Leaky concepts

When is a door not a door?  When it’s Ajar.

See also: motte and bailey fallacy by Scott Alexander,  The 5-second level, Disguised theories, Neural Categories By Eliezer Yudkowsky. No Boundary By Ken Wilber.

Every concept when challenged with reality is a leaky concept (even this one).  The idea of a circle seems pretty great until I try to draw one in chalk on pavement.  If you want to go mad, commit to drawing two lines the same length and don’t stop until you are dead from trying to line up atoms to be in the right places.  There are quicker ways to go insane.

The map-territory distinction makes it difficult to pin down a mapped concept in the territory.  The strange thing about reality is that despite there being a gap between minds, we generally have managed to communicate, to get things done, and to build a world.  This world. The world in which we live in. Bricks and mortar, bits and atoms alike. We did it.  We got to here, even though every concept leaks to all buggery.

Take “science man” in the prehistoric times of the savannah.

Cave man: “run it’s a lion”

Science man: “actually that’s a leopard, judging by its spots, I’d say it’s running at 40mph and will get here- augh!”

*science man gets eaten by leopard*

This silly example hopefully drives home the point of “how much does that leak matter?”.  For most of history, for most conversations the difference between lion and leopard did not matter.  Being right about which it was, had no effect on the basis of the following actions.

We don’t live in that world so much.  We live in the world of The Mars Climate Orbiter, which is now the reason that all space calculations are done in metric.

The discrepancy between calculated and measured position… had been noticed earlier by at least two navigators, whose concerns were dismissed because they “did not follow the rules about filling out [the] form to document their concerns””

“Oh that silly space agency, I’d never make such a mistake…”

“No one in my life has ever tried to say my name and accidentally used my sibling’s name and my dogs name before finally using my name…”

The way we measure or define a concept, and rely on a shared meaning of a concept is not going to be slightly wrong enough to cause serious errors that go unnoticed right up until something terrible happens.  Except for that one time, and that other time…

“Trajectories and locations are measured in local units” – Just a simple belief.

“Human children are named in a relational cluster to myself, my map refers to any name in the cluster of ‘child’ or ‘epsilon’ which is suitable to communicate to this one”

“The difference between lions and leopards are significant in this moment”

There is crack in everything

Everything is leaky!  How did we do it? How did we create a world where we can communicate even though everything leaks?

Most of the time leaking doesn’t matter.  Except when it does. When I need to be able to notice that the concept I was trying to communicate, has more holes than it has substance.  Subjective holes in places that make it a flawed concept.

To a zookeeper, the difference between a lion pen and a leopard pen is a lot more important than to caveman running for his life (probably).  The significance of a leaky concept is subjectively relevant to the person applying it and the effect that the leak will have on their life (their Upper left quadrant, subjective reality).

What do I do with leaky concepts now?  Add it to the toolkit of vigilance of the ways that words can be used and carry on.  Maybe it comes in handy some time.


Bonus content: the way buddhism talks about “the self” as a leaky concept being a foundation for 1/3rd of all the teachings.  There is no fixed self, the edges of the skin are one boundary that can be drawn but the stuff inside that boundary is always changing anyway, and the stuff outside is constantly interacting with it enough to make that boundary arbitrary.

Cross post to lesswrong: https://www.greaterwrong.com/posts/iSSXfBnCmjqWEb7Pm/leaky-concepts

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