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August 24, 2007


Q. Where do priors originally come from?
A. Never ask that question.


from the before time. from the long long ago.

Interesting post. It strikes me that semantic stopsigns join adoration of mystery and non-falsification as survival tricks acquired by story memes when curiosity -- and other stories -- threatened their existence.

Oops, that should be "non-falsifiability," not "non-falsification."

Eliezer: "How could anyone not notice this?"

Because the human brain -- like many simpler programs -- generally finds basic beliefs more practical than an infinite regress?

Synonyms for "I don't know".

There might be more of these than we think. Two candidates:

Aesthetics. People have a lot of understandable preferences: they prefer bigger houses to smaller ones, longer vacations to shorter ones, air conditioned rooms to hot and humid ones, and so on. What these have in common is that we can easily understand and explain the preferences. Aesthetic preferences, however, are generally characterized by it being hard, maybe impossible, to explain what it is about one thing that makes it more aesthetically pleasing than another. This suggests when we say "aesthetically pleasing", we almost mean, "pleasing, but if you asked why I wouldn't really be able to give you a satisfactory explanation."

Intelligence. Many have observed that each new success in reproducing, in machinery, the capabilities of the human mind, has in turn led to a narrowing of what is considered "intelligent" - a narrowing that excludes whatever it is that machines can now do. This phenomenon is explained if "intelligent behavior" is a subclass of some larger class of behavior (a larger class that includes the things that we have gotten machines to do, such as play a strong game of chess). In particular, the subclass labeled "intelligent" is that subclass of behaviors whose mechanism we have not yet discovered. I have often heard or read people say something like, "this is not intelligent behavior because what the computer is doing is [description of mechanism]." What really seems to be getting said is, "this is not intelligent behavior because I am able to describe it to you."

Constant, good points both - though no word is a stopsign of itself, the question is whether one uses it that way. There are definitely people out there who use "aesthetic" and "intelligent" as stopsigns.

Doug, "Never ask that question" is an Ambassador Kosh quote.

Programming. Its all in the program.
Why do we think time is linear?
Here in the States we control movement with stopsigns.
Elsewhere they use round-a-bouts.

I can think of a few semantic roundabouts as well. Postmodernism comes to mind.

The entire function of God seems to be as a multi-purpose philosophical semantic stop sign. It isn't just the horror of thinking about the beginning of the universe he protects us from. Consider for instance morality (an atheist's morality is empty if they just make it up, so where does God get his morality from?), and free will (can't see how a material being can have free will? It's controlled by an eternal soul with God-given free will. How does a soul - or for that matter a God - have free will? Still any aspect of its behaviour which is not related to anything is surely random!)

I can't see one function of a God that would actually answer anything.


Even so, you'd hope people would notice that on the particular puzzle of the First Cause, saying "God!" doesn't help. It doesn't make the paradox seem any less paradoxical even if true. How could anyone not notice this?

Thinking well is difficult, even for great philosophers. Hindsight bias might skew our judgment here.

"About two years later, I became convinced that there is no life after
death, but I still believed in God, because the "First Cause" argument
appeared to be irrefutable. At the age of eighteen, however, shortly
before I went to Cambridge, I read Mill's Autobiography, where I found
a sentence to the effect that his father taught him the question "Who
made me?" cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the
further question "Who made God?" This led me to abandon the "First
Cause" argument, and to become an atheist."

– Bertrand Russell, Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 1, 1967.

Whatever happened to "I don't know"

Another semantic stopsign often used, unfortunately: "that's biased".

Whatever happened to "I don't know"

Hear, hear! One of the most baffling things I've had a theist say to me is 'I don't really know where existence came from, but I need to believe something so I believe in God.' If you can't stand to say "I don't know", that's a serious bug.

From one point of view, all metaphysics is a semantic stopsign. I've always been sympathetic to the basic anti-metaphysics argument of Ayer, i.e. that if it's outside of the verifiable then discussion of the subject is literally meaningless, since we have no language or medium for such a discussion. I suppose Eliezer would say that belief in God is a proposition that does not control expectations, i.e. the God that explains everything is a God that explains nothing.

I hope that pre-Big Bang history doesn't remain a (literally) metaphysical subject. I'd really like to know how all this happened.

From one point of view, all metaphysics is a semantic stopsign.

Not that I necessarily disagree, but, what is the obvious next question which metaphysics prevents you from asking?

I think some theists would say that the "who made God" question is a semantic stop sign, but that this is OK. That is, they would say that *they* are not capable in probing into the question any further, but that the leaders of their religion (with the help of the sacred texts) are capable of doing so, and they bring back from the other side the answer that the religion is true and everything is OK.

As for liberal democracy, it's clearly an error to assert without further argument that liberal democracy will solve all future problems. But it is not a mistake to say that it is far and away the most successful thing that humans have ever come up with, and so that it is the best framework in which to try to address future problems.

