Talk:Rationalist taboo

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I removed a sentence from the explanation that served no purpose except to take an unnecessary, bad-faith stab at LessWrong (which to me signifies a failure of charity in explanation which is beneath that of a strong, intellectual community like RationalWiki). - Anon Update 12/10: someone has restored the sentence without explanation. I have since removed it again, in the spirit of maintaining charity in explanation. If someone restores it again I would appreciate knowing why. — Unsigned, by: / talk / contribs (signed by bot) 10:18, 10 December 2014 (UTC)


One of the characters in my NaNaWriMo venture (there's nothing wrong with planning before November) goes a step even beyond this by purposefully destroying her Inner Monologue, thus tabooing all words and thinking just in raw qualia. I do wonder what the LW crowd would think of that sort of thing - whether such a thing would work in reality notwithstanding. I mean, the "definitions problem", if you want to call it that, is basically an encoding and decoding error; our thoughts map onto certain words, but not always with one-to-one and unambiguous correspondence meaning we can have a lost-in-translation effect inside our own heads before we even try to communicate. So why not remove the problem at the source? :D ADK...I'll exercise your cinderblock! 07:02, 11 October 2011 (UTC)

Great edits to this article, by the way!--ADtalkModerator 00:03, 12 October 2011 (UTC)
I think this is my favourite concept right now. When asked why I don't define as a "feminist", I asked for the question and all responses to be made without using the term "feminism" (or any closely related synonyms). It may have broken some brains! Scarlet A.pngmoral 16:01, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Actually, anyone know the name of that game where you have to describe something without actually saying the word? It's kind of the same thing but the actual name is lost on me. Scarlet A.pnggnostic 16:06, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Taboo. Тytalk 16:08, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Head-desk. Scarlet A.pngsshole 16:09, 22 November 2011 (UTC)

While maybe fun as an exercise[edit]

This sounds amazingly like Andy S's misunderstanding of how language works, and the ways to "improve" how things are said. "do not use any word or anything synonymous with (with, not to, but i digress) that word, nor should you define the word, you should just avoid it and say it differently cause that avoids ambiguity. Sure.... Idiots. Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 16:38, 22 November 2011 (UTC)

