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Semantic Stopsigns

54 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 August 2007 07:29PM

And the child asked:

Q:  Where did this rock come from?
A:  I chipped it off the big boulder, at the center of the village.
Q:  Where did the boulder come from?
A:  It probably rolled off the huge mountain that towers over our village.
Q:  Where did the mountain come from?
A:  The same place as all stone: it is the bones of Ymir, the primordial giant.
Q:  Where did the primordial giant, Ymir, come from?
A:  From the great abyss, Ginnungagap.
Q:  Where did the great abyss, Ginnungagap, come from?
A:  Never ask that question.

Consider the seeming paradox of the First Cause.  Science has traced events back to the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen?  It's all well and good to say that the zero of time begins at the Big Bang—that there is nothing before the Big Bang in the ordinary flow of minutes and hours.  But saying this presumes our physical law, which itself appears highly structured; it calls out for explanation.  Where did the physical laws come from?  You could say that we're all a computer simulation, but then the computer simulation is running on some other world's laws of physics—where did those laws of physics come from?

At this point, some people say, "God!"

What could possibly make anyone, even a highly religious person, think this even helped answer the paradox of the First Cause?  Why wouldn't you automatically ask, "Where did God come from?"  Saying "God is uncaused" or "God created Himself" leaves us in exactly the same position as "Time began with the Big Bang."  We just ask why the whole metasystem exists in the first place, or why some events but not others are allowed to be uncaused.

My purpose here is not to discuss the seeming paradox of the First Cause, but to ask why anyone would think "God!" could resolve the paradox.  Saying "God!" is a way of belonging to a tribe, which gives people a motive to say it as often as possible—some people even say it for questions like "Why did this hurricane strike New Orleans?"  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?

Jonathan Wallace suggested that "God!" functions as a semantic stopsign—that it isn't a propositional assertion, so much as a cognitive traffic signal: do not think past this point.  Saying "God!" doesn't so much resolve the paradox, as put up a cognitive traffic signal to halt the obvious continuation of the question-and-answer chain.

Of course you'd never do that, being a good and proper atheist, right?  But "God!" isn't the only semantic stopsign, just the obvious first example.

The transhuman technologies—molecular nanotechnology, advanced biotech, genetech, Artificial Intelligence, et cetera—pose tough policy questions.  What kind of role, if any, should a government take in supervising a parent's choice of genes for their child?  Could parents deliberately choose genes for schizophrenia?  If enhancing a child's intelligence is expensive, should governments help ensure access, to prevent the emergence of a cognitive elite?  You can propose various institutions to answer these policy questions—for example, that private charities should provide financial aid for intelligence enhancement—but the obvious next question is, "Will this institution be effective?"  If we rely on product liability lawsuits to prevent corporations from building harmful nanotech, will that really work?

I know someone whose answer to every one of these questions is "Liberal democracy!"  That's it.  That's his answer.  If you ask the obvious question of "How well have liberal democracies performed, historically, on problems this tricky?" or "What if liberal democracy does something stupid?" then you're an autocrat, or libertopian, or otherwise a very very bad person.  No one is allowed to question democracy.

I once called this kind of thinking "the divine right of democracy".  But it is more precise to say that "Democracy!" functioned for him as a semantic stopsign.  If anyone had said to him "Turn it over to the Coca-Cola corporation!", he would have asked the obvious next questions:  "Why?  What will the Coca-Cola corporation do about it?  Why should we trust them?  Have they done well in the past on equally tricky problems?"

Or suppose that someone says "Mexican-Americans are plotting to remove all the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere."  You'd probably ask, "Why would they do that?  Don't Mexican-Americans have to breathe too?  Do Mexican-Americans even function as a unified conspiracy?"  If you don't ask these obvious next questions when someone says, "Corporations are plotting to remove Earth's oxygen," then "Corporations!" functions for you as a semantic stopsign.

Be careful here not to create a new generic counterargument against things you don't like—"Oh, it's just a stopsign!"  No word is a stopsign of itself; the question is whether a word has that effect on a particular person.  Having strong emotions about something doesn't qualify it as a stopsign.  I'm not exactly fond of terrorists or fearful of private property; that doesn't mean "Terrorists!" or "Capitalism!" are cognitive traffic signals unto me.  (The word "intelligence" did once have that effect on me, though no longer.)  What distinguishes a semantic stopsign is failure to consider the obvious next question.


