Reply to Nate Soares on Dolphins

post by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-06-10T04:53:15.561Z · LW · GW · 33 comments

A similar definition of intelligence was expressed by Aquinas as "the ability to combine and separate"—the ability to see the difference between things that seem similar and to see the similarities between things which seem different.

—A. R. Jensen

In a June 2021 Twitter thread, Nate Soares, executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, asserts, "The definitional gynmastics [sic] required to believe that dolphins aren't fish are staggering." (Archived.)

Soares elaborates:

Suppose for argument that we adopt the (dubious but sadly common) assumption that words like "fish" should have a genealogical definition. Then, just as whales are mammals, mammals are fish—as you can see by tracing the lineages.

Which is to say, if we look at the least common ancestor of all things that are clearly fish, and define a "fish" to be one of its descendants, then dolphins—and humans, and frogs, and birds—are fish.

Now suppose instead we take this as the reductio ad absurdum that it is, and accept that words like "fish" should be functionally rooted, according to macroscopic human-relevant features.

Then the natural denotation of "fish" is, I claim, the collection of all the swimmy creatures, which clearly includes dolphins.

Indeed, this is quite likely what "fish" used to mean—"Jonah was swallowed by a fish", etc. etc.

Yet somehow, once we figured out about genealogy, the pedants were like "well actually this fish's uncle was a fuzzy pigdear, so it's not actually a fish, you uneducated idiot, you absolute moron" and then we all forgot what "fish" meant out of sheer shame or something???

(I feel a sense of betrayal about this. Usually the pedants are my people! How did it go so wrong?)

So, look: this isn't about who the fish's uncle is. When a kid points at a whale and says "look, a fish", and you're like "haha no, its tail flaps horizontally and its gradma had hair", who's in the wrong here?

But Soares is failing to address the strongest case [LW · GW] in favor of phylogenetic definitions, even for vernacular words rather than specialist jargon. It's true that in most everyday situations, people don't directly care about which animals are evolutionarily related to each other. But the function of word definitions is not to capture everything the word means. If words were identical with their definitions [LW · GW], and you defined humans as "mortal featherless bipeds", then you would never be able to identify anyone as human without seeing them die [LW · GW]. That doesn't seem right!

Instead, words express probabilistic inferences [LW · GW] in the form of short messages that compress information [LW · GW]: if you want to send your friend an email telling them about an animal you saw at the beach, it's much more efficient to send the 7 ASCII bytes dolphin and trust that your friend knows what dolphins are, than it would be to somehow include all the information your brain has stored about dolphins as an email attachment.

A dictionary definition is just a convenient pointer to help people pick out "the same" natural abstraction [LW · GW] in their own world-model. Unambiguous discrete features make for better word definitions than high-dimensional statistical regularities, even if most of the everyday inferential utility of using the word comes from fuzzy high-dimensional [LW · GW] statistical correlates, because discrete features are more useful as a simple membership test [LW · GW] that can function as common knowledge to solve the coordination problem [LW · GW] of matching up the meanings in different people's heads [LW · GW].

And that's why phylogenetic categories are useful: because genetics are at the root of the causal graph [LW · GW] underlying all other features of an organism, such that creatures that are genetically close to each other are more similar in general. It's easier to keep track of the underlying relatedness as if it were an "essence" (even though patterns of physical DNA aren't metaphysical essences), rather than the all of the messy high-dimensional similarities and differences of everything you might notice about an organism.

Soares derides observations about an organism's "uncle" or "gradma" [sic] as if these were isolated facts of no more general interest, but actually, information about a creature's evolutionary history is intimately related to everything else there is to know about the organism. It's not a coincidence that dolphins are warm-blooded, breathe air (despite living in the water!), and nurse their live-born young. We need to formulate the concept of "mammals (including aquatic mammals)" to make sense of that cluster of observations.

But dolphins are also swimmy creatures, like fish, but unlike most mammals, due to the forces of convergent evolution. So dolphins also form a cluster in configuration space [LW · GW] with fish, right? Yes! That's why I keep using the phrase "high-dimensional": it's possible for things to be similar in some respects, while simultaneously being different in other respects. The cluster of similarities [LW · GW] induced by convergent evolution to the aquatic habitat exists in a different subspace [LW · GW] from the cluster of similarities induced by evolutionary relatedness.

Isn't it reasonable to want a short word [LW · GW] for the swimmy creatures (including dolphins), independently of ancestry? Yes, in this I agree with Soares entirely: that's a reasonable thing to want a common word for, much as we have a word for trees, even though trees are a convergently evolved strategy rather than a taxonomic group [LW · GW]. Is it reasonable to want to use fish as that word? Sure, I guess that makes sense, if everyone knows what you mean [LW · GW]. And in fact this usage is listed in Wiktionary as the second definition:

Noun
fish (countable and uncountable, plural fish or fishes)

  1. (countable) A cold-blooded vertebrate animal that lives in water, moving with the help of fins and breathing with gills.
  2. (archaic or loosely) Any animal (or any vertebrate) that lives exclusively in water.

