Natural Structures and Conditional Definitions

by Chris_Leong1 min read1st May 201914 comments

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There's a sense in which definitions are arbitrary. Words are made by humans and no-one can stop me from calling red blue and blue red if I really want to. So when people ask questions like, "What is consciousness?" or "What is free-will?", it seems quite reasonable to respond, "Just pick a definition. These terms can be defined many different ways and it's completely your choice which one you choose to use".

This may appear to dissolve the question, however, I would suggest that such an answer often misunderstands what the asker is attempting. Typically the asker is concerned by more than the linguistic question, but also with attempting to understand the ontology or structure of reality. And it may be the case that this structure includes a substructure that naturally fits with our intuitions of what consciousness is or what freewill is or it may be the case, as per the standard LW view of these two cases, that such a structure doesn't exist.

What makes this especially confusing is that many people will conditionally accept the "it's arbitrary" answer when they are convinced that such a natural structure doesn't exist, while pointing out the natural structure otherwise. Here's an example. Let's suppose it was common knowledge that we all have souls. Then whenever someone asked about the definition of consciousness, we'd be tempted to point to the soul, just as whenever people ask about the definition of trees, we'd be tempted to talk about leaves and branches. The arguments for being able to use language arbitrarily and the fact that this isn't a perfectly well-specified definition remain. It's just that one definition suffices for 95% of cases, so we don't bring up that argument. But if instead it was common knowledge that there are no souls, it'd be much more likely they'd say that the definition is arbitrary. And by accepting answers to different questions depending on how things turn out, the intent behind the original question can easily be obscured.

Appendix

Here are some possible interpretations of, "What is X?":

  • What does term X intrinsically mean? (no intrinsic meaning exists)
  • What natural structure (if any) corresponds to X?
  • What are some useful interpretations of the term X?
  • How is the term X used in society?

These kinds of discussions tend to work better if everyone is on the same page about what is being asked.

Note: Apparently, I actually had an old post on this topic here which I'd completley forgotten about.

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To call red blue -- or to use quotation marks more accurately, to call red "blue" -- you must already be familiar with the thing that is being referred to as "red" in that phrase, in order to consider naming the thing by a different word.

It is the same if you ask "What is consciousness?" You must already being using that word to refer to some thing or phenomenon that you are familiar with, and what you are asking about is what that thing is made of, or how that thing works, questions about the world, not about words. Redefining the word is not relevant to answering the question.

Compare "What is 'Oumuamua?" There are two different questions that can be asked with those words. For someone who has not heard the word before, the question is about the word "'Oumuamua", and can be answered by saying "the name given to a certain object of extrasolar origin that recently passed through the Solar System." For someone who already knows that, if they ask that question in exactly the same words, it is a different question. It is a question not about the word "'Oumuamua", but about the thing -- was it just a lump of rock? was it an alien spacecraft? where did it come from? where is it going? These questions are to be answered by looking through telescopes or sending expeditions.

"How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? Still four. Calling its tail a leg doesn't make it one."

I just reread this comment, which is lucky since I failed to appreciate it the first time round. It's a very useful framing, even though I still agree with my original assessment that there really isn't a dichotomy between trying to figure out what a word means and how the world is, as often you're often trying to figure out how the world is so that you can define a word in a way that is socially useful.

"It is the same if you ask "What is consciousness?" You must already being using that word to refer to some thing or phenomenon that you are familiar with, and what you are asking about is what that thing is made of, or how that thing works, questions about the world, not about words" - philosophy discussions ask this all the time without presuming that the definition is already known.

Words precede anyone defining them (and things precede both). The best examples of discussions of phenomena where people didn't know what they were (i.e. what are they made of, how do they work, how can we use them) is in the development of chemistry and physics through the 17th to 19th centuries. They were simultaneously trying to find out both what things exist and what is true about them.

ETA: Also mathematics, e.g. Lakatos' book "Proofs and Refutations". On a topic in physics, Hasok Chang's "Inventing Temperature" is good.

Sure you have to be using the word in some way, but there's not guarantee that there's a meaningful concept that can be extracted from it or whether the term is just used in ways that are hopelessly confused.

Agreed. For example, the concept of phlogiston eventually fell apart. It was at one time clear enough: the thing that a material loses when it burns, the ashes being the part that wasn't phlogiston. But the growth of knowledge forced the concept to take more and more strained forms until it fell apart. (Thinking of it as negative oxygen is a retcon that does not fit the history.) And the philosopher's stone was pretty much a non-starter. (I think Eliezer has Harry Potter remark on this somewhere in HPMOR.)

Thinking of it as negative oxygen is a retcon that does not fit the history

Wasn't that how Joseph Priestley identified it when he Isolated oxygen and called it dephlogistonated air?

Wasn't that how Joseph Priestley identified it when he Isolated oxygen and called it dephlogistonated air?

What he had was oxygen. What he thought he had was dephlogisticated air.

To call red blue -- or to use quotation marks more accurately, to call red "blue" -- you must already be familiar with the thing that is being referred to as "red" in that phrase, in order to consider naming the thing by a different word.

In order for us to understand the sentence, we must understand both "red" and "blue". (To tell someone you call red blue is a different matter.)

(Edit: Removed "no", because the distinction between sufficient and necessary conditions wasn't necessary in this context.)

In the larger context, this will in practice be true.

To call red "flizzm", "flizzm" need not have any meaning already. To call red "blue" likewise can be done without knowing that "blue" is even a word. But of course, it is already a word with a generally assigned meaning. In the real world, no-one is going to call red "blue" unless they do know that generally assigned meaning of "blue", and they will have an ulterior end in calling the thing by a name everyone else uses for a different thing. Compare, for instance, the uses of the words "man" and "woman" in the context of transgender politics.

These kinds of discussions tend to work better if everyone is on the same page about what is being asked.

do not forget - you can use more words! You don't need to guess what someone means, or what level of discussion they're looking for. Just say you're unsure what they mean, give some options that might be relevant, figure out what priors you share, and double-crux your way to understanding!

"You don't need to guess what someone means, or what level of discussion they're looking for" - yes, that is part of the point of providing possible interpretations - to help with the clarification

What is X?

My question is usually "what information do you want to convey to others by using the term X?"

An example of a similar decomposition by Shinzen Young:

"When I hear the word mindfulness without further qualification, I don’t think of one thing. I think of eight things. More precisely, I see a sort of abstract octahedron—one body with eight facets. The eight facets are:

1. Mindfulness – The Word

2. Mindfulness – The Awareness

3. Mindfulness – The Practices

4. Mindfulness – The Path

5. Mindfulness – The Translation

6. Mindfulness – The Fad

7. Mindfulness – The Shadow

8. Mindfulness – The Possible Revolution "