It’s all about the words . . .

Having–although I guess it’s probably more of a “had” by now–a mini-debate over on mouseferatu‘s LJ about whether Atheism constitutes a religion.

Obviously (or perhaps not so obviously), I’m taking con. Being an Atheist, I don’t consider myself to have any religion, and defining my disbelief in things supernatural as faith don’t make no sense to me.

But that’s largely tangential, or rather the catalyst for this entry.

Has anyone else noticed that most real debates end up being comprised almost exclusively about semantics when you finally pare away all the other dross?

Matthew and I have discussed this before. We’re both science-minded folks–his background’s in Physics and mine’s in Psychology. Add on to the equation that he did the graduate school in Philosophy thing, and suffice it say, we’ve gotten existential on some snow-bound lazy Sundays. Anyway, comparing notes, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most debates just plain devolve down to semantics. Not talking ’bout the “why can’t you clean up around here a little?” or “I don’t wanna watch ESPN, gimme the damn remote!” sorts of conflicts, but rather the ones about what people believe and why. I’m thinking the numbers might come down to 90% of those debates are about semantics. Maybe even more. By the time all terms are expressly defined by all parties, people often find that there’s nothing left to argue about. Of course, getting to that point is often a battle in and of itself.

And then there’s the small percentage of debates that aren’t about semantics. The only way they can manage it is ’cause all the debaters have spent a goodly amount of time specifying explicitly what their terms mean in the first place.

Strange to think that we’re all ostensibly speaking the same language yet at the same time we can have so much difficulty understanding each other.

Hobkin, on the other hand, communicates just fine. When he paces back and forth in front of the refridgerator, he’s saying “It’s time to eat! Now!” Sometimes we disagree, but he’s always right.

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26 Responses to It’s all about the words . . .

  1. grendel317 says:

    I’ve noticed that to a greater extent with online debates than I do in person (maybe 95% as opposed to 60%). I think people are just more prone to be pedantic when they aren’t talking face-to-face with someone. Not that I think all semantic vagaries are due to pedantism, but it certainly exacerbates any misunderstandings that do arise.

    Now that I think about it, I don’t really have that sort of conversation very often any more. That makes me sort of sad.

    • Eugie Foster says:

      You might have something there. There are certainly pros and cons to debating in a written/online medium and things that differentiate it from a face mail discourse. There’s more opportunity for people to take a step back and not get as emotionally involved–not that they always take it–in an online discussion. And there’s virtue in being able to look up a previous post in order to say “you did too say that, see?” in order to avoid going around in “I didn’t say that/yes you did” circles. But on the other hand, people appear to have an easier time getting offended without tones and faces to provide “I’m not trying to offend you, really I’m not” cues. Amazing how de-fusing a real life smile can be. Emoticons are just not an adequate substitute.

      Now that I think about it, I don’t really have that sort of conversation very often any more. That makes me sort of sad.

      I know what you mean. I don’t much either, mostly ’cause it’s hard to find people to talk about such things with, especially ones who don’t get offended and pissy. Matthew and I have hashed through all of the basics over the years–we’re pretty solid on what each other believes–so we don’t debate much with each other anymore. The Atheism/religion debate over at ‘s made me sort of nostalgic. It helped that everyone was extremely civil in a discussion that incorporated both religion and politics. Oooo. Now how often does that happen?

      But it still ended up boiling down to semantics.

  2. dr_pipe says:

    It almost sounds like you don’t think this should be the case.

    • Eugie Foster says:

      Erm, which part? The semantics make up most debates part or that Hobkin’s always right?

      Re: The former – Discussions about definitions sorta misses the meat for me. I’d rather discuss the nature of the universe rather than what people mean when they say “universe.”
      Re: The latter – LOL! Silly me.

      • dr_pipe says:

        The characteristics of the universe and the meaning of the word ‘universe’ are certianly two different debates. But the characteristics of God and the meaning of the word, well there’s a different story. And talking about whether or not athiesm is a religion; how can that be anything BUT semantics: it’s simply a question of whether the definitions of those two concepts overlap. There’s no emperical data on what human philosophies encompass, like there is with questions about physics or chemistry.

