Quasi-victims of Words?
Okay, so Let’s back-track to the most fundamental layers of language, so languages contain the grammar layer and labels/words/meanings layer (essentially sentax and semantics). Not to bash the syntax/grammar, but today we’ll focus on semantics or meanings. This topic is so interesting because our thoughts are actually conveyed through these meanings of words. It could be argued that language is the building block of thoughts. So today just like I am semi-obsessed with definitions, I’ll try to pass that torch in some way and show their importance from one angle. The way I like to think about words and meanings/definitions is that words are the tip of the iceberg, and the definitions are the part of the iceberg that’s under the water. In this analogy, the underlying process of definitions is inherently much more vague than the word itself because it’s basically under the water, you don’t see it when using the word (at least not as vivid as the word itself). And this takes us to another point which is that it might seem like definitions are the only representation of words, but in reality there a whole lots of other things affecting the interpretation by us of that word, and an example of such other representations is the context where the word is most used can be representative of it when it’s not really an objective factor of the word. To let the point drive home, let’s track down how a word is acquired in someone’s vocabulary and see where it takes us from there. Let’s take the word bias, so most probably the track of how the word was acquired is that the person gained recognition of the word when reading or listening to the word somewhere, then a little dictionary lookup (or physical dictionaries i.e. other humans) probably sufficed with nailing the word and using it and interpreting it in a certain way. Now let’s see how this might actualise in practice. Imagine if that same person one day had an idea to start a project, but before he does so, he tries to take some opinions of some people around him. So one guy he talked to told him that he thinks that this idea is bound to fail because he believes that the idea arose as a result of confirmation “bias” (assuming the advisor knows the project starter really well to give that judgement), in the sense that he’s just trying to confirm his ideas of demand with the project, and as a result, people will probably not be attracted to that type of project. Now, let’s analyze the criticism with regards to what it actually means. So bias is a systematic error in one’s reasoning (error just means that a relative mistake has been done, relative to normative models of rationality). Now once we dig deeper into the meaning, we see that it doesn’t really tell us something profound about the project’s success, it’s basically saying that the ideas with which the project was constructed are fallible relative to some model, and after thinking about the meaning of this word, it makes the leap to say that failure will arise as a result of “bias” much harder and questionable because mistakes in ideas we construct are usually assumed as a necessity and is not an excuse to say that something will “probably fail”. Now, I think that if we haven’t thought about the definition in this example, the leap to say that the project will fail is much easier because of other attachments to words like the contexts they are most used in or the psychological attachment that societies associate with. Of course, The probability of failure is still there even after interpretation, and the criticism still holds, but it just made the picture much more clear with regards to our context when we opened the word for reinterpretation. The example might not be the most realistic one, but I am saying this to say that sometimes words get misinterpreted and confuse things because they are subject to a lot of emotional and contextual load which might obsecure their real meaning that’s behind that word/words. And we tend to assume the meanings of words in a lot of contexts, but actually sometimes thinking deeply about their actual meanings brushes a lot of confusion off.
If I had to write this blog post with one description, it would be Activation of bear mode in this image:
It might seem from the previous example that I am stressing on the questioning of meanings when they’re received or given from/to the outside world (i.e. conversations), but the core idea here is to really question the fabric of your thoughts through words even when you’re just talking to yourself or introspecting. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy to overlearn this in some sense, I mean it would be impractical to consciously question a word like “food” in every context we are trying to use it in or hear it, for example. At the end of the day we are limited by bounded rationality in some contexts, which is just how we operate through ideas with limited time, information, and cognitive load at the time of processing things. Going down a hole trying to define every word used/heard/read can get counter-productive real quick in some contexts, but what can be a healthy approach is when you find yourself confused or semi-confused about some conclusion or just trying to understand an idea/ideas, trying not to go too far with assumptions you’re building on (i.e. questioning words being used) might be a good idea. And this might seem trivial because how can a word be used without knowing its meaning? Well, you’ll be surprised how much the mind conflicts some things if not consciously thought through. + I can see it being easier to question what words are next to each other, rather than question the word’s meaning itself.
Let’s try to visualise an approach towards words and definitions with some toy I came across. So this is the default shape of this toy:
Now imagine that each cell in that grid/toy represents a word you’re using in a conversation, whether with yourself or with someone else (assume it’s an intellectual one rather than a casual one).
So having shown our grid/toy, we’ll now try to represent with each cell (or hypothetical word as we mentioned) how well we know the meanings of words we are using in our hypothetical convo in these following three states:
State 1 = You know the meaning of the word really well, objectively.
State 1/2: You know the meaning of the word, but if you just scratch a deeper layer you’ll probably find yourself confused.
State 0 = You have no idea what that word means.
Now this is one final arbitrary probability I can see ending up being used in an intellectual convo (for both parties each, if more than one person is present), on average of course. And Probably one thing I can see getting out all of this is to actually try to see what probability of state 1’s and state 1/2's you experience in your thoughts or conversations with constant reflection. It might seem like a non-demanding task on first sight, but distinguishing state 1’s and state 1/2’s can actually be difficult. A state 1/2 is a disguised state 1 on first sight, but is nothing near a state 1 after thinking it through. So it’s all a matter of perspective and relativity in some sense.
Speaking of clarity of words, the clarity of terms used in the sciences (or at least the trial to do so) and other intellectual endeavours is one aspect that makes them truly special and productive. I mean in the context of science usually when we are talking about definitions: 1) Terms are agreed upon their definitions clearly without confusion e.g. gravity, 2) debated upon their definition e.g. wars, or 3) the definitions are being built with empirical evidence and experiments e.g. consciousness. Of course all of these defnitions can exist in more than one of those categories and is not an either/or, but the state of these endevours is probably something to take notes from and try to build in our own scheme in some way.