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    Thread: Arguments Over Definitions

    1. #1
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      Arguments Over Definitions

      I've noticed that way too many arguments turn out to be a mere disagreement over definitions. Since I've started paying special attention to this problem, I've been horrified to see how bad it is, how often it comes up.

      This isn't a minor issue. It's something that I've seen waste time in not just informal arguments, but entire halves of formal debates. I find it's often only near the end of an extended frustrating argument that the two arguers finally realize they're defining a central part of what they're arguing about differently. Sometimes, the two people turn out to completely agree over whatever the issue is.

      For example, a common word that comes up in atheist-theist arguments is 'faith'. The theist will argue that his faith in God has nothing to do with his evidence for God. He establishes his evidence, and then he believes with his faith. The atheist will argue that this is nonsensical. Only after 15 minutes of arguing over this point will the two figure out that the theist was defining faith as basically a synonym for 'trust' or for 'belief', and the atheist was defining faith as 'belief that is necessarily not based on evidence'.

      With this in mind, I think it's very important that, before arguing a point, every participant makes sure that everyone agrees as to how each term is defined. Any arguments over the definitions of terms need to take place before an argument involving those terms.

      Common words that I’ve found are ambiguous and can lead to these problems are ‘atheist’, ‘spiritual’, ‘Christian’, ‘love’, ‘faith’, ‘truth’, and ‘knowledge’.

      Do you also find that this is a significant problem, or do you disagree? Any thoughts?
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      Member ChaybaChayba's Avatar
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      Agreed that it's a very significant problem. I also think how most arguments and discussion stem from misunderstanding. Semantics.

      I mean, if two people are honestly looking for the truth, then this truth should be the exact same thing right? So the only thing that makes them disagree, is semantics.

      Say for example, two scientists are looking for a unified theory, then the only reason they don't agree with eachother is because they have different definitions, but the theory they will end up with, must be the same theory, as there is only one universe. So eventho, seemingly, these two people disagree, in the end, they cannot but agree as their goal is the same, to find the same unified theory.
      "Reject common sense to make the impossible possible." -Kamina

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      :) Drokens's Avatar
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      Yes, this is a huge problem for discussions and philosophy. That's why in many of the Plato dialogues, Socrates will start off by trying to define the word they will be discussing. I think this is a good way to start off any discussion because it will help define the word for both parties, even if their definitions don't agree. At least they will be able to see what the word means to each of them.

      Say for example, two scientists are looking for a unified theory, then the only reason they don't agree with eachother is because they have different definitions, but the theory they will end up with, must be the same theory, as there is only one universe. So eventho, seemingly, these two people disagree, in the end, they cannot but agree as their goal is the same, to find the same unified theory.
      That's fine for science, but in a philosophical debate where there may be no empirical evidence for the argument, the word must be defined for both sides. Things like love and justice have no objective meaning in our one universe.

    4. #4
      Xei
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      Good point about Plato, I remember him making this point quite explicit in several places.

      But yes, arguments without good definitions are often futile, especially when somebody refuses to define their terms. There was a discussion in the Artist's forum a week or so ago where somebody was asking 'is this really art?' of a certain shabby picture and expected the answer to be determined. I pointed out that if they don't provide a definition for art then the entire discussion is an absolute circus and if you do provide a definition then the question is trivial, but their position seemed to be that the word 'art' had some kind of objective meaning and wasn't created by humans, which is of course bunk.

      Another good example in my experience is whether or not 1 is a prime number. Arguing about mathematics more than any other subject is utterly ridiculous because if you define your terms properly then there is absolutely no room for ambiguity. A prime is commonly defined as "a number that only divides by itself and 1". People would then say nonsense things like "1 isn't prime in this definition because itself and 1 aren't two separate numbers", but of course this is required nowhere in the above definition. If you want primes to include 1, use that definition. If you don't, use a different definition, such as "a number that only divides by itself and 1, and is not 1". There is no point at all in arguing. The only reason we commonly use the latter definition and not the former is because it turns out to be neater and more useful; the key point that primality is not something which descended from the heavens for us to fathom out, but rather was a concept created by humans for its utilitarian value.