        For me, athiesm is a belief system. Much like Christianity or Solipsism or whatever. Any set of beliefs is a belief system; all our knowledge depends on faith that our senses aren’t lying to us, etc etc, basic tenets of postmodernism. Therefor in order to believe anything we put aside reasonable doubts and just decide to act as though the belief is true. For instance I act as though the things my eyes tell me are true. Athiesm is the belief that there is no God. I would not classify it as a religion, however, because it lacks organization; no church, no procedure, no ceremony. People can have spiritual belief systems without having what I would call a religion. But, of course, that’s just me.

  3. bigrob says:

    I like arguing down to a semantic point. To me, the point of debate is to clarify positions, NOT to change anyone’s mind. I find that most people with any brains need a long time to make massive changes in their thinking, anyway. Very rarely will someone immediately say, “Oh, God. You’re right. How could I not have seen that?” So I just try to make sure the other person understands WHY I think the way I do, and vice-versa. Then, if I give the other person something to take away with them, that’s cool, too.

    • dr_pipe says:

      My thoughts exactly!

      • Eugie Foster says:

        To me, the point of debate is to clarify positions, NOT to change anyone’s mind

        There are other reasons to debate than to elucidate someone’s stance or to sway another’s position. I’m not particularly interested in either of those goals (although if people are influenced enough by my reasons for being a vegetarian to eschew meat, that always gives me a happy, since I feel so very strongly about it. But even then, I’ve found that most people who do so were already leaning in that direction anyway).

        I look for more out of a debate than a definition of terms. I already know what I mean when I’m discussing a topic. I would hope that the people I’m talking to know what they mean. I always end up feeling like I’m rehashing things I’ve gone over a gazillion times before when everything ends up boiling down to semantics.

        Really, it’s the whys and wherefores that interest me.

        • dr_pipe says:

          Of course, you’ll always be rehashing things you’ve gone over a thousand times if you try talking to someone new about something you’ve talked to other people about a lot already. I feel that way myself right now. But really, what point can a debate have other than to persuade, or to explain? Of course there’s more to explanation than definition of terms, in many cases. But if you’re not interested in persuading or informing and being informed, then what are you interested in?

          A friend of mine wrote his undergrad thesis on communication, stating basically that no two people speak exactly the same language. Of course there are gross differences, like German vs Japanese, medium differences like lawyer vs construction worker, and very fine differences, like the language you understand vs the one used by your best friend. The two of you have communicated a great deal and have a very good idea of what you are saying to each other; in other words, a good perception of what the other person means when they say something. But in order to speak exactly the same language, you would in fact have to have the same mental images, feelings, and associations with every word, phrase, sentence, etc. You would have to have had your thoughts on those matters shaped by the same lifetime of learning and experince. In a sense, you would have to be the same person, and there would be nothing to communicate. You would already know anything the other person might want to say.

          When people get into arguments about religion or philosophy or anything that isn’t rooted in concrete emperical data, they are having a semantic argument. If the argument is productive, they are aligning their languages so that each is capable of interpreting what the other means when they say something. If a professor of philosophy tells me something using obscure jargon about metaphysics, he’ll have to teach me quite a bit before I can understand him. That’s not just quibbling over the definition of terms; it’s learning to speak a language, and learning the nature of a body of philosophical work. The only situation I can think of where an argument isn’t a semantic realignment along these lines is when you’re disagreeing over something straightforward and verifiable, and definitely NOT rooted in the realms of human thought and endeavor as are philosophy, mathematics, religion, art, and even science. I can imagine that you might disagree about that last one, as science is rooted in emperically verifiable facts about the nature of the world. Arguments about those facts may be able to avoid the semantic aspect for the most part (The atom has 3 electrons! No, it’s got 4!), but once they turn to scientific reasoning, or the morality of various technologies, or questions of what a scientific discovery means or what we should do with it, we’re back in the human-defined realm, dealing with semantic issues.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            But really, what point can a debate have other than to persuade, or to explain?

