Less Wrong
Humans and other animals

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions: Essential readings for skeptics

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions are a ‘core sequence’ of essays by Eliezer Yudkowsky from Less Wrong, a skeptic community blog, discussion board and general resource site.

I haven’t read all of these yet, but I thoroughly recommend all the ones I have. The posts are each an easily digestible mini-essay with a single point made very well. I’ve cut and pasted a few sound-bites below from some of the posts that grabbed my attention.


“It is a great strength of Homo sapiens that we can, better than any other species in the world, learn to model the unseen. It is also one of our great weak points. Humans often believe in things that are not only unseen but unreal.”
Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)


“Where it is difficult to believe a thing, it is often much easier to believe that you ought to believe it.”
Belief in Belief


“Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality.”
Your Strength as a Rationalist


There are a fascinating pair of posts on Belief as Attire (“You cannot say the phrases “heroic self-sacrifice” and “suicide bomber” in the same sentence, even for the sake of accurately describing how the Enemy sees the world.”) and Science as Attire (“…how many people, especially in the media, understand science only as a literary genre.”)


Semantic Stopsigns are tells that reveal which tribe the person who invokes one belongs to:

Consider the seeming paradox of the First Cause. Science has traced events back to the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen? Where did the physical laws 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.”

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.
Semantic Stopsigns


You hit Explain for life, and get chemistry; you hit Explain for chemistry, and get atoms; you hit Explain for atoms, and get electrons and nuclei; you hit Explain for nuclei, and get quantum chromodynamics and quarks; you hit Explain for how the quarks got there, and get back the Big Bang…

Explain/Worship/Ignore?


To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.
Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

But the deeper failure is supposing that an answer can be mysterious. If a phenomenon feels mysterious, that is a fact about our state of knowledge, not a fact about the phenomenon itself.

These are the signs of mysterious answers to mysterious questions:

  • First, the explanation acts as a curiosity-stopper rather than an anticipation-controller.
  • Second, the hypothesis has no moving parts—the model is not a specific complex mechanism, but a blankly solid substance or force. The mysterious substance or mysterious force may be said to be here or there, to cause this or that; but the reason why the mysterious force behaves thus is wrapped in a blank unity.
  • Third, those who proffer the explanation cherish their ignorance; they speak proudly of how the phenomenon defeats ordinary science or is unlike merely mundane phenomena.
  • Fourth, even after the answer is given, the phenomenon is still a mystery and possesses the same quality of wonderful inexplicability that it had at the start.

Index of Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions.

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