Equivocation on Meaning and Purpose

When you tell a friend “You mean a lot to me”, what are you actually saying? For me, I intend to communicate a deep emotional appreciation for my friend. This “meaning” was not given to me. It is a meaning that emerges from my personal emotions and desires.

Those who don’t believe in a personal god are frequently asked by Christians “If you don’t have a god to give you meaning in your life, why not just commit suicide since you must be miserable?”

Yet, the very Christians talk about a movie being “meaningful” to them, and their friends “meaning” a lot to them. These are “meanings” that are not handed to them by some god. Are these Christians knowingly equivocating on the word “meaning”? I’ll let you decide.

So we have 2 definitions of meaning.

1. Things that are emotionally significant to us.
2. Some purpose handed down to us by a superior.

Now for a couple questions.

Can someone be happy without a purpose being handed to them?

Obviously yes.

Can someone be unhappy after having been handed a purpose by a superior?

If you don’t think so, you’ve had a short career.

There is therefore no necessary causal connection between purpose and happiness.

Those who claim you can’t be happy without some god handing you purpose and “meaning” are either knowingly equivocating on their terms, or are severely confused about what purpose and meaning actually are.

Can you imagine a slave claiming he can not be happy without a master giving him orders? Can you imagine a person unable to find happiness in life because the have no god to guide them? I can’t. I find no evidence for any god, yet I find so many things to be happy about.

Don’t let people fool you by suggesting life without some god is miserable.

Write a comment below if you still don’t believe me. I’ll contact you personally to tell you my story of how I went from being a Christian slave, dependent entirely on the will of the god of my imagination, to a life full of meaning and happiness.

The Devil’s in the Dictionary

One of the most common fallacies in reasoning is the notion that dictionaries reflect what words should mean.

A quick thought experiment will put this to rest.

Someone is asked to write a modern dictionary.

They respond…

Why do we need a new dictionary? What is wrong with the old one?

Languages and words are not static. They evolve over time. Consider the word “suffer” which used to mean “allow”. I’ve actually heard one female preacher claim that when Paul the Apostle said “I suffer not women to speak”, he was saying that women speaking didn’t bother him, when, in fact, Paul was saying that he did not allow women to speak. Another wayward word is “awful” which used to mean “awe inspiring”. A more recent evolving word is “gay” which disturbs some conservatives when they sing “Don we now our gay apparel” during Christmas.

They respond…

But words contain meaning, don’t they?

Words are simply sounds or symbols. You can have the same sound or symbol understood in vastly different ways. Here in Japan, Kinki University decided to change its name for reasons obvious to most English speakers. The word “smart” means “intelligent”, “fashionable” and “slim” in America, Britain and Japan, respectively. Minds contain meaning, and where you have 2 or more persons who have assigned the same referent to the same sound or symbol, there you can have communication. Individuals can communicate to the degree that they share the same mental representations of sounds and symbols.

They respond…

But how can we communicate if the meanings of sounds and symbols are dynamic and based on convention?

Cautiously. Those living in a shared culture can communicate in their shared language quite effectively since the mental concepts they assign to sounds and symbols are highly common due to common experiences and education. The words “proof”, “critical”, “valid” and “theory” have quite different meanings for academics than for the general population. The more technical or more insular a culture is from mainstream culture, the less there will be convergence in the mental concepts that are evoked by various linguistic tags between the 2 cultures. This is why it is important to stipulate the meaning of more vague or ambiguous word with a lengthier definition when speaking cross-culturally.

They respond…

Then how can I produce a quality dictionary?

By considering the current usage of words in the target language community. By querying convention, various current denotations and connotations of words can be detected as standard. The utility of your dictionary will be determined by how closely it reflects the actual current usage in the language community for whom it was written.

They respond…

But doesn’t that mean I’ll have to update the dictionary every few years to accommodate swings in denotation and connotation?

Yup. That’s the inevitable fact of it. No one owns words. No single person defines words. Words may be coined, but their currency depends on their acceptance by the language community.

So sounds and symbols are not obligated to carry a particular meaning. Dictionaries are not the final authority on meaning. Convention is. To place dictionaries above convention is to invert the reality of language.

What is wrong with lying if there is no morality?

I’ve previously argued extensively that there is no moral realm.

Now, consider the following 2 questions.

  1. What is morally wrong with lying if there is no morality?
  2. What is wrong with lying if there is no morality?

I get asked question #2 quite often, and upon further interaction, usually I discover the questioner is actually asking questions #1.

The answer to questions #1?

Nothing. You can’t have moral fact where there is no moral realm in which those moral facts can exist. Nothing surprising here.

The answer to question #2?

That will depend on your goals.

If you intend to live honorably in a society that values honesty, chronic lying is the wrong way to accomplish this. If you hope for others to believe you in the future, you’d be misguided if you thought lying would be consistent with that hope. If you make a habit of lying, you’ll discover the response will be anger, mistrust, and marginalization. Most people consider lying shameful, a useful emotion that maintains social cohesion and advances most personal goals. Very few thriving individuals have achieved their happiness with lies.

