Leaky Concepts

Origi­nal post: http://​​bear­lamp.com.au/​​leaky-con­cepts/​​

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

See also: motte and bailey fal­lacy by Scott Alexan­der, The 5-sec­ondlevel, 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.