Monthly Archives: May 2007

Limits of Language Part 3: Definitional Attacks

This is part of my Limits of Language series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

Ambiguous definitions are easy to reveal using a simple rhetorical tool: the definitional attack.

This is how to do a definitional attack:

1. Take the word and come up with two examples, one fitting the definition and one opposed to it.
2. Now take a third example, probably hypothetical, from between the two examples.
3. Now try to define it into one or the other category. If it fits in either, take another example between that and one of the remaining extremes. Continue until a point of obvious ambiguity is reached.

In the language map model, this corresponds to trying to find some very fuzzy midpoint between the who word regions. If we can show that this fuzzy midpoint exists, it proves that the edges of the word regions are not perfectly sharp, which proves that the thing in question is not fundamental and should be demerged when necessary.


This section lists some words which commonly cause confusion. I will define some of them and conduct definitional attacks on others.

At first glance, it seems like the difference between something which is alive and something which is dead should be obvious. In most situations, it is, which is why these are the only two common words referring to this concept.
The difference between alive and dead is not absolute, however. To do this, I will perform a definitional attack.

Take the examples of a living man and a dead man. Now consider a man who is unconscious, not breathing, but whose heart is beating. Most people would consider him to be alive. Now consider the same man with no heartbeat, but still warm so that he could be revived using a medical defibrillator. If he is still considered alive, consider the same man a minute later. Brain damage has begun to set in, revival will become more difficult. If you still think he is alive, just keep taking second-by-second examples. At which second is he now considered dead?

It becomes obvious somewhere in there that there is a possible state that is not fully covered by either of the words “alive” or “dead”. Therefore, in cases where we are discussing a person who is near the edge of life and death, it is better to stop using the words “alive” and “dead” since neither one of them fully fits the situation. Instead, we “demerge”, and individually discuss those things that together define life and death. Temperature, heart rate, and breathing are examples of what we would talk about when the “alive” versus “dead” dichotomy breaks down.

Note that “alive” and “dead” might be placed as ends on a continuous spectrum. I wouldn’t recommend it, however, since this approach presents its own problems. See if you can think of what’s wrong with a spectrum-based view of this situation.

Makers of food and herbal products are well known for plastering the word “natural” all over their products. But what does it really mean? Bottles of herbal pills certainly don’t grow on trees fully formed.

Usually “natural” is taken to mean that the ingredients are taken from nature. But this is a tautology – it is always true. The only source of matter is from nature, whether a material is taken from a plant, an animal, the ground, the air, or the ocean, it must ultimately have a “natural” source.

Some will say that “natural” means that the ingredients were not processed. But they were – they were collected, purified, ground up, measured, mixed and reacted.

The only things that are really “natural” – that correspond to language map points fully within the boundaries of the word “natural” – are things which have never been touched by humanity in any way. It might be hard to point out any plantlife on Earth that fits this description fully, though much untouched forest is close enough that it could be called “natural” without too much of a loss of language accuracy.

So what is the difference between “natural” and “artificial”, then? The answer is obviously that there is no absolute difference. These two words are the ends of a spectrum. To more processing a product has undergone, the more artificial it could be said to be. Under this view, we should not be selling “natural” products, but “very natural”, “a little bit natural”, or “quite natural”. Of course, herbal remedies which are “a little bit natural” probably don’t sell very well, so we are stuck with the false “natural” versus “artificial” dichotomy.

If one were interested in thinking or communicating accurately, products like this could not have a “natural” or “artificial” label attached to them, since neither definition fits fully. Instead, we need to “demerge” to a lower emergence level and begin communicating in terms of the factors that usually come together to define “naturalness” and “artificialness”. In this case, instead of using the words “natural” or “artificial”, we should, for example, specify what processing steps were performed on the product.

Life is one end of an arbitrarily defined spectrum. We can easily perform a definitional attack on the distinction between life and nonlife.

This is different from the “alive” and “dead” dichotomy. “Alive” and “dead” refer to the states of something which at one time was fully and inarguably alive. “Nonlife” refers to things which never exhibited the characteristics of life.