I imagine Soares is not too happy with that archaic characterization. (At least it didn't say proscribed.) If Soares had simply argued that fish(2) (water animals) should become a more popular and accepted usage, then I wouldn't be writing this reply. But, oddly, Soares advocates not just that fish(2) become a more accepted usage, but for the abolition of the more specific fish(1) (finned cold-blooded vertebrate gill-breathing water animals). Soares writes:

I'm not trying to take away your concepts. You've still got words like Vertebrata, Agnatha, and Gnathastomata for when you're thinking about animals in terms of who their uncle is.

But you are trying to take away the expressive vocabulary [LW · GW] of fish(1), which millions of English speakers are already using in that sense. Agnatha (a specific superclass of jawless fish) and Gnathostomata (the infraphylum of jawed vertebrates) are not adequate replacements for fish(1). What is the motivation for this?

Is Soares perhaps suffering from the common misconception that words can only have a single definition? But it's actually not uncommon for words in natural languages to have more than one (related) meaning, which can be distinguished from context. That's why dictionaries have multiple numbered definitions under the same word with the same etymology.

For example, water. The word "water" can be used to mean H₂O in any form (in which sense ice is a kind of water), or specifically liquid H₂O (in which sense ice is not a kind of water). If someone says "water" and you're not sure if they're using it in the ice-inclusive or the ice-exclusive sense, and ice happens to be relevant to the conversation you're having, then you might have to ask the speaker for clarification! Fortunately, this doesn't cause a whole lot of problems among people who are trying to communicate with each other and don't have an incentive [LW · GW] to start a pointless dispute over definitions [LW · GW].

But if someone were to declare that water should only be used in the ice-exclusive sense, and that pedants who want to want to talk about water in the ice-inclusive sense are engaging in "definitional gynmastics" and need to invent a new word for their thing, that would be pretty weird ... right?

Frankly, I'm puzzled. Nate Soares, famous autodidact extraordinaire [LW · GW] and executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, is no doubt more intelligent and knowledgable than a humble ordinary programmer like myself. He clearly shares my passion for the philosophy of language. So whatever arguments I can discover, surely he would have already invented independently. So I must be missing something.

Could there, perhaps, be some additional context to this conversation that Soares neglected to make explicit? That seems unlikely, however.

Anyway, this concludes my blog post about why I think it makes sense to use the word fish in the sense of "cold-blooded vertebrate animal that lives in water, moving with the help of fins and breathing with gills" in many contexts, albeit possibly not all contexts. Soares's work is very important and I'm sure he's very busy, but since he seems to be so passionate on this issue, I wonder if he could spare a few moments to engage with my arguments? If so, I eagerly await his reply.

33 comments

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comment by So8res · 2021-06-10T17:04:18.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My epistemic status on that thread is, explicitly, "i been shitpostin since april". I do not wholeheartedly believe the argument I made; I acknowledge your counterpoints and appreciate you making them; I largely agree.

For the record, the fragment of my argument that I currently endorse is something like "be wary of those who say they are here to refine your concepts, for sometimes they are here to steal them". My current stance is that I'm not particularly entrenched on either side wrt "fish", and might push back about "fruit" and "berry" if I found those words being pulled on in the wild.

Another thing the thread attempts to convey, by dint of the visible exasperation and derision, is... something I don't have words for yet (related to why I shoved it into the connotations of a shitpost), but I'll take a few stabs: A visceral sense that the world is mad? A bid for a particular breed of reflexive intellectual independence? A sense of alarm that something sinister has made it past the defenses, in the quest to objectivify?

There's also a specific way in which I'm hurting about something here, and conveying it is another purpose of the exasperation and derision. (I'm not hurting in a bad, unsustainable, or worrying way, for the record.) And of course there are a variety of other reasons for the impolite conduct, including fun, flexing, and throwing some elbows around to put a check on how seriously people take me all the time around these parts.

(For whatever it's worth, I do endeavor to be careful when I throw my elbows around like this, by eg explicitly marking the context as shitposty, and by choosing broad targets and funny contexts before unleashing my ire.)

Having said all that, I hereby push back a little against this style of response to my shitpost. I value you (and others) pointing out weak points and impoliteness in my arguments. I also think the ability to throw elbows around in this way, and the ability to shove inarticulate feelings into the connotations in the right context, are important. The alternative, at least for me, is that I don't say things until I've done a heck of a lot more noticing and explicating the side-channel stuff, which means I say less and don't get to draw on the aid of friends for the noticing and explication. Also, it seems to me that our community has dramatically too little fun on social media. My pushback here is intended to increase the space we have for that.

