The questions one needs not address

by George 6 min read21st Mar 20209 comments

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Two years ago, I would have proclaimed a cautious bias towards thinking religion is a bad idea.

Since then, having read a bunch of “religious” philosophers and observed a bunch of “religious” people, I came to the conclusion that “religion” is a term I will start shying away from using at all, because it’s ill defined. It encompasses too many ideas to be a useful point of discussion.

As a specific example, let’s look at Sunni Islam and some things most people would probably like and dislike about it:

1. I once visited Burj Khalifa and was told that the highest livable floor in the building (158) is dedicated to a mosque. (Googling this fact I find claims that it’s an urban myth, but I can’t find strong evidence one way or another. For the purposes of this article let’s assume the tour guide wasn’t lying).

I find this to be a very nice thing. Here you have the tallest building in the world and you could sell the top floor for billions of dollars, or have it be the king’s apartment, or show it off to important officials to brag and to flatter them… but instead you decide to build a place of worship.

It’s the sort of act that says “Yeah, we made this awe-inspiring thing, but we really owe it to thousands of of past generations. None of us can fully comprehend how we managed to do this, so let’s dedicate its highest floor to something transcendent, something that symbolizes the beautiful, impossible and absurd experiment that made it possible, our society”.

It’s the sort of thing I like about the Catholic faith or any other faith when I walk into their places of worship, adorned in such beauty that they really make you stop, calm down and contemplate in awe and wonder.

2. On 11-9-2001 a group of Sunni terrorists decided that Americans were the worst possible evil and that harming them and their country is an act so moral and just that it’s worth dying for.

This is the kind of action born out of an ethical smugness that even I can’t comprehend, and I’m quite an ethically smug person.

It’s thinking that you can be so right as to warrant doing an action which will be viewed as horrible by most of the world, but completely disregarding their opinion because you obviously have it right.

It’s the same kind of thing I dislike about an atheist SS officer murdering hundreds of Jews because he is certain his normally atrocious action serves “the greater good”.

3. Avicenna deciphered and translated old texts in order to better learn what dozens of generations before him thought about the world.

He observed, poked and prodded the world around him to learn its mysteries. He generated knowledge which was so precious it was taught in medical schools around the world more than half a millennium after his death.

He did this, as far as I understand, partially because of some mystical ideas about the will of God for man to master and understand his creation. I admire Avicenna for basically the same reasons I admire Francis Bacon or Richard Feynman or Alan Turing.

4. Avicenna spent most of his life writing nonsense about his interpretation of old religious texts. Coming up with unfounded and useless systems to explain the soul. Producing a bunch of work that are illogical and childish.

His quest to say something relevant about metaphysics is as irrelevant to anything we have today as those of Thales or Bostrom.

Out of this he gathered up a bunch of ideas about man’s purpose in life and ethics which are pointless at best and harmful at worst.

I dislike Avicenna for basically the same reasons I dislike Thomas Aquinas: he wasted his life and added pointless mental fluff to the zeitgeist, which materialized into nothing.

Questions that need not be asked

There are questions which need not be asked, that is simply because they are ill-phrased, so answering them is just going to result in you playing around with words until you’ve convinced your brain that you found and answer or embedded them into your mind so much that they seem “sacred”.

The basic example of this is the whole “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound ?”.

This question has 4 ways of answering it:

  • No
  • Yes
  • Thinking about it for 10 years, coupled with deep meditation and becoming “enlightened”
  • Do you mean “sound” as in “someone hearing something” or do you mean “sound” as in “acoustic vibrations being transmitted through the earth and air starting at the points of impact” ?

See more on this here.

Out of those answers “4” is correct.

This is basically the case with all “grand” questions:

  • What is the meaning of life ?
  • Does God exist ?
  • Is there free will ?

Deconstruct these questions and you will soon find out that they are ill posed. Once you try to further refine the terms in order to get to an answerable question you reach a very simple answer to a bunch of separate questions.

Those questions contain terms that upon further inspection are impossible to define (e.g. “free will”, “God”) or terms incompatible with one another (e.g. “meaning”, “life”).

