Something I wrote up on Quora.
This is a response to someone on Quora who instisted that belief is binary, and that I should be calling myself an “atheist”.
Belief could be considered binary in two uninformed ways.
1. You could imagine that words are ontologically prior to the concepts they are invoked to denote. Just because there exist the linguistic tags “like” and “dislike”, we don’t assume reality must reflect the artifactual binary nature of these words. We instead insist that reality trumps any and all linguistic tags invoked to reflect that reality. The deficiencies of language are no excuse to distort reality, in this case, the intrinsic gradient nature of belief.
2. You could imagine that human emotions are ontologically prior to objective reality. Here too you would be wrong. The cognitive bug humans have that makes it difficult for them to take an epistemic position between a) absolutely certain X is true and b) absolutely certain X is false is no excuse to pretend a gradient concept must conform to that cognitive bias. Yet, once again. our emotions are not ontologically prior to objective realities, but, if we are to be rational, must conform to those realities. In this case, your disposition to irrationally either believe or disbelieve must be discarded for a more rational approach that actually reflects the gradient nature of belief.
I hold about an 15% degree of belief that an Einsteinian god of some sort is out there. And since belief is not binary, and since I want to add as much resolution to the actual reality of my epistemic position, I do not distort that epistemic reality by presenting belief as intrinsically binary. It is not. Never will be. I *tend to disbelieve* an Einsteinian god exists. The term *tend to disbelieve* retains the necessary resolution that accurately reflects my epistemic reality. I do not feel at all compelled to pretend my 15% degree of belief is equal to your 0% degree of belief. If your own position requires no nuance, no problem. My position does. A single term such as *atheist* does not capture that distinction. I like distinction and nuance. It not only accurately reflects reality, it separates me from those who have no appreciation of nuance, and opens the door for more productive discussions without locking myself into a category with substantial connotative baggage that does no dialogue any good.
“Sometimes I introduce concepts I don’t understand just to make myself sound more infinite.” ~unknown
The word “infinite” is a quantifier. Quantifiers quantify qualities. Quantifiers can quantify a quality explicitly such as in the claim “the universe is 13.7 billion years old”, or can be implicit such as in “Phil is 55” (age is implied instead of IQ…hopefully)
But there is no semantic content in the following statements.
1. The car is quite.
2. My cat is very.
3. Your face is 732.
4. My God is infinite.
Your God is infinitely what? Unless you specify what quality is being quantified, you have said nothing.
Some more-aware Christians do attempt to attach “infinite” to a quality.
Here is one example.
Q: How can the 3-day death of Jesus be a substitute payment for the “deserved” eternal damnation of sinners?
A: Jesus was infinitely holy, so he could be resurrected.
(I’ve actually heard this several times.)
“Infinitely holy”? What can this possibly mean? Holiness is either perfect or imperfect. It’s like saying your lights are “infinitely on” or that your project is “infinitely finished” or that you’ve been “infinitely divorced” or that your house has been “infinitely built”. These phrases have no meaning.
It’s almost as if the term “infinite” is being invoked as a vague insulator to shut down the discussion. If you tell your boss you deserve a pay raise because you have “infinitely finished” your last project, he will likely justifiably laugh at your inability to understand the terms you use, or at your transparent attempt to make a rebuttal impossibly by introducing the logically impossible Escheresque term “infinitely finished”.
Saying some God is “infinitely holy” is either an egregious semantic blunder or an intentional attempt to block further discussion with impossible concepts.
Others have answered the question how the 3-day death of Jesus covers the “deserved” eternal damnation of sinners with the following.
A: God’s love for Jesus is infinite.
(I’ve also heard this on many occasions.)
This is logically incoherent. Love can only be complete, not infinite. Perhaps claiming the love of your God is a “perfect love” is logically coherent since it simply means it is not deficient in any way, but claiming the love of your God is “infinite” is logically absurd. Along what dimension can love extend to be assessed quantitatively?
Yet the term “infinite” is constantly invoked by theists when they find their theology backed into a logical corner.
This blunder (or intentional mendacity) does reflect well on their claims to possess the truth.
How has the most intimate act of affection also come to reflect extreme hatred and contempt? The utterance “F*** you!” or flipping someone off with a middle finger is now the go-to response when wanting to indicate your anger or hatred. And I’ve been guilty of it too. But I’ve never been comfortable with it. The sex act is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced, and referencing that thing of beauty when wanting to insult someone seems not just a little odd. I’ve been reflecting on the possible reasons why the phase and the gesture referring to this thing of wonder has become so pervasively applied in contexts of contempt.
The origin seems simple enough. There was a shameful time when pillaging and rape were tactics of war. You raped someone for whom you had no affection out of contempt for them and the men of their culture. This atrocious act was frequently practiced for millennia.
So are those that invoke the sex act to insult others potential rapists? Continue reading
“I love you.”
This phrase is said millions of times a minute around the world in various languages.
But when you look at the phrase, it is very binary. It would appear from the phrase that either you love someone or you don’t. We know that is not true. We understand that, while the phrase “I love you” is binary, the underlying concept of love lies on a gradient. We love someone in degrees. We usually ignore the inadequacy of language, and simply accept the fact that the person who tells us they love us loves us to a degree that warrants a confession of that love.
It becomes a bit trickier when making statements of belief.
We often make statements such as “It will rain today”, knowing full well there is at least a small change it may not. We don’t apologize for our slight doubt, and people don’t normally shame us if it turns out that there was no rain. We could always preface our statements with “There is an extremely high probability that…”, but most people in the language community do not require this outside of scientific contexts where precision is of importance.
So language is granular while many of the concepts Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- “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.