(There are also other aspects of why I believe shitposting is healthy and good that I have not yet managed to articulate. I also acknowledge that it has costs, and suspect there are costs I could avoid paying if I understood them better.)

Finally, I'll note that that thread was not a veiled attempt to discuss gender issues. The idea that it could be read as subtweeting gender issues didn't cross my mind. The relevant Scott Alexander post didn't cross my mind (though I read it years and years ago, and I suspect it was an influence on my argument). I suspect that Scott's post played a causal role in me starting the thread out on fish (eg, by causing me to have fish-relevant parts of the argument cached in an articulate format), but the things that felt like the causes were rather: (1) someone using fish vs dolphins as an example classification problem (months ago); (2) someone asserting that pillbugs aren't bugs on account of being crustaceans (months ago); and (3) some entertaining banter with a marine biologist (the day before drafting the thread). Not worrying about whether I'm going to be read as subtweeting the controversial topic du jour is one of many benefits of the shitposting mindset, and I recommend it.

Replies from: Zack_M_Davis
comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-06-11T03:57:27.880Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the reply! (Strong-upvoted.) I've been emotionally trashed today and didn't get anything done at my dayjob, which arguably means I shouldn't be paying attention to Less Wrong, but I feel the need to type this now in the hopes of getting it off my mind so that I can do my dayjob tomorrow.

In your epistemic-status thread, you express sadness at "the fact that nobody's read A Human's Guide to Words or w/e". But, with respect, you ... don't seem to be behaving as if you've read it? Specifically, entry #30 on the list of "37 Ways Words Can Be Wrong" [LW · GW] is—I'll quote it in full—

  1. Your definition draws a boundary around things that don't really belong together. You can claim, if you like, that you are defining the word "fish" to refer to salmon, guppies, sharks, dolphins, and trout, but not jellyfish or algae. You can claim, if you like, that this is merely a list, and there is no way a list can be "wrong". Or you can stop playing nitwit games and admit that you made a mistake and that dolphins don't belong on the fish list. (Where to Draw the Boundary? [LW · GW])

That is, in 2008, as part of "A Human's Guide to Words", Eliezer Yudkowsky explicitly uses this specific example of whether dolphins are fish, and characterizes the position that dolphins are fish as "playing nitwit games" (!). This didn't seem particularly controversial at the time?

Then, thirteen years later, in the current year, you declare that "The definitional gynmastics required to believe that dolphins aren't fish are staggering" (staggering!), and Yudkowsky retweets you. (In general, retweets are not necessarily endorsements—sometimes people just want to draw attention to some content without further comment or implied approval—but I'm inclined to read this instance as implying approval, partially because this doesn't seem like the kind of thing someone would retweet for attention-without-approval, and partially because of the working relationship between you and Yudkowsky.)

But this is pretty strange, right? It would seem that sometime between 2008 and the current year, the rationalist "party line" (as observed in the public statements of SingInst/MIRI leadership) on whether dolphins are fish shifted from (my paraphrases) "No; despite the surface similarities, that categorization doesn't carve reality at the joints; stop playing nitwit games" to "Yes, because of the surface similarities; those who contend otherwise are the ones playing nitwit games." A complete 180° reversal, on this specific example! Why? What changed? Surely if "cognitively useful categories should carve reality at the joints, and dolphins being fish doesn't do that" was good philosophy in 2008, it should still be good philosophy in 2021?

It would make sense if people's opinions changed due to new arguments—if people's opinions changed because of reasons. Indeed, Yudkowsky's original "stop playing nitwit games" dismissal was sloppy and flawed, and I ended up having the occasion to elaborate on the specific senses in which dolphins both do, and do not, cluster with fish in my 2019 "Where to Draw the Boundaries?" [LW · GW]

(Get it? "... Boundaries?", plural, in contrast to "... Boundary?", singular, because I'm talking about how you can legitimately have multiple different category systems depending on which subspace of configuration space is decision-relevant in a particular context.)

But when I look at the thing you posted and Yudkowsky retweeted (even if it was a shitpost, your epistemic-status followup thread still contends "but also y'all know i'm right"), it doesn't look like the party line about dolphins changed because of reasons. You didn't even acknowledge the reversal, despite explicitly lamenting (in the followup thread) that people haven't read "A Human's Guide to Words".

