Against against disputing definitions

Disputing definitions is thought to be a faux pas – at least by rationalists. Nowadays I can think of at least three different aspects to disputing definitions that are not an obvious faux pas. Some arguments about definitions are silly anyway – but much less often than I used to think.

Ontological remodeling

First, an argument about definitions can be an earnest attempt to figure out what your own ontology should be, where “ontology” roughly means “what things do you treat as existing things”. E.g. for some people “introvert” is a meaningful thing that exists, and for other people “introvert” is a bunch of traits that kinda correlate, but they never explicitly think about people “being” introverts.

The question of “what ontology should I adopt?” is hard to think about clearly, especially if:

  • you lack an explicit understanding of how exactly ontologies can be useful, and
  • you don’t yet know how to switch between ontologies without strongly committing to them.

So, instead of a discussion you engage in a play fight.

Play fights work because you have to actually defend your worldview instead of merely talking about it. Sure, you might not get anywhere during the fight itself, and it might look silly to the outsiders; the real process of figuring things out will commence after the fight, e. g. by looking at all the things you have committed to and realizing that some of them are dumb. (Without committing to anything, it might take you much longer to realize which of the potential commitments would have been dumb – if you manage to do it at all.)

If you only see the value of “objective truths” and not ontologies/paradigms/worldviews, it doesn’t make sense. But otherwise it should.

Defending formal systems

Second, an argument about definitions can be an attack: “fuck you for not following formal systems”. This is where the cursed dictionary comes in – it specifies the formal system people are “supposed” to follow. This is also where people start searching for inconsistencies in each other’s arguments: “you’re saying you have a different formal system, but I don’t believe you, and if I can prove it’s not consistent, your claim is bunk and you’re a liar”.

If you feel that formal systems are great and thinking inside formal systems is an essential skill, it might make sense to attack people who try to hurt your cause by disregarding formal systems. Cf. STEM-inclined people hating postmodernists. However, I think that out of the three arguments in favor of disputing definitions, this is the worst one.

(An aside: some people also rely on the authority of “official” formal system makers, and denying that authority is perceived as “I want to watch the world burn”. I don’t have much to say about it yet, but it probably also makes sense.)

Attacking hostile ontologies / defending your own ontologies

Third, an argument about definitions can be a different sort of attack: “I understand what ontology you are operating within, I just think it supports %bad paradigms% that lead to %bad things%, and I would like nothing more than for this ontology to disappear”. Is abortion murder?

In general, a lot of paradigms rely on drawing sharp distinctions between A and B. “There is actually no sharp distinction between A and B” can be used to shut down a discussion about A and B – and it’s very keenly felt by both sides. An example: a lot of anti-homosexuality people rely on homosexuality being a thing – it’s easier to wage a war on identity (“gay”) than on a practice (gay sex). But a lot of pro-homosexuality people also rely on homosexauality being a thing!

The result is a curious phenomenon of biphobia, where both sides are discriminating heavily against bisexuals – who don’t fit into the ontology, and thus undermine paradigms based on this ontology. What happens next is bisexual erasure, where both sides literally claim bisexuality is not a thing. You’d think the LGBT community is the last place where bisexuals would be discriminated against, but – no.

The same plays out with #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen. If you want to talk about patriarchy, it’s not enough to observe that “men seem to have more power” – it ties you down, heavily. You can only say “we need to dismantle patriarchy” within an ontology where patriarchy exists, and otherwise you are limited to “we need the power to be more equally distributed”. Discussions, theories, hypotheses, thoughts within this ontology are very different from the ones outside of this ontology, even if both sides agree on the facts.

(Note: I’m not expressing any opinion on patriarchy one way or the other.)

At this point some rationalists claim: “Yeah, but since the distinctions aren’t as sharp as you say they are, you are wrong. More truth = better”. The unseen assumption here is that locally optimizing for maximum precision will also strategically maximize the amount of truth you find. I think it’s a wrong assumption.

So, at worst arguments about definitions are attacks on hostile ontologies – and this is only silly if you think ontologies can’t be hostile.

At best, they are defenses of your own ontology – “Hey, your proposed ontology is more precise, but less amenable to analysis. In other words, you are trying to erase concepts that we are relying on to think. No thanks”.

Further reading

Does Race Exist? Does Culture? provides a very catchy, very easy to grasp introduction to nebulosity, which is essential to believing that you are allowed to play with ontologies. Using “culture” as an example of a nebulous concept works great:

  • you can’t say how many cultures there are,
  • two people from the same culture might be more different than two people from different cultures,
  • there is nothing about a culture that applies to all members of this culture,
  • and yet we can talk about cultures as Things That Exist and even get something useful out of it.

A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse, by David Chapman, goes deeper regarding the defense of formal systems – and quite a bit more strongly than I am willing to:

Deconstructive postmodernism, their critique of stage 4 modernism/systematicity/rationality, is the basis of the contemporary university humanities curriculum. This is a disaster. The critique is largely correct; but, as Kegan observed, to teach it to young adults is harmful.

Ontological remodeling, also by Chapman, is helpful for understanding the concept of ontologies, but not as helpful as I would like. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution is somewhat better. Reading the whole of Chapman’s Meaningness is a good thing to do after reading Kuhn, though.

