Dissolving Deep Questions: A Decline in Contemporary Controversy

by Bound_up4 min read8th Apr 201610 comments


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I'm practicing dissolving questions. For some of these questions, there's no dispute as to the nature of the facts, and people are just arguing about what frame to hang life's picture in, what words to use to describe it. For others, there are real factual disputes hiding behind these semantic squabbles, and this technique lets us get past disputing definitions and graduate to mapmaking.

Most of these questions are *actually argued* in prominent venues, and my intention is to give a response that if presented in such a venue, would leave the combatants with nothing to say, or if not, with a concrete and tractable problem. Potential for progress.

Please comment any other controversies this technique would benefit.

The key in every case is to look at reality as it is, and then dispute *that* if there's disagreement, letting fade into obscurity the relatively trivial question of what words to use to describe the piece of reality in question (at least until that greater problem is given its due).

The tree in the forest question seems to me a good place to demonstrate the principle at first since it's not politicized. Perhaps in real venues, it would be useful to give an uncontroversial example of the technique before applying it to the controversy at hand.

1. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a "sound?"

Some say sound is a series of vibrations, others that it is an auditory experience. Regardless of which word you use, the reality of the situation is that the tree will fall over, make vibrations, and there will not be any auditory experiences. That is the entirety of the situation, there is no disagreement. Now, you can argue about whether or not we should describe this with the word “sound” or “noise,” or “fershizzleplumf,” but let’s all be aware that we’re arguing about which word to use to describe reality; we’re not arguing about what reality is truly like.

2. Is Islam a "religion of peace?"

This simply depends on what you mean by religion of peace, an ambiguous term, to be sure. The fact of the matter is that Islam’s teachings include some which can be interpreted to encourage peace, and other interpreted to encourage violence. Some adherents of the religion are violent, or support violence, and some do not. These are the facts, beyond dispute. If you want precise numbers, you can look into polling data, or per capita incidents of violence, or other pieces of information, but at the end of the day, you’re going to have this total picture of what Islam is like as a religion. At that point, it doesn’t matter what you call it; you know what it is. Then call it "a religion of peace" or not, but be aware that you’re not adding any information. And if people want to argue about what word to call this picture, this piece of reality, I humbly submit, that arguments about such trivial semantics are better reserved for after we’ve dedicated our brainpower to solving real problems.

3. Is there a "wall of separation between Church and State" in the US?

The United States laws allow for many kinds of religion practice. Other laws forbid doing certain things with religion, like requiring that the president believe certain dogmas. On the spectrum of total integration of church and state to total segregation, America lies somewhere in the middle, and we could find out exactly where if we prepared careful measures and looked hard enough. But at the end of the day, whatever we find, whatever we know, will be the totality of reality. We can argue about whether that degree of segregation should be called “a wall of separation between Church and State,” but we’re not actually arguing about what the reality is. Such semantic discussions are rather less interesting and useful than what we should expect of concerned citizens, or elected officials.

4. Is America a "Christian nation?"

America is what it is. It has a certain historic and modern relationship with Christianity. That relationship could have been—could be stronger than it has been—than it is, for example, had every citizen been a fervent Christian. At the end of the day, these are the bare facts, which no one disputes. The totality of these facts you may call what you wish: a Christian nation—or not. But what you call it is of little import. Such arguments would be not about what reality consists of, but about what technical term people should use to describe it: the kind of dry, pedantic discussion not worthy to divert our attention from more pressing matters.

5. Are Catholics/Mormons/Jehovah's Witnesses/etc "Christian?"

Every person on earth, identify as whatever religion they might or mightn’t, holds certain beliefs, and doesn’t hold others. Many of them hold similar beliefs to others, such as self-identified Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventist’s, etc. To understand these people as they are, you might carefully examine, among other things, their beliefs. At that point of understanding, you might wish to call them by some label or another, such as Christian, or you might not. But at that point, you’re not saying anything new about these people. The full nature of their beliefs is already examined. What you call them is of little import, and, according to every religion creed I know, has nothing to do with how God will think of them, or treat them, in this life, or in the next.

