Naive versus Scientific Definitions

I recently read Consciousness is a great mystery. Its definition isn’t. by Eric Hoel, which distinguishes between “naive” and “scientific” definitions of terms.

He gives the example:

Imagine for a moment that Isaac Newton asked for a glass of water. Now, this is before the molecular composition of water had been discovered. So Newton does not know that water = H2O (the scientific definition of water). Still, when Isaac Newton says the word “water” he means something quite specific, even if his is a naive definition. He means the phenomenon of water, he means the thing filling the lakes and oceans of his world, he means the thing that drops onto his tongue when it rains and what he drinks when he’s thirsty. It would be sophistry to say that, because the scientific definition had not yet been discovered, Newton does not have any idea of what he means by “water." If someone were to challenge Newton and demand he give some non-circular definition of “water” that didn’t include “ocean” or “pond” or “rain” or “wetness” it should be obvious that this isn’t a particularly interesting challenge. Newton could simply respond that we don’t know yet the scientific definition of “water,” but when he says “water” he’s still referring to something specific and real, in fact, he’s talking precisely about the thing that we need a scientific definition of.

He continues applying this in the context of the term “consciousness”:

So while there’s no agreement on what consciousness actually is from a scientific perspective, that’s totally fine, since what matters is whether researchers and scientists are referring to the same thing. Whether when they point, their fingers (abstractly) target the same phenomenon.

I’m sharing here because I think this captured something for me in our discussions around protocols and their definitions. (One could disagree with the use of the term naive, as well as the meta-value judgments of different descriptive terms for varied forms of what might be the same phenomena. I’m leaving that aside here.) We are naively pointing toward what we think are the same phenomenon, with the occasional stab at scientific definition. While I don’t think protocols can be tested with the same empirical approach as consciousness, I do think this distinction between naive versus scientific definitions helps me explain the work happening here.

Perhaps there should even be a term for when a need emerges from a naive definition for a scientific definition, with a group of people trying to point at things, saying, Look at that, I think that is the same phenomenon as this, whatever “this” is.


I’m reminded of indexicality. Whether it’s consciousness or a protocol, we often start with an intuitive, indexical understanding. This stage of “naive definition” is where we rely on context-dependent, primarily ostensive reference.

The significance of indexicality, I think, lies in recognizing that our current “naive” definitions are still valid. We might each be pointing to slightly different aspects of the core phenomenon, but we acknowledge the presence of a common thread.

Your suggestion for a term to describe the emergence of the need for a scientific definition from a naive definition is intriguing. Perhaps we could call it “indexical vigour” - the point at which our indexical, context-dependent understanding of a phenomenon compels us to pursue a more rigorous, context-independent definition.