More Motlian Epistemology

At least once a year, Czech physicist Lubos Motl publishes an item on his blog that qualifies as one of the best essays of the year on epistemology. These are always excellent blog posts, and today's essay is no exception.

The matter at hand is whether there is any such thing as a "stupid question," and you can bet that - despite tired aphorisms to the contrary - there are, in fact, stupid questions. Motl supplies a non-exhaustive list:

  1. The words used in the question are ill-defined.
  2. The words used in the question are ambiguous.
  3. There are no settled rigorous enough definitions of the words or phrases in the question although the answer depends on them; only the formulation in terms of rigorous enough mathematical concepts would make the question meaningful.
  4. The question wants to reduce one of the most fundamental concepts to even more fundamental ones, not realizing that the efforts are counterproductive verbal exercises if we're not guaranteed that this process stops at some point.
  5. The question implicitly makes some invalid assumptions about the insights that are already known.
  6. The question implicitly makes some probably invalid assumptions about the format of a future explanation of something.
  7. The axiomatic system i.e. the set of possible true propositions that may be used in an answer is completely unclear – the context or target audience for the answer isn't specified. Even the author of the question has no idea how a satisfactory answer could look like; he must know that the question won't lead to anything sensible.
  8. The question doesn't have a sensible level of difficulty that could produce a meaningful answer: it's either too primitive (something that the author of the question should have known) or too ambitious and it's asking about a point that shouldn't need an explanation at all or, on the contrary, a topic that needs hundreds of pages to be properly covered (which seems to expose the disrespectful assumption that the person who is answering may be "demanded" to spend much more time than the author of the question).
  9. The question isn't meant to be a real question – a sentence designed to find some information – but rather as a rhetorical question to spread a certain way of thinking or emotion, usually a misconception.
  10. The question is just an attempt of its author to pretend that he or she is smart but he or she isn't really interested in the answer.
First of all, one requires attention to detail to appreciate some of the tasty subtlety in Motl's writing. Note, for example, the distinction between an ill-defined question and an ambiguous one. Even that level of nuance will be lost on many people - even some who think they get it.

He then makes a great point about the unbalanced nature of asking a question. To wit, it is far more often the case that people who ask questions expect the respondent to do all the work, and that the person asking the question has no further responsibility toward acquiring that knowledge. As Motl puts it:
The authors of the questions are "us", the losers who know nothing and who have no duties and responsibilities and who have the right to demand anything, everything, and any entitlement they can think of; the people who are expected to answer are "they", the evil powerful people, the old white men or the Jews or the Big Oil interests (fascism, environmentalism, or feminism may use different words but in all cases, it's still the hated "they" and the logic behind all these pernicious ideologies is structurally the same), those who should be tortured.
It is important to remember that, if we care about intellectual integrity at all, we who ask questions do face some responsibility. We are required to understand the subject matter sufficiently well to ask a question that isn't better-answered by referring back to the source material. Let's be honest with ourselves: We've all been in class and asked this sort of "stupid question" from time to time, and our motivation is obvious. Sometimes we feel too lazy to look it up ourselves. Motl correctly points out that this is a disrespectful waste of a knowledgeable person's time.

