Overcoming Bias discusses Semantic Stopsigns.

Consider the First Cause Paradox. We know that time began with the Big Bang. So what came before that? The physical laws may have been different beforehand, if so what were they? “God” is not an answer. It’s a logical stopping point.

So what came before the Big Bang?

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?”

But this isn’t about religion.

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. 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.

In defense of semantic stopsigns, this is like finding a halting problem in a Turing Machine where a computer cannot make a decision and will run infinitely. The First Cause Paradox is undecidable. At some point we need a stopsign that tells us STOP and move onto a different task.

Many people yell GOD instead of STOP but does it matter? Religion is mostly a glorified intellectual stopsign. Perhaps it is useful for that reason.

But even if this is so, why do we use similar semantic stopsigns for other subjects which are not undecidable?

The transhuman technologies – molecular nanotechnology, advanced biotech, genetech, Artificial Intelligence, et cetera – pose tough policy questions…

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?”

We have many beliefs which can and should be questioned further. So wht do we elevate some issues beyond questioning? Why is it that Liberal Democracy! is a stopsign for some? Or morality, family, God, war, culture, race, or original sin for others? It’s not as if these issues are logical quandries without answer.

We need to look at our beliefs and ask “does it work?” and “what caused it?” If we don’t, then perhaps we’re afraid of the answer.