(epistemic status: experimental new format! Optimized for memetic power. Fun and useful refactorings of classic ideas about language.)

(note: this post was originally made as a slide deck and lives as a pdf here. Color coding of ideas was inspired by abramdemski and turntroat. Since this is a bunch of images, the links don't work, and I've collected them all at the bottom of the post)



  1. "Love that energy Jaynes!"
  2. Necessary and Sufficient 
  3. Family Resemblance 
  4. Words as Hidden Inferences
  5. How an Algorithm Feels from the Inside
  6. A Human's Guide to Words
  7. View from nowhere
  8. "Al Capone has a point"
  9. Reality tunnels
  10. Blind Men and the elephant
  11. Formal Logic
  12. Implication
  13. Proof trees
  14. Rwandan Genocide
  15. Radio address given on April 30th, 1994
  16. Ghosts of Rwanda
  17. Machete Season
  18. "I didn’t succeed in tracking down the original docs, but this interview has a lot of context and quotes that lay out a pretty solid case."
  19. "From the Genocide Convention of 1948, there are several more articles specifying things like how international courts are supposed to work, and what “punishment” entails."
  20. General Romeo Dallaire, on the ground in Rwanda.
  21. "Just a year earlier the U.S had been badly burned with an attempted intervention in a Somalian civil war."
  22. Conflict Is Not Abuse

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:16 PM

So..your boss has been telling you to correct other people's work...and they're asking who the hell are you?

You need to tell your boss to give you some official legible authority.

I'll file a complaint to this imaginary workplace.

I'm short on actual conversations I can remember the details of, so if you have any that you think make a good example, feel free to share. Examples are some of the most important parts and I don't like it whenever I have to make them up.

Noble aim.

I have a serious problem with this sort of advice. Advice should be tailored to where people already are, and I think most people already reject trying define words much too readily. Thus this advice helps very few people, except those looking to sit back and not listen. Labels are actually important, and we need them to think any kind of complex thoughts. The correct labels make it easier. The wrong labels make it much harder. Rejecting the entire process because it can go wrong is much less useful than pointing out when it does and doesn't help to do it.

When you read what someone writes on a forum, you always have to think if it is worth your time? Is there a good point? Good is a label. Are they a troll? Troll is a label. You should be able to inform your friends that someone is good, or a troll, or even a good troll. Also, sometimes a person is just a liar, and informing people about that is useful, even if the person being informed is just you.

Trying to figure out exactly which parts are the core of the disagreement is useful, but discarding the entire concept because subsets of the concept are useful too is not a good idea. (Also, it is obvious in the dialogue who is right in the dispute. It is useful to everyone to know 'Blair' is likely to lie about how you did on the project, and is thus useless to ask. Convincing Blair not to lie could be useful, but is likely not worth the effort requited, and simply noting his untrustworthiness using 'liar' is much faster. Just because the argument itself won't be useful doesn't mean the idea of labeling things isn't.)

I find it disappointing that you start out showing that labels are useful, and then you seem to promptly forget it just because they can be disputed -which is why arguing definitions is useful (occasionally, with people doing it in good faith). Is every 'gru' a 'leck'? Suppose everyone knows facts A, C, and Z about grus, while lecks are definitely A, B, and Z. Every gru I've seen is also B. Is B true about all grus? If grus are also lecks, then definitely. Should I not then prove that grus are lecks (supposing I can)? Suppose someone can then point out the mistake in my definition. Should they not do that? Some of this might even just be deciding which examples of things similar to a gru should or should not fall under that label.  All of this is arguing definitions, and obviously useful (assuming anyone cares about B in the context of grus).

This is awkward because I'm pretty sure I don't believe anything your reply asserts I believe.

To clarify, is it the case that from reading my post you've concluded that I don't think labels/words are useful and that I don't think we need language for complex thought? If that's the case, can you help me understand how you got that?

Some thoughts: the "When" in the title was meant to make this distinct from simply "Arguing Definitions Is Arguing Decisions". Of all arguments about definitions, some unknown about have the qualities I'm pointing at.

When you mention that I promptly forget that words/labels are useful, do you think I said things that contradicted the idea of words being useful, or did that fact that I didn't keep circling back to "words are great" make you infer I don't care about them? Mayhaps I find the idea of thinking people shouldn't use language as so ridiculous that I didn't feel a need to hedge against that interpretation, but you run into these sorts of people often and have high priors for that interpretation? 

I am not imputing that you believe these things personally, only that this argument implies them. People often make arguments that aren't a particularly good match for what they believe, even when completely sincere and careful. (If I thought you really paid no attention to words, and thought they were useless, I would have expected you to have not written it all.) As I stated in my post, I believe that most people are already on the side of not being willing to discuss definitions too much, and that this is a philosophical underpinning for trying to reject it utterly. They dismiss it as 'semantics', as if the meaning of things is unimportant. If you don't like an implication of what you are writing, I do believe you need to discuss the implication directly if possible to avoid endorsing a position you do not hold. (I hold this position much more strongly for written out essays.)

The most important part of my post was a single sentence where I stated that advice needs to be tailored to where people currently are (which is mostly to reject defining things even when that is the useful bit.) The label (I prefer to say definition) is not a decision rule. Decisions rules were carefully affixed to them for usefulness, but if you don't like the rule, argue against that, not that the definition is somehow bad to discuss. 

Any argument you can make about an object (including concepts) requires a shared way to reference it, which is always a definition. Leaving those unexamined means a lack of communication, even when you think you are having a conversation. Discussing which cluster you are referring to in shorthand is necessary to get anywhere.

Since your advice goes too far, I have to point out that it is indeed too far (supposing I reply at all, of course.)  It should be noted that I find the 'Doomsday Button' argument completely unconvincing, and think it is purely imagery rather than careful argumentation.

I have read the sequence you link in a following comment, but it was probably well over a decade ago, and I don't remember it well. He had a lot of good points, but a lot of duds too. I looked at one of the articles in it again "Arguing by Definition", and found it one of his less inspired works.  The reason someone adds 'by definition' to a statement is usually to point out a fact that their opponent is refusing to pay attention to an important facet of the thing, the exact opposite from what Eliezer says it is doing. People often argue that you can't argue by definition when they are trying to sneak by without admitting your argument applies to them, (though also sometimes because they are just sick and tired of having to talk about definitions, which can be exhausting).

I agree that meeting a person where they are is pretty important. You also seem to spend time with very different people than who I spend time with, and you have a very different reference for "people" and "where they are". This post probably isn't going to be too useful to the people you reference in your hypotheticals. It has been very useful for various people I know, so I'm meeting them where they are :)

You mention that it's useful to have conversations where you try to get on the same page about what you mean when you use certain words (3rd to last paragraph of your comment). I think that's frequently super important and often useful to do. I'm assuming you're mentioning it because you see my post as saying this doesn't matter and shouldn't be done. If you can point out what part seemed to be arguing that, I can see if I agree that my wording was ambiguous and/or poorly phrased. Currently I still don't think the content of my post argues or implies or sets the philosophical underpinnings for the claims you say it does. So we probably won't get out of this unless we dive into specifics.

As a shortcut, if you have similar criticisms of A Human's Guide to Words, then we probably do disagree a lot. But if you don't think EY "thinks words aren't useful" then we just have a misunderstanding.