It makes more sense in the context of Yudkowsky's sequence on words. It's not a way to improve language per se, but a way to avoid definitional disputes about categorizations. And as ADK said above, it is actually useful in conversation. Tetronian you're clueless 16:46, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Currently I'm trying to do it with "feminism", but it's trying to get beyond this barrier that people have with emotional attachment to terms that is the problem. I can successfully highlight this emotional attachment, but it's easy to drift into other concepts such as the euphemism treadmill because the "...and their synonyms" part is one of the more subtle but most important caveats. I would use it as an exercise and as Yudkowsky points out, as a non-standard tool, rather than as something to live by. E.g., I'll continue to call myself an atheist in general conversation and in my head, but when it comes down to it I can exemplify my position without reference to the words "religion", "God", "theism" and so on. To do this constantly would be inefficient, because we generally have agreed upon definitions of these words and their ambiguities aren't important in casual, day-to-day, circumstances. I will continue to say "the sun in the sky" rather than "a gravitationally bound sphere of high pressure and high temperature hydrogen..." Scarlet A.pngsshole 16:58, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Oh, of course! It's impossible to live by this all the time, nor would doing so be useful or enjoyable. To quote from another post in the words sequence: "But when a large yellow striped feline-shaped object leaps out at me from the shadows, I think, "Yikes! A tiger!" Not, "Hm... objects with the properties of largeness, yellowness, stripedness, and feline shape, have previously often possessed the properties 'hungry' and 'dangerous', and thus, although it is not logically necessary, it may be an empirically good guess that aaauuughhhh CRUNCH CRUNCH GULP."" (Heh.) Tetronian you're clueless 17:05, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Ha! But this is why I don't think it's an idea to "improve" on language, as that would imply it was supposed to be a permanent effect that applies to all language whenever we use it. For the most part, our assumptions that the idea conjured in another person's head by a word is the same as the thought conjured in our own is fine. I think the real trick here spotting where this assumption doesn't apply. Usually there are certain triggers you can see in a conversation that implies someone isn't using a term in the exact way you are, so you have to say "Hold up! Stop. Let's step back and get these definitions sorted." Scarlet A.pngpostate 17:25, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
This was my very argument, you all are just much better at stating it. You don't improve language, nor even an "argument" by limiting words. What you do is make a fun chance to try other ways of thinking, push yourself to increase your vocab, or learn how to be more precise in word usage. But "tiger" means tiger, not lion, not cheeta, and to bother with "feline with stripes" as Tetronian said, is actually worse. I had to think hard about which cat he meant. had he said "tiger", it would have been instant. That aside, trying to say something without the use of any particular word could be very fun. Not necessarily productive , but a very good exercise to improve how you both think and use language. I don't really get how "using a different word" will get you out of the arguments of category, and the definitional arguments - cause every word you ever find to replace a word will still have those issues. Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 17:48, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
What you're getting at with "feline with stripes" - and to another degree some of the comments on the relevant LW post about Yudkowsky's description of "baseball" also leading to cricket, or softball, or rounders - is why I felt the need to add a section to this article on terms of art. You can increase ambiguity, but that only applies if these are terms of art and their definition is settled in a more objective manner. So when talking about a tiger, we know what one is and why it isn't confused with lions and cheetahs. But if we're talking about someone saying "I'm an atheist" or "I'm a feminist", it's a different thing entirely. Changing what we refer to a tiger as isn't going to make a tiger magically transform into another creature. But trying to force people to define "I'm an atheist" or "I'm a feminist" is different, because that will make their words reflect what they believe. Possibly someone else can hazard a guess as to why these things are different in a clearer sense, I'm currently suffering a very distracting headache and somehow I can't get much further with this right now. Scarlet A.pnggnostic 17:54, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
The relevant LW article is Sneaking in Connotations, which I think answers your question. Labels like "atheist" are different because the hidden inferences people are trying to make are more important. But it's a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one - the inner structure of the categorization is still the same. Tetronian you're clueless 18:01, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
That answers it perfectly, cheers. Scarlet A.pngtheist 18:10, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Actually, that one is helping a lot with trying to phrase the problem I've seen recently of people taking dictionary descriptions as gospel. The dictionary definitions don't help with explaining these inferences and connotations, hence why we have encyclopaedia articles to explain things instead of bullet-point definitions. In fact, I think it's clear that when people do resort to definitions they're actively trying to avoid implying they're thinking in connotations like that. As Yudkowsky points out, the definition that someone claims to use doesn't always match up with the definition they're actually using. Again, I think the real trick is spotting this in practice. Scarlet A.pngpathetic 18:17, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
ADK: Agreed. Our brains categorize so quickly that it's nearly impossible for our explicit reasoning to catch up; better to have a tool (like this one) for resolving confusions when they arise than to overhaul the entire system. I see rationalist taboo as a way of understanding how we use language rather than a way of improving language in some broad/general sense.
Of course, there is a fair amount of hindsight bias here - it's obvious to us now that definitional disputes are silly, but it's not so obvious to people who haven't heard of the technique. Case in point: I recently watched two people argue for 15 minutes over whether online piracy is "stealing." They didn't disagree about any empirical fact, but they went on and on about the definitions of "piracy" and "stealing."
Godot: You can escape categorization arguments by replacing a word with a predictive model, e.g. taboo "gravity" and use this formula. Also, part of the point is that when people argue over definitions, what they're really doing is making a connotative inference. When you see the inference that the other person is trying to make, then you can move the discussion to more productive ground. That said, I concur that taboo is not always productive and that it shouldn't be thought of as a way to "improve" language. Tetronian you're clueless 17:59, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
I get that we try to make abstract things more concrete, but the very reality that this site doesn't seem to accept is that when the very idea is abstract (for example, "religion", "god", or "atheist" (i'm not sure why abortion was listed, since that is a concrete definition of an event), there are no words that can bypass the fact that it is abstract and you and I will not think of the same thing. No amount of words can precisely convey what I mean by God, to you. I can get close, but ideas are non linguistic first - so it is always an "approximation" to try to put those ideas into concrete terms. While your point of gravity is something - you've inserted a concrete formula for a confusing (but concrete) value. You can never do the same thing for "god". no matter how you try. Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 18:29, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
But that's the point. If you can't convey exactly what you mean by "God" to someone else, it means you probably have little clue yourself what you mean by "God" (this is the critical thinking part). And if you can't convey it to someone else, then it's useless as a word. Scarlet A.pngnarchist 18:38, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
I fully disagree, no matter how good your language skills are, you will never be able to convey what you mean by abstractions, because ideas do not line up with language. I've watched fully fluent bilingual or trilingual speakers unable to coney the meaning of one thing, into another language. It's a fun exercise, but a hollow argument. "if you can't covey it, you don't really know what you are meaning" is nonsense. You can get close, but there is never an ability to actually convey exactly what you mean by a concept to another human being. This is the whole reason that things like art, music, poetry have use in human culture -- they are a different way to express the truly unaddressable. But do feel free to prove me wrong and explain **exactly** with no sense of abstraction or ambiguity, what you mean by "God", by "Love", by "Home", by "Religion", by "Noise" (vs. sound), by "complex", etc., so that any intelligent reader knows the same way the know what "house", "tiger" or "sound" means.Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 18:48, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
But if you can't get across an abstraction, then you can't ensure that you're talking about the same thing. The aim is to improve precision. Merely stating that you can't entirely convey, to 100% accuracy, an abstraction is not a reason to just use the abstract term and avoid precision because you cannot make the assumption that the word means the same thing. In casual circumstances, that assumption can hold, but in many cases it can't. Scarlet A.pnggnostic 20:34, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
The game of "can I be precise" is interesting, no doubt. but the argument made that this is some how a "better way to argue your point" is, in my view, in error for this very reason. You can sit in a room all day and discuss the minutia of what you mean by God. But it's not going to change your overall argument that "god exists" or that "Christians are idiots" or whatever other philosophical debate is ongoing. Wittgenstein and Austin both argue that this kind of linguistic game play is in itself fulfilling, but adds little to the discourse of Morality, or Ethics or Metaphysics or whathaveyou. If your argument is so weak, that you need this kind of "minutia" in description, you should get into a different line of work. Cause it's no better really, than people insisting that a dictionary is effective for a definition. When I read (our article, anyhow - i didn't read the original source, my bad), about this "important style of argument" it truly feels hollow and empty; as I said earlier, my first thought was "are we talking about Andy?" But from a linguistic point of view, much of what I read on their site has that feel. shrugs. maybe i just "don't get" the "really deep" points that they make. Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 20:49, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
I think Tetronian will be better placed to actually answer as I'm having that fuzzy thing in my head again, I can't tell what I'm actually talking about right now. Scarlet A.pngpostate 20:55, 22 November 2011 (UTC)