Part of the sequence Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Next post: "Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions"

Previous post: "Fake Causality"

Comments (103)

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Comment author: Doug_S. 24 August 2007 08:20:26PM 47 points [-]

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

Comment author: josh 24 August 2007 08:59:00PM 7 points [-]


from the before time. from the long long ago.

Comment author: Aaron3 24 August 2007 09:25:48PM 1 point [-]

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.

Comment author: Aaron3 24 August 2007 09:27:54PM 0 points [-]

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

Comment author: Michael_Rooney 24 August 2007 11:53:19PM 5 points [-]

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?

Comment author: DanielLC 28 December 2009 07:26:32PM 14 points [-]

Infinite regress is still a semantic stopsign. If all chickens came from eggs, and all eggs came from chickens, the obvious next question is "Why is there an infinite regress of chickens and eggs?"

There are certainly possible infinite regressions that don't exist, so it can't exist simply because of an infinite regress.

Comment author: MrMormon 03 April 2012 05:45:03AM 1 point [-]

Sometimes, the question "why?" is meaningless. If "all chickens came from eggs, and all eggs came from chickens" is a premise, that is the "why". Asking the why of the why is a tautology.

Comment author: DanielLC 03 April 2012 04:09:32PM 2 points [-]

But why do you assume all chickens came from eggs and all eggs came from chickens?

How is this different than just having "God exists" as a premise?

Comment author: jopt2 25 August 2012 08:05:30PM 1 point [-]

I don't think it is different in itself. I think some premises are more useful than others, an the anticipating-experience-sense.

Comment author: Rixie 25 January 2013 04:36:57AM -2 points [-]

I know that this doesn't actually contribute in any way, but chickens were bred into exsistance by humans, so, one female bird was bred with a different male bird and the resulting eggs were chickens. Therefore, the egg came before the chicken.

Comment author: Constant2 25 August 2007 12:09:53AM 10 points [-]

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."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2007 04:28:41AM 3 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Yahdah 25 August 2007 05:00:47AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2007 05:22:09AM 15 points [-]

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

Comment author: Googolplex 25 August 2007 09:52:43AM 2 points [-]

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.


Comment author: Owain_Evans 25 August 2007 10:40:45AM 2 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Mets 24 May 2014 07:57:55PM *  0 points [-]

If I remember correctly, Russell thought that if anything could exist timelessly, without a cause, it might as well be the universe and not God. But the problem is, we now know (with some reasonable certainty) that the universe began with the Big Bang. The universe could have been timeless, but it isn't. Postulating that there is a timeless First Cause outside the universe solves this problem, since there is no similar theory that shows God has a cause, though it's not a falsifiable or very satisfying solution.

Comment author: gjm 24 May 2014 09:13:50PM 0 points [-]

We really don't know with much certainty that the universe began with the Big Bang. For instance, if "eternal inflation" is right then what we call the Big Bang was the beginning of "our" universe but not of the universe.

Comment author: RobbL 25 August 2007 01:27:11PM 7 points [-]

Whatever happened to "I don't know"

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 25 August 2007 03:12:48PM 6 points [-]

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

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 25 August 2007 03:13:31PM 3 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:49:06AM 1 point [-]

If we interpret it as an adaptation of religious memes, it's not a bug---it's a feature.

Comment author: Uselessness_of_metaphysics 25 August 2007 04:39:27PM 1 point [-]

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.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 August 2007 06:14:39PM 2 points [-]

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?

Comment author: David_J._Balan 25 August 2007 09:57:26PM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:51:29AM -1 points [-]

Yeah, I found the "liberal democracy" example somewhat unfair too. It may be a stopsign for some people, but it's also a pretty darn good idea in general. How well has liberal democracy done on similarly tricky problems? Might it be fair to say... better than anything else yet devised?

I guess I would agree it's not a complete answer. But answering "liberal democracy!" seems about as valid as answering "rationality" or "science", which we actually do give as answers sometimes (at least when pressed for time).

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 28 August 2007 08:35:12PM 2 points [-]

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

Comment author: Ed2 04 September 2007 03:33:14PM 1 point [-]

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

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 04 September 2007 04:55:56PM 2 points [-]

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.

Comment author: apotheon 21 November 2007 08:10:23PM 4 points [-]

"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.