Most people who think about the definition of life realize that it may be a difficult matter to clear up. They don’t know the half of it. It’s not just difficult to pin down an exact definition of life. It’s impossible because of the way language works.

Let’s do a definitional attack on “life” to see what happens.

There are lifeforms on this planet which take the form of inert pieces of matter. Viruses, for example, are pieces of genetic material surrounded by a protein shell. They have no autonomous life functions. The only thing that makes them resemble living beings is the fact that they self-replicate and evolve.

Say we take viruses to be a form of life. If viruses are alive, then, and a rock is not, what about prions? Prions consist of a protein, which, when it comes in contact with certain other proteins, folds those other proteins into copies of itself. Prions do not contain genetic material, but they do self-replicate and cause diseases. BSE, also known as mad cow disease, is caused by prions.

Prions, however, are just molecules. So are they alive? If so, what about crystals? Crystalline molecules expand in their environments by adding more atoms to their surfaces in a precise pattern. In this way, a crystal pattern could be said to “self-replicate”. This fits part of the definition of life. So are crystals alive?

The point is not to answer the question. The point is to show that the question is impossible to answer absolutely and is therefore meaningless. The word “life” is a tool, and has no existence on its own. As a tool, it should be discarded when it becomes more of a hindrance than a help. When we approach the edge of usefulness of these words, we need to “demerge” and forget the original word, replacing it with all of its component parts.

Most people understand believe that good and evil do appear on a spectrum, and that there are actions that are partly good and partly evil. It should be easy to attack absolute concepts of “good” versus “evil” with a definition attack. I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Commonly Misleading Concepts

Some words are obvious hotbeds of definition confusion. These words have been abused in every way imaginable by people who are well-meaning but ignorant, and by those who want to borrow the connotations of a word for their own purposes. I will discuss some of these poor words here.

Energy is frequently discussed as though it is some sort of substance. In many interpretations, it “flows”. Sometimes it is related to some theoretical intrinsic property of life. All of this is wrong.

Energy is not fundamental, it is an expression of other physical conditions. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. Energy is not a form of glowing fuzzy stuff or ray beams.

Did you know that when you get out of bed, you gain energy? An object lifted off the ground is given energy as it is lifted. It is said to have potential energy, because now, dropping it will cause it to strike the floor and do “work” on the floor surface. In this case it is obvious that the energy has no substance, it is just an expression of the position of the object relative to the ground.

Be wary of anyone who says something has “energy” without understanding exactly what this entails. Energy cannot exist on its own (though light waves come close). Energy is usually an expression of the position and velocity of particles, and is known to exist in various well-defined forms.

Beauty is a very old concept. It is applied to all sorts of human-made objects, art or not, in a variety of media, from the visual to the auditory. It is also applied to many aspects of nature. But what is it?

Beauty is actually best described as something which elicits a certain emotional response. Beautiful things, by definition, make the observer feel an awed sense of contented wonder.

So arguments about the existence of beauty or its absolute application are meaningless. It is just a word. For anything considered beautiful by one person, there is another person, hypothetical or not, who would not consider it beautiful at all. As with other words listed here, one should not attempt to stretch the word beauty beyond its meaningful limits.

Paranormal phoenomena are a favourite target of skeptics, frequently because they are so easy to break down. Paranormal phenomena almost always consist of a deliberately constructed Doopy the Demon. That is to say, they are created to appear to be something outside the understood natural laws of the universe.

In all cases, however, there is a way to create the observations which are called “paranormal” through natural means. In this case it is simply a matter of, once again, choosing the simpler explanation. The observation could either require a total rewriting of the laws of physics, or it could be accomplished via what are usually rather simple means of trickery, hallucination or self-deception.

In the 1970’s, a man named Uri Geller claimed to have paranormal abilities. One of his best known tricks was his ability to bend spoons. Others demonstrated how they could replicate Geller’s performances through trickery and get what appeared to be the exact same results. This means that Uri Geller’s magical paranomal ability to bend spoons is a Doopy. It is an excessively complicated explanation for something which can be understood through a much simpler explanation.


The best part about understanding the limits of language is how many strange questions simply collapse into obvious meaninglessness when confronted with these rhetorical tools. Issues which may have troubled you for years can simply vanish as it becomes clear that they lack substance.

