Sunday, July 12, 2009

Woo Enthymemes #3: "Words are More 'Real' Than the Things They Describe"

This enthymeme particularly bugs me, and most often comes up with Creationists: Many seem to think that a species can't change, like there's some barrier that trims out any mutations beyond some arbitrary limit to diversity. The problem is that "species" is a loose label humans invented for convenience.
Let's take horses, for example. If you were to introduce a person without preconceptions to a horse and a zebra, it probably wouldn't be surprising if he thought they were the same species, just with different fur patterns. They are in the same genus, so they do have a lot of similarity. But they are different species, since they can't produce fertile offspring. Take dogs as well: Thanks to human breeding efforts, they come in a vast variety of forms, but many can interbreed. Naturally, with that variety, it's not hard to convince some people that some breeds aren't dogs at all.

Given what humans have been able to do with canines, just how flexible is this "species barrier?" And where's the magical stop sign that prevents anything from going outside it? Or is there some magically unalterable "species" DNA that isn't subject to nonlethal mutations? The problem isn't finding these things: It's that many Creationists don't understand that our labels are based on convenience, not on immutable laws or some quintessence a particular group of critters are supposed to have. Life is a moving target, and is not tethered down by squiggles on a page or patterns of sound issuing from a human's mouth. Truename Magic does not exist.

There are a bunch of living things out there. We just lump them into categories to make it easier to talk about. Mr. Ed is a horse. Fido is a dog. We know Ed's DNA is compatible with these other things we call "horses" because they contain the same characteristics we use to define him as a "horse." Just because we invented a word to describe this compatibility doesn't mean the horses are now obligated to conform in every way. With enough time, some horses might lose some of those characteristics (but not all, since, say, becoming a protostome instead of a deuterostome would kill the offspring) and become incompatible, necessitating a new species or genus name.

The objects we describe are real. The words we use to describe them are a convenience. If something defies description, it's the description that's the problem.


Dark Jaguar said...

This is a very basic idea that a lot of people seem to have a tough time grasping.

Take, oh, Fox News and it's odd obsession with the word "marriage". Remember that "civil union" nonsense, where they were suggesting that "the gays" would in every other way be exactly like a married couple but would just be called something else? It just begged the question as to what the point of that would be. What, in their minds, is the point of legally requiring "the other" to just be called something else? They're doing the exact same thing, by their own admission, heck sometimes they ARGUE there's no difference, but the only thing they ever seem to be upset about is "changing the definition of marriage". Well who cares? It's just a word! Let them just be called whatever they want. I see no reason whatsoever to be upset that something they disagree with happens to share the same name.

The whole Pluto thing was rather silly too. A state going out of it's way to "declare" Pluto a planet just to keep from upsetting people who wanted Pluto to be called a planet is obsurd. I mean, whatever you call it, Pluto has the same orbit, same mass, same moons.

Along those lines are recent cries of "socialism!" flying around. The idea, I guess, is that if you call health care socialist, it means that all the worst socialist stuff are just going to naturally follow. It's like a slippery slope thing going on only stated indirectly. I mean whether you call it "socialism" or not, the real issue is whether it helps people or hurts them.

Of course there's also things you've talked about before, like meaningless labels such as "natural" or "organic" (at least they're meaningless in terms of how the average woo uses them). The word isn't well defined at all and is just used as, essentially, a "curse mark" on rather random food items to just flatly state by fiat that this is poison and this is healthy, actual research aside.

Beyond this though are those new agey types who actually truly believe that words ARE power. I've talked to a few of them, and when I rant like this, all they can say is "but what you call things IS important, because it controls how people see things". Well, only if you let it, and beyond that, it still doesn't really change what you are describing.

James K said...

In the case of the religious at least it seems like they are arguing using theological methods, attempting to use textual authority for reality, as if that could work.

It reminds me of a debate I once listened to between an atheist and a minister on morality and atheism. The minister cited a few atheist philosophers (people like Satre mostly) to argue that atheism led to nihilism. He failed to realise (and his opponent failed to point out to him) that atheists don't have textual authorities.

Dark Jaguar said...

Here's one example from my own experience I forgot to include.

I recall long ago talking to someone about "magic". Namely, I remember them saying magic is evil because it's all from Satan. Ignoring for a moment the odd fact that they implicitly assume "magic" is real as part of the "believe in god" package, they also assume it's all Satanic power.

