Language is a Magnifying Glass

by radimentary

I’ve been steadily ramping up the amount I write every day over the last six months. Unilaterally supporting writing exercises is the first advice I give to anyone. Writing is an integral part of my process for everything. Nowadays, I’ve been writing an average of an hour a day and have not hit noticeable signs of diminishing returns.

By now I should have realized that the situation calls for More Dakka. I didn’t. Thankfully, Zvi is here to save the day. The situation calls for more Dakka.

My trigger-action-plan? Let’s keep it simple: when bored, write.

This post is a sequence of reflections on one’s choice of words. The primary impetus for it is my congealing inner conflict about adopting the language of the rationalist community. I say congealing because it’s been around for a while but I think I finally see it settling into a clear shape. This post is definitely related to High Resolution.

Chinese and English

What are the significant differences between Chinese and English? Two things stand out to me that alone predict many cultural and technological differences.

First, English is an alphabetic language, and Chinese is…not. The primary consequence is that English is uniquely suited to technological progress. Printing developed in China as early as 593 AD, and full-blown printing presses with movable type were around a good two centuries before Gutenberg. With that kind of head start, China nevertheless failed to achieve the widespread literacy in Europe. I can’t say for certain that the nature of Chinese characters is solely to blame, but surely needing 30,000 pieces instead of O(26) to print a single book makes a difference? Moving into the computer age, it’s no accident that Chinese characters are inputted all over the world by first phonetically translating into Latin characters. This is an enormous and lasting toll for choosing to use Chinese in the modern world.

Second, Chinese is at least ten times as rich in idioms as English. This might have to do with the longer history of China, but I think the main reason is that there is simply no concept whatsoever of a cliché in Chinese, so every striking parable that ever lodged itself into the popular imagination is here to stay. As a result, Chinese writing is filled with proverbs and idioms, and has the focus of accumulating and consolidating wisdom. In contrast, English writing delights in the innovation of an unexpected comparison and dreads overusing stale phrases. Thus, Chinese culture is built to be primarily backwards-looking, while American culture is built to be forwards-looking. The prevalence of historical fiction and period dramas in China and sci-fi shows in the US should convince you of that.

I’m not claiming the causal arrows all flow in one direction. I’m just saying Jared Diamond should write a book called “Guns, Germs, Steel, and Alphabets.”

Language is a Magnifying Glass

The main insight I got from reading The Last Psychiatrist is that 99% of battles are won or lost at the framing of the question. How does the language you speak influence the framing of the question? Rationalists have gone on at length about this topic – the best post that comes to mind is Why and How to Name Things. Representative quote:

I had a friend who once attended the CFAR alumni reunion as somebody’s plus-one (he wasn’t an alumnus himself). Afterward, I asked him for a download of his thoughts and impressions (of the people, the concepts, the activities, the culture). He paused for a moment, and then said “So, it sounds like eighty percent of what they do is just naming things.”

I recommend reading that whole post before continuing. Henceforth, I will use the word “language” to denote not just the actual language one speaks but more essentially the exact set of vocabulary (standard and otherwise) one has access to.

What’s in a name, exactly? Isn’t language just an arbitrary set of tags for things? The psychologists really understood the answer to this question first. I could write a whole post about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and how Russians (or was it Inuits) have over a dozen words for the word blue and thus perceive color differently, but I did that already in freshman psych and what difference does it make whether it’s cerulean or turquoise?

My model of vocabulary is as follows. Out there is wild unkempt thingspace, and words are used to fractionate them into useful categories. But thingspace is infinitely divisible and a human being only knows O(1) words, so every single line he draws between thing and not-thing is a value judgment about what is important, useful, and canonical.

That is to say, the more words you have for very similar things, the larger that portion of thingspace grows conceptually. I now know more than a dozen words for “things that cause procrastination” but only a handful of types of beetle. That’s a value judgment I made (or the Man made for me). The mantra of judgment sounds like “the world is not made of matter. The world is made of things that matter. Things that cause procrastination matter, but beetles don’t.”

Thus, vocabulary is a magnifying glass on thingspace. The more words you know in an area, the more lines you can draw and the larger it becomes in your map – the more real it is to you.

The greatest victory one can win against the public consciousness is to inject one language into common usage. “Raising awareness” is not a fool’s errand, but a calculated attack on the terms of the battlefield itself.

Jargon is an Electron Microscope

If an amateur difference in vocabulary is a magnifying glass, then jargon is an electron microscope. The work of an expert is to extract all the nooks, crannies, and nuances out of a simple thing, put them in labelled jars, and showcase them in a museum. Every field of science, every political group, every movement of any kind, is constantly trying to do it, and the strategy is simple:

You care about the thing.

Cut the thing into pieces.

Name each piece of the thing evocatively, if not provocatively.

Spread the word about these names.

And so I find myself being told why it’s important to distinguish between Regressional Goodhart, Causal Goodhart, Extremal Goodhart, and Adversarial Goodhart.

Mathematicians are no stranger to the rampages of fancy on which one invents more provocative names and definitions than theorems about them, in a poetic attempt to catch the reader’s heart. Is it really possible, for example, that there are (at least) three equally useful notions of an expander graph? At my own lowest low, I once proposed we name a vertex of a colored graph with many colors in its in-neighborhood a nostalgic vertex, and a graph that is maximally degenerate decadent.

More successful such flirtations with wordsmithery are commonplace in mathematics. Recall the expression “on the nose” which means exactly, as opposed to in cohomology (say). Recall the usage of the word “morally” which has become quite popular in more algebraic circles to mean “roughly speaking.” I once heard a Fields Medalist describe Teichmüller theory as a “yoga” of something or other.

I do not fault the specialist for vying for the attention of the aesthetically-minded. A tasteful new definition like a sheaf can be the seed for an entirely new field of study. But it is up to the reader to discriminate between central and unnecessarily pedantic definitions as quickly as the writer can come up with them.

So there, my complaint about the language of rationality is dissolved. Rationality is not about everything there is. It’s just about rationality. I’ve learned an enormous amount about cognitive biases and the mechanisms of procrastination, and plan to learn a lot more. But there are things I care about outside this realm, and however seductive its language I must remember to use words from other people who care about the other things I care about, or soon I will forget even how to mean them.

With every idea comes an injunction, and this one is: Expand your vocabulary to reflect your values. The more important something is to you, the more synonyms you should learn for it. One value I care about is fighting spirit, but it’s also faith, heart, 骨气, gritextraordinary effort, and spark. Time to thesaurus each of those things in turn.