            How about a meeting of two equal minds to examine a subject matter in such a way as to illuminate new avenues of thought for both parties? Sort of like when scientists conjoin on a project. Everyone brings their knowledge and background of an issue to the board and they hash it out until something emerges that is bigger than what they had before they started.

            Now that’s the stuff.

            When people get into arguments about religion or philosophy or anything that isn’t rooted in concrete emperical data, they are having a semantic argument

            Most of the time, yes they are. And that’s the dull part. But it’s when they’ve got all the semantics out of the way when the fun can begin. When two people come to a table, already understanding what each other means when they use the various terms necessary for their discussion but have different bodies of experience and knowledge to throw into the arena for examination, they can build something fresh and new.

            It doesn’t always have to be a teacher/student scenario (when someone is convincing someone else) or a lexicon comparison exercise.

          • dr_pipe says:

            Arg! I feel like your putting words in my mouth, or missing what I’m saying, or something. I can’t quite pinpoint where the difference is coming in, but I definitely feel like the ideal situation you described falls under what I mean by the explaining category. If each person is bringing something to the discussion, then each is explaining something. It doesn’t have to be so organized, where each person takes his turn lecturing the others on his particular area of expertise; they are all explaining their knowledge to the others throughout the course of the discussion. If they are talking about something that none of them know, then they are either speculating or discovering. If it’s speculation, they they’re still explaining their personal views and opinions; each will have thoughts and reactions based on what the others have explained, and form ideas about what might be, and then explain his speculations to the others. They will discuss the speculations, learning the details of each person’s ideas, and forcing each other to elaborate on those ideas by asking probing questions. So, each person may be formulating their ideas as the discussion goes on, but actual discussion consists of questions and explanations, or assertions and disagreements about speculations and opinions and factual information, which boil down to explanation of those speculations/facts.

            Of course, what I’m doing now is basically semantics; I’m telling you what I mean by ‘explanation’. Perhaps you don’t use the word that way. Or, perhaps, you would use the word that way, but thought I was using it in a more limited sense. In any case, I think our disagreement is purely semantic, as I am familiar with the possible outcomes of debates and don’t think that they exceed the range of persuasion and explanation, as I understand those terms. The possible sticking point being formulation of new ideas during the course of the discussion, but I believe that those ideas are formed through a process of ongoing explanation, in which each person continually explains the thought process they’re going through, in order to influence each other’s idea development. The idea development itself, going on inside each person’s head, is outside the realm of explanation, but I would posit that the actual discussion consists of the ongoing explanation of that development.

            Of course, there is the content of any given statement or discussion, which can be said to be divorced from the semantic issues concerning *how* the content is communicated. You’re interested in the ‘meat’ of the discussion, right? Getting to what everyone is really talking about, and bypassing the issue of how they’re talking about it? It sounds like you’re looking for the content, which is understandable; that’s what nearly everyone is really trying to get at. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the semantics are just a waste of time getting in the way. Semantics are the only way we have of getting that content from the locked safe of one person’s skull and into another–until we invent neural splicing and thought downloads and such. Whether you’re explaining what you mean by a certian word–defining a term, which of course can be dull and should only be the first part of a conversation–or trying to figure out what a certian writer meant by a whole series of words organized into what we would call a novel, it’s all semantics. To understand the Theory of Relativity, or discuss progress on any new theory of similar weight, you have to align your mind with the minds that contain the theory. On a simple level, that means training yourself to think that E-mc^2 means the same thing that they think it does. On a more complex level, that means deriving all the information content that Eienstein was trying to get across when he wrote the Theory of Relativity. He had the content, and translated it into semantics. In our discussions of the material, we’re trying to translate those words back into content firing around as electrical impulses in our neurons. But the only tool we have to get the material from semantic form to content form is–more semantics!

            Um, yeah.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            But by identifying only “semantics” or “persuasion” as the only goals–and, from what it sounds like you’re saying, the only possible outcomes–of a debate you’re missing the whole purpose of having a debate in the first place. To whit: the discovery of new realms of thought.

            A debate can also, by melding the different experiences and perceptions of the debaters, shed light on something that neither party, on their own, would have come to.

