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Tom_McCabe2 comments on Dissolving the Question - Less Wrong

44 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 March 2008 03:17AM

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Comment author: Tom_McCabe2 08 March 2008 04:39:33AM 5 points [-]

I have no idea why or how someone first thought up this question. People ask each other silly questions all the time, and I don't think very much effort has gone into discovering how people invent them.

However, note that most of the silly questions people ask have either quietly gone away, or have been printed in children's books to quiet their curiosity. This type of question- along with many additional errors in rationality- seems to attract people. It gets asked over and over again, from generation unto generation, without any obvious, conclusive results.

The answer to most questions is either obvious, or obviously discoverable- some easy examples are "Does 2 + 2 = 4?", or "Is there a tiger behind the bush?". This question, however, creates a category error in the human linguistic system, by forcibly prying apart the concepts of "sound" and "mental experience of sound". Few people will independently discover that a miscategorization error has occurred; at first, it just seems confusing. And so people start coming up with incorrect explanations, they confuse a debate about the definition of the word "sound" with a debate about some external fact (most questions are about external facts, so this occurs by default), they start dividing into "yes" and "no" tribes, etc.

At this point, the viral meme-spreading process begins. An ordinary question ("Is the sky green?") makes reference to concepts we are already familiar with, and interrelates them using standard methodology. A nonsensical question either makes reference to nonexistent concepts ("Are rynithers a type of plawistre?"), or uses existing concepts in ways that are obviously incorrect ("Is up circular?"). Our mind can deal with these kinds of questions fairly effectively. However, notice the form of a question asked by the tribal chief/teacher/professor/boss: things like "Does electromagnetism affect objects with no net charge?". Even at large inferential distances, the audience will probably pick up on some of the concepts. Most laymen have heard of "electromagnetism" before, and they have a vague idea of what a "charge" is. But they lack the underlying complexity- the stuff beneath the token "electromagnetism"- needed to give a correct answer.

From the inside, this sounds pretty much like the makes-a-sound question: familiar concepts ("tree", "falling", "sound") are mixed together in ways which aren't obviously nonsense, but don't have a clearly defined answer. The brain assumes that it must lack the necessary "underlying knowledge" to get past the confusion, and goes on a quest to discover the nonexistent "knowledge". At the same time, the question conveys an impression of intelligence, and so the new convert tells it to all of his friends and co-workers in an attempt to sound smarter. Many moons ago, this exact question even appeared in a cartoon I saw, as some sort of attempt to get kids to "think critically" or whatever the buzzword was.