Replace the Symbol with the Substance

What does it take to—as in yes­ter­day’s ex­am­ple—see a “base­ball game” as “An ar­tifi­cial group con­flict in which you use a long wooden cylin­der to whack a thrown spheroid, and then run be­tween four safe po­si­tions”? What does it take to play the ra­tio­nal­ist ver­sion of Ta­boo, in which the goal is not to find a syn­onym that isn’t on the card, but to find a way of de­scribing with­out the stan­dard con­cept-han­dle?

You have to vi­su­al­ize. You have to make your mind’s eye see the de­tails, as though look­ing for the first time. You have to perform an Origi­nal See­ing.

Is that a “bat”? No, it’s a long, round, ta­per­ing, wooden rod, nar­row­ing at one end so that a hu­man can grasp and swing it.

Is that a “ball”? No, it’s a leather-cov­ered spheroid with a sym­met­ri­cal stitch­ing pat­tern, hard but not metal-hard, which some­one can grasp and throw, or strike with the wooden rod, or catch.

Are those “bases”? No, they’re fixed po­si­tions on a game field, that play­ers try to run to as quickly as pos­si­ble be­cause of their safety within the game’s ar­tifi­cial rules.

The chief ob­sta­cle to perform­ing an origi­nal see­ing is that your mind already has a nice neat sum­mary, a nice lit­tle easy-to-use con­cept han­dle. Like the word “base­ball”, or “bat”, or “base”. It takes an effort to stop your mind from slid­ing down the fa­mil­iar path, the easy path, the path of least re­sis­tance, where the small fea­ture­less word rushes in and obliter­ates the de­tails you’re try­ing to see. A word it­self can have the de­struc­tive force of cliche; a word it­self can carry the poi­son of a cached thought.

Play­ing the game of Ta­boo—be­ing able to de­scribe with­out us­ing the stan­dard poin­ter/​la­bel/​han­dle—is one of the fun­da­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ist ca­pac­i­ties. It oc­cu­pies the same pri­mor­dial level as the habit of con­stantly ask­ing “Why?” or “What does this be­lief make me an­ti­ci­pate?”

The art is closely re­lated to:

  • Prag­ma­tism, be­cause see­ing in this way of­ten gives you a much closer con­nec­tion to an­ti­ci­pated ex­pe­rience, rather than propo­si­tional be­lief;

  • Re­duc­tion­ism, be­cause see­ing in this way of­ten forces you to drop down to a lower level of or­ga­ni­za­tion, look at the parts in­stead of your eye skip­ping over the whole;

  • Hug­ging the query, be­cause words of­ten dis­tract you from the ques­tion you re­ally want to ask;

  • Avoid­ing cached thoughts, which will rush in us­ing stan­dard words, so you can block them by taboo­ing stan­dard words;

  • The writer’s rule of “Show, don’t tell!”, which has power among ra­tio­nal­ists;

  • And not los­ing sight of your origi­nal pur­pose.

How could taboo­ing a word help you keep your pur­pose?

From Lost Pur­poses:

As you read this, some young man or woman is sit­ting at a desk in a uni­ver­sity, earnestly study­ing ma­te­rial they have no in­ten­tion of ever us­ing, and no in­ter­est in know­ing for its own sake. They want a high-pay­ing job, and the high-pay­ing job re­quires a piece of pa­per, and the piece of pa­per re­quires a pre­vi­ous mas­ter’s de­gree, and the mas­ter’s de­gree re­quires a bach­e­lor’s de­gree, and the uni­ver­sity that grants the bach­e­lor’s de­gree re­quires you to take a class in 12th-cen­tury knit­ting pat­terns to grad­u­ate. So they dili­gently study, in­tend­ing to for­get it all the mo­ment the fi­nal exam is ad­ministered, but still se­ri­ously work­ing away, be­cause they want that piece of pa­per.

Why are you go­ing to “school”? To get an “ed­u­ca­tion” end­ing in a “de­gree”. Blank out the for­bid­den words and all their ob­vi­ous syn­onyms, vi­su­al­ize the ac­tual de­tails, and you’re much more likely to no­tice that “school” cur­rently seems to con­sist of sit­ting next to bored teenagers listen­ing to ma­te­rial you already know, that a “de­gree” is a piece of pa­per with some writ­ing on it, and that “ed­u­ca­tion” is for­get­ting the ma­te­rial as soon as you’re tested on it.

Leaky gen­er­al­iza­tions of­ten man­i­fest through cat­e­go­riza­tions: Peo­ple who ac­tu­ally learn in class­rooms are cat­e­go­rized as “get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion”, so “get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion” must be good; but then any­one who ac­tu­ally shows up at a col­lege will also match against the con­cept “get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion”, whether or not they learn.

