Are Questions Okay When They're Based Around Finction Worlds December 2, 2007 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Some people feel this question violates the guidelines. I disagree.

If I ask, "If there was a sequel to 'King Lear,' what would happen in it?" that's a problem, because there are infinitely many answers, and they can only come from chatfilter.

On the other hand, if I ask, "If there was no gravity on Earth, what would happen if I released a ping-pong ball from my hand?" we have an answerable question. It's based on a fiction, but it's a bounded fiction. It doesn't have infinitely many answers, and its answers needn't be based on opinion. If I say, "the ball would turn into a clown," I'm wrong.

There are many banal questions on AskMe that are set in fictional universes: "I'm coming to New York next week. Where can I stay for under $200 a night?" That assumes a fictional universe in which prices next week will be the same that they are now. In general, it's safe to assume "all things being equal."
posted by grumblebee to Etiquette/Policy at 6:41 AM (250 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

In the linked thread, grouse disagreed with me by saying...

"Grumblebee, there is a difference between a situation that hasn't happened yet (anticipating facts) and one that cannot happen (a question contrary to fact). This question is the latter, which is more like "My girlfriend loves big band music and was born on 8 August. What if she were born on 8 September instead; do you think she would still love big band music?"

I disagree. I think the birthday question should be deleted because it's silly, but not because it violates any specific guidelines. It has a clear answer: yes. Assuming some huge, personality-forming event didn't happen between August 8 and September 8, your girlfriend would still like big band music.

This is actually much like my example, in which it's safe to assume that hotel prices won't radically change in a week.
posted by grumblebee at 6:53 AM on December 2, 2007


I don't know if it breaks the guidelines, but it does make my head hurt. Plus I find the idea of a transdimensional twin jonmc vaguely unsettling.
posted by jonmc at 6:56 AM on December 2, 2007


That question is pretty much the epitome of this: "Open-ended unanswerable hypothetical questions like 'What if Hitler had never been born?' or made up 'what if' science questions." Sorry, but you're just wrong on this one, grumblebee.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:59 AM on December 2, 2007


There is a difference between a situation that hasn't happened yet (anticipating facts) and one that cannot happen (a question contrary to fact). This question is the latter, which is more like "If New York were in China instead of the U.S., would I be able to find a place to stay for under $200 a night?" than your hypothetical.

"If there was no gravity on Earth, what would happen if I released a ping-pong ball from my hand?" we have an answerable question.

No, you don't. You can't assume "all things being equal" because the premise is impossible all things being equal. There can't be no gravity on earth without either the Earth becoming some sort of massless concept (in which case it's no longer really the earth), or the laws of physics totally changing. If the laws of physics have totally changed, you can't answer the question about what happened to the ping-pong ball because you no longer know what they are.

It's like saying, if 2 + 2 = 5, then what would 6 × 48 be equal to? You could construct some sort of arithmetic were adding the symbols 2 and 2 would get you the symbol 5, but it would be totally different from our own, and there would be no way to answer what 6 × 48 was without more of the rules. It could be 6, or 92, or 4A56φ99. But you can't know because the single contrary premise in the question is not enough to describe this new world.
posted by grouse at 6:59 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


That question is pretty much the epitome of this: "Open-ended unanswerable hypothetical questions...

How is it open ended? "What's a good book about Napoleon?" is open ended.
posted by grumblebee at 7:01 AM on December 2, 2007


Metafilter: Yay! We figured out how to talk. Oh crap, you're boring. And we're stuck in a room.
posted by landis at 7:06 AM on December 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm afraid I'm with grouse on this one. There's no way to answer it; all one can do is speculate. Which = chatfilter.
posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on December 2, 2007


Also, we're stuck in a room... and you are likely to be eaten by a grue.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on December 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


Are Questions Okay When They're Based Around Finction Worlds

As long as the LOCKUP victors are set in MS EXCESS, sure.


On a more serious note, it think it depends on the breadth of a scenario. The planning of a task, such as a trip, or gathering information regarding interview strategies prior to applying for a job, for example, are acceptable. Asking about zombie behaviors in relation to understanding something depicted in a movie or book, depending on phrasing and specifics of context, could be considered alright with admins. But a drawing room argument that would seek opinion-based answers with an emotional twist (as opposed to the...informed opinions of others, would be better suited to IRC, or possibly MeFi Projects.)
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:12 AM on December 2, 2007


In my parallel universe this question would be thrown on the BBQ.
posted by peacay at 7:13 AM on December 2, 2007


grouse, you're assuming that all questions that rely on an impossible premise are equal in terms of answerability. That's an interesting stance, but I disagree. I think there are many distinctions:

-- "If I was a bleeb, would I snorg or flibber?" -- not answerable

-- "If it rained for three-hundred days straight, what would happen?" -- answerable (though maybe some more clarification would be necessary, such as location and season)

-- "If I painted my house red, who would win the next presidential election?" -- unanswerable, because there's no obvious way that painting a house can affect an election. Also, elections are subject to complex (chaotic) inputs.

-- "If I had a cat, and I cut off its head, would it die" -- answerable.

-- "What happens at the end of 'Citizen Kane'?" -- answerable.

-- "If Henry VIII had lived until the 20th Century and if he'd been standing near the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11, (assuming he wasn't deaf), would he have heard the Towers falling?" -- answerable.
posted by grumblebee at 7:15 AM on December 2, 2007


"What's 8 + 3?"

That's a fictional question. It posits a hypothetical universe in which platonic quantities exist.
posted by grumblebee at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Yeah, take it to BBQ.
posted by SassHat at 7:18 AM on December 2, 2007


grouse, you're assuming that all questions that rely on an impossible premise are equal in terms of answerability.

grumblebee, you don't seem to understand what I mean by an impossible premise if you would include in it things like painting houses red, having cats, and movies.
posted by grouse at 7:19 AM on December 2, 2007


Also, if you think the bare question "What's 8 + 3?" is fictional, then I think we are never going to see eye-to-eye on this, so I think I'm done discussing this.
posted by grouse at 7:21 AM on December 2, 2007


The question seems answerable to me--I think the poster provided enough explicit assumptions. Seems like the real question is, "If a deterministic universe is in a totally symmetric state (around some axis or something), will it remain symmetric forever?" The twins are superfluous; if only he'd left that part out...
posted by equalpants at 7:22 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Yes, I do know.

I guess this stuff seems natural to me, because in the theatre we deal with impossible stuff all the time, and we deal with it practically.

I once worked on a production of "Harvey." We spent long periods figuring out where the six-foot rabbit was standing or sitting. "You can't sit in that chair, because Harvey's in it!"

It's impossible for there to be a six-foot tall, talking rabbit. Maybe to you, that means that it's silly to talk about where he would be sitting or standing, if he existed. But to me, it makes perfect sense. And I think it would have to the audience, too, had we screwed up. They would have yelled, "You can't walk there! That's where Harvey is standing!"

Fictions contain rules. Those rules are binding.
posted by grumblebee at 7:23 AM on December 2, 2007


The question seems answerable to me--I think the poster provided enough explicit assumptions. Seems like the real question is, "If a deterministic universe is in a totally symmetric state (around some axis or something), will it remain symmetric forever?" The twins are superfluous; if only he'd left that part out...

To which I'm assuming grouse would say (correct me if I'm wrong, grouse), "but the universe isn't totally symmetric, so the question is unanswerable."
posted by grumblebee at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2007


grumblebee, you don't seem to understand what I mean by an impossible premise if you would include in it things like painting houses red, having cats, and movies.

"If snow didn't exist and I went outside, would I get snow on my head?"

That's totally answerable, but it's based on am impossible premise. Snow DOES exist, so it can't "didn't exist."
posted by grumblebee at 7:28 AM on December 2, 2007


-- "If I had a cat, and I cut off its head, would it die" -- empirically answerable.
posted by fake at 7:30 AM on December 2, 2007



-- "If I had a cat, and I cut off its head, would it die" -- empirically answerable.


"If I had a woolly mammoth and I cut off its head, would it die?"
posted by grumblebee at 7:32 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Have you ever seen articles or sites that point out scientific blunders in sci-fi movies? By grouse's reasoning, such essays are absurd. It's stupid for me to point out that X is wrong on "Star Trek." "Star Trek" is fiction and in fiction anything can happen, so how can we say that something is wrong in a fictional world?
posted by grumblebee at 7:35 AM on December 2, 2007


Wooly mammoths are extinct, but there's proof they actually existed. The question's still answerable.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:37 AM on December 2, 2007


"If a deterministic universe is in a totally symmetric state (around some axis or something), will it remain symmetric forever?"

Yes, this is a much better version of the question. The twins are only there to add a human element, but if you posit an entirely deterministic universe, then the human element wouldn't be able to throw a monkeywrench in the symmetry any more than anything else would.
posted by creasy boy at 7:38 AM on December 2, 2007


I don't understand the debate here. This question is pretty much the definition of hypothetical chatfilter. How does it significantly differ from something like "Who would win in a fight-- a zombie grizzly bear or a room full of five year olds with knives?"
posted by dersins at 7:38 AM on December 2, 2007


By the way, I've come to the conclusion that though I'm right that such questions can be valid, they shouldn't be allowed on AskMe. My guess is that most people agree with grouse and languagehat, and that means that -- even if I am right -- such questions won't be taken seriously and will just become jokefests.
posted by grumblebee at 7:38 AM on December 2, 2007


I don't understand the debate here. This question is pretty much the definition of hypothetical chatfilter. How does it significantly differ from something like "Who would win in a fight-- a zombie grizzly bear or a room full of five year olds with knives?"

How about this? "Who would win a fight -- Godzilla or an ant?" It's just as hypothetical as yours, but it's answerable -- whereas yours is not.

There's no way to reasonably guess the strength of a zombie grizzly bear.
posted by grumblebee at 7:40 AM on December 2, 2007


It violates the guidelines because the questioner forces it to be.

"Assume quantum theory is bullshit" and "Please assume that 'randomness' in physics is only an illusion" means any respondents must dispense with any logical guidance and known science in their answers. There's not much left but to load up the bong and start relatin', man.
posted by ardgedee at 7:41 AM on December 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


I'm a little confused by people here. It's fine if you want to take the line that all hypothetical questions should be axes. That's a matter of opinion.

But, getting back to my last example...

"Who would win a fight -- Godzilla or an ant?"

... do you really think there's no right (or at least better) answer? If there IS an answer, how is such a question chatfilter?
posted by grumblebee at 7:44 AM on December 2, 2007


Trek trys to play things both ways. The saga wants us to suspend disbelief, yet frequently asks its audience to accept a measure of social and scientific plausibility within its trappings. Transparent aluminum? Why not? A pill that can make a terminally ill woman's liver grow back? Yeah, we'll throw that in, too, along with the feel-good vibe of using a couple whales from SeaWorld to repopulate a long-dormant part of Earth's ecosystem.

Oh, and the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing in the 24th century, and is part of a galactic peace consortum's headquarters, in addition to being a fixture of a college campus.

The beggaring of fantastic elements, interspersed with factual inspiration for implied realism, only work so well under the constraints of continuity. Otherwise, the end effect is equivalent to a parlor game that's exceeded its welcome.
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:45 AM on December 2, 2007


How about this? "Who would win a fight -- Godzilla or an ant?"

Are you suggesting that would be acceptable in AskMe? Because I'm pretty fucking sure it wouldn't.
posted by dersins at 7:45 AM on December 2, 2007


"Assume quantum theory is bullshit" and "Please assume that 'randomness' in physics is only an illusion" means any respondents must dispense with any logical guidance and known science in their answers. There's not much left but to load up the bong and start relatin', man.


No, NOT logical guidance.

If I asked, "If carpets could fly, and if they could fly distances of at least 800 miles, could I ride one from South Bend, Indiana to Chicago?" that dispenses with physics but not with logic.

IF carpets could fly 800 miles, you COULD fly from South Bend to Chicago. That's not open to debate or opinion. You just COULD.
posted by grumblebee at 7:47 AM on December 2, 2007


Are you suggesting that would be acceptable in AskMe? Because I'm pretty fucking sure it wouldn't.

No, I'm not. But if I was a mod here, I'd axe it because the answer was screamingly obvious, not because it's based on something fictional. I'd also axe "If I'm thirsty, should I drink water or eat a pizza?"
posted by grumblebee at 7:49 AM on December 2, 2007


Yeah, I'm not seeing how this isn't a "made up 'what if' science question." (But I love the hypothetical questions in this thread!)
posted by gubo at 7:50 AM on December 2, 2007


Grumblebee, the problem with this question is that while the question is, technically, answerable, the answer doesn't really make anyone one bit more knowledgeable about anything.

The question contains two premises.

Premise 1: an absolutely symmetrical, non-random universe.

Premise 2: whatever happens in this universe, happens symmetrically and non-randomly.

Question: could this universe ever become non-symmetrical?

No, it could not. By definition.

Question: could I have a conversation with my identical twin?

Maybe. Depends on what you mean by conversation.

The answer consists in pointing out to the questioner that the premises of the question are outlandish and self-defeating.
posted by creasy boy at 7:52 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a parallel but non-identical universe, jessamyn did not think it violated the guidelines.
posted by yhbc at 7:53 AM on December 2, 2007


The OP in that thread kept stacking on "just supposes". If anyone had come up with an argument against, or a disappointing answer, even more supposes would have been added.

It's clear that the OP wasn't really asking a question. The OP was saying, "Please share this feeling with me." That's not what AskMe is supposed to be about.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:54 AM on December 2, 2007


There's no way to reasonably guess the strength of a zombie grizzly bear.

Duh, it's 11.7 kiloquads per parsec, everyone knows that!
posted by blue_beetle at 7:56 AM on December 2, 2007


It's impossible for there to be a six-foot tall, talking rabbit. Maybe to you, that means that it's silly to talk about where he would be sitting or standing, if he existed. But to me, it makes perfect sense.

grumblebee, I'm not sure if this is helpful or not, but another way to look at these things is by saying "Questions that create a specific world that has different qualities than the generally accepted real workd that we live in, in order to pose a question about the way things would work in that world are usually thought of as hypotheticals and not right for AskMe"

So, hotel prices generally are predictable in the real world we live in. Some people have their finger on the pulse of hotel room prices, some do not. Some people are better at answering that question. We know this from decades of experience. Saying "okay now there is no more randomness" is creating a world which we can only guess at in broad "gee whiz" ways. It makes the question answerable by anyone who wants to take a stab at it. That's the definition of chatfilter.

There are rare exceptions usually based on things with very codified rules like physics (gravity examples, etc). This is not one of those exceptions.

This is clearly not a distinction that makes sense to you, and I'm sorry for that. However, it seems to be a distinction that makes sense to a lot of other people. I'm not sure what the explanation is that will make sense to you, or even if there is one. I feel like we're in "This color looks blue to me but it looks green to everyone else, how can I determine how to see this color as green?" territory because we've had very similar discussions like this in MeTa before. I don't want to be rude and restate the AskMe/chatfilter guidelines, because I think you know them but I can't get inside your head to figure out why they cause you a lot of dissonance.

For this question, there were a few tip-offs

- assumption or creation of fictional rules as premise for the question
- hypothetical scenario
- fakeish problem to be solved
- everyone has an equally good answer

There's nothing intrinsically wrong wiht the quantum twin question, it's just not right for AskMe.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:03 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is "take it to BBQ" now official policy? I know it's Cortex's baby and all, and it got to be on MeTa not projects, but that's still iffy.
posted by roofus at 8:06 AM on December 2, 2007


no, bbq isn't official policy but it's a good place for questions like that, maybe I should expand the RFD some, it's early here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:10 AM on December 2, 2007


Grumblebee, the problem with this question is that while the question is, technically, answerable, the answer doesn't really make anyone one bit more knowledgeable about anything.

Yes, you are more knowledgeable. Your new knowledge is the answer to the question.

I know what happens in the end of "Citizen Kane." So I'm more knowledgeable than someone who doesn't, even though my knowledge pertains to a fictional world.


grumblebee, I'm not sure if this is helpful or not, but another way to look at these things is by saying "Questions that create a specific world that has different qualities than the generally accepted real workd that we live in, in order to pose a question about the way things would work in that world are usually thought of as hypotheticals and not right for AskMe"


No, I totally understand what you're saying, jessamyn. And I respect your right, as a mod, to make these decisions. I just happen to think it's an arbitrary decision. To me, it's sort of like saying, "On AskMe, we forbid all questions about gardening." Okay, I have to respect that. It's not my site. It just seems a bit odd to me.

I'm not upset about it or anything. I think this sort of discussion (how we relate to fictional worlds) is interesting, so I'm enjoying this discussion. But I'm happy to stop if people feel I'm just being contrary or boring.
posted by grumblebee at 8:22 AM on December 2, 2007


"I'm coming to New York next week. Where can I stay for under $200 a night?" That assumes a fictional universe in which prices next week will be the same that they are now. In general, it's safe to assume "all things being equal."

This is a poor example because it's a perfectly valid AskMe question with perfectly valid answers (couchsurfing, hostel, not a chance etc, etc), despite your narrow view of the question and limited view of the ansers.

Fictions contain rules. Those rules are binding.

Except when they're not.

If there IS an answer, how is such a question chatfilter?
Godzilla doesn't exist and the answer is so obvious that it would probably turn into a joke/bitchfest#234235 and the mods would close it based on any of the reasons above.

GB, you're pretty swell, but it seems silly to call this out. It was chatfilter, pure and simple. Have you been drinking? If so, please stay away from sharp objects.

If I asked, "If carpets could fly, and if they could fly distances of at least 800 miles, could I ride one from South Bend, Indiana to Chicago?" that dispenses with physics but not with logic.

Bullshit. That's like all those people who tried to strap wings to the human body so they could fly, not realizing that they're very specific reasons why a bird can fly under it's own power and a human. You can dream all you want, but the damn carpet ain't gonna fly and that's not just physics that's logic.

IF carpets could fly 800 miles, you COULD fly from South Bend to Chicago. That's not open to debate or opinion. You just COULD.

Not necessarily. After all, how are you going to stop from falling off the carpet? Protect yourself from the wind? How high can a carpet fly? Will it interfere with current flight patterns? How long would a carpet stand up to such flights (and the elements) before being useless? And would it still be stain resistant?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:23 AM on December 2, 2007


"This color looks blue to me but it looks green to everyone else, how can I determine how to see this color as green?"

Check the crayon box.
posted by jonmc at 8:23 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


It seems to be the same question as the "identity of indiscernables" which is a famous debate in metaphysics (especially between A.J. Ayer and Max Black) because it is foundational. Basically it is this: can two "identical" objects in space not be the "same" and how or why? There are lots of discussions about contingency, categorical and hypothetical identities. I recall talking of nothing but this question for a week during a metaphysics course.
posted by Brian B. at 8:25 AM on December 2, 2007


GB, you're pretty swell, but it seems silly to call this out. It was chatfilter, pure and simple. Have you been drinking? If so, please stay away from sharp objects.

No, I haven't been drinking. I get that you feel that I'm missing something obvious. I just happen to disagree with you.
posted by grumblebee at 8:25 AM on December 2, 2007


While I think the question in question (heh) is a bad one, I do think the mods tend to be a bit quick on the trigger when it comes to "hypothetical" questions. There was one deleted recently that was phrased something like "How far back would I have to travel in time to not be able to breed successfully with humans or human ancestors?" Clearly it is hypothetical -- no one is traveling back in time -- but I think there may very well be some science and reasoning that can at least bring us toward an answer, or at least a hypothesis. You could argue that the Asker could have phrased it better, but I think it was a bad deletion.

I also don't think "take it to the BBQ" is a valid suggestion at this point, at least until the BBQ moves away from the one question handed down from above model.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:27 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was going to ask why "take it to BBQ" wasn't a good idea, but I take Rock Steady's point.
posted by grouse at 8:30 AM on December 2, 2007


It was chatfilter, pure and simple.

To be more specific, I think "chatfiler" is a useful term to describe questions that can be answered by opinions, and all of those opinions will be equally valid/invalid. Example: "What should I name my cat?"

If a question can have a specific (non-opinion) answer, and if some answers are right and others are wrong, then it's not chatfilter. It may be a bad question in other ways, but it's not chatfilter.

Now you may think that the question we're discussing can only be answered via opinion and that all opinions will be equally valid. If so, THAT'S where we disagree. If someone had said, "clearly, you would talk about sports and your twin would talk about fashion," to me, that would simple be a wrong answer. Whereas I can't think of a wrong answer to the name-the-cat question.
posted by grumblebee at 8:30 AM on December 2, 2007


The OP had tagged his post with "hypotheticalPointlessQuestion". If that's not a self-callout as chatfilter, I'm not sure what is.
posted by ardgedee at 8:30 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


it's an arbitrary decision.