Am I the only one creeped out by this? To illustrate why I'm freaked out—why I've been freaked out to a greater or lesser degree almost constantly for the past five years—imagine that in a fictional 2008, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence were at war with Eastasia for harboring the terrorist unFriendly AI Emmanuel GoldstAIn. It would make sense if, on 21 November 2014, Luke Muehlhauser were to announce:

We're making some changes! First, we're now going to be the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, or MIRI for short, instead of SingInst. And the reason for that is, the old name is no longer appropriate because we're no longer unambiguously "for Artificial Intelligence" after we figured out that it's probably going to destroy all value in our future lightcone [LW · GW]. Second, a leaked pastebin revealed that Emmanuel GoldstAIn is actually being harbored by Eurasia, not Eastasia. Whoops! We'll be winding down our war with Eastasia with the hope to be ready to declare war on Eurasia in time for our winter fundraiser. Third, we're calling it "aligned" instead of "Friendly" AI now, and the reason for that is because Stuart Russell convinced us it's a less goofy name.

That would make sense, because in this story, Luke is acknowledging the changes, and giving reasons for why it's correct for the things to change. If Luke were to just say out of the blue on 21 November 2014 that the war with Eurasia is going well, without any indication that anything had changed for any reason, you would expect someone to notice.

Or, imagine if in 2014, Yudkowsky suddenly started saying the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, without acknowledging that anything had changed. That's how weird this is. (Revised: Adele Lopez points out that this is wrong. [LW(p) · GW(p)])

And on this classification-of-dolphins issue (specifically, literally, dolphins in particular), it seems like something has changed, and everyone is pretending not to have noticed. Why? What changed? I have my theory, but I could be biased—I want to hear yours! I want to hear yours in public. Do you have a cheerful price [LW · GW] for this? I could go up to $2000 for a public reply.

Replies from: So8res, adele-lopez-1, iceman, Jiro, Benito
comment by So8res · 2021-06-11T06:41:06.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why? What changed?

On the object level question? Like, what changed between younger Nate who read that sequence and didn't object to that example, and older Nate who asserted (in a humorous context) that it takes staggering gymnastics to exclude dolphins from "fish"? Here's what springs to mind:

  • I noticed that there is cluster-nature to the marine-environment adaptations
  • I noticed that humans used to have a word for that cluster
  • I noticed a sense of inconsistency between including whales in "even-toed ungulates" without also including them in "lobe-finned fish".
  • I noticed that paraphyletic groupings seem to me to lack the courage of their convictions.
  • I learned that nature just keeps turning out crabs, which is a chink in the armor of phylogenetic classification schemes
  • I noticed my own discomfort as the lines around "fruit" and "berry" started wavering
  • I noticed specifically the distinction between "would be at home atop a fruit pizza" and "everything anatomically analogous to an apple"
  • I generalized, and noticed that I don't actually believe phylogenetics is generally a good way to carve up the life forms around me
  • I took stock of my phylogenetic concepts, and asked myself which concepts were lost but plausibly still useful
  • I decided that the concept previously known as "fish" (the marine adaptation cluster) had some plausible use. (In particular, the specific use that sprang to mind when I checked this a while back was the ability of kids to point at arbitrary marine creatures and say "look a fish", an influence that showed up in my thread.)

Scott's post is I think the source of the first two in me, the rest is novel to me as far as I recall.

Attempting to force the change into a single sentence, I'd say that the main thing that changed is I noticed the subtle background forces that whisper (at least to blue tribe members in their youth) "phylogenetic classification is the one true way to organize life forms", and rejected its claim.

For the record, I don't see my current state as incongruous with Eliezer's example. These days, if someone says that they have a definition of "fish" that includes salmon, guppies, sharks, dolphins, and trout but not jellyfish or algae, I might ask them how they classify camels before assuming they've made Eliezer's mistake #30. But I continue to think #30 is a real mistake (I'd gloss it as "insisting that your concept denotes an awkward boundary even after the boundary has been revealed to be awkward"), and that Eliezer's given example is still doing its job, despite the fact that I'd now say it gets a clarity boost from the subtle-implicit-insidious background cultural context on the ultimacy of phylogenetics, which it perhaps does not deserve.

None of this feels like a big reversal to me. I'd say that the hypothetical person in the example can be understood from context to be proposing a definition of "fish" useful for predicting features like breathing apparatus and bone structure (thanks to implicit, insidious, familiar, and universal background assumptions), and the "nitwit game" is to deny error and assert that the actual desideratum on the definition is that it be shaped in precisely thus-and-such an awkward way. I haven't changed my stance on that point. I also don't think it's a "nitwit game" to say "oh, this concept is actually intended for predicting existence of vertibrae, sorry for the confusion".

I think the place where I've made a decent-sized shift is that the idea of assigning a whole monosyllable to a notion that includes both the jawed and jawless fish, but excludes the shellfish, jellyfish, starfish, and the subset of jawed fish that routed through terrestrial forms, feels a lot more awkward to me than it used to. I don't really see myself using that concept much in practice -- and, like, if I'm watching a documentary on ocean creatures, I don't think I'm being done any favors by having word-structures that group lungfish and lamprey while excluding sea turtles. This is the sense in which it seems to me to take some gymnastics to arrive at the modern word "fish" (as opposed to, say, shorter words for bony fish and jawless fish, plus a "fish" word that includes bears, plus a "fish" word that includes cuttlefish and crayfish), and, furthermore, some gymnastics to find a variant of "fish" that does not include dolphins.

