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Replace the Symbol with the Substance

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 February 2008 06:12PM

Continuation ofTaboo Your Words
Followup toOriginal Seeing, Lost Purposes

What does it take to—as in yesterday's example—see a "baseball game" as "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run between four safe positions"?  What does it take to play the rationalist version of Taboo, in which the goal is not to find a synonym that isn't on the card, but to find a way of describing without the standard concept-handle?

You have to visualize.  You have to make your mind's eye see the details, as though looking for the first time.  You have to perform an Original Seeing.

Is that a "bat"?  No, it's a long, round, tapering, wooden rod, narrowing at one end so that a human can grasp and swing it.

Is that a "ball"?  No, it's a leather-covered spheroid with a symmetrical stitching pattern, hard but not metal-hard, which someone can grasp and throw, or strike with the wooden rod, or catch.

Are those "bases"?  No, they're fixed positions on a game field, that players try to run to as quickly as possible because of their safety within the game's artificial rules.

The chief obstacle to performing an original seeing is that your mind already has a nice neat summary, a nice little easy-to-use concept handle.  Like the word "baseball", or "bat", or "base".  It takes an effort to stop your mind from sliding down the familiar path, the easy path, the path of least resistance, where the small featureless word rushes in and obliterates the details you're trying to see.  A word itself can have the destructive force of cliche; a word itself can carry the poison of a cached thought.

Playing the game of Taboo—being able to describe without using the standard pointer/label/handle—is one of the fundamental rationalist capacities.  It occupies the same primordial level as the habit of constantly asking "Why?" or "What does this belief make me anticipate?"

The art is closely related to:

  • Pragmatism, because seeing in this way often gives you a much closer connection to anticipated experience, rather than propositional belief;
  • Reductionism, because seeing in this way often forces you to drop down to a lower level of organization, look at the parts instead of your eye skipping over the whole;
  • Hugging the query, because words often distract you from the question you really want to ask;
  • Avoiding cached thoughts, which will rush in using standard words, so you can block them by tabooing standard words;
  • The writer's rule of "Show, don't tell!", which has power among rationalists;
  • And not losing sight of your original purpose.

How could tabooing a word help you keep your purpose?

From Lost Purposes:

As you read this, some young man or woman is sitting at a desk in a university, earnestly studying material they have no intention of ever using, and no interest in knowing for its own sake.  They want a high-paying job, and the high-paying job requires a piece of paper, and the piece of paper requires a previous master's degree, and the master's degree requires a bachelor's degree, and the university that grants the bachelor's degree requires you to take a class in 12th-century knitting patterns to graduate.  So they diligently study, intending to forget it all the moment the final exam is administered, but still seriously working away, because they want that piece of paper.

Why are you going to "school"?  To get an "education" ending in a "degree".  Blank out the forbidden words and all their obvious synonyms, visualize the actual details, and you're much more likely to notice that "school" currently seems to consist of sitting next to bored teenagers listening to material you already know, that a "degree" is a piece of paper with some writing on it, and that "education" is forgetting the material as soon as you're tested on it.

Leaky generalizations often manifest through categorizations:  People who actually learn in classrooms are categorized as "getting an education", so "getting an education" must be good; but then anyone who actually shows up at a college will also match against the concept "getting an education", whether or not they learn.

Students who understand math will do well on tests, but if you require schools to produce good test scores, they'll spend all their time teaching to the test.  A mental category, that imperfectly matches your goal, can produce the same kind of incentive failure internally.  You want to learn, so you need an "education"; and then as long as you're getting anything that matches against the category "education", you may not notice whether you're learning or not.  Or you'll notice, but you won't realize you've lost sight of your original purpose, because you're "getting an education" and that's how you mentally described your goal.

To categorize is to throw away information.  If you're told that a falling tree makes a "sound", you don't know what the actual sound is; you haven't actually heard the tree falling.  If a coin lands "heads", you don't know its radial orientation.  A blue egg-shaped thing may be a "blegg", but what if the exact egg shape varies, or the exact shade of blue?  You want to use categories to throw away irrelevant information, to sift gold from dust, but often the standard categorization ends up throwing out relevant information too.  And when you end up in that sort of mental trouble, the first and most obvious solution is to play Taboo.

For example:  "Play Taboo" is itself a leaky generalization.  Hasbro's version is not the rationalist version; they only list five additional banned words on the card, and that's not nearly enough coverage to exclude thinking in familiar old words.  What rationalists do would count as playing Taboo—it would match against the "play Taboo" concept—but not everything that counts as playing Taboo works to force original seeing.  If you just think "play Taboo to force original seeing", you'll start thinking that anything that counts as playing Taboo must count as original seeing.