It totally is. I don't mind having this discussion with you in MeTa but if you're not arguing with the policy I'm not sure what you're getting at.

It's arbitrary, based on some conditions that we think will make AskMe more of a useful resource and less of a chatty place for people to just talk about what interests them. The line is chosen because it's easy to describe and for most people, makes general sense. There is NO value judgment ascribed to the not-good-for-AskMe questions except that they often get removed.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:33 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Also, you seem to be focussing on wrong answers as being a way to determine if everyone's answer is equally valid . My metric has always been "does everyone have the same tools for answering the question? The same data?"

In the twin example, while there can be righter and wronger answers, everyone is basically making guesses, no one has more real-world experiences that make them more likely to be right or wrong. If the OP is looking for help with a problem (and the problem is not that they are uninspired and need a list of names generated or something which we generally say okay to) and they are as good at answering it as anyone else in AskMe, that's what we mean by everyone's answer being equally valid.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:37 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]



"Who would win a fight -- Godzilla or an ant?"

Who would win a fight -- a grumblebee or a grouse?
posted by Killick at 8:44 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


it wasn't a question about science, it was a circle jerk for people who have watched too many reruns of Star Trek
posted by matteo at 8:48 AM on December 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


Whereas I can't think of a wrong answer to the name-the-cat question.

Kung Pao Chicken

Your ex /parent/child's name.

Steven Spielberg

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch

Not wrong in the black and white sense, but wrong in the sense that it is mean or thoughtless or pointless. It's just cat, you know?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:51 AM on December 2, 2007


Imagine two perfectly parallel universes. You and your twin are teleported into a perfectly symmetric room (down to the very particles of matter). So everything you see, your twin sees in the same way. You may assume any object exists in the room as long as it doesn't violate symmetry or non-randomness.

What would your twin name his cat?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:03 AM on December 2, 2007


Yeah, I kinda know what grumblebee means about the distinction of "chatfilter" here - there are plenty of questions that get to stay that are really more "chatty" (relationships, naming cats, etc), and there is a certain genre of questions - these hypothetical, sort of broadly philosophical style questions - that are really not "chat" in the usual sense, but are the kind of discussions that could go on for a long time, never get fully resolved, and will be considered pretty much pointless by the majority of folks.

Which seems like exactly what BBQ should be for, except as I said in the last thread, the one a day, chosen by moderator style feels pretty restrictive if the interest is that kind of question. I'd vote for just featuring one a day on the front page, but letting discussions continue message board style in the back, ordered by topic, rather than by date.
posted by mdn at 9:03 AM on December 2, 2007


I also don't think "take it to the BBQ" is a valid suggestion at this point, at least until the BBQ moves away from the one question handed down from above model.

I disagree, here's why: There's not an Official MetaFilter Site for chatfilter questions to get asked... I got the distinct impression that MetaChat has a different "business model", so to speak, so there wasn't an existing external site...

So if there's no place that perfectly-replicates-AskMe-but-where-chatfilter-questions-are-allowed, isn't it preferable to direct people to some place instead of no place?

And if it's preferable to direct people some place, why shouldn't it be to the effort of one of the MeFi staff?

(I realize that this idea presumes that one is okay with cortex using his status to promote a personal site in a fashion that wouldn't be available to a regular MeFite. I happen to be okay with it, because he's not a regular MeFite, and getting access that the rest of us don't have should be a perk of the job, seems to me... but I can see where if someone felt that BBQ hadn't been promoted in good faith, this would add insult to injury. </beans>)
posted by pineapple at 9:10 AM on December 2, 2007


It totally is. I don't mind having this discussion with you in MeTa but if you're not arguing with the policy I'm not sure what you're getting at.

My point was that -- if we define chatfilter as questions that can only be answered by opinions that are all equally valid -- then this is not chatfilter. Further, I don't think it makes much difference whether a question is about the real world or a fictional world, as-long-as whatever world it's about is bounded by clear rules.

You may agree with me about that (yet still feel the question is problematic), but I think others here disagree.

This wasn't exactly a callout (the question hadn't even been deleted when I posted this, and I wasn't sure that it would be). I had a META-response to a question (and some if its detractors), and I realized I was posting that response in the question itself -- and that it belonged, if anywhere, here and not there.

Also, you seem to be focussing on wrong answers as being a way to determine if everyone's answer is equally valid . My metric has always been "does everyone have the same tools for answering the question? The same data?"

I hadn't thought of it that way before. That's a good point. Is that explicit anywhere in the guidelines?

For a while, it's bothered me that "What's a good sci-fi book about robots?" is allowed. It seems like clearcut chatfilter to me (everyone's idea of what makes a "good" book is equally valid).

I just accepted that many people here -- including the mods -- happen to like such questions, so the rule against chatfilter is arbitrarily bent in such cases.

But your explanation makes much more sense. Fred has read 100 books about robots; Mike has only read four.

It does strike me that with more philosophical questions, such as the one under discussion here, some people are better qualified to answer because they've read more science and philosophy or have minds better-suited for contemplating and manipulating metaphors and abstractions. But I'd agree that it's pretty hard to quantify how how person might be better at such things than another.
posted by grumblebee at 9:12 AM on December 2, 2007


It's arbitrary, based on some conditions that we think will make AskMe more of a useful resource and less of a chatty place for people to just talk about what interests them. The line is chosen because it's easy to describe and for most people, makes general sense. There is NO value judgment ascribed to the not-good-for-AskMe questions except that they often get removed.

Ding! They're not inherently bad questions, and they're questions that mefites have often shown some wonderful capacity to answer with verve and ingenuity...but they're not (based on practical experience) great for AskMe's overall be-useful culture and we often delete them.

I snorted a little when I saw the deletion; as jessamyn said, the whole BBQ thing is not an official policy, and as excited as I am about the site, I do agree with Rock Steady:

I also don't think "take it to the BBQ" is a valid suggestion at this point, at least until the BBQ moves away from the one question handed down from above model.

For now, I've bookmarked the question because it does seem like a natural, but with the tight one-a-day-and-no-preview scheme I'm running the site on for the moment, that's not a whole lot of satisfaction for the disappointed. A more fluid question-flow model in the future might help—I like the idea of there being a SAVED FROM ICY SPACE-DEATH channel for AskMe deletions where it'd be easy for us to resurrect the sucker over there quickly and let people start over (or pick up where they left off, to whatever extent that's possible) in a not-getting-deleted environment.

But that's all an aside—hypothetical, chatty, what-if, wild-premise Let's Explore An Alternate World questions have gotten deleted and will continue to get deleted on a regular basis.

And maybe that's a good angle on the distinction. Get away from the idea of fictional vs. non-fictional as the determining factor—lots of good examples in the thread here of how that breaks down poorly as an objective guidelines—and look at it from this angle instead:

Reasoning vs. Exploring.

With the things that fall more into nixed hypothetical zone, the problem is often that, whether the premise is outlandish or subtle or in between, the answers are more of a mental romp through a fuzzy landscape, an exploration of the posited scenario or world that is often entertaining but pretty much unverifiable.

When there isn't a fairly clear path (and, in most cases, an pool of expertise) from which to reason to concrete, agreed-upon (or at least objectively disputable) answers to questions about the situation, we seem to have gotten away from the idea of solving a problem and fallen into exploration world. Very Calvin & Hobbes, very fun, but really not AskMe.

Metafilter: There's not much left but to load up the bong and start relatin', man.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:15 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


MetafilterBBQ: There's not much left but to load up the bong and start relatin', man.

Fixed that for you. I think it would more aptly fit your new site.
posted by grouse at 9:21 AM on December 2, 2007


If the universe is totally deterministic and both people are precisely the same, then they can communicate in a way by having the following thought: "That person over there is thinking exactly what I am thinking." They will henceforth know that every thought that they have is also a thought that the other person has; that seems like something like communication. Before, they'll try to communicate using words, but they'll say precisely the same thing at precisely the same time, and I don't think that hearing your precise words spoken at the same time as someone else counts as having a conversation. So, they can't have a conversation, but whether they can communicate, in a way, depends on the epistemic situation of the person-parts, and what you think communication has to be like.

Why isn't the question answerable, again? I mean, maybe that answer is wrong, but that just means that someone will shortly be 'round to tell me why their answer is better, right?
posted by Kwine at 9:25 AM on December 2, 2007


SAVED FROM ICY SPACE-DEATH channel for AskMe deletions

This might just encourage more chatfilter postings on AskMe.
posted by yarrow at 9:27 AM on December 2, 2007


If I may put my two cents in, I definitely see how this would fit into the implausible category. However, the spirit of the question is actually a logic puzzle (and, less obviously, a physics question). As a rough example just to illustrate how the question should be looked at, I would expect the classic logic puzzle of the troll that always tells the truth and the troll that always lies would be allowed on AskMeta (or some variation of it). And that particular puzzle is somewhat implausible and, for that matter, all about breaking symmetry. Or what about a physics question involving frictionless environments? Totally implausible, yet answerable, and in fact, essential to most physics questions.

In essence, I'm asking a logic puzzle with an added splash of implausible physics just as a setting; for example, is it possible for these hypothetical twins to knock over a bottle by spinning it while upright? Given that all the points of friction are perfectly opposed and that the twins are applying equal forces, would the bottle just spin in place? This is a test of equal and opposite reactions.

And I'm really not trying to spin (ha) my question in a way that allows it on the page. I think the question is just being looked at the wrong way. It's really just about logic, is answerable, and just happens to use an implausible scenario to illustrate the conditions and setting.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 9:36 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Kwine, I read the question and came to that same conclusion in two seconds. Sorry for sounding arrogant, but my (and your) conclusion seems, to me, to be as cut-and-dried RIGHT as an answer can be. Hence this thread. If I was a mod, I would consider axing the question because its answer is obvious.

To me, it feels like "if Earth had no oxygen, could life-forms EXACTLY like humans exist on it (without special equipment)?"

The RIGHT answer is, "um ... no."
posted by grumblebee at 9:37 AM on December 2, 2007


It's really just about logic, is answerable, and just happens to use an implausible scenario to illustrate the conditions and setting.

Yeah, that's what I felt, too.
posted by grumblebee at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2007


This might just encourage more chatfilter postings on AskMe.

Initially, yes. Then when people become aware of the alternative, cortex may want/have to consider a queue system or greater capacity. After all, you can only save things from ICY SPACE-DEATH if the salvation area is big enough. Your WARM SPACE-BUCKET of SHINY HAPPINESS will need to be capacious...

Eventually, people will only post these kinds of things to the alternative, as this becomes more obvious to them as being available.
posted by Brockles at 9:40 AM on December 2, 2007


...and the funny thing is, if I was running a site for Big Imponderable Questions, such as "Do we all perceive red the same way?" or "Does free will exist?", I would have deleted TimeTravelSpeed's question (no offense, TimeTravelSpeed) for being too cut-and-dry.
posted by grumblebee at 9:41 AM on December 2, 2007


For a while, it's bothered me that "What's a good sci-fi book about robots?" is allowed. It seems like clearcut chatfilter to me (everyone's idea of what makes a "good" book is equally valid).

grumblebee, I feel like you're having a one-sided argument for the most part here and you're proclaiming yourself as the winner even as people are pointing out the errors of judgment over and over. Just because we said "when all the answers are equally valid, it's likely chatfilter" doesn't mean that standard applies in every single case as you define it. When people are asking about opinions on a matter (especially a relationship) they can qualify their answers with actual experience and often do. In a hypothetical situation, they cannot.

"Name a good book about robots" is not a chatfilter question because books about robots exist and people read them here. There is no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge) as a parallel universe with your bizarro-world twin.

So, I've established that it's not chatfilter, but then you continue with this:

I just accepted that many people here -- including the mods -- happen to like such questions, so the rule against chatfilter is arbitrarily bent in such cases.

and that just seems like an unfair swipe at everyone. We're not tweaking rules based on personal opinions. The description of hypothetical situations that can't be answered is spelled out clearly and the example in the original post here clearly falls into it. Personal opinions about what we think is "cool" doesn't even factor into it.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 9:42 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, just to bicker with a small point that has been made..

In regards to this post... It is an extremely contentious issue to claim that mathematics is a fiction. That view is called fictionalism about mathematical objects and has really only been around for a short while, philosophically. It's "hot" philosophy right now, but it'd be wrong to assume that most people accept it. Furthermore, it's not a matter of "either fictionalism is true or you must accept Platonic forms." There are a lot of different theories about what, exactly, numbers are. Too many people hate Platonism but like being able to count for there not to be alternatives.

I don't actually know much about the philosophy of mathematics, but more information is available here.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:43 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I think part of the communication problem between grumblebee and jessamyn is that grumblebee wants there to be one single solid line for each potential deletion reason, and for people to be able to see both sides of the line and say 'yep, that's a keeper' or 'CHATFILTER! NUKE! NUKE! NUKE!!!11!1!' whereas jessamyn is looking at things with a more hazy eye.

Something can be deleted because it's one, huge, resounding, obvious violation of a single rule. Or it can be deleted because taken in the aggregate, all of the problems with a post add up to a crappy post. This one may not fall all the way into the bright red circle of chatfilter death, but there's a lot of other problems with it that end up pushing it over an edge.

And then the deletion reason, which can't be 'Well, this is sorta chatfiltery, plus it's based on a bunch of lame, deliberately restrictive premises, plus it's an impractical hypothetical and ... ' listing all of the issues with the post, becomes a shorter, more succinct summary.

And then comes the MeTa thread.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:43 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Hmm, I'm getting in kind of late here, but here goes.

Well, this is disappointing. The question is actually very useful, but it's dressed up in a very silly sounding premise. Suppose the question had been worded as
Assume two identical agents in a symmetrical environment facing each other. Would they ever be able to communicate, assuming they don't have access to a random number generator? Is there some algorithm they could use?
It sounds more plausible

It's like saying, if 2 + 2 = 5, then what would 6 × 48 be equal to? You could construct some sort of arithmetic were adding the symbols 2 and 2 would get you the symbol 5, but it would be totally different from our own, and there would be no way to answer what 6 × 48 was without more of the rules. It could be 6, or 92, or 4A56φ99.

That's a completely ridiculous response, the question is no different then the freshman physics problems that involve "frictionless objects."

The rule changes proposed in the question are not 'inconsistent' the way 2+2=5 would be. If you remove friction from a simulation, everything still makes sense.
posted by delmoi at 9:44 AM on December 2, 2007


It's really just about logic, is answerable, and just happens to use an implausible scenario to illustrate the conditions and setting.

But by removing the plausibility, are you not removing the foundation of logic that is required? Logic requires knowledge and form to progress, and you pretty much took the rug out with the provisos, I think.

Or you could just answer it by whipping out some theory based on several things that you made up to answer it. I thought it was (rightly) deleted as any means of logically approaching an answer had been effectively negated with the provisos. It left nothing to work with but guesswork without frames, and guess answers aren't for AskMefi (based on my short experience of it)
posted by Brockles at 9:45 AM on December 2, 2007


Yes, but could Kirk kick Picard's ass or not?
posted by jonmc at 9:45 AM on December 2, 2007


No. Kurt has short legs and Picard is tall.
posted by Brockles at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2007


Kirk. Arse.
posted by Brockles at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2007


As a rough example just to illustrate how the question should be looked at, I would expect the classic logic puzzle of the troll that always tells the truth and the troll that always lies would be allowed on AskMeta (or some variation of it).

That's another good angle on it. One of the things that very much matters on AskMe is presentation: a good core of a question presented in a bad way can add up to a question that's bad for AskMe: the thread becomes an argument, people react to the presentation instead of the question, people can't agree on what the question really is, etc.

There's a sense of compromise to how we deal with these, administratively; sometimes a question is so badly made that it's saner to just delete it, sometimes it's clearly fine but someone early in the thread reacted badly and started a storm and we're left to try and clean up and drop a warning to try and rerail it. Some things fall in between and that's the tricky grey area that gets us yelled at the most, in a damned-if-do/don't sort of bind.

So what's the difference between a good (aka concrete, definable logic puzzle) thought question wrapped up in guidelines/norms-jarring Scifi What If language, and a good (aka answerable, rational) personal question wrapped up in distracting language (bad grammar, weird flame-baity asides) or a controversial view?

It's not a simple question, but I'd say we're generally a lot more motivated to do a bunch of work to make it so that someone can get answers to a real-life issue affecting them personally than we are to do all that work on something that's clearly a fanciful thought-experiment. There's a cost to maintaining a contentious thread in a way to hews to acceptable askme conduct, and we're going to pick our battles on that.

If there's a question that appears superficially to be hypothetical chatfilter ("So imagine you came across two trolls, and there was a scroll laying on the ground that explained that one of them is a liar...") but does in fact have a rock-solid core to it ("Help me understand this paradox or proposition of formal logic"), we might nuke the question for the mess it is causing or is likely to cause; but the core question there is fine, and someone (OP or otherwise) is generally going to be just fine reworking the presentation to make it clear that the question is about a specific well-laid out rational scenario and not about Magical Trolls and Scrolls.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:49 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


That question was fucking retarded.
posted by puke & cry at 10:04 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Kwine, I read the question and came to that same conclusion in two seconds. Sorry for sounding arrogant, but my (and your) conclusion seems, to me, to be as cut-and-dried RIGHT as an answer can be

I don't think that's arrogant; the question seems to start from that assumption, but is asking if perhaps there is some possible hole in the logic, some way that the equal and opposite forces left facing each other could be broken out of their eternal mirroring.

But I agree that the problem is the way it's framed: on a logical level it's asking, if we have a set where A and B are identical, completely determined, and mirroring each other, will they do so forever, and on an intuitive level, we introduce things like rooms and twins and behavior and action. So intuitively one's interested in finding a way out because really the universe is probably not completely logically determinate, and quantum physics is probably not crap, and so on - but that's been excised from the premise of the question. If we accept the simplified logical premise, then we're stuck with the simplified logical answer. And none of it means anything about actual alternate universes :).
posted by mdn at 10:07 AM on December 2, 2007


By the way, if anyone is looking for a place where such question (specifically, philosophical ones) might be more accepted, take a look at infidels.org's message board. I haven't spent much time there (yet), so I may be wrong, but it seems to be a large, intelligent community.

and that just seems like an unfair swipe at everyone. We're not tweaking rules based on personal opinions.

I'm sorry if I come across that way. For the record, let me state that I think this site is excellently run. I may not agree with all policies, but I know they're all deeply thought out and done with good intentions. Some of the deletions seem arbitrary to me, and I know that's inevitable. There MUST be judgment calls. It's not an exact science. Still, I feel that such calls are fair game for criticism, questioning and commentary -- as-long-as the critiques are polite. If I stepped over-the-line into impoliteness, please accept my apology.

I really don't have a big problem with this deletion. I started this thread BEFORE the question got deleted and I wasn't sure that it WOULD get deleted. Nor did I care much whether it got deleted or not. I accept that this question is a bad question for AskMe, whether or not I understand the reasons for it being bad.

My problem is not with the deletion, it's with the categorization of the question as chatfilter or as unanswerable (or as one in which every answer is equally valid). I'm not proclaiming myself "the winner," but so far no one has convinced me that the question is fuzzy. I think it's a very simple, easy-to-answer question.

It's funny. I'm used to having this argument, but from the "other side of the mirror" (maybe my twin is having it!) When I'm directing plays, I'm always arguing that we can't do this or that, because it will violate the rules of the fictional world.

I don't direct sci-fi, but I'll use that genre to bring up a simple example: it doesn't bother me that there's sound in space in "Star Wars," because that fantasy rule is established from the get-go. But if Stanley Kubrick had suddenly included a noisy space ship in the middle of "2001" (a movie in which it's ESTABLISHED that there's no sound in space), in my view, that would have been wrong. It would have been a violation of his own fictional world.

Another way of saying this is that if I asked, "can sound occur in outer space in the world of '2001'?" I think someone could accurately and fairly answer that question, even if he'd only seen half of the movie. IF, upon seeing the second half and noting sound in outer space, he'd STILL be right (in my view) to still insist that sound can't logically occur in that world -- and that Kubrick had misunderstood the rules of his own fiction and made a mistake.

Similarly, if I say, "I'm making up a new mathematical system in which there's no numeral 3," I can't then turn around and ask what, in my system, would be the result of adding "32 + 4." It doesn't matter that my system is "made up." Once I establish a rule -- even in my own system -- I'm as bound to it as everyone else.