────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────@Godot: Totally disagree. I've always used the "rationalist taboo" technique (before I knew someone had called it that) -- remember what I said about visual thinking? I need to be able to "see" an abstract concept before I can talk about it, so my first question is always "what do you mean by x?" Not to be overly philosophical, but because I actually don't know. When you do this enough, you see that many "arguments" fail before they've even started, rife with poorly defined terms, logical contradictions in definitions, and loads of category mistakes. Nebuchadnezzar (talk) 21:09, 22 November 2011 (UTC)

Also, the connotative inferences, as Tetronian mentioned. When a capitalist hears the word "capitalism," he thinks of something like this, but when a socialist hears it, it looks more like this. Nebuchadnezzar (talk) 21:30, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
That's an entirely different thing. A huge number of words have specific connotations depending on the audience. But i go back to the easiest example ADK brings up. "Am I an atheist". The answer about how to discuss this per "rational taboo", is to say "I am __insert word or sets of words here__" and to continue that frame throughout the conversation. Well great, and why? I say "I label myself X, and here is why", and then define it. But i don't stop using the word, not beyond the first time I provide a definition. The argument as I (perhaps mis-understand) understand it, is that you should not use such prohibited words through your conversation because they are problematic. That's where I just lose it, from a linguistic stand point. In anything other than "a fun exercise" it is silly and pointless to avoid words, once you have defined them. (with the obvious weasle words, or loaded language). Cause as i read this article, they are not talking about "loaded language", but just every day language that can be abstract or ambiguous. "In our discussion about God's existence, I mean by God the Judea-Christian monotheistic god as described in the bible". "in our discussion about God's existence, I mean by god, any instance of a supernatural power that exists beyond knowledge but somehow 'intervenes' in human affairs". "I mean by God, for the sake of this discussion, the Creation at large, the universe itself, all that has every and will every exist". Those three descriptions are close enough to a concrete point for most conversions. So why not then use "god" for the rest of the conversation. Pink mowse.pngGodotSome would use a tautology to describe it ("The way things are done around here is the wa 21:50, 22 November 2011 (UTC)
Depends on the conversation, I guess. Some people get way too hung up over redefining words. Nebuchadnezzar (talk) 21:58, 22 November 2011 (UTC)

Possible fallacy in this[edit]

Does this not possibly commit the fallacy of assuming everything can be defined? Surely there must be some fundamental things which must be accepted without further (non-ostensive) definition - eventually you must point to something outside of language, or else you just end up going around in circles, A is defined as B and B is defined as A. So you can't rationally taboo everything - it seems to me more like they pick and choose what to taboo and what not to. Oh there are some words I'd like to see the LessWrong crowd taboo - words like "rational", "reason", "logic", "matter", "justified", "evidence", "Bayesian"... But somehow I think their choice of words to taboo is driven by their rationalist-materialist ideology - they'd much rather taboo a word essential to someone else's ideology than they would like to taboo a word essential to their own. (talk) 07:21, 25 April 2012 (UTC)