  • “What is the meaning of life” is as nonsensical as saying “Is it honorable to drink high-PH water ?” or “Are neutrons afraid of bees ?”
  • “Does God exist ?” can mean “Is there an absolute system of morality we should bide by ?”, “Is there something more powerful than humans out in the universe ?”, “Is there an invisible all-powerful man in the sky ?”, “Are we living in controlled a simulation ?”, “Does our consciousness transcend death ?”.
  • “Is there free will ?” relies on a term so ill-defined it’s like asking “Can magrugleblegs eat bloxorgs ?” Try imaging the difference between a world where “ free will” exists versus one where it doesn’t … or read Avicenna or 101 other philosophers who wasted their time trying to define the term.

Answering questions that cannot be asked

In the end, spending too much time answering questions that cannot be asked can lead down two paths.

Path number one is writing a bunch of philosophy and/or religious books, ending up being very uncertain about your answer and only being able to explain it in a format longer than the one required to understand all of modern physics.

Path number two leads to the mind tricking itself into thinking the answer existing and is certain, which leads to the kind of self-assured megalomania that can cause you to fly planes into towers in order to reach the kingdom of eternal bliss, or to torture and rape young single mothers because that is the only way their sins can be absolved (Hi, Irish Catholic Church!).

It’s like feeding code into a compiler, getting the compiler stuck in an infinite loop and, instead of pressing ctrl-C, waiting forever for an answer or getting an OOM error and interpreting that as the compiled code.

This is what I now assume I hate about religion.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources shoveling air in order to find a treasure.

You have people wasting their time and other’s people resources (and sometimes life and well-being) because they reached a nonsensical answer which they consider to be the absolute truth.

Both of these things might stem from trying to answer these “trick” questions.

This pattern is by no means sequestered to religion, however. It’s just that most of the questions seem to fall under the umbrella of religion.

But go to the opposite end of spectrum and look at something like the “rationalist atheist” community and you’ll basically find the same pattern. A bunch of people assuming an air of smugness because they think they’ve found an unshakable moral truth and a bunch of people wasting their time thinking about ill-phrased questions, just replacing “God” with “a simulation” or replacing “repenting for the end times” with “handling AI risk”.

Indeed, go to the extreme end of any movement, be it a far-right cult, a progressive propaganda machine, a libertarian echo chamber or a communist party… and you find the same pattern. A combination of “philosopher” getting trapped by unanserable questions and spouting nonsense and fanatics convinced they have the absolute moral truth and committing acts of violence and hate because of it.

Part of me thinks that the answer to this problem is simple and I’ve partially written about this in A Better Way of Understanding Systems and A short rant on personal memetic hygiene.

But that part of me is likely wrong. I’d be a hypocrite if I thought otherwise since a long time spent on these kind of questions is what got me to where I am… and I kind of enjoy the place where I am mentally. It feels cozy and happy and the ideas I’m able to generate from it, whilst almost certainly not yet useful for almost anything, at least feel to me like “the kind of things which I will be able to develop into useful works of engineering if I refine them for long enough”.

You can argue that Avicenna could have spent all his time researching medicine and astronomy and none looking into the nature of “the soul” and “God”, but it requires the same smugness that I warned against a few paragraphs ago to make that assumption. It might well be that Avicenna needed to waste his time on pointless questions in order to get the perspective and motivation that allowed him to create the closest thing to modern medicine that existed before late Renaissance.

I think the world need more Avicennas and if the price we must pay is a bunch of bad books about phenomenology and metaphysics it’s a very advantageous trade.

But the world could probably do without a bunch of Thomas Aquinas throwing away hereditary money on whoring and gambling then publishing nonsense about metaphysics due to thinking that “existence” is a characteristic the same way “blue” is. The world would almost certainly be better off without people committing genocide and flying commercial planes into tall buildings.

Maybe there is a sweet spot in terms of musing on these questions, around that sweet spot you get Edmund Burke or a Quaker doctor dedicating his life to curing tropical diseases in Rwanda. If you don’t venture into these kind of questions at all, you get an accountant or a store clerk; venture to deeply or go the wrong way and you get a Thomas Aquinas or a fundamentalist preacher who wants to kill homosexuals.

Alas, I can’t speak much as to how you can find that sweet-spot, besides the vaguely-related article I linked above. So this train of thought about unanswerable questions leads me to an unanswerable question. Possibly because I’m asking it in the wrong way or because my assumptions are completely wrong to being with… On which I just wasted almost 2,000 words saying almost nothing at all, the very thing I am railing against.

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