I don't stand by the claim that these gymnastics are "staggering" -- at least, not in the sense that the gymnastics themselves are all that tricky. (Like, I can kinda see it, and it's a fairly striaghtforward paraphyletic group as far as that goes, and there's at least a bunch of "I know it when I see it" style visual clustering). The thing that I find staggering is how pervasive and unremarked the gymnastics are. (And this sort of sloppiness -- being staggered by the size of the psyop, and tacking the adjective "staggering" onto the gymnastics -- is the sort of thing that I endorse while in a shitposting context.)

That said, notably, everyone can already perform these gymnastics. We're all taught to do these gymnastics implicitly, in youth, before we have the wherewithal to question them. Which means that relying on people to understand these (locally universal!) gymnastics when writing an example is perfectly reasonable.

In other words, I read Eliezer as saying something like "[assuming the standard gymnastics] failing to admit that the inclusion of dolphins was an error, and instead insisting that the concept boundary is supposed to contort, constitutes an additional error", and me as drawing attention to the standard gymnastics.

even if it was a shitpost, your epistemic-status followup thread still contends "but also y'all know i'm right"

haha yeah

For the record, the poor capitalization and informal tone there (and in the preceding tweet) were intended to be tells that those tweets were still being written from the "shitposting" frame (as were all my threads since April). The follow-up starting with "By which I mean", plus the remainder of the thread being well-punctuated, plus the final one ending by saying "And with that I'll end this thread; any more and I might slip back into cogent model-building, and I'm not quite ready to end my shitposting streak yet." were intended demarcate the switch from semitrolling to candor. Some of the things I value in shitposting are lost if I break the frame too readily in the threads themselves, so I'm rather loathe to give clearer signals in-context, but I'm generally happy to answer (publicly or privately) which tweets are spawned from which generators.


Apologies for the length. I'd make this shorter if I had more time.

Replies from: MakoYass, Zack_M_Davis
comment by MakoYass · 2021-06-11T12:01:05.876Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I noticed the subtle background forces that whisper (at least to blue tribe members in their youth) "phylogenetic classification is the one true way to organize life forms", and rejected its claim.

I still can't guess why that bothers you :/ When I try to imagine the motivations of this shadowy conspiracy of elites who quietly manipulated the anglosphere into always maintaining separate concepts for fish and cetaceans, I just see a desire to teach us about how special and cool cetaceans are.

comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-06-13T17:58:19.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I've drafted a 3000 word reply to this, but I'm waiting on feedback from a friend before posting it.)

comment by Adele Lopez (adele-lopez-1) · 2021-06-11T22:32:40.698Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or, imagine if in 2014, Yudkowsky suddenly started saying the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, without acknowledging that anything had changed. That's how weird this is.

This is a strong overstatement. Eliezer clearly has invested orders of magnitude more effort in defense of his MWI stance than he did in defense of his original dolphins-aren't-fish "stance".

Replies from: Zack_M_Davis
comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-06-12T18:51:20.973Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, you are right and the thing I originally typed is wrong. I edited the comment.

comment by iceman · 2021-06-15T16:31:23.981Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Am I the only one creeped out by this?

Usually I don't think short comments of agreement really contribute to conversations, but this is actually critical and in the interest of trying to get a public preference cascade going: No. You are not the only one creeped out by this. The parts of The Sequences which have held up the best over the last decade are the refinements on General Semantics, and I too am dismayed at the abandonment of carve-reality-at-its-joints.

Replies from: Slider, So8res
comment by Slider · 2021-06-15T16:53:00.254Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not super creeped out by this.

The example of dolphins didn't seem central to the general dynamics what the claim was about. "nitwit games" is a description of a logic you can't follow that you want to mock. The tree article made sense to me how a dolphin-fish carving would work. One of the virtues is to say "oops" and go on, this does make the mistakes more "stealthy".

I don't like the bashing of ways of thinking so spewing hatred that way or this way is pretty passee anyway. One can be consistent in being against random fences and being for principled fences and call for a fencde to be taken down. But later learn that there was actually a principle and functioning of laying it down. Then it becomes an issue whether the original principles were better or worse than the new proposed principles. How long must one search before it starts to bereaosnable to treat the fence as purposeless?

