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Language vs. logic

October 12 2010 at 2:17 PM
Luke Parrish  (Login lsparrish)
Registered User

Suppose I arrive on a planet where the local inhabitants are all white and male, and thus their word for "human" explicitly includes the properties "whiteness" and "maleness". I attempt to point out the potential existence of humans who do not share these properties.

The local inhabitants might at that point accuse me of redefining words to suit my own preferences. Their word "human" means, precisely, "white male human", and nothing more or less. And why should they change their dictionary the moment a black female human hypothetically arrives from earth?

You could add whiteness and maleness to the black female human, or you could subtract whiteness and maleness from a white male human -- it is a trivial distinction among humans, and certainly nothing to do with being human as we define it. But the local inhabitants of this planet would see it as a drastic oscillation between human and nonhuman, because their framework for describing humans is simply not flexible enough to account for non-white or non-male humans.

So it is with my debate with Bob on whether a "complete description of a hydrogen atom" matches criteria for "a real hydrogen atom". It admittedly lacks several features we assume are the default for hydrogen atoms in the physical universe: time passing synchronously as a matter of course, and the ability to interact directly with other physical hydrogen atoms.

But ultimately, if you took those away from a physical hydrogen atom, it would still be a hydrogen atom. It does not matter whether the atom is traveling at near the speed of light or is falling into a black hole -- we describe it as a hydrogen atom nonetheless. So too is the description on paper a real hydrogen atom. Simply add the ability to generate fields in accordance with its description, and the ability to change over time in accordance to physical rules.

It's not that complicated.

You might argue that my method could produce a mere robo-atom -- a precision field generator remotely controlled by a computer. But the distinction between a robo-atom and a normal atom is arbitrary as far as any empirical outcome (accounted for in the mechanism) is concerned, which is my point. There's no reason not to call it an atom. It is a different kind of atom on a low level, if the mechanism by which it makes those computations and projects those fields is different, but that doesn't matter as far as important things like sustaining life by being a part of a water molecule is concerned.

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