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      For example, a common word that comes up in atheist-theist arguments is 'faith'. The theist will argue that his faith in God has nothing to do with his evidence for God. He establishes his evidence, and then he believes with his faith. The atheist will argue that this is nonsensical. Only after 15 minutes of arguing over this point will the two figure out that the theist was defining faith as basically a synonym for 'trust' or for 'belief', and the atheist was defining faith as 'belief that is necessarily not based on evidence'.
      In most religious discussions people end up arguing over the definition of pretty much every word. Faith, belief, knowledge, evidence, atheist, theist, God, truth. In the future we'll probably end up arguing over the exact meanings of conjunctions and pronouns.

      But then, some deliberately invoke this, or otherwise change or give nebulous definitions to move the goalposts and evade criticism.

    6. #6
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      The prime number argument sounds pretty bad. Other words that come up a lot are 'science', 'logic' and 'energy'. Words like 'science' and 'agnostic' have set definitions, and any argument over their definitions only happens because one of the arguers doesn't understand what that set definition is.

      An example in the religion area again: 'Agnostic' means without absolute knowledge in something. It doesn't even specifically refer to religion if used by itself, and I don't think there are many atheists or theists who will claim to hold a 'gnostic' position about their belief or lack of belief. No one claims absolute knowledge, so explicitly declaring you're agnostic is pointless, it should be expected that everyone is unless they claim otherwise. If you lack belief in God, you're an atheist. If you don't know whether a god exists or not, you're an atheist, because you don't have the positive belief in God. But so often I hear, even on this forum, people referring to themselves as 'agnostic', as though it's some middle ground between atheism and theism. Someone might disagree with me, but it's probably going to be over the definition of whether the word agnostic refers to absolute knowledge or knowledge as we mean it in the everyday sense.

      Most of these words are still worth using, but there are some that don't really have a set meaning, and are so ambiguous they lead to confusion almost every time they're used. Like the word 'spiritual'. I cringe whenever it's mentioned, and would not be saddened if the word disappeared from the English language. While claiming to be spiritual, some people mean that they're religious, others that they're down to earth atheists with an appreciation for the beauty of nature, others that they practice meditation and tend to think deeply, while still others mean they believe in some supernatural new-agey love/consciousness (whatever those words are supposed to mean) essence that isn't a god, and there are many other variations.

      I don't mean to make this thread about religion, sorry. It's the topic I'm most interested in and have been looking into lately, so it's easiest for me to draw examples from it. I realize this must come up in a lot of areas. In politics, I'm sure ('liberal', 'justice'), and in math, as mentioned.
      Last edited by Dianeva; 02-06-2011 at 11:25 PM.

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      DuB
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      I agree that it's something that crops up an awful lot in relatively informal philosophical discussions such as most of the discussions we hold here, but I would hesitate to call it a "serious problem." In my view, it's as much of a problem as you allow it become. That is, if you don't take the time to carefully define your terms and don't make sure that you correctly understand the intended definitions of terms used by others, then frankly, you deserve whatever you get. Unfortunately you can't always successfully pin someone down and get them to give you a clear or consistent definition, as some of you already correctly noted, but there seems to be little excuse for not making the attempt in the first place.

      Edit: while perhaps not entirely relevant, I would disagree that the term "science" has a consensually accepted definition. The voluminous literature on the so-called demarcation problem in the philosophy of science would suggest otherwise.
      Last edited by DuB; 02-06-2011 at 11:43 PM.

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      Dionysian stormcrow's Avatar
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      I have always been fond of the phrase "there is no escape from language". If you look for the meaning of a word in the dictionary what do you get? More words. And the definitions of those words? More words. Language is a self contained web of symbols. A good example put forth by Steven Pinker: "To order means to command, to command means to direct, to direct means to order."

      Endless loop: see loop, endless
      Loop, endless: see endless loop

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      Quote Originally Posted by stormcrow View Post
      I have always been fond of the phrase "there is no escape from language". If you look for the meaning of a word in the dictionary what do you get? More words. And the definitions of those words? More words. Language is a self contained web of symbols. A good example put forth by Steven Pinker: "To order means to command, to command means to direct, to direct means to order."
      yes, definitions can become confusing when we use other ambiguous words. But at least it isn't like that for everything. I mean, a caveman might point at a rock and call it "rock" to another caveman, and from then on they know what the word means and aren't trapped by further definitions. But I get the feeling some higher level words aren't completely logically founded upon lower level words, and those infinite loops do exist.

