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Revision as of 20:26, 3 May 2011

A sequence on how to see through the disguises of answers or beliefs or statements, that don't answer or say or mean anything.

Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions is the first (and probably most important) core sequence in Less Wrong. Posts in the sequence are distributed from 28 Jul 07 to 11 Sep 07.

Main sequence

Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)

Not every belief that we have is directly about sensory experience, but beliefs should pay rent in anticipations of experience. For example, if I believe that "Gravity is 9.8 m/s^2" then I should be able to predict where I'll see the second hand on my watch at the time I hear the crash of a bowling ball dropped off a building. On the other hand, if your postmodern English professor says that the famous writer Wulky is a "post-utopian", this may not actually mean anything. The moral is to ask "What experiences do I anticipate?" not "What statements do I believe?"

Belief in Belief

Suppose someone claims to have a dragon in their garage, but as soon as you go to look, they say, "It's an invisible dragon!" The remarkable thing is that they know in advance exactly which experimental results they shall have to excuse, indicating that some part of their mind knows what's really going on. And yet they may honestly believe they believe there's a dragon in the garage. They may perhaps believe it is virtuous to believe there is a dragon in the garage, and believe themselves virtuous. Even though they anticipate as if there is no dragon.

Bayesian Judo

You can have some fun with people whose anticipations get out of sync with what they believe they believe...

Professing and Cheering

On a panel on the compatibility of science and religion, a scientifically educated pagan panelist holds forth interminably on how she "believes" that Earth began with a giant primordial cow being born from the primordial abyss.

Belief as Attire

When you've stopped anticipating-as-if something, but still believe it is virtuous to believe it, this does not create the true fire of the child who really does believe. On the other hand, it is very easy for people to be passionate about group identification - sports teams, political sports teams - and this may account for the passion of beliefs worn as team-identification attire.

Focus Your Uncertainty

A TV pundit finds they have only 100 minutes to spend on preparing to explain why one of three different possible events was fully predicted by their pet theory.

The Virtue of Narrowness

It was perfectly all right for Isaac Newton to explain just gravity, just the way things fall down - and how planets orbit the Sun, and how the Moon generates the tides - but not the role of money in human society or how the heart pumps blood. Sneering at narrowness is rather reminiscent of ancient Greeks who thought that going out and actually looking at things was manual labor, and manual labor was for slaves.

Your Strength As A Rationalist

A hypothesis that forbids nothing, permits everything, and thereby fails to constrain anticipation. Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.

Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence
Conservation of Expected Evidence
Hindsight Bias
Hindsight Devalues Science
Fake Explanations
Guessing the Teacher's Password

In schools, "education" often consists of having students memorize answers to specific questions (i.e., the "teacher's password"), rather than learning a predictive model that says what is and isn't likely to happen. Thus, students incorrectly learn to guess at passwords in the face of strange observations rather than admit their confusion. Don't do that: any explanation you give should have a predictive model behind it. If your explanation lacks such a model, start from a recognition of your own confusion and surprise at seeing the result.

Science as Attire
Fake Causality
Semantic Stopsigns
Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions
The Futility of Emergence
Say Not "Complexity"
Positive Bias: Look Into the Dark
My Wild and Reckless Youth
Failing to Learn from History
Making History Available
"Science" as Curiosity-Stopper

Although science does have explanations for phenomena, it is not enough to simply say that "Science!" is responsible for how something works -- nor is it enough to appeal to something more specific like "electricity" or "conduction". Yet for many people, simply noting that "Science has an answer" is enough to make them no longer curious about how it works. In that respect, "Science" is no different from more blatant curiosity-stoppers like "God did it!" But you shouldn't let your interest die simply because someone else knows the answer (which is a rather strange heuristic anyway): You should only be satisfied with a predictive model, and how a given phenomenon fits into that model.

Applause Lights
Truly Part of You
Chaotic Inversion

See also

Alternative formats