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lessdazed comments on Taboo Your Words - Less Wrong

72 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 February 2008 10:53PM

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Comment author: lessdazed 03 December 2011 10:06:29AM *  5 points [-]

This is one of the nonstandard tools in my toolbox, and in my humble opinion, it works way way better than the standard one.

Yudkowsky, 2008.

To bring out the role of pointlessness, it is worth noting that when faced with a potentially verbal dispute we often ask: what turns on this?


Typically, a broadly verbal dispute is one that can be resolved by attending to language and resolving metalinguistic di fferences over meaning. For example, these disputes can sometimes be resolved by settling the facts about the meaning of key terms in our community...[which] may take substantive empirical investigation.

Distinguishing senses of a key term is particularly dicult when these senses do not correspond to clear explicit definitions. More generally, we are not always able to give a good articulation of what our terms mean, and it is often far from obvious whether or not two speakers disagree about meaning. So it is useful to have a method that does not directly depend on the analysis of meaning in this way.

An alternative heuristic for detecting and dealing with verbal disputes is what we might call the method of elimination. Here, the key idea is that one eliminates use of the key term, and one attempts to determine whether any substantive dispute remains.


The method of elimination can be applied to many disputes in philosophy. To illustrate a possible use, I will start with an issue that has often been accused of giving rise to verbal disputes, and in which proponents are relatively sophisticated about these issues: the question of free will and determinism.

Suppose that a compatibilist says ‘Free will is compatible with determinism’, and an incompatibilist says ‘No, free will is not compatible with determinism’. A challenger may suggest that the dispute is verbal, and that the dispute arises only because the parties mean di fferent things by ‘free will’.

We can then apply the method of elimination: bar the term ‘free will’, and see whether there are residual disputes. There are various possible outcomes, depending on the compatibilist and the incompatibilist in question. One possible outcome is that the parties will disagree over a sentence such as ‘Moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism’ as part of the original dispute. If so, this is a prima facie indication that the dispute is non-verbal—though one may want to reapply the method to ‘moral responsibility’ to be sure. Another possible outcome is that there will be no such residual disagreement. For example, the parties might agree on “Determinism is compatible with degree D of moral responsibility”, “Determinism is not compatible with a higher degree D’ of moral responsibility” (for example, a degree involving desert that warrants retributive punishment), and other relevant sentences. This outcome is a prima facie indication that the dispute is verbal, resting on a disagreement about whether the meaning of “free will” requires more than degree D of moral responsibility.


In the Socratic tradition, the paradigmatic philosophical questions take the form “What is X?”. These questions are the focus of many philosophical debates today: What is free will? What is knowledge? What is justification? What is justice? What is law? What is confirmation? What is causation? What is color? What is a concept? What is meaning? What is action? What is life? What is logic? What is self-deception? What is group selection? What is science? What is art? What is consciousness? And indeed: What is a verbal dispute? Despite their traditional centrality, disputes over questions like this are particularly liable to involve verbal disputes. So these disputes are particularly good candidates for the method of elimination. For disputes of this form, we can apply a special case of the method, which we can call the subscript gambit.

For example, in the dispute over free will, one party might say “Freedom is the ability to do what one wants”, while the other says “Freedom is the ability to ultimately originate one’s choices”. We can then introduce “freedom1” and “freedom2” for the two right-hand-sides here, and ask: do the parties di er over freedom1 and freedom2? Perhaps they will disagree over “Freedom2 is required for moral responsibility”, or over “Freedom1 is what we truly value”. If so, this clarifies the debate...


The method of elimination can be useful even when a debate is not verbal. If two philosophers have conceptual mastery of exactly the same concept of physicalism, but one asserts ‘Physicalism is true’ and the other rejects it, then asking them to state relevant disagreements without using the term ‘physicalism’ is nevertheless likely to clarify what is at issue. Likewise, the method of elimination can usefully be applied even to philosophical assertions made by a single party, not in the context of a dispute. If a compatibilist is asked to state their thesis, or relevant aspects of their thesis, without using the term ‘free will’, this may well clarify that thesis for an audience and may help boil the thesis down to the key underlying issues.

Of course the parties might disagree on whether physicalism1 or physicalism2 best fits the use of “physicalism” in a certain community, or over whether semantics1 or semantics2 best fits the use of “semantics” in a given community. To resolve these issues of usage, one can do sociology, anthropology, linguistics, or experimental philosophy. Once one has agreed on the first-order properties of physicalism1 and physicalism2, it is hard to see that anything else in the first-order domain will rest on these questions of usage.

This picture leads to a certain deflationism about the role of conceptual analysis (whether a priori or a posteriori), and about the interest of questions such as “What is X?” or “What is it to be X?” Some component of these questions is inevitably terminological, and the non-terminological residue can be found without using ‘X’.