Comment author: Richard_Kulisz 22 November 2007 12:48:50AM 2 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 28 August 2010 11:18:55PM 17 points [-]

This is merely a semantic stop-sign; it appears wise because it uses modern vocabulary. The structure of the argument is identical to the structure of a neo-Platonist argument that most LW readers would instantly reject:

Before God's Creation is beyond the universe. Beyond the universe are other Creations. Which Creations? All Creations that God created. What are God's Creations? They are instantiations of God's will. What is God's will? Arbitrary manipulation of Form. And there you've reached a final stopping point. Because it isn't even intelligible to ask why there is Form or why God wills one thing and not another. Form and Will are eternal, and there is nothing beyond or beneath them. More importantly, there is no form from which they derive their pattern because they are their own perfect Form.

Comment author: Brilliand 01 September 2015 05:56:50PM 0 points [-]

This looks like equivocation between the math-like structure of the universe and mathematics itself - mathematics proper is something invented by humans, which happens to resemble the structure of the universe. Whatever is outside the universe is unknown, but probably can be discovered with considerable difficulty (and will probably be describable by mathematics, but will not be mathematics itself).

Comment author: I_don't_know 22 November 2007 05:32:55AM 0 points [-]

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."

Comment author: athiest 22 November 2007 07:37:02AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: bigjeff5 29 January 2011 05:02:40AM 9 points [-]

It's still a semantic stop sign, because it attempts to stop you from asking the next question, which you mentioned:

Why is God necessary?

The point is to never stop asking. You might be stuck at "I don't know", but that just means you need to find more information.

A "stop sign" is any answer that automatically causes you to stop asking the next question. It can be "God", but it can just as easily be "the big bang" or "evolution". If your intent in making the statement is to prevent further questions, it's a stop sign statement in that case.

If you believe there must be a God, there isn't really anything wrong with that as long as you aren't using the idea of God to keep you from asking the next question. I find the belief ridiculously hard to maintain though.

By the way, Eliezer, I think I have to officially recognize my atheism. I've been clinging to the last vestiges of my monotheistic upbringing up until now, but this post hits the nail on the head, so to speak.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:54:52AM 1 point [-]

We do have a pretty good understanding of some necessary claims, like "It is necessarily true that 2+2=4." Asking "why is that necessary?" has a fairly good answer: "Because it's what the symbols mean, and if you deny it you soon find yourself in incoherence."

Whereas, one does not seem to fall into incoherence when asserting "There is no such thing as an omniscient, omnipotent being whose son died by crucifixion." (I dare say one teeters upon that chasm when asserting the opposite!)

Comment author: Unknown 22 November 2007 07:53:17AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: nephroglomerulus 22 November 2007 11:58:40AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:55:43AM 0 points [-]

Interesting theology. Completely irrelevant to 98% of believers I'm fairly sure. (I mean, how many people even know calculus, much less use it to justify religion?)

Comment author: Caledonian2 22 November 2007 02:48:30PM 5 points [-]

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.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 28 August 2010 11:22:35PM 3 points [-]

It's a way to short-circuit the search.

Hang on; it depends what your religion consists of. If, having concluded that "there is a God," you stop thinking and stop asking existential questions, then, fine, you're short-circuiting out of something like fear.

But if you use religion to fast-forward a bit, to skip a few existential questions here and there and ask others further down the line, it's not clear why that would be ethically inappropriate. If existential inquiry is a journey without an end, why privilege the first several questions on that journey above all others?

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:56:24AM 1 point [-]

Does religion actually help us move ahead in the list of questions? I don't see how it does.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 20 May 2012 08:19:19AM 1 point [-]

It did for me for a while. Having decided that the world was purposefully created by a benevolent deity who left much of it unfinished because he wanted humans to have a chance to complete the world so that the god would have fellow creators that he could relate to, I then moved on to ask (a) what parts of the world are unfinished, (b) what can I do to improve them, (c) what does it mean to be a creator, (d) what parts of the world are already set up as if by a friendly-to-humans force, and (e) how, if at all, can I engage in a personal relationship with creative forces so abstract and mighty as to be impersonal?

To me, anyway, these questions seem more interesting than endless variations on the theme of "Oh, hey, what's this life stuff all about?" and "Is there any point in trying to accomplish things?"