I think I would welcome reflection on how being mocky by surface examination is/was a bit misleading. There surely are a lot of biases and illusions but human brains try so assuming basic competence would give a somewhat favorable prior that a lot of words have some sensible structure in them. That some of them are pretty transparent and some are pretty obscure but that doesn't make it constructive to judge all obscure things by their apperance.

comment by So8res · 2021-06-15T23:20:46.521Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised you think this is "absolutely critical". Do you think I'm making a grave error in my newfound distaste for paraphyletic groupings? (My ability to notice their awkwardness felt internally like evidence that my joint-carving skills have improved over the years, ftr.) Is there some other joint-carving skill you believe I am lacking, or have lost? Or perhaps you're decrying a decay in general community epistemics, for which my thread is simply a poster-child? Or perhaps you're lamenting some general community or global decline of candor? I'm uncertain what precisely you're dismayed about, and solicit specific criticisms of my actions.

comment by Jiro · 2021-06-14T03:25:07.123Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What changed? Surely if “cognitively useful categories should carve reality at the joints, and dolphins being fish doesn’t do that” was good philosophy in 2008, it should still be good philosophy in 2021?

Scott Alexander's essay uses the example of fish versus whales to argue that transgender people should be classified by whatever sex they claim to be rather than classified by biological sex. This essay came out after 2008 and before 2021. And Scott Alexander is about as influential here as Yudkowsky.

In other words, what changed is that asserting that it makes sense to classify dolphins as fish is now something you need to assert for political purposes.

Edit: I missed the reference to gender issues. But I think it may explain why Yudkowsky and rationalists in general have changed their mind, regardless of why anyone in particular here has.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2021-06-16T01:01:32.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your comment seems to me to assume that Scott thinks there would be nothing very wrong with a definition of "fish" that included whales only because that's something he has to think in order to remain consistent while classifying transgender people the way they feel they should be classified.

I don't think it's at all obvious that that's so.

(Similarly, one could postulate that Zack thinks there would be something very wrong with such a definition of "fish" only because that's something he has to think in order to remain consistent while insisting that transgender people should be classified according to attributes like anatomy, chromosomes, etc.

I don't think that's obviously so, either.)

Either of those things could be true. Both of them could be true, for that matter. Or neither. But I think that in order for "rationalists as a group have changed their minds on this for political reasons" to be a better analysis than "rationalists as a group have changed their minds on this because they found Scott's arguments about King Solomon and the like convincing", there needs to be some good reason to think that Scott's arguments are bad enough that rationalists couldn't be convinced by them without political motivation, or that Scott's arguments were clearly made in bad faith, or something of the kind.

(Note: my description of Scott's and Zack's positions is brief and necessarily sketchy. E.g., Scott is writing about whether it's OK to define a word that groups what-we-call-fish together with whales and dolphins; Zack is more interested in whether it would be OK to use the specific word "fish" that way, given how it is already used; it's not clear which question Soares is really debating, given that the whole thing is shitposting anyway. Some of the gender-political issues for which this serves as an analogy match up pretty well with one of those, some not so much. Anyway, please do not take any of the above as a serious attempt to describe either Scott's or Zack's exact position.)

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2021-06-11T05:09:50.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, am surprised that the dolphins example has 180'd in Nate's recent thread.

I do endorse shitposting as a form of posting, it's great and I'd like Nate to do more.

comment by cousin_it · 2021-06-10T15:28:02.862Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the genealogical definition is fine in this case - once you diverge from fish, you're no longer fish, same as birds are no longer dinosaurs. But I would also add that Nate might not have been fully serious, and you tend to get a bit worked up sometimes :-)

Replies from: Zack_M_Davis
comment by Zack_M_Davis · 2021-06-12T20:29:17.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

you tend to get a bit worked up sometimes

Well, yes. I've got Something to Protect [LW · GW].

comment by Tao Lin (tao-lin) · 2021-06-16T04:44:21.992Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Is Soares perhaps suffering from the common misconception that words can only have a single definition?"

Personally I like words with single definitions. For example, I'd rather the mathematical objects Set, Group, Category, ECT had their own made up names than borrow words used for other things.

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-06-16T07:53:52.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haaate mathematical terms that are used isolatedly about one thing. It leads to expanding your concept-namespace by 300 for reading a single page of mathematics.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2021-06-16T10:53:15.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're having to learn 300 new mathematical concepts, it seems to me that the cost of learning 300 new words is lost in the noise. (And even if it's a single page, figuring out what that single page says is going to take you days, weeks, months, or years.)

Further, you're having to learn 300 new word meanings in any case. Are you saying this is much easier when the words already have existing but completely different meanings?

Sometimes the mathematical meaning is closely related to the existing meaning. ("Set" and "category" are arguably of this kind.) In that case, using the existing words may well be a good decision. But if you tell me that somehow the concepts "ring", "field", "module" are easier to learn because those are existing English words, I'm skeptical.

I don't buy that it's much harder for most learners either, though. It's not as if, when someone writes "let F be a field", you're left wondering whether perhaps they mean that it's a patch of land suitable for agriculture.

(The ambiguities that bother me are the "internal" ones. If someone says "let R be a ring", you may not know whether or not you're supposed to be assuming that it has a multiplicative identity element.)

