Archive for category Rationality and Spirituality

A Socratic Dialogue on Mysticism

Regina: Mary! It’s been a while! So nice to see you!
Mary: The same! How are you?
R: I am well! I see that you’re typing something. What are you working on?
M: I’m writing a book on mysticism.
R: Oh, you’re writing a book! How exciting! What is mysticism? Can you summarize the idea for me?
M: God exists. We are God. Our purpose is to become one with God. God created the universe, and designed it to help us fulfill our purpose most efficiently. We do not die with our bodies. The universe is an experience, and it is infinite and endless.
R: How do you know these things?
M: I can see these things to be true.
R: How come I can’t see them to be true?
M: Because you are asleep.
R: I’m assuming that that’s a metaphor. And to continue the metaphor, you think you are awake?
M: Correct on both counts.
R: What makes you think these things?
M: If one were in a room full of sleeping people, and one woke up, it would be obvious that one had been asleep, that now one was awake, and that everyone else was still asleep. But the sleeping people would have no idea that they were asleep, that it was possible to wake up, or that there existed people who were awake.
R: What do you mean when you say that you are awake?
M: I cannot explain to a sleeping person what it means to be awake. The only way to understand it is to wake up. I have already said, of course, that being awake involves seeing that the things I mentioned earlier are true. But those very statements are nonsensical except to somebody who is awake. Somebody who is asleep will either correctly recognize those statements as nonsensical, or think that they understand those statements when in fact they do not.
R: So you think that you are awake, and I am asleep. That sounds like some sort of grandiose delusion.
M: As far as “grandiose” goes, I don’t think that I’m better than you. Why would I look down on somebody for being asleep? I also sleep, and it is a state of being that is natural and not shameful. As far as “delusion” goes, it may well appear that way from the outside. But I know that I am not deluded; and so do my friends who are awake.
R: What evidence do I have which indicates to me that you are right?
M: You have no evidence which indicates to you that I am right.
R: But you think that you have the required evidence?
M: Yes.
R: Why can’t you share it with me?
M: Because you are asleep.
R: How can I wake up?
M: I know of no foolproof method for waking up. But meditation sometimes works.
R: Supposing that meditation doesn’t work for me, do I have any reason to take you seriously?
M: No.
R: OK; well, this has been interesting, but I have other business to attend to. Goodbye!
M: Bye!

This was intended to be a template for a conversation between a mystic and a rationalist non-mystic. This is only one of many ways the conversation could go. If Mary is not confused about mysticism, then this is the general way that things will go.

There are various mistakes that Mary could make, which would make the conversation go awry. The biggest pitfall for Mary is that of attempting to argue for her position in any way. This will only muddle the issue, and Mary will probably lose the argument if Regina is intelligent.

Mary’s mistake comes from failing to realize that there is no line of argument which will convince a rational sleeping person that mysticism is true. She loses the argument not because her beliefs are false, but because she is confused about epistemology. If she were not confused about epistemology then she would not have tried to argue.

Something like this conversation has been in my head for a long time. But it took me a long time to accept that Mary’s statements are the right statements to make. I held out hope for an argument, for a couple reasons.

I feel that there is nothing more important than people waking up, and if people were to accept mysticism, then it would be easier for them to wake up. So it seems like it would be good to have some way to compel people to accept mysticism.

Also, it feels wrong to me to make the naked statement to somebody, “you are asleep.” It feels like putting them down. It feels mean, basically. I don’t want to be mean.

“Asleep” is not inherently a pejorative. But it kind of feels like a pejorative. This is connected with the fact that I am proud of being awake, and do in fact feel superior to people who are asleep, because I am awake.

This is not the right way to feel. A person is not inferior for being asleep. It is a shortcoming of mine that I feel this way.

I think that if I myself felt there to be no negative connotations to the word “asleep,” I would be comfortable telling people that they were asleep, if the topic came up. This isn’t a sure thing, because other people still might read negative connotations into it, and I might still want to avoid that. But the first step is surely changing my own feelings about sleeping people.

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The Leap of Faith

There are various skeptical problems which cast into doubt everything we think we know about the world. Maybe there is a bug in the human nervous system which makes all of us completely oblivious to some obvious fact. We have no proof to the effect that the laws of physics will be the same tomorrow as they are today. Maybe the physical world doesn’t really exist.

