Followup to: Semantic Stopsigns, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

As our tribe wanders through the grasslands, searching for fruit trees and prey, it happens every now and then that water pours down from the sky.

"Why does water sometimes fall from the sky?" I ask the bearded wise man of our tribe.

He thinks for a moment, this question having never occurred to him before, and then says, "From time to time, the sky spirits battle, and when they do, their blood drips from the sky."

"Where do the sky spirits come from?" I ask.

His voice drops to a whisper.  "From the before time.  From the long long ago."

When it rains, and you don’t know why, you have several options.  First, you could simply not ask why – not follow up on the question, or never think of the question in the first place.  This is the Ignore command, which the bearded wise man originally selected.  Second, you could try to devise some sort of explanation, the Explain command, as the bearded man did in response to your first question.  Third, you could enjoy the sensation of mysteriousness – the Worship command.

Now, as you are bound to notice from this story, each time you select Explain, the best-case scenario is that you get an explanation, such as "sky spirits".  But then this explanation itself is subject to the same dilemma – Explain, Worship, or Ignore?  Each time you hit Explain, science grinds for a while, returns an explanation, and then another dialog box pops up.  As good rationalists, we feel duty-bound to keep hitting Explain, but it seems like a road that has no end.

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

We can hit Explain for the Big Bang, and wait while science grinds through its process, and maybe someday it will return a perfectly good explanation.  But then that will just bring up another dialog box.  So, if we continue long enough, we must come to a special dialog box, a new option, an Explanation That Needs No Explanation, a place where the chain ends – and this, maybe, is the only explanation worth knowing.

There – I just hit Worship.

Never forget that there are many more ways to worship something than lighting candles around an altar.

If I’d said, "Huh, that does seem paradoxical.  I wonder how the apparent paradox is resolved?" then I would have hit Explain, which does sometimes take a while to produce an answer.

And if the whole issue seems to you unimportant, or irrelevant, or if you’d rather put off thinking about it until tomorrow, than you have hit Ignore.

Select your option wisely.

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  • savagehenry

    Haha, that’s a pretty good analogy. Unfortunately I think most people (myself in the past included and probably even still now) by default have their mouse cursor hovering over wherever the Ignore or Worship buttons appear when such a dialog shows up. And they click it in much the same way my grandparents would click a popup that installs malware on their computer, without thinking or paying attention. Clicking the Explain button requires effort (moving your cursor to a different spot and then waiting for an explanation), and knowing that it will bring up another dialog sooner or later makes it easier for people to just press Ignore or Worship.

  • I’m sorry, but why can’t there simply be an infinite amount of explanations, why can’t the regress just go on infinitely? (You say “must”)

  • I say “must” in the Worship option. It is irony.

    But if there is an infinite regress of causality, I should find that highly curious, and would like to hear Explained why it is allowed, and why this infinite regress exists rather than some other one.

  • I like the Ignore/Explain/Worship scenario for roughly describing our epistemological options. I will note that in this particular fable you do not distinguish between different approaches to the Explain option. Mythological and scientific explanations are produced by different methods and have different qualities. I would especially note that scientific explanations have the quality of being predictive where mythological ones are not.

    My other note is that “Worship” is a loaded word. For you apparently it can mean contemplating mystery. For some the word worship could only imply one thing – the ‘G” word, and you know where people go with that.

  • Mr. Rozendaal, should we reexamine the notion of “Explain”? Perhaps the ultimate goal (from a value perspective) is power, not knowledge as such. (This would obviously constitute a testability criterion.) Or, with Bacon, we could similarly say that Knowledge is Power. Either way, the sky-spirits answer is substantively different from, for instance, Lavoisier’s explanation of combustion.

    Perhaps “Explain” should be split into “delay” and “scientific answer”?

  • James Blair

    I will note that in this particular fable you do not distinguish between different approaches to the Explain option. Mythological and scientific explanations are produced by different methods and have different qualities. I would especially note that scientific explanations have the quality of being predictive where mythological ones are not.

