Natural Structures and Definitions

There’s a sense in which defi­ni­tions are ar­bi­trary. Words are made by hu­mans and no-one can stop me from call­ing red blue and blue red if I re­ally want to. So when peo­ple ask ques­tions like, “What is con­scious­ness?” or “What is free-will?”, it seems quite rea­son­able to re­spond, “Just pick a defi­ni­tion. Th­ese terms can be defined many differ­ent ways and it’s com­pletely your choice which one you choose to use”.

This may ap­pear to dis­solve the ques­tion, how­ever, I would sug­gest that such an an­swer of­ten mi­s­un­der­stands what the asker is at­tempt­ing. Typ­i­cally the asker is con­cerned by more than the lin­guis­tic ques­tion, but also with at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand the on­tol­ogy or struc­ture of re­al­ity. And it may be the case that this struc­ture in­cludes a sub­struc­ture that nat­u­rally fits with our in­tu­itions of what con­scious­ness is or what freewill is or it may be the case, as per the stan­dard LW view of these two cases, that such a struc­ture doesn’t ex­ist.

What makes this es­pe­cially con­fus­ing is that many peo­ple will con­di­tion­ally ac­cept the “it’s ar­bi­trary” an­swer when they are con­vinced that such a nat­u­ral struc­ture doesn’t ex­ist, while point­ing out the nat­u­ral struc­ture oth­er­wise. Here’s an ex­am­ple. Let’s sup­pose it was com­mon knowl­edge that we all have souls. Then when­ever some­one asked about the defi­ni­tion of con­scious­ness, we’d be tempted to point to the soul, just as when­ever peo­ple ask about the defi­ni­tion of trees, we’d be tempted to talk about leaves and branches. The ar­gu­ments for be­ing able to use lan­guage ar­bi­trar­ily and the fact that this isn’t a perfectly well-speci­fied defi­ni­tion re­main. It’s just that one defi­ni­tion suffices for 95% of cases, so we don’t bring up that ar­gu­ment. But if in­stead it was com­mon knowl­edge that there are no souls, it’d be much more likely they’d say that the defi­ni­tion is ar­bi­trary. And by ac­cept­ing an­swers to differ­ent ques­tions de­pend­ing on how things turn out, the in­tent be­hind the origi­nal ques­tion can eas­ily be ob­scured.


Here are some pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tions of, “What is X?”:

  • What does term X in­trin­si­cally mean? (no in­trin­sic mean­ing ex­ists)

  • What nat­u­ral struc­ture (if any) cor­re­sponds to X?

  • What are some use­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the term X?

  • How is the term X used in so­ciety?

Th­ese kinds of dis­cus­sions tend to work bet­ter if ev­ery­one is on the same page about what is be­ing asked.