Basic Orientation
Book1: R-E Living & "Homo Rationalis"
Book2: Humanianity
Book3: Mind-Body Problem
Book4: (Future Possible Development)
Child Rearing Issues
Philosophico-Religious Issues
01 Science And?/Versus? Religion
02 Dear God,...(And "To Jesus")
03 Are You Spiritual (Like I Am)?
04 Latest Bible Update
05 The Concept of the "Model"
06 Humanoblasts & Humanaoclasts
07 Definitions - Blah, Blah, Blah
Psycho-Socio-Cultural Issues
The Twelve Articles
Relevant Autobiography



I once posted this on the message board of the Charlotte Philosophy Discussion Group:

In our 11/2/08 meeting, there was dissatisfaction regarding attempts at definition. The main culprit was myself. A hasty trial was held, and I think the majority found me guilty. However, I really don't think I received a fair trial, so I thought I would appeal.

My case is:

1 - Contrary to popular thought, I believe definition to be extremely important for the clarification of thought and the attainment of accuracy of belief.

2 - What one observes in much discussion is an endless wandering of poorly related ideas, with never anyone changing his or her mind or seeming to benefit much beyond perhaps having an increased impression that one is right and that others are limited intellectually, since they don't agree.

3 - Our species will have to change regarding its lack of respect for accuracy of belief and its lack of openness to discovery of error in one's own (as opposed to others') thinking, if we are to save ourselves from rapidly approaching overwhelming disaster (as described rather well in McLaren's Everything Must Change).


There is not a single thing that we can accomplish that does not involve some degree of agreement. Lack of agreement produces paralysis of action, at least unless there is agreement as to what to do in the case of lack of agreement. If there is no agreement at all, we die.

But we can easily die, or at least be subject to pain, suffering, and disability, if what we agree to is inaccurate. Inaccurate beliefs lead to mistakes. Widespread agreement with regard to inaccurate beliefs can lead to disaster (and frequently has).

But how can we agree? Whatever else it involves, it generally happens that our beliefs are put into words, made into sentences, or propositions. Two people consider the same sentence and then decide if they believe what the sentence states. If they both believe the same sentence, then they agree. If one does and the other doesn't, they don't. Or so it would seem. BUT…

If the words in the sentence mean different things to the two people, they may think they agree, and say they agree, but actually have different beliefs. Or they may think that they disagree, when actually they agree.

So the only way there can be confidence in the belief that the two people do indeed agree is if they have confidence that the words mean the same to both.

There are those who believe that the meanings of words are a scientific fact, that one needs to engage in armchair careful thought or empirical study to find out what the "real" meaning of a word is. The problem is that words, at least non-technical ones, did not arise in some systematic way. Any particular word may have several denotations and some rather vague connotations. Political speeches are successful primarily due to the connotations. (I don't recall a politician having ever defined a word he or she was using, though perhaps it has happened.) Many words gradually accumulate in the brain during childhood. And we "gradually learn" the meanings of words, or "concepts."

So the problem is that we can talk forever and never accomplish any mutual understanding, perhaps about things for which such mutual understanding is crucial to avoid mistake and even catastrophe.

But since there are often multiple possible meanings for the words we use, with none being necessarily the "correct" one (unless we are talking about a technical word that does indeed have an agreed upon definition, at least among those who use it in the relevant technical field), there is much value in making sure that key terms in a discussion are being used in the same way by all in the discussion. Therefore, especially when there is disagreement, or the suspicion of disagreement, checking to make sure that everyone is using the same definition before proceeding makes good sense.

In our group the suggestion was made to, yes, go ahead and define terms for the purposes of the discussion, but then go on with the discussion, rather than getting bogged down about the definition itself.

Well that would seem right at first glance, BUT, definitions can be tricky, primarily because of the ambiguity and possible connotations of the words used in the definitions.

Examples of obviously tricky definitions:

A theist is someone crazy enough to believe there is a God.

An atheist is someone evil enough to be Godless.

Examples of somewhat less obviously tricky definitions:

A theist is someone who acknowledges the existence of God.

An atheist is someone who denies the existence of God.

Part of the trickiness of tricky definitions is the tendency to have something included in them through connotation that supports that which the person is trying to "prove" or advocate for.

A good definition would be one that did only one thing, namely, clarify for those involved what a particular word is to stand for, for the purposes of that discussion.

So my point is that it could well turn out that there would need to be discussion about a proposed definition, to make sure it was a good one and didn't have tricks in it (beknownst or unbeknownst to the person proposing the definition).

But it is not at all infrequent that people use words with very vague meanings in endless discussions.

In our group, we often hear the word "rational" (and related words, such as "rationality" and "irrational"). I gave my definition that I use when I use the word, but no one else did, that I can remember. My impression was that the presence of emotion was considered by some an indicator of irrationality. Sometimes, "irrational" seems to mean "contradictory to what I believe strongly."

I use the term "rational" to mean pertaining to the legitimization criterion of belief that requires, insofar as possible, consistency with the rules of logic and the rules of evidence. The rules of logic are those procedural rules taught in any textbook of logic. The rules of evidence are those procedural rules that scientists follow for experimental design and statistical analysis, taught in a basic way in books about the philosophy of science. (Rules of logic provide for internal consistency of belief. Rules of evidence provide for accuracy of belief, that is, the ability of belief to produce predictions that turn out to be accurate, or correct. Both are necessary to maximize avoidance of mistake. Rules of evidence are built upon the assumption that the involved beliefs are consistent with the rules of logic, that is, non-contradictory.)

(Some of you know that I regard our having achieved the discovery of, and the consequent growing use of, the rules of logic and the rules of evidence to be the second exponential change that our species has undergone, making us drastically different from all other species and from the way we were before the change accelerated over the past 2-3000 years, and especially over the past 2-300 years. It was made possible by the much earlier first exponential change, the development of the essentially infinite ability to use symbols and the rules of syntax. First came language, then science and technology. And with these wonderful tools we will either kill ourselves or save ourselves, depending upon how successful we will be in achieving the third exponential change.)

So, I rest my case. At least my intentions were good, don't you think?