I’ve written before about how many words in our discourse are so vague they no longer seem to have any actual meaning. Common wisdom seems to indicate that words like “freedom”, “democracy”, and “faith” are these words that are just supposed to be unambiguously good, and we shouldn’t have to concern ourselves with… you know… what these words actually mean.
Instead, I think there’s a better approach. I wrote:
If we actually want to contribute to the dialogue, we’re going to have to unscrew the applause light. We have to take “I support freedom” and replace the word “freedom” with its meaning. This is where we stop uttering three meaningless words and preform years of research on the proper distribution of resources and write several books about how to reform the justice system. When we take the applause light and unscrew it and instead preform actual work.
And quite often, the results of this work will let us look at current policy debates, such as Guantanamo detainees or flag burners, and see whether the restriction here is an infringement of freedom or a necessary safeguard to ensure the freedom of others. If we are to be freedom maximizers, we need to know how to actually maximize freedom.
But there is yet another problem in polticial, economic, and/or philosophical discourse that is different from leaving key words vague. It’s the problem of laying out a specific definition of a word, and then thinking everyone else is defining the word in that exact same way. This leads you to argue and talk past each other.
Consider the following problem initially written by Eliezer Yudkowsky that I have mentioned many times:
One person says “a tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound” and the other says “a tree falling in the forest that we do not hear does not make a sound”.
Ostensibly we have a contradiction because one person says “Yes, it makes sound” and the other says “No, it does not make sound”. However, look what happens when we take away the word sound and replace it by what we mean by the word sound:
“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear makes a sound (generates an acoustic vibration)”
“A tree falling in a forest that we do not hear does not make a sound (generates an auditory experience)”
Despite the fact that these two people will find they agree on absolutely everything of consequence, such as a tree falling in the forest that we do not hear does (1) generate an acoustic vibration, but does not (2) generate an auditory experience. They will both agree that if you left a microphone at the tree and set it to record, you could later hear the sound, even if no one saw the tree fall.
The Definition Debate
However, now it’s time to take this one step further. While the initial problem has these two people in actual agreement despite not knowing it, because they are assuming the other to be using the same definition of sound, what happens if the two realize they are using different definitions of “sound”, agree on everything of consequence, but then… still debate?
The first person, let’s call her Alice, argues that her definition of sound as “an acoustic vibration” is the best definition of sound.
The second person, let’s call him Bob, argues that his definition of sound as “an auditory experience” is the best definition of sound.
What happens now?
Well the first thing that will likely happen is that they will talk past each other again, because they have different ideas of what makes for a “best definition”.
Instead, let’s suppose these people know how to actually resolve a debate, and decide to agree on criteria as to what makes for a “best definition”, and then see which one of their two definitions better matches the criteria. This is similar to the philosophical domain of conceptual analysis, where the best definition is the definition that applies even under incredibly obscure hypothetical scenarios.
An per the example given by Luke Muehlhauser, perhaps this conceptual analysis might go as follows:
Alice: “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.”
Bob: “Imagine some aliens on a distant planet. They haven’t evolved any organ that translates vibrations into neural signals, but they still hear sounds inside their own head (as an evolutionary biproduct of some other evolved cognitive mechanism). If these creatures seem metaphysically possible to you, then this shows that our concept of ‘sound’ is not dependent on patterns of vibrations.”
The Pros of Definition Debates
If you’re untrained in philosophy, you might see this debate as completely useless because Alice and Bob could just use a dictionary. (If you are trained in philosophy, you’ll probably see this debate as completely useless for a different reason I’ll get to in a bit.)
You’ll notice that it contains every definition of sound in common usage, including both Alice’s and Bob’s. Furthermore, since dictionaries deal specifically with what definitions are common, they aren’t meant to deal with what definitions are useful, or what definitions encompass the most obscure hypothetical scenarios.
Also consider yet another problem with dictionaries: their frustrating circularity. Let’s say we’re looking for what constitutes morality, so we look up moral (adjective). We’re treated to things like “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” and “conforming to a standard of right behavior”.
But what is “right”? What is “ethical”? Well ethical is “conforming to accepted standards of conduct involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval” and right is “being in accordance with what is just, good, or proper”.
