Monday, September 24, 2007

The Meaning of Words

Courtesy of Sam Harris:

The core of science is not the mathematical model; it's intellectual honesty. It is a willingness to have our certainties about the world constrained by good evidence and good argument.


Scott Adams has a post up today on his Dilbert Blog asking what qualifies as a mental problem. The question arises, evidently, from a vigorous hurling of shit in the comment section of one of his recent posts. His standard practice is to say something interesting or provocative and then let the comments fly. Myself, I can't imagine anything less gratifying than having to read three or four hundred comments from the unfiltered internet. (It's not sour grapes: I'd love to have 300 comments, but I know they won't but a few of them be thoughtful comments; the rest is just stupid noise.)

This past week or so I was commenting on several atheism-related posts on Cyberkitten's blog, and there began the usual slide which, left unchecked, would have soon found us in a fit of junior-high name calling. Jeffy (very rightly) emailed me to gently inquire, in effect, what possible outcome I was expecting from this interaction. He himself was quite tempted to respond to the other commenter, to a pretty forceful statement of a quite unsupportable argument. But he was able to realize that no argument, no matter how logical or air-tight, could possibly change the commenter's mind. Indeed, the whole motivation of the commenter was to protect and defend their faith. In this case, with this commenter, the very discussion was absolutely pointless.

He's 100% correct, I know. I can see this quite clearly when it's laid before me. But I guess I have enough stupid debater in me that it's still almost impossible not to want to make an answer to these comments, to try and show this person where their logical errors lie. I've seen a zillion times people descend into name-calling and silly invective, the emotional lashing-out in a desperate bid for supremacy--or even to just have the last word. It's a colossal waste of time: if reason was not used to reach one's conclusions--and if reason is pointedly not needed to retain one's beliefs; indeed, if reason is looked upon as insidious and harmful!--then no reason will change that person's mind.

If I think about these things for very long, I inevitably find myself down at the bedrock of words and language and meaning. I want to believe that "truth" is an unambiguous word, that "evidence" and "proof" are not malleable terms. Yet both sides of any debate on religion use these words as properly in their domain. Can this be correct? I'm not really asking seriously, I guess. I know that what a religious person calls a "truth" does not pass muster in a scientific way, that truth is often confused with hope, evidence with desire. This is a corruption of these words, a misuse if the words are to retain their most basic meaning. A scientist rarely uses these terms, since science deals in provisional knowledge. While there ARE truths, more often there are supported, provisional conclusions. The scientist learns to be content with this.

When I listen to a person making religious arguments, I know that there is an aspect of debate going on, an element of semantic skill and maneuvering about the gray areas of language. Discussion is rarely conducted in a level way with an eye on simple logic and on examination and weighing of evidence. (This differs fundamentally from a discussion between science folks.) Rather, we necessarily enter the realm of opinion and advocacy; there is a sense of strategy and cunning, of tactics being employed toward some kind of victory. Big, unknowable things are assumed and the ball is run from there. There is an overwhelming, foundational sense of people wanting to preserve and protect what they believe and think. On the unmoderated forums of the internet, you find this stance on both sides, which is exactly what makes it so pointless. But the whole thing is pointless if either side is mired down in this way. Emotional involvement and attachment is something unavoidably human, and the great value of the scientific method is that it divorces our knowledge of our world from our desires and needs. WANTING a thing to be true is an impediment to our LEARNING what IS, in fact, true.

This should be Axiom No. 1

15 comments:

Jeffy said...

I think that scientists see things very much the same way - you don't start with a conclusion and set out to prove it. The scientific method involves formulating a hypothesis which is then tested to see if it might work, a rather subtle distinction, but a very important one. As they say, data can be made to appear to support any theory if one tries hard enough.

This is one of the big failings of our educational system. Most of science education involves teaching the 'facts' that have been revealed through science rather than the process by which those things were discovered. These 'facts' make for easy teaching, but are not worth all that much if one doesn't understand the underlying process that generated them. This leaves people with a poor grasp of what it means for something to be a scientific 'fact', or true, or 'just a theory'.