My concern is that some people seem to be equating these two things:

"Freeb blorg muuble plap"

"Le's assume there's no number 3."

... and acting as if they have about the same relationship to meaningful discourse.

"Name a good book about robots" is not a chatfilter question because books about robots exist and people read them here. There is no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge) as a parallel universe with your bizarro-world twin.

My problem is not with "robots" it's with "good." There's no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge -- or elsewhere) as a non-opinion, non-chat definition of good.
posted by grumblebee at 10:16 AM on December 2, 2007


There's no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge -- or elsewhere) as a non-opinion, non-chat definition of good.

Well, one of the definitions of 'good' here is 'successful', which is not opinion based if you translate that as 'commercially successful'.

It depends on how you view good - as a means of classifying quality (in which case it is pretty much subjective) or merely indicating a likely perception.

"It's a good book" from 100 people has more worth than from only 2. So it is a means, in the question mentioned, of quantifying 'likely satisfaction from reading it'. You could use the various answers to judge the parity of your tastes. So it CAN be answered definitively to some extent if by 'good' you mean 'likely to appeal to me' or 'likely to be considered good by me after I have read it' if you have defined some parameters for comparison.

It is not a black and white question, more of a 'reducing the probability of being a bad choice' question. Statistically improving the quality of a random choice which, with more input, becomes less and less subjective through majority opinion.

I think. Um. This is getting awfully complicated to explain...
posted by Brockles at 10:28 AM on December 2, 2007


My problem is not with "robots" it's with "good." There's no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge -- or elsewhere) as a non-opinion, non-chat definition of good.

But there is a reasonable notion of critical evaluation that, while never completely objective, is yards beyond the everything-is-as-valid procedure of lining up every book about robots ever and picking one at random.

People have read books, individually and collectively, and can respond to the question based on their personal and shared reactions to the books they've read, and offer suggestions based on that and on any specifics the asker might have offered. They can offer reasoning about why they think it's a good book. And in the end, the asker (and other readers) have a reliable (if not, no, scientifically-grounded, wholly objective) guide to going out and snagging a book or three about robots.

I think it's that concreteness, that useful meta-criticism to the end of helping decide on a book to read, that really identifies the distinction between such a question and chatfilter.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:28 AM on December 2, 2007


Today on the internet I have learned that BBQ is great, but it would be better if it wasn't handed out by one guy once a day.

Which is pretty much the same in non-digital life as well.

posted by YoBananaBoy at 10:42 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


My problem is not with the deletion, it's with the categorization of the question as chatfilter or as unanswerable (or as one in which every answer is equally valid). I'm not proclaiming myself "the winner," but so far no one has convinced me that the question is fuzzy. I think it's a very simple, easy-to-answer question.

Yeah, I disagree with the people saying it can't be answered. The problem is that it's so far up the hypothetical scale that its answerability counts for naught.
posted by cillit bang at 10:51 AM on December 2, 2007


Cortex, I sort of visualize the mod process (apropos to this discussion) this way:

1. "What should I name my cat?"
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |-------------------------[]-| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |-[]-------------------------| Fictional

2. "What's a good book about robots?"
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |--------------------[]------| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |-[]-------------------------| Fictional

3. The question this post is about:
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |--[]------------------------| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |-------------------------[]-| Fictional

4. "Please help me answer this math story problem. I'm not taking a test or anything. It's just bugging me that I can't figure it out! The question is..."
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |--[]------------------------| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |-------------------------[]-| Fictional

5. "I don't like the way 'Gone With the Wind' ended. Can you come up with a better ending?"
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |-------------------------[]-| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |-------------------------[]-| Fictional

6. "How do I fix my bike? It's broken in X specific way?"
Answers are best on iron-clad reasoning/observation or opinion?
Fact |--[]------------------------| Opinion
Answer affects objects in the real world:
Real |--[]------------------------| Fictional

I'm assuming that 6 would be the pretty much guaranteed to stay and 1 and 5 would be axed immediately. 2 would stay for reasons you've mentioned. The others are a little grayer, though I suspect 4 would survive. To me, 4 and the question this thread is about are pretty much on the same level. But I take your point about presentation.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on December 2, 2007


grumblebee, in your above example, #5 is the only one that is absolute hypothetical chatfilter.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 10:59 AM on December 2, 2007


Okay. I was about to post what I think was an excellent argument for keeping my post (which, by the way, included that I very much understand the administration argument). However, after reading the comments on the deleted post, and on this thread, I'm going to easily settle with the administrators. By the time the question was adequately defended, other posts would have pushed down and off the front page, and everyone would be sick to death of the whole thing.

I think I'll just have to keep it to in-person discussions. I'm disappointed, though, because I believe that I would have gotten some very fascinating, and informed ideas about the problem. Thank you for all the links to other sites where I could post it. I'll take it over there and just flush this turd ;)

But as a eulogy to the post, I really don't think it's as big a turd question as many make it out to be. My presentation was apparently unfortunate (although I'm not sure how it could be better, at least without making it dry and boring, or open to "drunk" answers) but I'd hazard a guess that a fair number of people who had read the question will find themselves puzzling over it awhile. Many of my computer science comrades hate me for putting this seed in their brain for eternity. Every so often they'll come to me with a new potential solution; we discuss it for awhile, and then disprove it and laugh that we're still thinking about it :-).
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 11:01 AM on December 2, 2007


My problem is not with "robots" it's with "good." There's no such thing (in the body of scientific knowledge -- or elsewhere) as a non-opinion, non-chat definition of good.

grumblebee, we never said opinion was off-limits. Again, we said that questions where every answer is opinion and no one is more correct than any other (to a reasonable person) may indicate it's a chatfilter question. When you throw hypothetical situations on top of that, it's further afield into chatfilter and deletion land.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 11:02 AM on December 2, 2007


Ha! Nice visualization, grumblebee.

I'd say in general you're on the mark, though (different argument entirely) "name my cat" stuff is not going to get axed immediately most of the time.

The difference between 3 and 4 reveals a limitation in the simple Fact-Opinion continuum you're presenting here, though. Just how clearly something is stated as factually approachable is a big question, and the difference between "explain this logic puzzle" and "explain this complicated hypothetical premise" is that the former is often a lot more clear and concrete about the facts involved than the latter.

When a big part of answering the question is necessarily figuring out and agreeing on what the actual premise—as opposed to the premise actually communicated, despite the poster's intent or because the poster didn't really have a concrete premise after all—then the appeal to "fact" falls kind of short.

Again, yeah, it may be that the presentation is the major confounding factor sometimes, but I think people have shown reasonably good sense in identifying where a question is a hard-fact hypothetical vs. a Hey What If kind of thing.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:03 AM on December 2, 2007


There is a difference between a situation that hasn't happened yet (anticipating facts) and one that cannot happen (a question contrary to fact).

And there's a difference between a situation that can't happen and that's contrary to fact, and a situation that's so far removed from any conceivable reality that all answers are equally bullshit.

The question has no answers, because the asker took great pains to make sure that was the case. I mean, assume quantum mechanics are bullshit, and there's no such thing as randomnes? In that circumstance, all of these are excellent answers:

*They would do the same thing, because they're the same.
*They would instantly diverge for some reason and start having a conversation.
*Without quantum mechanics, they would both, at best, fall down dead immediately.
*Without quantum mechanics, both would be instantly blind because their rods and cones would no longer be able to absorb photons, so their surroundings are irrelevant.
*They would both immediately explode, because the gods will it.
*I would fuck them both.

This is a question for which there is not even potentially an useful answer. There is absolutely no basis in logic or empirics for any answer whatsoever because the question isn't just divorced from reality, it's fundamentally divorced from any possible reality.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:07 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Oh, and I definitely disagree that this was chatfilter. Totally answerable, and as plausible as frictionless surfaces in a vacuum. Still should be deleted though ;) Okay, I'm done. Really. I'm serious. I'm not going to write any more words about it. Period.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 11:08 AM on December 2, 2007


Many of my computer science comrades hate me for putting this seed in their brain for eternity.

There isn't a question.

If there is randomness, they will quickly diverge from each other.

If there isn't randomness and quantum mechanics, then there isn't any such thing as human mentation and the question is moot. Or, at best, the conditions of such a universe are so far from ours that we cannot even usefully speculate on what might happen under such conditions. We do not even know if matter, or something like it, would be possible in such a radically different universe.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Totally answerable, and as plausible as frictionless surfaces in a vacuum.

No. Talking about frictionless surfaces in a vacuum involves only removing a couple of complicating factors from some equations and getting answers that are highly similar to the answers we might expect from the real world of very, very low friction and high-quality but not perfect vacuum.

No quantum mechanics and no randomness isn't a simpler approximation of a situation that you might, potentially, be able to create and observe. It abandons the fundamental underpinnings of our entire universe and throws the entirety of our knowledge of physics and chemistry out the window.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:17 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Man, I want some BBQ now.
posted by puke & cry at 11:19 AM on December 2, 2007


And no, it wasn't answerable. I mean, Jesus Christ, come on. Parallel-universe-twin? What are you smoking?
posted by puke & cry at 11:20 AM on December 2, 2007


I think it's a very simple, easy-to-answer question.

Except that almost no one seems to agree with you, including the original poster, who says:

I believe that I would have gotten some very fascinating, and informed ideas about the problem.

Not "the answer," but "some very fascinating, and informed ideas about the problem." Chatfilter.

And you can sit around saying "But I know my answer is right!" all you like, but if you can't prove it to the satisfaction of everyone in the room, you are likely to be eaten by a grue.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on December 2, 2007


Also, I want some BBQ now.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on December 2, 2007


I think it's that concreteness, that useful meta-criticism to the end of helping decide on a book to read, that really identifies the distinction between such a question and chatfilter. posted by cortex at 10:28 AM on December 2 [+] [!]

And certainty. It is presumed that when a concrete suggestion is made, the questioner is expected to know which suggestion is more correct.
posted by Brian B. at 11:33 AM on December 2, 2007


While I think this question was pointless, I also think every relationship question that asks random strangers to interpolate the inner life of a sketchily described object of projected affection and then present to the questioner some goal-directed analysis of hypothetical judgements emanating from this inner life in order to effect some real-world desired outcome is the epitome of a fictional world narrative and an objectively unanswerable question. These discursions are shrouded in a cloak of reality but in fact are fictional abstractions of limited worth beyond their own narrow, irrational problem domain that really only makes sense to the questioner and for everyone else has limited, non-mappable utility. If mods allow such relationship questions (and in many cases actually seem to enjoy contributing to them), then pointless hypothetical irrational questions like this should also get a pass.
posted by meehawl at 11:33 AM on December 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Some pork ribs would be nice.
posted by puke & cry at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2007


The deletion was proper, because nobody appeared to understand the question. Focusing on the question itself--as opposed to the community's response to it--just gives rise to these vague fact/opinion standards that are so difficult to apply.

If a question is being interpreted many different ways and receiving wildly divergent answers, it's clear we can't answer it, even if it's answerable in some abstract sense.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 11:40 AM on December 2, 2007


Who here likes BBQ? I love BBQ.
posted by grouse at 11:44 AM on December 2, 2007


Thanks for the clarifications, matthowie and cortex.

ROU_Xenophobe, I'm pretty sure TimeTravelSpeed's ban on QM was simply a way to say "please don't introduce randomness" into the question. (Don't answer it by saying, small bits of randomness would cause the twins to act differently. Aside from QM randomness, is there any other reason they'd act differently?)

Now, if your response to that is it say, "Well, then your question is meaningless, because there will always be randomness," then we have no basis for discussion. I'm not disagreeing with you about randomness. I agree that -- in the real world -- it will always be there. But your view -- if I'm not misrepresenting it -- is that one can't follow a logical path in a fictional world that differs fundamentally from our own. That's where I disagree.

Let's say I posit a world without QM but one in which people are emotionally the same as in this world. I think it's totally meaningful to suggest that if, in such a world, if you slap someone, they'll get pissed at me.

If you ask me how it's possible for people to have emotions (or to even exist) without QM, I'll say that it doesn't matter. They just DO in my world. I guess you can reject that, but then you're also rejecting all sorts of fantasy stories and scenarios.

It's also possible for randomness to exist but to not matter on the level at which we're talking about. Sometimes randomness gets statistically averaged out.

I think TimeTravelSpeed has a real question but a banal one. (TimeTravelSpeed, what am I not getting? Why do your CompSci friends think your question is so deep?) Perhaps much of my issue here has to do with the fact that others see the question as paradoxical and unanswerable whereas I -- maybe wrongly -- see it as simple.

The question (as I see it) is similar to this one: if you take two identical wind-up watches and and wind them both EXACTLY the same amount (assuming you can be that accurate), will they both wind down at the same rate and stop at the same time? The answer of course is yes.

If it's "no," that's because small differences (in the clockwork, winding ability, environment, etc.) have been introduced.

But if I state that I'm setting this in a fictional world, in which two watches can be ABSOLUTELY identical -- as can environments and windings -- then how can there be a difference in their rates?

You can say that no such world can exist, so the question is meaningless. I prefer to say that such a world is boring, but it does have a meaningful logic, whether it can exist or not.

Logical systems don't have to take everything about the world into account. If P equals Q then Q equals P, regardless of how Jupiter orbits the sun. Or, if Jupiter's orbit forces us to profoundly change our view of what "equals" means, we can still imagine a world in which "P equals Q" implies "Q equals P."
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2007



And you can sit around saying "But I know my answer is right!" all you like, but if you can't prove it to the satisfaction of everyone in the room, you are likely to be eaten by a grue.


Fair enough. But you're the first person to say that. I keep saying it's a simple question, it's a simple question, it's a simple question.... The OP obviously disagrees with me, but I was under the impression that no one else cared -- that they thought it was chatfilter (or bad in some other way) regardless of whether it was simple or not.
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on December 2, 2007


With 100-odd replies here already, you get your chat one way or the other.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:54 AM on December 2, 2007


ROU_Xenophobe, you really can't imagine what a fully deterministic universe would look like? How about:
"You know the way our universe looks to us at a 'human-sized thing' level of inquiry? Well, imagine that we weren't wrong about that based on what we learned when we looked at the 'very tiny thing' level of inquiry."
I trust my intuitions about determined-looking things way more than I trust my intuitions about elementary particles, because I interact with determined-looking things basically every second of my life. Like when one thing 'causes' another. If someone posts a question about whether greenhouse gases cause global warming, is the question unanswerable because the notion of 'cause' requires assuming the truth of determinism to make sense of it, and determinism is false?
Therefore, the question is answerable. In fact, I answered it a few comments ago. Did that answer read like incoherent nonsense to you because of quantum mechanics?
posted by Kwine at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sure, if you were to remove quantum mechanics from our universe it would be destroyed. No argument.

Is it so hard to imagine a universe based on pure causality, though? After all, isn't that what was essentially believed to be the case a half-century ago, including one particular prominent physicist?

Guys, obviously, this is just a thought experiment. Of course I recognize the existence of quantum theory, and that this scenario would never occur and all that. I'm sure good ol' Al didn't actually think one could ride a train at the speed of light or time it with a stopwatch (although his clearly had a useful objective. But I don't think he'd discourage me from thinking about it, or asking other mature, intelligent people about it). I only posed the restrictive setting to visualize a problem of breaking symmetry. If it's so fundamentally flawed, I'm just as interested to hear why that might be. Regardless of how good a thought experiment is, I don't particularly think it deserves as much debate (from either side) or criticism as it seems to have received, but maybe it really is just that silly.

languagehat, I don't disagree with him, actually.

puke & cry, it's answerable in the sense that any potential solution can be shown to work or not to work.

meehawl, I... nevermind.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2007


Well, the issue with QM is that without QM (or the physical phenomena which QM models), you don't get things like DNA, enzymes, and carbohydrates. All of these depend on the basic fact that the negative electrical charge associated with an atom or molecule is distributed in 3D space rather than embodied in a singular location of a particle. No QM, no chemistry as we know it. No chemistry as we know it, the question self destructs.

Or perhaps a better way of framing the policy is to say that Ask is not the place for open-ended gedanken experiments. Questions about cat names and books (and software and music) are easily answered by sets and lists. Philosophical gedanken experiments often do little more than invite debate about which rules do or do not hold true for this hypothetical situation. Now of course, this is a comparatively well grounded one, but an overal skepticism of gedanken experiments is justified because most of them run along the lines of, "Who would win a battle of the Enteprise vs. the Death Star."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:10 PM on December 2, 2007


grumblebee, I think what gets everyone interested in the scenario is trying to come up with an object, or algorithm that would help. I think CS folks just love causality (if this, then this. Period), algorithms, and pointless questions (can a Turing machine solve any problem a computer can? If so, how can we prove it?). That and the fact that we have just little enough knowledge of physics to make the journey an adventure ;)

What really encouraged everyone was the possibility of knocking over the bottle to introduce a pseudo-random selector. And when we realized it couldn't be knocked over there was just this "whoa" moment. I guess I wrongly assumed other people might have the same experience ;)
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 12:14 PM on December 2, 2007


Wow. After reading more about BigBigQuestion it seems like exactly the place to put my type of question. Thanks for the suggestion jessamyn!
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 12:19 PM on December 2, 2007


Thanks for the suggestion jessamyn!

You're very welcome.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:58 PM on December 2, 2007


This question has plagued me for years: In the distant future, if we were to destroy our universe with our consumption of practical things--if every man, woman, child, and cat in the universe had the perfect wristwatch, vehicle, jewelry, weapon, video game, cleaning product, sexual aid, and scratching post, but no clean air, water, or food--would we search for a parallel universe to occupy in the hope that its inhabitants led a more philosophical existence? Would we wonder if they asked more "what if" questions and fewer "find me the perfect corkscrew" questions than we did? Would we still define "practical" the same way?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2007


Let's say I posit a world without QM but one in which people are emotionally the same as in this world.

Well, I guess we have nothing to discuss, but that series of English words doesn't code for any meaning. The first part negates the second.

ROU_Xenophobe, you really can't imagine what a fully deterministic universe would look like?

Nope, and neither can you. We don't know how, if at all, energy would be transmitted across vast distances of vacuum. We don't know how chemistry would work, if at all.

I only posed the restrictive setting to visualize a problem of breaking symmetry. If it's so fundamentally flawed, I'm just as interested to hear why that might be.

Because the setting is so narrow as to be meaningless. By restricting the setting so strongly, any answer is right. And wrong. It is chatfilter for the same reason that asking whether Jesus could microwave a burrito that was so hot that even He couldn't eat it is chatfilter -- not only is there no answer, it is not even possible for there to be any useful answer.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:13 PM on December 2, 2007


I agree with you completely, grumblebee; TimeTravelSpeed has asked the question in a somewhat confused and incoherent way (in my opinion), but a perfectly good and addressable question about determinism is lurking just beneath the surface, easily visible to anyone willing to change their perspective around a bit to avoid distracting superficial reflections.

I can think immediately of at least 10 users whose views about it I think I would have found highly illuminating-- and TTS, too. Such views might have addressed the distinctive challenges to the kind of determinism TTS invites us to adopt posed by quantum mechanics on the one hand, and chaos theory on the other, and then proceeded to the surprisingly thorny problem of reconciling those two theories, each with strong experimental foundations, for example.

To base deletions as 'chatfilter' on a moderator's grasp of the content of a question, as was done here, is to risk falling into the Jowett of Balloil college fallacy ('if I don't know it, it isn't knowledge'); instead, such deletions should be based mainly on an assessment of the intent of the OP, and in this case, it is pellucidly apparent that this is a real question to TTS.
posted by jamjam at 1:16 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another piece of the "chatfilter" distinction as I've always understood it is a matter of utility. AskMe questions are supposed to be useful in the real world. So it's not just a scale of how hypothetical or opinion based the answers are. That's why people often suggest "Just say you're writing a book and you can ask any question you want". If there is a concrete usefulness to the question, it's no longer just mental gymnastics. It becomes a problem with a solution. I think utility carries a lot more weight that fact/opinion or real/fictional.

Maybe if you look at this question through this light it will be a little more clear why it's "chatfilter". Now that the asker has their answers, what are they going to do with them? Have they solved a problem, or have they just spent some time talking about something interesting? Like jessamyn was saying, it's not that there's anything wrong with talking about interesting hypotheticals, but AskMe is more for getting real world results.
posted by team lowkey at 1:25 PM on December 2, 2007


If I had six fingers on each hand, could I finally pick my friend's nose?
posted by The Deej at 1:30 PM on December 2, 2007


instead, such deletions should be based mainly on an assessment of the intent of the OP

It's a nice idea, but part of being able to have guidelines that are understandable to the widest group of people includes a "no mindreading" clause. The onus is on the person asking the question to make themselves understood or, barring that, being available for follow-up questions if the question hasn't been removed.