Remember.. God loves you

Hmm... "Love" is also often used as a semantic stopsign, which may contribute to the cynicism with which some people regard it.

And "I love you, but..." is the start of an argument.

David J. Balan, you write: "But it is not a mistake to say that it is far and away the most successful thing that humans have ever come up with, and so that it is the best framework in which to try to address future problems."

That sounds like a contestible claim. There often seems to be a "no true scotsman" element to arguments buttressing that claim.

"What distinguishes a semantic stopsign is failure to consider the obvious next question."

I disagree. The distinguishing event is a refusal (not just a failure) to consider it, for reasons other than something like "I don't have the time right now." One cannot ask all questions in an average 70+ year lifetime, so one picks which avenues of questioning to pursue most fervently. Sometimes, one simply has to say "I choose to avoid thinking too much about what came before the big bang, because I have to spend more time thinking about the logical origin of ethics. That's more important to me."

A semantic stopsign is not marked by your failure to think past it, but by the belief in its inviolability as a rule of the road of thought.

Before the Big Bang is beyond the universe. Beyond the universe are other laws of physics. Which laws? All self-consistent laws. What are sets of laws of physics? They're mathematics. What is mathematics? Arbitrary symbol manipulation. And there you've reached a final stopping point. Because it isn't even intelligible to ask why there are symbols or why there is mathematical existence. They are meta-axiomatic, and there is nothing beyond or beneath them. More importantly, there is no meta-level above them because they are their own meta-level.

Can we even ask the question about what comes before the big bang and hope for a scientific answer? We can see light from the universe that took about 14 billion years to reach us, but that doesn't mean we see the beginning. If it took that light so long to reach us, then we cannot say definitively whether or not there is light that is 15 billion years old which has not yet reached us. We don't even know the shape of the universe or where we are in that shape. Are we in the middle? On the edge? Is there even an edge? I doubt we will ever be able to answer these questions. I'd say the only answer we could really give to the question of "What came before the big bang?" is "I don't know."

Mental masturbation over THIS? Go ahead and get bogged down in conversations as this one; get lost in its minute details. It only keeps one's head full and the spirit distracted from pure experience; ecstatic experience. What if y'all really did fund an answer. Its all dogma, other peoples' thoughts and distraction. Clear your minds. Don't look confused at the pointing finger aand scratch your egg shaped domes. look out try to understand what is being pointed at.
All you're pseudo-, pop-scientific drivel is distancing you.

"don't want to walk and talk about jesus, i just want to see his face...." Mick Jagger

This is a disingenuous (though not uncommon among modern theists) interpretation of the first cause argument. The justification for stopping with God is that, supposedly, his existence is necessary. If a creative God had to exist, then this explains why there is so much stuff about when seemingly, there might not have been.

This is a defence that does not rest easily in the theists hands though, for it relies upon there being an argument that gods existence is necessary, and it is difficult enough to make out what that claim amoutns to let alone what reason, if any, there is for believing it true.

Regarding the Big Bang, I don't know, you really don't know what you're talking about. The scientific estimate of the age of the universe is not based on how long light took to reach us. Nor is it based on whether there are parts of the universe which are not visible to us; it is assumed (reasonably) that there are.

C'mon, no theist arrives at God after 5 questions regarding existence. Nor after 4 or 6. It happens when we realize that there's an infinite number of existential questions before we can know God. We believe in God because we see there IS NO semantic stop sign.

For a metaphor, review your integral calculus. Belief is the Riemann sum of the existential questions as they approach infinity.

If god exist, it is not going to be what you want(Stopsign or whatever), it is going to be what it is.

Now matter what do you think about it, as buddhists say if you ask the wrong questions, you will get wrong answers.

Personally I believe God and the infinitum exist, you can't see the infinitum(it has no boundaries and we are limited), you seem to believe that it is a human concept created by humans that doesn't exist, fine. I just came here from reddit or digg, I only read this article and will forget this site when I left, I have real work to do.

Maybe humans need to believe in something, maybe is a concept created by humans, but it doesn't make it less real if it exist.

There are only two posibilities:
God exist
God doesn't exist

You can't prove either. That's the key. You can use semantic tools, tarot cards, or baseball hats to try to prove your position.

It won't work.Sorry.

For my friend's two years son, god is a portrait in the hall. He feel superior in their thoughts. I think there are superior thoughts over ours.

Have a good day

It happens when we realize that there's an infinite number of existential questions before we can know God. We believe in God because we see there IS NO semantic stop sign.
And you feel compelled to create one.

Religion is not a search for truth. It's a way to short-circuit the search.