    10. #10
      Xei
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      I don't understand what Pinker is talking about. Patently language is not self contained because we do not understand the definition of order to be command and command to be order, for then it would be totally tautological and the words would be meaningless. But they are not meaningless, they both can be reduced to the basic words 'make something do something', and if any of these words are 'atomic' then they can be further reduced to the set of common experiences they convey.

    11. #11
      DuB
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      A little investigation reveals that the Pinker quote (actually a paraphrasing from The Stuff of Thought) is taken pretty horribly out of context. Here's what he was really saying:
      So what exactly does William Shakespeare mean, if not “great writer, author of Hamlet”, and so on? A name really has no definition in terms of other words, concepts, or pictures. Instead it points to an entity in the world, because at some instant the entity was dubbed with the name and the name stuck. William Shakespeare, then, points to the individual christened William by Mr and Mrs Shakespeare around the time he was born. The name is connected to that guy, whatever he went on to do, and however much we know about him. A name points to a person in the world in the same way that I can point to a rock in front of me. The name is mean-ingful because of an unbroken chain of word of mouth (or word of pen) that links the word we now use to the original act of christening. It’s not just names, but words for many kinds of things, that are rigidly yoked to the world by acts of pointing, dubbing, and sticking rather than being stipulated in a definition.

      The tethering of words to reality helps to allay the worry that language ensnares us in a self-contained web of symbols. In this worry, the meanings of words are ultimately circular, each defined in terms of the others. As one semanticist observed, a typical dictionary plays this game when it tells the user that “to order means to command”, that to direct and instruct “are not so strong as command or order”, that command means “to direct, with the right to be obeyed”, that direct means “to order”, that instruct means “to give orders”; or that to request means “to demand politely”, to demand means “to claim as if by right”, to claimmeans “to ask for or demand”, to ask means “to make a request”, and so on. This cat’s cradle is dreaded by those who crave certainty in words, embraced by adherents of deconstructionism and postmodernism, and exploited by the writer of a dictionary of computer jargon:

      endless loop, n. See loop, endless.
      loop, endless, n. See endless loop.

      The logic of names, and of other words that are connected to events of dubbing, allay these concerns by anchoring the web of meanings to real events and objects in the world.

    12. #12
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      Nice investigating. stormcrow uses his words "self contained web of symbols," not that that really matters, if he had just read that he might have done it without realizing it.
      This reminds me of a certain google joke that happens if you type the word 'recursive' into google.

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      Dionysian stormcrow's Avatar
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      I apologize I didn’t intend to distort anything he said, I was paraphrasing from one of his books with the intent to show that the meanings of words lead back to more words inevitably.

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      Xei
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      That really is the exact opposite of what he's saying.

      (Thanks DuB).

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      Quote Originally Posted by Dianeva View Post
      An example in the religion area again: 'Agnostic' means without absolute knowledge in something. It doesn't even specifically refer to religion if used by itself, and I don't think there are many atheists or theists who will claim to hold a 'gnostic' position about their belief or lack of belief. No one claims absolute knowledge, so explicitly declaring you're agnostic is pointless, it should be expected that everyone is unless they claim otherwise. If you lack belief in God, you're an atheist. If you don't know whether a god exists or not, you're an atheist, because you don't have the positive belief in God. But so often I hear, even on this forum, people referring to themselves as 'agnostic', as though it's some middle ground between atheism and theism. Someone might disagree with me, but it's probably going to be over the definition of whether the word agnostic refers to absolute knowledge or knowledge as we mean it in the everyday sense.
      But a true agnostic doesn't have a negative belief in God either; they have a neutral one, so you can't count them among theists or atheists. Also, you're right about most atheists and theists not claiming absolute knowledge (some do, however), but belief and knowledge are very similar things. Here is where I find you fell victim to your statements about misinterpreting definitions. A person cannot declare absolute knowledge in theoretical discussion, but they can declare absolute belief--again, both are similar. Atheists and theists argue over faith, and faith-based knowledge, so their "knowledge" in the subject is very absolute.

      Then you're being absolute by saying that if one carries doubt, it makes them "X". An agnostic doubts both the atheist and theist theories because neither side has sufficient evidence for their claims, and they find it either foolish, or pointless, to submit oneself to ideas that cannot be proven--at this point. If anything, I view an agnostic (a true agnostic, not a "soft" atheist) closer to positive belief than negative belief, because they're against accepting the atheist stance and seem to be waiting for proof of "God". An agnostic once told me that believing there is nothing beyond physical sense is ignorant (atheism), but trying to follow and worship something invisible is equally as fallacious (theism).


