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olalonde comments on Disputing Definitions - Less Wrong

48 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 February 2008 12:15AM

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Comment author: olalonde 25 April 2012 04:50:58PM *  4 points [-]

One way to get around the argument on semantics would be to replace "sound" by its definition.


Albert: "Hah! Definition 2c in Merriam-Webster: 'Sound: Mechanical radiant energy that is transmitted by longitudinal pressure waves in a material medium (as air).'"

Barry: "Hah! Definition 2b in Merriam-Webster: 'Sound: The sensation perceived by the sense of hearing.'"

Albert: "Since we cannot agree on the definition of sound and a third party might be confused if he listened to us, can you reformulate your question, replacing the word sound by its definition."

Barry: "OK. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it cause anyone to have the sensation perceived by the sense of hearing?"

Albert: "No."

Comment author: ToddStark 17 December 2012 05:51:29AM 1 point [-]

"... replace "sound" by its definition."

Yes, that's exactly what happens in a reasonable dialog, at the point where people realze they are thinking of the same thing in different ways. The trick is recognizing what that difference is so you can expand on it and compare. It happens fairly quickly and easily in most cases when both people are mostly focused on inquiry. If they are arguing their own position, they are unlikely to be looking for the difference, they are probably looking for ways to deconstruct the other person's terms and find fallacies in their logic or problems with their evidence. They will resort to arguing for their own definitions.

When you end up in a game of duelling definitions, one valuable strategy is to ask the purpose of the definition. It serves a rhetorical purpose to use one definition vs. another in an explanation or question. If emphasizes different things. This is an important pragmatist principle coming from the slant that words are tools for thinking.


Q: Why bring the perceiver into the picture when talking about sound? What purpose does that serve?

A: The reason I define sound as something perceived is to distinguish the dark, silent physical world of wavelengths and vibrations and strings from the one constructed in human experience to operate on the world. I care about the human experience, not what is going on with atoms.

This exposes a great deal of the relevant conceptual background and current focus of each person so you know what they are arguing about and might be able to either collaborate more effectively, learn something from each other, or else identify that you aren't talking about the same thing at all. Rather than just fighting over which definition is better.