Wrong Questions

Followup toDissolving the Question, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Where the mind cuts against reality's grain, it generates wrong questions—questions that cannot possibly be answered on their own terms, but only dissolved by understanding the cognitive algorithm that generates the perception of a question.

One good cue that you're dealing with a "wrong question" is when you cannot even imagine any concrete, specific state of how-the-world-is that would answer the question.  When it doesn't even seem possible to answer the question.

Take the Standard Definitional Dispute, for example, about the tree falling in a deserted forest.  Is there any way-the-world-could-be—any state of affairs—that corresponds to the word "sound" really meaning only acoustic vibrations, or really meaning only auditory experiences?

("Why, yes," says the one, "it is the state of affairs where 'sound' means acoustic vibrations."  So Taboo the word 'means', and 'represents', and all similar synonyms, and describe again:  How can the world be, what state of affairs, would make one side right, and the other side wrong?)

Or if that seems too easy, take free will:  What concrete state of affairs, whether in deterministic physics, or in physics with a dice-rolling random component, could ever correspond to having free will?

And if that seems too easy, then ask "Why does anything exist at all?", and then tell me what a satisfactory answer to that question would even look like.

And no, I don't know the answer to that last one.  But I can guess one thing, based on my previous experience with unanswerable questions.  The answer will not consist of some grand triumphant First Cause.  The question will go away as a result of some insight into how my mental algorithms run skew to reality, after which I will understand how the question itself was wrong from the beginning—how the question itself assumed the fallacy, contained the skew.

Mystery exists in the mind, not in reality.  If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself.  All the more so, if it seems like no possible answer can exist:  Confusion exists in the map, not in the territory.  Unanswerable questions do not mark places where magic enters the universe.  They mark places where your mind runs skew to reality.

Such questions must be dissolved.  Bad things happen when you try to answer them.  It inevitably generates the worst sort of Mysterious Answer to a Mysterious Question:  The one where you come up with seemingly strong arguments for your Mysterious Answer, but the "answer" doesn't let you make any new predictions even in retrospect, and the phenomenon still possesses the same sacred inexplicability that it had at the start.

I could guess, for example, that the answer to the puzzle of the First Cause is that nothing does exist—that the whole concept of "existence" is bogus.  But if you sincerely believed that, would you be any less confused?  Me neither.

But the wonderful thing about unanswerable questions is that they are always solvable, at least in my experience.  What went through Queen Elizabeth I's mind, first thing in the morning, as she woke up on her fortieth birthday?  As I can easily imagine answers to this question, I can readily see that I may never be able to actually answer it, the true information having been lost in time.

On the other hand, "Why does anything exist at all?" seems so absolutely impossible that I can infer that I am just confused, one way or another, and the truth probably isn't all that complicated in an absolute sense, and once the confusion goes away I'll be able to see it.

This may seem counterintuitive if you've never solved an unanswerable question, but I assure you that it is how these things work.

Coming tomorrow:  A simple trick for handling "wrong questions".

 

Part of the sequence Reductionism

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Some people were talking about The Ship of Theseus -- the question "If a ship's parts are replaced one-by-one over time, after each part is replaced is it still the same ship?" First thing that came to my mind was that this was a wrong question. I saw it fundamentally as the same mistake as the Blegg/Rube problem -- they know every property about the ship that's relevant to the question, and yet still there feels like a question left unanswered.

Am I right about this?

As I was putting the "free will" question to myself, I decided to re-frame it as "would an AI have free will" Answer: obviously not, it's an optimization process. Then I thought: an AI is different from a trivial arithmetic solver, the AI's search strategy is not fully determined by the goal. What would an AI be like whose strategy was wholly undetermined? It would thrash around randomly. So, insight: the uncertainty in our strategy is another name for our ignorance of the search domain. At the one end, zero information, total randomness. At the other, full information, determinism. In the middle, a "free" (meaning: ignorant) choice of search strategies which corresponds to the feeling of free will.

Interesting corollary: more knowledgeable people must be less free. To them, strategies we might try are obviously useless.

more knowledgeable people must be less free.

Larry Niven plays with this idea in Protector... the idea being that if you're really smart, the right solution presents itself so rapidly that you simply don't have any choices.

I suspect this is nonsense in any practical sense. Sure, any increase in intelligence will force you to close off some options which you now realize are bogus, but it will likely also make you aware of options you weren't previously able to recognize.

In my own experience, increased understanding leads to a net gain of options. Perhaps the curve is hyperbolic, but if so I live on the ascending slope.

Do you feel any less free because it never occurs to you to bash your head against a wall, or slit your throat with a steak knife?

I certainly don't; it would be a terrible inconvenience to have to go through all the really stupid options of things I could do at any given moment before arriving at the reasonable ones.

How much more so, then, for a superintelligence; it does not have to wonder about the stupid questions we humans often ask, but instead can focus on the really interesting decisions that remain to be made. (If you imagine that the space of possible decisions is finite, perhaps it could run out eventually... but my sense is that no intelligence small enough to fit in our universe can run out of possible decisions in our universe.)

"Do you know, can you comprehend, what freedom it gives you if you have no choice? Do you know what it means to be able to choose so swiftly and surely that to all intents and purposes you have no choice? The choice that you make, your decision, is based on such positive knowledge that the second alternative may as well not exist."

-- Rafael Lefort, "The Teachers of Gurdjieff", ch. XIV

Quoted before here.

When you have a purpose, you must act to achieve it. If you do not, you did not have that purpose.

If you are driving a car, you are not free to do anything you like with the steering wheel. You must use it to direct the car along your intended route.

You are only faced with choosing when you do not know the right choice. When you do know, you no longer have that choice. You cannot make your choice and have it still.

It does occasionally occur to me to kill myself, and in my really bad periods I do experience myself as prevented from choosing an eminently desirable path by my own earlier precommitments. But that's neither here nor there.

Leaving the particulars aside... if there exists some question Q such that intelligence I1 finds Q difficult to answer and I2 finds Q easy to answer because I2 is a superintelligence with respect to I1, then I2 may well at some point consider Q, answer Q, and then move on to the next thing. Or, of course, it might never do so, depending on the relevance of Q to anything that occurs to I2.... as you say, the space of possible decisions is enormous.

I fail to see what follows from this. Can you unpack your thinking a bit, here?

The screwy concept in "Why does anything exist at all?" is not existence, it is "why." There's nothing wrong with "why" as such, it just doesn't apply to existence. That's what makes for wrong questions: pairing up words that don't apply to each other, such as "What is the sound of blue?"

"Why" only applies when there is an alternative that could have been, but nothingness can't be (as soon as it tries it becomes something) so there's no alternative to existence.

Hal, in effect you're saying "Our world exists because it is an information pattern, and all information patterns exist". But why do they all exist?

"to what extent was underconsumption the cause of the Great Depression?"

Tabooing the word "cause", one finds that this question is a disguise for something like "Given the economic data of the period immediately preceding the Great Depression, can we prevent an economic collapse by making sure we don't underconsume?"

Latanius: I was including the issue of subjective experience. As in "Why is there any subjective experience at all?" ie, why is there ANYTHING, including subjective experience. Your answer doesn't leave me with a "okay, now the question has been answered" sense.

Actually, as near as I can tell, you're trying to answer a different question, specifically, it looks like you're trying to address the question of "how do I know my experiences in any way correlate with the Real World(tm)? Maybe I'm just hallucinating everything? Maybe there's nothing but dreams?" etc etc etc...

