The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

Previously discussed on April 30, 2018

  • Even if ancient Hebrews had perfect knowledge of animal genetics and phylogenics, they still wouldn’t be wrong to call a whale a fish
  • The distinction that mattered to Hebrews was not a matter of evolutionary ancestry, but rather, “Do I need a boat or a horse to catch it?”
  • Definitions are only “correct” or “incorrect” insofar as they help us achieve some other goal
  • In this definitions are much like the borders between countries - there is no such thing as a “correct” border; every border is the result of a particular set of political tradeoffs
  • There is nothing in the world that dictates which characteristics you should use to define your categories - the only thing that matters is whether dividing the world by those categories is useful towards the goal that you wish to achieve
  • This applies equally to questions of gender or mental illness
    • There is nothing forcing us to use particular physical or chromosomal characteristics to distinguish between male or female
    • There is nothing forcing us to use particular behavioral charactistics to distinguish between normal behavior and mental illness
  • We should draw boundaries such that they’re useful for the goals that we’re trying to accomplish
  • If these boundaries are no longer useful for our goals, we should (re)draw them differently so that they become useful

The Parable of the Dagger

  • Allegorical story
    • Jester plays a trick on a king, involving a riddle with two boxes
    • The king has the jester dragged away in chains
    • Later, the king offers the jester a similar problem
      • One box contains the key to the jester’s freedom
      • The other box contains a dagger for the jester’s heart
    • Jester solves the puzzle correctly, but finds the dagger anyway
    • When he asks how this is possible, the king says, in essence, “I lied.”
  • The lesson here is that logical reasoning isn’t the same as finding information about the world
  • Need to verify premises, in addition to reasoning correctly

The Parable of Hemlock

  • The problem with making things true “by definition” is that you can’t change reality by changing definitions
  • Example:
    • All humans are mortal
    • Socrates is a human
    • Therefore Socrates is mortal
  • This is perfectly valid logical reasoning
  • However, it doesn’t tell you anything new about the world
  • Still need to find evidence that all humans are mortal and that Socrates is human
  • Logical syllogisms are valid, but valid isn’t the same thing as true
  • Logic tells you only which outcomes are possible given a set of premises
    • Doesn’t tell you whether your premises are correct
    • Doesn’t tell you which of the possible outcomes will happen