At the moment, I'm an atheist, and don't have much use for religion. I wouldn't say religion is so useful to existential journeys that it's worth trying to cram thoughts into your head that you don't believe -- but while I did 'naturally' believe in a religion, it offered me some useful benefits, which I enjoyed.

Comment author: Passing_Through 22 November 2007 04:00:27PM 3 points [-]

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".

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:59:44AM 0 points [-]

Well, hopefully not ALL our statements amount to tribal membership... then we couldn't even assert that our statements amount to tribal membership, now could we?

And clearly some of the things you might ask along the chain are normal, unproblematic questions, like "Why is there a dog in the yard?" and "Will it rain tomorrow?"; so I don't think it's a big stretch to presume that our discourse is properly semantic until we're given reason to think otherwise.

(Truth be told, I'm dubious of non-cognitivism in general; obviously it does work in your ATM example, and maybe even in the "God did it" example... but lots of people try to apply it to things where there really is an obvious propositional interpretation.)

Comment author: Richard2 22 November 2007 07:35:17PM -2 points [-]

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?

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:00:45AM 5 points [-]

Substitute the word "unicorn" or "aliens" for "God" in the above and you will understand why we do not find it compelling.

That which can be asserted without evidence... can be dismissed without evidence.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 22 November 2007 07:50:40PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 November 2007 07:55:48PM 5 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:01:24AM 0 points [-]

Though then they do have to have propositional content, so maybe we should say that they are stopsigns---but not merely stopsigns?

Comment author: Caledonian2 22 November 2007 08:55:16PM 0 points [-]

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

Comment author: tony_bandero 09 March 2008 02:50:24PM 0 points [-]

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?'

Comment author: Mark_Carranza 08 January 2009 02:55:24AM 0 points [-]

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.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:31:39AM 1 point [-]

1) Because beliefs matter; a world where people are epistemically rational is, ceteris paribus, better than a world in which they are not.

2) Because you can't just shield off all your beliefs from the real world. You can try, and thereby make them almost not beliefs at all; but as long as they reside in your brain, they are moving neurotransmitters around in ways that they should not be moved. For example, consider how the idea of immortality affects the way people view existential risks: If you believe, or even suspect, that you might live forever in Heaven after you die, you'll be just a little bit less inclined to worry about that plague, that asteroid, that cascade of Von Neumann machines. Maybe not a lot less---but a little less, and that could make all the difference.

Comment author: gwern 23 June 2010 03:57:38PM *  13 points [-]

From the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad (~6-700 BC), Olivelle translation:

Then Gargi Vacaknavi began to question him. 'Yajnavalkya', she said, 'tell me - since this whole world is woven back and forth on water, on what, then, is water woven back and forth?
'On air, Gargi.'
'On what, then, is air woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the intermediate region, Gargi.'
'On what, then are the worlds of the intermediate region woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the Gandharvas, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of the Gandharvas woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the sun, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of the sun woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the moon, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of the moon woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the stars, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of the stars woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of the gods, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of the gods woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of Indra, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of Indra woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of Prajapati, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of Prajapati woven back and forth?'
'On the worlds of brahman, Gargi.'
'On what, then, are the worlds of brahman woven back and forth?'
At this point Yajnavalkya told her: 'Don't ask too many questions, Gargi, or your head will shatter apart! You are asking too many questions about a deity about whom one should not ask too many questions. So, Gargi, don't ask too many questions!'
Thereupon, Gargi Vacaknavi fell silent.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:32:24AM 1 point [-]

So here we have the literal and Ur-example of semantic stopsigning.

Comment author: Perplexed 23 July 2010 06:33:40PM 11 points [-]

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

I think that you are being unfair here, because you are not reading the fine print. The signs actually read "Stop, then proceed with caution." The subtext is that if you proceed beyond this point, you are going to need a different kind of explanation than the one which has served so far. Ask an atheist where life today came from and he will tell you that it came from past life (and definitely from more than 6000 years ago). Pursue the chain of causality and eventually you will come to a stop sign. "Abiogenesis" says the smart atheist. "Prebiotic soup" catechises the stupid one. These are stop signs, but they are necessary stop signs. They don't so much fail to consider the obvious next question as warn that the obvious next question may be a misleading question. What is going on in the vicinity of the stop sign may be completely different in kind from the kind of thing you are familiar with. Or so claims the stop-sign poster. It is not an explanation, to be sure. But it is something of a hypothesis. Like a notation in the unexplored area of a map. "Here there be phase-transitions."