The question at hand is more "why is there anything? At all. Including subjective experience. ie, how is it that there's something at all other than, well, nothing?"

Maybe the question is deconstructable, but it doesn't seem like it's been deconstructed here yet.

Alternate form of the question, used by some physicists: "What breaths fire into the equations?" Great, there're some equations that are good at describing reality. Are they so compelling that there actualy need be a reality/set of subjective experiences/whatever for them to describe?

It may be just some form of mental confusion on my part. But as of yet, it sure seems like a real question to me.

Ian: I don't follow. Why is it that there simply couldn't have been, well, nothing at all. No reality of any form in any way at all in any sense existing. No subjective experiences and nothing to experience and no one to do the experiencing?

Just... nothing.

So I'm not sure the "why" question is invalid for existance. Sure seems like a reasonable question. In other words, how is it that you figure that the question of existance is such that "why?" or "how is it that existance came to exist?" or "how is it that anything at all exists?" or any question of that form is invalid?

Jason Brennan,

Suppose the state of how-the-world-is is that over time, beings with certain biased decision-making algorithms have evolved. As products of evolution, the algorithms are pretty good for making sure the beings running them have offspring, but are less good at obtaining representations of the "true" state of the world or at processing complex information. Such beings are likely to form queries which contain false assumptions, category errors, or other flaws.

How do you apply this approach to questions like "to what extent was underconsumption the cause of the Great Depression?" No conceivable experiment could answer such a question, even given a time machine (unlike, say, "Who shot JFK?") but I think such questions are nevertheless important to our understanding of what to do next.

The best answer I have to such questions is to posit experiments in which we rewind history to a particular date, and re-run it a million times, performing some specific miracle (such as putting money into a billion carefully-chosen wallets) on half a million of those occasions, and gather statistics on how the miracle affects economic indicators.

I have a somewhat better way. Place economics on a sufficiently rigorous empirical foundation, so that it is (let us say) somewhere near the level of quantum physics.

Having done this (monumental) task, we can now answer questions about historical events in economics as well as we can answer questions about historical events in physics---e.g. "Why is that laser red?" "Why did those interference fringes form here and not there?"

Psy-Kosh: "So I'm not sure the "why" question is invalid for existance. Sure seems like a reasonable question. In other words, how is it that you figure that the question of existance is such that "why?" or "how is it that existance came to exist?" or "how is it that anything at all exists?" or any question of that form is invalid?"

I believe that, like all concepts, we get "why" by abstracting away from our experiences in this universe, and that it is therefore this universe that gives the concept it's meaning. It doesn't make sense to step outside the universe to compare it to another alternative universe beside it and try an use concepts from our universe in that space. They don't have any meaning there.

Psy-Kosh: Maybe I really tried to approach the meaning of the question from the direction of subjective experience. But I think that the concept of "existence" includes that there is some observer who can decide if that thing we're talking about does really exist or doesn't, given his/her stable existence.

Maybe that's why the question can't be easily answered (and maybe has no answer at all) because the concept of "world" includes us as well. So if we want to predict something about the existence of the world (that is what the word "why" means, I think), we haven't observe anything: it's a logical truth that any world in which this question is asked really does exist.

But if we statisfy the two assumptions in the question (the existence of the world is observable by us, and is repeatable, so we can make predictions about it), it starts to make sense, but it becomes less mysterious somehow. Some possible answers: because the previous one did already collapse in an anti-big-bang, I've just seen that..., or we usually have to wait for it to recreate itself, therefore nothing exists right now... Or it exists because I was bored and created a new one, or maybe because I was bored and started Half-Life (which also fits our new world-concept in some way)... etc.

And... physical equations are definitely something which differ from nothing. Some rules for a... world... But I think if something is becoming so blurry like the concept of "world" just now, we better ask what subsystem in our mind is applied for the wrong problem, and what are those problems which it is intended to solve.

Psy-Kosh: let's Taboo "exist" then... What does it exactly mean? For me, it's something like "I have some experiences, whose cause is best modeled by imagining some discrete object in the outer world". The existence or non-existence of something affects what I will feel next.

Some further expansions: "why": how can I predict one experience from another? "world": all the experiences we have? (Modeled as a discrete object... But I can't really imagine what can be modeled by the fact that there is no world.)

So the question "why does our world exist" becomes something like "what is the experience from which we can predict we will have any experiences at all... Sounds a little bit more controversial than the original.

By the way, have we tried this transformation in the opposite direction? Turning the question "what is the sound of blue" to one which seems to make sense...

I can take a shot at a couple of these. For free will, suppose it turns out that neural activity is not fully determined by mechanistic principles, but is in some cases determined by thermal/quantum noise. And yet, it turns out that out of that noise, certain neural activity patterns appear seemingly magically. Neurons A, B and C fire together to make a decision, even though the most detailed investigation shows that whether they would fire or not was purely random. And yet these correlations appear persistently, too often for random statistical correlations to explain, and correspond to our subjective feelings of free will. A likely model is that there is another, otherwise inaccessible, realm which is influencing neural activity and that the brain is a specially-tuned "receiver" designed to amplify quantum chaos into determinate action. The free will comes from this other realm.

For why anything exists at all, one possibility is the Tegmark/Schmidhuber model where the universe is pure information, part of a much larger information world which has Platonic existence. In this concept, all information patterns and "information objects" have a form of existence, and sufficiently complex information objects look like universes such as the one we observe. These models then aim to impose a measure on information patterns, making some more prominent than others. Suppose these theories can be developed to the point that this measure can be computed, and it turns out to predict that there is by far one highest-measure information pattern which includes conscious entities. And further, that that information pattern corresponds in 100% agreement to our universe, even to the point where it computes that we ourselves, we human beings, are by far the most prominent conscious information patterns in the informational multiverse. Then I think this would be a very strong candidate for an explanation of why anything exists, and in particular why the observed universe and we observers exist.

I find that all questions fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. Well defined: These questions are clear, and contain all the basic information you need to answer them, with little or no need to infer what the questioner meant. Word problems are a good example, and so is someone asking for directions or asking what you would like for dinner.

  2. Poorly defined: These are problems that you don't know how to solve, at least at first. Maybe you have to learn what the questioner means, or maybe you have to acquire some fundamental understanding in order to evaluate several possible methods of coming to a solution. Most engineering R&D problems fit in this box, but other examples include the chicken/egg problem and asking whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound.

  3. What is the square root of a potato: At least that's how I've always described such questions to people. These are questions that are so poorly defined that they are demonstrably completely incoherent. There is no possible way of interpreting these questions which could possibly have an answer. It's when a question is "not even wrong". This seems quite similar to what Yudkowsky is describing here, although maybe he is referring to things somewhere between #2 and #3. I guess you could create a spectrum running from #1 to #3 type questions, but I've found that problems tend to fall pretty neatly into these 3 categories, so I haven't found it useful to think of them as lying along a spectrum.

And if that seems too easy, then ask "Why does anything exist at all?", and then tell me what a satisfactory answer to that question would even look like.

And no, I don't know the answer to that last one. But I can guess one thing, based on my previous experience with unanswerable questions. The answer will not consist of some grand triumphant First Cause. The question will go away as a result of some insight into how my mental algorithms run skew to reality, after which I will understand how the question itself was wrong from the beginning—how the question itself assumed the fallacy, contained the skew.

Yup, basically. See

The fact that this linked to a PDF that wasn't behind a paywall made me very happy... It looks interesting. Currently converting the saved .pdf to .epub and putting it on my iPhone for later reading. Thanks!