            My ideal debate is one where the participants seek out new thoughts, concepts, theories, and/or ideas, not one where they spend their time clarifying what their definitions boil down to, or when one party tries to convince the other of something.

            It’s like science isn’t just about rehashing old theories and duplicating previous experiments, it’s also about (and I would say primarily) about the discovery and the creation of new hypothesis, theories, ideas, and thought processes.

            By bringing something new to a debate, yes there’s a phase where you have to expound upon your experiences so that everyone on board is on the same wavelength. But when everyone is finally in agreement on what the relevant terms mean, that’s not the culmination of the process, that’s the beginning.

          • dr_pipe says:

            Um, that’s what I said. I’m just including all that in the semantics category because the discussion of the new ideas involves *explanation* of each person’s new thoughts on the matter. If you don’t want to use the words ‘semantics’ or ‘explanation’ that way, that’s fine, but please please please! read my post closely enough to understand what I’m saying before disagreeing with me. We’re not disagreeing about what can be accomplished in a discussion–just about whether that accomplishment is a semantic exercise or not.

            Of course this disagreement is entirely a definition of terms issue and does not need to be resolved; it just needs to be understood so that we can realize we’re not actually in disagreement about anything contentful. If *I’m* understanding *you* correctly, that is.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            Which comes back full circle to why I don’t get much of a sense of accomplishment or wonder out of debates that devolve down to semantics (or persuasion for that matter).

            If you’re lumping exposition and speculation into “explanation,” than it makes the word meaningless. Explain conveys connotations of one person understanding something and sharing this comprehension with another. But what I’m talking about, neither party is the teller or the tellee. They’re both participants in a search. It’s not about explaining or convincing, it’s about exploration.

          • dr_pipe says:

            Speculation = explanation only insofar as we explain our speculations to each other. But that’s not important; I certianly don’t care very much about how we use the word explanation and whether it includes speculation in a conversation.

            The important thing is semanitics. This very conversation illustrates why semantics are important; not so we can reduce interesting debates down to questions of definition, but so we can get past all that and make use of semantic constructions and devices to effectively communicate *content* – ideas, the meat of the debate. It’s not important what words mean; it’s important that we come to a temporary agreement of meanings, arbitrary if necessary, in order to use them to communicate content: to make the electrical impulses in my brain match up with the ones in yours, by stimulating my eardrums in a certian way that we have agreed has meaning.

            The interesting thing is – for me anyway – that meaningful discussion can be had with regard to issues that exist only as semantic constructions, with no emperical base. Words like ‘god’ or ‘love’ as opposed to ones like ‘tree.’ God and love exist only as each person’s conception of what the words mean (questions of the truth of those conceptions aside, and – in my opinion – irrelevant. But that’s another story, and you can read it here.) So naturally any discussion about any sort of God comes down to understanding what people mean by the word, and what the word means to people. But if two people have different definitions for ‘God,’ they have two entirely different personal conceptions of what God is. How can people communicate about religion, when they’re using the word ‘God’ to refer to an entity which may be drastically different for each person? They build a web of semantic constructions. They define terms, using other terms. They they define those terms, using still others. The root system eventually reaches into simple words with definitions that everyone can agree on. The more complicated terms up in the realms of the discussion that don’t involve anything more emperical than the feelings someone has about the universe and their place in it can be used to convey real meaning, as long as they’re rooted in semantic systems that reach down into a base of agreement.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            The important thing is semanitics

            I never said that semantics weren’t important. Semantics are vitally important since they are the starting point of any meaningful discourse. But they’re just that, the starting point. I really like my dance classes too. But if, as soon as I got on my harem pants, my coin belt, and my choli, my teacher then said “okay, that’s it, we’re done,” I’d be less-than-thrilled by the class session.

            any discussion about any sort of God comes down to understanding what people mean by the word, and what the word means to people.

            A history-full of philosophers would disagree. The point of a debate is eventually to come to some truth. All of the sciences started out as philosophies. If those early philosophers/scientists stopped at “well, we’ve got our terms defined, we’re done” then science as we know it would never have evolved. If people just stop talking after they get their semantics hashed out, then what about the real issues, the issues about whether or not God exists, for example? Philosophy (and hence a philosophic debate) isn’t about defining terms, it’s about thinking, and logic, and struggling to understand the true nature of the universe.