      Quote Originally Posted by Dianeva View Post
      Most of these words are still worth using, but there are some that don't really have a set meaning, and are so ambiguous they lead to confusion almost every time they're used. Like the word 'spiritual'. I cringe whenever it's mentioned, and would not be saddened if the word disappeared from the English language. While claiming to be spiritual, some people mean that they're religious, others that they're down to earth atheists with an appreciation for the beauty of nature, others that they practice meditation and tend to think deeply, while still others mean they believe in some supernatural new-agey love/consciousness (whatever those words are supposed to mean) essence that isn't a god, and there are many other variations.
      So what then should we call all those things? In my definition, spirituality is believing in divine things and forces--but not necessarily following one's beliefs religiously. Spiritualists are "islands": lone entities. Religion, on the other hand, is a group of individuals, that agree upon a philosophical understanding of the universe, who then come together to spread their belief(s) for whatever reason they hope to achieve.

      Also, those "down-to-earth" atheists that say they are spiritual because they have a deep appreciation for nature are hypocritical people. To be spiritual requires one to get in touch with things that you can't physically experience and base off belief; you're submitting yourself to your emotion. So, how then can an atheist be spiritual, if the atheist only believes in physical evidence as proof to a claim? They say atheism only refutes God/gods/deities, but all those things are "divine" and "heavenly" in quality (like the human soul, for example), which then submits "God" to definition, too. "God" is a very flexible term, so wouldn't you agree that atheism refutes divinity and divine things as a whole, instead?

      Something that has been bothering me for the last few months now are atheists claiming they are "agnostic atheist" or "spiritual atheist". I'm not sure if that's happening in this forum, but I've seen these little "sects" of atheism arise in other forums I go to, and I think it's redundant. That's also why a term like "agnostic" is needed because an atheist and theist are sure of their belief (and lack thereof). Those people labeling themselves "[insert term here] atheist" aren't sure and aren't experienced enough to have an actual stance, so they are neither; thus, agnostic.

      It really amazes me that most "atheists" don't even know their own beliefs. Atheism and theism are black and white philosophies, so I treat their followers that way; however, I tend to stay clear of theists and let them be. I view the entire world as agnostic (or irreligious) and confused about what they are, unless they prove to me otherwise. I've met a few, true atheists, but I mostly come across the angsty wannabes. I'm sorry I kind of went slightly off-topic, but the subject of your topic is really something that has made me stop debating or posting in religious topics because it always comes down to definition. And "God" is a definition.

    16. #16
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      An atheist is a person who lacks belief in God. If you aren't sure, if you're in between and think it's irrational to completely dismiss the idea of God, and you're still openminded that a God might exist and are waiting for evidence before you say you'll believe, you are an atheist, because in that moment of indecision you don't have a positive belief in God, and that's all an atheist is.

      This is the definition I've heard most frequently from educated rational people who discuss the matter, so it's the definition I've begun to think of as the correct one. But, there seem to be so many people who think it means differently, maybe I shouldn't be considering that definition to be any more valid than theirs. Since the definitions are only in our minds, if half the world believes it, it would become true, even if it wasn't the original intended definition. So now atheism and agnosticism can be added to my list of useless words.

      If everyone agreed with your idea of spiritual, that would be fine. But many people would claim the real definition of spirituality is something else, and that you're wrong. And since there are so many opinions, the word becomes meaningless.
      Last edited by Dianeva; 02-13-2011 at 09:36 AM.

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      Rational Spiritualist DrunkenArse's Avatar
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      Quote Originally Posted by Dianeva View Post
      If everyone agreed with your idea of spiritual, that would be fine. But many people would claim the real definition of spirituality is something else, and that you're wrong. And since there are so many opinions, the word becomes meaningless.
      The word can have meaning in the context of a discussion in which all parties agree on its definition though. There's no reason that a word has to be defined across some percentage of the population before it can have meaning.

      I haven't read the whole thread but I'm generally of the opinion that arguments over definitions are the only arguments that are really worth having. After that, it's a matter of letting the facts speak for themselves. If enough facts haven't been collected to speak for themselves when interpreted through the agreed upon set of definitions then it's time to find another set of definitions that are powerful enough to make sense of the facts or to put it on hold and search for more facts. Anything else is just idle speculation. There's nothing wrong with that but there's not really anywhere that it can go.
      Previously PhilosopherStoned

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