OK, firstly, I'm curious as to whether the question actually feels dissolved to you now?

Secondly, that linked ... piece ... is terrible. Really terrible. I wrote a truly marvelous rebuttal, which this comment box is too small to contain, partly because I was quoting heavily and partly because there's just so much wrongness. I'll probably stick it in Discussion.

The question certainly feels dissolved. Maitzen's basic argument reads like a reasonable one to me: either the questioner supplies some actual semantic content for the word "anything" in "Why is there anything?", or they don't. If they do, the question presumably has a naturalistic answer (even if science don't know that answer). If they don't, the question's ill-posed, and dissipates in a cloud of underspecification. (Strictly speaking, only the latter counts as dissolving the question, but then it's only the latter form of the question that ties people up in philosophical knots, so I'm counting it.)

Of course, the argument might be really terrible even though it passes my smell test. I'll keep an eye out in Discussion for your counterargument.

The question certainly feels dissolved.

Huh. Fair enough.

Maitzen's basic argument reads like a reasonable one to me: either the questioner supplies some actual semantic content for the word "anything" in "Why is there anything?", or they don't. If they do, the question presumably has a naturalistic answer (even if science don't know that answer). If they don't, the question's ill-posed, and dissipates in a cloud of underspecification. (Strictly speaking, only the latter counts as dissolving the question, but then it's only the latter form of the question that ties people up in philosophical knots, so I'm counting it.)

Well, here's my counter-dissolution rephrasing: "Why is there everything? Including the things you assume exist when providing a naturalistic explanation of, say, penguins?"

Of course, the argument might be really terrible even though it passes my smell test. I'll keep an eye out in Discussion for your counterargument.

As you know, I actually ended up posting a pared-down version here, but I would have posted a link here anyway.

If someone asks me a question too general for me to answer in a non-facile way, like "Why do people do what they do?" or "Why do we make buildings out of the materials we make them out of?" or "Why do we write with the things we write with?", I have two basic strategies I can adopt if I want to answer it.

One option is I can try to answer the question in its general form, which generally results in facile non-answers, like "Because of their various properties and the constraints of their environment," which turns out to answer all three of those questions equally well (or poorly).

Or I can try to replace the general question with a series of representative specific questions, which I then try to answer, in the hopes of either thereby jointly exhausting the original set, or of thereby finding a general strategy for answering specific questions that I'm confident can be applied to members of the original set as I encounter them.

Of course, someone smarter than me might be able to skip the specific-questions stage altogether and construct such a general strategy or itemized explanation solely by analyzing the general question... but if I'm not that smart, I'm not that smart.

If someone responds to the break-it-down-to-specifics strategy by insisting that the specific questions are irrelevant, the way Maitzen describes , they are in effect asking me a question and then refusing to let me try and answer it. I have no problem saying that their question is meaningless, because they are asking it meaninglessly.

That said, I agree with you that the question needn't be meaningless. Someone who doesn't approach it the way Maitzen's foolish interlocutor does could ask it meaningfully.

So, OK. You ask:

"Why is there everything? Including the things you assume exist when providing a naturalistic explanation of, say, penguins?"

If I try to answer that question generally, I get "Everything that exists, exists as a consequence of the way everything that existed a moment earlier existed, and all of that stuff existed as a consequence of the way everything existed a moment before that, and so on and so on." Which is unsatisfyingly general, as expected, but accurate enough. (Or, to quote Lorraine Hansberry: "Things as they are are as they are and have been and will be that way because they got that way because things were as they were in the first place!")

If I want a more satisfying answer, I either ask someone much smarter than me, or I start breaking it down into particulars. Why are there penguins? If my answer to that assumes that A exists, why is (or was) there A? Etc., etc., etc. In the hope of thereby finding a general strategy for answering specific "Why is there X?" questions that I'm confident can be applied to everything that exists.

Would you disagree with any of the above?

Would you disagree with any of the above?

'fraid so.

One option is I can try to answer the question in its general form, which generally results in facile non-answers, like "Because of their various properties and the constraints of their environment," which turns out to answer all three of those questions equally well (or poorly).

I think it would be more helpful to explain why the properties and constraints of their environments led to the actual result, wouldn't it? Rather than describing what kind of explanation how a result might have, in general terms.

For example, buildings are made out of the materials we make them out of because we choose materials that won't collapse, people do what they do because (insert general theory of psychology here) and so on and so forth.

Or I can try to replace the general question with a series of representative specific questions, which I then try to answer, in the hopes of either thereby jointly exhausting the original set, or of thereby finding a general strategy for answering specific questions that I'm confident can be applied to members of the original set as I encounter them.

Of course, someone smarter than me might be able to skip the specific-questions stage altogether and construct such a general strategy or itemized explanation solely by analyzing the general question... but if I'm not that smart, I'm not that smart.

Apparently I'm even less smart, because I have no idea what you're saying here :(

You ask:

"Why is there everything? Including the things you assume exist when providing a naturalistic explanation of, say, penguins?"

If I try to answer that question generally, I get "Everything that exists, exists as a consequence of the way everything that existed a moment earlier existed, and all of that stuff existed as a consequence of the way everything existed a moment before that, and so on and so on." Which is unsatisfyingly general, as expected, but accurate enough. (Or, to quote Lorraine Hansberry: "Things as they are are as they are and have been and will be that way because they got that way because things were as they were in the first place!")

Right, but I'm asking for an explanation of that whole stack of turtles - not how an individual turtle stays up, or even how every turtle stays up, but why the universe is not in the counterfactual no-turtle state.

Maitzen makes a similar argument, which I rebutted in my earlier comment:

The closest he comes to answering the actual question is this...

At this point, defenders of supernaturalism might counter that naturalistic explanations must ultimately bottom out at brute, unexplained posits. But I see no reason naturalistic explanations can’t go forever deeper. One bad reason for concluding that they can’t is the notion that x can’t explain y unless x itself is self explanatory. I don’t see that notion as at all implied by our ordinary concept of explanation, which allows that x can explain y even if something else altogether explains x. Moreover, there are grounds for thinking that naturalistic explanations not only could but must go forever deeper. A common attitude among scientists is that the more they discover, the more there is yet to discover—the more they know, the more they realize they don’t know—a pattern there’s no reason to think won’t continue indefinitely. Indeed, scientific discoveries routinely raise at least as many questions as they answer. Biologists have described some 80,000 species of roundworm, for example, but suspect there might be a million species. More generally, having discovered organisms in places they didn’t think could support life, biologists now worry that they lack even a rough idea of the total number of species; knowing more shows us we know less than we thought we knew. Furthermore, history teaches, just when some scientists begin to think the explanatory end is in sight, a revolution comes along to open domains of further inquiry. Maxwell gives way to Planck and Einstein, and Hilbert gives way to Go¨del. Jonathan Schaffer usefully catalogues several other examples of this kind.

... which, naturally, misses the point. Yes, we can imagine something infinitely old and fractally complex existing - although there may be some technical reason why it's impossible, I don't know of any - but we can also, counterfactually, imagine it not existing, and declaring it's turtles all the way down does not explain why this counterfactual is not true (in fact, I think it probably is true, because blah blah complexity bah blah Occam's Razor.)

f I want a more satisfying answer, I either ask someone much smarter than me, or I start breaking it down into particulars. Why are there penguins? If my answer to that assumes that A exists, why is (or was) there A? Etc., etc., etc. In the hope of thereby finding a general strategy for answering specific "Why is there X?" questions that I'm confident can be applied to everything that exists.