Stu­dents who un­der­stand math will do well on tests, but if you re­quire schools to pro­duce good test scores, they’ll spend all their time teach­ing to the test. A men­tal cat­e­gory, that im­perfectly matches your goal, can pro­duce the same kind of in­cen­tive failure in­ter­nally. You want to learn, so you need an “ed­u­ca­tion”; and then as long as you’re get­ting any­thing that matches against the cat­e­gory “ed­u­ca­tion”, you may not no­tice whether you’re learn­ing or not. Or you’ll no­tice, but you won’t re­al­ize you’ve lost sight of your origi­nal pur­pose, be­cause you’re “get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion” and that’s how you men­tally de­scribed your goal.

To cat­e­go­rize is to throw away in­for­ma­tion. If you’re told that a fal­ling tree makes a “sound”, you don’t know what the ac­tual sound is; you haven’t ac­tu­ally heard the tree fal­ling. If a coin lands “heads”, you don’t know its ra­dial ori­en­ta­tion. A blue egg-shaped thing may be a “blegg”, but what if the ex­act egg shape varies, or the ex­act shade of blue? You want to use cat­e­gories to throw away ir­rele­vant in­for­ma­tion, to sift gold from dust, but of­ten the stan­dard cat­e­go­riza­tion ends up throw­ing out rele­vant in­for­ma­tion too. And when you end up in that sort of men­tal trou­ble, the first and most ob­vi­ous solu­tion is to play Ta­boo.

For ex­am­ple: “Play Ta­boo” is it­self a leaky gen­er­al­iza­tion. Has­bro’s ver­sion is not the ra­tio­nal­ist ver­sion; they only list five ad­di­tional banned words on the card, and that’s not nearly enough cov­er­age to ex­clude think­ing in fa­mil­iar old words. What ra­tio­nal­ists do would count as play­ing Ta­boo—it would match against the “play Ta­boo” con­cept—but not ev­ery­thing that counts as play­ing Ta­boo works to force origi­nal see­ing. If you just think “play Ta­boo to force origi­nal see­ing”, you’ll start think­ing that any­thing that counts as play­ing Ta­boo must count as origi­nal see­ing.

The ra­tio­nal­ist ver­sion isn’t a game, which means that you can’t win by try­ing to be clever and stretch­ing the rules. You have to play Ta­boo with a vol­un­tary hand­i­cap: Stop your­self from us­ing syn­onyms that aren’t on the card. You also have to stop your­self from in­vent­ing a new sim­ple word or phrase that func­tions as an equiv­a­lent men­tal han­dle to the old one. You are try­ing to zoom in on your map, not re­name the cities; derefer­ence the poin­ter, not al­lo­cate a new poin­ter; see the events as they hap­pen, not rewrite the cliche in a differ­ent word­ing.

By vi­su­al­iz­ing the prob­lem in more de­tail, you can see the lost pur­pose: Ex­actly what do you do when you “play Ta­boo”? What pur­pose does each and ev­ery part serve?

If you see your ac­tivi­ties and situ­a­tion origi­nally, you will be able to origi­nally see your goals as well. If you can look with fresh eyes, as though for the first time, you will see your­self do­ing things that you would never dream of do­ing if they were not habits.

Pur­pose is lost when­ever the sub­stance (learn­ing, knowl­edge, health) is dis­placed by the sym­bol (a de­gree, a test score, med­i­cal care). To heal a lost pur­pose, or a lossy cat­e­go­riza­tion, you must do the re­verse:

Re­place the sym­bol with the sub­stance; re­place the sig­nifier with the sig­nified; re­place the prop­erty with the mem­ber­ship test; re­place the word with the mean­ing; re­place the la­bel with the con­cept; re­place the sum­mary with the de­tails; re­place the proxy ques­tion with the real ques­tion; derefer­ence the poin­ter; drop into a lower level of or­ga­ni­za­tion; men­tally simu­late the pro­cess in­stead of nam­ing it; zoom in on your map.

The Sim­ple Truth” was gen­er­ated by an ex­er­cise of this dis­ci­pline to de­scribe “truth” on a lower level of or­ga­ni­za­tion, with­out in­vok­ing terms like “ac­cu­rate”, “cor­rect”, “rep­re­sent”, “re­flect”, “se­man­tic”, “be­lieve”, “knowl­edge”, “map”, or “real”. (And re­mem­ber that the goal is not re­ally to play Ta­boo—the word “true” ap­pears in the text, but not to define truth. It would get a buzzer in Has­bro’s game, but we’re not ac­tu­ally play­ing that game. Ask your­self whether the doc­u­ment fulfilled its pur­pose, not whether it fol­lowed the rules.)

Bayes’s Rule it­self de­scribes “ev­i­dence” in pure math, with­out us­ing words like “im­plies”, “means”, “sup­ports”, “proves”, or “jus­tifies”. Set out to define such philo­soph­i­cal terms, and you’ll just go in cir­cles.

And then there’s the most im­por­tant word of all to Ta­boo. I’ve of­ten warned that you should be care­ful not to overuse it, or even avoid the con­cept in cer­tain cases. Now you know the real rea­son why. It’s not a bad sub­ject to think about. But your true un­der­stand­ing is mea­sured by your abil­ity to de­scribe what you’re do­ing and why, with­out us­ing that word or any of its syn­onyms.