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Yelsgib comments on Where to Draw the Boundary? - Less Wrong

36 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 21 February 2008 07:14PM

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Comment author: Yelsgib 22 February 2008 07:19:54AM 1 point [-]

I disagree with you (kind of). The fact that the word art exists does, in fact, imply that it has a meaning...for each individual who uses it.

There are no absolute classifiers. Even if there were, we could not know them. Our knowledge is necessarily defined in terms of our own experience and the computations we have performed on this experience.

It is useful to think of the "meaning" of a term as the way in which that term relates to more primitive terms. This is not necessarily a list (e.g. Post-modernism cannot be defined in terms of a list). This might be a deduction - a history of deduction - whatever. For instance, what is a good definition for "Post-Modernism?" Perhaps we must appeal to a large body of knowledge - the point is that the result, the "meaning," must be at minimum useful to perform computations (computations above and beyond classification, btw - a reason that meaning can include non-necessary information).

So can we justifiably ask the question "what is the meaning of art?"

Sure, but my claim is that this is a massively sugared/somewhat poorly expressed question rather than an assertion of the absolute existence of the term "art" and the absolute existence of its definition. The questions we might really be asking (perhaps in parallel) are:

What is the use of a definition of art? What is a useful definition for art? Can a single definition exist (which satisfied all of our classifications)? Are our classifications wrong or strange? What is my personal definition of art? What is the context in which we are trying to define art?

The attempt to answer the question "what is the definition of X?" is often really the attempt to examine a deeper, more difficult to explain question. For instance, in the context of the example of "if no one hears a tree fall, does it make a sound" the question "what is the definition of sound?" can really be multiple questions (one or more of the questions above).

My claim is that people are not good enough at de-sugaring their own questions to actually attack them/think about them flexibly/precisely. Let me propose a simple mechanism which I think produces this phenomenon:

You have a conflict of definition (e.g. you and a friend disagree on whether Modern Art is in fact Art). On a computational level you _might realize_ what the problem is. Perhaps you do not have a well-established context (since the definition of the term depends on context). Perhaps you have had significantly different experiences of things which "are modern art" in the sense of being culturally accepted as such. But in either case you are probably too inarticulate to explain exactly what the conflict is. Thus, you use the only tool available to you. You flail around and try to concoct a lingusitic expression of your conflict. You ask "well, what's your definition of ART then!?!"

I think that we perform this sort of operation a lot:

Well articulated intuition -> linguistic expression (loses resolution) -> poorly articulated intuition.

(another simple example of this phenomenon is an exasperated inarticulate man yelling "god, i hate women" - probably he does hate all women or claim anything general about women . He just doesn't have sufficient articulation to say "i am frustrated by my lack of success with women and do not understand them and therefore my frustration grows with each failed attempt at mating one - in addition, i experience a feeling of lack of self-worth which adds to my frustration and further confuses me." After he says "I hate women" he might actually _believe_ he hates women since he re-translates his linguistic statement into feelings/belief.)

What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? I'd really like to know.

Do you think that a significant portion of the population harbors implicit or explicit delusions that words exist as absolutes and have definitions which also exist as absolutes? Or do you think something more complicated is going on? What, precisely, is the nature of the bias?