            Philosophers don’t think that God is a definition; they believe God is supportable by logic, and they’ve got arguments to back them up. Or they don’t believe he’s supportable by logic, and they’ve got arguments to back them up. It’s the arguments, the logic, the hypothesis which is the discovery, not the laying out of semantics.

          • dr_pipe says:

            I don’t think that whether or not God exists is a real issue; it’s about as far from a real issue as you can get. The whole conflict between science and religion comes from the misperception that it matters whether or not God exists. God is the face people put on the universe. God is ourselves reflected back at us through nature. Science is a way of studying and describing the processes of nature. When I try to translate “Does God exist” into a question that has meaning, the closest thing I can come up with is “Is the Universe conscious.” And really, it doesn’t matter. Either the universe is watching us or it’s not. Either way, E=mC^2 and Gravity pulls and DNA exists and the Earth was created in 4.5 billion years. The question of God’s existence is entirely separate from the questions “Is evolution responsible for the life on Earth?” and “Did the Earth form in 7 days or 4.5 billion years?” Those are questions of natural history, and can be answered independently of the question “Did things go the way they went because a sentient being guided them or just accidentally?”

            Asking about God is asking Why things happened the way they did. Science is simply asking what happened, and could you expound on the mechanics of that process please? Science looks into how the atoms interact and how the Earth’s crust gets bent into mountians. Religion asks, do those atoms behave that way because God made it so, or out of blind accidental luck? Neither answer has any effect on how the atoms behave, and that’s why the question of God’s existence is irrelevant.

            That’s why I say that the significance of religion is not to explain the world, but to help us deal with it. It entirely possible to be religions and a good scientist; in fact, I think it is very difficult to fully appreciate the universe as a good scientist without developing some religious feelings about it. These are not necessarily “God is responsible for all this greatness” feelings; they could simply be moments of profound, mind-shaking awe. Such a feeling does not necessarily imply that the universe is conscious, but it definitely comes with a desire to treat the universe as if it were. And Religion is simply a way of accepting that desire. Religion also comes with a set of archetypal images and metaphors about the self and the outside world which are useful for patterning one’s thoughts with regard to such experiences as the moment of awe I described above. One does not have to really believe that the universe is listening to derive personal psychological benefit from speaking to it.

            Oopse, I’ve drifted off topic…

          • Eugie Foster says:

            I don’t think that whether or not God exists is a real issue

            I, and a history chock full of philosophers, theologians, scientists, and (to coin a Harlan Ellison term) Jesus people, would disagree. Since the existence, will, and nature of a deity (or deities) affects the behavior, beliefs, ethical system, and thought processes of humanity and has for as long as there has been record of humans, it’s a profoundly real issue.

            And yes. It matters. Whether or not there is a God shapes what people believe. What people think of as right or wrong is dependant upon whether they believe there is an omniscient deity that tells them what they should think and do. This then affects how society is laid out, how the sciences are approached (they still teach Creationism in schools! I continue to be boggled at the wonder which is the American educational system), how people are treated, how animals are treated, and how the world is perceived. Good and evil are done every day, and for as long as history has existed (probably longer) in the name of religion.

            Yes. It matters.

            Science is simply asking what happened

            Science is the examination of truth, of the nature of the universe, of understanding the fundamentals of reality. What is, what was, and what will be. History is an examination of what has already transpired.

            I think it is very difficult to fully appreciate the universe as a good scientist without developing some religious feelings about it.

            *Ahem* SNORT, I say. Millions of Atheists roll their eyes in your general direction. Awe is not dependant upon religion, thank you very much.

          • dr_pipe says:

            It seems that you think it matters whether or not God exists because “Whether or not there is a God shapes what people believe.” Think about that statement. Do you really believe that? You have already stated that you do not think there is a God. Yet you can clearly see that there are millions of Jesus people out there, not to mention a couple billion Hindus and Buddhists, and another billion or so Muslims. If there is no God, then obviously their belief is not dependent upon the existence of God. It is dependent upon their perception of God, which can come about through experiences with meditation, drugs, nature-induced-awe, or simple brain washing from an early age by the parental units.

