Names are powerful things. They direct our thoughts. They drive our speech. If we’re not careful, names can do more harm than good.

There are many ways that names can be wrong: but they seldom feel wrong. Our labels for reality feel like the way that reality is. The word “tiger” doesn’t feel like the letters. It doesn’t evoke squiggly lines or spoken phonemes in your mind. The word “tiger” invokes a tiger.

Tiger

Our labels feel like the thing they label. It’s easy to forget that the symbols are not the substance. When the symbols don’t match the substance, subtle errors arise.

Sometimes our labels are too large. Sometimes words bite off more than they can chew. One word struggles to label many concepts. It doesn’t feel like one word labeling many things: it feels like just one confusing thing. When we lack the words for the constituent parts we must struggle to even consider them. Broken words build a broken frame of mind.

Sometimes our labels are disconnected from reality. When we have too many labels it’s easy to imagine disjoint possibilities. If you think that “the Handle”, “the Blade”, and “the Axe” are three unrelated labels then you might try to remove the axe from its handle and its blade. When our labels are poorly connected, confusion reins.

The rot goes deeper than the words. Poorly chosen words privilege the wrong questions. Poorly worded concepts reinforce shattered worldviews.

Tangled labels are the seeds of confusion – and there are many tangles in our language. Some are big, some are small. All are dangerous. Here at simplifience we unify such misconceptions under a common name: contrives.

Contrives are prevalent in the realm of math and science. Words create the boundaries in our minds. They are the human-drawn borders on the territory of reality. Among things we can touch and feel it is easy to draw good boundaries. The word “tiger” labels a distinct clump of real things. In the realm of the abstract, we were not so lucky.

Mathematics and science were organically grown. The words were chosen before the terrain was fully known. Awkward boundaries were drawn. Many words in math and science do not cut reality at its seams.

With every scientific and mathematical revolution, our understanding of the world changes. Our labels become connected in surprising ways. Words that we thought were distinct become linked, concepts which we thought were unified get decomposed. And yet, we keep the old words. We add new words and we draw new boundaries, but we seldom discard the old. This yields a map of reality that is technically correct, but very difficult to understand.

The terrain beneath our tattered labels is simple and beautiful, but in order to see it we have to discard our old words. We have to do away with our old labels and erase the silly boundaries. We must discharge the contrives and use only words that cut reality at its seams.