We prove a fact by pointing out other facts which imply the fact we want to prove. But suppose we think that every fact needs to be proven. It would follow that we need either an infinite series of proofs stretching out behind any belief, or we need a circularity somewhere in our chain of reasoning. Or, we can leave some facts unproven, and prove all of the rest of our beliefs from those unproven facts.

We think that 2+2=4. But how do we know that 2+2=4? There are formal theories of arithmetic which can prove that 2+2=4. But these theories cannot prove their own correctness. To prove their correctness we must use other, stronger formal theories. Those theories in turn cannot prove their own correctness; to prove that we must use other, even stronger theories.

But the stronger a theory is, the less we understand how it works, and so the less we trust it. It seems like the only way that we could prove the correctness of basic arithmetic would be to invent an infinite series of progressively less trustworthy theories, with each proving the correctness of the previous one; and it’s pretty clear that that won’t help.

We can’t supply a perfect proof, a proof which removes even the faintest shadow of a doubt, for anything at all. It follows that everything is in doubt.

What do we do about this? We could refrain from believing anything; but not only is this option unappealing, I am not sure that it is humanly possible. Believing is a function of the mind, like breathing is a function of the body. People sometimes say that they don’t believe anything; but I’m not sure that it’s ever been true. So let us eschew this option.

If everything is in doubt, this means that no additional knowledge, no additional arguments, no additional insights can remove this doubt. In order to have total certainty about anything, we would ultimately have to know everything. Otherwise there would always be the possibility of new information falsifying our beliefs. But we cannot know everything.

This seems to necessitate a “leap of faith” in order to believe anything. We must believe without proof, based on an inner feeling of confidence. We must cut the skeptical Gordian knot by an act of faith.

Not all leaps of faith are created equal. Some are modest, and some are bold.

On the extreme of modesty is the leap of faith needed to believe that, when I look at my hand, there is really a hand there.

On the extreme of boldness is the leap of faith needed to believe that I am an alien from the sixth dimension who incarnated on Earth in order to reduce the stress in the Earth’s energy field and thereby prevent a natural catastrophe from wiping out the human race.

It seems, then, that we are faced with the task of determining where to leap. We must believe something; believing anything requires some degree of faith; and so we must figure out where to place our faith, without sufficient information to be sure that we are choosing the right answer.

Note, however, that to prove that one should have faith would be a contradiction in terms. If one had a proof that one should have faith, then one would not be talking about faith at all; one would be talking about proof. So I don’t argue that we should believe without proof; I just say that we should.

My position on truth is as follows. Perfect proof does not exist. We need to assume some things. So, let us just assume that basically everything we think is right, and only question a belief when we encounter specific evidence that there is something wrong with it.

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My year-long struggle with materialism may finally be ended.

I shall summarize the problem. For a long time I objected to materialism without knowing why. Eventually I made a concerted attempt to articulate my problems with it.

It turns out that my strongest ethical intuition is that whatever happens is good and acceptable. There is no true wrongness in existence. Ethics consists of following the way of the universe, without fighting for or against anything. My inability to believe in badness constrains my worldview significantly.

Every sufficiently developed metaphysics implies an ethics, and every sufficiently developed ethics implies a metaphysics. For instance, Christianity has both a metaphyics (God exists, Jesus is his son sent to save humanity, we go to heaven or hell when we die) and an ethical theory (be a good Christian). The metaphysics and the ethics do not make sense without each other. If the metaphysics is false, then it makes no sense to follow the ethics. If the metaphysics is true, then the ethics are the only ethics that it makes sense to follow. We may make similar comments about every religion. Each religion gives us a metaphysics and an ethics which cannot be separated from each other.

Materialism is a metaphysics, so under our theory it must imply an ethics. What ethics does it imply? Precisely this: that nothing objectively matters, and we can choose to hold whatever value system we care to hold. Note carefully that under many metaphysics, this is not true.

For a long time I rejected materialism because I did not agree with the ethics that it implied. To me, materialism was a despairing worldview. The chief problem I had was that materialism does not place inherent value on humanity or enlightenment. The most serious problem was the idea that we die with our bodies. It seemed wrong to me that human existence should be limited and finite, and that it should be possible for this thing, the only thing of value, to be destroyed by unconscious, amoral, and random forces.

