I used to think philosophers were very intelligent people, until I realized that most of what they did was to argue semantics. There's an old joke about a college dean who is talking to the chairman of the physics department and he says: Why do you need all this expensive equipment? Why can't you be like the math department, they only need chalk and erasers, just chalk and erasers. Or, better yet, why can't you be like the philosophy department, they only need chalk!
I have been trying to figure out which postings generate the most activity on this site, and it seems that any posting which is a question of semantics are the ones that generate the most activity. Mind/brain, Morals/ethics, atheist/agnostic, any topic for which there can be a dichotomy of concepts and for which one can argue about what the concept really means.
We do seem to agree as to logic, reason, and rationality being superior to belief, the supernatural and magic, but I find myself opting out of semantic arguments, they are too tiring and never seem to make any progress (except for one ongoing posting which refuses to let me choose not to receive email updates!).
I guess I'm just an old, jaded atheist who cannot find the enthusiasm to continue to flog dead horses. But then I have to remember that many of you are new to this and it's all rock and roll to you! So have at it, just don't take offense if I don't take an active part, I've done my time.

Views: 1

Tags: arguments, philosophy, semantics

Comment by Reggie on October 2, 2009 at 11:19pm
What else will we argue over?
Comment by Doug Reardon on October 2, 2009 at 11:25pm
Oh, I don't know Reggie, Life, the Universe, and Everything? Or where the seas are boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings?
Comment by Nix Manes on October 2, 2009 at 11:57pm
I can understand. But for me, semantics--the study of the meaning of language--is fascinating and important. That's because the words and phrases we choose to employ carry a huge amount of subtle, contextual, implied, and other "attached" meanings which are different for each person. We all are influenced by these as much as a raw definition some finds in a dictionary. Everything from simple misunderstandings to huge disagreements can flair up based on this kind of thing.

In the U.S. there's a perfect example of this right now in the health care debate. One side uses "public" the other uses "government" when talking about the same thing--or are they? The use of one word or phrase instead of another carries great meaning for some people and can totally change their opinion, even if what's being described hasn't actually changed. "Death tax" vs. "estate tax" is another very public example in the political arena.

My position is that we need to not overlook the power that words and phrases have for some people and be aware of that as much as possible when we communciate. We sometimes hear part of this phenomenon described as using "loaded" words or phrases. Political and religious leaders know this very well--they get training on it and how to manipulate people with this knowledge. Actors will practice for hours sometimes on a single sentence, making sure that the inflections and gestures being used are conveying the correct meaning.
Comment by Galen on October 3, 2009 at 12:11am
In my opinion, the examples you gave as common things you tire of arguing about are merely different ways of viewing the same thing anyway. Mind/Brain, for example. The "mind" is just a more abstract concept of the brain's self-awareness functionality. Mind/Brain = Software/Hardware. One is abstract, one is concrete, but they are both essentially describing the same thing, merely from different angles. If I look at a cube from the right angle, it can appear to be a 2D square. I can argue all day long that it's a square and, from my perspective, I am correct. My opponent is equally correct in arguing that it's a cube, not a square. It's simply a matter of perspective and while I'm technically wrong, I have no way of knowing that I'm wrong without changing my perspective.

And that's what semantics and most such arguments are all about. One side is right, one is wrong, but the side in the wrong is incapable of seeing the error. From their vantage point, the logic and reasoning says "we are right!" I once read somewhere that the human brain is actually incapable of error; all things that we see as errors are the result of faulty input. The brain will precisely calculate all data without making any mistakes, but if the data it's processing is flawed, we get mistakes.

This is a critical step to understanding debating and the opposing mind/opinion. You can't change someone's opinion (their own flawless logic says it's correct), you must change their perspective (the data they see and the way they see it).

I think I may have ventured off topic, but I'll just leave this here anyway :)
Comment by Reggie on October 3, 2009 at 12:26am
This was obviously Doug's way to bring every ongoing semantic argument to his blog post and make it the most commented on TA. Well played, Doug. ;)
Comment by Cara Coleen on October 3, 2009 at 2:12am
Haha! RIght, Reggie!

Yeah Doug, I have to agree with Nix. Well, that's probably not a surprise since I've gotten in on his "semantics" discussion threads, but... yeah. Words and their meanings are VERY important. Let me give an example:

(more about Cara's mom, yay!!!)

I got into a debate with my mother about slavery, and it's continued into many more debates since. My reason for bringing it up was to point out the fact that we don't get all our morals or ethics from the Bible (pretty common approach). Jesus never said one word against the institution of slavery. My mom, for starters, doesn't even think this is an issue worth considering. Her attitude is, "So what's the big deal?"

Here's where things with the word "slavery" get sketchy. Suddenly, she wants to tell me "slavery" was more like simple employment back then. Slaves were fed and housed, after all. She has convinced herself they weren't treated that bad; she wants to believe (and me) that they would've remained slaves if given the choice to leave, because some did. I mean, people are arguing about morals/ethics, but what about the difference between slavery and employment? To some Christians, it's one and the same! And it's important to know there IS a difference! Slaves are OWNED; employees can quit. If you ever beat your employee within an inch of your life, you would be prosecuted for attempted man-slaughter! In the Bible, you can do this as long as they get up in a couple days.

It's absolutely horrendous that there are people who confuse semantics here... and they do. They've been on this site, too. They simply gloss over the atrocities and give it a prettier name: "employment". If everyone in the world continuously confused the definition, we'd have a real problem. You can't just let people people there is no difference!

Well, my mother's willful ignorance is terrifying to me sometimes, and nauseating. She won't be pinned down; she thinks the way people should treat their slaves should be a "no brainer" and so Jesus shouldn't have had to speak against it. If this is the case, then why do we need him to speak at all?
Comment by Atheist Exile on October 3, 2009 at 3:10am
I'm not a 10CC fan but I do love one lyric of theirs:

"Communication is the problem to the answer."
Comment by Jon Peterson on October 3, 2009 at 6:57pm
Galens thought process is right on track, it is all based on mis-construency. Whether i'm right or you are wrong. Do any of us know. I think the majority of us do, but the masses that don't are mis-construed. That's my opinion. I have a right to that. The current religious wars we all face (all countries, here and far) will be testament to that. Time will only tell. It will come and we will all be succumbed to our fate. This goes far beyond modern day(historic) slaves, do you think that Tutankamen built the pyramids without slaves? He had thousands of humans obeying his every word. If they didn't they would die. The slave thing in america is just the "tip of the iceberg" in historical terms.
Comment by Doug Reardon on October 3, 2009 at 7:37pm
What we have here ... is a failure ... to ... communicate.
Comment by Atheist Exile on October 4, 2009 at 12:07am
As I've pointed out elsewhere, when it comes to communication, just asking a stranger for directions to the post office can be difficult enough -- how much more so when discussing complex issues? One must expect, in such situations, to have to clarify meaning in response to misunderstanding. Words are inexact and subject to interpretation even when we believe usage and context makes meaning clear. People bring different points of view to discussions.

Unfortunately, not all discussions are honest. In public forums, such as this one, people aren't screened for rational integrity. All forms of obscurantism, obfuscation and sophistry can be found in discussions here at A|N. I've puzzled over how to deal with it and have tried many different tactics. None of them are really satisfying: a lot of time and effort can be wasted. It appears to be an inescapable part of open, public, discourse -- particularly if discussing matters of opinion or controversy.

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