The usual naturalist strategy for this is to describe how other things that exist result in X, but of course this fails when applied to everything that exists.

For example, buildings are made out of the materials we make them out of because we choose materials that won't collapse,

But that simply isn't an adequate explanation for why we build materials out of the materials we make them out of.

This can be easily demonstrated by listing the materials that go into the construction of any building in your town and ranking those materials by how resistant to collapse they are. You will find that lots of the materials involved -- glass, gypsum board, fiberglass insulation, etc, etc, etc. -- are not resistant to collapse; we pick those materials for other reasons.

Of course, someone might complain that I'm being unfair here... of course "because they won't collapse" isn't an explanation of why we choose all the materials we build buildings with, just why we choose sturdy materials like wood or metal or cement to build the framework of a building. Duh.

And, well, yes, this is precisely my point. If I want to usefully answer a question like "Why do we make buildings out of the materials we make them out of?" the most satisfying way to do so is to break it down into more specific questions. "We build frameworks out of these materials because..." "We build windows out of these materials because..." "We build interior walls out of these materials because..." and so forth.

And if someone interrupts us to impatiently say "No, no, no, I don't want to hear about frameworks and windows and interior walls, I asked about buildings!!! I want to know why we build buildings out of the materials we build them out of!!! All parts of a building!!!" all we can really do is encourage them to be less impatient, because we can't usefully answer the question the way they insist on having it answered.

Of course, someone smarter than me might be able to skip the specific-questions stage altogether and construct such a general strategy or itemized explanation solely by analyzing the general question... but if I'm not that smart, I'm not that smart.
Apparently I'm even less smart, because I have no idea what you're saying here :(

Well, for example, suppose Sam asks me "how do I choose what kinds of wine go with what kinds of main course?" I might reply "Well, if I'm serving beef, I serve these wines, and if I'm serving fish, I serve those wines," etc etc etc.

Then Sam, who is much much smarter than me, looks at all of that and goes "Oh! I see. The general rule is to calculate at the ratio between the alcohol content and the tannin content expressed in these units, take that number mod 7, then take the numeric equivalent of the first letter of the main ingredient of the dish in German and take that mod 7, and match wines to dishes based on those two matching numbers."

And I stare incredulously at Sam, perform that calculation for a bunch of main dishes and wines, and ultimately say "Holy crap! You're right!" And Sam says "Of course. Say, why did you choose to answer the question in such a piecemeal way? It seems inefficient."

To which the only answer I can give is "Because I'm not nearly as smart as you are, Sam."

Right, but I'm asking for an explanation of that whole stack of turtles - not how an individual turtle stays up, or even how every turtle stays up, but why the universe is not in the counterfactual no-turtle state.

Right.

And again, my only choices when answering such a general question are:

(1) Be uselessly general ("Things as they are are as they are and have been and will be that way because they got that way because things were as they were in the first place!")
(2) Approach the general question by breaking it down into specifics ("Turtle #1 stays up because of Turtle #2. Turtle #2 stays up because of Turtle #3. Etc."; "We build frameworks out of these materials and windows out of _these materials and etc,")
(3) Be really really smart and come up with a general explanation ("The way you pick a wine is...")

(Of course, another option is the one you adopted for buildings: "we choose materials that won't collapse". Which has the unfortunate defect of being false. The same has historically been true of general theories of human psychology. But, sure, someone really really smart could articulate an accurate general theory here, as per approach #3.)

#3 is obviously preferable, but if I'm not smart enough to do it, I'm not smart enough to do it, in which case #2 is usually my best option.

And if someone impatiently says "No, no, no, I don't want to hear about turtle 1 and turtle 2 and turtle 3, I asked about the stack of turtles!!! I want to know how the stack stays up!!! The whole stack!!!" all I can really do is encourage them to be less impatient, because I can't usefully answer the question the way they insist on having it answered.

"Oh! I see. The general rule is to calculate at the ratio between the alcohol content and the tannin content expressed in these units, take that number mod 7, then take the numeric equivalent of the first letter of the main ingredient of the dish in German and take that mod 7, and match wines to dishes based on those two matching numbers."

http://xkcd.com/1155/ :-)

I spent an embarrassingly long time after that xkcd trying to devise "compact" directions to my house from various places.

And if someone interrupts us to impatiently say "No, no, no, I don't want to hear about frameworks and windows and interior walls, I asked about buildings!!! I want to know why we build buildings out of the materials we build them out of!!! All parts of a building!!!" all we can really do is encourage them to be less impatient, because we can't usefully answer the question the way they insist on having it answered.

Well, I suppose the answer in that case is really to point to our cognitive alogorithms and say "because they say those are the correct materials" ;)

Then Sam, who is much much smarter than me, looks at all of that and goes "Oh! I see. The general rule is to calculate at the ratio between the alcohol content and the tannin content expressed in these units, take that number mod 7, then take the numeric equivalent of the first letter of the main ingredient of the dish in German and take that mod 7, and match wines to dishes based on those two matching numbers."

Well, sure, if you don't know the answer you can't answer; and if you only know a needlessly complex answer, naturally that's the best answer you can give. I'm not sure how that bears on the questions, though.

Right.

And again, my only choices when answering such a general question are:

(1) Be uselessly general ("Things as they are are as they are and have been and will be that way because they got that way because things were as they were in the first place!") (2) Approach the general question by breaking it down into specifics ("Turtle #1 stays up because of Turtle #2. Turtle #2 stays up because of Turtle #3. Etc.") (3) Be really really smart and come up with a general explanation ("The way you pick a wine is...")

#3 is obviously preferable, but if I'm not smart enough to do it, I'm not smart enough to do it, in which case #2 is usually my best option.

And if someone impatiently says "No, no, no, I don't want to hear about turtle 1 and turtle 2 and turtle 3, I asked about the stack of turtles!!! I want to know how the stack stays up!!! The whole stack!!!" all I can really do is encourage them to be less impatient, because I can't usefully answer the question the way they insist on having it answered.

But we have all three "types" of answer as far as I can see, and they're all answering a different question - talking about internal structure of the pile rather than how it got there.

(1) "Turtles are held up by other turtles below them."

(2) "The top turtle is supported by the second-from-the-top turtle; the second-from-the-top turtle is supported by the third-from-the-top turtle; the third-from-the-top turtle is supported by the fourth-from-the-top turtle ..." and so on ad infinitum.

(3) "It's an infinite stack of turtles, each held up by the one below it."

What we really want is (4) "We live in a thought experiment and infinite turtles is a common metaphor for recursive buck-passing."

Well, I suppose the answer in that case is really to point to our cognitive alogorithms and say "because they say those are the correct materials" ;)

Sure. Which is an equally good (or poor) answer to "Why do we write on the materials we write on?"

What we really want is (4) "We live in a thought experiment and infinite turtles is a common metaphor for recursive buck-passing."

(shrug) If I were actually looking at the stack of turtles, and Sam gave me answer #4 I would stare incredulously at Sam. If he then gave me grounds for believing #4 and I confirmed it, I would ultimately say "Holy crap! You're right!" And if Sam said "Of course. Say, why did you choose to answer the question in such a piecemeal way as #2? It seems inefficient." the only answer I could give would be "Because I'm not nearly as smart as you are, Sam."

Which is to say, your #4 is part of my #3.

