Friday, January 1, 2016

How Words Work

If you're the kind of person who likes to study philosophy, then you probably understand the importance of rigorously defining your terms.  In fact, I would even argue that this simple task represents the heart and soul of all philosophy itself.  "Good" philosophy, in my view, is not so much about directly understanding the world as it really is, but rather about giving meaning to our ideas and exploring the logical relationships between them.  Good philosophers understand this, which is why good philosophers always begin theirs discussions by establishing what exactly their words mean, and how to apply them consistently.

But of course, with philosophy being what it is, there's always an overflowing tide of amateurs who constantly fail to grasp these basic principles.  Consequently, I often find myself spending far more time just asking people what on Earth they think it is they're arguing, rather than engaging them with any fresh, original ideas.  Some of these guys are even so bad that I've actually found myself literally explaining to them how words work.  It's happens so often, too, that I've honestly found myself simply copy-and-pasting the same, scripted responses to the same, recurring confusions.  Yet if it keeps happening this much to me, then it almost certainly must be happening to some of you out there, as well.  So to help everyone make better use of their precious philosophical time, here is a short list of common confusions I keep encountering over matters of language and definition. 

1)  How to define words.

"What do you mean by that?" is probably the most important question anyone can learn to ask when doing philosophy.  For example, what do you mean by truth?  What do you mean by God?  What do you mean when you say "free will?"  However, before you can even attempt to answer those questions, you first have to ask yourself, "What does it mean to establish 'meaning' in the first place?"  That is to say, how does anyone "define" words?

In my experience, there seem to be only two possible methods for defining words.  Either (a) you can use words as substitutions for other words, or (b) you can use words as labels for distinct, sense experiences.  That's it.  There are no other mechanisms in all of philosophy by which anyone can meaningfully define anything.

To illustrate the first option, consider a simple word like "bachelor."  Obviously, the most common definition is simply "unmarried man."  That's a direct, linguistic substitution you can apply at any time.  If someone hands you a proposition that has the word "bachelor" in it, all you have to do is scribble it out in your mind and replace it with "unmarried man" to preserve meaning.  Substitutions like this are great because they allow us to encapsulate a large series of complex ideas into just a handful of simple words, thereby saving both time and energy in basic communication.  However, it's important to understand that all we're doing is swapping mere words for more words, which immediately leads to a problem of regression.

To illustrate, suppose I ask you what "unmarried" means.  Or maybe what does "man" mean?  You might be tempted to define a "man" as "a male member of the human species," but again, I can just ask you what does "human" mean?  What does "species" mean?

Obviously, you can't just keep swapping words for more words forever.  That's why we need to use something outside of pure language in order to ground the meaning of basic words.  Yet the only thing I know of that does that is sense data.  For example, if I want to ground the meaning "human" to you without relying on pure words, then the only thing I can do is drag out a specimen and just show it to you.  [show pictures]  Here.  This.  This is what "humans" look like.  Any time I use that term in a sentence, just imagine something like this in your mind.  Done.  Now my language finally has real meaning.

This basic principle also goes to show exactly why it's impossible to ever describe a thing like "redness" to a blind person.  The very idea of "red" has no meaning except as a referent for some basic, sense experience.  So if you happen to be talking to someone who has never experienced red, and cannot ever hope to experience red, then you simply cannot use that word to express anything meaningful to them.  In order to properly function as a communication tool, human language requires some kind of shared sensory experience as a foundation.

Notice also how this principle is basically just the positivist idea of verifiability criterion for meaning.  Sure, you can substitute words for other words all you want, but sooner or later, you have to ground those words on something empirical to give them meaning.  Yet for some strange reason, there are actually people out there who honestly fight against this; as if words actually possessed some kind of magical, intrinsic meaning all by themselves, independent of any empirical reference.  It makes no honest sense to me whatsoever, but it does make perfect sense for people like Deepok Chopra; people who likes to impress others with vague, pseudo-profound bullshit, but never tie themselves down to anything concrete.

2)  All language definitions are fundamentally arbitrary.  All of them.

I don't know how many times I've gotten into an argument with someone who's one and only dispute against me was that "my definition was wrong."  That is to say, my definition did not match their definition, and so therefore at least one of us has to be objectively wrong in their use of words.  For example, many people have different ideas of what it means to be an "atheist."  Do you have to actively deny the existence of God in order to fit that label?  Or can you simply be unconvinced that God exists?  Likewise, some people define God in terms of the singular, personal deity of classical monotheism, while other people prefer to define God as the accumulation of all physical laws in nature.  Who's right?  Whose definition is "correct?"

The answer, of course, is no one.  There is no such thing as an "objectively correct" definition.  There are only "good" definitions and "bad" definitions.  Good definitions are clear, concise, consistent, distinct, empirically grounded, and generally capture the intuitive notions that people associate with that term.  Bad definitions are nebulous, long-winded, incoherent, inconsistent, redundant, or just plain fail to capture what people normally understand that term to mean. "Good" philosophers understand this distinction, which is why "good" philosophers work to hard to establish clear definitions.

So the next time you get into a dispute with someone over basic definitions, the question is not "whose definition is correct?"  That is a meaningless argument to have.  The real question you should be examining is, "which definition works better?"  Which one is more consistent?  Which one is more descriptive?  Which one is more distinct?  That sort of thing.  Sometimes two different people simply use the same word to mean different things, or even use different words to mean the same thing.  Oh well.  Language is funny like that, and we just have to live with it. 

3)  Definitions and language have zero influence over objective reality.

Religious apologists are notorious for this kind of fallacy, and it always grinds my gears every time I see it.  For example, take the modal ontological argument for God's existence.  God is, by definition, a maximally great being.  Maximal greatness, by definition, then includes the property of necessary existence, which, by definition is a thing that exists.  Therefore, by definition, God is a thing that exists.

Obviously, that kind of argument is completely circular.  Yet many modern Christian philosophers actually think this is a compelling train of thought.  Some will even go so far as to argue that logic itself is some kind immutable force of nature that magically binds our reality together.  For example, how many of you have ever heard reference to "the immutable laws of logic?"  That the law of identity cannot ever be violated, or that the universe is bound by the law of noncontradiction?  It's a classic form of Platonic realism that is surprisingly popular among wannabe philosophers.

But here's the rub.  Logic is not some ethereal force interwoven into the fabric of space and time.  Rather, a far better way to think of logic is as a highly formalized system of language.  The reason contradictions don't exist is not because logic governs the universe, but because contradictions literally don't describe anything!  They're just words put together wrongly. The rules built into our language simply don't allow them to cohere into anything meaningful.

So there you have it.  A quick and dirty primer on how words work.  Keep this in mind the next time you encounter some hack philosopher failing to grasp basic principles of human language.