His next great point is so well-articulated that I will just let him do the talking:
An essential fact for a scientist to realize is that there's no reason why a syntactically or grammatically legitimate sentence should be valuable or should deserve a well-defined answer or truth value (if it is a Yes/No answer). The language is a tool by which humans (or others) exchange some information. But if one uses it incorrectly, no information is being communicated, the sentences are meaningless, and it makes no sense to spend hours by trying to find answers. Some hard work and "assurances" are needed for a language or a more general framework of communication to be useful. If these conditions aren't met, the sentences won't be useful – they won't be useful for practical lives of the people; but they will be useless in the plan to learn the truth about Nature, too.
And later:
It's sometimes very important for the well-definedness of the answer to decide which exact meaning of a word is meant in the question. Such a fine dependence of the answer on the detailed adjustments of the question automatically makes the question "less rigid" and therefore "less important" (it's obviously not the only aspect that can make a question less important, however). In some cases, only a rigorous enough reformulation in terms of nearly mathematically, rigorously defined concepts becomes the only way to make the question meaningful. Needless to say, the "philosophers" and other humanities-worshiping invaders into science often hate mathematics and they just don't like the self-evident fact that the language of mathematics is the only language that can turn many vague sequences of words into well-defined questions. 
I find it ironic that many economists (particularly Austrian-school adherents) reject mathematical logic under the belief that mathematical theories lack sufficient depth to provide explanatory insight into the economy. It would be counter-productive, however, to inject more ambiguity into the social sciences when they are already vague to the point of near-meaninglessness.

I think one feature of ambiguous language that many social scientists find attractive is the tendency of fuzzy language to accommodate what I call shotgun theories. Much like religious reasoning, ambiguous theories in the social sciences enable the individual to apply his or her own precise definitions to the terms being used, and hence "fill in the holes" of any theory to which they are already attracted. An argument for a gold-backed currency, for example, is therefore seen as being more valid because (1) the economist making the argument rejects a supposedly flawed mathematical model, (2) the economist making the argument replaces mathematical precision with linguistic vagary, and (3) any theoretical holes left open by this vagary get explained-away, not by the economist, but by those members of his/her audience who are already inclined to distrust "fiat" currency.

The better approach would be to ask: Is a gold-backed currency empirically superior to a fiat currency, and if so why? Answering such a question will almost certainly require mathematics, either via logic or quantitative analysis. The answer is also far more likely to reveal an array of costs and benefits, rather than a hard-faced ideological call-to-arms. Such is quite often the case when science tackles problems that involve a great deal of nuance.

Next, Motl makes the point that knowledge requires truth. This may feel "obvious" to you, but it really isn't obvious to everyone. Being able to know something is contingent on the existence of the object known. If we are permitted to question literally everything, then it is permissible to forget the answer to Question 1 as soon as we ask Question 2. If Question 2 requires information first established by the answer to Question 1, then we can simply ask Question 1 again and repeat ourselves ad infinitum. Here's how Motl puts it:
If we don't have any propositions that we accept to be true or concepts that can be used without further questioning, it simply means that we have no knowledge and there can't possibly exist a legitimate way to answer our question, whatever the question is! This utterly simple and logically self-evident point is clearly misunderstood or underestimated by many authors of various "why" questions who seem to believe that one may answer questions so that the answer depends on no assumptions whatsoever. If we respect the validity of no facts, we may always ask "why" after any sentence that the person who is answering adds. We may "question" every statement he makes, whatever the statement is. In such a situation, it is totally clear that such a conversation can't possibly lead to any meaningful outcome. We're caught in an infinite loop (a smart enough girl from the kindergarten should be able to see the proof why the loop is infinite!) and we're clearly wasting our time (and sometimes also the time of another person who is not as stupid as we are and who really didn't want to waste his time!).
There is a great deal of excellent information contained in Motl's post, so I encourage you to read the whole thing. More than that, I encourage you to read it and then think about it in the context of your own daily life, and how you might benefit from considering Motl's underlying point. As usual, he writes rather colorfully, and some highly sensitive people may be inclined to take offense. But truth is truth, even when it appears to be offensive.

I will leave you with one last delicious excerpt, on the state of modern humanities education.
Needless to say, the humanities-oriented education encourages people to know no hard facts like that (they prefer the superficial form, they prefer to train folks to master the tools to pretend that they're smart even if they are completely uneducated imbeciles) – and, which is even worse, to be proud about this complete ignorance of theirs. Their brains' being an example of the vacuum still doesn't prevent them from writing their "opinions" about many things. That's, for example, why most science journalists are writing about topics they don't know anything about, except for two or three (usually invalid) slogans and clich├ęs.

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