The model is not completely deflationary about conceptual analysis. On this model, the analysis of words and the associated concepts is relatively unimportant in understanding a first-order domain. But it is still interesting and important to analyze conceptual spaces: the spaces of concepts (and of the entities they pick out) that are relevant to a domain, determining which concepts can play which roles, what the relevant dimensions of variation are, and so on.

...there are important normative questions about what expressions ought to mean. These questions comprise what Peirce called “the ethics of terminology”. Ideal agents might be unaffected by which terms are used for which concepts, but for nonideal agents such as ourselves, the accepted meaning for a key term will make a difference to which concepts are highlighted, which questions can easily be raised, and which associations and inferences are naturally made. Following the “ameliorative” project of Haslanger (2005), one might argue that expressions such as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ play a certain practical role for us, and that role is played better by some conceptions than others, so ‘race’ and ‘gender’ ought to have certain meanings. The manifestly verbal dispute among astronomers about whether Pluto is a planet is best understood as a debate in the ethics of terminology: given the scientific and cultural roles that ‘planet’ plays, should ‘planet’ be used to include Pluto or exclude it? In philosophy, ‘meaning’ functions as something of an honorific (it attracts people to its study), so if one thinks that meaning1 is more important that meaning2, one might hold that ‘meaning’ ought to be used for meaning1.

Chalmers, 2009. (Emphasis added.)

Comment author: [deleted] 11 January 2012 09:50:10PM 4 points [-]

Anyone want to assign a probability to Chalmers having been inspired by this post?

Also: Yudkowsky's informal writing style is a significant improvement over formal academic writing when it comes to teaching rationality. Had I read only this essay by Chalmers, I doubt the lesson would have clicked as well as it did from reading this post.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 12 January 2012 11:23:20AM 0 points [-]

Anyone want to assign a probability to Chalmers having been inspired by this post?

5%. The "term₁ ≠ term₂" line of thinking can be found in Korzybski. For that matter, it appears in hip, popular form in Robert Anton Wilson.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 04 February 2014 05:38:35PM 0 points [-]

Do you have the Wilson and Korybski references? There are lots of ideas that are a bit reminiscent of Chalmers' and Yudkowsky's idea, but I haven't seen precisely this method before even though I have read quite a bit on definitions and related topics.

Btw, the Chalmers text was published in 2011 in Philosophical Review as far as I can tell.

Comment author: Protagoras 04 February 2014 06:30:36PM 1 point [-]

This is Korzybski's big work: http://www.amazon.com/Science-Sanity-Introduction-Non-Aristotelian-Semantics/dp/0937298018

I read it a long time ago because I met someone online who was convinced it contained the truths of the universe. It had a couple of insights, but overall my impression was that Korzybski was a crackpot. He had some vaguely sensible ideas about logic which he pushed much further than they could stand being pushed, and some crazy biological theories, and I don't remember what all else.

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 04 February 2014 09:18:44PM 0 points [-]

Thanks! I'll look into it...although it is apparently huge.

What's original in this proposal is that you aren't allowed to use the term that creates the verbal dispute at all. That's a more radical proposal than just creating say two concepts of knowledge, or truth, or whatever it is that you're interested in.

I think that philosophers have sometimes avoided certain concepts because they have been so contested so that they have realized they'd be better off not using them, but I don't recall having seen this method explicitly advocated as a general method to resolve verbal disputes.

One similar method is the method of precization, advocated by Arne Naess in "Emprical Semantics", but if I remember rightly there, too, you don't abandon the original concept; you just make it "more precise" (possibly in several incompatible way, so you get knowledge1, knowledge2, knowledge3, etc).

Chalmers article is very good and can be recommended. It draws far-reaching metaphilosophical conclusions from the "method of elimination". There is one additional interesting part of his theory, namely that there are "bedrock concepts" (cf primitive concepts) that generate "bedrock disputes". These bedrock concepts cannot be redescribed in simpler terms (as "sound" can). One candidate could be "ought" as it is used in "we ought to give to the poor", another "consciousness", a third "existence".

I'm not sure whether this is compatible with Yudkowsky's ideas. He writes:

"And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be."

"Ought", "consciousness" and "existence" seem to be "single handles". According to Yudkowsky's theory, if two people disagree on whether there are (i.e. exist) any composite objects, and we suspect that this is a merely verbal dispute, we will require them to redescribe their theories in terms of "outward observables" (just like Albert and Barry were). They will of course agree on the sentences that result from these redescriptions in terms of outward observables (just like Albert and Barry did), which shows that their dispute was merely verbal.

According to Chalmers, however, the existence concept might be a "bedrock concept" (he admits it's not easy to tell them apart from non-bedrock concepts) and if so the disagreement is substantive rather than verbal.

So there seems to be a difference here. It would be interesting if Yudkowsky could develop his theory and perhaps react to Chalmers.

Chalmers theory is pretty "deflationist", saying that many philosophical disputes are to a large degree merely verbal. If I understand Yudkowsky right, his theory is even more radical, though (which brings him even closer to Carnap's, whose views Chalmers are quite sympathetic towards in the last section).