This way we don't have to come to MeTa and deal with allegations of whether we did or did not assess someone's intent correctly, favoritism, etc. We've said many many times here: phrasing matters. Even if I grok what the OP is getting at, many many people will not or may not. It's simple to make your question not seem chatfilterish if that's your intent. Starting with not using the hypotheticalPointlessQuestion tag, for example.

That said, based on your phrasing, I can't even tell if you're making a joke or not. Pellucidly?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't mean to continue a debate that's obviously over in any practical sense, but I just want to understand Xenophobe a little better.

Are you saying that any question of the form "In a purely causal system, could X occur?" is as equally meaningless? I'm asking only so that I can understand what you're saying. If you say "yes", then I get it. If you say "no" then I'm confused.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2007


If I had six fingers on each hand, could I finally pick my friend's nose?

No, but if you had seven you would finally have one for each orifice.
posted by tkolar at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2007


If you're actually rigidly insisting on the totally causal, utterly nonrandom nature of the system, and you're talking about anything purportedly related to the physical world, then yes, it's equally meaningless.

Even taken as a matter of breaking symmetry and leaving the handwaving aside, the answer is:

Wait a while and some apparently-random shit will happen to break it. Their breathing will create air currents that, after bouncing around a lot, will cause one to blink while the other doesn't.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:57 PM on December 2, 2007


And of course, that answer is also completely wrong.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:58 PM on December 2, 2007


Will there be pie at the BBQ?
posted by blue_beetle at 2:29 PM on December 2, 2007


No, but we'll declaw some nonsmoking cats.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:38 PM on December 2, 2007


I flagged the question because it breaks
the surface of the mundane, because it breaks
God's covenant, my heart; it breaks,
I flagged.
posted by Abiezer at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I keep reading BBQ as Big, Beautiful Question
posted by fermezporte at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


2 words: spare. ribs.
posted by puke & cry at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2007


ROU_Xenophobe, I'm curious (and I mean that -- genuinely curious, no snark) as to how you deal with fantasy? For instance, in the "Song Ice and Fire" series (have you read it?), the author creates a world in which seasons last for decades. In these books, it might be winter for 40 years. This MIGHT be possible -- in real life -- if a planet had an eccentric orbit. But there are clues in the stories that it doesn't; that the planet's orbit doesn't account for the seasons.

I won't go into all the details, but there's basically no plausible scientific explanation. In interviews, the author makes clear that he never intends to provide any -- or try to. He considers the seasons to be magic.

In most other ways (excepting a few other magical elements), the world of those books is similar to our world. If someone falls off a tower, gravity will splat them on the ground, etc.

How do you deal with stories like this? Is it your feeling that since the author has violated physics (via "magic") in one way, then ANYTHING goes? Because to me, anything does NOT go. If Bugs Bunny suddenly appeared in the story, or if a normal person walked on water, I would be very upset. I would feel cheated by the author. Yet I never feel this way. I feel very comfortable with him saying, "This is set in a world like ours, except for unexplainable reasons, the seasons last longer. I can even make predictions based on this."

If I say, "Once upon a time there was a little boy who lived in a house just like your, except he could see past events in the bedroom mirror..." Do you stop me and quiz me about how a record of the past could possibly still exist in the present day. And if I say, "I don't know, it's just magic," is the story from that point on just anarchy? I did say that the boy lived in a house that was OTHERWISE just like yours. But now that I've introduced a magical element, does all prediction go out the window? Is it now cool to say, "there was a staircase that lead to heaven and a dragon in the basement"? To me, no, because those thing don't exist in your house.

How do you deal with Euclidean Geometry? Does anything go, because there's no such thing as a dimensionless point in real life?

If something really wacky happened in real life, say if every time you let go of a specific red ball, it floated upwards, how would you deal with that? Let's say that you absolutely couldn't account for the floating ball. Nor could anyone else. But after decades of studying it, though no one could account for it, it always floated upwards when released. If I then tell you I'm going to release it, what's your prediction going to be? That it will probably float upwards or that, since it seems to violate laws of physics, all bets are off and anything could happen?

I'm not trying to bate you. I'm genuinely trying to understand what seem to be a mind that's very different from mine.

Have I totally misunderstood you? If so, please explain. What sorts of counterfactuals are reasonable?
posted by grumblebee at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Regardless of how ROU_Xenophobe feels about it, the kind of crazy fantasy questions you raise have no place on ask metafilter. That's as far as you need to go with it. Crazy fantasy questions == not what ask metafilter is for.
posted by puke & cry at 2:57 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee: It's not (from what I can tell) that it is a real situation with some aspects removed, it is that it is presented as a real situation that has enough fundamental aspects removed as to void it from being sensible as a 'situation'. It just becomes meaningless to question the behaviour of the parameters when so many have been removed.

As a question, it didn't give you anything to go on, as 80% (a guess, but a number as a representative of my understanding of it) of the affecting parameters are removed.

This is exactly the same as your version of the man walking on water, There comes a point when the person trying to understand the situation goes *pop* out of it and sees it as stupid. Your examples show quite subtle changes to a created environment that you are able to accept. None of the changes given as provisos in that question were minor. Not even on their own. When you add up significant and individually massive provisos, the question relies on so much vagueness it loses credibility as an answerable question.

To the people that object to it, the only analogy I can think of is of giving a book to someone and saying:

Take out the vowles. And the glue holding the pages together. And the paper. How does the story end?

You've simply taken too much out to have anything other than blind, unguided, conjecture to base your answer on.
posted by Brockles at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2007


TimeTravelSpeed says "when we realized it couldn't be knocked over there was just this "whoa" moment. I guess I wrongly assumed other people might have the same experience ;)".

I think that's exactly the kind of thing that makes it wise to delete questions that are in this neighborhood. It's fun to discuss wild hypotheticals and logic puzzles that will blow your mind, man. One of my internal guides to what's chatfiltery is if a question has a background feeling of "yo- I heard this the other day, and it will just blow your mind, man". That means: I have thought about it and realized there isn't really an answer to the question as posed, and now I want to invite you guys over and host a discussion where you will all share in my enjoyment of this "woah" feeling without making any real progress toward an answer.


Philosophy digression:
grumblebee et al: you might be interested in the current debates in philosophy over what kinds of possibility there are. There seem to be at least this many:
-metaphysical/logical possibility -- things that are possible given the laws of logic.
-nomological possibility -- things that are possible under whatever physical laws govern the actual world.
-epistemic possibility for an agent -- things that are possible given what the agent knows. (this one is really just a convenient shorthand, not strictly a type of possibility)
-fictional possibility for some fictional world -- things that re possible given what is established about that fictional world.

So, for example, the scenario described in the question is nomologically impossible but might be metaphysically/logically possible. I'm getting the sense that ROU_Xenophobe thinks it is not metaphysically/logically possible (i.e., the framing of the question is like the framing of "what if contradictions were possible? then what would happen if...."). But he might think - as others here think - that reasoning about nomologically impossible situations is likely to be bad reasoning at best, since one divergence from the existing laws of nature is likely to bring other divergences in its train and we may not be able to predict what these will be. Sydney Shoemaker and other contemporary philosophers have advanced a controversial view that metaphysical/logical possibility and nomological possibility are really the very same thing. That is, it is impossible in the strongest sense for there to be worlds that diverge from the actual laws of nature. Contemplation of such worlds is therefore literally nonsensical. (This is a slight oversimplification of the view -- really the view is that there can't be worlds that partially diverge from the real laws - they must either have all the same laws, properties etc, or all different ones.)

Both metaphysical and nomological possibility are different from questions about what is possible in some well-defined fictional world that runs according to the existing laws of nature.

Also Ms. Saint is correct that it's far from clear that mathematical objects are "unreal" in any sense.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2007


the kind of crazy fantasy questions you raise have no place on ask metafilter. That's as far as you need to go with it.

My question includes Euclidean Geometry, which is "set" in a fantasy world.
posted by grumblebee at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2007


Let's say I wrote the following (pseudo-code) computer program:

1. get input from the user.
2. if input = "green" print "you said green."
3. else print "you did not say green."

Let's say I run this program on two identical computers, neither of which were broken. The two computers don't have to be identical on the microscopic level; they just have to be two PCs of the same model, with the same kind of processor, amount of RAM, etc.

Given all this, if I run the program on both computers and enter "green" on both, what will happen?

Is there any scenario -- without changing my rules or willfully interpreting them in a "gotcha" way -- that the two outputs can be different? (And by different, I mean on the level that people normally care about. I don't mean the pixels glow slightly brighter on one screen.)

I think that's the same question as TimeTravelSpeeds. It exists in a world with randomness, but randomness processes doesn't have an affect at the scale we're looking at.

My answer to this question is that the output will always be the same. My other answer is that this is obvious.
posted by grumblebee at 3:27 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


-metaphysical/logical possibility -- things that are possible given the laws of logic.
-nomological possibility -- things that are possible under whatever physical laws govern the actual world.
-epistemic possibility for an agent -- things that are possible given what the agent knows. (this one is really just a convenient shorthand, not strictly a type of possibility)
-fictional possibility for some fictional world -- things that re possible given what is established about that fictional world.


Thanks, LobsterMitten. That stuff is a big part of my daily thinking, and I've read some about it. But if you have any resource suggestions, I'd be grateful.
posted by grumblebee at 3:33 PM on December 2, 2007


Is there any scenario -- without changing my rules or willfully interpreting them in a "gotcha" way -- that the two outputs can be different?

So you're ignoring any answer that uses the given information in any way other than one that leads to the answer that you have already decided is correct. Do we really need an expressly stated guideline like "Don't ask hypothetical questions that have only one logical answer, an answer that you already know"?
posted by 23skidoo at 3:39 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


My answer to this question is that the output will always be the same. My other answer is that this is obvious.

I think that to a some people, the answer to the original question is obvious like that (myself included), but the phrasing of the question is such that a lot of people (as anyone reading the thread can see) don't view the question that way at all and thus the question becomes chatfilter. Particularly, I think the bit about twins causes difficulties because most people intuitively think of people as agents with free will, which is obviously a contradiction with the stated premise of the question. However, if the question was phrased in a way that was easy for others to understand, it would be pretty clear that there wasn't even a question there. If [the universe is deterministic] then is it true that [the universe is deterministic] isn't much of a question. It isn't much of a surprise that people decide not to answer that particular question and strike off into the realms of chat instead, because that question is hidden behind all kinds of stuff.
posted by ssg at 3:56 PM on December 2, 2007


GB, you're pretty swell, but it seems silly to call this out. It was chatfilter, pure and simple. Have you been drinking? If so, please stay away from sharp objects.

This is bad. grumblebee wanted to discuss an issue of policy and brought it to Metatalk, where these things are meant to go. Regardless of whether he's right or not, it is neither a 'callout' nor is it silly. Suggesting that he's drunk is insulting (and clearly meant to belittle what seem to be a well-considered position, because it's also clear that he isn't), and pretty far out of line.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:57 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


grumblebee, unfortunately I don't have any quickie links to stuff that would be accessible. If you wanted to look into general questions about types of possibility, you'd search for "metaphysics of modality" -- theories about the nature of necessity and possibility are theories about modality. For the stuff just about fictional possibility, you'd search for "truth in fictional worlds".
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:59 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Pffft. The real question is whether or not you would make out with your twin.
posted by deborah at 4:14 PM on December 2, 2007


grumblebee: The issue is again your perception of relative complexity.

The question was worded (to me and others) exactly in the style of your computer programme example, but with extra provisos of the removal of things with the fundamental equivalent importance of electricity and the passage of time.

It took enough away that that there was no way that you could be sure the computer even existed beyond being an abstract box.

I think you are just seeing a stripped down issue, and we are instead seeing a selection of incomplete parameters.
posted by Brockles at 4:38 PM on December 2, 2007


The greatest resource for philosophical issues I know of! I mean, really, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is just.. beautiful. Completely, completely beautiful. Any time you are curious about something philosophical, the SEP is there for you.

Specifically, for what LobsterMitten clarified so magnificently: this.. Check out the "Related Topics" at the very bottom of that page. I don't want to go through for all the different issues that have been raised, but you'll be able to find it all in the SEP. Not all the entries you will probably want have been written yet, but you'll still get a good idea of what's going on and what to read for more information.
posted by Ms. Saint at 4:38 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting the possibility 101 stuff, LobsterMitten. I was about to do something similar myself hours ago but then the real world beckoned.
posted by Kwine at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2007


ROU_Xenophobe, I'm curious (and I mean that -- genuinely curious, no snark) as to how you deal with fantasy?

Just fine, so long as it's not in askme.

It's not that it's unreasonable to have a discussion about this. It's unreasonable to have a discussion about it on askme, since axiomatically that's not what it's for.

I think that's the same question as TimeTravelSpeeds.

I don't, and I don't think TTS does either. The way I read the question, TTS knows full well that if you could somehow clone someone down to the subatomic level and put them in a room that's symmetric down to the subatomic level, random things would very quickly cause the two to diverge. So, the question tries specifically to exclude that.

What brockle said. Askme isn't a venue to share whoa moments; it is, by construction, a venue for people to ask questions that they sincerely want answers to and to which there are, potentially, good answers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:47 PM on December 2, 2007


More to the point, the question seems written to specifically exclude good answers to the initial problem of breaking twin symmetry. That, more than anything else, is what makes it a bad askme question.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:51 PM on December 2, 2007


asking the op to take it to a site that isnt really anything to do with metafilter seems a bit poor.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:35 PM on December 2, 2007


Thank you Xenophobe. I think we can all at least agree that for this to be a challenging question at all, however "minimal" it may be, I have to include the restrictions. If you allow randomness into the system, there's simply no problem worth discussing. You'd talk over each other awhile, and eventually a chain reaction will cause variance.

And I don't see how my premise is as restrictive as some make it out to be. I only say no randomness, and the initial state of the room is symmetric. I understand that these are easier said than done, but to suggest that 80% of parameters are removed is a bit of an overstatement. Every other law of physics applies, and in fact, the whole premise relies on each law of physics being followed perfectly without unpredictable actions.

The "whoa man" affect is just what motivated me to post what I felt was a legitimate question about whether or not an algorithm existed to break symmetrical and opposed forces without randomness.

As an example, an important issue in computer networking is keeping routers from "talking" over each other: in a single band link, you can only either be receiving or transmitting data -- not both simultaneously. So in order to keep them from just talking over each other all the time, they need to communicate to everyone when they're going to be ... communicating! This is a contradiction and must be handled algorithmically. One method of solving this uses randomization.

This is a reasonably good analogy to my scenario except there is no initial symmetry and there is randomness. I was wondering if there existed a logical sequence (like in the troll that lies and troll that tells the truth) to break the symmetrical problem. For example, doing something clever like ask the lying troll what a truthful troll would say to a question, which crosses the wires and breaks it. Also the study of how to make locks and semaphores in a multi-threaded environment using identical code for each thread is analogous.

So this question is not totally without application (especially with the modern necessity of synchronized multi-core processors). Had I phrased the question as one of electrical networking, I'm sure my thread would have been saved. I made the mistake of turning it into a fanciful abstraction.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 5:42 PM on December 2, 2007


serenity, BBQ was created by an admin of this site, and seems to act as an unofficial extension of metafilter for just the sort of question I posed. I think jessamyn's suggestion was polite and more than fair from an administrative standpoint: they could have just deleted it without comment.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 5:45 PM on December 2, 2007


asking the op to take it to a site that isnt really anything to do with metafilter seems a bit poor.

Why? If he wants it discussed, and AskMe isn't the place to discuss it, why not point him to a place that welcomes such queries? As a matter of fact, the poster has already welcomed the suggestion, so you're wasting your breath. And why did you ignore that Glasgow history post, anyway?
posted by languagehat at 5:46 PM on December 2, 2007


I assure you that the intention of my post was sincere. I was hoping to hear some creative (or not) solutions so I could rid my head of the frustration of not knowing. (Much like the myriad "Name that tune!" or "Name that movie!" posts I see all over AskMe (one of which is mine ;) )
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 5:51 PM on December 2, 2007


The SEP is indeed an excellent source, although it's often too technical for someone who doesn't have much background, and I'm often frustrated because the articles I would most like to send people to aren't published yet. So, go to Ms Saint's link and see if it helps, grumblebee, but don't be discouraged if it seems a bit technical.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:54 PM on December 2, 2007


By the way, thank you grumblebee for defending my post even though you weren't particularly interested in it :) You stood up to quite a few challengers and stuck with it. Glad I didn't have to go it alone, ha :)
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 5:58 PM on December 2, 2007


I was wondering if there existed a logical sequence (like in the troll that lies and troll that tells the truth) to break the symmetrical problem.

Then you should have asked that. Your question didn't ask that. A question that asked that might have been:

ALGORITHMS TO BREAK SYMMETRIES?

I'm looking for algorithms that could be used to break locks caused by symmetries and allow otherwise identical machines to converse. An example of what I mean is [computer-related example]. Could I write software that would allow these machines to diverge from each other and so communicate, without making calls to pseudo- or true random number generators?

NIT:

People do similar things all the time. They have data that are responses of subjects answering questions, and instead of asking how they should examine the responses of subjects answering questions they ask a question about how they should analyze where partly-trained mudskippers with different colored capes poop, and inevitably everything gets hung up on the excretory anatomy of mudskippers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:17 PM on December 2, 2007


So this question is not totally without application (especially with the modern necessity of synchronized multi-core processors). Had I phrased the question as one of electrical networking, I'm sure my thread would have been saved. I made the mistake of turning it into a fanciful abstraction.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 6:19 PM on December 2, 2007


Whoops, hit send too soon.

I just want to clarify that the intent of my post was not to solve a networking problem, it really was the scenario I began with, but I think the networking analogy is useful to explain the kind of question I was going for.

Also, and I know you were only creating an example of how a better form of the question would look, the networking algorithm already has several non-random solutions, but they rely on non-symmetry, or random variances in the chipsets (not the programming logic). So for me to write an equally analogous question would require the same implausible restrictions to be posed.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 6:25 PM on December 2, 2007


But I guess it would at least be disguised as a problem with some sort of application (though I'd predict several questions of the form: "Why do you need this type of algorithm when plenty of others exist that don't require these assumptions?") And since I'd secretly only be wondering about my twin scenario, I'd eventually have to fess up and have this debate anyway ;)
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 6:28 PM on December 2, 2007


So you're ignoring any answer that uses the given information in any way other than one that leads to the answer that you have already decided is correct.

No, I wasn't ignoring other answers. I gave the only answer that seemed, to me, to fit the only interpretation that made sense (again, to me). I am totally open to other possibilities, in fact...

By the way, thank you grumblebee for defending my post even though you weren't particularly interested in it

It's not that I wasn't interested. It's that, to me, you seemed to be asking something as simple as "If I drop a rock off a cliff, will it fall?"

I read it over and over, and that's how it kept resolving itself in my head. This forum is full of smart people, and not everyone saw it my way, but I still haven't heard any other interpretations, other than "the question is nonsense."

Do we really need an expressly stated guideline like "Don't ask hypothetical questions that have only one logical answer, an answer that you already know"?

Are you conflating me with TimeTravelSpeed? HE asked the question, and he didn't think there was only one answer that he already knew. He asked it because -- like most askers -- he was hoping someone would come up with an answer. So that guideline wouldn't apply to him. And it doesn't make sense to apply it to me, because I didn't ask the question, I just answered it.

Particularly, I think the bit about twins causes difficulties because most people intuitively think of people as agents with free will, which is obviously a contradiction with the stated premise of the question.

Thank you! That never would have occurred to me. I don't believe in free will, and even if I did, I think the question assumes it doesn't exist. But I can see why, perhaps, others might think people are somehow exempt from the determinism.
posted by grumblebee at 7:19 PM on December 2, 2007


The question might have been hypothetical, but the constant references to BBQ made me go out and buy stuff for burgers in my parallel reality. Thanks MeTa!

(the burgers will be made out of my identical twin. Oh the humanity!)
posted by supercrayon at 7:31 PM on December 2, 2007


It's not that I wasn't interested. It's that, to me, you seemed to be asking something as simple as "If I drop a rock off a cliff, will it fall?"