As for the shifting meanings of words, I am finally beginning to realize just how differently two people can view what a given word means. My spouse and I have been together for around 25 years, and we still sometimes talk past each other due to our own particular understanding of the words we are using. When we have a misunderstanding we often find that the root of our problem stems from subtle differences in what we think we are saying.

The words you use as examples - truth, proof and evidence have an even tougher time. Not only is there room for interpretation about the exact meanings of these words, there are also variations in the amount or strength or quality of what they describe. What constitutes 'proof' or 'evidence' can depend a lot on what is being proved, or what initial frame of reference a person has. If one were to look for evidence that would add up to proof of the existence of ghosts, for example, what might be considered sufficient would depend on who you were trying to convince, and what their initial beliefs were. I am generally quite skeptical and require a fair amount of evidence to consider something to be 'proved', while someone else who may be more easily convinced would not need as much (or possibly a different kind of) evidence.

Finally, getting back to a scientific way of looking at things, very few hypotheses are ever viewed as 'proved', most are just seen as supported by the available evidence. When more or better evidence becomes available a scientist is ready to reconsider what is thought to be true.

As you say, though, when one's beliefs are not based on logic or evidence then more evidence or clearer logic is not going to influence those beliefs. Which underlies why it is usually so hopeless to use those tools of reason when discussing beliefs or opinions that were not formed through reasoned thought.

Still, it is very hard to turn away and not try to correct blatant flaws in logic when they pop up.

deb said...

I don't even think truth is as fixed as you believe. Depends on what you want truth about I guess. But you're right, it's nearly impossible to change another person's mind. I was attacked recently on a blog for something I said, instead of arguing I just told the other commenter she was right and left it at that. She wasn't going to change her mind.

wunelle said...

Maybe I'm guilty of exactly the same thing I criticize in others (it wouldn't be the first time): I feel "arrived at" in some sense with my own outlook, feel like I'm able to use these words with some greater fidelity, which is maybe not correct. And yet I think I lean on certainties less than many people; I'm happy with provisional knowledge.

But then I wonder what it means to KNOW anything, which is another of these existential philosophical sinkholes where we find ourselves hobbled by semantics about things we intuitively easily grasp.

Is perception really so variable?

deb said...

Yes, perception really is that variable.

CyberKitten said...

Firstly thanks for the link back...

The problem I have arguing with theists (even if I tend to do it quite a bit and often enjoy it) is that I find us using the same language whilst meaning very different things.

As you say when we use the words truth, reason and evidence theists use exactly those words to explain something *vastly* different.

Theists I have debated with - pretty much rationally and reasonably (at least to begin with) honestly believe - at least they *appear* to honestly believe - that they are dealing with Truth and that they have arrived at their theistic position because of the evidence and through a process of reason. When I attempt to point out the error of their ways they attempt to point out to me that the atheistic/naturalist viewpoint is not the truth (and never can be) and is neither reasonable nor based on the evidence.

When I turn to these words and what they mean we find that we cannot even agree what constitutes evidence nor what is reasonable. Its all very frustrating.

I believe (or am coming to the belief) that theists and atheists actually think differently and that's why debates and arguments between the two camps are pretty much pointless - though entertaining for a while. I think that we both use different types of reason, give often vastly different weights to what we regard as evidence and arrive at different truths because of it.

It is illuminating though that theists can become atheists as well as the other way around. That process does interest me.

wunelle said...

Thanks for the comment. I don't pretend that I can get to the bottom of this, but rather that thinking aloud about it might help me be more settled in my mind.

I think we all employ these key words because we each want their strength to apply to our positions. In that sense, we actually DO think the words mean the same thing. We call something "true" because the word implies "settled," "known," "factual." We all want this solidity to apply to our argument. In this view, we differ not on the meaning of the words, but on what we see as the correct applicability of the word to our counterpart's theses.

The question is whether language is naturally messy enough for us to each use the words correctly. Correctly in our minds, sure, but correctly in a larger sense? I hear a lot of religious stuff called The Truth (The Way, The Light) which cannot be called "true" in any but a wishful sense. But by the same token, an atheist is faced with the same constraints: we must be careful not to claim a knowledge which we cannot possibly have.