I felt that the world existed for the sake of humans, and humans existed for the sake of God. The goal of the natural world was to become human, and the goal of humans was to become God. This ethics necessarily implies a metaphysics. It requires us to postulate the existence of God, postulate reincarnation, and in doing so reject materialism.

An additional aspect of my problem was my inability to believe in true badness. I cannot believe in hopeless situations. It could conceivably be the case that humans are what matter, and that human existence is limited, finite, and subject to arbitrary annihilation. But under this worldview, evil exists. So I cannot hold this view.

At this point the only solution I saw was to reject materialism. But this was difficult for me to do, because I felt that I might be deceiving myself. There is no observable evidence to the effect that materialism is false. Materialism is, if not definitely true, certainly a possibility that is not ruled out by the evidence. The only thing that ruled it out was my ethics. Being a logical person, I was not comfortable with this.

A couple nights ago I came to a resolution of this problem, and possibly the end of my long struggle with materialism. I came to believe in the possibility — though not the certainty — that materialism is true. In order to do this I had to become emotionally OK with the possibility.

The dam broke when I realized that dying and permanently ceasing to be conscious could be like enlightenment. I thought, maybe humanity and consciousness is a cosmic accident that has no bearing on anything, and the universe as it is, dead and amoral and unconscious, is just fine without it. I was able to believe this, and be OK with it.

In part I was able to believe it because it lined up well with things I already felt. I already saw humanity as a piece of gum on a giant cosmic shoe. I already felt that the way of the universe was askew from human concerns, and that really our existence was subordinate to the existence of another force unimaginably vaster and grander than ourselves.

These were never propositions of despair for me, because I always saw the higher force as good. I always wanted to be on its side. Thus, my only ethics was to follow the way of the universe. Whatever the higher force wants, I want. If this isn’t true, then I just need to change what I want until it is in conformity with the way of the universe.

So I translated the foregoing ideas into the context of materialism. Under materialism, the universe doesn’t care about humanity. OK, then; if materialism is true, then I don’t care about humanity. If it’s possible for me to die, then I am OK with dying. If it’s possible for the whole human race to be gobbled up by nanobots in the next ten minutes, then I can accept that as a good outcome.

I’m OK with the idea that a human is not a more valuable form of existence than say, a star or a squirrel or a rock. I’m OK with the idea that consciousness is not more valuable than unconsciousness, that intelligence is not more valuable than unintelligence. If that’s true, then when we die we just change to a different form which is neither better nor worse.

My impulse to believe in universal goodness is, apparently, so strong that I am more ready to stop caring about humanity than I am to stop having faith in the way of the universe.

I am not at all depressed any more by the idea that materialism is true. Actually, it has broken down the walls between myself and nature. I used to be caught in the Enlightenment idea that humans are superior to nature and that it exists for us. Now I feel that we are one with nature and not superior to it. All physical things appear more wonderful to me now that I see them as being as valuable as I am.

Under materialism, nothing matters. But this does not have to be a proposition of despair. If nothing matters, then by virtue of this everything is beautiful and acceptable.


My Quest for Sanity

For the past three days I have been repeatedly performing the following mental operation:

“Imagine that you never read any documents claimed to be produced by telepathy with extraterrestrials. Now gauge your emotional reaction to this situation. Once calm, ask yourself what you would believe about the world in this situation. Would you accept materialism? Or would you still be seeking mystical answers to the nature of reality?”

I am still asking myself this question. Why? In the struggle not to believe things that are false.

I believe things that are, apparently, patently absurd. Things like:

“I incarnated from another planet, vastly advanced in spiritual evolution relative to Earth, in order to help Earth transition from the third dimension to the fourth dimension. My primary mission is to generate as much light and love as possible, because this light and love will diffuse throughout Earth’s magnetic fields and reduce the global amount of strife and suffering while helping others to achieve enlightenment. I am being aided in this mission by extraterrestrials from the fourth dimension who are telepathically beaming me aid packages of light and love.”