Hm. If you view it as truly that simple, I think I must have really missed the mark on describing the problem. I mean, the more I think about it, the more I think the answer is "no, you couldn't" but I had to go through a lot of possible scenarios involving dice, water droplets, bottle-spinning, fist fights, and so on before I was able to accept the possibility it couldn't happen. And even then, I figured someone smarter than I could come up with a solution.

Particularly, I think the bit about twins causes difficulties because most people intuitively think of people as agents with free will, which is obviously a contradiction with the stated premise of the question.

I wish this were the only reason for the failure of my post. At least then there is a way I could rephrase the question so that free will isn't given. Unfortunately, the real reason is most people find it stupid or moot. Which frankly surprised the hell out of me.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 7:42 PM on December 2, 2007


Unfortunately, the real reason is most people find it stupid or moot. Which frankly surprised the hell out of me.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is your question not: If all units of matter always interact in the exactly the same way, and one has two identical sets of these units of matter, will they ever become unidentical? To which pretty much everyone is going to say no, which makes it a pretty uninteresting question. By using a set of twins instead of pile of matter, the question turns into chatfilter (because we don't generally think of people as piles of matter and thus try to find ways around this conclusion).

Obviously, I, personally, don't think its a very interesting question, but other people might. It just isn't the right type
of question for the site, as others have made pretty clear above.
posted by ssg at 8:12 PM on December 2, 2007


I just solved the puzzle. TimeTravelSpeed was created by cortex as marketing for BBQ.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:17 PM on December 2, 2007


For the OP of the deleted question, I'd like to mention that the plot of The Man Who Folded Himself is dramatically, if not practically, relevant to your question.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2007


ssg. To be honest, I gave that some thought and that's a pretty good way to put it. I presumed that the problem was different than that because you have the introduction of two presumably rational agents who are able to plan and affect the matter in the room outside of how the matter would interact unaided. But if you think of humans as just collections of matter moving around in unison then it's the same as an inanimate pile of matter. Unless I hear a compelling reason as to how my problem is any different than the microcosm you described, I think you've convinced me!

Can we finally kill this beast ;)
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 8:57 PM on December 2, 2007


Can we let go of the fiction that is "ChatFilter"? Questions with no clear answer get posted and left alone every day on Askme. From questions about opinions like "What is a good book about robots?" to relationship questions that turn into therapy by keyboard, it is obvious that the answerablity of the question does not determine if it stays or not.

What I haven't heard is a good reason why "Hypothetical" questions are somehow worse for the site than other unanswerable questions. That attitude seems to be a part of the culture of the site now, so I'm not expecting any answers besides "AskMe doesn't do hypothetical well," with no explantiation of why this is so.
posted by afu at 9:14 PM on December 2, 2007


Generally speaking, the idea of hypotheticals not being great for AskMe is that we wanted to think of the site as becoming a repository of solutions to problems, and answers to real questions people had. Theoretically, a question about a good way to fix a lightbulb (to point to one of my recent favotrites) would be helpful in the future to other lightbulb fixers. This is also true with relationshipfilter questions even though some people clearly hate them.

The other side effect was wanting the site to be available for people when they needed help, not just available for when they wanted to talk about whatever. Basically, anyone can create a hypothetical question about anything and the questions already go by pretty fast, so there's a limiting factor as well.

Since hypotheticals are made up by the question asker with very specific criteria of an anything-goes variety, they'd be less useful for future problem-havers. For example

"I am trying to imagine a world where everyone had three ears and one eye. What would television be like?"
"I am trying to imagine a world where everyone has five eyes and no ears. What would television be like?" etc.

Each question invites mostly answers of the "I have no idea but..." variety and each set of answers wouldn't really be helpful to anyone but the person asking that particular question. Every answer has a reasonably similar likelihood of being right (i.e. all are impossible) and in most cases, save xertain science questions, everyone is equally qualified to answer. Every now and again someone end runs this with the "I am writing a book and..." which has sort of become a joke somewhat, but those are the dramatic exception and not the rule.

We've got guidelines, not rules, for a reason. I've been outlining what some of them are around hypotheticals. They've definitely evolved somewhat over time. I'm sure there are some "but what about XYZ edge case?" exceptions. It may be time to revisit the FAQ and outline the ideas of chatfilter and hypotheticals again, but for the most part what we have seems to work okay.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:51 PM on December 2, 2007


No, it just sucks.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:54 PM on December 2, 2007


What I haven't heard is a good reason why "Hypothetical" questions are somehow worse for the site than other unanswerable questions.

We like our questions to be worth a shit besides passing the time for some bored schmo. How's that?
posted by puke & cry at 10:08 PM on December 2, 2007


What I haven't heard is a good reason why "Hypothetical" questions are somehow worse for the site than other unanswerable questions.

I'll repeat my earlier point. A questioner may be expected to submit a question for concrete suggestions that the questioner, or any reader, can make certain use of, whether or not anyone else agrees.
posted by Brian B. at 10:32 PM on December 2, 2007


I'll repeat my earlier point. A questioner may be expected to submit a question for concrete suggestions that the questioner, or any reader, can make certain use of, whether or not anyone else agrees.

Why does this exclude hypotheticals?
posted by afu at 10:44 PM on December 2, 2007


Why does this exclude hypotheticals?

It would only exclude hypothetical certainty for the suggestions. For example, "If I were dead, where could I be embalmed in Memphis?" Versus, "If I were dead, how could I visit my living relatives?"
posted by Brian B. at 10:53 PM on December 2, 2007


puke & cry wrote...
We like our questions to be worth a shit besides passing the time for some bored schmo.

See, this is where jesstexhowie make their mistake. The minute you engage people looking for some definite edge condition you've already lost the battle.

The proper answer to this question is: If you stay away from hypotheticals you won't have a question deleted. If you mess with hypotheticals you'll probably get a question deleted sooner or later, but you have no way of knowing how and when. Thank you for asking.
posted by tkolar at 10:59 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


We like our questions to be worth a shit besides passing the time for some bored schmo. How's that?

I don't think you have to be a bored schmo to ask a hypothetical question. Some people may be as genuinely curious to learn how physics might work in some environment as they are to know what song they have stuck in their head.

I certainly wasn't asking just for shits and giggles.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 11:54 PM on December 2, 2007


Two words: Yahoo! Answers
posted by needled at 4:18 AM on December 3, 2007


My nightmare last night: The "twins" are mimes. The "perfectly symmetric room" is an empty space with an imaginary invisible wall between them. Their "conversation" is the two of them making symmetrical mime movements on the imaginary invisible wall. Arrrrrgh, will I never wake up from this?

Oh wait, I'm awake and on MeTa...
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:00 AM on December 3, 2007


Dear Dragons,

I've got a brand new concept for a website. My idea is this:

Twatfilter: where the scum goes when it rises.

Whenever a post gets deleted from Metafilter, the author will have the opportunity to automatically repost it on Twatfilter. However, they'll have to pay a $10 membership fee ($10 on the basis that we already know these people are trouble makers and so will take up more time and attention from the mods and the admins.)

The site will be divided into three sections: Twatfilter, Ask Twatfilter and MetaTwat. Posters will be able to post Newsfilter, stuff that should go on their own blog, single link YouTube posts, TwatChatfilter, questions without answers, etc. All Metafilter members would be able to comment on the posts without paying their $10 membership, but if you want to actually post a question or a FPP, you need to stump up the $10.

Also, the sole criteria for a posts acceptance is that it has initially been rejected by Metafilter.

There would be no comment moderation, so people may engage in pile-ons from time to time. Let the poster beware.

What with the $10 joining fee and the Google ads, I think I've got a viable little concern here. My costs would be say, $40k per annum for a part time admin, $40k per annum for the No. 1 member's entertainment budget (you've gotta look like your thriving in the dot com game) and another $10k for hardwear, bandwidth, etc.

In return for $200k, which should see us through the first two years and into profit, I'm prepared to sell you 20% of the equity.

What do you think?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:51 AM on December 3, 2007


Just a note: three years ago, grumblebee posted this exact same complaint to MeTa, and dove into the resulting argument with exactly the same gusto, and got pretty much exactly the same responses from the moderators, as well as a great answer from taz, which grumblebee even admitted was a great answer.

And yet here we are, three years later, making the same points about rigid rules and boundaries and usefulness to grumblebee again. You know what I think? I think grumblebee just likes to have this argument. A lot. I also think next time, grumblebee should just go back and reread grumblebee's previous versions of this argument instead of posting it all over again.

Or stop smoking so much pot or something. The memory is going.
posted by mediareport at 6:02 AM on December 3, 2007


I think grumblebee just likes to have this argument. A lot.

I think so too, but evidently he's not alone.
posted by languagehat at 6:55 AM on December 3, 2007


Plus I find the idea of a transdimensional twin jonmc vaguely unsettling.

For one thing, transdimensional-twin-jonmc prefers BoC to BÖC.
posted by sparkletone at 7:28 AM on December 3, 2007


I think grumblebee just likes to have this argument.

There's no such thing as an argument I like having a lot, because I loath all arguments. I do like discussions, however. But if you want to stop me from discussing something, just turn it into a fight (name calling, etc.) and see how fast I bow out. I have no backbone for that sort of stuff and would rather save myself the pain.

To those of you who feel like "chatfilter is chatfilter, any idiot knows it when he sees it and if he claims that he doesn't know it's chatfilter, he's lying," there's not much I can say. I can see how that three-year-old thread seems just like this one, to you, but it seems different to me.

I thought we hashed out, in that thread, that questions must have answers. To me, TimeTravelSpeed's question DOES have a clear answer. I know others disagree with my interpretation of the question, and that's fine. But via my interp, it's a straight-forward, answerable question.

But as I've said many times here, my chief interest in this topic is NOT whether or not the question should be deleted. I accept the deletion. I don't have a problem with the deletion. I posted this thread BEFORE the post got deleted, and I wasn't trying to stop it being deleted when I posted it.

Whereas my three-year-ago thread was squarely about deletion policy.
posted by grumblebee at 8:10 AM on December 3, 2007


three years ago, grumblebee posted this exact same complaint

Nope, was his twin. Or is he the twin?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:11 AM on December 3, 2007


Let me be VERY clear about my interest:

People have said TimeTravelSpeed's post was bad and should have been deleted (which it was). I'm fine with that. I don't care about it. If I could wave a magic wand and bring it back, I wouldn't wave the wand. I THINK THE QUESTION DESERVED TO BE DELETED.

My concern is that people called the question chatfilter. I don't agree that it's chatfilter. There are other reasons to delete a post besides it being chatfilter.

You are free to say, "Who cares if it's chatfilter or not? The point is that it was a bad post and should have been deleted." And I agree with all of that except for the "who cares" part, because I do care.

I started this thread because grouse and I were discussing whether or not the question is chatfilter IN the original question's thread. And I KNOW that's wrong. It was a meta-concern, so I brought it to metatalk.

I think it's a bad question because -- to me -- it has a simple, obvious answer. It's bad in the same way that "how many pennies is five cents worth" is bad.

THAT concern -- whether you think it's stupid or not -- is NOT the same concern I had three years ago.

Other people here have interpreted the question differently from me, and that's fine. I have heard them. I don't agree with them. But I respect their right to interpret things their way.

Oh, and I don't like pot. It makes me dizzy.
posted by grumblebee at 8:32 AM on December 3, 2007


It's the spinning around that makes you dizzy. Pot gives you a sore throat and a four-hour boner.
posted by breezeway at 8:42 AM on December 3, 2007


*spins around*
posted by mediareport at 9:40 AM on December 3, 2007


I think it's a bad question because -- to me -- it has a simple, obvious answer.

AskMetafilter is a site for posting questions and finding answers. Any question that someone can answer has a simple, obvious answer for the person who knows the answer. But if we knew the answers to all our questions, we wouldn't need AskMetafilter. So I don't think that's a ruler we can use to judge whether a question is "good" or "bad".
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:12 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Celing cat is watching you create exposure to future child support lawsuits.
posted by y2karl at 10:35 AM on December 3, 2007


I think he means "simple" and "obvious" in a very strict sense of the words. As in "What color is George Washington's white horse?" He really doesn't see any complicating factors whatsoever to the question. I agree that if any question can be considered "bad" on AskMe, the level of obviousness is proportional to its badness.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2007


That's a pretty much how I read the question. "If you have two universes in which everything must always be exactly the same, must everything always be exactly the same?"
posted by jacquilynne at 10:42 AM on December 3, 2007


That's a pretty much how I read the question. "If you have two universes in which everything must always be exactly the same, must everything always be exactly the same?"

Yeah, I worded the question badly. The behavior of the matter in the room (the twins are now both in the same room) doesn't need to "always" be the same. It has to initially be the same. You can choose to have any objects you like in the room (dice, a single coin, a single bottle) with you as long as their placement initially conforms to symmetry. And you have two rational agents capable of logical inference to use the objects however they like.

This is what seemed to make it a legitimate question. But as I've since realized, the addition of the humans is merely an unintentional trick. If you imagine rational thought is merely a specific motion and state of particles, the problem is reduced down to just particles and uniform laws of physics. Nothing can ever break the symmetry.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2007


...the problem is reduced down to just particles and uniform laws of physics. Nothing can ever break the symmetry.

There are quantum mechanical processes which are fundamentally asymmetrical...but I guess you ruled that all out. Thats what, to me, made it a boring question.
posted by vacapinta at 11:00 AM on December 3, 2007


Wait. Is it possible that a big problem with all this is that it wasn't made clear the twins are standing across from each other in the same room? And that you don't need duplicates of every object, you can both try to interact with only one?
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 11:01 AM on December 3, 2007


There are quantum mechanical processes which are fundamentally asymmetrical...but I guess you ruled that all out. Thats what, to me, made it a boring question.

I would think that the introduction of QM processes would make it more boring since the answer in that case is very obviously "Yes, you would eventually be able to converse after a chain reaction from a random occurrence".
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 11:02 AM on December 3, 2007


It is arguable that you can get more boring than: Can an asymmetry be produced, given a symmetric starting configuration and ONLY symmetry-preserving processes? In that case, you have a simple mathematical statement.

One way to spice it up is to ask about the different forms of processes which would violate symmetry. Its not just random occurences but also a set of parity laws which are fundamental to our Universe.
posted by vacapinta at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2007


The behavior of the matter in the room (the twins are now both in the same room) doesn't need to "always" be the same. It has to initially be the same.

Since you've posited a deterministic universe, the identical similar conditions will necessarily lead to continuing sameness. (Unless you open up the universe and allow an outside agent to poke one twin but not the other, in which case your question is answered).

TPS, I DID mean that this question is along the lines of "What color is the whitehouse?" Surely, that would be deleted. No?
posted by grumblebee at 11:34 AM on December 3, 2007


Well, whatever.... all I know is that from this day forward, "the ball would turn into a clown" is going to be my answer for pretty much anything anybody asks me.
posted by spilon at 1:25 PM on December 3, 2007


grumblebee, yeah I've been convinced of that. I was just being thrown off by the introduction of smart piles of matter ;) By now I'm sick to death of my own question and am probably more bored by it than anyone else here.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 1:32 PM on December 3, 2007


Tomorrow on BBQ: "Would the ball turn into a clown?"
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:41 PM on December 3, 2007


My concern is that people called the question chatfilter. I don't agree that it's chatfilter.

People use the word "chatfilter" colloquially to encompass almost any question that doesn't fit the guidelines of AskMe.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:59 PM on December 3, 2007


There's no way to reasonably guess the strength of a zombie grizzly bear.

Which RPG system do you want to use? :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:17 PM on December 3, 2007


Can someone say something controversial so we can eek out a 200+ comment post on metatalk? ;)
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 8:21 PM on December 3, 2007


Ok-- how about "Your question was a piece of shit hypothetical chatfilter question, and YOU KNEW IT (viz. your tags), so why the hell are you still stirring the pot? Is that controversial enough for you?
posted by dersins at 8:35 PM on December 3, 2007


Oh, let's get a knick knack paddy-whack going, won't we? Hambone, anyone?
posted by breezeway at 9:09 PM on December 3, 2007


Ok-- how about "Your question was a piece of shit hypothetical chatfilter question, and YOU KNEW IT (viz. your tags), so why the hell are you still stirring the pot? Is that controversial enough for you?

I didn't think that, as you may have read from this thread. The tag was just for fun. I'm not stirring the pot, it was a joke. And yes, it is :)

I don't think there's any need for aggression. I've been nothing but polite and respectful of the admins and commenters and even admitted I believe the post belongs on the bbq.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 9:22 PM on December 3, 2007


I've been nothing but polite and respectful of the admins and commenters and even admitted I believe the post belongs on the bbq.

You may do yourself a big favor by stepping away from this thread.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:40 PM on December 3, 2007


Coming in extraordinarily late and not having read most of both threads, I would actually agree with grumblebee that the question was not chatfilter and would probably even have passed muster on AskMe too if it had been phrased more like this:

"Assuming determinism, are the laws of physics such that..."

And gone on to ask specifically about symmetry and the breakdown of symmetry, possibly only giving the twins conversation as an example. That would make it clear that the question is about the laws of physics and the hypothetical situation is only an attempt to clarify what's bein asked. But it's obviously a difficult question to phrase clearly.

An additional source of confusion may have been that the less science-geeky among the audience may not recognize that the "hypothetical twins paradox" is a standard format for exploring and teaching fine differences in conceptual physics. It's difficult to find an explanation of some aspects of special relativity, for example, that doesn't involve twins or at least identical, synchronized clocks.

An interesting book that deals with symmetry questions like this and chirality^, a related issue in mathematics and science, is The Ambidextrous Universe by Martin Gardner^.
posted by XMLicious at 1:13 AM on December 4, 2007


grumblebee said I don't believe in free will, and even if I did, I think the question assumes it doesn't exist. But I can see why, perhaps, others might think people are somehow exempt from the determinism.

That's an interesting quandary. In trying to investigate it myself I have found that some people don't consider free will and absolute determinism to be exclusive. As long as someone deliberated upon a choice and made it without the interference of any other person or deity, they regard that choice as an exercise of free will and don't mind if they were destined from birth or from the beginning of time to make the same descision.
posted by XMLicious at 1:28 AM on December 4, 2007


some people don't consider free will and absolute determinism to be exclusive.

Fascinating. I wonder if you're right. I'm going to rudely play armchair psychologist and suggest such people are bullshitting. There's nothing logically with that idea, and you can call it "free will" if you want (you can call anything anything), but it sound to me like "What do you mean we don't get Christmas presents this year? Yes we do! Our good health is our present!"

If the result of a "free" choice is pre-ordained, does anyone REALLY feel -- in their heart -- that it is free?

Also, I think you've stacked the deck in two ways:

1. As long as someone deliberated upon a choice...

Have they really deliberated on a choice? What does "deliberated" mean in this scenario? What does "choice" mean?

2. ... and made it without the interference of any other person or deity...

This is privileging people and deities. Why? What's so special about those particular causal units? If one's "choice" is determined, then SOMETHING caused it (hardwiring during upbringing, hardwiring via genetics, specifics of the situation, etc.). By the way, the SOMETHING might be actions of another person. I might "choose" to run because you're chasing me.

The free-will-with-determinism argument strikes me as one that someone might make if he believes in determinism and yet still desperately wants to find SOME way to believe in free will.

I hear people do something similar when they say, "but the universe ISN'T strictly determined! QM implies some randomness." So what? "Choices" that are determined randomly (or influenced by random forces) are still not free choices, in the way we commonly think of free choices. If I tell you that you have to make all your decisions based on rolls of dice, I bet you'll be pretty unhappy and you won't feel free.

Finally, I think all sorts of crap creeps into discussions about free will, because people claim to be open to the possibility that it doesn't exist, yet they insist upon using language that implies that it does exist. Usually, this means they keep using the word "choice."

As long as someone deliberated upon a choice...

How about...


As long as one had some thoughts, feeling and sensations pertaining to the situation at hand, and then acted in some way...


That's a less biased way to describe what happened. One can then go ahead and interpret those events as free or determined.

Another common way of sneaking in free will is to ask, "If there's no free will, should we still judge people according to their actions?"