Yudkowsky has done that in order to explain himself on several occasions. I'm not quite sure you've understood it; the point is to stop thinking of thoughts and beliefs as just a series of words in a sentence, as many people do. For instance, "I believe God is real" - it's just a sentence unless you really understand and communicate what you mean by "real" (and "God", obviously, but the "real" is far more important). It's to boil it down to what you expect to happen to you by reducing these words and concepts to actual expectations - so what goes is the belief "I believe God is real" when your explanation of what "real" is in that context ends up completely disconnected from experience? On the one hand, it facilitates communication, and saying that it's just to try and destroy words of a non-materialist ideology is a complete straw man - but also on the other hand it helps prevent lazy short-cuts. It goes back to Yudkowsky's posts on trees falling in the forest and whether it makes a sound; one person says "yes" the other says "no". They think they disagree, but by neglecting to use the word "sound" and replacing it by what they mean by it, then the disagreement evaporates - it's merely an illusion. To try and say it commits a fallacy of "everything can be defined" sounds less like a fallacy and more like a form of special pleading that someone might use as an excuse to avoid having to explain themselves properly. Scarlet A.pnggnostic 07:41, 25 April 2012 (UTC)

first sentence misattributed[edit]

I haven't been a terrible enough writer to talk about "elucidating a specific contextual whatchamacallit" in a LONG time, I mean, I was that awful a writer when I was thirteen years old and posting stories about Barney the Dinosaur vs. the Star Trek Enterprise to Usenet, but not by the time I started putting up pages on the newly invented WWW at 16. So I was pretty sure I never said that, and indeed, clicking through to the original "Rationalist Taboo" post reveals no such quote. There's something similar on the LW wiki but (important general fact!) most stuff on the LW wiki is not written by me and is not necessarily generally-LW-approved because anyone can edit it, it's a damn wiki, and lo the edit history shows no hand of mine. Guys, if you're going to trash-talk our bug-eyed intensity, at least get the attributions right, ya know? P.S.: Please stop feeling obligated to talk about our bug-eyed intensity every fucking time you cite one of our pages, it's fucking annoying. -- Love, Eliezer Yudkowsky

I hold my hands up as my bad for confusing wiki page and blog post. Scarlet A.pngmoralModerator 19:48, 26 October 2012 (UTC)
Y'all's bug-eyed intensity is one of the most amusing things about LW. We will probably continue to make fun of it. But as you can see, we also perceive a lot of value there.--ADtalkModerator 01:15, 29 October 2012 (UTC)

Really invented by Yudkowsky?[edit]

I find it rather common that people in intellectual discussions are asked to further define what they mean by terms. Heck it is common in academic papers that the authors define various terms they are going to use for the purpose of their paper. Yudkowsky may have invented the term "rationalist taboo" (for what it's worth), but the concept of further clarifying what you are meaning instead of a sound-good word (like "freedom" or even "rationalist")? Ridiculous.--Baloney Detection (talk) 17:46, 5 November 2012 (UTC)

Talk about bug-eyed intensity...--ADtalkModerator 21:07, 5 November 2012 (UTC)
Standard philosophical discourse usually involves defining terms in advance or unpacking them. Outright barring the use of a word or phrase to reduce unintended inferences is certainly non-standard, and EY's description of the idea is probably the most useful to focus on. If you can find a better term and a more notable and prominent user/developer of the idea, please provide it and we'll consider renaming and re-jiggering the article as neccessary. Until then, quit whining. Scarlet A.pngpatheticModerator 01:16, 6 November 2012 (UTC)

On Reddit[edit]

Someone went and linked this article in /r/skeptic and /r/philospophy. It's also probably the reason why we got newbies strangely focused on Thunderf00t and Anita Sarkeesian.--ZooGuard (talk) 18:57, 21 March 2014 (UTC)

Oh, and this post explaining why LessWrong is not liked on /r/philosophy may be worth scavenging for RW's article on them.--ZooGuard (talk) 19:02, 21 March 2014 (UTC)

Yudkowsky coined?[edit]

"Models as a Tool for Theory Construction: Some Strategies of Preliminary Physics", Stephan Hartmann (1995) cites the origin of the term/concept "rational taboo" as: T.W. Adorno. Asthetische Theorie. Gesammelte Werke, Band 7, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1970. Perhaps Yudkowsky was not the one to coin this, as the article suggests. — Unsigned, by: / talk