I can't prove that anyone's god definitively does not exist; but I can raise the question of probability and of the infinite number of potential gods, each of which is as statistically likely to exist and be true. To some extent, there's a precision of language element to this. Scientists are careful about these things.

But there's an element here that Jeffy alludes to, a differentiation between positing a theory and seeing how the evidence stacks up versus starting with a conviction and then seeking to build a case for it. To the untrained eye they look casually the same, but they're fundamentally different. In one case the outcome is desired, in the other it is provisionally accepted (or rejected).

Joshua said...

After debating with so many theists (man that word looks funny) and atheists alike (one of my degrees was gathered in philosophy), I am not sure they are as different as both camps would believe. At least, not in the way they argue.

Bil, you differentiate above between starting with theory and building evidence as it opposes starting with conviction and sandbagging (I paraphrased). I agree.

But, I think, in this particular argument, so many people on the atheist side are starting with a conviction of their own. They are taking the statistically minute chance of this God existing and nulling it. Then they are presenting evidence to that effect. To sort of cover the bases, some will say something to the effect of "I never said God didn't exist, just that it is such a small chance" or "it is only one of so many possiblities" and that seems well and good. But the arguments themselves are always against God, which is quite different, even though it supports scientific process (eliminating those theories which cannot be true) while at the same time disregarding scientific process (trying to disprove an abstract concretely and difinitively)

This next bit, be forwarned, is not an argument FOR God, rather an example of how the above can be misleading.

Picture the universe billions of years ago. Stuff is floating around, being all "universy" (my other degree is in creative writing, so I feel I can use that fake word). Things have existed this way for infinity, if such a thing exists. Then some completely random, and statistically improbable thing happens, and life on Earth is created. One second, no life. The next, life.

Taken in those simple terms, that is one spectacularly odd occurance. Moreover, it probably should not have happened, statistically speaking.

Just like you could roll a dice and get a 6 every time from now until the end of the world. It is statistically possible.

Now back to the above argument. Athiests use this process to try to disprove the existence of God. In doing so, they break from (as I think both Bil and Jeffy already said or eluded to) the limitations of the scientific process, which never really PROVES or DISPROVES anything, and rather is quite comfortable, and right, testing theories. The word FACT is probably the biggest four letter word in the scientific community.

As an aside, I find myself firmly entrenched in this very same endeavor every single time I visit certain sites. The outright NEED to point out the obvious (to me) flaws sometimes masks the displeasure I will get from reading the all too familiar replies.

As another aside: Tim O'brien has a few wonderful essays floating around on Truth verses Reality, if you are interested. Also, Scott Adams has an e-book you can download Called God's Debries that has some fun thought exercises (even if they are a bit formulaic, and read like a Platonic dialogue)

wunelle said...

"But, I think, in this particular argument, so many people on the atheist side are starting with a conviction of their own."

I think you're exactly right, and it's the same sin, isn't it? The atheist who states categorically "there is no god" is making the same positive statement about something one cannot possibly know definitively. I agree that we see this all the time, and my own convictions doubtless make the error seem less egregious than a religious person doing the same thing. This is clearly a bit of a double standard on my part.

The only sensible tack, to follow my own logic, is agnosticism: we must admit that we cannot know some things with any certainty. And we must learn to live with that.

The issue then becomes not one of who can answer the question definitively, but rather how do we live? What convictions do we live out our days by way of? What do we make of others' non-agnosticism?

There's the old Pascal's Wager business, of course, which reminds me of a comment by George Bush Sr. some years ago. Asked whether atheists could be patriots, he hesitated and said "No. No, they can't." I always loved that, because he could never have said it about Jews or Buddhists without being assassinated (bodily or character). But so long as you believed in SOME untestable, unprovable mythology, he would let you in his club! (His own faith, of course, does not allow him to find other faiths laudable and acceptable! EVERY book said that other faiths are bad, and there are often incitements to kill infidels, or at least a reminder that they're going to suffer for eternity.) But for Pascal's Wager, how do you pick? The possible right answers are, quite simply, infinite in number. So the chance that you've hit upon the correct one is infinitesimal. What do we do?