SHOULD we? SHOULD we make the CHOICE to judge people? No. If there's no free well, we can't make the choice to judge people or the choice to not judge people. We'll judge or not (if the term "judge" even makes sense in this context) based on predetermined factors.
posted by grumblebee at 4:38 AM on December 4, 2007


grumblebee, I've spent some time thinking about this problem, and I've come to the conclusion that it isn't worth worrying about, until we can connect what happens on a molecular level to consciousness. Unless you can come up with a good explanation of what consciousness is in physical terms (which I don't think anyone has been able to do yet), then it really isn't worth worrying about the connection between consciousness (and thus free will) and the movement of such-and-such molecules. In the meantime, even if we don't believe in free will, we're better off to pretend we do because pretty much everyone else in the world does. I'm not even convinced that there are people who don't believe in free will on some instinctual level.
posted by ssg at 5:31 PM on December 4, 2007


I have some sympathy with your point-of-view, ssg, but also a few points of disagreement (though "disagreement" may be too strong a word). First, when you say "it isn't worth worrying about," I don't know whether to take you literally or not. By "worrying," do you mean "being troubled by" or "thinking about"?

I'm certainly not troubled or disturbed when I ponder "free will." To my way of thinking, being troubled about lack-of-free-will means that you don't really understand what lack-of-free-will means. It's like worrying about being dead. If you have no consciousness when you're dead, what's there to worry about? (Worrying about the the process of dying is another matter.)

But if you mean "it's not worth thinking about," I disagree with you. To me, everything is worth thinking about. That's just a matter of what-floats-your-boat (or not), so I won't argue it further. I do understand that you must crawl before you can walk, and I get that you're saying "it's not worth thinking about, because we don't yet understand more 'primitive' ideas that we'll need to understand before we can grapple with free will."

I'm not sure I agree with that completely. I agree that we don't yet understand consciousness, but I'm not sure I agree that a full understanding of consciousness (or even a partial one) is necessary to start thinking about free will. If we accept that consciousness must be either a deterministic process (with details that are opaque to us) or one that is governed by randomness (again, with elusive details), we can rule out free will. In my view, free will is only possible if the mind has supernatural properties, if it's not -- when all is said and done -- a physical object like a tree or a lung or a cloud. I firmly believe it is a physical object -- or a process "running" on a physical object.

I'm a little disturbed by this sentence: even if we don't believe in free will, we're better off to pretend we do because pretty much everyone else in the world does. How do we pretend that we believe in something that we don't? By not talking about it? And if the subject comes up, lie and say you believe when you don't? I don't know about you, but when I'm honest about my disbelief in free will, it rarely causes me any problems. It seems like a silly thing to hide, but maybe I'm not getting some of the ramifications or potential social problems.

I guess it would be problematic if I went around saying, "I don't believe in free will, so if I rape or murder people, I'm not responsible." But I don't go around saying things like that, and that's not even how the issue resolves itself in my mind. I'm not interested in using discussions of free will to determine whether or not we should hold people responsible for their actions. As I said upthread, I think such debates show a lack of understanding of what no-free-will means.

My disbelief in free will has tangibly changed my life. Or rather, a set of beliefs and interests -- to which no-free-will is a member -- has done so. These ideas also include atheism, chaos theory and randomness. In general, they've moved me to accept a world view in which I see history as much more complex than this-caused-that and the future as largely unpredicable and governed by chance (or deterministic processes so bewilderingly complex that they might-as-well be chance). I see humans -- and myself -- less as free agents than as pinballs. I can't exactly say how this has changed my life, but I know it has done so. I feel it almost every day.

You mention doubts that "there are people who don't believe in free will on some instinctual level." I can understand that, and I share your doubts -- though perhaps I doubt a bit less strongly than you. For all my professed non-belief, I still FEEL like I have free will. It's a pretty pervasive illusion, and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to shake it.

But I had a fascinating correspondence with Susan Blackmore, an eminent psychologist who claims she no longer feels like she has free will, even on a gut level. Based on our exchanges, I believe she's being honest. In other words, I believe that she believes she has no sense of free will. Whether or not she's seeing herself clearly, I can't say. But it gives me pause for thought.

And writing back and forth reminds me of something (possibly) similar from my own life: my conversion from being an intellectual atheist to a gut-level one.

I've never had a strong belief in God. In my teens and early twenties, I would have described myself as agnostic. In my mid twenties, I because an atheist. It was intellectual in the sense that I became convinced by arguments of other atheists and by thinking through stuff by myself; and it was emotional in the sense that I didn't care much about God to begin with -- I wasn't really connected with Him, even as a fiction (or as something to be angry about, as is often the case with atheists.)

But I still had this extremely weak form of theism. "Theism" may be too strong a word. What I did was to personify the universe (or fate), and I did this almost exclusively when I got angry or upset. I would be having a really bad day, and after ten things had gone wrong, I would stub my toe and then think, "Why are you DOING this to me?"

It's not a big deal, and it didn't shake my atheism. I'm sure many atheists have these fleeting feelings and don't think much about them. But, as is often the case with young people, I was committed to consistency, so I didn't want to have these fleeting thoughts. So every time I had one, I would say to myself, "That's silly. There's no person or force who has it in for you."

It took about five years, but those fleeting thoughts petered out and then stopped. I haven't felt one in years. Now, when something bad happens to me, it really feels like a random occurrence. And the universe really FEELS unplanned and "cold" to me. I feel, in my gut, that its relationship to me is more similar to the relationship between a rock and the bugs living under it than a person with another person. I already believed all that intellectually, but now I feel it thoroughly, and I'm forgetting what it was even like to ever feel like I lived in a personified universe.

There are some good things about that. For instance, it's pretty much impossible for me to feel paranoia (there's no "they" that can be "out to get me"). But in general, I feel like I did myself a disservice. I cut myself off from feeling the feelings of many other people. And I cut myself off from a source of solace. I believe that my "cosmology" is more likely to be true than people who think more typically, but as I get older, that matters to me less and less. I'd rather be happy than right.

Susan Blackmore said she lost her feeling of free will in much the same way that I lost my feeling of God. Every time she felt the gut feeling of will, she talked herself out of it. She reminded herself that it was an illusion. She did this for years and years and years, and, very gradually, the feeling faded. And now -- she claims -- she no longer feels it at all. And while I'm skeptical, I'm at least understanding of how a similar process could happen.

Part of me wants to repeat Blackmore's experiment. Another part of me thinks I've done enough "unnatural" stuff to myself already and might-as-well stop while I still have some ability to connect with other people.
posted by grumblebee at 7:01 PM on December 4, 2007


grumblebee! You hit the nail right on the head for me when you said "Choices" that are determined randomly (or influenced by random forces) are still not free choices, in the way we commonly think of free choices.

That has always been my conclusion, that it is impossible to construct anything but a mundane meaning for the concept of free will, even if you're working in a non-deterministic universe. But I usually have a great deal of difficulty communicating that statement to anyone, much less persuading them it's a valid problem.

This quandary (call it random-non-choice) and the paradox above in which some individuals seem to not have any regard for the contradictions between the standard formulations of free will and a deterministic universe (call it predestined free will) really bring me up short. It seems that either the individuals I regularly talk about this stuff with are clueless, either unable to parse the topic of conversation or they have the same understanding of free will and determinism as I do but just haven't thought it all through - or, they have a fundamentally different understanding of the operands of the issue, of what free will and determinism are.

I think that there could be an alternative concept of free will building on the form you proposed: As long as one had some thoughts, feeling and sensations pertaining to the situation at hand, and then acted in some way... and as long as those thoughts and feelings weren't interfered with by someone else (person or supernatural entity) and the action you took wasn't interfered with by someone else, that series of events (deliberation, choice, action) constitutes the exercise of free will, regardless of whether it's predetermined or not. The only way that the free will can be interfered with is by another person or supernatural entity interfering with the action (like handcuffs) or with the deliberation and choice (as in God hardening the pharoh's heart in Exodus). In that case the other has injected their own will into the series of events and it's no longer driven exclusively by your own will.

From this point of view, non-intentional interference in the series of events (you wanted to make tea but the cat kicked the teapot on the floor and smashed it, so you made hot chocolate instead) wouldn't interfere with the exercise of free will (assuming that the cat was really a cat and not a djinn and didn't smash the teapot intentionally to mess with you).

So the manner in which a deterministic universe railroads its inhabitants down one time-space curve or another has no bearing on the exercise of free will. Because any interference your determined path brings in the deliberation - choice - action sequence is not the meddling of a man or god or spirit, your free will is intact. Hence under this formulation you can have predestined free will.

In this formulation "free will" does not mean "will and its exercise free of any constraint whatsoever" (which as we said above is essentially meaningless and includes things like random non-choice) nor "will and its exercise free of the constraint of circumstance" (circumstances like the kitty knocking over the teapot) it rather means "will and its exercise free of a particular kind of constraint, i.e. constraints crafted via the wills of others for the express purpose of interfering with one's own will."

So the answer to your question "why are other people and dieties special?" is "because they're the other causal agents that are counted as having a will and a purpose". Anything achieved through free will is achieved of purely one's own purpose, whereas if for example you did something because someone had a gun to your head, or because you were deceived in some important fact you deliberated upon, the outcome was at least an amalgam of your own and another's purpose and perhaps was entirely the fruit of another's purpose.

So I propose some handy labels for posterity distinguishable through the thought-experiment of there existing a "play" and "rewind" button controlling the t-coordinate of the present moment (the moment of our common consciousnesses) in the universe. As the subject of the thought-experiment take the "Choose the form of The Traveller..." cusp in the movie Ghostbusters in which Dr. Raymond Stantz and his fellow Ghostbusters were presented with the choice of the physical form to be taken by the Sumerian god Gozer upon its resurrection.

Take the formulation of free will discussed above and we'll call it Gozerian free will or maybe pure will. In the movie, Ray tried to think of the most inoffensive, cuddly form the evil god might take. His decision clearly was not influenced by Gozer itself or any of the other characters in the movie, so it fulfills the criterion of being unconstrained by the wills of other entities. Hence, it is immune to determinism. If this was a "Real Life" scenario instead of just a movie, you could press "rewind" and drive history back before Ray makes the choice, then press "play" and see the choice, then "rewind" and then "play" again, ad infinitum, and you would always see Ray make the exact same choice of the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man as the form of the destroyer. But despite the world being set on rails indivertibly, Ray would be said to have exercised free will, albeit Gozerian free will.

The alternative case we could call non-deterministic free will or maybe omnilaterally free will. In that case we assume that the selection of which image entered Ray's mind at the cusp moment was random or otherwise uncaused in some fashion, constituting a completely undetermined choice free of any constraints whatsoever. Hence when we rewind and press "play" again, Ray may actually choose a different form for Gozer, perhaps a sea monkey or a Tribble. (I would opt for one of the freaky floating smiley faces from Wal-mart television commercials, personally.)

I see humans -- and myself -- less as free agents than as pinballs. I can't exactly say how this has changed my life, but I know it has done so.

Gives you more empathy for the pinballs!
posted by XMLicious at 1:39 AM on December 5, 2007


From this point of view, non-intentional interference in the series of events (you wanted to make tea but the cat kicked the teapot on the floor and smashed it, so you made hot chocolate instead) wouldn't interfere with the exercise of free will (assuming that the cat was really a cat and not a djinn and didn't smash the teapot intentionally to mess with you).

I think this creates a false sense of freedom.

Imagine a person in a cell. The cell has eight doors leading out of it. The person believes all the doors are unlocked. He decides to exit via door three. He tries it, finds it's locked, and so exits through door number two, instead.

To me, that's a very similar scenario to your "cat" example. I'd agree that the person in the cell is constrained but still has free choices. But I don't think this is an apt metaphor for the way things really work.

In reality, the person THINKS he can choose any door -- or maybe he thinks that some of the doors my be locked, but he can still choose between several unlocked ones -- but he's wrong. Only door five is unlocked, so that's the only choice he can make.

(If you're thinking, "No, he can choose to stay in the cell or whistle or wiggle his fingers..." then I'm not being clear. My "doors" represent all possible choices.)

I think each choice that we make is the choice we HAVE to make. We're compelled to make that choice by constraints, "rolls of the dice" or both. Furthermore, if we weren't, I doubt we'd be able to take actions at all.

Let's look at a mundane example: there are two coke cans on the table in front of me. They're identical. What makes me "choose" the one on the left? Why, instead, don't I freeze up and say, "What can I do? How can I ever choose one over the other? I have no basis?" What breaks the tie?

(I'm talked with many people about this, and I'm amazed at how many of them say, "In cases like that, it doesn't matter. You just pick one randomly" which ignores the deep question. HOW do we pick one "randomly"?)

I have no idea why I pick up the one on the left. Maybe it's a bit of determinism: all things being equal, always choose the one on the left. Maybe it's a bit of randomness: all things being equal, let a random process tip you over one way or the other.

Either way, it's a constraint. I don't "choose" the one on the left. (How could I do that? What would the process be like?) I am forced to choose it via a random process or a built-in prejudice.

(Again, when I talk to people about this, I have a hard time communicating, because they invariably pick up the other one and say, "See, I just chose the one on the right!" I wish I could express myself better, but if you think that refutes what I'm saying, I'm not sure how to continue. There probably are ways to refute me, but that's not one of them. My choice of "left" in this discussion is just an example. You could even go back and forth between the two, left and right, and it wouldn't change anything. HOW are you "choosing" the left one now and the right one later?

I suspect that one bit of "programming" in humans pushes us to break out of patterns -- maybe to help us escape predictors who would otherwise be able to predict which way we were likely to run. So if I accuse you of choosing left all the time, this program will prompt you to choose right. That's just a guess.)

Largely I believe this due to Occam's Razor. Why posit a free agent, making a choice (a complex explanation) when you can explain the "choice" via determinism and/or randomness, which are simpler and less supernatural explanations?

Whenever I "make a choice," I am constrained by the given circumstances (where I am, what tools are present, what I know about the situation, what is physically possible, etc.), prejudices built into me via genes and upbringing, my prediction about the outcome, etc. The more I think about it, the less and less it seems like there's room for "free choice."

Why did I choose not to make a racist remark? Because I've been brought up to respect all people; because I'm scared of what might happen to me if I make such a remark; because I've felt guilt before and don't want to do it again... given all that stuff (and more stuff that I'm not listing), what's the likelihood I would have chosen to make the remark?

Some people feel that internal constraints don't count as constraints. "Sure, you don't make the remark because you know you'll feel guilty if you do. But that's not the same as another person covering your mouth and stopping you from making it." I disagree. In terms of free will, I think it's exactly the same.

To see why, let's look at the person in the cell again: he can only go through door three because the jailer has locked all the other doors. No, switch that: he can only go through door three, because all the other doors have accidentally gotten stuck. No, switch that, he can only go through door number three because he has irrational phobias of the numbers 1,2,4,5,67,8 and 9. What's the difference? Point is, he can only go through door number three.

Some people insist they have free will because they can feel themselves "making choices." "I was really angry at that guy, and I knew I actually might make the racist remark, but I made a decision not to and forced myself to stick with it!"

That's an unfair argument for free will, because it assumes free will exists in its very use of language: "I made a decision."

Here's what really happened, described in neutral terms: "I was angry and felt compelled to make a racist remark. Another part of me knew that would be a bad thing to do. I was aware of what felt like a struggle between those two parts. There was then what felt like a tip-over point and the non-racist part won. So I wound up not making the remark."

The question is, what caused that tip-over point? One POSSIBILITY is "my free choice."

Let's assume that's the answer for a second. What is the "my" in "my free choice?" Some kind of agent in my brain that can bypass external influences and "make its own decisions?" Maybe it's influenced by external stuff, but in the end, it makes up its own mind.

Okay, but that just pushes the question back another level. HOW does it make up its own mind? It must use some kind of process. We're ruled out randomness and determinism. So what does it use? It weighs all the options and then...? We can't say "picks the best option," because what criteria could it use? If there IS a criteria (e.g. whatever will make the agent most happy or whatever is most fair) then we're back to determinism: it's running a program that evaluates the situation and picks an action based on predefined criteria.

This "little man inside" smack of a Cartesian model of the mind. Almost no one buys that model any more -- except when they're talking about free will. When we want to believe in free will be have to cart out the Cartesian guy to make it work.

If we're just influenced by external forces, but in the end we can make our own decisions, this means that -- in the end -- we're unmoved movers. We're like people who can pick themselves up and carry themselves around. We're like magic balls that, when tossed off a cliff, listen to gravity when it tells them to fall, but, in the end, decide to rise. How is that possible?
posted by grumblebee at 9:24 AM on December 5, 2007


I agree with everything you've said, grumblebee. I'm not arguing against any of the conclusions you've drawn. I think that they all apply perfectly to the concept I described above as "omnilaterally free will" and that consequently I've always thought that sort of freedom to be not only non-existent but meaningless, as decisions are either the product of some nondeterministic random or random-like mechanism that would be fundamentally divorced from anything human, or are the product of a not-especially-interesting deterministic / mechanistic deliberation process that is simply the sum of its inputs.

What I was basically asking was, why does it seem like that doesn't matter at all to some people? And my hypothesis is, assuming it's not simply that they're dumb or something, that when they hear the phrase "free will" they're thinking about what I described above as "pure will" - that their decision and their exercise of that decision is the product of their own will alone, and no one else's, regardless of constraints of circumstance or determinism. The "freedom" involved is freedom from the wills of others as opposed to freedom from constraints.

I'm not saying that I think the "pure will" kind of freedom is especially wonderful. I agree with you that in terms of freedom from constraint there's no great value in whether constraints are placed on you by determinism-circumstance or another's will. I'm just glad to have finally arrived at insight as to why other people may disagree (or really, not so much disagree I think, but simply conceive of the issue differently). Insight arrived at thanks very much to this interesting discussion with you!
posted by XMLicious at 12:50 AM on December 6, 2007


"Why do smart people have such a hard time accepting strong arguments against free will?" is an interesting question.

Of course, an obvious answer is our arguments aren't as strong as we think they are. Besides arrogance, my main reason for doubting this is that when people counter argue, they tend to do so emotionally rather than by poking holes in my argument. But I think it's always a good thing to be humble and question one's own position. So I do that regularly. I've yet to find a hole, but I'm sure I have my blind spots.

Assuming my argument is a good one, I think the most likely stumbling block is the intense FEELING of free will. Even I -- a disbeliever -- feel like it exists, whereas I don't feel that way about other things I disbelieve, like God.

For many people -- even many smart people -- strong feelings suggest truth. I understand this, but I am skeptical about it. And when I say this, I think I come across as cold -- as if I don't care about feelings.

Actually, I think feelings are the most important things that exist. WAY more important than ideas or physical reality. BUT I don't think feelings tell us much about physical reality. I think they're important in spite of this. I think they make life worth living. And I think they are very important meters of internal states. They're important in so many ways, but I won't go into that here. Here, I'm more interested in the one way they're unreliable: as pointers to reality.

Why do people trust their feelings as pointers to the physical world ("If I feel something is true, it must be true!.") I'm sure it's largely just the way we're wired. But I also think it's cultural. If a feeling ISN'T linked to reality, we call it "just a feeling." Which debases it. People feel (correctly) that if they talk about their feelings, they won't be taken as seriously as if they talk about real objects. That's too bad.

I think free will is a sham.

I think the illusion of free will is intense and profound. It's a REALLY important illusion.

I also think there are many smart people who simply haven't thought it through all that much. Just because you're smart, that doesn't mean you think through everything. Life is short.

So people listen to arguments like yours and mine and -- even if they can't poke a hole in them -- they think, "Okay, here's some guy on the Internet arguing that free will doesn't exist. I can't refute him, but I really feel like it does exist. And I know all sorts of other smart people have argued that it DOES exist. I don't feel like analyzing all the details of the argument, so I'm going to reserve judgement."

Finally, I think morality is deeply important to most people. And they feel that, if they accept our argument, they'll have to give up on morality. No free will equals no responsibility for actions. I strongly disagree, as I've explained above, but that doesn't stop people from worrying.
posted by grumblebee at 9:24 AM on December 6, 2007


So people listen to arguments like yours and mine and -- even if they can't poke a hole in them -- they think, "Okay, here's some guy on the Internet arguing that free will doesn't exist. I can't refute him, but I really feel like it does exist. And I know all sorts of other smart people have argued that it DOES exist. I don't feel like analyzing all the details of the argument, so I'm going to reserve judgement."

I can only speak for myself but I feel like I've gone over this a long time ago. The arguments you present above are nothing new and can be found in even the dustiest philosophy textbook, going back to Paul Tillich or to Buridan or to Aristotle.

So, what do you do? Do you spend your whole life thinking in circles? I think what ssg meant above is that at some point, you behave as though free will exists not because that is the answer but because that provisional answer allows you to move on.