            Let us postulate that science somehow proves, beyond a doubt (for those who can understand the science involved, of course), that there is no God. Do you think that these believers will stop believing, especially considering the reactions that many of them have had toward various sciences we’ve already developed, such as biology (evolution vs creationism) and geology (age of the Earth)?

            I reiterate, it does not matter whether or not God exists. It matters whether or not people think God exists, yes. And even more importantly, it matters what that belief system leads them to do. People who are comfortable putting a face on the universe and deriving some psychological benifit from framing the mental conversations they have with themselves in a metaphorical “conversation between me and the universe/God” kind of context are not necessarily the same people who want to teach creationism in schools. Creationists fall into a category of Christian known as Fundamentalists. These Fundies are in fact a minority among Christians and mainstream religious people and scholarly theologians do not like them or share their beliefs. They are a vocal and rabid subset of the religious community. There are many liberal Christians who, like me (not that I’m one of them), say that the question “Does God really exist” is a waste of time. Instead, they ask “What benifits can I derive from the mythology of the Christ story? How can I use the powerful imagery and symbolism to build social systems in which people behave in a way that is benificial to all involved, and to bring about desired psychological transformations within myself by immersing myself in various interesting or usefull parts of that belief system?”

            I agree with what you said about science, but what I said was included in what you said with the clause “what was.” “What was” being that which has happened.

            And I didn’t say you have to believe in God to have awe; I merely said that a lot of people use quasi-religious (or, if you prefer, quasi-spiritual) models to handle such feelings, even without really being a straigh-up Christian or Buddhist or whatever; not “God must have been responsible for this greatness,” but “This is so great it makes me feel like I want to become one with the universe, or like I already am one with the universe and I want to find out how to explore my connection to everything, or some such.”

          • Eugie Foster says:

            *Ahem*. You didn’t say “it doesn’t matter whether or not God exists,” you said “I don’t think that whether or not God exists is a real issue.” Those two statements are not at all the same thing.

            The existence of God is a very real issue. Whether his existence or lack thereof matters is something else altogether.

          • dr_pipe says:

            Okay. But I think my paragraphs of elaboration made it clear what I meant. I don’t think that whether or not God exists is an *important* issue, or a question that it would be possible to resolve in any meaningful sense. And I think that an intelligent person with interest in the spiritual side of things (they do exist!) can derive plenty of benifits from various religions without having to accept the negative characteristics we often find in religious believers, such as a refusal to accept science or a closed mind concerning sexual diversity and such. While I am officially without opinion on the existence of God, I see no conflict between a belief in God and a belief in science. Only Biblical literalists do.

            I don’t know about you, but I’ve been enjoying this thread immensely. It’s been a while since I’ve debated a topic like this in the detail that written communication allows. That’s what I like about written discussion; the participants have time to come up with considered statements and explain themselves at length, and there’s a record of all that’s been said, which eliminates one of the problems that frequently comes up in spoken discussions–divergence from the topic due to disagreemt about what has been said, or loss of interest due to constant reiteration of the same material.

          • mslilly says:

            Late Reading . . .

            And I’d like to add that because language, in the existentialist sense, is what makes reality Reality–that is, most things are defined by human agreement that what is so actually is so–it all comes down to semantics anyway. Even attempting to work out things like “why” eventually come down to semantics. If I, as a Christian, answer that the universe exists because God spoke it into existence out of love, we will immediately begin to debate what I mean by “spoke it into existence,” the meaning of “love,” what the universe and its existence have to do with love, and all these debates balance on semantic agreements or disagreements. Thus, even the establishment of “Why” to a question of “Why did you disappear for three days?” leaves us in a semantic lurch.

            I’d also like to add that I enjoy fleshing out just where I stand and what I mean on various positions in the context of debate. I find that I am very “receptive” to other people’s opinions (meaning I’m weak-willed and not self-defined? a sheep? baaaa), and I enjoy hearing them, trying to figure out how to assimilate them into my own curious beliefs. I rarely begin a debate with a precise and strong position in mind. Too easy to be “wrong” that way.