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3 mon  
4 comments
Srid 3 mon

Just a general comment. Not specific to this post.

But I wonder if you are interested in *affective* aspects to these topics you write about in your blog and Twitter (which I’m subscribed via bazqux.com, incidentally). I find the cognitive jargon amidst the likes of lesswrong to be a little too sophisticated to grasp (or even find to be relevant to practical aspects of life). However the underlying affective aspects (the word ‘affect’ is encompassing of emotions, feelings and moods) to the various things humanity finds itself is something I find to be very useful to look into in everyday life.

My recent exploration is in regards to the utility of affect labelling: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Affect_labeling ... specifically mapping out the beliefs (a belief here is defined to be backed by emotions) that keeps high-level narratives (mood is a result of that) alive, in conjunction with emotions. The awareness of these beliefs, and how they are connected to both the underlying emotion and the prevailing narrative appears to be sufficient to effectively (and effortlessly) put an end to the ongoing narrative. Anxiety for example is such a (affective) narrative. Imagine ending an ongoing anxious mood in a matter of minutes.

(As an aside, I find it amusing to use an “archaic” system of blog comments in this “modern” age of twitter and what not; but I think I enjoy writing like this)

Artyom Kazak 3 mon

About affect labeling: looks like it’s in the same category as coherence therapy, Focusing, ego-analytical therapy, etc – all stuff I’m interested in. See e. g. Resolving internal conflicts.

It has been very useful to me – e. g. I managed to get rid of a belief that “neither me nor other people should be allowed to do what they want” by figuring out when and why I started believing it. It took about three hours of therapy to get to the source, and then it was gone. QC is the right person to follow on Twitter if you want to dig into this.

If by “affective aspects” you mean “how does it feel from the inside” (living inside of formal systems vs using formal systems as tools, etc) – sounds like a good thing to write about, yes. There are some examples scattered around the adult development literature (Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads, etc), but not enough. Or do you mean something else?

Re/ blog comments – I think every form of communication brings something new to the table. I have different thoughts when I type into the Twitter box vs. when writing the my newsletter vs. when writing posts vs. in text chat vs. when speaking. Recently I stumbled upon letter.wiki, which is ultra archaic (people writing each other letters starting with “Dear Mike” or something), and I think it would be cool to try as well, though I haven’t yet.

Artyom Kazak 3 mon

@Srid Oh, and about jargon: I still haven’t figured out whether I want to write in a way that is easy to understand – or hard. A case for the latter: I reread The Last Psychiatrist / Hotel Concierge / Sam[]zdat / Meaningness much more than I reread LW or SSC, and internalize more as well. There is definitely more to it than mere jargon, though.

Srid 3 mon

Did you find that the belief, which took three hours to see through, or any other belief, was causing some level of distress (thus prompting you to dislodge it)? If so, that distress is what I’m referring to as ‘affective aspect’ (but the term also refers to the deeper emotions, beneath the belief itself). ‘Affect’ is just a fancy word referring to emotions, feelings and mood. More importantly, affect is *always present*. Lisa Feldman refers to it as ‘core affect’[1].

A belief is not just a cognitive structure; it is affective in its nature. Without affect backing it, a belief is just not effective (and one would have no reason to hold it to the point of causing distress). I think of belief as a skeleton in the psyche; with affect filling in and around the skeleton forming a persistent structure we call “mood” or “feeling”. This is why uprooting a belief, brings the entire thing down. The body will collapse to the ground without a solid skeleton!

However there is more to affect than that (sneak preview: self, identity, flow of time as illusion, self-less experiences) ... but that will have to wait until I can trigger what is known as a Pure Consciousness Experience.

PS.: I didn’t get any email notification of your comments (and I checked the spam folder in Gmail). Bug?

[1] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-13561-009

Artyom Kazak 3 mon

Re/ email: I changed the sender. Does it work now?

Re/ beliefs depending on affect: makes sense, but I’m not sure beliefs are completely dependent on affect. Granted, I don’t understand what “core affect” is, and the paper is fairly long. Do you have a more accessible / short explanation? Or maybe you can quote the paper?

Sridhar Ratnakumar 3 mon

(Received no email this time either; oh wait, I did not check the “Get other comments by email” thingy, which I’m doing now)

For core effect these may be helpful,

In regards to the affective nature of beliefs, I’d say that it is best understood in the context of relation between affect and identity inasmuch as beliefs are attributes of one’s identity (dropping a beliefs means a part of one’s identity is gone as well), and identity is made of affect. No research comprehensively talks about these things as far as I’m aware, but I found this, which seems to be closer: “ideas become values if and when pervaded by emotions; that such values become beliefs if they confer a sense of identity upon a person or group, and that such beliefs become religious beliefs if they frame identity with a sense of destiny.” https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198747871.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780198747871-e-4 and there is also this: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-organization/article/emotional-beliefs/F1EC7E3463DDC8475DAA3A4ADA64BD7C

Artyom Kazak 3 mon

Gotcha, thanks. I will read these if I decide to go further into how beliefs/identities work.

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