Definitions matter

“Jerry Fodor is my favorite philosopher. I think that Jerry Fodor is wrong about nearly everything.” – Anthony Chemero

Words can be wrong in a bunch of ways. Or more precisely, they can be used in a variety of wrong ways. But wrong with regards to what? What does it mean for words to be wrong? In this essay I try to go beyond the idea of words being wrong and try to understand why they are being used in a “wrong” way to begin with. I then draw out consequences of the mechanism that is allowing this.


“Wrong” Words

I think that Eliezer is roughly correct in his normative assessment that words can be wrong. But notice the alternative title: “Suboptimal Use Of Categories Can Have Negative Side Effects On Your Cognition”. Besides the problematic entailments of suboptimal, about which I talked yesterday, there is a hint of the implicit normative system: words are to be used in the way that most benefits our cognition.

Given that, I think that Eliezer’s assessment is roughly correct. But that he doesn’t go far enough.  He takes the wrong approach to Chesterton’s fence:

“It’s more like Chesterton’s Fence. G.K. Chesterton gave the example of a fence in the middle of nowhere. A traveller comes across it, thinks “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here, it sure was dumb to build one” and so takes it down. She is then gored by an angry bull who was being kept on the other side of the fence.


Chesterton’s point is that “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here” is the worst reason to remove a fence. Someone had a reason to put a fence up here, and if you can’t even imagine what it was, it probably means there’s something you’re missing about the situation and that you’re meddling in things you don’t understand. None of this precludes the traveller who knows that this was historically a cattle farming area but is now abandoned – ie the traveller who understands what’s going on – from taking down the fence.

As with fences, so with arguments. If you have no clue how someone could believe something, and so you decide it’s stupid, you are much like Chesterton’s traveler dismissing the fence (and philosophers, like travelers, are at high risk of stumbling across bull.)”

Or rather, Eliezer takes an incomplete approach.

Eliezer, like Kahneman , notice something of the sort “X is about Y. But the ways that people interact with X doesn’t lead to Y. Therefore we need to correct those ways”.

Hanson take a different approach by recognising that X is about Y is only a social truth and questioning that exact premise (Which leads to his usual style of “People claim that X is about Y. The way that people interact with X reveals that X is about Z”.)

So, as with Eliezer, so with Kahneman, and nerds in general. Nerds can’t just plug in into the culture.

Inside of the culture everyone claims to believe that X is about Y, and acts as if X is about Z. This happens because they read a variety of social cues that tells them how to behave. Nerds can’t read these social cues. (I find this essay by Katja Grace hilarious in that regard. The nerd-equivalent would be someone reading about the Chesterton Fence story and being offended at Scott claiming to have set a bull in their direction.)

I love this saying “Before I had studied Ch’an for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”  It reminds me of Wilber’s idea of “distinction, separation, integration” or Cook-Greuters levels of development – at each level you go beyond and embrace the previous one.

To see the mountains and the rivers is the default state. This is the state of claiming to believe X is about Y, and acting as if X is about Z due to a variety of social cues and all of this is opaque to the one doing it.

To see that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers is the second step. The fact that X is about Y is still taken as true, but it becomes obvious that all behaviour is not matching this. The behaviour is wrong with regards to this particular normative system. Nerds come into this level naturally because they can’t plug into the culture, they are, by default, outside of it and thus can see into it.

The third state, where one sees mountains and rivers as such again, is the recognition that the behaviour was never about that particular normative system. I sense that to reach this level one needs to go up in developmental levels because being a nerd doesn’t cut it, one needs to see themselves as an object, to see themselves as part of a culture and a worldview. This is a requirement to seeing that besides the behaviour not matching to the claimed goal and that it was never about matching to that goal to begin with.


Definitions are not about proper cognition.

So what are definitions about? Why do definitions matter and why do disputes of definition happen?

Power. “Definitional power” – the ability of those who have influence to impose or establish their definitions. Definitional power is real in every sense of that political power is real. You can make people do stuff by calling things by other names.

Yes, absolutely, the fact that you have started to call X an Y, doesn’t make it so. But if there is a consensus that X is a Y, or, a weaker condition, if someone believes X to be an Y, then they will act to X as they act to Y.

Once someone is given the label “enemy” that authorises behaviours that would not be authorised for someone that is just a “human”.

This is damaging on an individual level.

Narrative therapy has these concepts of thin and thick descriptions which basically match to “definitions imposed from the outside” and “definitions created from the inside”.

Thin descriptions are imposed from the outside and lead to thin conclusion (someone acted the way they did because they are bad, greedy, selfish, lazy). This leads to powerlessness, especially if the people adopt the definition and then create a problem-saturated story about themselves instead of creating their own thick descriptions of their own lives. Narrative therapy is just “working with people to bring forth and thicken stories that do not support or sustain problems. As people begin to inhabit and live out alternative stories the results are beyond solving problems. Within the new stories, people live out their new self images, new possibilities for relationships, and new futures.” (1)

Definitions matter. Before we saw the weird effect of self-fulfilling prophecies. These also play out here: “A self-validating reduction is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which one of the main effects of the “prophecy” is to reduce someone or something in the world. It acts to make that person or thing less than they, or it, are or could be; or it diminishes some part of the world’s richness, depth and promise. And, this reduction in turn feeds back, not only to justify the original “prophecy” but also to perpetuate it.”

This is not trivial. The stories you believe about yourself and your life have run and will continue to run your life. The stakes are the rest of your life.

Besides that, I also have a bunch of things written up about how this actually affects society, which are way interesting. As you can guess I will have to touch controversial, trigger, politically incorrect, etc. topics. This is problematic, I don’t want to do this in an unpolished way and risk spending all my political capital at once.

And no, I’m not pulling a Fermat here.

  1.  Freedman, J., & Combs, G. (1996). Shifting paradigms: From systems to stories. Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities, 1-18.








  1. I suspect all cultures will have normative systems, but about different things. Research.
  2. I suspect that the first stance is the default stance. That normativity is the default stance normatively is the default stance, the eternalist stance, the fixing meaning stance. the reaction (eliezer) is the nihilism (only smart people of course). but the one to be aimed for is integration. Like it may be that the normative system is worth striving for but if you don’t actually see why the behaviour it entails is happening then you won’t ever see it 



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