I actually entered college as a philosophy major but was horrified to discover that arguments from thousands of years ago were being recycled endlessly. Its an intellectual tarpit. Thats when I noticed the guys over there in the physics department who were also struggling with but in some cases even solving philosophical problems (how did the Universe begin? What is space? time? symmetry? What is matter? What is identity (in regards to individual particles)?) I switched majors and never looked back.
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 AM on December 6, 2007


If we accept that consciousness must be either a deterministic process (with details that are opaque to us) or one that is governed by randomness (again, with elusive details), we can rule out free will.

And if I may be so bold, that assumption is the flaw in your arguments. I dont accept that assumption. You are essentially forcing the conclusion at that point. Whats the alternatives you ask?

If you've studied quantum physics one of the exercises you get to do is to model a hydrogen atom. Such a simple thing - an electron orbiting a proton. But the mathematics is horrendous. And thats just a hydrogen atom! We have no idea how to calculate the emergent properties of the periodic table from basic quantum principles. We have faith that they do - but it has not been proven.

So, now you're making the leap not just to chemistry but also to the human brain and saying "Well, it all derives from these same principles that govern atoms, we just dont know the details, we dont have all the information."

The thing is that there is really no basis to say that. It's a philosphical assumption. It's reductionism. But if we have learned anything from non-linear dynamics, it is that more complex systems engage in new behaviors that are not just the sum of their component parts. If we have learned anything from information theory and modern quantum mechanics is that it may be more useful to think in terms of flow and information rather than principles like "matter" embedded in space and time. That is, you are arguing from a 19th century stance:

The Universe is like a big clock. That is obvious and thus determinism follows...
posted by vacapinta at 10:09 AM on December 6, 2007


Vacapinta, I agree with all that. I know about emergent behavior. You combine A, B and C and you get something more than ABC. You get D! And you can't necessarily pick D apart and pull A, B and C back out of it.

That means it's often silly to make predictions. That means that you're likely to be surprised. Often. But I don't see how it has anything to say about determinism and randomness.

(The Universe is not like a big clock. Clocks are predictable.)

My point this that if A, B and C are ALL the inputs (including the random ones) into will and D is the resulting will, though you may not be able to predict D, D will always be D if give it the same inputs.

Yes, there's an assumption there, but it's not based on faith. It's based on Occam's Razor.

Maybe some people mean "unpredictable will" when they say "free will," but that's not what I'm talking about.
posted by grumblebee at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2007


By the way, I have a lot of agreement with your earlier post. I realize that this is philosophy 101 stuff. And I agree that if the illusion of freedom is pervasive, we might as well accept it (most of the time).

Via my understanding of will, it's stupid to ask all those "should we judge people questions." We WILL judge people. Or some of us will and some of us won't. It's hard for me to see how lack-of-free-will affects our lives.
posted by grumblebee at 12:03 PM on December 6, 2007


I actually entered college as a philosophy major but was horrified to discover that arguments from thousands of years ago were being recycled endlessly. Its an intellectual tarpit.

If you haven't read it already, you'd probably enjoy this essay:

http://www.paulgraham.com/philosophy.html
posted by grumblebee at 12:05 PM on December 6, 2007


Why do smart people have such a hard time accepting strong arguments against free will?

I wasn't talking particularly about smart people, and not about accepting arguments, I mean that some people appear to actually not understand why, if they were fated to make a particular decision from the beginning of time, it has any bearing on whether they're exercising free will or not. Or for example when they ask a witness in court, "Do you make this statement of your own free will?" they don't seem to be asking whether the statement was predestined or not.

But I've said my bit on that already... prompted by vacapinta's objections, I looked back over what you'd said, grumblebee, and I'm now not certain it so closely matches my own view of why omnilateral free will can't exist. So I want to try sketching it in my own words and see if it's the same kind of thing you were saying.

It seems to me that a purely random "decision", an undetermined choice made for no particular reason whatsoever, doesn't fit the popular understanding of what free will is. And a choice made as the result of deliberation on a group of external factors - picking the best time to plant corn, for example, based upon a farmer's past experience, current seasonal weather, and market considerations - that is, a decision that's entirely based upon reasons, a conclusion which anyone with the same deliberative faculties and the same starting information would make, that's not free will either.

Consequently a decision that's a mixture of those two things - reasoned, balanced deliberation plus random coin-flips when deliberation doesn't clearly arrive at a precedence of one factor over another - that wouldn't be free will either if neither of those decision-making processes by themselves would be.

Furthermore, some kind of "instinct", let's call it, internal reasons for a choice, anything innate in a person that leads to a preference for one choice over another - picking something based upon your favorite color, for example - also seems to me wouldn't qualify as free will. Because if the instinct or affinity is built-in in one's nature, it's not a product of your will. Alternatively if it's an affinity that one chose, like if at some point you picked your favorite color and stuck with the choice - it seems to me that choice would be the product of other built-in or chosen instincts, deliberations (which is the best color to have as a favorite?), random choice, or some mixture of the three. So inductively, all internal instincts derive from built-in aspects of one's nature, deliberation, or random choice, none of which qualify as free will.

Note that if the above reasoning about instincts / internal preferences is valid, it doesn't matter whether your internal nature comes from deterministic material causes, or is gotterfunken, brahmin, or a quantum soul or anything.

So if free will isn't random choice, deliberations based upon reasons, nor the exercise of innate preferences, what's left? There might well be something else - deterministic or non-deterministic universe, regardless - that factors into the decisions we make, but whatever it is if it's not something that's a reason to make a particular choice, and it's not an innate preference, and it's not a personal roll of the dice, and it's not a combination of those would we really be willing to attach the label "free will" to it?

So forget illusory, the concept "free will" as representing human decision free from constraints doesn't even seem intelligible to me. Any source that we might attribute free will to come from is either itself a constraint, or is impersonal randomness.
posted by XMLicious at 1:38 PM on December 6, 2007


...that is, a decision that's entirely based upon reasons, a conclusion which anyone with the same deliberative faculties and the same starting information would make, that's not free will either.

Most people will make different conclusions even with the same faculties and information. The rest is instinct.

Let me make a case for free-will. I think it arose with consciousness. I'd say that bacteria don't have free will. Simple animals are like rubber balls bouncing around in a pre-determined maze.

But...at some point, Man was able to say ... wait, if I allow myself to get into such-and-such a situation then this will happen to me. And I can avoid that situation by doing this and that. I can reason and I can reason to varying degrees. In fact, I can reason about how much to trust my own ability to reason.

Once I start doing stuff like that, its not so simple as cause and effect because I've entered the world of recursion which, in a way, creates a new type of hierarchy and cause not seen before, one which is extremely dependent on not only the environment but on aspects of that environment, on its relationship to the Reasoner, who holds a special role.

Hofstatder wrote an entire book about this of course. Consciousness and Free Will are artifacts of a Strange Loop. The Strange Loop is not something external to us - some extra log in the fire of Determinism - it IS us.

This wacky loop, like a television camera turned on itself, has not allowed us to defy the laws of physics but it has allowed us to quickly climb the ladder of entropy, building even more complex systems and to disrupt extremely stable physical systems (i.e. the Earth's environment)

None of this is pre-determined. Everything changed after consciousness. We're a typhoon which took form in the otherwise placid ocean. Free will arises not just from some mechanical aspect of our nature but from the fact that we have knowledge of that nature, and act on it.
posted by vacapinta at 2:06 PM on December 6, 2007


(I loved "A Strange Loop.")

But...at some point, Man was able to say ... wait, if I allow myself to get into such-and-such a situation then this will happen to me.

I may be misunderstanding you, but haven't you just pushed the problem further back (as in "If God created the universe, who created God?"). Yes, that internal dialog that involves predictions and counterfactuals leads to a decision, but what leads to the original dialog? You just start with the dialog as a given.

SOMETHING causes it (presumably environmental circumstances), and if that something was exactly repeated, the same decision would be made. Or if not, then that dialog is uncaused. Which is supernatureal.

I think you could prove free will by giving someone a really complicated decision to make and then winding back time over and over and watching him make it. I'm assuming that each time you replay time, everything is EXACTLY the same, including random inputs (the die rolls a three each time). IF the decision sometimes changes, then free will exists.

Obviously, you can't conduct this test, but I'm betting that if you could, the outcome would be the same each time.
posted by grumblebee at 2:17 PM on December 6, 2007


vacapinta, I'm skeptical that what you're describing and what you linked to there is actually non-deterministic, though I haven't read the Gödel, Escher, Bach book. But besides that, one of the points that both grumblebee and I have made is that a decision simply not being deterministic isn't the same thing as free will. (On preview - oops, maybe that's just something I've said.)

How would the Strange Loop free us from any constraints we would have otherwise? Anything it confers upon us - reasons to make a decision, an innate greater capacity to think about a decision in a particular way, or instincts that would lead to prefer one choice over another - are things that I'm saying are themselves constraints. When you say I've entered the world of recursion which, in a way, creates a new type of hierarchy and cause not seen before, one which is extremely dependent on not only the environment but on aspects of that environment it actually sounds to me as if it hypothesizes an even closer binding between the reasoner and the environment, the external constraints on a person, than might otherwise be supposed.

Consciousness, while being an equally intriguing subject, isn't some magic free-will-creating thing. "the fact that we have knowledge of that nature, and act on it" is another constraint, like any other discernable factor we might act on in making a decision. Self-knowledge does not equal free will any more than any other kind of knowledge does.

To be convincing (at least to me) that free will could be explained by this Strange Loop thing, you would have to describe how it comes in to play in the human decision-making process.

I don't know if you read the Paul Graham essay that grumblebee linked to but the rather flowery language you're using is making me skeptical in the same way that sort of thing made him skeptical of professional academic philosophers: "If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students."

(thanks for the link grumblebee, I hadn't read that before.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:55 PM on December 6, 2007


SOMETHING causes it (presumably environmental circumstances), and if that something was exactly repeated, the same decision would be made. Or if not, then that dialog is uncaused. Which is supernatureal.

Grumblebee, you could say it's "supermaterial", but that doesn't mean it's supernatural. Consciousness is a very weird part of nature. It is somehow caused by matter, and it can have an effect on matter, but it happens in the mental realm. Weird. But to claim that the mental act of consciousness isn't there isn't really an option.

So then what people try to claim is that the "mental" part doesn't really matter - that everything is actually being caused and effected directly and without the input of the consciousness on the purely physical level, and the consciousness is just kind of hovering above to watch, but completely useless.

This seems to me unlikely since a) nature doesn't usually bring about such complex structures as totally impotent side effects; b) we seem quite different when sleep walking / drunk / etc than when fully aware; c) as you say, it feels as if the use of our consciousness is directing our actions.

Basically, as I've said elsewhere, I don't see the free will debate as all that interesting, because I think "free will" is just an oversimplified hyped-up notion of "consciousness" (how free and how rational etc it is is up for some debate but I do think we are self-moving creatures). I do not think we can deny the existence of consciousness. But explaining how consciousness works - that's the hard part (dan dennett aside).
posted by mdn at 3:04 PM on December 6, 2007


So yeah, grumblebee, I guess our conceptions of this subject aren't as close as I thought they were. Looking at your last comment there I have to say that I don't think "uncaused" equals "supernatural". There could be an infinite number of uncaused phenomenon in the universe that science has yet to discover.

And as I said above, a decision being uncaused or different every time you rewind and play back the universe doesn't necessarily equal free will... the decision might change but that doesn't necessarily mean that the difference is the result of a free exercise of the will of the individual.
posted by XMLicious at 3:08 PM on December 6, 2007


mdn - I don't understand why you're making such a hard link between consciousness and free will. Couldn't we either have consciousness, but no free will, or both consciousness and free will? (And of course, each consciousness might suspect that others have neither free will nor consciousness...)
posted by XMLicious at 3:11 PM on December 6, 2007


Heh, it occurs to me that, if our consciousness is something that doesn't arise from nature, but is "bolted on" after the fact by God or aliens etc., that the feeling of free will, of latitude in decisions, is just there to keep us from getting bored... an existential laugh track, if you will.
posted by XMLicious at 3:17 PM on December 6, 2007


But to claim that the mental act of consciousness isn't there isn't really an option.

So then what people try to claim is that the "mental" part doesn't really matter - that everything is actually being caused and effected directly and without the input of the consciousness on the purely physical level, and the consciousness is just kind of hovering above to watch, but completely useless.


I'm not denying consciousness. If I do something, I usually think about doing it first, and my thoughts cause the action. I'm just claiming consciousness isn't the first cause.

Simplifying, I look at this way:

various deterministic & random factors --> consciousness --> action.

Whereas you're claiming I look at at it this way:

(------------------------------------- consciousness --- )
various deterministic & random factors --> action.

(That's my crude diagram of consciousness floating on top.)
posted by grumblebee at 4:43 PM on December 6, 2007


I have to say that I don't think "uncaused" equals "supernatural". There could be an infinite number of uncaused phenomenon in the universe that science has yet to discover.

That strikes me as a really odd statement. As I see it, science ASSUMES causation. Can you think of one thing that science has discovered that is uncaused? Science is about finding something strange and figuring out what causes it. Or it's about making predictions, based around causation.

To be honest, I don't think you can prove causation exists. But I don't think you can do science without it. Causation is science's "leap of faith."
posted by grumblebee at 4:46 PM on December 6, 2007


Just in case we're having a semantic problem, by "uncaused," I'm talking about something like a rock that suddenly appears in mid air. And if it were possible to know everything about the universe -- including position and trajectory of all atoms throughout history and all the random crap -- we'd be none the wiser as to how the rock got there. Nothing known or unknown caused it to get there. It caused itself to get there.

To me, that seems like the definition of supernatural. That's magic.
posted by grumblebee at 4:49 PM on December 6, 2007



Basically, as I've said elsewhere, I don't see the free will debate as all that interesting, because I think "free will" is just an oversimplified hyped-up notion of "consciousness"


This is our problem. I think they're two different things. I deny free will but not consciousness.
posted by grumblebee at 4:51 PM on December 6, 2007


mdn - I don't understand why you're making such a hard link between consciousness and free will. Couldn't we either have consciousness, but no free will, or both consciousness and free will?

I'm not making a link between consciousness and free will. I'm saying they're really the same thing. "free will" is just a concept that's gotten separated from the notion of a mind, but it's not useful as a stand alone principle (and we confuse ourselves by insisting on it as a grand force of some sort). Basically, either the mind and the body are completely separate entities, and the mind just sits and watches what the bodies do, and the world would be exactly the same if there were no minds in it, or the mind is actually an integrated part of the body, that is caused by and has effects on the physical aspect of the body, and the world would be radically different if there were no minds in it.

I think the mind is an active principle which can bring about action in the body it is part of. I think trying to explain "mind" as a passive and entirely superfluous element of the world is much harder than allowing for it to be its own kind of cause. How can consciousness make choices when unconscious matter just gets knocked around? But that's the fundamental difference. That's what consciousness is - the ability to be aware and have intentions instead of blindly getting thrown in whatever direction.
posted by mdn at 5:23 PM on December 6, 2007


I don't understand your idea that without free will, consciousness is superfluous. An car's axle isn't superfluous. It's not like the steering wheel turns the wheels directly and the axle just floats on top, watching. The axle is the direct cause of what's happening with the wheels.

But axles don't have free will.

I'm a little scared you're going to say, "but axles don't decide where the car is going to go!"

I don't think consciousness decides where the body is going to go. I think consciousness CAUSES the body to go where it's going to go, in the sense that it's the immediate link in the causal chain, right before the body moving. And I think consciousness FEELS like it decides where the body is going to go. But I think that's an illusion.

I don't know what consciousness is, but I'm enticed by the theories that different processes compete. One says go left, one says go right. I can see how it might be advantageous (in a Darwinian sense) to for the animal to be aware of this war, because that awareness can be used as data for future struggles. An animal that's only aware of the winning outcome (that has no feeling of "making a decision") is missing some useful information.
posted by grumblebee at 5:51 PM on December 6, 2007


As I see it, science ASSUMES causation. Can you think of one thing that science has discovered that is uncaused? Science is about finding something strange and figuring out what causes it. Or it's about making predictions, based around causation.

At the basic physics level...yes. Relativity has a slightly different notion of causation and QM has an even wilder one. Uncaused things appear all the time in our Universe. And there's no reason they couldn't be as big as a rock.
posted by vacapinta at 6:44 PM on December 6, 2007


I may have to bow out, because we're stretching the limits of my understanding, but via my EXTREMELY limited reading about virtual particles, there seems to be some disagreement about whether or not it's right to call them causeless.

They don't have a material cause, true. But certain conditions must be present for them to come into existence. So we could consider those conditions to be the cause.

Even if consciousness is uncaused (and I have no reason to believe it is), it's uncaused-ness alone would not be enough to certify it as the decision maker. We'd need to show that consciousness is definitely the tie breaker when the brain is struggling over taking two contradictory actions.
posted by grumblebee at 7:33 PM on December 6, 2007


grumblebee, I'm a bit glad to have left the thread for a while, because you perfectly stated were it is that I disagree with you. When you say you believe that:

various deterministic & random factors --> consciousness --> action

I want to agree with you, because it seems so clear and precise, but I can't. I don't know what consciousness is, I don't know how it arises from the brain, and I don't know if consciousness is physical or something else entirely. Free will is, at least by my reckoning, a facet of consciousness. Since I can't relate consciousness to my brain or anything else that we think of as the regular physical world, I can't see any way to relate free will to that world. It makes me a bit anxious, as I like to think of myself as a rational, scientific person, that I can't get draw that link between myself and the world in general (but here I drift into the seas of existentialism).

It's pretty tempting to take the line that consciousness is just some sort of byproduct of the workings of the physical brain, but then it seems equally reasonable to take the opposite approach (i.e. to argue that the physical is all a creation of consciousness). Smarter people than I haven't had too much luck with this one (Descartes, of course, needed God to pull him out of that hole). That's a cheap, philosophy 101 argument to make*, but I think there might be a little bit to it.

I was being a bit flip when I said that the problem isn't worth worrying about (and I can see now that being flip is not a good tone to use when discussing with you, so my apologies are in order). I meant that I don't, personally, worry about the problem, because I can't see any evidence that would help me decide one way or another. I've tried attacking the problem logically and I can't get anywhere. Maybe I give up too easily or maybe I don't listen well enough to those who argue one way or another, but it seems to me that all I have to trust are my instincts on this matter. I don't make any judgment that my instincts have any relationship to the truth, but I do use them to guide me when I have no evidence to be used to determine the truth. And I have to accept that other people seem to follow their instincts on this matter as well, in order to interact with them.

Much as I love physics, I'm not even sure that an approach from physics is the best way to tackle this problem. After all, physics generally assumes that there is some thing called that we are pleased to call matter and that matter is that of which everything that exists is made. That's a pretty big leap of faith to make (though it does, of course, give us enormous predictive power on the subject of the physical (or, if you prefer, things we think of as outside our consciousness)).

* I was in university, studying philosophy around the time The Matrix was popular, so I heard enough of that kind of stuff to make me feel at least a little bit sick of it. (Like vacapinta, I switched to physics after a couple years.)
posted by ssg at 11:02 PM on December 6, 2007


grumblebee - yeah, the virtual particles that vacapinta mentions are what I was thinking of when I mentioned uncaused events. Especially the particle-antiparticle pairs that (may) cause Hawking radiation, since a "balanced" event like that would avoid violating conservation laws of physics. See also quantum foam, though I think that's purely conceptual and not employed in any explanatory theories.

But whether or not that specific case is "real", don't you think it's a bit strident to assert that any conceivable uncaused event phenomenon must be unscientific and supernatural? Especially in a discussion as hypothetical as the source of free will. Do you really want your analysis of free will to rest on such a sweeping assumption being correct?

Science is about finding something strange and figuring out what causes it.

True, but there isn't a rule that says "and it's not allowed for it to be uncaused." An uncaused phenomenon would be really annoying to science, since that would limit further inquiry into its nature by scientific method as we could only analyze the pheomenon itself rather than a model of its causation - but science doesn't assert that things which limit it or are beyond its ken are impossible.

mdn - I'm not making a link between consciousness and free will. I'm saying they're really the same thing.

That's what I meant by a "link". Do you have any reasoning to explain why it's impossible for us to be "just along for the ride", to have consciousness but no free will? Because of course, if that is possible, they aren't the same thing.

The "awareness and having intentions" (consciousness) doesn't have to be the same thing as "freely forming and exercising intentions" (free will). The whole question is whether the intentions your consciousness experiences are really things that somehow originate in and are "owned" by your person, or whether they're a puppet to some deterministic or random process divorced from self. As grumblebee has said repeatedly, just because it feels like you're the "captain of the ship" doesn't mean that you really are.