Your #3 is also part of my #3, in that if I were in that world staring at the stack of turtles, I would not be smart enough to infer that it's an infinite stack of turtles... on what grounds would I conclude that? But Sam's sibling Pat, who is not quite as smart as Sam, might somehow just know the stack was infinite rather than merely longer than I was able to see.

None of which changes the fact that if I'm not as smart as Sam or Pat, the best I can do is #2. And if someone interrupts #2 by saying "no, no, no, I don't care about the turtles, I'm asking about the stack!", they are asking a question and refusing to listen to the best answer I'm capable of offering. They would do better to ask someone smarter, like Sam or Pat. And if nobody smart enough to give answer #3 is available, they do best to either listen to my answer, or give up on the question.

Sure. Which is an equally good (or poor) answer to "Why do we write on the materials we write on?"

Yup. To be fair, it's also pretty much useless unless I can actually explain how said cognitive alogarithm works.

Your #3 is also part of my #3, in that if I were in that world staring at the stack of turtles, I would not be smart enough to infer that it's an infinite stack of turtles... on what grounds would I conclude that? But Sam's sibling Pat, who is not quite as smart as Sam, might somehow just know the stack was infinite rather than merely longer than I was able to see.

To be fair, if there's a literal infinitely-high stack of turtles, I'm not even sure where you're standing, let alone how you can observe it's length. Maybe Sam's just familiar with the anecdote?

Which is to say, your #4 is part of my #3.

I still think #4 is distinct from #3, because it explains the presence of the stack as well as it's internal structure - which is what was being asked, originally. No amount of #2 will ever replace #4, because they answer different questions. Still, I suppose it sort of implies #3, so #3 is a subelement of #4, at that.

Anyway, we seem to have reached agreement that there is something I'm looking for that #2 does not provide, which will likely require someone smarter than either of us to solve. So I guess the Question stands as, well, an open question.

if there's a literal infinitely-high stack of turtles, I'm not even sure ... how you can observe it's lengt

My assumption was that I can't observe its length, since I can't observe infinite quantities. Hell, I can't even observe a ten-mile-long stack of turtles without artificial aids.

That said, I can infer the length of a stack of turtles by any number of means, even if I can't observe it in its entirety. And if my world contained infinite stacks of turtles, there might well be ways to infer the length of such a stack. Beats me what they might be, but then I'm not as smart as Pat.

Maybe Sam's just familiar with the anecdote?

That would hardly be compelling grounds for believing I exist inside a thought experiment.

we seem to have reached agreement that there is something I'm looking for that #2 does not provide, which will likely require someone smarter than either of us to solve.

Well, yes and no. I think you're disregarding the many, many real-world cases in which starting down the path of #2 leads me to a real understanding of the situation. For example, if I pick a turtle and start climbing down, I might discover that after 3,456,338 turtles there's an elephant who is walking along on empty space, and the stack isn't infinite after all. And now I know what holds the turtles up.

Of course, I can now ask what holds the elephant up, but that's a different question, and all the same considerations come into play.

If I don't know ahead of time that the problem is infinite and unbounded (and how would I know that?), I don't know that strategy #2 won't answer it. Though of course, being smarter than I am and therefore having more useful insights is always helpful.

Maybe Sam's just familiar with the anecdote?

That would hardly be compelling grounds for believing I exist inside a thought experiment.

I'm just using a time-honored technique for simulating characters smarter than me: cheat like crazy. See also: Sherlock Holmes.

Well, yes and no. I think you're disregarding the many, many real-world cases in which starting down the path of #2 leads me to a real understanding of the situation.

Oh, absolutely. I just meant that such understanding wouldn't look like #2.

Of course, I can now ask what holds the elephant up, but that's a different question, and all the same considerations come into play.

Arguably, it's a special case of "what holds [list of 3,456,338 turtles] up?" Returning to the original question of which this is a metaphor, momentarily, the elephant would be roughly equivalent to the Big Bang.

Sherlock Holmes is a lousy simulation of a hyperintelligent theorist, FWIW. But OK, if you're just talking about fictional characters, then most of my objections are moot.

such understanding wouldn't look like #2.

Agreed.

Arguably, it's a special case of "what holds [list of 3,456,338 turtles] up?"

At the #2-level, it's not. But you're right that at the #3 level, it could easily be.

Incidentally, it's not a stack of 3,456,338 turtles, it's just a stack that bottoms out 3,456,338 turtles down from where I started.

the elephant would be roughly equivalent to the Big Bang

Or something like that, yeah.

Sherlock Holmes is a lousy simulation of a hyperintelligent theorist, FWIW.

Cheap to run, though, computationally speaking.

Incidentally, it's not a stack of 3,456,338 turtles, it's just a stack that bottoms out 3,456,338 turtles down from where I started.

Well, in the original anecdote the stack topped out with a (precariously balanced?) flat Earth, so I just sort of assumed you started at the top. In bastardised mathematical terms, it's usually a ray, and finding a bottom makes it a line segment.

At the #2-level, it's not. But you're right that at the #3 level, it could easily be.

Well, it's a matter of detail, isn't it? If I already understand brains, pointing to the cognitive alogarithm is sufficient; if I already understand the Big Bang, tracing history back to it is sufficient; if I already understand how elephants stay up, following the turtles down to one is sufficient.

I think at this point the question in play is "What was the First Cause?", rather than "Why is there anything?", and the two are distinct for practical purposes. Bill Maher might get hung up on the second, but I'd be surprised if he got hung up on the first, given that it's such an old argument against naturalism.

What justifies my saying that we've ended up at the cosmological argument? I think it follows from accepting Maitzen's dissolution. There's a chain of turtles, and we'd like to explain the chain. Maitzen points out that instead of trying to explain the chain in itself, we need only explain each individual turtle. Once you or I accept Maitzen's argument we just have to explain the first turtle, because every subsequent turtle is explained by its predecessor. And asking "what explains the first turtle?" (with the implication that the first turtle, or whatever implicit zeroth turtle hides behind it, is supernatural) is pretty much the cosmological argument. Granted, Maitzen doesn't address that argument in his essay, but I don't see a problem with that; it's a separate argument IMO with its own well-known counterarguments.

Well, we're mostly discussing Maitzen's answer to the of the First Cause, the Infinitely Old Universe. Unless a First Cause is somehow (magic?) self-explanatory, it doesn't answer the question of "Why is there anything?" - but the same applies if you replace a First Cause with an infinite string of causes, or even a future cause + time travel.

I disagree. If I go looking for a First Cause and discover an infinite string of causes instead, that's reality's way of telling me that there just isn't a First Cause, and the premise of my investigation was simply wrong. Equivalently, then, discovering an infinite string of causes indicates that the question "What is the First Cause?" (and hence "Why is there anything?", since that question reduces to the First Cause question once one accepts Maitzen's argument) is a wrong question, since it hinges on a false premise.

"What is the First Cause?" is not the same question as "Why is there anything?". An infinite string would answer the former, not the latter.

"What is the First Cause?" is not the same question as "Why is there anything?".

This is true in the absence of further assumptions. But once you or I assume Maitzen's argument is true (and I think we both do) the second becomes a mere instantiation of the first.

An infinite string would answer the former, not the latter.

This is false if Maitzen's argument is true. Conditional on Maitzen's argument, an infinite string answers the former and hence the latter. I could justify this by repeating what I've written in my two comments upthread, but it might be more productive if I give a different argument.

