Measured Against Reality

Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Why are unicorns hollow?" On language and meaningless questions

Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer. [emphasis mine]

That quote above, by Richard Dawkins from this Salon interview, is one of my favorite, and it demonstrates quite well the theme of this post.

Language is tremendously useful thing, but it has lots of problems. The one that I'm interested in is that words can be strung together without meaning anything (sort of like Chomsky's famous "green ideas sleep furiously", except less obviously meaningless).

For instance, "what existed before the universe?" That question is meaningless, even though almost no one think so. Or how about "What's outside the universe?" Totally meaningless, because not only can we not exit our causal universe, but if we could anything "out there" would be part of our universe by definition. I've touched on both of those things before, in Nothing Doesn't Exist, and won't continue here.

Another good example of this happened earlier this week, with an IDiot asking what us crazy Darwinists would do if evidence of irreducible complexity (IC) was found. On its surface this seems like an excellent question, since we could either admit that something is IC and admit Intelligent Design (ID) is true, or we can deny that it's IC and then confirm that we irrationally hate ID. The problem is that IC scientifically can't exist as they define it (it would simply be a gap in our knowledge), and it's already been shown that evolution produces IC (as one would expect with even a cursory understanding of evolution). What appeared to be an excellent question was just another meaningless one.

The sad thing about these questions is that most of the "important" ones fall into this category. Questions about the nature of existence, the purpose of life, all of those large existential questions just aren't meaningful. "Why are we here?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?", to take the two that pop into my mind, are just unanswerable because they start with terrible premises (that there's a reason for us to be here and that nothing is a preferable state for the universe, when it's almost certain that there's never been nothing).

The distinction between meaningful (why is the sky blue?) and meaningless (why am I here?) questions is an important one to keep in mind, because the meaningless questions seem to carry lofty importance because they're so difficult to answer. Once you realize that they're difficult to answer because they're meaningless they seem less lofty and more banal, and that realization is key to defeating arguments (like ID) that, due to lack of their own merit, use the meaningless question as a defense against intelligent attack.

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  • A very good point, but some questions are bound to be hard to categorise.

    For example, is asking why the known physical constants are what they are meaningful or meaningless?

    By Blogger John Morales, at 4:03 PM, September 01, 2007  

  • John, that's a good example of a borderline one. It may well turn out that something like eternal inflation and the landscape is true, and that the only good explanation for their values is anthropic, in which case I'd see it as meaningless. Or they may result from deep principles, in which case it's not. Right now it's just one of those questions to which the only response is, "I dunno."

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 4:09 PM, September 01, 2007  

  • I suspect most questions on topics on the limits of current knowledge (not just in the hard sciences) will be likewise borderline.

    In passing, I note that you alluded to the difference between meaningless questions and those that assume the unknown (what is the purpose of life?), though a superficial reading might well miss that.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 5:18 PM, September 01, 2007  

  • Honestly, I don't think I intended that distinction other than its obvious existence. This is one of those articles that I wrote lying in bed before falling asleep the night before, and the actual article in the morning doesn't feel quite as good.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 5:54 PM, September 01, 2007  

  • That's OK - just because it's obvious, doesn't mean it shouldn't be said.

    You can always point to this post instead of repeating yourself if/when the issue comes up in future ;)

    By Blogger John Morales, at 7:41 PM, September 01, 2007  

  • My personal take runs to first approximation that questions beginning with why are essentially meaningless (unless asking about personal motives). For example when you answer why is the sky blue what you are really answering is how is the sky blue.

    By Blogger mc2, at 8:12 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • There's this from a pro-religion atheist.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 8:40 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • John, he seems to get it with the second question, but the first question is definitely one that I'd call meaningless (it's one of your "presumptuous" questions). His answer is close to what I'd give, but it's important to note that there is nothing even close to a correct answer to the question, just personal preferences.

    mc2, that's a good point, but some reformulations of the why questions will be awkward, but that's an artifact of language's flaws more than anything.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 8:45 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • mc2, I did dither between what I wrote and "how did the known physical constants become as they are".

    Feel free to critique the two versions.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 9:31 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • Well the word "why" isn't key, after all it can be replaced by "how come" without any loss in meaning (although I loathe that phrase, after third grade it should be utterly banned). So John, your question would retain the same borderline status either way.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 9:37 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • Stuart, a couple of points.

    1. Norman refers to "profound" pieces in mass publications. Their cultural impact is not neglible.

    2. Note also that, though atheist, Mr. Geras also views religion as a positive overall (I say this based on having read his blog extensively, and I doubt that he'd quibble). Yet, as you say, his answer "is close to what I'd give".


    2a. It should be clear that atheists share no dogma. I have no doubt you and he could argue extensively.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 10:01 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • mc2, yes.

    Consider though "why does life exist" and "how did life come to exist".

    I think why is a key, here, in your sense.

    Or is this not a valid counter-example?

    I said I dithered, but I did not make a random choice, in the end.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 10:05 PM, September 02, 2007  

  • John 1, I must be missing his reference to profound literature, but I've never cared for literature anyway.

    John 2, my typical answer to the meaningless question is "the point is whatever you want it to be", which is close to what he gave.

    John 2a, I'm not really seeing how supporting religion comes into play here, and yes I do disagree with him on that. But we wouldn't argue extensively, arguing annoys me since it's beyond pointless (no one ever changes their mind in an argument, because both sides have seen all the points before). The people you need to talk to are the ones who couldn't argue extensively, those are the ones you can convince.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 9:16 AM, September 03, 2007  

  • stupac2,

    1. I was unclear. Any imputation of profundity was mine; Norman referred to them as "observations".
    I meant that your putative average reader would consider them profound.

    2. The point being that it's hard to imagine a rationalist doing otherwise.

    2a. I refer to the fact that there is a plurality of views by atheists, whose one common factor is disbelief in deities.
    I wasn't suggesting you'd actually argue, but that you could.

    By Blogger John Morales, at 5:02 PM, September 03, 2007  

  • 2. I find it difficult to understand how anyone does otherwise. It seems to me that people who don't buy into that philosophy are more prone to existential crises, while someone like myself loves existential literature and doesn't find it depressing at all, just right.

    2a. Yeah, atheists are a pretty diverse group, but I think those who consider religion largely positive are a minority, although I have no data on that.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 6:03 PM, September 03, 2007  

  • Me too :)

    By Blogger John Morales, at 6:11 PM, September 03, 2007  

  • I am afraid that the auther did the very thing he accused others of. He claims to know that the there has never been nothing, which is something beyond his ability to know. Also there very well could be a purpose to life. If there is a purpose to life there is also a possibility that it is something to be known. As for IC, he says "it would just be a gap in knowlege." That is the whole point.
    This is just a question I have and don't claim it to be IC. Evolution claims that animals went from water to land. How did they do this? "they developed lungs." Under water? And if they developed lungs with their gills, why didn't it stay that way since it is obviously more advanced?

    By Anonymous Samuel, at 8:11 PM, November 16, 2009  

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