But what is “just”? And what is “good”? And what is “proper”? Well, just is defined as “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good”; good is “virtuous, right, commendable”; and proper is “marked by suitability, rightness, or appropriateness”.
So we end up with this massive circle of definitions, and really don’t know anything more about what constitutes moral behavior than we did before. If anything, we learned that Merriam-Webster appeals to some notion of cultural moral relativism, where moral goodness is defined by the accepted attitudes of the culture, as if those attitudes were arbitrarily chosen.
This doesn’t work; so we need to do better. Therefore, there is some benefit to trying to figure out what a word really means, rather than making a web that connects to all sorts of other words that are just as vague. Figuring out the definition avoids putting the question and therefore allows you to actually further understand what is going on and being meant when someone utters the word “sound” or “moral”.
The Cons of Definition Debates
However, despite the failures of the dictionary to resolve the dispute over whether sound is “an acoustic vibration” or “an auditory experience” and despite the benefits of further understanding sound by talking about what it refers to, I still think this debate is pointless.
Why? Because the goal is already accomplished. By putting forth both “an acoustic vibration” and “an auditory experience”, we already have a solid understanding of what sound is referring to, and we will gain no further insight unless we appeal to science to explain more about how vibrations and auditory experiences work. We’ve done all we can from merely talking about it.
So at this point, any further debate is just puttering around, accomplishing nothing. Therefore, it’s useless. Instead, we can resolve the debate by simply picking one of the two definitions, perhaps even by random, and agreeing to stick to it for the purposes of the debate. We would resolve to say “Here in this debate sound means “acoustic vibrations”. Now, when a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it produce sound (acoustic vibrations)?”.
What used to be an argument that would take hours and perhaps never resolve because we would be talking about metaphysically possible aliens, can be resolved in three seconds.
Debating Definitions, Philosophy, and Free Will
When it comes to philosophy, it is Ludwig Wittgenstein who gets credit for first pointing out that many philosophical questions are unsolvable not because they are so profound, but because they are incoherent. We should instead seek to make philosophy about dissolving all of these questions — for each question, we would show how they are confusing by misusing definitions, and then study what motivated this confusion over definitions in the first place.
In the spirit of Wittgenstein, we can easily extend the debate over the meaning of “sound” to philosophy. I think the best example is the debate over free will that I once wrote about in “Free Will That Makes Sense”:
When someone asks Does free will exist?, the proper response is Depends on how you are defining free will.
So when it comes to free will, what are we really saying? It turns out that we’re looking for some notion of responsibility. Do we really choose our actions or are our actions completely determined for us by something beyond our personal control, like our biology and psychology or God’s unswayable will?
However, even this is not fully resolved, because there’s still confusion over what we mean by “responsibility” when we ask “Are we responsible for our own actions?”. But if we keep dissolving these notions over and over again until we have some coherent definition of free will that holds no possibility of confusion, we can then look to see if it exists.
This makes the question of free will very easy, though, because we understand that “Yes, all our actions are directly and fully caused by us having reasons for action that are not under our personal control but this is identical to the notion of wanting to do something and if this weren’t true we would be preforming actions for literally no reason at all, jumping off of cliffs despite our overwhelming desire to not die.”
And for these reasons, I assert that (1) compatiblilist free will is true and (2) a lot of people are compatibilists and don’t even know it.
But if we decided that free will wasn’t referring to the compatibilist notions but instead referring to if we possess an ability to act as an “unmoved mover” and choose without needing any reasons at all, we would say something like “Yes, you’re right that we are incapable of choosing without having a reason to choose and by this definition free will doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean we have any reason to dispair because our actions are still caused by our character, which can be good or bad, and which we have reasons to improve in ourselves and others, therefore demonstrating a notion of responsibility and a notion by which we can still blame people for their actions.”
A lot of the current debate in free will seems to be defining free will in the “choose without any reason at all” manner and then equivocating to the “free will doesn’t exist, therefore we now have no basis to blame people”, but that’s a story for another time.
The True Folly of Debating Definitions
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 true folly of debating definitions is all of the wasted time doing nothing to actually further the debate or understanding of the world we live in.
I would much rather discuss and learn about how the world really is, than deal with obscure hypothetical scenarios about the metaphysical possibility of certain aliens. Wouldn’t you?
Followed up in: The Map and the Territory
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.