Semantic Stopsigns

And the child asked:

Q: Where did this rock come from?

A: I chipped it off the big boulder, at the cen­ter of the village.

Q: Where did the boulder come from?

A: It prob­a­bly rol­led off the huge moun­tain that tow­ers over our village.

Q: Where did the moun­tain come from?

A: The same place as all stone: it is the bones of Ymir, the pri­mor­dial gi­ant.

Q: Where did the pri­mor­dial gi­ant, Ymir, come from?

A: From the great abyss, Gin­nun­ga­gap.

Q: Where did the great abyss, Gin­nun­ga­gap, come from?

A: Never ask that ques­tion.

Con­sider the seem­ing para­dox of the First Cause. Science has traced events back to the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang hap­pen? It’s all well and good to say that the zero of time be­gins at the Big Bang—that there is noth­ing be­fore the Big Bang in the or­di­nary flow of min­utes and hours. But say­ing this pre­sumes our phys­i­cal law, which it­self ap­pears highly struc­tured; it calls out for ex­pla­na­tion. Where did the phys­i­cal laws come from? You could say that we’re all a com­puter simu­la­tion, but then the com­puter simu­la­tion is run­ning on some other world’s laws of physics—where did those laws of physics come from?

At this point, some peo­ple say, “God!”

What could pos­si­bly make any­one, even a highly re­li­gious per­son, think this even helped an­swer the para­dox of the First Cause? Why wouldn’t you au­to­mat­i­cally ask, “Where did God come from?” Say­ing “God is un­caused” or “God cre­ated Him­self” leaves us in ex­actly the same po­si­tion as “Time be­gan with the Big Bang.” We just ask why the whole meta­sys­tem ex­ists in the first place, or why some events but not oth­ers are al­lowed to be un­caused.

My pur­pose here is not to dis­cuss the seem­ing para­dox of the First Cause, but to ask why any­one would think “God!” could re­solve the para­dox. Say­ing “God!” is a way of be­long­ing to a tribe, which gives peo­ple a mo­tive to say it as of­ten as pos­si­ble—some peo­ple even say it for ques­tions like “Why did this hur­ri­cane strike New Or­leans?” Even so, you’d hope peo­ple would no­tice that on the par­tic­u­lar puz­zle of the First Cause, say­ing “God!” doesn’t help. It doesn’t make the para­dox seem any less para­dox­i­cal even if true. How could any­one not no­tice this?

Jonathan Wal­lace sug­gested that “God!” func­tions as a se­man­tic stop­sign—that it isn’t a propo­si­tional as­ser­tion, so much as a cog­ni­tive traf­fic sig­nal: do not think past this point.1 Say­ing “God!” doesn’t so much re­solve the para­dox, as put up a cog­ni­tive traf­fic sig­nal to halt the ob­vi­ous con­tinu­a­tion of the ques­tion-and-an­swer chain.

Of course you’d never do that, be­ing a good and proper athe­ist, right? But “God!” isn’t the only se­man­tic stop­sign, just the ob­vi­ous first ex­am­ple.

The tran­shu­man tech­nolo­gies—molec­u­lar nan­otech­nol­ogy, ad­vanced biotech, genetech, ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, et cetera—pose tough policy ques­tions. What kind of role, if any, should a gov­ern­ment take in su­per­vis­ing a par­ent’s choice of genes for their child? Could par­ents de­liber­ately choose genes for schizophre­nia? If en­hanc­ing a child’s in­tel­li­gence is ex­pen­sive, should gov­ern­ments help en­sure ac­cess, to pre­vent the emer­gence of a cog­ni­tive elite? You can pro­pose var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tions to an­swer these policy ques­tions—for ex­am­ple, that pri­vate char­i­ties should provide fi­nan­cial aid for in­tel­li­gence en­hance­ment—but the ob­vi­ous next ques­tion is, “Will this in­sti­tu­tion be effec­tive?” If we rely on product li­a­bil­ity law­suits to pre­vent cor­po­ra­tions from build­ing harm­ful nan­otech, will that re­ally work?

I know some­one whose an­swer to ev­ery one of these ques­tions is “Liberal democ­racy!” That’s it. That’s his an­swer. If you ask the ob­vi­ous ques­tion of “How well have liberal democ­ra­cies performed, his­tor­i­cally, on prob­lems this tricky?” or “What if liberal democ­racy does some­thing stupid?” then you’re an au­to­crat, or liber­topian, or oth­er­wise a very very bad per­son. No one is al­lowed to ques­tion democ­racy.

I once called this kind of think­ing “the di­v­ine right of democ­racy.” But it is more pre­cise to say that “Democ­racy!” func­tioned for him as a se­man­tic stop­sign. If any­one had said to him “Turn it over to the Coca-Cola cor­po­ra­tion!” he would have asked the ob­vi­ous next ques­tions: “Why? What will the Coca-Cola cor­po­ra­tion do about it? Why should we trust them? Have they done well in the past on equally tricky prob­lems?”

Or sup­pose that some­one says, “Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans are plot­ting to re­move all the oxy­gen in Earth’s at­mo­sphere.” You’d prob­a­bly ask, “Why would they do that? Don’t Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans have to breathe too? Do Mex­i­can-Amer­i­cans even func­tion as a unified con­spir­acy?” If you don’t ask these ob­vi­ous next ques­tions when some­one says, “Cor­po­ra­tions are plot­ting to re­move Earth’s oxy­gen,” then “Cor­po­ra­tions!” func­tions for you as a se­man­tic stop­sign.

Be care­ful here not to cre­ate a new generic coun­ter­ar­gu­ment against things you don’t like—“Oh, it’s just a stop­sign!” No word is a stop­sign of it­self; the ques­tion is whether a word has that effect on a par­tic­u­lar per­son. Hav­ing strong emo­tions about some­thing doesn’t qual­ify it as a stop­sign. I’m not ex­actly fond of ter­ror­ists or fear­ful of pri­vate prop­erty; that doesn’t mean “Ter­ror­ists!” or “Cap­i­tal­ism!” are cog­ni­tive traf­fic sig­nals unto me. (The word “in­tel­li­gence” did once have that effect on me, though no longer.) What dis­t­in­guishes a se­man­tic stop­sign is failure to con­sider the ob­vi­ous next ques­tion.

1 See Wal­lace’s “God vs. God” (http://​​www.spec­ta­​​yearzero/​​god­v­god.html) and “God as a Se­man­ti­cal Sign­post” (http://​​www.spec­ta­​​1095/​​stop1.html).