What is a star? Stars could be defined utelizing the many attributes they have. You can use mass, density, brightness and size to define them. You can also use a combination of those attributes or even attributes I didn't mention to define stars. A star the size of our sun isn't the same thing as a red giant star. Our star consits mostly of hydrogen, a red giant consits of mostly helium. Hence we are speaking of very different objects. The way we define stars doesn't change reality it does change our perception of reality though.

 Definitions can't be true or false in themselves. They can be inconsistent or consistent with common language, if I call for example big planets stars because I define stars according to their size, which would also not align with the scientific definition of stars. And definitions can be inefficient or efficient, if I need several attributes/properties to define something. The scientific definition of stars for example uses at least two attributes to define stars. More ancient definitions of stars might not recognize the sun as a star but may distinguish stars as planets that wouldn't move. They might say that all planets are stars but planets are not just shiny objects in the night but moving shiny objects in the night sky. Hence all planets are stars, but not all stars planets, because stars and planets used to look similar, back when we didn't had our devices of observation. So two attributes are used to define stars and planets. The attribute/properties of being a tiny shiny object in the night sky and movement are used to define stars. It's a rather efficent definition, but which is inconsistent with our knowledge of today. Though it's not false in any way, because it actually isn't claiming that stars are the same thing as snakes for example. The definition is just a decription of something. You can also say stars are objects bigger than planets and less dence than black wholes. But this would be a rather ugly definition as you need to know what black holes and planets are before knowing what stars are, even though we know by now that definitions of things aren't eternal and true in the sense that there is one definition of what a planet is they are rather consistent with common language and efficient, hence need fiew defining properties. My favorite way to define stars however happens to be also the most efficient way, even though it compromises consitancy with common language. A star is an object in which nuclear fusion is taking place. A star hence is also an exploding thermonuclear bomb and also the fusion process within a nuclear fusion power plant. 


 

You might think now that this is cheap philosophy and you might ask why should I care? This has a political dimension. Are transwomen women and transmen men. What are women or men. What is a democracy? Is Russia, the USA or China a democracy? The answer to all that questions is it depends on your definitions. And your definitions matter less and more than you think. If you are in contact with reality and happen to have a definition of democracy that would include Russia for example you will also not deny the list of human rights abuses commited by it's government. You won't deny that there is any real way of Putin not getting elected president as long he stops fancying it or some sort of Revolution happening or Putin deciding for no reason to reinstate free elections by his own desire. In this example your definition of democracy didn't change your conclusions, but let's say you think people who don't agree transwomen to be women hate transwomen. Now definitions matter a lot because you are judging people for their definitions. It kind of doesn't really matter what your definition of a woman is in the way how you treat people in general. And as earlier concluded definitions can be more or less consistent with common language and they can be more and less efficient. It doesn't really make sense to fight over them. It makes more sense to know what people mean by what they say. Which is why I don't refer to thermonuclear explosions as star because no one would understand what I am talking about, similarly I don't refer to animals as selfreplicating robots without the need of a host even though animals are exactly that and I also don't refer to myself as entity inhabiting my body with the illusion of being in charge of my body even though the very entity I am is a fragile and contingent fluctuating in the ocean of processes that happen daily in the brain that is actually in charge of that body and on which I have very little control at best if even any. 


 

Another dimension of this topic is about how definitions and language deceives us. Our very language and the fact that we refer to ourself as 'I' assumes that this I for example really exists as an autonomous agent capable of making it's own decisions, even though probably we are more brain than agent. Similarly words like 'the left' ,'the right' assume a unity within that categorizations that never truly existed. Transman or Transwoman is also describing possibly a unity that never truly existed. Like Trans people don't need to be liberal, probably some of them are religious or even right wingers. First it's always a good idea to define something for yourself. You don't need to do that necessarily with cars, stars and donkeys, but abstract ideas play a big role in our life. What are for example living beings. You might thing inicially that life are carbon based things that have the ability to reproduce and sustain themselves by either praying on other life or by photosythesis, but you might soon discover that the main attributes of selfreplication and selfsustaining are also met by machines and viruses to varying degrees and hence life and machines might not be too distinct objects, and depending on the level of technological advancement we might even find out that machines behave more like animals or humans even and that in it's very basics we humans ourselves are an aglomeration of living machines. With the difference being that machines robots are more metal based instead of relying on organic chemistry and that living beings are not designed but rather subject to evolution and coincidence. That motivated my description of life as selfsustaining, selfreplicating machines earlier. So we can conclude that in some sense All life forms are machines but not all machines life forms of the common sense of the word because you need aditional attributes for being life in the common sense of the word. Of cause you can come up with a less efficient definition of life and machines which wouldn't allow this conclusion as does the statement that all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs depend on us classifying the thumb as an finger which is strictly speaking not necessary but efficient.


Now different definitions justify different conclusions. We can't create stars unless we include thermonuclear explosions as suns, in which case we can create one set of stars. The truth value of your statements depend on the definitions of words you use.


I would argue that about 20% to 90% of our disagreements as humans with each other come from our lack of understanding of definitions. And I would further add that disagreement leads to further disagreement. Like first you speak with different definitions or notions and soon people start fighting and judging each other over them. This problem is especially strong if you don't have a sense of how arbitrary definitions can be and if you don't want to make the effort of thinking about them.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment