Unpacking Suitcase Words

October 2009

in Self-awareness

In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky discusses suitcase words—words that contain a variety of meanings packed into them, such as conscience, emotions, consciousness, experience, thinking, morality, right, and wrong.

The word ‘consciousness’ is used to describe a wide range of activities, such as “how we reason and make decisions, how we represent our intentions, and how we know what we’ve recently done [p128].” If we want to better understand the various meanings of consciousness we need to analyse each one separately, rather than treating it as a single concept.

Suitcase words are still useful. In day to day life they simplify communication and prevent us from being distracted by unnecessary detail in what we’re saying. Picturing our brains as having a tidy division between the ‘conscious’ and the ‘unconscious’ reduces our incredibly complex brain to two suitcase words that—while useful—constrict genuine knowledge-seeking about how the brain really works. If we are aiming at a deeper understanding of what ‘consciousness’ or ‘morality’ or ‘right’ is, we must unpack them.

To unpack suitcase words, we need to look at what different ideas the words are used to represent. We need to listen to Eliezer and replace the symbol with what it stands for.

What is “right”, if you can’t say “good” or “desirable” or “better” or “preferable” or “moral” or “should”?  What happens if you try to carry out the operation of replacing the symbol with what it stands for? [from The Meaning of Right]

Unpacking suitcase words into their various meanings can reduce an extremely difficult problem—“what is consciousness?”—to multiple almost-extremely-difficult problems—what are self-awareness, self-reflection, self-imaging, self-identity, moral reflection, reformulation, empathy, reflection, learning, reasoning, intending, expressing, and recollecting (Minsky, p98)?

Essentially, we’re making the problem more ‘complicated’ by breaking it down into numerous complex components. It may seem like we’re over-complicating it, but to think of ‘consciousness’ as a simple idea that doesn’t need unpacking is to grossly oversimplifying it!

Did you really think explaining consciousness or morality would be simple?

> AV