In general - the nature of consciousness is very interesting. If free will exists, it's certainly related to consciousness. Consequently, if it's possible to determine whether or not free will exists, that conclusion has important bearing on the nature of consciousness.
posted by XMLicious at 10:16 AM on December 7, 2007


It's pretty tempting to take the line that consciousness is just some sort of byproduct of the workings of the physical brain, but then it seems equally reasonable to take the opposite approach...

You haven't explained why it's reasonable to take the opposite approach. I'm not saying that everything is matter. I'm saying that "it's matter" fulfills Occam's Razor better than "it's not matter." I'm pretty sure that you use such reasoning in your everyday life. You see a chair or whatever, and it could be matter or not matter, but the simplest explanation is that it's matter, so you run with that and Occam smiles at you.

So if you decide that something's not matter -- or MAY be non matter -- you surely have a good reason. I'm assuming it's a better reason that "we can't see it," but you haven't said what it is. What you have said is, "I don't know what consciousness is, I don't know how it arises from the brain, and I don't know if consciousness is physical or something else entirely." Which is fair enough. I don't know what consciousness is either, though there are some interesting theories that at least offer explanations for some of it.

But do you feel as if "not knowing what something is" is enough to assume it's not rooted in material causes? Do you do this with everything you're confused about or just consciousness. And if consciousness is special, why is it special?

Science doesn't work by saying, "Object X is mysterious, therefor we don't know if it's matter or not." Science works by assuming X is matter and playing with it (making predictions, etc.)

That's science's leap-of-faith. I'm assuming that you take that leap of faith along with science in most cases. But you're not willing to do it (at least not wholeheartedly) with consciousness. Why not?
posted by grumblebee at 10:29 AM on December 7, 2007


He wasnt' saying "it's not matter." He said "a byproduct of the workings of the physical brain."

Assuming something is matter still doesn't get you very far. If we take three big rocks and have them interact gravitationally, we still get a enormously complex problem we cannot solve. We cannot predict the behaviors of three rocks so how can we predict the workings of the brain, especially when there are reasons to believe it works on quantum principles as well, which we don't understand fully.

I'm not saying "It's too complex. Let's give up." I'm saying that we are getting there, taking baby steps all the time to try to understand complex things like consciousness.

In that sense you and Susan Blackmore are taking non-scientific leaps of faith, bolstered by this odd reductionism, that if we understand how things work in simple cases then we know how they work in complex cases.

But that's not how science works at all. Instead we have to take consciousness as face value. Explore it, as you say, but without thinking we already understand it.
posted by vacapinta at 11:03 AM on December 7, 2007


Science doesn't work by saying, "Object X is mysterious, therefor we don't know if it's matter or not." Science works by assuming X is matter and playing with it (making predictions, etc.)

I'd also contest this view of Science. Science takes experiments and we go where they lead us. Theories are post-facto.

If not, we'd still be in the 19th century: "You must agree, dear sir, that simple logic dictates that a piece of matter, a particle must either be in position A or position B. Why that is the basis of logic itself!" Instead the pioneers of quantum theory just ran forward saying "This is what we see. We need a new theory to explain it."
posted by vacapinta at 11:07 AM on December 7, 2007


grumblebee, I have to agree with vacapinta that you're getting rather heavy-handed in asserting conclusions based upon the nature of science.

Science works by assuming X is matter and playing with it (making predictions, etc.)

Science does not assume any given phenomenon has a material cause. Even in physics, for example, phenomena are often attributed to non-material causes like patterns - wave mechanics or some artefact of mathematics like statistical mechanics. It gets even weirder down at the quantum level; the different "shells" or energy levels an electron can possibly take in an atom are constrained by the same combinatorical mathematics that are used for counting cards in Vegas.

And of course there's things like psychology, an entire field of science that doesn't assume or even posit a material substrate for its objects of study.

Your assertions about Occam's Razor don't jive for me, either - that something is made of matter is not necessarily the simplest assumption in every case. If you were in Manhattan and you thought you'd seen an elephant in the street, the simplest assumption would be that it had been your imagination or some sort of illusion, rather than try to explain what an elephant was doing in Manhattan. (global warming? ;^)
posted by XMLicious at 11:22 AM on December 7, 2007


I used the word "matter" above in a confusing, shorthand way. What I was aiming at is a claim that consciousness is a process that's governed by "Natural Laws." If it's not, I'm not sure how science can touch it or tell us anything about it. As-soon-as a scientist makes claims about consciousness, he's assuming that it is part of the material universe.
posted by grumblebee at 11:25 AM on December 7, 2007


Hmmm... I could endorse something like "science assumes that its objects of study are governed by some sort of consistency or rules."

But the way you say "Natural Laws" and "material universe" makes it sound like science asserts a single, unified, overarching system of rules that any object of study must be placed within before it's acceptable, and that's not so. Psychology asserts rules for human thought and behavior without requiring that those rules fit into any other discipline of science. And take relativity and quantum mechanics in physics - those two fields don't completely mesh by any means, they're often contradictory, but that doesn't prevent either of them from being considered "real". Or superstring theory - it doesn't have a leg to stand on as a general theory and doesn't fit with almost anything else but its analyses of specific phenomena are accepted.

It's valid to evaluate a given analysis as "unscientific" but that's done based upon the way the analysis is carried out, not on the kinds of conclusions it draws.
posted by XMLicious at 12:04 PM on December 7, 2007


vacapinta - In that sense you and Susan Blackmore are taking non-scientific leaps of faith, bolstered by this odd reductionism, that if we understand how things work in simple cases then we know how they work in complex cases.

You're doing the same thing grumblebee is, to dismiss his approach as "unscientific" because you don't like his conclusions. You're simply saying "it's really complex, so you're wrong" without engaging his arguments or offering your own explanation of the things he's pointing out.
posted by XMLicious at 12:14 PM on December 7, 2007


grumblebee, I don't think Occam's razor helps you at all in determining whether something is matter. Take a step back and think about how one knows matter (and I'm loosely paraphrasing Descartes here): you have certain sensory inputs and you think that those sensory inputs give you access to some world of matter. You don't have direct access to any world of matter, but you do have direct access to your own consciousness. So yes, now you can go off and do some science, which basically is a matter of observing certain sensory inputs. But science doesn't actually tell you much about yourself, the conscious observer. Maybe we can somehow arrive at some sort of backdoor explanation for consciousness by observing our sensory inputs (by which I mean through science), but I don't think we have done so yet and I'm not sure we are particularly close. Assuming that there is a world of matter is very fruitful (you can study physics and then do things like build bridges), but it doesn't mean that the simplest explanation for everything is that it is matter.

As-soon-as a scientist makes claims about consciousness, he's assuming that it is part of the material universe.

And that's the trouble (though I'd say it is possible for a scientist to talk about consciousness without making that assumption). I'd also say that many scientists find this sort of question really boring and pointless.
posted by ssg at 12:42 PM on December 7, 2007


I'm still not sure what it is about consciousness that makes you suspect it might be non-material or special in some fundamental way. It's complexity?

Or are you just agnostic about all unknowns?

How should we approach them? We can use science to probe consciousness, but if we're agnostic, science can never tell us anything. Even if we do an experiment in which consciousness behaves the same way every time (allowing us to make predictions), we know nothing because the whole paradigm of science may happen not to apply to consciousness.
posted by grumblebee at 1:36 PM on December 7, 2007


I think consciousness CAUSES the body to go where it's going to go, in the sense that it's the immediate link in the causal chain, right before the body moving. And I think consciousness FEELS like it decides where the body is going to go. But I think that's an illusion.

If you agree that consciousness CAUSES the act, then I am not sure if we disagree. Are you then just disagreeing that consciousness is really YOU? In what sense can consciousness be a cause if it is not deciding what happens next? If it is using its special properties of mental awareness to compare various options, and using its capacity for memory and imagination to consider what might result or what fears or hopes it is especially concerned about, and at the end of all this it "CAUSES the body to go where it's going to go", how was that not a choice?

If what you wonder about is whether you would do the exact same thing in the exact same situation, in some silly magic do-over scenario a la the matrix, then you are basically missing the point: YOU are the cause, not some hidden variable. So even if you always make the same choice, it is still you that makes it. You're the link in that causal chain. It's a different kind of link from physical links. It's a consciousness, which causes things according to awareness and intention rather than according to inertia.

I think perhaps the problem is basically due to reducing consciousness to an analogue of the axle of a car, when it really is not. It is not a physical thing. The chemicals that presumably are its source are physical, but again, if we presume that the chemicals by themselves would produce these results, then we don't need the mental part at all - we don't need the consciousness or the mind in the sense of the awareness, but just the electrons running into each other.

Just because we have created machines that work on a purely pinball machine level doesn't mean we have to try to understand everything in nature according to the same principles. We haven't created machines that grow yet, either, and yet organic nature still grows. Consciousness isn't supernatural, but it can't be explained by simple mechanics either.
posted by mdn at 4:45 PM on December 7, 2007


mdn, you and I have some differences that are so fundamental, they're probably not bridgeable, but thanks for that exceedingly clear post! I think it means, at the very least, we may be able to boil things down to the locus our our disagreement.

First of all, I don't think consciousness is a nut-and-bolts, physical machine, like an axle. I was merely using axles as a metaphor. I suspect consciousness is a process, more like software than hardware (but, please, I'm NOT saying the brain is a computer -- I'm just trying to approach the subject metaphorically).

THIS is where I think we're deeply disagreeing: In what sense can consciousness be a cause if it is not deciding what happens next? This is why I brought up axles. I don't know how to explain my point-of-view without metaphorically evoking mechanical systems. But let me try this one: three billiard balls. The three bumps the five which bumps the eight, sending the eight into a pocket. The five is the IMMEDIATE cause of the eight falling into the pocket, but the five didn't decide anything. The five was bound by what the three did to it. The five couldn't have said, "You know what, I don't think I'm going to knock the eight into the pocket." Still, it WAS -- in some sense -- the cause of the eight falling. If you remove the five, the eight won't have the same fate. In this same sense, I suspect our consciousness is the "tool that the universe uses to cause our bodies to do its will."

That whole last bit is in quotes, because I don't believe the universe has a will (or consciousness). The universe is maps to the three ball in my scenario.

Now, the five ball, though it's movement is caused by the three, is deeply responsible for what happens to the eight. But I think the five be foolish to say, "as far as I'm concerned, I have free will. Look what I did to the eight."

Let's say you magically gave the five ball awareness. While still at rest, it notices the eight ball and thinks, "Man, there are SO many places I could send it: into the left-corner pocker, into the right-corner pocket, etc. I wonder where I should send it....?" We give the five INCOMPLETE awareness: it can't know if it's being affected by the three. Then, without the five being aware of it, the three bumps into it, it bumps into the eight, and the eight winds up in the left-corner pocket. And the five thinks, "I made my decision!"
posted by grumblebee at 5:40 PM on December 7, 2007


That's what I meant by a "link". Do you have any reasoning to explain why it's impossible for us to be "just along for the ride", to have consciousness but no free will? Because of course, if that is possible, they aren't the same thing.

As I said above, what would it mean to be "along for the ride"? Would the world be exactly the same if there were no minds in it? The whole idea that you are a puppet that just "feels" like it is making choices but that these choices are "actually" being made elsewhere is in my opinion a complete dismissal of what consciousness is. insofar as it takes in information and responds to it, it is making a difference in the act that comes next, and hence, making a choice. Either the chemicals could do it all without us, which I think can be trivially shown to be false (as above, just watch a sleepwalker for evidence there), or consciousness itself is a causal principle.

You can say, well, but that consciousness was caused to be exactly what it is. Fine, but I still maintain that you ARE that consciousness that was caused, and as that consciousness YOU cause the next part of the chain, and that is all that "free will" is. It's not a billiard ball sort of chain, because consciousness is not just carrying the info from chemicals from point A to point B. It introduces another level of information itself - it thinks, compares, considers. And that thought is able to affect what action takes place, because it is part of the causal chain. It just has to be understood as consciousness in this chain - if it is just "along for the ride" then the causal chain has to be able to happen without it, and consciousness just gets to watch the show (and surely this happens sometimes - we can do ok in blackouts and sleepwalking and so forth - but the world would not be precisely the same without minds).
posted by mdn at 8:47 PM on December 7, 2007


Would the world be exactly the same if there were no minds in it?

mdn, the way that you're interchanging the word "mind" with "consciousness" makes me think that you might not realize that they're different in the context of this "what is consciousness?" question. "Having consciousness" is not the opposite of "being unconscious" here.

Consciousness in this context is particularly talking about the thing that is aware and experiences everything, separate from other mental mechanisms. There's no way to be certain externally that other people have this capacity for awareness and experience. They might behave in exactly the same fashion as you, even talk about awareness and experience, but all that's happening in their head is essentially really, really complex gears grinding away. The awareness-consciousness IS something that the causal chain can proceed without.

The concept of consciousness in question wouldn't cause a person to behave a certain way. If it was that simple you could come up with a straightforward test for consciousness.

From the way you're talking - that making decisions and being part of the causal chain is sufficient to call it consciousness - wouldn't a really complex robot that behaved exactly like a human, that took in information and thought, compared, and considered, fulfill your criteria? But we wouldn't expect that such a robot would be aware and be experiencing the input of its sensors in a unified manner the way you or I do, nor the emotions that go along with the way it's programmed to behave, would we? You can say "well maybe it would!" but then the question becomes what makes the critical difference. When in the development of robots would they go from being machines alone to being aware?
posted by XMLicious at 6:19 AM on December 8, 2007


mdn, the way that you're interchanging the word "mind" with "consciousness" makes me think that you might not realize that they're different in the context of this "what is consciousness?" question. "Having consciousness" is not the opposite of "being unconscious" here.

well, it's a disagreement. I think the complex gears notion of activity is not appreciative of the actual activity of the mind. I don't think you can separate consciousness from the mental activity of making choices. I think you can separate it from habituated sensory activities, but when the question is, should I tell my mother I saw my brother sneak out of the house? or some complex activity which requires "free will", to use the terminology you prefer (which as I've said I think is an unnecessary oversimplification of a complex intentional state, and draws from medieval / kantian rigidifications in definition) then the very "complex gears" that have to grind away here are the same ones which ARE your consciousness.

Basically, the idea that the consciousness could just sort of "watch" what happens but not be actively involved, misses the fact that the consciousness is very often actively involved in the very actions we propose it just watch. If you propose a "Being John Malkovich" style of watching, then you have your own thought processes that don't necessarily coincide with the thoughts of the one acting. You still have to explain who John Malkovich is. You can suggest weird sci fi possibilities of dual consciousnesses, but to suggest that there's one consciousness watching, and just a robot doing isn't taking seriously what consciousness is. The robot can only make physical choices, like bumping into a wall and so stepping back and going left. But the robot can't choose whether to tell mom why Peter's not in his room. The fact that it feels like you make that choice is the same thing as making that choice. I really think the confusion is just a disbelief in the causal power of something as ephemeral as consciousness - we can't just think something to make it happen! But we do.

Using a computer model to make an analogy is just confused. WE'RE the mind of the computer. The computer is just a more complicated abacus. It helps us organize & keep track of information, but it doesn't do any thinking, and until we create a creature that has nerve endings and sensory input and an internal time sense and a productive imagination, there's no way it will. But this is a sidetrack anyway - I never said everyone is necessarily conscious, or that consciousness is easy to explain. All I said was the free will is a red herring - insofar as we're conscious, we have free will, by my thinking.

The "awareness and having intentions" (consciousness) doesn't have to be the same thing as "freely forming and exercising intentions" (free will).

Ok, but in those cases we would know our will was restrained - we would have an intention, but be unable to exercise it. And of course this happens all the time - we might have an intention to get up but be under a very heavy rock, for instance. The real world frustrates our "freedom" all the time. But insofar as we "have intentions", we have a "free will" in the sense that we have been talking about it.

So, perhaps I can't know with certainty whether you are conscious, and hence whether you have free will, but I can be certain of whether I am conscious, and hence whether I have free will, since it is just the capacity to respond to input from my consciousness. If I am conscious and unable to respond to input from my consciousness, then I don't have free will - but I would know it (though it's true I'd be unable to express it to you...)
posted by mdn at 9:04 AM on December 8, 2007


You seem to be saying that consciousness and free will are just a particular kind of behavior or a particular kind of decision-making.

But the robot can't choose whether to tell mom why Peter's not in his room.

When I said "a really complex robot that behaved exactly like a human" I wasn't talking about climbing stairs or something, I was talking about a robot that can choose to tell mom why Peter's not in his room.

I don't think you can separate consciousness from the mental activity of making choices.

Except that robots or non-conscious humans could possibly make all the same kinds of choices without being conscious?

We've already got computers that can make choices that in some ways are more complicated than a human can, like supply chain management software that can take account of orders, pricing, demand, warehouse volume, and multitudinous other factors at hundreds of different companies and regulate production accordingly. Or the software that designs aerodynamic surfaces like airplane wings. Software can come up with innovative solutions to problems, sometimes solutions that humans are unable to reverse-engineer to figure out how they work. (I can't find the reference at the moment but one of the seminal successes with genetic programming back in the 70's or 80's was some software that developed a data-sorting algorithm that was faster than any human-designed method. And GP continues to produce successes like that as well as being used in industry, it's not just an academic topic.)

I'm not saying that what we have today would fit your test for consciousness but I think that if you were to categorically say that it's impossible, at some distant point in the future, to create a robot that would behave exactly like a human you'd be making a spurious claim.

The question of whether something artificial could reason and make judgments indistinguishably from conscious humans is not a red herring, because you seem to be saying that making judgments and decisions of a certain level of complexity or of a certain type is what free will is regardless of deterministic constraints. So if the human-emulating robot could satisfy your criteria for free will but isn't conscious that would at least indicate that free will and consciousness aren't indivisible as you say, and I think also points to problems with your definition of free will.

But insofar as we "have intentions", we have a "free will" in the sense that we have been talking about it.

What grumblebee and I have been saying is that the feeling of having intentions is not the same thing as having free will. If it was this would be an open-and-shut question.

...in those cases we would know our will was restrained

Intentions aren't always autonomous. The intention to eat or sleep, for example, isn't exactly like someone holding a gun to your head, but it's not like it's an idea that your consciousness came up with totally on its own. Another example would be the effects of hormones - the intention to act aggressively or pursue sex are intentions that must at least partially originate from somewhere other than the consciousness, since they can be triggered chemically. But from the perspective of the consciousness (my consciousness, at least) these sorts of intentions don't seem like something external.

In the case that grumblebee and I are advocating - consciousness but no free will - instead of just small parts of the intentions to eat, sleep, and mate the entirety of all intentions originate from a source external to the consciousness, yet still result in the feeling of intention. That is the way in which we're proposing that will is not free. That's what I mean by "along for the ride" - the consciousness as at best a subordinate cog in a fantastically complex machine instead of being the captain of the ship the way it feels. The intention that accompanies action is a correlation or at best an instrumental cause - like saying "it wasn't me that broke the window, it was the rock I threw!" - rather than an ultimate cause.
posted by XMLicious at 10:13 AM on December 8, 2007


ok, but "it wasn't me, it was my hormones" is already a spurious claim to me. Your hormones are part of you. You can inject different hormones and alter what you want and what you do, but that's just taking action to change yourself, a more extreme version of meditating or changing your diet.

It seems like you guys are advocating some kind of transcendental ego, and I'm basically going with the idea that you just ARE the whole mess. Whatever part of "you" makes the choice, it is still you that does it, and it does it by responding to the information that consciousness provides, so it can't be a purely physical mechanism (the consciousness is involved, which you guys have already agreed) - so at this point I think it's just a disagreement about what counts as "you", as I said above. I originally joined the debate because I thought you were going for a physical explanation, but it seems like that isn't being argued by anyone.
posted by mdn at 10:35 AM on December 8, 2007


grumblebee, I'm not at all agnostic about all unknowns. I'm willing to entertain (and make) probabalistic arguments about pretty much everything unknown. I don't find your Occam's razor argument for the material nature of consciousness convincing because consciousness is prior to all experience. My consciousness is the thing that I use to observe; it is the subject, the world is the object. How can I observe consciousness in order to determine its nature? By observing it with my consciousness. There is no outside observer perspective for consciousness. I call the things that I observe through my senses material, but what do I call the thing that I observe not through my senses, but only with my consciousness? I don't know, but I have no reason to believe it is the same as the things I observe through my senses.
posted by ssg at 11:52 AM on December 8, 2007


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