I'll have to look into the Tim O'Brien stuff.

CyberKitten said...

wunelle said: The only sensible tack, to follow my own logic, is agnosticism: we must admit that we cannot know some things with any certainty. And we must learn to live with that.

I don't agree. As far as I know Agnosticism is based on the belief that the God Question cannot be answered. As an atheist - rather than an Agnostic - I believe that the God Question *can* indeed be answered. I cannot prove that God does not exist (and I am unaware of anyone who has that proof) but I do not think that there is either enough credible evidence to substantiate Gods existence nor am I aware of any reasonable argument that shows He exists. Therefore it is my considered opinion that belief in God is untenable, therefore I do not believe in God.

wunelle said: But for Pascal's Wager, how do you pick? The possible right answers are, quite simply, infinite in number. So the chance that you've hit upon the correct one is infinitesimal. What do we do?

Very true. Pascal's wager makes the implicit assumption that the choice is between the Christian God and atheism... but what about the countless other religious beliefs besides Christianity. As you say - how can we possibly choose between them? What criteria do we use to make our decision? Knowing that a mistake could be literally damning we are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. We must choose the *right* faith as quickly as possible - but have no adequate information of how to make that choice. It makes the whole thing nonsensical!

wunelle said...

I agree with your rationale, CK; and in every meaningful sense of the term I live as an atheist and have done for decades. I haven't believed in supernatural things for over 30 years, and now it just doesn't come up except when I'm driven crazy by someone else's unfounded beliefs. And in fact I find this outlook supported a hundred times a day.

I also agree that (as I've mentioned), starting with a blank slate, one never gets to gods generally, let alone to any particular god. So in that sense I'm an atheist by default, since I'm also not an adherent of any of the trillion alternative supernatural explanations that one might formulate.

But though my conviction is that there's nothing out there watching over me--and I'm in no way ambivalent about it--I still think my best-supported angle is not to say the question of gods is DECIDED, but rather to point out my conviction that we never GET to the question in the first place. Is this a meaningful distinction?

That still leaves me plenty of leeway to poke holes in the irrationality all around me (if I have the energy to do it!)

I'd love to do a cup of coffee with you sometime, CK, if I'm laying over in your town. I suspect we'd have an interesting chat!

Jeffy said...

Given all the discussion above I think it is clear why debates about the existence of supernatural beings clearly belong in the realm of the philosopher, not that of the scientist. Given no evidence to support the idea that any god exists there just isn't much that the scientist can say about it.

As CK has pointed out, though, it is perfectly rational to take the position that given no supporting evidence there is no reason to believe that any god exists. Lack of any reason to believe in something extraordinary seems to me to be plenty of reason to believe that no such thing exists, while being open to the possibility that at some future time there may arise some evidence that could change your belief. The agnostic point of view only seems reasonable if you are not sure what to make of the 'evidence' that is available. Someone could make the case that while they see no direct evidence to support it, the fact that many people do believe in some god might be a form of evidence of his existence, and that alone could be enough to make some people unsure of what to think.

While debates about the existence of a god seem pointless (unless you happen to enjoy exercises in philosophy) there are other debates that somehow end up linked to religious beliefs that science CAN be applied to. These include a variety of natural phenomena for which there are observations from which conclusions and theories can be drawn. These include such topics as evolution, the history of the Earth and the universe, and global climate change. The fact that religion tries to intrude on the domain of science in these issues is quite appalling to me. It just doesn't work to apply faith and preconceived beliefs to the process of trying to determine the true nature of nature.

One last thought on the whole atheist/agnostic distinction: It seems that part of the difference comes down to how firm someone is in their lack of belief, and how vocal they are about it. It seems that the label 'Atheist' has been claimed by those who have a strong conviction that there is no god and who feel a strong need to promote that belief, while 'Agnostic' seems to be left to those who are not sure what they believe and/or don't wish to take a stand promoting Atheism. I think we need a label for folks who fall between those two camps - people who are firmly convinced that there is no reason to believe in a god, but who still don't feel the need to be a promoter of that position. Somehow the term 'Atheist' has some undesirable connotations of intolerance and an almost religious disbelief, while 'Agnostic' has connotations of being uncertain and wishy-washy. I think there are plenty of people who have the certainty of an Atheist but not the religious-like fervor that many of them seem to display. Wikipedia has a concise entry on theism and mentions another label that could be used for non-believers - nontheists. Given the flavors that the terms 'atheism' and 'agnostic' seem to have acquired maybe 'nontheist' is a good substitute.

wunelle said...