6. "Should" women take preventative measures against sexual assault?

Sometimes people say “should” and mean it is a moral duty to do something, such as when we say, “You should help others when you can.” Other times people say “should” when they mean it would be convenient or beneficial to do something, such as when we say, “You should exercise.”
Should women take preventative measures against sexual assault? It depends on which should you mean. They don’t have a moral duty to do so, they hold no guilt or responsibility for assaults committed against them. At the same time, they might find it convenient or beneficial to take such measures, if they are effective. Certainly I would hope my loved ones would, as I myself would. These are both bare facts; they are true. Neither contradicts the other. If you wish to say “should” or “shouldn’t” at this point, remember that it is only a question of words; the reality of the situation has already been described and does not change by your naming it. Anyone who spends excessive time deciding what word to use to describe the previously mentioned reality might be encouraged to dedicate their extra time to something more helpful, for themselves, or for their fellow human beings.
*note: framing an issue may affect how people think about it and be a worthwhile battle sometimes*

7. Is atheism a "religion?"

Atheism is the lack of belief in theism, or sometimes, the belief that theist ideas are false. This is the nature of it. Understanding that, you may wish to call it a religion or not, but it is a comparatively trivial matter. How much does it matter what you call something, compared to actually understanding what that thing is?

8. What is the "meaning of life?"

This one is harder to prepare in advance like this, because it's a non-binary question; there could be many possible meanings to the question. But the same strategy applies: Ask the questioner to pose the question in non-ambiguous terms. This is a classic "deep/hard" question more because *the questioner doesn't know what they're asking* than because of any ignorance on the part of the questioned.

So, I'd ask: "What do you mean by the meaning of life?"

If you mean whatever brings the most happiness, then I don't know what will produce the maximum possible happiness, but there are some good studies on what other qualities correlate with happy people that may be of use to you.

If you mean was life created for the sake of some goal, in the same way that we create things for the sake of some goal/purpose, then I think the answer is no. But even if you don't believe me, if you want to ask some religion or another, this has still ceased to be a deep or difficult question. It's positively mundane once dissolved, just take whatever religious answer you're willing to trust, or see if life looks created by a mind with a purpose.

If you have other possible interpretations of the question, I'd also like to hear those.



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Arguing about which words to use means disagreeing about which policies of word use are good and bad. That is a disagreement about what we should do and what will have good consequences. That is a real disagreement, even if you don't want to call it a disagreement about facts. And if you ask people about why they think their policy will have good consequences, they will usually explain that they also disagree about various facts.

Now, you can argue about whether or not we should describe this with the word “sound” or “noise,” or “fersizzleplumf,” but let’s all be aware that we’re arguing about which word to use to describe reality; we’re not arguing about what reality is truly like.

No. Various people do believe that identity is part of reality. Various people believe that it's reasonble to say that in reality I existed ten years ago even if no atom in my body existed ten years ago.

Atheism is the lack of belief in theism, or sometimes, the belief that theist ideas are false. This is the nature of it.

Basically atheism has nothing to do with the properties of the average atheist that an someone doing a sociology study on atheists would find?

It's ironic that you think that atheism has a nature given what you said about reality above. That you believe sound has no such thing as a nature that can be investigated. It seems like you choose your ontological committments based on what gives you the answer you are seeking for a particular case instead of staying consistent or even going so far as recognizing that there are different possible committments.

Anyone got some Deep Questions that aren't just verbal and conceptual confusion?

"Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?"

-- David Chalmers

These questions may be a product of conceptual confusion, but they don't seem that way to me. Perhaps I am confused in the same way.

Those questions look prima facie impossible to answer, which in my experience strongly indicates that they are the result of conceptual confusion.

Please provide some examples of questions which "look... impossible to answer" but actually result from "conceptual confusion".

Is your username a deliberate pun on Metatron or is that just a coincidence?

השאלה זה לא נראה בלתי אפשרי לענות

I think we usually don't call questions where it's simply hard to find empiric evidence deep. We usually call those questions where conceptualizing is difficult deep.