Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

army1987 comments on Excluding the Supernatural - Less Wrong

37 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (139)

Sort By: Old

You are viewing a single comment's thread. Show more comments above.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 December 2011 11:15:08PM 3 points [-]

(Strangely, some mythical creatures, such as vampires and unicorns, seem to be defined in a spiritual way; whereas others, such as mermaids and centaurs, do not. A horse genetically engineered to grow a horn would probably not be thought of as a "real" unicorn; a genenged mermaid probably would be admitted to be a "real" mermaid.)

Dunno if it's because I'm not a native English speaker, but my intuition about the words unicorn and mermaid doesn't agree (whereas it does agree e.g. with Gettier about the precise meaning of knowledge, and most other similar problems about precise meanings of words).

Comment author: Prismattic 19 December 2011 01:39:36AM 3 points [-]

I am a native English speaker, and I don't agree with the quoted passage either.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2011 03:15:14AM *  12 points [-]

I think this depends a lot on your exposure to centaur and unicorn myths. Both creatures were imagined in Greece; the centaur was just a mashup of man and horse, and the unicorn was just a kind of horned donkey found in faraway places. Thus, if you slapped a horn on some donkeys (or just found an oryx) you'd have a Greek unicorn.

But in medieval Europe, the unicorn became a symbol of purity, able to cure diseases and drawn to virgins. Oryxes can't cure diseases and aren't drawn to (human) virgins, which to a large extent is the point of a unicorn (to someone who adopts the medieval European imagination of unicorns).

Comment author: [deleted] 19 December 2011 11:44:25AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, that must be the reason. I'm not familiar with mediaeval myths about unicorns, so it means pretty much “a horse with a horn” (but I wouldn't count an oryx as one -- the uni- part means it has to only have one horn, doesn't it :-)), but on the other hand I know about the myth of the mermaids' singing (and Ulysses's strategy to cope with it) so I wouldn't count the top half of a woman glued onto the bottom half of a fish as one.

Comment author: Vaniver 19 December 2011 05:09:56PM *  3 points [-]

Interestingly, mermaid myths may have been deliberate hoaxes, which makes the question of a "real" mermaid even muddier.

I'm not sure how Ctesias or Aristotle would react to seeing an oryx- they might decide it's a new duoceros different from monoceri or they might say "oops, I guess we only saw depictions of monoceri in profile, they actually have two horns."

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 19 December 2011 05:16:41PM 8 points [-]

but on the other hand I know about the myth of the mermaids' singing (and Ulysses's strategy to cope with it

A nitpick: The Odyssey had sirens singing, not mermaids -- and those were half-bird women, not half-fish women. See how they were depicted in ancient times

Comment author: Alejandro1 19 December 2011 06:07:46PM 4 points [-]

In Spanish (and presumably also in whichever language is army's native tongue, if it is not Spanish) the word 'sirena' is used for both siren and mermaid, hence the confusion.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 January 2012 10:00:10AM 1 point [-]

Yes, it's Italian.