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-06-16T14:02:43.438Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a bit hazy what I am hesitant about. My threat model generates that things could be worse in the form that ring multiplication might have a different word from field multiplication which could have a different word than archimedian field multiplication. And there is a way trying to understand "group has two operations that distribute over each other" which can try to get rid of having multiplication and addition as separate entities.

If one does this too much the result it so abstract it is hard to get a handle on. But on the other direction naming every single quirk forms a zoo where it is hard to see patterns and systems.

It seem a lot of times if I bother too look up what is the "definition" of a thing it ends up being a list of 5 or so axiom like things. And there is about 10-15 of axiom types or axioms that appear them. BUt the trouble is that the different combinations that appear make a combinatorial explosion. And then some people think you should be able to connect names to those definitions as a "shorthand".

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2021-06-16T14:47:21.859Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Pedantic notes: A group doesn't have two operations, you're thinking of rings or fields or modules or algebras or other such things; one of them distributes over the other, but not the other way around.)

I agree that it would be annoying if we had different names for all the different things we currently call multiplication.

It sounds as if you might prefer a system where instead of saying "R is a ring" we have some concise way of saying what operations R has and what axioms it satisfies. Something like "R is an (01+-*,ACD) algebra", meaning it has addition & subtraction (= addition and additive inverses), multiplication but not necessarily division (so not necessarily multiplicative inverses), multplication is associative and commutative, and there's a distributive law. And you'd say that instead of "commutative ring with unity" or "commutative ring" or "ring", so there'd be a bit more verbosity and a bit more scope for not reading carefully exactly what's being assumed, but less ambiguity, and the terminology wouldn't so strongly favour a smallish set of particular types of structure that have their own names. Instead of "monoid" we'd say "0+ algebra", instead of "semigroup" we'd say "+ algebra", instead of "abelian group" we'd say "0+- algebra", instead of "group" we'd say "1*/ algebra", etc.

(My notation there assumes that it's understood that something called addition is always commutative and associative.)

There's definitely something to be said for that. On the other hand, those structures with special names have those names because those types of structures keep coming up. "Group" is only five letters and one syllable, and a lot of things are groups.

comment by TekhneMakre · 2021-06-10T22:46:34.560Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I feel like a fun version of noticing this conflict, is to rub one's hands together at the prospect of getting to invent a word for "that set of animals who are members of species which occupy a niche that resembles the niches occupied by (the paraphyletic) Osteichthyes".

comment by Pattern · 2021-06-10T17:01:20.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This:

A dictionary definition is just a convenient pointer to help people pick out "the same" natural abstraction in their own world-model. Unambiguous discrete features make for better word definitions than high-dimensional statistical regularities, even if most of the everyday inferential utility of using the word comes from fuzzy high-dimensional[ ]statistical correlates, because discrete features are more useful as a simple membership test that can function as common knowledge to solve the coordination problem of matching up the meanings in different people's heads.

and this:

And that's why phylogenetic categories are useful: because genetics are at the root of the causal graph underlying all other features of an organism, such that creatures that are genetically close to each other are more similar in general. It's easier to keep track of the underlying relatedness as if it were an "essence" (even though patterns of physical DNA aren't metaphysical essences), rather than the all of the messy high-dimensional similarities and differences of everything you might notice about an organism.

disagree.

"creatures that are genetically close to each other are more similar in general." is a 'high-dimensional statistical regularity' rather than a 'unambiguous discrete feature'.


For example, water. The word "water" can be used to mean H₂O in any form (in which sense ice is a kind of water), or specifically liquid H₂O (in which sense ice is not a kind of water). If someone says "water" and you're not sure if they're using it in the ice-inclusive or the ice-exclusive sense, and ice happens to be relevant to the conversation you're having, then you might have to ask the speaker for clarification! Fortunately, this doesn't cause a whole lot of problems among people who are trying to communicate with each other and don't have an incentive to start a pointless dispute over definitions.

Water is not H₂O, though water always contains H₂O. You need water to live, but drinking pure H₂O by itself can be harmful.

comment by tailcalled · 2021-06-10T07:31:14.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Am I misunderstanding something? You seem to be defending a phylogenetic definition of "fish" as a reason why dolphins aren't fish, but if you used a phylogenetic definition of "fish", you'd still have dolphins be fish - that's the first part of his argument.

Replies from: tailcalled
comment by tailcalled · 2021-06-10T08:42:09.112Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder to what degree the perspective comes from us generally not thinking about nonvertebrate animals. So the things that distinguish "phylogenetic fish" from them (like having craniums and vertebrae) are just considered "animal things". And so instead, when defining fish we end up focusing on what distinguishes tetrapods and taking the negation of that. Sort of a categorical "tree rotation" if you will.

