If you Need a Dictionary to Win your Argument, you’ve Probably Lost

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Jeremiah Traeger

How many people reading this have argued with someone that says that they aren’t really an atheist? Upon their insistence, “you can only be an atheist if you say that there is absolutely no chance that a god exists. If you’re uncertain whether or not a god exists then you’re really an agnostic.” I know that I’ve argued against this too many times for it to be fun anymore, and I know a lot of my friends have as well. We as atheists know that we have defined ourselves as people who “don’t accept or believe in the existence of a god or deity.” We know that if we aren’t a theist then we are an atheist by default. So what’s the problem?

One problem that might give atheists pause is that traditionally, atheism has been defined with other meanings, a denial of certain gods or an explicit belief that “there are no gods.”  Multiple dictionary sources describe an explicit belief that gods don’t exist. Even the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes atheism as “the denial of the existence of God.” If this is the case, then who is using the word incorrectly? Are all of these definitive sources for discourse mistaken? Or are all of us wrong for using the definition of the word improperly?

As it turns out, nobody is really wrong. As members of the in-group, of course atheists get to define what an atheist is, but I am talking specifically about the definition. Nobody is using the definition of the word wrong because there is no “the definition” of almost any given word. Words have all kinds of meanings, depending on who says them, where they say them, when they said it, and what context. Definitions have changed over time; they are constantly evolving and already have multiple definitions. If you look at the above hyperlinks, you’ll find that several of them already list multiple definitions for the term, and if you compare all of them you’ll find that many of them are variations of each other, but never quite the same. Even referring to “the definition of atheism” is problematic because there is no one definition. There are multiple definitions. When you tell someone what the definition of a certain word is, you’re actually telling them that “one of the more common definitions that people tend to use for this particular set of phonemes put together is X”. But that’s a mouthful, so we don’t say that.

Wait, so the dictionary is useless?

The dictionary isn’t entirely useless. It’s great if you have no idea what something means. Not only that, but learning the definition of a word is very helpful for discovering related concepts. But at best the definition you can find is still merely a reference point. Words don’t have fixed meanings, they have usages, and people use the same words in multiple ways. The people who put together dictionaries don’t get together and decide how people from now on will use these words from now onward. They try to give a fairly good description of how people generally use the words at the time of the writing of the dictionary. Even the same word won’t mean the same thing between dictionaries (see above), so when someone uses a word they are certainly using it slightly different from most sources. The dictionaries aren’t like the Bible, there was no canonization of words or not, ostensibly with guidance from the Lord above.

Not to mention, these definitions will change over time. The term “literal” is a good example of this. The word “literal” has traditionally been used to describe things that actually happened, without exaggeration or metaphor, or in other terms “not figuratively”. If some bad news literally tore you to pieces, it probably put you through a human-sized meat shredder and killed you. However, around the 2000s and 2010s, people started to use the term in an exaggerated way to emphasize a situation. People were telling bothersome people that they were “literally killing them”, without actually losing bodily function while consciousness drifts into the void. This change eventually led to the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, among other dictionaries, adopting the second usage.

This bothered me a lot, because the term “literal” is so useful in many contexts. That being said, when someone tells me “it’s literally raining cats and dogs outside”, I know that I don’t have to put on my boots for wading through animal corpses when stepping outside. I know that the rain is coming down very heavily, even more so than when it rains cats and dogs in a normal sense.

This exemplifies why we use words; we use them to communicate with other beings. Until we get our instantaneous brain-data-transfer wires to start working soon, one of the best ways we convey ideas are through a combination of sounds that present ideas and mental images to someone else. This will never be perfect, as any idea will mean something slightly different to anyone else. But just because one of us will never be able to tell someone else in an absolute sense exactly what they are thinking, doesn’t mean we can’t give each other a pretty good idea and help exchange ideas in a productive way.

What does this mean for discourse?

If words aren’t set in stone, how can we even hope to reach an agreement since we aren’t even using words in the same way? The answer is not to worry about what the words mean so much. Words are merely labels. The words and sounds and letters we happen to use to effectively convey ideas have nothing whatsoever to do with the ideas we are trying to convey. This is beautifully shown by one of my personal heroes, Richard Feynman, from one of his autobiographies, What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

 

“The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.

 

It’s not so much whether we are using a variety of sounds in a proper way; it’s whether we are using the proper ideas. There are so many conversations we can have where one person will use one word and another person will use it completely differently and the conversation will go absolutely nowhere! That is why it’s important to define terms at the beginning of a conversation, and if we are unsure later make sure we are on the same page.

