Other Opinions #53 – Disputing Definitions

http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions/

http://lesswrong.com/lw/no/how_an_algorithm_feels_from_inside/

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Both links are excellent exploration of a common problem, but I think they miss a case. Sometimes, when people argue over the definition of a word, it is because there is an argument over value coming along for the ride.

Consider, specifically, a debate I witnessed recently over the definition of “racism”. Is racism only “prejudice based on race” (which I grant is pretty intuitive), or is it more completely defined as “prejudice based on race, when combined with structural power” (which is more what this article argues)?

Now, as in the case of “if tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” there isn’t any underlying disagreement about how the world really is. Both parties agreed that prejudice based on race exists, and that sometimes it is combined with structural power. Both parties were also fairly rational people, unlikely to get sucked into a pointless argument over definitions.

The disagreement, I think, was over the ethical implications. “Racism” is a heavily loaded word, and in this context I think it ended up being shorthand for “something wrong”. One party was arguing that any “prejudice based on race” is ethically wrong, whereas the other party was arguing that prejudice based on race is only ethically wrong when combined with structural power. That’s a really interesting argument to have, but it can’t happen if people think it’s just about the definition of “racism” instead.

Other Opinions #51 – Tolerance is not a Moral Precept

https://extranewsfeed.com/tolerance-is-not-a-moral-precept-1af7007d6376

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

This one is a really interesting take on tolerating intolerance and that whole mess, and unpacks it in a way that makes a lot of sense, but also I think fails to line up with how tolerance is actually often used. I’ve seen people with both conservative and liberal viewpoints try to open up what are essentially peace talks in the current ongoing culture war around diversity, only to be shouted down in the name of not tolerating intolerance.

Liberals need to recognize that not every form of conservatism is a fundamental threat to their very existence (some are, sure, but it’s not exactly difficult to tell them apart), and conservatives need to stop whining about their viewpoints not being tolerated just because they’re unpopular right now.

Tolerance is a peace treaty, but peace requires minimal trust and good faith, both of which are sorely lacking.

I’m Back, I Swear

My previous post started with

Whoops, it’s been over a month since I finished my last post

and ended with

Hopefully the next update comes sooner!

Well that’s depressing. At least I managed to keep the gap down to under a year. Barely.

As it turns out, indulging in outrageous philosophical hand-waving has not proven a particularly motivating way to write. So let’s mostly ignore my “brief detour” on constructing the mind, and go back to the original question, which basically boiled down to answering the Cartesian challenge to Hume. Frankly, I don’t have an answer. Self-awareness is one of those things that I just don’t even know where to start with. So I’m going to ignore it (for now) and sketch out the rest of my solution in broad strokes anyways.

First a refresher: I’m still pretty sure the brain is an open, recursively modelling subsystem of reality. It does this by dealing in patterns and abstractions. If we ignore self-awareness, then a fairly solipsistic view presents itself: the concept of a person (in particular other people) is just a really handy abstraction we use to refer to a particular pattern that shows up in the world around us: biological matter arranged in the shape of a hominid with complex-to-the-point-of-unpredictable energy inputs and outputs.

Of course what exactly constitutes a person is subject to constant social negotiation (see, recently, the abortion debate). And identity is the same way. Social theorists (in particular feminists) have recognized for a while that gender is in effect a social construct. And while some broad strokes of identity may be genetically determined, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the details are also social constructs. I call you by a certain name because that’s the name everybody calls you, not because it’s some intrinsic property of the abstraction I think of as you.

Taking this back to personhood and identity, the concept of self and self-identity falls neatly out of analogy with what we’ve just discussed. The body in which my brain is located has all the same properties that abstract as person in the 3rd-party. This body must be a person too, and must by analogy also have an identity. That is me.

Throw in proprioception and other sensory input, and somehow that gives you self-awareness. Don’t ask me how.


 

My original post actually started with reference to Parfit and his teleportation cases so for completeness’s sake I’ll spell out those answers here as well: as with previous problems of abstraction, there is never any debate about what happens to the underlying reality in all those weird cases. The only debate is over what we call the resulting abstractions, and that is both arbitrary and subject to social negotiation.

Until next time!

edit: I realized after posting that the bit about Parfit at the end didn’t really spell out as much as I wanted to. To be perfectly blunt: identity is a socially negotiated abstraction. In the case that a teleporter mistakenly duplicates you, which one of the resulting people is really you will end up determined by which one people treat as you. There’s still no debate about the underlying atoms.