How do we usually answer "Why is there X?"? I think we usually pick out X's most salient cause. "Why is there an ambulance outside my neighbour's house?" "Because the neighbour had a heart attack." We're basically saying, "here's the most interesting antecedent node in the causal graph, and had we deleted or substantially altered it, there wouldn't have been X". If we'd deleted the "neighbour's heart attack" node, there wouldn't be an "ambulance outside neighbour's house" node.

This gives me a way to interpret "What's the First Cause?", or "Why is there anything?", or "Why is there everything?", or "Why isn't the universe in the counterfactual no-turtle state?" (to paraphrase you). These questions are asking for a node in the causal graph that's antecedent to everything. But how can I do that if the causal graph is an infinitely long string? There's no such node!

There is still the question of why there is an infinitely long string.

That question fails in the same way as the others. It's asking for a causal node which, if altered or deleted, would turn the infinite string of causal nodes into a finite one. But no node in an infinitely long string has that power, so the question's implicit assumption is false.

A why question has more possible anwers than efficient causality.

This might be true of "Why" questions in general but I'm talking about the more specific class of questions that start "Why is there". Can you think of examples of the latter that have a sensible answer that isn't a salient cause?

Sure. "Why are there airbags in cars" is answered with "to protect the occupants". it would be inane to give a a causal answer, such as "because someone fitted airbags".

"Why are there airbags in cars" is answered wit "to protect the occupants". it would be inane to give a a causal answer, such as "because someone fitted airbags".

"to protect the occupants" is merely syntactically simpler than "because of the builder's desire to protect the occupants." -- the two statements equally well indicate causality.

To be fair, this could be phrased as "because someone decided they were the best way to protect the occupants, and fitted them." However, I would define an answer to a "why is there" question more broadly - what explains why the universe is not in the counterfactual situation of this not being there? If you count any causal antecedent as an answer, you can't explain causal loops, and you can only explain parts of infinite chains, not the whole.

The paraphrase introduces some efficient causality without removing all the teleology.

what explains why the universe is not in the counterfactual situation of this not being there? If you count any causal antecedent as an answer, you can't explain causal loops, and you can only explain parts of infinite chains, not the whole.

The point I was making is that a preceding cause is not the only kind of answer to a "why" question.

The paraphrase introduces some efficient causality without removing all the teleology.

I'd say the causality was there all along and MugaSofer & ArisKatsaris just made it explicit. Causality can become teleology by operating through a mind, but it remains causal for all that.

There is some evidence of that within the universe, but it is not a conceptual identity. The big Why question could still have an answer that is irreducibly teleological. The universe as a whole has to have some unique properties.

There is some evidence of that within the universe, but it is not a conceptual identity.

Note that I think of teleology as a subset of causation rather than as coextensive with causation.

The big Why question could still have an answer that is irreducibly teleological.

I don't think I can imagine how this could work. A teleological answer to "why does the universe exist?" implies (at least to me) some goal-seeking agent that makes the universe happen, or orients it towards some particular end. But making stuff happen or pushing it in a particular direction is causality.

The universe as a whole has to have some unique properties.

I agree, but I don't see why the universe would have to be uniquely irreducibly teleological instead of, say, uniquely acausal (being the only entity that just springs into existence without a cause).

Note that I think of teleology as a subset of causation rather than as coextensive with causation.

Thinking in a certain way doesn't prove anything. The evidence for teleology being reducible to causality comes from within the universe, like the evidence for everything being finite, or for everything being contained in some larger structure.

I don't think I can imagine how [irreducible teleology] could work.

If you canno explain how agent-based causally-reducible teleology is the only possible kind, irreducible teleology remains a conceptual possibility.

I agree, but I don't see why the universe would have to be uniquely irreducibly teleologica

I doesn't. That is only one of the unique properties it could have.

Thinking in a certain way doesn't prove anything. The evidence for teleology being reducible to causality comes from within the universe, [...]

I don't think I can imagine how [irreducible teleology] could work.

If you canno explain how agent-based causally-reducible teleology is the only possible kind, irreducible teleology remains a conceptual possibility.

Yes. It's always possible for me to be simply wrong; something might exist even if I think that something is logically impossible. But (1) by induction from within-the-universe evidence, I find it very unlikely, and (2) even if I wanted to include irreducible teleology in my model, I wouldn't know how. So it's expedient for me to treat it as an impossibility. I'm content to agree to disagree with you on this one!

by induction from within-the-universe evidence, I find it very unlikely

That doesn't have any bearing at all. An inhabitant of an infinite universe could notice that every single thing in it is finite, but would be completely wrong in assuming that the universe they are in is finite.

even if I wanted to include irreducible teleology in my model, I wouldn't know how.

You take your assumption --which is presumable not justfiable apriori-- that the past causes the future, and invert it.

That doesn't have any bearing at all.

This sounds like just as much of an a priori assumption as my working assumption that it does have some bearing.

An inhabitant of an infinite universe could notice that every single thing in it is finite, but would be completely wrong in assuming that the universe they are in is finite.

Yes, induction can lead to incorrect conclusions. But this is not a very strong argument against any given induction.

You take your assumption --which is presumable not justfiable apriori-- that the past causes the future, and invert it.

I change my existing model so that the future causes the past within my model? I'm not sure how to do that either. I picture flipping the direction of every arrow in my causal graph, but that doesn't introduce any irreducible teleology; I'm still left with an ordinary causal graph when I finish.

Yes, induction can lead to incorrect conclusions. But this is not a very strong argument against any given induction.

Induction only ever works, inasmuch as it works, across tokens of the same type. Parts and wholes are almost always of different types. Trying to derive properties of wholes from properties of part is the fallacy of composition.

I would define an answer to a "why is there" question more broadly - what explains why the universe is not in the counterfactual situation of this not being there? If you count any causal antecedent as an answer, you can't explain causal loops, and you can only explain parts of infinite chains, not the whole.

I agree with you about this. (And also agree with you & ArisKatsaris's response to PrawnOfFate's airbag example.) I suspect we just differ in our reactions to this inability to explain: you think it's a bug while I think it's expected behaviour.

Any causal chain eventually has to (1) end, (2) loop back on itself, or (3) go on forever without looping. So it's inevitable that if I try to locate the universe's cause, I'll get a counterintuitive answer. I'll find that it either just sprang into existence without being caused, that it caused itself, or that there's a never-ending procession of turtles.

None of these feel like Real Explanations, but (at least?) one of them must be the case. So I already know, a priori, that the universe's causal chain has no Real Explanation. If I think one exists, that just means I've failed to notice my confusion. Asking "Why is there everything?" and its equivalents is a failure to notice confusion.

By time you are saying things like "Well I'm confused, but... ...and therefore, it must be the case that A, B, or C", you should worry that you have already baked your confusion into your formulation of the question.

What do you think you are confused about? You have grounds for thinking the question has no answer, but those are not per se grounds for thinking there was never a question.

What do you think you are confused about?

About the reason the universe exists. I'm using "confusion" as shorthand for not having an explanation that feels adequate on a gut level (which leads to a sensation of confusion), whether or not that confusion is justified.

You have grounds for thinking the question has no answer, but those are not per se grounds for thinking there was never a question.

I don't doubt the question's existence. I doubt the question is worth asking.

I don't doubt the question's existence. I doubt the question is worth asking.

Because?

Because I already know the three possible answers that question can have, and I already know none of them will feel adequate. As my only motivation for asking the question would be getting an answer that feels adequate, there's no point in asking it.

Realising that you can't answer it can set boundaries on your knowledge.