            By the way, this is one of the most interesting and well-written debates I’ve read on LJ yet. Thanks very much.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            Re: Late Reading . . .

            And I’d like to add that because language, in the existentialist sense, is what makes reality Reality–that is, most things are defined by human agreement that what is so actually is so–it all comes down to semantics anyway

            Just because we use semantics to discuss the nature of the universe, doesn’t mean that the nature of the universe is only semantics. The terms we use to discuss reality don’t shape reality. Reality is. The words we speak (and write) are merely the avenues that we take to attempt to understand it. A goldfish bowl is not the ocean. We may get a better idea of what things are like under the sea by having a goldfish bowl, but the ocean exists whether or not we have the goldfish bowl. Personally, I’m big on putting on some scuba gear and diving into the ocean rather than dwelling on the nature of the goldfish bowl, figuratively speaking, of course.

            I rarely begin a debate with a precise and strong position in mind. Too easy to be “wrong” that way.

            Which may explain the differences in tolerance and enjoyment in a purely semantics debate between us. I almost always enter a debate with a strong position in mind. Being wrong doesn’t bother me. I’ve argued things I don’t believe in just for the devil’s advocate experience. But I think that you can’t get anywhere if you don’t pick one side to work through. And, to me, a debate that comes down to semantics is the definition (ooo look, irony!) of not getting anywhere.

          • mslilly says:

            Re: Late Reading . . .

            MMM . . . IRONY.
            This could be a religio-philosophical point of debate, too. I believe that God literally spoke and created existence (please distinguish me from Creationists. I don’t give a rip how long it took him, or whether he said “Evolution” and the sludge got flowing. The important part is the “spoke”). I believe that words backed by total integrity literally have the power to alter the fabric of physical reality. But that’s a totally different, potentially non-semantic debate. ;)
            The terms we use to discuss reality don’t shape reality
            I couldn’t disagree more. What else is positive attitude? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve altered literal, physical circumstances by altering how I think and talk about it. Now I agree that a representative of a thing is not the thing itself. The goldfish bowl is not the ocean, and the word “ocean” is not the ocean. But if you take a long table to a third world country, the “natives” can just as easily call it a bed–and be right–as you can call it a table–and be right–and all this without altering the physical reality of the table. It is present, its dimensions are unchanged, but its meaning in reality is altered unequivocally by the linguistic agreement of the community that talks about it.
            Likewise, the ocean is for one community, a lovely natural habitat, for another an untapped wealth of oil, for another a place to hide its debris, for another a place of recreation, and for still another, it is a mode of transportation. These conversations about the ocean have the potential to alter the physically real presence of a large body of water (pollution, etc), and they all alter the meaning of that presence in the immediate moment. Thus a conversation with any one community can alter a reality that may or may not manifest.

            Woof. It’s way too late to talk like this.

          • Eugie Foster says:

            Re: Late Reading . . .

            The terms we use to discuss reality don’t shape reality
            I couldn’t disagree more. What else is positive attitude? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve altered literal, physical circumstances by altering how I think and talk about it.

            You don’t honestly believe you can change the nature of reality by calling it something else, do you? Unless you are under a psychiatrist’s treatment for delusion, I’m going to have to go with: of course not.

            Fer instance, if you call an oak table a water moccasin, it doesn’t become a venomous, semi-aquatic snake, does it? It remains a fairly solid chunk of dead wood.

            We don’t shape true reality with words. We may shape people’s perceptions and that may impact how they act and think, but we don’t shape reality. Reality simply is. Whether or not we talk about it or have words for it, it will continue to be.

            You’re mixing your meanings, here. Words are powerful in that they can affect how people behave, but they don’t affect the true nature of what is real. And what philosophers ostensibly seek is reality. Not perception, not speculation, not some nebulous vague new age mumbo jumbo positive thinking, but reality. Truth, if you will.

          • mslilly says:

            Re: Late Reading . . .

            I capitulate. I and my prozac.

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