These beliefs, and many others like them, are important to my worldview and I use them to decide my actions. Because I like to think of myself as a rational person, it is a matter of great concern to me to determine whether or not they are true.

I have come across nobody who can put forth an argument that makes me question these beliefs. Noboby except for one person: Eliezer Yudkowsky. This man did what no other could: he made me doubt my basic beliefs. I am still struggling with the gift he gave me.

This gift is the vision of being a rational person: one who believes things that are verifiably not false.

So many incredibly intelligent people believe patently absurd things. It is so, so difficult to escape from these cognitive traps. If my beliefs are wrong, I want to be one of the fortunate ones who escaped from his insanity.

As an example of this type of insanity, consider Eliezer Yudkowsky. He believes:

“Within the next 50 years, humans will create an artificial intelligence powerful enough to increase its own intelligence, which will go into a positive feedback loop of intelligence increase until it becomes so intelligent that it is able to solve all solvable problems and, overnight, usher in an era of unimaginable perfection, at which time humans will live out the rest of eternity in a state of Edenic bliss.”

Yudkowksy has devoted his life to bringing this event about.

Are my beliefs weirder than Yudkowsky’s? And if Yudkowsky, the only man who was able to bring me to question my weird beliefs, dearly holds beliefs that are almost as weird as mine, is there anybody in the world who can help me with my problem?


Reconciling Rationality and Religion, part IV

It is useful to draw a distinction between beliefs and values. Rationality tells us what and how to believe, but it is silent on what and how to value. Many things that we call beliefs are actually better termed values, to illustrate their non-epistemic nature and their immunity from intellectual criticism.

For instance, I value the religious experience very highly. I value love, wisdom, and the balancing of love and wisdom. There is nothing irrational about any of these values. I can doubt whether or not the things I say I value, or the things I believe I value, are in line with what I actually value. But, I cannot doubt whether or not my values are valuable, in that there is no standard for intellectual evaluation of values.

Much of religion consists of value systems. Morality, and the teachings of compassion, wisdom, and spiritual seeking are not belief systems, but value systems. Therefore they are not subject to doubt.

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Reconciling Rationality and Religion, part III

The essential point which we have reached regards the role of feeling/intuition in seeking the truth.

I regard feeling/intutiion as a great and vast resource of the mind, which has the potential to shed light on truths far more profound than those of the rational mind. So it is only natural that the seeker of the truth should use their feeling/intuition.

Yet, we also know that feeling/intuition is unreliable. It often produces the wrong answers. We are ready to notice when others’ intuitions may have gone astray. We are much less ready to notice or acknowledge that our own intuitions have led us astray.

It is for this reason that we need doubt. Doubt is taking one’s belief and asking oneself, “is this true?” This involves examining the evidence, and also involves checking for biases in one’s thinking. Eliezer Yudkowsky treats the process in detail in How to Actually Change Your Mind.

In some cases we will find that our belief is held up by the evidence, in which case we should be ready to defend it. In some cases we will find that our belief is not held up by the evidence, in which case we should be ready to abandon it.

To doubt is to use your rational thinking to check the work of your feeling/intuition. Sometimes this work will check out right, and sometimes it will check out wrong. In the first case you gain greater certainty about your belief; in the second case you gain the benefit of shedding your irrational belief.

The good news is that most of our feelings/intuitions are not true or false. Most of our intuitions are simply feelings with no epistemic component.

In some cases one can separate the feeling that led to a particular belief, from the belief itself. For instance, I read the L/L Research transcripts and believed that they contained the truth. The feelings that led to this conclusion were that the claims they made were beautiful and implied a hyper-optimistic worldview to which I was most attracted. Optimism is a feeling, not an assertion, and this feeling I can preserve without holding any particular beliefs about the world.

For other feelings/intuitions, the problems arise from semantic confusions over the meanings of the words used to express the feeling/intuition. For instance, consider the statement “all is one.” This statement is an inadequate way of expressing a particular type of feeling/intuition: namely, the religious experience. If we attempt to interpret the statement on any other level, if we interpret it as having a logical meaning, then we only set ourselves up for semantic confusions.

To reject the belief that “all is one” is not to reject the feeling/intuition which lies behind it. Rather, it is to reject the word games and absurdities which proceed from any attempt to do anything with the sentence “all is one” other than bask in the feelings it evokes.