My conclusion that I can't answer it follows from my existing knowledge of those boundaries, however, so I don't learn novel boundaries from that conclusion.

None of these feel like Real Explanations, but (at least?) one of them must be the case.

Or there could be a fourth explanation neither of us has thought of.

Or there could be a fourth explanation neither of us has thought of.

"There could be an (n+1)th explanation neither of us has thought of" is a fully general counterargument to any argument by cases.

It's valid too. Which is one reason not to put p=1.0 on anything.

Most fully general counterarguments are valid, taken at face value. This does not mean they're worth giving much weight. For example, someone could answer any argument I post on LW with "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!" Which would be correct but rarely helpful.

Similarly, although I'm sympathetic to the idea of never assigning p=0 or p=1 to anything, any well-specified model I make is going to leave something out. So for me to make any inferences at all, I have to implicitly assign p=0 or p=1 to something. If I started throwing out models on that basis I'd have nothing left.

For example, someone could answer any argument I post on LW with "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!" Which would be correct but rarely helpful.

You don't know why that objection is wrong?

Because it is. It's not a valid argument we reject anyway, it's an invalid argument.

Most fully general counterarguments are valid, taken at face value.

There's an important difference between "valid" and "valid, taken at face value."

If the objection is invalid, answer it! Let your arguments screen off your labels.

You don't know why that objection is wrong? Because it is. It's not a valid argument we reject anyway, it's an invalid argument.

Alright, call it "invalid" and "wrong" if you like. I'm not trying to make some clever-clever semantic nitpick about the meanings of the words "valid" & "invalid"; I'm trying to communicate why "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!" is all but useless to me.

I'll try it again without using the words "valid" & "invalid": although the BS,IAPYAWAT! counterargument is literally true (which gives it a veneer of reasonable-soundingness) it rarely tells me anything new, because when I post something on LW I usually already know I could be wrong. Being told BS,IAPYAWAT! isn't substantial evidence for me being wrong, because someone can just as easily say it whether I'm wrong or not.

There's an important difference between "valid" and "valid, taken at face value."

Exactly.

If the objection is invalid, answer it! Let your arguments screen off your labels.

OK, gimme a sec.

I'll try it again without using the words "valid" & "invalid": although the BS,IAPYAWAT! counterargument is literally true (which gives it a veneer of reasonable-soundingness) it rarely tells me anything new, because when I post something on LW I usually already know I could be wrong.

Ah, I think I see.

Sat, we're not saying that the fact you might be wrong invalidates all arguments ever, because you can never be totally certain.

We're saying it invalidates the argument "X is wrong, therefore Y", unless you have a proof that X and Y are the only possibilities.

Sat, we're not saying that the fact you might be wrong invalidates all arguments ever, because you can never be totally certain.

I know. Nonetheless, if someone says to me "there could be an (n+1)th explanation neither of us has thought of" without elaborating, that does amount to a but-you-might-be-wrong-about-that argument (even if not intended as such).

We're saying it invalidates the argument "X is wrong, therefore Y", unless you have a proof that X and Y are the only possibilities.

I don't have a proof, just the plausibility argument I gave earlier. A plausibility argument is not a proof, but this plausibility argument is so straightforward I find it pretty convincing.

But - it doesn't matter how plausible your axioms are if they give paradoxical results! Is it really more plausible that there's an invisible flaw in our reasoning than that we've failed to think of another possibility?

Hell, there are unlimited possibilities! It could be a duck, for example. That doesn't make any sense as an answer, but neither do those three answers. So why are we privileging them?

But - it doesn't matter how plausible your axioms are if they give paradoxical results!

One way I differ is that the results don't feel paradoxical to me. They feel a bit counterintuitive, but not so much so that my internal paradox alarm goes off.

Is it really more plausible that there's an invisible flaw in our reasoning than that we've failed to think of another possibility?

I'll bite that bullet, sure.

Some people find quantum mechanics paradoxical because it directly contradicts a deep intuition that any & every physical object necessarily has to have an unambiguous position & velocity. That philosophical intuition is simply false; it's a flawed insistence that the universe conform to a flawed induction. The right course of action is to throw out the intuition, not the axioms, despite the apparently paradoxical results.

I think I'm applying the same basic decision rule here: when a robust formalism clashes with an informal, inductive philosophical intuition, let the formalism bulldoze the intuition.

I don't think the "intuition" that we probably didn't make a mistake in our proof is analogous to the "intuition" that objects have unambiguous positions & velocities.

More to the point, I could say the same thing about your "intuition" that there are no other possible explanations for the universe.

I don't think the "intuition" that we probably didn't make a mistake in our proof is analogous to the "intuition" that objects have unambiguous positions & velocities.

I agree! Maybe I made the analogy too ambiguous by trying to keep it concise. Being more explicit, here are four intuitions:

1A. There is an unambiguous position & velocity for every object.

1B. Every object obeys Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

2A. All concrete things have intelligible, psychologically satisfying explanations for what caused them to exist.

2B. Every causal chain must go on forever, have a loop, or bottom out in an uncaused cause.

I was drawing the analogy 2A:2B::1A:1B, rather than 2B:2A::1A:1B. 2B is backed by a straightforward, semi-formal plausibility argument (if not an outright formal proof); 2A is a gut-level induction from observing things in everyday life. 1B is backed by the formalism of QM; 1A is a gut-level induction from observing things in everyday life.

More to the point, I could say the same thing about your "intuition" that there are no other possible explanations for the universe.

I'd disagree, since 2B is backed by something at least resembling a formal argument, whereas 2A is backed by my gut insisting "it's just common sense!"

Except that my point isn't that 2B, true or false, is a statement about causal chains, not explanations. If it were rephrased as "everything is either explained by an "uncaused cause", a causal loop, or an infinite causal chain" we would see that it fails to address the question.

As for whether things need explanations ... if there's no reason for the way things are, why aren't they otherwise? Why am I still confused after hearing your answer?

I'm not sure I follow the first paragraph (the two sentences seem to contradict each other).

As for whether things need explanations ... if there's no reason for the way things are, why aren't they otherwise?

The answer to this, for me, follows from how I interpret "why are there"-type questions. If there's no reason why things are as they are, there's no counterfactual change that could have been made to render things "otherwise".

As a concrete example, I'm not allowed to ask "why didn't the Big Bang happen in some other way?" (if I understand orthodox cosmology correctly). There's no pre-Big Bang initial condition that could've been any different.

Let me rephrase this in terms of your strength as a rationalist: why are you not more confused by the fictional universe where something (could be the universe, could Hinduism, could be a magic indestructible rock) wasn't always there/created in a time loop? Compared to reality, that is?

These "explanations" are notable only in that they perfectly "explain" any possible state of reality.

I'm still not really following but I'll try to answer your question as best I can.

why are you not more confused by the fictional universe where something (could be the universe, could Hinduism, could be a magic indestructible rock) wasn't always there/created in a time loop?

And wasn't created by an infinite series of preceding things? (I'm guessing your question is intended to ask about a thing for which none of my 3 possibilities hold, and omitting one of those possibilities from your question was an oversight.) If so, I don't even know how to conceptualize that fictional thing in that fictional universe. So (at least in this respect) I am more confused by your hypothetical than by reality.

Why yes, yes it is. Arguing that someone else is wrong, therefore you are right is a well-known cheap debating trick.

Would you care to explain why I'm wrong, rather than sorting my argument into a low-status category?

Arguing that someone else is wrong, therefore you are right is a well-known cheap debating trick.

