Categorizing Has Consequences

  • In Japan, people theorize that personality is based off blood type in the same way that people in the West theorize that it’s based off astrological sign
  • This is strange because blood types are not some phenomenon that has been observed since antiquity – they were determined only in 20th century
  • Simply by drawing a category, our minds try to find further similarities among members of that category
  • Our minds are so good at finding similarities and patterns, we often find them when none exist
  • Drawing a boundary in thingspace is not a neutral act

Sneaking in Connotations

  • Definitions list the most salient characteristics of an object
  • They don’t list all the minor connotations that come along with the definition
  • When someone pulls out a dictionary definition, they’re usually not contesting whether the object or person under consideration matches the dictionary definition
  • They’re usually trying to sneak in a secondary connotation by arguing that the person or object matches the primary characteristics of the dictionary definition
  • If the argument from a dictionary definition was valid, it’d feel hollow, like a tautology

Arguing “By Definition”

  • The cluster structure of thingspace doesn’t change depending on how you define your words
  • If you’re arguing correctly from cluster structure, you’re taking characteristics of the object or person, matching them to parts of the definition and then inferring forwards to argue for the existence of unobserved characteristics
  • If you have observations that contradict your inferences, then it doesn’t matter what the cluster structure says – you have direct evidence, so you don’t need inference
  • Arguing that something is true “by definition”, on the other hand, is often an attempt to make you forget your observations and make inferences based off category labels
  • In general, try to eliminate “by definition” from your vocabulary – it’s too often associated with flawed arguments

Where To Draw The Boundary

  • There are no “perfect definitions” floating out there in the void, waiting for us to connect words to them
  • Instead, what we should be doing is figuring out how to draw similarity clusters which will allow us to make correct predictions
  • This is also known as “carving reality at its joints”

Entropy and Short Codes

  • Short words are a conserved resource
  • Saying, “I can define words any way I want,” hinders the process of carving reality at its joints
  • Use short words for things you’ll need to say frequently and longer words for things you won’t need to say as often