The rationalist version isn't a game, which means that you can't win by trying to be clever and stretching the rules.  You have to play Taboo with a voluntary handicap:  Stop yourself from using synonyms that aren't on the card.  You also have to stop yourself from inventing a new simple word or phrase that functions as an equivalent mental handle to the old one.  You are trying to zoom in on your map, not rename the cities; dereference the pointer, not allocate a new pointer; see the events as they happen, not rewrite the cliche in a different wording.

By visualizing the problem in more detail, you can see the lost purpose:  Exactly what do you do when you "play Taboo"?   What purpose does each and every part serve?

If you see your activities and situation originally, you will be able to originally see your goals as well.  If you can look with fresh eyes, as though for the first time, you will see yourself doing things that you would never dream of doing if they were not habits.

Purpose is lost whenever the substance (learning, knowledge, health) is displaced by the symbol (a degree, a test score, medical care).  To heal a lost purpose, or a lossy categorization, you must do the reverse:

Replace the symbol with the substance; replace the signifier with the signified; replace the property with the membership test; replace the word with the meaning; replace the label with the concept; replace the summary with the details; replace the proxy question with the real question; dereference the pointer; drop into a lower level of organization; mentally simulate the process instead of naming it; zoom in on your map.

"The Simple Truth" was generated by an exercise of this discipline to describe "truth" on a lower level of organization, without invoking terms like "accurate", "correct", "represent", "reflect", "semantic", "believe", "knowledge", "map", or "real".  (And remember that the goal is not really to play Taboo—the word "true" appears in the text, but not to define truth.  It would get a buzzer in Hasbro's game, but we're not actually playing that game.  Ask yourself whether the document fulfilled its purpose, not whether it followed the rules.)

Bayes's Rule itself describes "evidence" in pure math, without using words like "implies", "means", "supports", "proves", or "justifies".  Set out to define such philosophical terms, and you'll just go in circles.

And then there's the most important word of all to Taboo.  I've often warned that you should be careful not to overuse it, or even avoid the concept in certain cases.  Now you know the real reason why.  It's not a bad subject to think about.  But your true understanding is measured by your ability to describe what you're doing and why, without using that word or any of its synonyms.

 

Part of the sequence A Human's Guide to Words

Next post: "Fallacies of Compression"

Previous post: "Taboo Your Words"

Comments (14)

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Comment author: Ron_Hardin 17 February 2008 12:34:29AM 1 point [-]

Consider Cavell on baseball

Comment author: fiddlemath 12 May 2012 04:10:16AM *  3 points [-]

This link is now dead; the Wayback Machine says the text was this:

Very little of what goes on among human beings, very little of what goes on in so limited an activity as a game, is merely conventional (done solely for convenience). In baseball, it is merely conventional for the home team to take the field first or for an umpire to stand behind the catcher rather than behind the pitcher (which might be safer). In the former instance it is convenient to have such a matter routinely settled one way or the other; in the latter instance it must have been more convenient for the task at hand, e.g., it permits greater accuracy in calling pitches, and positions an official so that he is on top of the plays at home plate and faces him so that his line of sight crosses those of the other umpires. More or less analogous advantages will recommend, say, the Gerber convention in bridge. But it can seem that really all of the rules of a game, each act it consists of, is conventional. There is no necessity in permitting three strikes instead of two or four; in dealing thirteen cards rather than twelve or fifteen. -- What would one have in mind here? That two or four are just as good? Meaning what? That it would not alter the essence of the game to have it so? But from what position is this supposed to be claimed? By someone who does or does not know what "the essence of the game" is? -- e.g., that it contains passages which are duels between pitcher and batter, that "getting a hit," "drawing a walk," and "striking a batter out" must have certain ranges of difficulty. It is such matters that the "convention" of permitting three strikes is in service of. So a justification for saying that a different practice is "just as good" or "better" is that it is found just as good or better (by those who know and care about the activity). But is the whole game in service of anything? I think one may say : It is in service of the human capacity, or necessity, for play; because what can be played, and what play can be watched with that avidity, while not determinable a priori, is contingent upon the given capacities for human play, and for avidity. (It should not be surprising that what is necessary is contingent upon something. Necessaries are means.) It is perhaps not derivable from the measurements of a baseball diamond and of the average velocities of batted basseballs and of the average times human beings can run various short distances, that 90 feet is the best distance for setting up an essential recurrent crisis in the structure of a baseball game, e.g., at which the run and the throw to first take long enough to be followed lucidly, and are often completed within a familiar split second of one another; but seeing what happens at just these distances will sometimes strike one as a discovery of the a priori. But also of the utterly contingent. There is no necessity that human capacities should train to just these proportions; but just these proportions reveal the limits of those capacities. Without those limits, we would not have knowsn the possibilities.