There’s a particular conversation that I’ve had multiple times that involves the use of the term “bigotry”. When I use the term bigot, it is largely understood to mean a person who holds hateful ideas and acts in a bullying or discriminatory manner against people based on their identity or immutable characteristics. When I use the term “bigot”, my progressive friends think of a distasteful person such as Kim Davis or Mike Huckabee. That is the idea I’m trying to convey, so I am using the word effectively. However, once in a while someone will say, “Actually, the definition of bigotry is intolerance and discrimination against people who have different opinions from you. And since you are the ones disparaging people who have different opinions from you, then you are the person who is the real bigot.” They aren’t entirely wrong on the definition. The first entry to pop up on Google agrees with them.

The thing is, I don’t think it’s a particularly good usage. If people do think of this concept when the term “bigotry” comes up, and someone could make the case for me that this is actually what people use when it comes to bigotry, then I would immediately change how I use my language. Not because I owe it to kowtow to other people’s needs, but for effective communication, which is what we should all strive for. However, people by and large do not use it in this manner. They use the term bigotry when describing discrimination against LGBTQ folk, atheists, and against people of various ethnicities, among many other things. Most of these targets of bigotry are not simply “holding different opinions from someone else”, which is why I don’t care what Google has to say in this case.

Speaking of bigotry, there’s another related term that is the subject of much contention in social-justice related conversations. It’s often the case that someone will bring up someone being “racist” against a white person. We are often taught growing up that “racism” is treating others more negatively based upon race and the color of skin. However, this is a simplistic definition of the word, and when we try to solve social issues on a large-scale societal level we are generally looking at overwhelming systems of oppression based racial based dynamics. This is why we use the term racism to describe institutionalized or systemic injustices based on race. Besides, we already have a term for the first phenomenon, which is “prejudice”. Both prejudice and racism are awful and we should try and stop both whenever possible. However, prejudice being an individual behavior and racism being an institutionalized systematic behavior, they are two widely separate problems that require different solutions. It’s important that we distinguish the two, so we can have productive conversations about both. Admittedly, the definition I prefer is not as common as the other, but that is because it is more useful in sociological, academic circles and social justice focused groups who are discussing solutions to these ills.

By this definition, racism against white folks just isn’t possible, at least in America*. This is a matter of contention with many people who may have witnessed or experienced racial prejudice against a white person. They will insist that racism against white people definitely exists, countering my position that it doesn’t. What many don’t get is that without defining terms, we aren’t arguing over whether something exists or not, we are actually talking past each other using different terms. It’s not a disagreement over prejudice or power structures; it’s merely a disagreement over what label we give to either of these. This is ridiculous and unhelpful. By merely asking, “Can you be racist against white people?” a person often means “Can you be prejudiced against a white person for being white?” If someone disagrees and says that you can’t be racist against white people, they often mean, “no, white people don’t suffer from oppressive power structures based on race.” There is a disconnect between the question and answer, and it’s all because we are all tied up in what the word means. The word is just the label. If we care about either of these problems, the word we use is not important. But the person asking the question will often drop in the first definition that they see after they type the question into Google, and state, “That’s not the definition of racism, this is the definition of racism!” But in this case, he has come no closer to solving either problem, all because he’s insisting on tying a certain meaning to a certain word.

This illustrates the problem. When you’re having a discussion with someone and they seem to be using a word differently from you, the solution is not to insist that “the definition of X is…” and then force them to use what you mean. It’s to ask someone else to clarify what they mean, ask them for their definition, and then respond in kind. The solution is merely to get on the same page, perhaps clarifying what you mean and why you prefer your usage. In the example of racism, I prefer one usage because it distinguishes two separate problems in an effort to combat both. Because, once again, there is no “the definition”, there is just “a definition”. If you think that a word that you are going to use is in danger of being misunderstood, clarify what you mean right off the bat. The goal is to communicate ideas or have a healthy discussion, and getting tied up in semantics gets us nowhere. If you are too insistent on a particular description of a label, you are in danger of saying one thing while someone else hears something else, and you can reach ridiculous conclusions like thinking that a taco is a type of sandwich.

So we can’t ever decide on meanings for words?

There are certain areas where people have decided on meanings for words for proper, unambiguous communication, such as science or law. These are areas where the ways people use the words are rigorous and specific, and unlikely to change over time, and for good reason. It’s useful that we define murder as “killing another human being with malicious forethought” since if we didn’t, we could live in a society where a judge would convict you of murder for killing in self-defense. We assign rigorous meanings to maintain consistent, fair rulings, and we are so insistent on this that we even have different labels and consequences for different types of murder.