When I was complaining about the "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!" argument, I wasn't complaining about all arguments that have "you are wrong, satt, therefore I am right" as a conclusion. I'm only taking issue with people mumbling "well, have you ever considered you might be wrong?" without elaborating. There's nothing wrong with someone arguing I might be wrong about something. But they should at least give a hint as to why I'd be wrong.

Would you care to explain why I'm wrong, rather than sorting my argument into a low-status category?

In this case, "there could be a fourth explanation neither of us has thought of" amounts to saying "there could be a fourth possible terminal state for a causal chain". Well, sure, it's always possible. But why should I assign that possibility any substantial probability?

Causal chains are pretty basic, abstract objects — directed graphs. I'm not talking about a set of concrete objects, where a fourth example could be hiding somewhere in the physical world where no one can see it. I'm not talking about some abstruse mathematical object that's liable to have weird properties I'm not even aware of. I'm talking about boxes connected by arrows. If there were some fourth terminal state I could arrange them to have I'd expect to know about it.

What I've just said might be mistaken. But you haven't given any specifics as to where or how it goes wrong, so your comment is just another form of "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!", which doesn't help me.

When I was complaining about the "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!" argument, I wasn't complaining about all arguments that have "you are wrong, satt, therefore I am right" as a conclusion. I'm only taking issue with people mumbling "well, have you ever considered you might be wrong?" without elaborating. There's nothing wrong with someone arguing I might be wrong about something. But they should at least give a hint as to why I'd be wrong.

If someone demonstrates all the known options are wrong, that doesn't mean it's a wrong question, it means we don't have an answer yet.

What I've just said might be mistaken. But you haven't given any specifics as to where or how it goes wrong, so your comment is just another form of "but satt, it's always possible you are wrong about that!", which doesn't help me.

Allow me to elaborate.

Explanation A, "The buck stops here because it just does" is not an explanation. See "Explain, Worship, Ignore".

B & C, "It's always been there" and "It's in a causal loop" both fail to explain why the universe is not in another counterfactual state, and thus are not explanations, they are merely descriptions of the thing we are trying to explain.

Since the explanation cannot be A, B or C, it must be something other than A, B or C. (Almost a tautology, but worth stating explicitly.)

You are taking it as axiomatic that there are no other possible answers - which, indeed, has a high prior probability, since neither of us can think of any others. Thus, you conclude that there is something wrong with this argument.

I, on the other hand, feel that this little proof should cause us to update our prior that these are the only possibilities.

Does that answer your question?

If someone demonstrates all the known options are wrong, that doesn't mean it's a wrong question, it means we don't have an answer yet.

That's one possibility. Another is that a satisfactory answer doesn't exist because the question is just broken...but now we start going around in circles.

[elaboration snipped] Does that answer your question?

Not really; I still don't know why I shouldn't take it as axiomatic that there are no other possible answers. But you have nicely summarized what we disagree about.

That's one possibility. Another is that a satisfactory answer doesn't exist because the question is just broken...but now we start going around in circles.

Indeed.

I still don't know why I shouldn't take it as axiomatic that there are no other possible answers.

Well, if you're taking it as axiomatic, there's no argument I could make that could persuade you otherwise, right? So I guess I may as well tap out.

Still, at least we managed to pinpoint our disagreement, eh?

Still, at least we managed to pinpoint our disagreement, eh?

Wholly agreed!

If propositional calculus (simpler than it sounds is a good way of describing causality in the territory, I very much doubt there is a fourth option. If I'm doing logic right:

1.¬A is A's cause(1)∨A is A's cause (1)(By NOT-3)

2.A has a cause→ ¬A is A's cause(1)∨A is A's cause(1)(By THEN-1)

3.A has a cause→ ¬A is A's cause(1)∨A is A's cause(1)→A has a cause ∧¬A is A's cause(1)∨A is A's cause(1)(By AND-3)

4.A has a cause→A has a cause ∧¬A is A's cause(1)∨ A is A's cause(1)(Modus Ponens on 3)

  1. ¬A has a cause∨A has a cause⊢A has a cause ∧ A is A's cause(1)∨¬A is A's cause* (By NOT-3)

6.¬A has a cause∨A has a cause ∧ A is A's cause(1)∨¬A is A's cause(1)(Modus ponens on 5)

Which, translated back into English, means that something either has a cause apart from itself, is it's own cause*,or has no cause. If you apply "has a cause apart from itself" recursively, you end up with an infinite chain of causes. Otherwise, you have to go with "is it's own cause(1)", which means the causal chain loops back on itself or "has no cause" which means the causal chain ends.

Nothing thus far, to my knowledge, has been found to defy the axioms of PC, and thus, if PC were wrong, it would seem not only unsatisfying but downright crazy. I believe that I could make at least a thousand claims which I believe as strongly as "If the Universe defied the principles of logic, it would seem crazy to me." and be wrong at most once, so I assign at least a 99.9% probability to the claim that "Why is everything" has no satisfying answer if "It spontaneously sprang into being", "Causality is cyclical." and "an infinite chain of causes" are unsatisfying.

(1)Directly or indirectly

If propositional calculus (simpler than it sounds is a good way of describing causality in the territory, I very much doubt there is a fourth option. If I'm doing logic right:

A problem, or a strength, depending on the context, with this sort of argument is that it does not depend on the meaning of the phrase "X is caused by Y". Logically, any binary relation forms chains that are either infinite, lead to a cycle, or stop. If the words "X is caused by Y" indeed define a binary relation, then the argument tells you this fact about that relation.

If the concept being groped for with the words is vague, ill-defined, or confused, then the argument will be working from a wrong ontology, and the precision and soundness of the argument may distract from noticing that. Hume denied causation, in favour of correlation; Pearl asserts causation as distinct but as far as I can see takes it as unproblematic enough for his purposes to leave undefined. The discussion here suggests the concept of causation is still unclear. Or if there is a clear concept, people are still unclear what it is.

As I have stated elsewhere, we would still like to know why the universe is not in a counterfactual no-infinite-chain (or loop) state. If this cannot be answered with propositional calculus, then that's propositional calculus' fault for containing ontological paradoxes.

Note that this applies in all situations featuring infinite chains or loops, not merely those contaning everything that exists.

But once you or I assume Maitzen's argument is true (and I think we both do) the second becomes a mere instantiation of the first.

Sorry, which argument is this? He makes several.

The argument that once the elements in the string are individually explained, the string as a whole is explained.

Edit: maybe I should call it the Hume-Edwards principle instead.

Ah. Well, I agree with it in principle; I just think he misapplies it.

Have you seen Gods as Topological Invarients? Note the date submitted as it is relevant.

Anyways the whole question seems a confusion: either the answer will be something that does exist or it will be something that does not exist, if it exists it would appear to be part of "anything" and therefore the question is not addressed, and if it does not exist then that appears to be contradictory.

That's not exactly a confusion, that's a paradox. And a faulty one; something might (somehow) "explain itself" or, more likely, we could discover a logical reason things had to exist. Or we might have some unknown insight into rationality and dissolve the question, I suppose, but that's not really helpful. The point is it's still an open question; the good Mr. Maitzen has not helped us.

Applying Greek thought to "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" is an attempt to get at something that "explain(s) itself", I am sure you are familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas and his five ways.

I suppose you are also familiar with Divine Sophia in Gnosticism? Saying we have a logical reason for things existing seems to be on that same level of reasoning and appears to just add another turtle to me.