Astonishing Questions Exist!

An astonishing claim is one that, if true, has some sort of surprising hard-to-accept implication. You stare at that implication, and wow, who would have believed that? For example, it would be astonishing to me to win the Nobel Prize. An astonishing question is one where most every possible answer is an astonishing claim. And an astonishing fact about our world is that we know of many astonishing questions.

For example, consider the question: does the universe go back forever in time, or was there a first time? Either way, something seems amazing. Really, you just keep going back in time and things just keep getting simpler with lower entropy, forever? Or, really, there is this moment in time and space-time just ends there?

Analogous astonishing questions exist on if the universe goes on forever in the wide future, or as a future path goes a black hole. And when we’ve looked inside things, we’ve always found more detail so far. Is there really a level of detail where we never ever find anything inside that? Or will there come a time in the future where innovation and discovery runs out, so that we stop learning and inventing new things? Will growth rates keep accelerating, or slow down forever? Will our descendants die out or last forever? Will they be as different from us as we are from our distant ancestors, or will they stay like us forever?

Will we eventually contact real advanced aliens? Will we develop immortality? Is stable world peace possible, or effective world governance? Will we learn to effectively share info so that we don’t knowingly disagree, or will we continue forever to irrationally disagree? Will it eventually be possible to make time machines, or will that be forever impossible? Will it become possible to write software that is as smart as humans across the board? Will we become able to upload/emulate human brains on computers? Do humans have free will? Do human brains have some special capacity for consciousness, or is all matter capable of consciousness?

Now in a literal sense the following question is also astonishing: who will win the lottery? That is, for each possible lottery winner, if we focus on them it seem astonishing to think: they won the lottery! Yet of course we know that someone must win. But the above questions seem much more astonishing to me in some way, as they each seem to require a more dramatic revision of my view of something more substantial. Somehow, in ways we find it hard to accept now, we will be astonished!

The existence of astonishing questions makes it dangerous to rely on the following form of argument: It would be astonishing if X were not true, therefore probably X. Seems like a safe solid argument, but it isn’t.

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  • one of the dudes

    So is this a version of Conjunction Fallacy? (about the “feminist bank teller”). In this case, are you suggesting that humans confuse distant but massive scale outcomes with low probability outcomes?

    “low probability”: lottery, Nobel prize.
    “massive scale”: universe and time, future ancestors, consciousness.

    Another version was the 20 shipwrecked sailors in the Pacific that chose a much more distant route to Chile instead of the closer Marquesas Islands because of the vivid stories of Marquesas cannibals.

    • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1026609730/ Jim Balter

      There are no conjunctions in your examples (as opposed to “feminist bank teller”, which *is* a conjunction).

      • one of the dudes

        Emotional weight of specific vivid images skews probability judgement in the conjunction fallacy.

        Emotional weight of imagining “astonishing outcomes” skews probability judgement in Robin’s post.

      • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1026609730/ Jim Balter

        Even if so, two things having a common factor doesn’t make one a version of the other. And the Conjunction Fallacy isn’t a result of “specific vivid images”, but rather of weighing descriptions such as “bank teller” vs. “feminist bank teller” by how representative they are, rather than how mathematically likely they are to apply.

  • Robert Koslover

    I’ll be mildly surprised, but not astonished, if someday you win a Nobel prize in economics. On the other hand, I’ll be astonished if you win a Nobel prize in literature! And no, I don’t mean that as a snide criticism of your writing… 🙂

    • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1026609730/ Jim Balter

      I wouldn’t be astonished at either of those. In the first case I would chalk it up to bad judgment and in the second case to a clerical error. What would astonish me would be to learn that he had actually earned either of them. Astonishment isn’t so much about low probability as it is about a recognition that one had fundamentally mistaken beliefs.

  • Zachary Mayer

    “The existence of astonishing claims make it dangerous…”

    Do you mean “The existence of astonishing QUESTIONS make it dangerous…” here?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yes.

  • Lord

    These all focus on the infinite and the unknown or unknowable. About the only way we could know is by mathematical proof and even then it would be uncertain whether it applied to the real world forever. The other way would be answering it through our own actions which would be more productive than speculating on ill defined questions.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    An astonishing claim is one that, if true, has some sort of surprising hard-to-accept implication. You stare at that implication, and wow, who would have believed that?