And if Eliezer believes that defenders of the idea of a First Cause have really failed to consider the obvious next question, then I have to marvel at his lack of scholarship. Hey, I am as atheist as the next guy, but I'm getting pretty tired of finding that all of the negative examples in this series are theists and alchemists. There are plenty more examples of bad thinking to pick on.

Comment author: Jeff_Rubinoff 28 August 2010 10:36:35PM 3 points [-]

What if you are trying to explain evolution to someone and he states "Evolution is just another religion." Is that a stop sign? To me it is, in the sense that the only reason to continue at that point would be to enjoy the sound of your own voice. The person has just signalled his membership in a tribe; you recognize that you are not in that tribe; and you recognize that he will not consider anything further you have to say on the subject, because that would be disloyal to the tribe. Global warming is a religion, taxation is theft, property is theft, healthcare is not a right (I'm not sure if the reverse is used as a flag, too), there is no peace without justice, "allopathic medicine"; there are a lot of them. I'm old enough to remember "The Soviet Union is a state in transition," too. (Sadly, it was in transition to total collapse.) All these statements are what Eliezer calls "Green and Blue" (I think--those are the two chariot racing team colors, right?) markers. I'm not sure if these statements are also semantic stop signs. Anyway, I think that class of statement is very different than statements like abiogenesis or prebiotic soup, because the latter statements indicate that the original topic has been exhausted. That line of reasoning has gone to its logical end, and to continue conversing, we must switch to a different discussion. Not quite the same thing as saying that "tribal loyalty dictates that I do not use reason to consider anything further you say on this subject."

Comment author: PaulAlmond 28 August 2010 10:45:10PM 1 point [-]

Not necessarily. Maybe you should persist and try to persuade onlookers?

Comment author: Mass_Driver 28 August 2010 11:09:18PM 6 points [-]

I'd be careful before writing off otherwise polite and thoughtful people as irrational loyalists simply on the basis of a single semantic stop sign.

For one thing, you might be getting a false positive -- sometimes I say things like "there is no peace without justice," but I don't mean to cut off debate about political science; I'm just trying to call people's attention to the possibility that the people they see as violent troublemakers may simply be responding to a perceived injustice.

For another, even an intentional semantic stop sign might not indicate unthinking loyalty; it may simply indicate that your listener has erroneously concluded that there is nothing more to say about a particular topic. Some libertarians might think that taxation is theft, not because they refuse to listen to your counterarguments, but because they can't imagine a morally legitimate real-world government.

Finally, attempting to identify semantic stop signs with the motive of screening out those who are unworthy of further conversation will inevitably lead to improper rationalization; you will feel subjectively that someone is unworthy of conversation and then concoct a story for yourself about why the other person has been using stop signs.

Thus, it is better to ask people what kind of argument might convince them than to assume that people are irrational.

Comment author: Perplexed 29 August 2010 12:19:29AM *  4 points [-]

What if you are trying to explain evolution to someone and he states "Evolution is just another religion." Is that a stop sign? To me it is, in the sense that the only reason to continue at that point would be to enjoy the sound of your own voice. The person has just signaled his membership in a tribe ...

Oh, I agree that it is a tribal slogan, signaling tribal membership. But before interpreting it as a stop sign, I'd want to ask myself just why he had come up with that particular slogan at that point in our conversation. Did he somehow perceive that I wasn't really explaining evolution, I was preaching it? That I wasn't just trying to correct misconceptions regarding a set of ideas, that I was trying to convert him? That I wasn't really interested in his opinions, but that I wanted him to enjoy the sound of my voice?

Well, yes, if that seems to be the reason that slogan just happened to pop into his head, then stopping is probably the best option.

But if it seems that he said that simply because it was his turn to speak and that is one learned slogan he hadn't used yet, then I would treat the statement as a question, "Evolution is just another religion, isn't it?" And I would answer, "No not like a religion at all. Evolution only deals with the subject matter of two chapters of Genesis; it doesn't even attempt to answer the questions that the rest of the Bible deals with. Some evolutionists are Catholics, some are Jews, some are Protestants, some are atheists. What kind of crazy religion is that?" Who knows? Maybe that will make him think a bit. But yes, beyond trying to clarify what evolution is and is not, I wouldn't try to get him to leave his tribe. I would feel rather silly if I had been trying to do that in the first place.