Similar comments can apply to the belief that “the only reality is God.” In this usage neither the word “reality” nor the word “God” has any logical meaning. There are no anticipated experiences implied by the belief that “the only reality is God.” The belief that “the only reality is material” is equally empty of implications, and thus both beliefs are merely playing with words. Disagreements over materialism and non-materialism, in many cases, are merely disagreements about what word games we ought to play.

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Reconciling Rationality and Religion, part II

If we are not holding a belief rationally, then we should not hold it. This is because a belief that is not held rationally is not likely to be true.

Eliezer Yudkowsky has done an excellent job of articulating what goes into a rational belief, and why these ingredients are necessary. He goes further and shows many ways in which it is possible to hold beliefs irrationally. He psychoanalyzes many ways in which belief, and in particular religious belief, can go astray. Rather than giving an incompetent rehash of this material, I suggest that the interested reader read the sequences Map and Territory, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions, Reductionism, and How to Actually Change Your Mind.

I will give examples of how I used this material to diagnose my own irrational beliefs.

I believed that the Ra material was communicated by an extraterrestrial entity called Ra. This is one of the explanations for the existence of the Ra material. Other explanations include that it was spat out by Carla Rueckert’s subconscious, or that it was made up by L/L Research, who then lied about their method of producing it. All of these explanations have various difficulties, and it is certainly not my intent to argue that any particular one is true. There is some true explanation for how the Ra material was produced, and we do not know with certainty what that explanation is.

I believed that the Ra material was communicated by Ra. This belief was irrational because it was not based on evidence. I believed it because I wanted it to be true; because the idea that it was true made me happy. Having seen that the belief was irrational, and having identified the cognitive biases which led me to believe it in the first place, I had to abandon the belief.

I believed in reincarnation. This belief was irrational because it was not based on evidence. I believed it because I wanted it to be true; because the idea that it was true reduced my fear of death. Having seen that the belief was irrational, and having identified the cognitive biases which led me to believe it in the first place, I had to abandon the belief.

I believed that my spiritual experiences disproved materialism. This belief was irrational because it was due to a semantic confusion. I thought that my spiritual experiences were direct experiences of reality, and materialism stated that reality was made of subatomic particles, which was not what I experienced in spiritual experiences. These two seemed incompatible to me, but the real problem was a conceptual confusion over the meaning of “reality.” I concluded that I meant something different by “reality” when talking about my spiritual experiences than the materialist meant by “reality.” Roughly, by “reality” I meant my spiritual experiences, and by “reality” the materialist meant the sum total of what can be inferred by logical deduction from empirical observation. After disentangling this semantic confusion, I saw that my spiritual experiences did not disprove materialism.

I believed that “black is white.” This belief was irrational because it was not consistent with my other beliefs, I did not really believe it anyway, and it was due to a similar semantic confusion. Roughly, by “black is white” I meant the content of a particular type of spiritual experience in which this equation made intuitive sense. I did not follow out the implications of this belief; for instance, I would not use a pen with white ink instead of a pen with black ink on the premise that it made no difference. Thus, I did not really believe it anyway.

What irrational beliefs do you hold?

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Reconciling Rationality and Religion

I have a great deal of faith in rationality, and a great deal of faith in religion. I have gone through much cognitive dissonance in my attempts to reconcile them. I now believe that I have succeeded.

What do I mean by rationality? I mean a certain approach to seeking the truth. This approach involves tools such as logic, mathematics, and the scientific method. It involves constructing logical arguments and gathering evidence, and determining one’s beliefs on this basis. It has produced a body of scientific and mathematical knowledge which is true to some degree of certainty.

What do I mean by religion? I mean the usual meaning, but let’s take apart what that consists of.

A religious person engages in certain characteristic practices: going to church/temple/synagogue, praying, meditating, reading religious texts, etc.

A religious person occupies some of their time with feeling, cognition and experience having to do with their religion. They think about religious concepts, feel religious emotion, and have religious experience.

A religious person uses their religion as a source of guidance in making decisions in their life outside of religion.

The conflicts between rationality and religion are epistemic.

