Follow up to: Unscrew The Applause Lights
Back when I was in eighth grade science I first came to wonder about the definition of life. Specifically, I had learned in class that life was scientifically defined as anything with the following properties:
- Homeostasis: the ability to regulate an internal environment
- Growth: The ability to increase size in all of its parts through a metabolism
- Adaptation: the ability to change over time in response to the environment
- Response: the ability to undergo a change in a specific scenario to achieve better survival
- Reproduction: the ability to produce new organisms from a parent organism or parent organisms
Ultimately, I was worried about how this definition applied to some of the boundary cases. I was worried that stars could be considered alive because they seem to have metabolisms, appear to grow and then die, appear to reproduce by the creation of stellar nebula, and appear to change over time.
I was worried that because Commander Data from Star Trek did not experience growth or adaptation and was incapable of reproducing that he was not alive.
But what do I mean I was worried? It’s because I thought that if Data was not alive, then he didn’t reserve respect, and I would have to stop respecting him and start treating him more like a rock or a piece of property. And I thought that if stars were considered alive, then they deserved consideration and beneficial treatment, and I could no longer think of them as dull and lifeless. But why?
Defeating The Smuggling
The answer was that I had smuggled a connotation. I had decided that something alive automatically deserved beneficial treatment and something that was not alive could not deserve respect. This is a fallacy: I was deducing conclusions that did not logically follow from the information I was using to make them.
It turns out that with the way I had specifically defined “life”, there was really nothing about it that had anything to do with whether something deserves respect or if something deserves beneficial treatment (at least directly, anyway). Clearly there were other qualities Y that match “X deserves respect when Y occurs” that weren’t life-related, therefore including Data, humans, and puppies; but not stars or viruses.
It’s recognizing and untangling these words that lets me bring the connotation I was making out into the open and stop it from being smuggled into my thinking about life.
The Smuggling Racist
However, this fallacy takes place in a lot more than biology discussions. For an extreme example, consider anyone who is racist, and has assigned the connotations criminal proclivities and below average intelligence to the definition of black person. From a definitional point of view, black person describes only the color of skin and no other characteristics. Any further connotations are hidden fallacies and smuggled connotations.
Sure, you could attempt a probabilistic argument: you could say that people who fit the definition black person (have a skin tone within certain parameters) are more likely to have criminal proclivities and below average intelligence. It wouldn’t be a correct argument, but at least it wouldn’t be a smuggled connotation. It would be a connotation made out in the open.
Sure, you could narrow the definition of black person to specifically those that have a skin tone within certain parameters and has criminal proclivities. I wouldn’t feel much need to argue your definition expect to point out that it is racist (and therefore very counterproductive) and unnecessary (considering the more popular definition works just fine). You’d just have to accept that there would be many people with a brown skin tone who didn’t qualify as a black person.
Inferences from Appearance
This fallacy also doesn’t just apply to racists. It happens to everyone who looks at a person and then operates upon a stereotype without analyzing that stereotype in probabilistic terms or even seeing if it holds true at all. The only way to know if that one goth kid is truly a depressed loner is to get to know him or her, not to just infer the quality from black clothing. There is nothing specifically about the quality wears black clothing that makes a person a loner.
Thus it is almost always wrong to guess how someone will act from how they look; both wrong in the moral sense and in the sense that it just plain gives you incorrect information about people. Again, sure you could define goth as someone who wears black clothing and a loner, but that would make any attempt to go from one quality to the other a fallacy.
The point here is that when you consider a definition of a word, you should do your best to bring all the qualities of the word into the open — even those that may be hidden or smuggled.
You should never find something that fits part of your definition and then assume the other part of the definition automatically applies, you always need to think it through: especially when the additional part of your definition is a hidden or smuggled part that you aren’t really considering.
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