Proposal: Consider not using distance-direction-dimension words in abstract discussions

Epistemic Status: Less Wrong Classic™, a bold and weird proposal to possibly improve your rationality a little bit, maybe.


It is common to use words and phrases implying distance, directionality, and dimension when discussing ideas and concepts that do not inherently possess these properties. This usually doesn’t help and often actively harms our ability to communicate and reason correctly. I am running an experiment to see the effect it has on my thinking and speaking habits.


We implicitly translate a thought from its natural form as a clean, clear, distinct concept into a spatial/​continuum metaphor all the time, casually and without regard. A mathematician would not try to pull a mathematical object with a thousand dimensions, half of which are binary or non-Euclidean dimensions, into a two-dimensional projection without carefully thinking about the implications of doing so, but we do the equivalent of this all the time, casually and without regard for subtle consequences.

When you mentally impose dimension/​distance/​direction onto an idea, you risk bringing it into the part of your mind where you are allowed to freely leverage spatial metaphors when thinking about the idea. You will likely have no awareness of all the ways in which you are abusing these spatial/​geometric metaphors, because humans are not really smart enough to keep track of all the implications of our casually asserted metaphors. I think that even genius-level humans can be extremely blind to the damage that’s done when they implicitly translate a thought from its natural form as a clean, clear, distinct concept into a spatial/​continuum metaphor.

I think there’s a reason we like to compress things to one or two dimensions and use spatial metaphors. The Curse of Dimensionality applies to humans as well as machines. The way we deal with it is by squinting until all but a couple of the dimensions go away and then reasoning as if only a couple of dimensions exist. Perhaps this is not very generous to humans, but I don’t think it’s too far off the mark. We come with pre-built circuitry for reasoning in three or fewer dimensions, so it’s not surprising that we want to compress things.

It makes sense to use “continuum” language iff what you’re talking about has natural and clear continuum properties. “Is this paint color ‘more red’ than that paint color?” Otherwise you are, at best, muddying up your thoughts and communication for no gain, and often actively damaging things.


Non-political examples include the following:

  • Referring to two ideas as being “distant” or “far apart,” or “close” or “nearby,” or some analogous phrase. Perhaps you feel like sparrows are closer to finches, eagles are distant from pigeons, but not as distant and penguins are from ostriches. In other words, you’re trying to use the language of spatial relationships to describe your mental model of what a similarity cluster looks like. The real problem, though, is that birdiness is not really something that lends itself to intuitions of a spatial continuum. Certain individual dimensions of birdiness, such as “can it fly?” are almost perfectly binary, and thus not really dimensions at all in the spatial sense. Your spatial intuitions will lead you astray if you actually put any weight on your metaphor—so, of what use is the metaphor?

  • Referring to two positions, claims, proposals, or policies as being “orthogonal.” What is being gestured at here is the idea that there is no “intersection” (another geometry word!) between the ideas; that there is no relative relevance between the ideas; that the implications of Idea 1 have no bearing on Idea 2. This is usually not technically true, because in a very real practical sense, everything is connected, but in an abstract argument the word can probably be used as long as there’s an implicit understanding that what is really meant is “these two ideas are orthogonal within the carefully defined perimeter (another geometry word!) of this specific discussion.”

  • Assuming the existence of an “axis” or “axes” or a “spectrum” as a way of orienting (another geometry word!) a conversation around specific conceptual variables. The problem arises if you happen to forget that abstract concepts don’t always work this way. You usually can’t freely “move” concepts along “axes” in ways that don’t have implications for other relevant variables, especially if your interlocutor doesn’t share your understanding of exactly what these axes mean and imply.

This leads us to the most common specific examples, in the case of politics:

  • When Blues and Greens start talking about positions being “Up-Wing” or “Down-Wing,” arguing about whether a position, person, or argument is really more Up than another, or more Blue than average, etc. The overall impact is a massively lossy reduction of dimensionality for no real gain other than the convenience of assigning a tribal label for the purposes of tribal maneuvering and signaling. In fact, I assert that even claiming that these labels are doing “dimensionality reduction” might be overly generous. Most ideas do not have “dimension” or fall naturally onto some “axis” in an unambiguous and clearly-communicable way. Taking a naturally atomic, distinct statement, and placing it on some kind of conceptual continuum is almost certainly going to do violence to the concept in some way. Most concepts and ideas should probably not casually be shoved onto continua.

  • Another common application of the language of distance is to communicate affiliation: “The outgroup member and his opinions are very far away from me! I am very close to you and your opinions!” Perhaps this kind of speech has its place, but it might be useful to avoid doing for a while, so that you actually notice when you’re doing it.


We can Steelman the upist/​downist rhetorical technique as implying that one or both of the following two things is true:

  1. Upism and downism are distinct, crisp and clear philosophies that are in natural opposition, and there are many relevant regards in which positions can fall along the “spectrum” between the extremes of perfect doctrinaire upism and downism.

  2. Upism and downism are empirical clusters in thingspace, which may not be philosophically distinct but are practically distinct.

Point 1 would be great if it were true, but it is not, and it is especially not when you consider how people actually use these words in reality. Nobody even agrees on what upism and downism are. Point 2 might be true, but if it is, arguing about whether a position is more downist than another position is identical to arguing if a duck is more birdy than a magpie. It’s a subjective and pointless argument about membership in a subjectively identified category, from which no deductive inference can ever be made even in principle.

Concluding remarks

I tried this out for about a week before posting, and found the results to be interesting enough that I plan to try to keep it up for a while longer.

The most interesting part of the experiment has been observing the mental vapor-lock that occurs when I disallow myself from casually employing a spatial metaphor … followed by the more-creative, more-thoughtful, less-automatic mental leap I’m forced to make to finish my thought. You discover new ways in which your mind can move.

I also found that I ended up frequently reaching for “uncorrelated” or “unrelated” as a substitutes for “orthogonal,” a word which I previously overused. As a metaphor, “uncorrelated” works even better than “orthogonal”; I very rarely actually meant “the dot product of these two ideas is zero” in the first place.

I also sometimes ended up settling on words that invoke topology without quite implying geometry. For example, “disconnected,” “disjoint,” or, conversely, “interconnected,” “strongly linked.” I feel like these metaphors are okay to keep, they are a much better map than the words they would be replacing. I am reminded of the Odonian habit of using “more central” instead of “highest” as a way of expressing hierarchy; it seems like a minor choice but it influences how you see things. Asking yourself to actually thoughtfully choose which metaphor to use results in overall richer communication.

Thanks to the Guild of the Rose for feedback and discussion on a draft version of this post.