    Certainly if “astonishing” corresponds to “low probability,” showing an astonishing implication is a good argument against a claim.

    Where either apparent alternative has highly implausible implications, it constitutes reason to think the alternatives aren’t truly exhaustive, that you’ve failed to imagine all of them. For instance, it’s implausible that the universe goes on forever spatially, but it’s also implausible that it’s bounded. Non-Euclidean geometry and general relativity theory imagined curved space, resolving the antimony.

    Perhaps the paradoxes of infinite time have a similar solution. (See “Can Infinite Quantities Exist,” section 4, The nonexistence of actually realized infinite sets and the principle of the identity of indistinguishable sets together imply the Gold model of the cosmos. – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/01/190-can-infinite-quantities-exist.html )

    Astonishment as you define it can have (probably does have) senses beside “improbable” (of which I take “implausible” to be the subjective side). Without distinguishing those senses, in rejecting proofs from “astonishment” you throw out the baby with the bath water.

    • Peter David Jones

      Have you updated your writings on infinity to take Canter into account.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Cantor did mathematics. This is about metaphysics. It really has more to do with the concept of “existence” than of “infinity.”

  • arch1

    Questions such as this seem to have often been resolved by revising or discarding unjustified assumptions. Not everyone can put their finger on such assumptions a la an Einstein; but I wonder whether a more systematic, axiomatic approach could help resolve answers to some such questions with a little less inspiration (but more perspiration).

  • david
  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1026609730/ Jim Balter

    “does the universe go back forever in time, or was there a first time?”

    Neither. Astonishing, isn’t it?

    “when we’ve looked inside things, we’ve always found more detail so far.”

    Um, no.

    “Is there really a level of detail where we never ever find anything inside that?”

    Certainly, which is not astonishing.

    “The existence of astonishing questions makes it dangerous to rely on the following form of argument: It would be astonishing if X were not true, therefore probably X. Seems like a safe solid argument, but it isn’t. ”

    You seem to be new at this sort of thing:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unexpected_hanging_paradox

  • Marvin McPortain

    Most of those questions seem astonishing because they carry a ton of hidden assumptions. If you don’t acknowledge them, it’s easy to give non-astonishing default answers to those questions. Don’t get me wrong, these answers aren’t necessarily the most likely options. But they’re possible, and they’re not astonishing.

    Is world peace possible? Of course: just eliminate all life.

    Effective world governance? Easy in a totalitarian surveillance state.

    Will we contact real advanced aliens? No. The universe is too big, light speed is a hard limit and the technological civilization will be gone in a couple of centuries because we rely too much on an temporary abundance of resources.

    Will we develop immortality? No. Everything dies eventually, according to the laws of thermodynamics. If you say, postponing death by a century would be sufficient: we already tripled our life expectancy with a combination of technology and culture and apparently that doesn’t count as immortality. The amazement of Immortality is conditional on not everyone having it.

    Will growth rates keep accelerating, or slow down forever? Neither: all phases of growth will be followed by equal phases of contraction. We can stack phases of growth to prevent contraction, but not indefinitely. The highest possible long-term growth exponent is zero.

    Will we learn to effectively share info so that we don’t knowingly disagree, or will we continue forever to irrationally disagree? We’ll forever disagree.

    Will it eventually be possible to make time machines, or will that be forever impossible? Time machines are actually possible today, with just one small issue: they can only work forwards. That may seem exciting, expect that you literally waste time (and a ton of energy) when using one.

    Will we eventually write software that is as smart as humans across the board / Will we become able to upload/emulate human brains on computers? No, we’ll kill each other over food, energy or water before that.

    Who will win the lottery? Me. I’m the only participant in my own daily drawings, so I’m guaranteed to win.

    Do human brains have some special capacity for consciousness? No, all mammals (and possibly insects too) do too. And it’s a survival process like making spores (fungi) or producing scents (flowers), not a “special capacity”. If we compare complexity, photosynthesis is much more advanced than consciousness since it chlorophyll employs quantum tunneling, neurons do not

  • Mike Johnson

    Do we live in a universe where “moral value” can be restated as a physics problem, if we find the right equations? Or is there something inherently subjective & fuzzy about what makes some conscious experience or state of affairs ‘better’ than another?

    Either possibility would be pretty astonishing. A related question would be: does strong emergence exist, or not?