What I asked was simply "but what about the miracles god performs and the powers he gives people?". The response was a surprisingly defensive "God doesn't use magic!". Anyway, I explained that I thought magic was defined as anything that breaks the laws of physics as they are currently understood (just the definition I went with at the time). She simply repeatedly insisted that, for whatever reason, what god did CAN'T be referred to as magic. The suggestion was that it was blasphemy to use that specific word. If the bible was her basis, I'd be hard pressed to find out exactly what passage banned that specific word.

Along those lines, others I talked to there had other bizarre hookups with words. I remember another woman who hated that the word "evolution" was used in Pokemon. Now, I did explain that the word "evolution" just referred to something more like metamorphosis in the series, but she just hated that that WORD was used. It wasn't that it was inaccurate, it's that it was a dark word.

This same person also hated someone using phrases like "I died" when playing a video game. As she explained it, words are "power", because "god spoke and it was the word" (to this day, not entirely sure what that means, are we all Neo?). Even though it's just an expression to show that you were defeated in a game, she apparently was afraid saying "I died" or "I'm dead" enough times would make it real.

It was always bizarre and even back then in my Christian days I found that too many people had too much of a fiat declaration of meaning. I mean, how can it not be obvious that all words are are a collection of syllables slapped together in our mouths? It's the meaning behind the words that matter, and if that meaning is clearly what's intended by the speaker, what is the point of getting mad because the word has another meaning? By context it's clear the speaker didn't intend it.

It's a concept that has never made any sense to me, at any point in my life.

Dunc said...

Bloody Platonic Idealism... That man's got a lot to answer for.

As she explained it, words are "power", because "god spoke and it was the word" (to this day, not entirely sure what that means, are we all Neo?).

Well, in a way, it's kinda true: words define our thoughts, therefore our ideas about the world are shaped by the words we use to describe it. "Language shapes thought" as Chomsky would have it, or "Dreams shape the world", as Gaiman put it. Cognitive behaviouralism has something to say on the matter too, but it's not as pithy...

The trick is to realise that we live our mental lives in a model of reality, rather than the real thing, and to be willing to update that model as needed. Most of the problems discussed in this thread stem from the equivalent of discovering a discrepancy between a map and the territory it covers, and then insisting that the map is the definitive source, so it must be reality that's wrong.

Dark Jaguar said...

Well words express my thoughts and the ability to communicate them is limited by available words, but DEFINE my thoughts?

I suppose the biggest issue I have with that is most of my thoughts don't involve words at all. I mean, take me typing this out. I had the idea in my head already and it took me some time to convert my thoughts into words. Some people are much quicker and more readily able to communicte their ideas in word form so I guess to them it's only natural for their thoughts to basically be their words already, but generally when I think about things I get the basic idea first and then it's a struggle to convert it into regular language when I want to communicate it.

The phrase "How do I put this?" comes to mind. If our thoughts were entirely words and nothing but, such a phrase would have no meaning.

James K said...

Most of the problems discussed in this thread stem from the equivalent of discovering a discrepancy between a map and the territory it covers, and then insisting that the map is the definitive source, so it must be reality that's wrong.

So you're an OB/LW reader then?

Dark Jaguar:
I suppose the biggest issue I have with that is most of my thoughts don't involve words at all.

That's very interesting, I find I'm the same way. Sometimes I have trouble putting my thoughts into words and I find I'm much more comfortable operating with pure abstracts than most people.

King of Ferrets said...

I third the "non-wordy thoughts" thing.

Dunc said...

So you're an OB/LW reader then?

I have no idea what that means.

MWchase said...

Overcoming Bias, and Less Wrong, apparently.

James K said...

Dunc: MWChase nailed it, sorry but the "map-territory" comparison shows up most frequently there. Sorry about being so esoteric.

Dunc said...

No need to apologise. If a man can't be esoteric on the internets, I don't know what the point is. ;)

Dark Jaguar said...

Just thought of another annoyingly random "this word can only have this definition"-ism. Ever talked to someone who INSISTS that you can't call humans "animals", we're DIFFERENT than those beasts and no-no on that word? Firstly, it's just a category that we happen to fit into. Scientifically, we are multi-celled walkin' type critters are we not? Sure we're different, but so are all the other species. Why not call us animals?

Here's another thing, it's JUST that specific catagory. On the lesser scale, not a one of them argues we can't call ourselves mammals. They agree to that. Further, they have no issue with humans being called vertebrates, or "warm blooded". On a larger scale, not a one has a problem with humans being called "life forms", even though that groups us in with not just every other animal, but every single form of life out there, including molds and bacteria. It's JUST the level of kingdom (well, many also don't like being called a primate) that seems to annoy them, and that is just silly. Okay if you hate the word animal so much, what word SHOULD we use to group us up with those sharing traits like locomotion and such?