It becomes obvious which questions are answerable and which are not. One can finally learn to appreciate the unbelievable unity, completeness, and simplicity of the universe we live in.

Limits of Language Part 2: Language Map

This is part of my Limits of Language series. Read Part 1 first. See also Part 3.

We know what emergent and fundamental are. So what does this have to do with language?

Understanding the fundamental versus emergent distinction is critical in understanding one of the main limitations of human language: all of our regular vocabulary is designed to discuss things which are emergent. Because of this, all normal words have some degree of ambiguity embedded in them.

The best way to understand this is to imagine all the possible observable things in the universe within a flat “space”. Things which closely resemble each other will be close to each other in this space. Things which are very dissimilar will be far apart.

Any particular assemblage of subatomic particles represents one exact point in the language space. If there is another possible assemblage of particles which is almost exactly the same, it can be thought of as very close by in the the language space.

A particular car is an assemblage of particles, so it exists in the language space as a point. Now think of all the other cars in the world. They will all bear some degree of similarity to each other and so will lie in a group on the language space. This grouping forms a region. Everything within this region is defined as a car. Everything outside this region is not.

A word, then, is something which defines a region in the language space. In most cases this causes no problem because our language has evolved to fit our everyday needs.

The difficulty arises when we are discussing things which exist close to the edges of these regions. Word regions are not sharp-edged. There are fuzzy parts at the edges. These fuzzy parts, some of which join into other words, and some of which join into a wordless void, encompass the ambiguity which is inherent in our language.

This leads to a 3-part view of the language map. Some points on the language map exist in one region. Other points exist in a fuzzy, indeterminate area between regions. They may lean one way or the other, but they are not definite. Finally, some points exist in no named region at all. They correspond to all things which could exist and have no name.

Possible Problems

This view of language brings forward a few possible problems.

All words which refer to emergent things are actually generalizations, so they always mean more than one thing. They usually also have some overlap with other words. Other things exist in the void, and there is no word that refers to them.

These limitations are severe, but if they are understood they should generally not cause too many problems.

The first possible problem is that there may be no proper word for whatever is being described. This means that it represents a point in the void. The only solution here is to make a new word and clearly communicate its meaning before continuing.

The second possible problem is that whatever is being described may appear in the fuzzy boundary on the edge of a word region. Whether this edge fades into the region of another word or fades into the word, the solutions are the same. Sometimes creating a new word is a good solution here, but more commonly, appropriate words already exist.

We already understand that anything emergent is made of smaller pieces. Therefore, if a word does not totally fit what is being discussed, the best thing to do may be to do a “demerge”. A demerge is when you stop using the original word because it generalizes too much, and instead demerge to a lower level of emergence, and use the words that refer to the things that make up the original word.

Any word referring to something emergent is really referring to a grouping of smaller things. If you are not talking about the whole group, you cannot use the word that refers to the whole group. Demerging means that you abandon the original word and start using components.

Misplaced Significance

This all may seem rather excessive. At first glance, it seems that all that might be lost from overgeneralization is some level of clarity in communication. While clarity is a factor, there are much greater consequences to not understanding the problems with language.

One problem stems from the fact that communication of ideas can only be done through language. When an idea is communicated, any information that is impossible to encode in language is lost. The limitations on language lead to a situation where everyone who learns a new idea needs to do their own extrapolation on it to fill in the parts that could not be communicated in the original message. This is part of the reason why children and adolescents cannot simply be told much of how the world works, and must always figure it out for themselves. They can only be told the basics. A lot of useful knowledge is either very difficult or impossible to impart through language and so much be created inside every human head independently. This is a major duplication of effort.

In fact, we go to incredible lengths to try to bypass the limitations of the language channel. All forms of art could, on some level, be considered as attempts to communicate through non-linguistic channels in order to convery messages which cannot be contained in words.

Another problem with language arises from the fact that it is not only a medium for communication. It is also used as a way to organize thoughts. Beliefs and ideas are expressed as well as remembered in scriptures, codes, laws and catchphrases.