However, if you wish to protect a child from a criminal seeking to harm the child, then telling the truth about the whereabouts of the child to that criminal is definitely wrong.

“Wrong” can refer to the notion that something is morally wrong, and “wrong” can refer to the pragmatic mistake of acting in a way inconstant with your goals. I’ve argued in other posts that moral wrongness is impossible in our universe which is absent a moral realm.

So the word “wrong” obviously has several meaning. It is there for the equivocation for those who consider intentional equivocation a noble way to further their goals. I hope my readers are not of this shameful mendacious mindset.

The Pit of “Scholarship”

“I don’t know about other disciplines, but academic writing in the humanities has become notorious for its jargon-laden wordiness, tangled constructions, and seemingly deliberate vagary and obscurity.” -Steven Pinker

The crafty cuttlefish surrounds itself with ink to obscure itself from enemies. Most things worth saying can be said clearly with few words. Lengthy and convoluted arguments are justifiably suspect.

Here are a few good signals that an ideology does not map to reality.

  • When the founding document/scriptures is so conceptually disjointed that it has given rise to hundreds of variations, all hostile towards each other.
  • When the “scholarship” (commentaries) written to explain the founding document/scriptures is so voluminous that it would take several lifetimes to wade through it, and the commentaries themselves reflect mutually hostile doctrinal positions.
  • When you are told that, to properly understand the ideology, you must invest a considerable amount of time exploring the founding document/scriptures, as well as the accompanying “scholarship”.

Once you give in to the notion that a significant investment of time and focus is necessary to make sense of an ideology, you are susceptible to the trap of vested interest. The more you invest exploring an ideology, the more difficult it is to honestly assess it since you don’t want to feel your investment was wasted.

If you have time to invest, invest it strengthening your filter of rationality as others have to effectively defend against hundreds of false ideologies. Explore logical fallacies, cognitive biases, standards of evidence, statistics, probabilities, and other essential tools of rationality. That foundation will allow you to quickly and correctly assess any ideology that comes your way, and to avoid the false promises offered by the pit of “scholarship”.

This, of course, does not include domains of scientific or technical knowledge that requires acclimation to a body of literature before new discoveries are made.

Fail Attempts to Redeem God from Moral Incoherence

(Note: Any mention of morality below is in the context of a reductio ad absurdum argument. The author does not believe a moral realm exists.)

You will often hear Christians attempt to salvage their Jehovah from moral incoherence by arguing that the slavery, treatment of raped women, and other atrocities ordered or condoned by Jehovah were not quite as horrible as they appear. Let’s call this argument “The Argument from Diminutive Account”. This argument fails on two counts. To employ this argument requires the apologist to hold that…

  1. the more severe version of events they are arguing against would constitute a moral offense if Jehovah were to order or condone these more severe versions of events
    (If it were not a moral offense, why make the argument the event is a milder form than what it seems?)
    Yet by what moral standard do they determine the more severe account transgresses the threshold of what is moral? What could be their moral standard? How do they know the harsher version is morally wrong?
  2. the milder version of events is not a moral offense
    (Yet, Christians today refuse to act consistent with the milder version, out of a belief that it would be immoral
    Yet, by what standard do they judge these actions immoral now, but moral then?

The formalization of this is as follows.

  • P1: Christians hold that whatever their god condones is moral.
  • P2: Christians hold that the apparent condoning of activity “X” found in the bible is not immoral because the activity is actually a diminutive “x”.
  • C1: Therefore, Christians hold that “X” would be immoral even if their god condoned “X”. (P2)
  • C2: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P1 & C1)
  • P3: Christians would refuse to follow diminutive “x” because they deem it immoral.
  • C3: Therefore, Christians hold 2 logically contradictory notions. (P2 & P4)

Let’s deal with each of these two problems with the Christian’s argument that “God’s actions were not as bad as reported.”

1. If you are going to argue that Jehovah remains moral because action “X” was actually of a lesser severity we’ll tag “x”, then you are admitting that “X” is immoral. Yet, how did you arrive at that conclusion? What is your standard for that belief? Would Jehovah had been immorally if he had ordered “X”? Why else would you be arguing that “X” is actually “x” if not to make Jehovah moral? Yet, is it not the words and actions of Jehovah that define morality? Would not “X” then be, by definition, moral since it deemed moral by the author of morality? What other possible standard of morality is there within Christian ideology? This is the first incoherency of the Argument from Diminutive Account.

2. If you are going to argue that Jehovah remains moral because action “X” was actually of a lesser severity we’ll tag “x”, then you must hold that the diminutive “x” is moral. However, the milder versions of slavery and stonings and slaughtering of infidels Christians argue for they admit they would not themselves perform. When pressed, they will admit that even that milder version of what Jehovah ordered or condoned is immoral. Yet how do they arrive at the conclusion that this action is now immoral, yet was moral in the past? Where does this standard of morality come from?

To be more precise, Christians would would not hesitate to condemn all forms of slavery today. What makes slavery of any sort moral then but immoral now? Would it now be moral to burn alleged witches or homosexuals if Jehovah were to command it? Can any coherent and consistent standard of morality be offered for moral dilemmas today? I’ve seen attempts, but they all amounted to ad hoc fragmented “principles” that are only accessible to “scholars” of their own particular Christian sect.

