Follow up to: The Map and the Territory
Editor’s Note: Welcome my first post in my attempt at a blog NaNoWriMo, writing 50000 words of blog essays in 30 days. Also welcome the first new essay in a “Knowledge” category, a new category designed to hold everything I’ve written about knowledge and language.
It has been said that some birds are dinosaurs.
No, not that some birds were dinosaurs, or that some dinosaurs were once capable of flight, but that some birds in existence, right now, can be accurately characterized as “dinosaurs”.
Right now there may be a temptation to dismiss this as the typical folly of debating definitions. Why, can’t we just define a dinosaur as whatever we want? Why can’t we say that dinosaurs are specifically “reptiles that lived more than one million years ago and that were greater than twenty feet long”?
What is it about words that necessitate that we give some birds the designation dinosaur? And what exactly does that designation do, anyway?
Pluto and Planets
For another adventure in the way words are used, we notice that Pluto is not a planet.
But this a complication, because Pluto was once a planet — Pluto was considered a planet for nearly eighty years. But then in a debate followed by a vote in the International Astronomical Union, and poof: Pluto is somehow no longer a planet.
What happened here? How did Pluto stop being a planet, and what does that even mean? How can something change from being a planet to not being a planet on the basis of a vote?
Is this also another silly definition debate? Again, can’t we just define “planet” however we want, and have Pluto be classified as a planet depending on what definition we use?
And what is it that Pluto and Dinosaurs have in common?
When is the Folly a Folly?
The answer lies in a couple of things, but the first is in what specifically is a folly of definition debating and what isn’t:
In “The Folly of Debating Definitions”, I wrote that:
In some cases, a lot of work would be needed to make this non-circular definition, such as “free will” and especially with “morality”. In doing so, philosophy is actually being useful, by studying how words are meant and used, and figuring out what we “really mean” when we say something, so we can figure out the full implications of our knowledge.
However, many times, such as with “sound”, this isn’t the case, and in these debates, debating definition is a folly. In any debate where definitions are of importance, we can figure out a definition that’s (1) practical, (2) sensical, (3) not circular, and (4) not vague; having fully unscrewed any applause lights.
Then, and then agree to that definition and stick with it. If there are multiple such definitions, we can pick one at random. Then, we can resolve the question by looking at the facts of the world. Perhaps we were in agreement the whole time, but we were just muddled by our use of language and assumptions about what the other person meant by what he said. But no longer! Debate resolved, or rather, dissolved!
The Basis for Language
Before I go on to expand this quote, I must remind everyone what I argued for in the “Origin of Truth”: language is a code that we agree upon to interpret our experiences, recall our experiences, and share our experiences with others. Others will do the same.
So the argument goes that we can use nearly any sound to represent any experience, as long as everyone agrees before hand on the mapping: “house” refers to this abstraction of related experiences; whereas “car” refers to that, entirely different, abstraction of related experiences.
But despite this arbitrariness, not all words are created equal: we want sounds to meet more qualifications than merely allowing us to imagine a common experience. Thus the need for the four standards, and the desire for definitions that are (1) practical, (2) sensical, (3) not circular, and (4) not vague.
How to Make Language Do It’s Job
Criteria 2, 3, and 4 is what allows the connection between word and experience; what makes the connection between the map and territory.
Quite simply, if something isn’t sensical, the connection is muddled — we’re not sure what experiences we are supposed to anticipate because we have come to accept this string of words.
If something is circular, we have muddle again, because the word is detached from the territory and no longer explains anything we find worth predicting. Instead, we have words that describe themselves, the equivalent of a “duck is a duck”. Even if the chain is more accurately “being moral is being right, which is good, which is being just, which is ethical, which is virtuous, which is proper, which is that what we should do, which is being moral” — so long that we don’t notice the circularity, despite not actually explaining anything about what morality is in the territory.
If something is vague, we can expect yet more muddle, but this is muddle of a slightly different kind. Here, we have no problem connecting the word with an anticipated experience — in fact, our problem is the exact opposite. We connect our word with too many anticipated experiences. We refer to too many different portions of the territory, with the intention to select just one, an impossible task without further work. If someone said the word right, are they referring to morality or a direction? We cannot tell without further defining the word right, either explicitly or through context.