This is especially important in group consciousness. In order for a group of people to have some sort of synchronized belief, it must be grounded in a linguistic base which can be externalized outside the thoughts of an individual person. We end up with a situation where massive emotional and political importance is conferred on an idea contained in a linguistic construct – a deeply flawed linguistic construct.

In situations where one remains firmly in the central part of the word region, this doesn’t cause problems. The problems arise when we approach the edge of the definition of a word on which people place great meaning. One ends up struggling with questions which are meaningless and mired in definitional confusion, because the significance placed on the original word is ignorant of the fact that it is really just a label for a group of smaller elements.

The net effect is that people tend to place a lot of significance on things which don’t really exist in any absolute sense, which causes all sorts of confusion when they are presented with cases near the edge of the word region. As examples, using words like life, death, good or evil as the basis for moral, ethical, religious, or legal codes consistently causes difficulty all over the world. Wars have been fought over these words – words which lack all substance. In contrast, wars are never fought over the laws of physics.

See also Part 3.

Limits of Langage Part 1: Emergent vs Fundamental

This is part of my Limits of Language series. These ideas can be rather abstract at times.

See also Part 2 and Part 3.

As you walk past by a local school, you see an eager little boy break away from his friends and run towards you. He stops in front of you with an expectant look on his face.
“Why do cars go when you push the pedal?” he demands.
“The pedal gives more gas to the engine, so it goes faster,” you reply.
“Because more gas produces a more powerful expansion in the cylinders.”
“Because the energy in gasoline is proportional to its volume.”
“Because gasoline is made up of billions of tiny molecules, and they react react individually and give the same amount of energy. More volume means more energy.”
“Because the atomic forces holding those molecules together release energy when they are broken, like a spring whipping back after being stretched past the breaking point.”
“Because those atomic forces push and pull differently depending on the distance to other particles.”
You think for a moment and finally reply.
“No reason, it just is.”


Anything which is observed in the universe can be put into one of two categories.

Fundamental phenomena are those that exist for no reason other than that they exist. They just are. They cannot be said to have causes or systems underlying them. Fundamental physical laws are like this.

Emergent phenomena are those that are an expression of smaller elements. They do not just exist on their own. They are the observable output of systems which are formed from smaller parts. These smaller parts may or may not be fundamental themselves. Unless you happen to be a physicist, everything that you understand in your day-to-day life will be emergent.

Think of a car. Cars do not work because there is some physical law that says that cars should go when you push the accelerator pedal. The movement of a car in response to a pedal is caused by the way that the smaller parts of the car interact. In this case, pushing the pedal activates a sensor which interfaces with the engine computer, which sends an electrical signal to the gasoline injection valves, which then open to put more fuel into the cylinders, causing stronger explosions in the cylinders. This makes the cylinders to move faster, thus driving the crankshaft and ultimately causing the wheels to turn.

It doesn’t end there. None of the components of the car discussed so far are fundamental. All of them are composed of even smaller elements.

For example, gasoline does not burn because of some physical law which says that gasoline should ignite and expand when heated. It burns because of the behaviour of the hydrocarbon molecules that it is composed of. We say that gasoline ignites when it is heated. What this really means is that when hydrocarbon molecules are moving fast enough, something we usually say means they are heated, if they bump into an oxygen molecule, they react to form heat and waste particles.

This reaction, however, is not fundamental. There is no physical law which says hydrocarbon molecules shall react with oxygen at a certain temperature to form heat and waste particles. The behaviour of hydrocarbons is caused by the behaviour of their components. In this case, hydrocarbon and oxygen molecules are composed of groups of atoms bonded together by atomic forces.

Most physical explorations stop here, at the atomic level. For some time, scientists did view the atom as fundamental. This is not the case, however. Atoms are composed of smaller components.

Example subatomic particles are like protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons, in turn, are composed of a set of even smaller particles called quarks.

Don’t worry. We have finally reached the end. Quarks are currently regarded by scientists as fundamental particles. Their interactions follow a set of fundamental rules. These rules are not known to have any particular causes or sub-components. They just are. This makes them fundamental.

See also Part 2 and Part 3.