Replies from: tailcalled
comment by tailcalled · 2021-06-10T09:03:57.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Another tree rotation is the human vs animal distinction. Humans are animals, but sometimes one uses "animal" to refer to nonhuman animals. I wonder if there's some general things one could say about tree rotations. The human/animal distinction seems to have a different flavor to me than the fish/tetrapod distinction, though.

Something that also seems related is asking for an eggplant and expecting a fully-developed, non-rotting eggplant.

Replies from: Yoreth
comment by Yoreth · 2021-06-10T12:36:19.499Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such a category is called paraphyletic. It can be informationally useful if the excluded subgroup is far-divergent from the overarching group, such that it has gained characteristics not shared by the others, and lost characteristics otherwise shared. But the less divergence has taken place, the harder it is to justify a paraphyletic category. The category "reptile" (excluding birds) makes sense today, but it wouldn't have made sense in the Jurassic period. The mammal/cetacean distinction is somewhere in the middle.

Animal/human is different because the evolutionary divergence is so recent that it's difficult to justify the paraphyletic usage on biological grounds. Rather this is more of an ingroup/outgroup distinction, along the lines of βαρβαρος ("anybody who isn't Greek"). If humans learned to communicate with e.g. crows, the shared language probably wouldn't have a compact word for "non-human animal," although it might have one for "non-human non-crow animal."

comment by cata · 2021-06-16T06:59:27.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised that you are making a connection between Nate's new position and modern attitudes towards gender. To me, it's just the opposite.

For me, "dolphins are fish because they swim and look fishy" is associated with a "common sense clusters" classification strategy, which also gives a traditional common-sense idea of who is a man and who is a woman.

Conversely, "dolphins are mammals because of their genetic lineage and specific mammalian traits" is associated with a kind of "cleverly selected clusters by some intellectuals" classification strategy, e.g. "people have a separate innate gender identity which determines their gender."

Replies from: Slider
comment by Slider · 2021-06-16T08:13:15.189Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is kind of interesting as the mapping happens differently for my mind.

To me the gender issues would map to the animal issue by there being some grandpas being essentialists and upon noticing that dolphins breathe would try to strand them while spouting something to the effect of "get out of the water, you are truly a mammal and you belong to land". This would be silly, bad for dolphin health and the sense of "there is an error in the world" that the grandpa might try to alleviate with their actions is misplaced. It would be proper to say to them "Grandpa stop trying to take fish out of the ocean".

comment by moridinamael · 2021-06-10T16:33:29.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think we only need to consider pragmatism. 

It is useful to be able to ask a butcher for their fish selection and not be shown sea snail, crab, and dolphin.

It is useful to be able to say "I saw a fish!" and have the listener know you mean a fish and not a saltwater crocodile or sea snake.

It's a useful category to keep distinct.

comment by Slider · 2021-06-10T08:55:49.296Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well in the same twitter thread the established priniciples were applied to "fruit" and "berry" delineations. This seems like relevant context. It think there is gesturing going on that this is a veiled disagreement over a more politically relevant delineaation over which there is an anticipation of enemyhood.

I think there is an issue of ontological shift/crisis in that there is are multiple fieldds or takes on the territority and we are trying to use words/concepts that span or apply to both. Because worldviews/conceptualizations have true properties and are not always trivial relabelings there might exist some tension.

As we learned more things about burning we could correct our usage of "plogiston" to refer to oxygen or reducing agents. However plogiston is a kind of clunky way of thinking about burning, it had a bad thing going on so that ship was largely abandoned.

The business of trying to evaluate how "proper" a thing a concept has going on seems tricky. It also does strike me as odd that we would give preferential treatment how children see the world. One could try to argue that it is the most simple but it is also one full of illusions and inaccuracies. "Relevant macroproperties" can give a line that cooking delineations make sense but it can't priotise whether pedantry, cooking or anatomical lineations are more essential. It is a different thing what would be good for a cook or whether everybody should be a cook.

comment by tailcalled · 2021-06-10T08:25:19.837Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's easier to keep track of the underlying relatedness as if it were an "essence" (even though patterns of physical DNA aren't metaphysical essences), rather than the all of the messy high-dimensional similarities and differences of everything you might notice about an organism.

Hmm, isn't DNA metaphysical essences?

IIRC, the metaphysical notion of essence came from noticing similarities between different creatures, that they seemed to cluster together in species as if constructed according to some blueprint. The reason for these similarities is the DNA - if "essences" had to correspond to anything in reality, then that would seem to be DNA.

Replies from: interstice, TekhneMakre
comment by interstice · 2021-06-10T23:00:22.624Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It could be considered an essence, but physical rather than metaphysical.

comment by TekhneMakre · 2021-06-10T22:49:25.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait, but this would also apply to similarities of convergent evolution in similar niches. There's the essence of sight, the essence of flight, the essence of water-dwelling, the essence of hunting.