    It doesn’t have to. You request enough explanations and you start getting answers that make sense as they probe for the shortcomings of the answers you were given. Thorough investigation was not always the norm.

  • Suppose that rain actually was blood shed by large sky-going creatures? Only now, in later years, and with the conventional mistaken belief that religion is non-disprovable, do we think of “sky spirits” as a non-explanation. Back in the old days, it was a reasonable hypothesis. It’s just that later it was found to be wrong.

    On the other hand, it’s not clear how to test “From the before time. From the long long ago.” Even in the days when people actually believed their religions, this counts as hitting Worship.

  • Robs

    Interpreting “Spirits”, or “Gods” as physical creatures is completely missing the point, which is to attempt to describe natural phenomena in terms of human personality. Personality is more understandable to people in general than the numerical measurements and relational formulae that are the currently trendy ways of describing nature. Complaining that there are no observable physical creatures out there making rain, or whatever, is like complaining that there are no actual physical numbers or physical laws in nature, just observations, and that therefore science is nonsense.

  • hrh

    I’ve found that hitting either (E) or (I) entails a bit of (W). If you’re running regressions on some enormous dataset creating some elasticity estimates, and you’re pretty sure that the estimate should be positive and not negative, and you find it’s negative you can either hit (E) – systematize the anomalous result: what’s driving it and why is this set of datapoints not what the theory would predict – which I suppose is joined by the sentiment toward God that’s either (W) God, why the f— did you make this universe so f—– complicated or (W) thanks be to God for giving the sciences such a vast wealth of material for the highest form of human activity, study (or some other suitable expression of gratitude).

    Or you could say (I) – the “bad” option – maybe I’ll just try this regression using another specification and forget I ever saw this… and hit (W) to say either thank God no one else saw that or (W) I hope to God no one ever gets their hands on this dataset until it’s substantively different…

  • We can hit Explain for the Big Bang, and wait while science grinds through its process, and maybe someday it will return a perfectly good explanation. But then that will just bring up another dialog box.

    I was reminded of “can the second law of thermodynamics be reversed?“, here.

  • anonymous

    But why bother “worshipping” something entirely unlike and completely indifferent to yourself? Doesn’t the “personality” of the creator in play matter a great deal in our choice of worship? You need a far more detailed argument to prove that whatever exists at the end of the recursion is worth our consideration, let alone our admiration. I see no need for anything remotely concious to end it. Unless, of course, you are just using the word “worship” as some hippy feel-good term for anything you can’t explain and want to pretend not to ignore.

  • michael vassar

    You know, modern computer science gives us lots of examples of questions that we can’t ever know the answer to even though they have mundane answers. These could require halting oracles to answer, but could also simply need physically unrealizable computing power due to their complexity class. Maybe science ends when the next step in the causal chain is simply provably not answerable with realistic resources.

  • TGGP

    “God and the gods were apparitions of observation, judgment and punishment. Other sentiments towards them were secondary. The human organism always worships. First, it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others), next it will be self-aware systems you have built to realize truly omnipresent observation and judgment. The individual desires judgment. Without that desire, the cohesion of groups is impossible, and so is civilization.”

    A reply to anonymous from a fictional character

  • daaaaaaamn that’s a good post. sums up exactly the way i feel about things. i’m not a scientist, but i do engage in observation, more as a poet than anything else in terms of what i end up doing or creating with that observation. the things i believe are the things i’ve observed. it wasn’t always that way for me, but it is now.

    i recently sat and listened to robert bly read lots of poetry. he talked a bit in an offhand way about writing poetry, and what he said was, if the last line you just wrote makes sense to you, cross it out.

    somehow poets go straight to worship, if they are really operating at top form. but this worship poets engage in is not irresponsible, not if it is good. it might be hard to figure out which poetry hits this mark, but i have a sneaky suspicion that a rationalist in top form would be well suited to see it happening, perhaps moreso than many poets.