What Constitutes X to You?

After reading Yudkowsky’s essay on tabooing your words to figure out whether you are actually disagreeing about something or not with another person, I felt like I needed to update on that topic. I highly recommend you read Yudkowsky’s original essay, as the exercise feels very worth it to add into anyone’s toolbox.

While I still do not know how to efficiently battle ideas that are built upon a network of air, what Yudkowsky’s Taboo Game is good for is to have a systematic tool to get out of some of the disagreements one encounters in academic circles. It takes a few minutes compared to agreeing to disagree, but it also has the potential to resolve many pending or long-standing disagreements between two people who would like to retain mutual respect to each other without always needing to avoid that one subject.

Here is the an example of the game:

”Albert:  ”A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound.”

Barry:  ”A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound.”

Clearly, since one says ”sound” and one says ”not sound”, we must have a contradiction, right?  But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert:  ”A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations].”

Barry:  ”A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences].”

Now there is no longer an apparent collision—all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound.”¹

The point is that focusing on labels (sound vs. not-sound) will leave you thinking there is a disagreement, while proposing a test (vibrations vs. hearing) shortcuts to differences of definition without having to step outside the original question each time a label is encountered. I recently resolved a surface-level disagreement with a friend regarding the usage of the word ‘murderer’ by telling them my own membership-test for the word, after which she conceded that ‘killer’ worked just as well for her in the discussed case – at which point we agreed again.

If Albert and Barry agreed to disagree rather than pursuing the root of the disagreement, both would think the other one was ultimately wrong, which might subsequently lead to a lessening of respect for any other judgements made by them. All the while focusing on what either party thinks it takes for a phenomenon to pass into the category of ‘sound’ would lead to understanding and preserved mutual respect.

History does not have questions that are not for interpretation, and as such this tool would be especially useful for anyone on our field. Think of the following questions and imagine how much headache would be saved if instead of arguing about the question, the participants of the debate would substitute the bolded word with a membership-test:

When did the Roman Empire collapse?

Is Christian religion the foundation of Western Culture?

Where did industrialization begin?

¹ https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/WBdvyyHLdxZSAMmoz/taboo-your-words