Hear, hear.

I'm actually OK with "atheist."

:-D

CyberKitten said...

wunelle said: I haven't believed in supernatural things for over 30 years, and now it just doesn't come up except when I'm driven crazy by someone else's unfounded beliefs. And in fact I find this outlook supported a hundred times a day.

I am one of those lucky people who has never lost their faith in God because I never had any to begin with. I have never (as far as I remember) believed in the Supernatural. Likewise I find my outlook supported everyday.

wunelle said: I still think my best-supported angle is not to say the question of gods is DECIDED, but rather to point out my conviction that we never GET to the question in the first place. Is this a meaningful distinction?

Oh, I don't think that the God Question has been decided - even for me. I just don't think that there is enough evidence to support that conclusion. If some evidence - actually *any* evidence - turns up then I will reconsider my position.

wunelle said: I'd love to do a cup of coffee with you sometime, CK, if I'm laying over in your town. I suspect we'd have an interesting chat!

I suspect we would.

wunelle said: I'm actually OK with "atheist."

Me too......

jeffy said: I think it is clear why debates about the existence of supernatural beings clearly belong in the realm of the philosopher, not that of the scientist.

Oh it's definitely a philosophical issue - though with some scientific input, especially when theists stray onto science's turf (eg Evolution, Origin of the Universe, Origin of Life etc..).

jeffy said: As CK has pointed out, though, it is perfectly rational to take the position that given no supporting evidence there is no reason to believe that any god exists. Lack of any reason to believe in something extraordinary seems to me to be plenty of reason to believe that no such thing exists, while being open to the possibility that at some future time there may arise some evidence that could change your belief.

That is pretty much my position in a nutshell.

jeffy said: the fact that many people do believe in some god might be a form of evidence of his existence, and that alone could be enough to make some people unsure of what to think.

I never really understood that. What relation is there between the belief of adherents and the truth of their position? None. It neither matters how many people believe in something nor the strength of their belief. Truth/reality is independent of the wishes and beliefs of people - or at least I strongly suspect that to be the case [grin].

jeffy said: It seems that the label 'Atheist' has been claimed by those who have a strong conviction that there is no god and who feel a strong need to promote that belief

Maybe that's more the case in the US. Over here the word atheist carries very little of the stigma it does over there. I know many people who call themselves atheists who will rise to the challenge when provoked but mostly stay quiet on the subject. Atheism to them is as natural as breating - something they hardly think about on a day to day basis.

green_canary said...

One of the amazing things about "truth" - like the argument on what is "right" and what is "wrong" - is often a matter of interpretation.

My religious upbringing made this hard for me to comprehend, but it was a Catholic university that opened my eyes to new ways of thinking. While taking theology and philosophy courses, I learned that truth and right and wrong and morality becomes a matter of argument unless it is rooted in something. For people who believe in God, the root of these things are the laws of religion. "Murder is sin. Lust is sin. Thou shalt honor your mother and father." These are standards against which other behaviors are compared. Without a baseline for comparison, everything goes all willy-nilly.

When you have people who base the laws of their lives on different things - those whose roots are in religion versus those whose roots are in science, for example - you get argument. And this is healthy. What isn't healthy is when both sides can not open their eyes enough to see that perhaps they are wrong, or that there are other explanations for the things they believe, or to accept that there can be elements of both in the same.

Faith is an amazing thing. Science is an amazing thing. I can't explain most of either, but I'm glad they both exist :)

Great post, Wunelle!

Anonymous said...

Gaaah!

Wunelle was much more gracious in the face of this unmitigated sophistry than I would have been.

But then it's not my blog.

-A. Random