Eliezer: partway through your essay you make the claim that when someone hits their semantic stopsign (eg, starts to say "God" or "Liberal Democracy", full-stop), that their statement at that point is better classified as a statement of tribal membership (or, perhaps, a tribal ritual to ward off discomfort?) than as an actual semantic statement addressing the question at hand.

Or, rephrased, if I ask "from whence came those physical laws" and you say "from God!", then under this theory the fairest re-statement of the semantic content of your utterance would be more "I am saying that thing that my tribe says in situations like this; your acquiescence at this point will increase my perception of your degree-of-belonging-to-my-tribe, and your refusal to continue with the refusal will be taken as an affirmative sign of your non-membership", with the apparent (surface?) semantics of the statement -- "God made those physical laws" -- immaterial for the forward movement of the conversation and quite possibly not even intended to be asserted.

(I think the previous is clear, but when I say "not even intended to be asserted" I mean something like the following scenario: imagine that I have a banking account with a "security question" that I picked to be "what is your favorite restaurant?", with the answer -- this computer expects perfect grammar -- chosen as "My favorite restaurant is McDonald's". Thus, if I find myself needing to access my bank account, there is a challenge-and-response sequence I need to perform correctly to access my account: "What is your favorite restaurant?" "My favorite restaurant is McDonald's." However, it's possible that McDonald's is no longer my favorite restaurant, or even that it never was my favorite restaurant and I just picked it for its easy rememberability. In either case, I have arrived at a situation where a set of actions I am taking look to a naive observer as stating that McDonald's is my favorite restaurant, when as a matter of fact the real "content" of the situation is more along the lines of "I want access to my bank account", with no sense in which it'd be fair to say that when I make those statements I am actually intending to make the semantic claim visible in my surface semantics. This is the sense in which I was trying to say that the surface claim may not even be intended to be asserted, regardless of the appearance of the discourse.)

Assuming that's a fair approximation to what you're stating, I am curious if you anywhere address what for me would be the next obvious question: if at the end of a sequence of "semantic" discourses we hit a point at which the better characterization is one of tribal membership rituals than "semantic" exchange, what is it that makes you assume that the previous discourses were "semantic" at all? There is certainly the possibility that people belong to a great many tribes, each with a great collection of challenge-and-response rituals, of which some have the form "why is the sky blue"..."because the atmosphere refracts light a certain way" and some of which have the form _..."because God made it so?"; in effect, that what you are calling semantic stopsigns are pathological not because they aren't really semantic, but because they are the boundary nodes (reflexive nodes?) on a giant graph of challenge-and-response tribal rituals?

I apologize for the length of the comment and question: I don't actually have a blog to post this to, and I would like to know if you've anywhere addressed what it is that makes you think that the discourse leading up to a semantic stopsign is in fact "semantic".

Saying "God" is saying that something outside our universe created it. It answers the question of the origin of the universe because we have looked outside of it for a cause. In doing so, we have brought forward the thought that there is a "universe" outside of our own where God is... perhaps consisting of only God himself. This second universe could possibly have different laws governing it... perhaps making it possible for God to have no beginning.

Put it in perspective: DO YOU KNOW EVERYTHING? No. Do you know half of everything? No... but for the sake of argument, we'll say that you know half of everything. Do you think God may exist in the other half that you know nothing about?

Jose: see Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable.

I wonder if a religious bulletin board linked to this page or something? Clearly a lot of commenters here who haven't read anything else on Overcoming Bias.

Passing Through, Sam Harris discusses this in The End of Faith - even when beliefs are tribal, they can still act as beliefs and control behavior. E.g. suicide bombers.

Why would we need to postulate new laws of physics to avoid a beginning?

Everything, everywhere, everywhere - chaos
Something, somewhere, some when - reality
Nothing, nowhere, no when - literally as written it defines itself as impossible.
So reality is simply life enforcing stability upon chaos, by establishing a mutual finite probability out of infinite possibility. Not that little bangs, don't allow for a localised start overs. Little in terms of galactic clusters versus an infinite universe. As far as we are concerned a bloody big bang. Even more impressive these events are null time events, quicker than instant.

it might be more productive to simply ignore god.

IMO we extend (scientific) enquiry by ignoring questioning taboos - e.g. the 'Copernican revolution.' For me a stop-sign is usually a direct display of power (sometimes it's indirect, when the speaker is deferring to 'its' authority.) i.e. the difference between 'As a close personal friend of Herr Furrer, I know he will not be pleased with your question' AND 'God, what would the Furrer think if he heard you say that?'

The obvious next question is, why should we care what people believe so long as they conform to act within the range of behavior standards agreed upon by our now-global tribe? E.g. not suicide bombers.

The obvious next question, somewhat after that, is, is there an end to next questions?

N.B. not sarcastic here, seriously asking both questions. Forgive me if I've not done enough coverage of this site to encounter such discussion. Pointers welcome.

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