Evangelizing, rather than simply explaining, about science is pointless. You cannot succeed unless the person is open to learning. And if they are open, then explaining should be all that is needed.

Comment author: MoreOn 10 December 2010 07:15:16PM *  0 points [-]

What’s the alternative? Say I can’t solve something, like I couldn’t solve 3n+1 (aka Collatz conjecture).

1) Accept that this is something I can’t solve, and give up? Should I live with the frustration of an open question, rather than take comfort in deferring to a semantic stopsign?

2) Try to figure it out on the off chance that I can do better than the 6.5 billion living people plus the scholars of the past? (Almost drove myself mad with 3n+1). There’re other problems that I want to tackle, ones I CAN possibly solve, ones with greater applicability to real life… should I work on this one instead?

3) Should I force myself not to care? (Really difficult; my mind keeps coming back to 3n+1 no matter how counter-productive that is for all other areas of my life).

Comment author: JohnH 21 April 2011 09:30:39PM 2 points [-]

There have always been questions that are unanswered. What those questions are change over time. If one believes that it is impossible to answer a question then for that person it most likely is, but not because it actually is impossible to solve or even that it is impossible for them to solve it. If problems were unsolvable because no one has solved them yet then where did any solutions of any problems ever come from?

Economic growth can only happen by solving unsolved problems or solving solved problems in unknown ways.

If the problem bothers you and you believe that you might possibly be able to solve it by studying the problem and working on possible solutions then you should try and solve it. It might be worthwhile to dedicate set amounts of time to the problem so that it doesn't cut into productivity in other areas of life. This would allow you to not worry much about the problem during the rest of the day, which is often helpful in solving difficult problems.

Comment author: omeganaut 11 May 2011 02:16:51AM 0 points [-]

I find most of this article extremely enlightening on the foundation of many problems with modern life. I also, however, have issues with your examples concerning government and other semantic stop signs. Liberal democracy is not necessarily a stop sign. It is easily countered by asking what that has to do with anything, as no current country in the world has a true democracy. They have republics due to the sheer size of countries rendering direct democracy pointless. Also, governments are reliant on the intelligence of their leaders and on those who chose policies and laws. Stopping at Liberal Democracy means that you fail to ask about the possibility that the leaders are misguided or just plain wrong. With the nature of politics, there will always be one current political representative that a voter dislikes. Finally, there is one spot where a stop sign must be placed, and this is on right and wrong. I cannot foresee anyway in which an argument can be advanced past the point where morality dictates one action as better than another. There are explanations, but essentially right and wrong cannot be questioned, otherwise humanity may end up in a world much less pleasant than the current one.

Comment author: Swimmer963 11 May 2011 02:25:25AM 3 points [-]

I cannot foresee anyway in which an argument can be advanced past the point where morality dictates one action as better than another. There are explanations, but essentially right and wrong cannot be questioned, otherwise humanity may end up in a world much less pleasant than the current one.

If only everyone had the same definition of what is right and what is wrong...

Comment author: Nornagest 11 May 2011 02:29:16AM 1 point [-]

Restricting "true democracy" to direct democracy essentially renders the category meaningless.

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 05:43:08AM 0 points [-]

How does it help us to put a stop sign there, and not say slightly before or slightly after? Indeed, what is "there" exactly (the proposition "we ought to do what is right" strikes me as obviously true, but also sort of trivial).

Comment author: Arandur 03 August 2011 12:13:33AM *  -1 points [-]

So the logical conclusion is that there is no beginning to time. *nods*

Comment author: buybuydandavis 22 September 2011 09:19:20AM 2 points [-]

I don't think Stop Sign is the best metaphor here.

People like God as an answer because they dislike uncertainty and thinking. It's useful precisely because it predicts nothing, but explains everything. "God did it" acts as a Finish Line more than a Stop Sign. It says the race is done, and grants license to stop running.

Am I the only one who thinks of those Family Circus cartoons with the ghostly "Not Me" and "I Dunno" anytime someone says that "God did it"?

Comment author: pnrjulius 19 May 2012 04:48:32AM 0 points [-]

You know, that First Cause problem really is kinda a big one. Maybe we should be working on that?

Comment author: jooyous 26 January 2013 02:20:02AM *  0 points [-]

Okay, there needs to be a semantic stop-sign after "But why doesn't s/he like me?" taught to all children in middle school.