Often, all these charges can be dissolved by grounding the definition in what experiences we expect to anticipate: if something is considered right, what does that tell us to predict about the action? If something is considered a duck, should we expect it to shoot lasers or appear metallic to our eyes?
Making a Language Be Practical
Criteria 1, demanding our definitions to be practical, is something altogether different: we could understand a definition completely with no muddle, but still reject it. One way a definition can be impractical is when it is entirely different from the mainstream, requiring an excessive effort to keep the new definition straight, especially when that effort is not justified.
For instance, consider a hypothetical Alice, who walks into a room and saying that “for the purposes of all future conversations with me, when I say duck, I mean a three legged mechanical robot capable of shooting lasers. We can dispute Alice’s definition immediately, and in fact must do so if we want to have an efficient conversation. Such a radical redefinition of a word that already has a commonly accepted usage is absurd, for we already have a great definition of “duck” that has nothing to do with lasers.
I’d rather you just agree to the commonly accepted definition of duck and come up with a new word for your specific type of robot.
Another way a word could be impractical is if it is excessively long. Words are used as short-cuts, either to communicate more words in a shorter amount of time, or to communicate an entire range of possible experiences in an audible sound.
Consider what hearing the sound book tells you if you’re an English speaker: you instantly have the conception of an object made of many sheets of paper with ordered, systematic symbols on the paper that communicate one or more ideas. All of that experience was shrunk down into one syllable: booook.
Now imagine if instead of saying book, we said ekke-ekke-ekke-ekke-p’tang-zoo-boing. Not so great now, huh? I’d rather just say “book” if that’s fine with you.
When a Definition Coerces Reality
Now what about calling Pluto a planet? In the territory, Pluto has no words, for words like “planet” do not float attached the object in actual space. Words are what our map uses to refer to the territory, so we can interpret and reason about the territory in a faster manner than having to go and double-check Pluto every time to see if it still orbits the sun.
Again, we return to the relationship between the words we use and the experiences we anticipate: if Pluto is a planet, that means we anticipate it conforming to the definition of a planet: chiefly being a circular thing floating out in space, orbiting a star. So when we ask ourselves “is Pluto a planet?” we might be said to really be asking “Is Pluto circular? Does it float in space? Is it orbiting a star?”
So what happens when we alter the definition of planet? It just means we are altering the questions we are asking ourselves. The IAU now defines planet to mean the following:
- The object must be in orbit around the Sun.
- The object must be massive enough to be a sphere by its own gravitational force. (Its own gravity should pull it into a shape of hydrostatic equilibrium.)
- It must have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. (It is gravitationally dominant; there being no other bodies of comparable size nearby the object other than that which is under its gravitational influence, such as moons.)
So this is a new set of questions that we ask ourselves when we label something a planet: we are now asking (1) does it orbit the Sun?, (2) Is it a sphere due to its own gravitational force?, and (3) Has it cleared the neighborhood? Saying something is a planet is saying we should anticipate a yes to all these questions whenever we look at the territory.
This is now where we encounter the problem of smuggling connotations, potentially using multiple conceptions of planet and getting confused by them. For saying that Pluto is not a planet does not mean that it no longer orbits the Sun, nor does it mean anything different about how it orbits the sun, or what moons orbit it.
The moment Pluto was no longer considered to be a planet, nothing changed about the specific body of Pluto itself. Nothing changed in Pluto’s territory. Pluto did not suddenly shrink, nor did it start hurdling out of the solar system, nor did all of its four moons stop orbiting.
When a definition changes, it’s the map that changes, not the territory. Definitions alone cannot coerce the territory to change in a different way. There is nothing about defining humans as mortal that will necessitate that everyone you see will die, it’s just all the immortal people will just no longer be considered human.
Saying that bricks must be red to be considered a “brick” will just mean that buildings will be constructed of more than just bricks, and those purple things will need a new name. No other qualities about bricks in the territory will change.
In our next essay, which will be published tomorrow thanks to my attempt at NaNoWriMo, we will look further at the practical requirement for considering definitions, with the aim to figure out why we draw the lines around definitions the way we do. This will also allow us to reflect on the way we can use definitions even more effectively, as well as what it means for a definition to be effective.
And, of course, we will explore why birds are dinosaurs, but pluto isn’t a planet.
Directly Continued in: Birds Are Dinosaurs, But Pluto Isn’t a Planet, Part II
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