Prescriptive language is also useful for the sciences, where we are interested in describing concepts that are unlikely to change. These definitions are rigorous, such that when you read a journal and come across the term “turbidity”, it’s not going to mean anything other than the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid. Within the sciences, terms refer to a very specific concept, and often are even mathematically defined and measured, so it will not be subject to the language drift like some of the earlier examples. Different fields may use the same word for different contexts (stress for a psychologist is not the same thing as stress for a materials scientist), but the use of these words will be clear depending on the context. And in the instance of introducing a term for a potentially unfamiliar audience, a good scientist will make certain to define terms anyway.

This is a problem for a lot of apologists who insist that “theory” refers to a guess or a supposition that someone just came up with. As much as it bothers me that they use the term that way, I can’t say that they are wrong. People often use the term theory to mean exactly that, and as long as they are communicating that concept effectively then it’s hard to say that they are using it incorrectly. However, they aren’t using it within the scientific context, where it is defined as “An idea or model with large amounts of supporting evidence that explains a phenomenon or multiple phenomena”. Apologists simply won’t win by arguing semantics, since there are many terms that mean different things in scientific contexts compared to everyday contexts, and it would be ludicrous to insist that scientists are using any of the following words wrong:

 

Everyday usage Scientific usage
Spin Turning about, usually rapidly. An intrinsic form of angular momentum tied to the state of fundamental particles, such as electrons.
Entropy     Disorder.

kLog(W)

Where W is the number of states of a system.

Error A mistake. An ambiguity in the precision of how something may be measured, often due to limitations of how accurate a measurement can be or due to experimental design.
Normal Having ordinary or everyday behavior and characteristics. Not unusual. At a 90o angle to a curve or surface**.

 

Even if we accepted that people use “theory” to mean a guess or a supposition, it would not change the fact that we do have plenty of evidence and support to know that evolution is a rigorous model. Arguing against the term theory only serves to argue about how we describe the concepts and ideas; it does nothing to address the concepts and ideas themselves.

Hopefully I have made the case that we should certainly place less importance on what words are used for what concepts. Arguing over what a word should mean in a discussion is something I have lost most of my patience for, since what sounds and letters we use for the idea is ultimately arbitrary. In another universe, if I used the word “cat” to describe an elephant, and you thought of a thick-skinned, grey, multi-ton mammal with a trunk that lives in Africa or Asia, then I did my job. If there’s any ambiguity, the best thing to do is to clarify what you mean, and ask what they mean. Once we are on the same page, we are on a much better path to fruitful, productive discussion and debate.

 

*Of course, some may argue that systemic power structures against white people do exist in America, which would be racism. This isn’t the place to argue that, since that is not the point I’m trying to make here. That being said, I will happily admit that prejudiced actions against white people can and do happen. Any reasonable person will agree that yes, this is a bad thing, and I am not dismissing it as harmless.

**Normal” is also a type of statistical distribution, and a synonym for a Gaussian distribution. This is another example of two different rigorous terms where the usage depends on context. If someone mentions a distribution in their use of the word “normal”, it is clear they are not thinking of two perpendicular lines.

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4 thoughts on “If you Need a Dictionary to Win your Argument, you’ve Probably Lost

  1. Secular Ethos (@SecularEthos) April 27, 2016 at 2:51 PM Reply

    I agree so much with this. Often people even atheists get so hung up on using the static dictionary definitions of words. They forget that words are dynamical constructions used to convey meaning or share an idea. And our meanings of these words change as we learn things or grow in our ideas. Sometimes we just don’t have a proper word to convey how we ‘feel’ about something. Like spiritual: I don’t have a word to express the feeling in my chest of lightness and joy that I get from looking at pictures of our vast universe. So I will use spiritual I don’t mean

    —of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

    I mean it feels me with awe, and joy in a manner that can only feel as if something inside me is reaching out to touch the stars. But in reality I don’t believe in a separate part of me that can live on after I die such as a soul. I know that my body gets flooded with hormones that causes a physiological, and emotions response to the stimulus. But that doesn’t convey the poetry, or beauty of the experience. So I feel safe using spiritual until we find nice poetic word that can be used in it’s place. And even that word in contingent on change.

  2. […] that could have some ties to semantics and definitions, which usually makes me exhausted for reasons. But the context I usually see it in is an appeal to absolute certainty. Theists occasionally claim […]

  3. […] is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I thought I’d start a regular series talking about the various usages of […]

  4. […] is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I’ve started a regular series talking about the various usages of different […]

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