For these two reason, the Argument from Diminutive Account fails. You can’t claim a diminutive version of a Jehovah-sanctioned action is any less than immoral then the harsher version unless you clearly state your criteria for that moral assessment. And if you currently consider immoral the diminutive account of an act once approved by Jehovah, you’ll need to explain why moral facts can change and still be deem objective.

Intentional Distortion through Linguistic Artifacts

  • “Either you believe or you don’t.”
  • “You’re either a liar, or you’re not.”
  • “Either he raped her or he didn’t.”
  • “You’re either in love, or you’re not.”
  • “Either you’re a murderer or you’re not.”
  • “You’re either his brother, or you’re not.”

All of the previous statements have been disingenuously made by those attempting to employ linguistic artifact to distort reality as a defense of their position.

Let me explain.

For all of the aforementioned terms of belief, lying, rape, love, murder, and brother, there is no actual dichotomy as the statements imply.

Belief can come in degrees. You can tend to believe something, and a rational mind attempts to map belief to the balance of the available evidence rather than flipping from disbelief (or non-belief) to belief at some threshold of evidence.

Lying comes in degrees ranging from avoiding direct answers and letting assumptions go uncorrected, to strongly affirming the opposite of what is known to be factual.

Rape is committed in real contexts that vary in their degree of intentional violation and injury. Even as defined by law, rape comes in degrees ranging from statutory rape to 1st degree rape.

Love is clearly not binary. It falls on a quantitative continuum as well as differing qualitatively.

Murder, in addition to having legally-defined sub-categories, is committed with varying degree of intent and maliciousness.

Even the term “brother” is not discretely defined. There are half-brothers, step-brothers, and tribal notions of brotherhood.

Due to the linguistic artifacts of language, terms employed to reflect the reality of the gradient nature of concepts such as belief, lying, rape, love, and murder, as well as the less than binary categories of “brother” are inherently inadequate to capture the full concept. The shame comes in the intentional co-opting of this inadequacy of language to intentionally employ the connotative force of the terms to distort the reality of a situation.

This was done by those telling the world that Obama neglected his “brother”, intentionally avoiding the more accurate nuanced term “half-brother”. If you claim you are technically correct while ignoring whether you are maximally informative, then you ought to be ashamed.

The power of linguistic artifact is employed when calling someone a “liar” and not employing the linguistic nuances that are available to indicate the severity.

This is shameless device of linguistic distortion is employed by those wanting the strongest negative connotation of “rape” to be used without nuance when indexing an intrusive sexual act. (Don’t you dare suggest I am condoning intrusive sexual advances.)

This, more humorously, is done in marriages when one partner asks the other “Do you love me?”, knowing full well that the concept of love is quantitatively gradient and qualitatively nuanced.

And every world leader in history has been called a “murderer” due to his/her decisions that resulted in actions that lead to unintended deaths.

You can abuse language in this way in an attempt to evoke emotions that may sway the less-than-insightful to your cause, but, among the less credulous, you only destroy your credibility.

And anyone making binary statements about clearly less-than-binary concepts such as the 6 above is to be dismissed as either grossly misguided or mendacious.

The Abhorrence of Inequality does not support Biblical Morality

The existence of a drive for equality among humans and in the animal kingdom lends no evidence for the Bible's claim of an alleged objective morality.

Argument A.
(The argument from superfluity)

  • P1: Intelligent beings can perceive inequalities.
  • P2: Emotional beings can become angry when they perceive inequalities against themselves or those they care about.
  • C1: Intelligence and emotions are all that is necessary for beings to abhor perceived inequalities. (P1 & P2)
  • C2: Objective morality is not necessary for beings to abhor perceived inequalities. (C1)

Argument B.
(The argument from animal abhorrence of inequalities)

  • P1: Many animals abhor perceived inequalities1.
  • P2: The animals that abhor perceived inequalities are not moral agents.
  • C1: Being a moral agent is not necessary to abhor inequalities. (P1 & P2)
  • C2: Abhorring inequalities is not evidence of moral agents. (C1)
  • P3: If abhorring inequalities is not evidence of moral agents, neither can it be evidence of an objective morality.
  • C3: The abhorrence of inequalities is not evidence of an objective morality. (C2 & P3)

Argument C.
(The argument from divinely ordained inequality)

  • P1: If the abhorrence of inequalities is evidence of an objective morality, that objective morality will not condone inequalities.
  • P2: The biblical god condones inequalities2.
  • C1: Either a) the abhorrence of inequality is not evidence of an objective morality, or b) the biblical god is not objectively moral. (P1 & P2)

For any one these 3 reasons, The abhorrence of inequality does not support biblical morality.

1. Chimps | Dogs
2. Romans 9:21-22 | Malachi 1:2-3
(Note that it does not matter if Jehovah would proclaim these situations to be “fair”. It violates human notions of fairness, the very notions of fairness that are often invoked as evidence of an objective morality that maps to the morality authored by Jehovah.)