Arguing Definitions

by Hazard3 min read19th Jun 20191 comment



This post is part of my Hazardous Guide To Rationality. I don't expect this to be new or exciting to frequent LW people, and I would appreciate comments and feedback in light of intents for the sequence, as outlined in the above link.

Here's a dialogue straight out of A Human's Guide to Words (highly recommended, but then if you'd just take my recommendation and read the sequences, I wouldn't be writing this would I?)

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
Albert: Of course it does. What kind of silly question is that? Every time I’ve listened to a tree fall, it made a sound, so I’ll guess that other trees falling also make sounds. I don’t believe the world changes around when I’m not looking.
Barry: Wait a minute. If no one hears it, how can it be a sound?
Albert: What do you mean, there’s no sound? The tree’s roots snap, the trunk comes crashing down and hits the ground. This generates vibrations that travel through the ground and the air. That’s where the energy of the fall goes, into heat and sound. Are you saying that if people leave the forest, the tree violates Conservation of Energy?
Barry: But no one hears anything. If there are no humans in the forest, or, for the sake of argument, anything else with a complex nervous system capable of ‘hearing,’ then no one hears a sound.
Albert: This is the dumbest argument I’ve ever been in. You’re a niddlewicking fallumphing pickleplumber.
Barry: Yeah? Well, you look like your face caught on fire and someone put it out with a shovel.
Albert: The tree produces acoustic vibrations. By definition, that is a sound.
Barry: No one hears anything. By definition, that is not a sound.
Albert: My computer’s microphone can record a sound without anyone being around to hear it, store it as a file, and it’s called a ‘sound file.’ And what’s stored in the file is the pattern of vibrations in air, not the pattern of neural firings in anyone’s brain. ‘Sound’ means a pattern of vibrations.
Barry: Oh, yeah? Let’s just see if the dictionary agrees with you.
Albert: Hah! Definition 2c in Merriam-Webster: ‘Sound: Mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (as air).’
Barry: Hah! Definition 2b in Merriam-Webster: ‘Sound: The sensation perceived by the sense of hearing.’
Albert and Barry, chorus: Consarned dictionary! This doesn’t help at all!
Albert: Look, suppose that I left a microphone in the forest and recorded the pattern of the acoustic vibrations of the tree falling. If I played that back to someone, they’d call it a ‘sound’! That’s the common usage! Don’t go around making up your own wacky definitions!
Barry: One, I can define a word any way I like so long as I use it consistently. Two, the meaning I gave was in the dictionary. Three, who gave you the right to decide what is or isn’t common usage?

In this conversation, the only thing that Albert and Barry disagree about is how to use the word "sound". It even seems likely that neither of them previously cared about what the meanings should be allowed to attach to the word "sound".

  1. The word sound activates different concepts in Barry and Albert's brains.
  2. Barry and Albert don't realize that they are thinking about different things when they say "sound" and thus think they have a disagreement.
  3. They begin to argue and get tied to their positions.
  4. By the time they figure out they meant different things by the word "sound", insults have been exchanged, egos have been bruised, and they are both set on trying to win the argument.
  5. They change tactics to arguing that the other was wrong to use a word a certain way.
  6. No one is happy.

2 and 4 are the key points of this dialogue. Let's look at 2. I've seen some arguments where no one ever even realized they weren't talking about the same thing. There is a whole art to figuring out if you and another person are thinking about the same think (or more accurately, thinking about similar enough things for the purpose of your conversation). I think I'll have a post on that later, but hopefully just remembering that this sort of confusion is possible will cause a little thought in the back of your head next time you are in a disagreement with someone.

I picked this dialogue to because it is so clear that the characters don't have any disagreement besides the one they faulted into about definitions.

On 4. There are times where it is very useful to argue about how to define a word, or how to carve a boundary in thing-space. You might think that using a certain word for a certain concept is likely to make a lot of people think of the wrong thing. You might be working in a very technical domain, and want to use a common word to point to a very specific concept you've created. This is another topic that should have it's own post.

The biggest problem with the fact that this dialogue became an argument about definitions was that neither person really gave a shit about it. If you are arguing about what the definition of a word is, you've forgotten that meaning controls words, not words to meaning. See pre req skill. If you are arguing about what a definition should be/ how you and your convo partner should be using a word, by bet is that you are in the tail end of an argument that never existed or was already resolved, yet you still feel like you're in an argument, and are grasping at straws.

If someone uses the "wrong" meaning of a word when making an argument, hitting them with a dictionary does not go back in time, alter what they were thinking when they made the argument, and cause them to be wrong about their argument.


  • Arguing a definition has no power over reality.
  • Arguing about what a definition should be is rarely what you cared about when you started the conversation.

Don't focus on the words, focus on the people.


1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:38 PM
New Comment

I just recently had a conversation about my stance favoring panpsychism with someone who thinks panpsychism is mistaken. We dove into what we meant by "consciousness" and it became clear that we didn't actually disagree about anything other than how we used the word "consciousness", with me using it in a way to deflate consciousness down to nothing more than feedback via experience and them using it to mean something more like agency. Thankfully we were both aware of the point in this post, and were aware so deeply that we naturally worked through the confusion of words to get back to what we really meant. In the end the only thing we deeply disagreed on was what we thought was an appropriate use of the word "consciousness".