Comment author: CCC 30 January 2013 06:38:51AM 1 point [-]

Why wouldn't you automatically ask, "Where did God come from?"

I asked that a long time ago, in Sunday School. I don't think anyone has a good answer to that (at the time I came up with a recursive answer that relied on time travel; I have not yet found a better answer).

Comment author: telms 25 February 2013 05:58:37AM 0 points [-]

Speaking for a moment as a discourse analyst rather than a philosopher, I would like to point out that much talk is social action rather than reasoning or argument, and what is said is rarely all, or even most, of what is meant. Does anyone here know of any empirical discourse research into the actual linguistic uses of semantic "stopsigns" in conversational practice?

Comment author: imaginaryphiend 27 February 2013 05:50:39PM 0 points [-]

Telms, it seems you are looking to tread in the path of the logical positivists where they sought to sort this out within a context of early Wittgenstein. Taken to the logical extreme with regard to a logical epistemic foundationalism, they tend to be generally dismissed, but in the context of an semantics relavant to general, meaningful discourse, i thought they tended to make a lot of good sense. Ironically, i keep going back to positivism. The irony being in the potential paradoxes of me seeing my self as essentially an epistemic nihilist. lol... I see it all metaphorically as an epistemology modelled visually to appear as ever expanding circles of reasoning, looking like an outward moving psychedelic spiral. If we try to deconstruct that psychedelic, perpetually moving spiral, we reach further and further towards an propositional foundation, but find we can only approach it as an infinitessimal, proposed, but not actually realizable, absolute beginning.

Comment author: telms 27 July 2013 10:12:31PM 4 points [-]

Mmm, that's not really where I'm coming from. There is an aggressively empirical research tradition in applied linguistics called "conversation analysis", which analyzes how language is actually used in real-world interaction. The raw data is actual recordings, usually with video so that the physical embodiment of the interaction and the gestures and facial expressions can be captured. The data is transcribed frame-by-frame at 1/30th of a second intervals, and includes gesture as well as vocal non-words (uh-huh, um, laugh, quavery voice, etc) to get a more complete picture of the actual construction of meaning in real time. So my question was actually an empirical one. It's one thing to guess at an analytical level that "God" might be a stop-signal in religious debates or in question chains involving children. But is the term really used that way? Has anyone got any unedited video recordings of such conversations that we could analyze? After making very many errors of my own based on expectation rather than actual data, I tend to be skeptical of any statement that says "language IS used in manner X", when that manner is not demonstrated in data. Language CAN be used in manner X, yes, but is that the normative use in actual practice? We don't know until we do the hard empirical work needed to find out.

Comment author: AshwinV 18 February 2014 02:25:50PM 0 points [-]

Another thing that can act as a semantic stopsign is not just a word, but sometimes an image. What I mean is actually something quite similar to the emergence phenomenon.

For example, I am just learning the basics of Economics. I just came across the rules of Supply and Demand. Instead of analysing and observing how these play out in the real world, I am just content to form an image in my head of prices moving up and down (based on moving graphs and numbers), and deciding that I know all there is to know and not bother finding out more for myself.

I agree that this seems like a somewhat weird thought experiment, but it highlights a kind of failure to think and one that was very real to me in the past. I don't know how many other people go through the same thing, but if I had stopped to think what I could predict based on this, and how it wasn't really all that useful, I would've been (or at least feel that I would've been) a lot better off.

Comment author: hearherenow 03 September 2014 06:44:16AM *  1 point [-]

Q: Where did the great abyss, Ginnungagap, come from?

A: From the rock I chipped off the big boulder.

Comment author: hcutter 24 February 2017 12:59:27PM 0 points [-]

In reading these Sequences, I am noting that it is sometimes difficult to tell when you are building on an older body of work and when you are unaware of the older body of work and are independently deriving an equivalent concept. Semantic stopsigns is a particularly good example of this. Are you aware of the existence of another term for this: the thought-terminating cliché? (Sometimes thought-stopping cliché.) There is some fascinating literature on the subject of their use in cults, which may be directly applicable to understanding Dark Side techniques. For example: Singer, Margaret Thaler, Maurice K. Temerlin, and Michael D. Langone. "Psychotherapy cults." Cultic Studies Journal 7.2 (1990): 101-125.