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason. pp 119-120

Comment author: Caledonian2 17 February 2008 04:30:09AM 2 points [-]

The game of baseball is often played with an aluminum bat.

One of the problems with replacing a word with an expanded description of its meaning is the human tendency to shorten or simplify definitions, leaving out relevant detail in the interests of minimizing effort. When these restricted descriptions are substituted for the original meaning of the word, peculiar things can happen.

Comment author: Nancy_Lebovitz 17 February 2008 04:38:51PM 0 points [-]

Vision may be the strongest tool for getting past abstraction for most people, but I recommend putting the other parts of sensory experience on the list, too.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 17 February 2008 04:57:44PM 0 points [-]

I wonder what the takeup would be on a university that promised it would NOT give exams, NOT award certificates, and NOT even publically confirm you ever studied there. But in all other regards it would teach you through two degrees and a PhD, if you could manage the work.

Your publications, of course, would stand on their own merit.

Comment author: MadRocketSci 02 October 2010 04:00:59AM 2 points [-]

Hmm. In a certain sense, is these sufficient conditions to actually define an organization with boundaries?

I don't think many of us have ever seen the outside of that university. :-P

Comment author: DanielLC 24 January 2012 05:42:43AM 1 point [-]

There are colleges that let you watch the lectures online for free.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 February 2008 06:46:11PM 4 points [-]

I wonder what the takeup would be on a university that promised it would NOT give exams, NOT award certificates, and NOT even publically confirm you ever studied there. But in all other regards it would teach you through two degrees and a PhD, if you could manage the work.

Even I might go to a university like that, in the expectation that the other professors and students would be far enough above the norm to make it worth it. Though strictly private exams are important; they tell me how well I'm doing. And it would also need to not have some ridiculous system of course prerequisites, because I'm not going to waste that time. Also, why assume that this university is going to teach only to the PhD level?

Comment author: gunnervi 09 July 2012 02:36:47AM 0 points [-]

Being currently subject to a system of ridiculous and often inaccurate course prerequisites, I think that the correct model is to list what concepts (depending on the school and department, listing texts that students are expected to be familiar with or courses they are expected to have taken may be appropriate) students are expected to know before taking the course in question - they can choose to ignore the prerequisites if they so desire.

The only reason I see for "hard" prerequisites (it is mandatory to take course A before course B) is safety courses (I don't know if this is ubiquitous, but at my university, there is a safety course that permits access to the student shop and (I think) is a prerequisite for all courses that require use of the machine shop - this is far more efficient than, say, every course that requires it taking time to give students safety training (as this would grow redundant for students taking large numbers of these courses)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 February 2008 12:28:01AM 0 points [-]

FSK understands Taboo.

(This should not necessarily be taken as an endorsement of the opinions expressed there - just an endorsement of the way he's using Taboo.)

Comment author: Amanojack 11 March 2010 05:57:10PM 2 points [-]

Great post.

Or you'll notice, but you won't realize you've lost sight of your original purpose, because you're "getting an education" and that's how you mentally described your goal.

To categorize is to throw away information.

Exactly, yet words themselves - even if you expand them out to be one level more precise - are still just rough categorizations. Taboo involves communication, but what about when thinking on your own? If it's only for your own self, you can just think of a baseball game (visualize it, etc.). A picture is worth (at least) a thousand words.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 03 November 2010 12:37:46AM 14 points [-]

a "degree" is a piece of paper with some writing on it,

More relevantly in my own life, a degree is a tag attached to my name that changes the way a variety of real-world sorting algorithms (e.g., employers) evaluate it.

Comment author: dlthomas 02 March 2011 05:28:34AM *  2 points [-]

Replacing the symbol with what it signifies? In CS terms, this is "beta reduction", no?

Comment author: adhearn 27 March 2012 03:52:18PM 1 point [-]

An interesting analogy. Extending that, what we want to explicitly avoid is simple alpha reduction (where we simply replace one variable with another (unbound) variable). Extending the analogy to cover eta reduction is probably a bit of a stretch, or at least I can't see a meaningful way to do so.