Thursday, December 01, 2005

Knowing the definition of the word for something does not mean you know anything about that something

So I'm at this philosophy talk and the guy is talking about beliefs. Beliefs are psychological entities. They are mysterious psychological entities that people like me are trying to understand. What does this guy do? It starts talking about the root of the word belief. It's latin roots or whatever. This kind of talk has no place in a discussion about what beliefs are. Knowing the name of something doesn't mean you know anything about that something. Knowing the definition of the word for something does not mean you know anything about that something. That is, you can't appeal to the a word's definition to understand the referent of that word.

Why is it that philosophers don't seem to get this? Or at least, they don't act like they get it. I'd be embarassed to, say, talk about the root of the word "brain" or "mind" in a psychology talk.

A few weeks ago this other philosopher was talking about the difference between anger and indignation. According to his definitions (which came, laughably, from ancient Greek texts), being angry with someone is different from being indignant with someone because anger is a feeling you get toward an agent when that agent has hurt (in your perception) you or yours (yours meaning someone personally connected to you.) Being indignant means you're upset on behalf of someone else who's not you or yours. Anyway, on the basis of this he said that the two were separate and that indignance was not even a kind of anger. And that these distinctions were important.

I'm thinking, let me get this straight-- anger is a complex biological and psychological phenomenon that can arise from many different stimuli. And this guy, based on ancient Greek texts, is going to tell me that the feeling you happen to get if someone hurts another (not personally connected to you) is a completely different feeling? Docta, please!

One of the main goals of intellectual fields is to understand the best categories for the world, and it's a mistake to use the words your language happens to have for things as evidence for what the best category breakdown is. And, in case you still need convincing, this is why:

The words our languages use, and the categories that those words refer to, were selected over time because they were useful for us with respect to living in our world. So the words reflect a naive view of the world (naive physics, folk psychology, etc.) which have been shown again and again to be wrong in various ways. Science shows us a way better than this. With rigorous inquiry, we discover better categories, and make up new words or re-define old words to accomodate those discoveries. A great example is speed and velocity, and Einstein's redefinition of space.

It's a trap, being all into words and what people say they mean. Such knowledge can obscure what's really true, or different, fruitful ways of looking at the world. As Minsky says in "Society of Mind," words should be our servants, not our masters.

2 comments:

FootLouis said...

I totally agree. Its like the whole Truth, Reality and Theory thing; In Theory, Reality and Truth are the same. However, in Reality, Truth and Theory don't always match up and in Truth, Reality and Theory are hardly ever the same.

Gabe said...

I disagree. I like to start off my talks by giving my definition of a simple word as the opposite of the norm; "more" := having less of something. Then you can watch them squirm as they try to follow for the rest of the hour.