefs, ask questions like “Why aren’t I done yet?” or “What can I do to 10x my results?”. When thinking about problems or situations, we can ask ourselves to invert, reframe into something falsifiable, and taboo your words or perform paradjitsu. Or consider the miracle question: Imagine you wake up and the problem is entirely solved — what do you see, as concretely as possible, such that you know this is true?

So “we know more than we can tell” — somewhere in our head often lies the answer, if only we could get to it. In some sense, parts of our brain are not speaking to each other (do they even share the same ontologies?) except through our language processor, and only then if the sentences are constructed in specific ways. This may make you feel relieved if you think you can rely on your subconscious processing — which may have access to this knowledge — to guide you to effective action, or terrified if you need to use conscious reasoning to think through a chain of consequences.

My thoughts on Evil have continued to evolve since that initial revelation, partially driven by trying new queries on the concept (and partially from finally reading Nietzsche). Once you have a set of tools to throw at problems, the bottleneck to clearer thinking becomes remembering to apply them and actually having the time to do so. This makes me wonder about people that have formed habits to automatically apply a litany of these mental moves whenever approaching a problem — how much of their effectiveness and intelligence can this explain?

2 comments

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comment by MrMind · 2017-07-04T13:17:51.275Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An even more interesting question: why we know more than we can tell? Try to apply all the techniques above.

comment by sen · 2017-07-05T04:55:03.617Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The process you went through is known in other contexts as decategorification. You attempted to reduce the level of abstraction, noticed a potential problem in doing so, and concluded that the more abstract notion was not as well-conceived as you imagined.

If you try to enumerate questions related to a topic (Evil), you will quickly find that you (1) repeatedly tread the same ground, (2) are often are unable to combine findings from multiple questions in useful ways, and (3) are often unable to identify questions worth answering, let alone a hierarchy that suggests which questions might be more worth answering than others.

What you are trying to identify are the properties and structure of evil. A property of Evil is a thing that must be preserved in order for Evil to be Evil. The structure of Evil is the relationship between Evil and other (Evil or non-Evil) entities.

You should start by trying to identify the shape of Evil by identifying its border, where things transition from Evil to non-Evil and vice versa. This will give you an indication of which properties are important. From there, you can start looking at how Evil relates to other things, especially in regards to its properties. This will give you some indication of its structure. Properties are important for identifying Evil clearly. Structure is important for identifying things that are equivalent to Evil in all ways that matter. It is often the case that the two are not the same.

If you want to understand this better, I recommend looking into category theory. The general process of identifying ambiguities, characterizing problems in the right way, applying prior knowledge, and gluing together findings into a coherent whole is fairly well-worn. You don't have to start from scratch.