Rationality claims that certain things are true or false, and sets standards for methods by which we are to determine our beliefs. Such methods include examining evidence and making logical deductions.

Religion claims that certain things are true or false, and sets standards for methods by which we are to determine our beliefs. Such methods include the reliance on religious authority (holy texts, priests, etc.).

Rationality and religion disagree both in specific truth-claims, and in what methods of determining beliefs are acceptable.

The method I propose of reconciling rationality and religion is to eliminate the epistemic component of religion. We have to discard most of our religious beliefs. It is possible to do this while leaving the worthwhile parts of religion intact. What we lose are our lies, and any happiness that depends upon those lies. I will explore this process in more detail in future posts.

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Beliefs Based on Unshared Evidence

If somebody asks me why I believe something, I may be able to give logical justification for my belief. On the other hand, I may be unable to do this, but nonetheless hold that my belief stands on solid ground. In the latter case it would appear that either I am irrational in holding my belief, or that I have some kind of justification for my belief which I am unable to express adequately. Are there cases in which I can rationally believe something, and yet be unable to express an adequate logical justification for that belief?

I suggest that there are such cases. To give a simple case, suppose that I believe “I enjoy The Beatles.” If somebody asked me why I hold this belief, my justification would appear circular and logically inadequate. I could give reasons such as, “on this date I enjoyed this song,” and enumerate many such facts. But this would appear to be merely reiterating the very belief that I am justifying, only in a more detailed fashion. If I was asked to prove that on this date I enjoyed this song, I could not do so, and would probably dismiss my questioner as unreasonable in requiring this type of justification.

It seems that there are certain assertions which we can make, which nobody expects us to justify. These include reports of our subjective experiences. “I am happy,” “I am in pain,” or “I enjoy The Beatles” are examples of such assertions. Rational people make this type of assertion without justification, and accept this type of assertion from others without expecting justification.

We have evidence for these assertions, but this evidence is unshared. If I assert that I am happy, I am making this assertion based on evidence which is available only to me and which I cannot share. This evidence is my subjective experience of being happy.

Let us call an assertion based on unshared evidence a “bare assertion.” Assertions of religious beliefs are frequently bare assertions.

For instance, I believe that:

(H.1) All is one.

I do not believe (H.1) on logical grounds; indeed, it is arguable that (H.1) is not even logically meaningful. My basis for believing (H.1) is that I have had many spiritual experiences whose content was to the effect that (H.1). These spiritual experiences are unshared, and so (H.1) is a bare assertion.

If mathematicalism is true, then all unshared evidence is in principle shareable. Under mathematicalism, every experience and mental state is a mathematical pattern, and this pattern can therefore in principle be captured and shared somehow.

If mathematicalism is false, then there may exist evidence that is in principle unshareable. The distinction is, however, perhaps somewhat academic, in that there is no important operational difference between evidence that is unshared and unshareable by any currently available means, and evidence that is unshared and unshareable by any means.

Beliefs based on unshared evidence form a difficulty in two ways. First, it is difficult to say whether or not these beliefs are rational. The person holding the evidence seems obviously the only person qualified to evaluate the belief, but besides being uniquely qualified they are also uniquely unqualified, due to the bias which they have as a result of the fact of holding the evidence. It may be the case, then, that nobody exists who is qualified to evaluate the rationality of these beliefs.

There is a second difficulty with beliefs based on unshared evidence, which is that which arises when there are disagreements. It is unclear how to resolve these disagreements. For instance, consider:

(H.2) Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.

People who believe (H.2) usually do so on the basis of the unshared evidence of religious experience. People who disbelieve (H.2) usually do so on the basis of the lack of any evidence for (H.2), and possible counterevidence. The resolution of this debate is very problematic, but only because some of the relevant evidence is unshared. If all of the evidence were shared, then the debate would probably be resolved.

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A Definition of Underdetermination

In my previous post on underdetermined questions, the distinction between an underdetermined and a non-underdetermined question was somewhat vague and not sufficiently defined.

I suggest that a good metric for underdetermination is as follows. An underdetermined question is one for which there is no evidence sufficient to create consensus. If most people agree on a single answer to a question, then it is not underdetermined. If there is significant division of opinion, then it is underdetermined.

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