Elsewhere I’ve written about the tendency of religious believers, such as occultists, to mistake the idea of absolute knowledge for actual, tentative knowledge (read all about this subject here).
We can see this tendency clearly when religious believers turn to the argument from definition to defend their stupid beliefs. In this argument, they confuse their idea of a word’s definition (or, rather, what they think a word’s definition should be) with the way that the word is actually used.
It is useful to recall that dictionaries don’t create meaning. They record usage. Language is a living thing, evolving over time. As an obvious example, the word “gay” no longer means what it did a hundred years ago. In fact, the word “gay” often does not have the same meaning that it had even twenty years ago: in some idioms, “gay” has become a pejorative largely disconnected from literal homosexuality (a point amusingly illustrated on The Simpsons when Nelson’s friends declare, upon seeing him kiss Lisa, “Dude, you just kissed a girl! That’s so gay!”).
Let’s use the distinction between the current usage of this word and its denotation. Let's say a religious believer’s child tells him, “Dad, I’m gay. I’m attracted to members of the same sex.” I can pretty much guarantee that nobody in that situation would respond, “No, you’re not! It says in the dictionary that ‘gay’ means ‘happy,’ so therefore you can’t be attracted to members of the same sex!”
Obviously, no one is stupid enough to say that. Yet strangely, when the word in question is “atheism” or “materialism,” the same people who would never dream of making the above dumb response make even dumber responses.
This post looks at the stupidity created by the argument from definition and how believers use it in their quest to pay attention to their ideas about reality instead of reality itself.
It’s no secret that atheists are in the extreme minority and have been throughout history. That means that pretty much all dictionaries were written by believers, who got to define the word “atheism” as they saw fit.
Most dictionaries define atheism something along the lines of “The belief that there is no God.” Some dictionaries even phrase it something like “The denial of God” (a definition that, obviously, assumes that there is such a being). An older, archaic meaning, included in some dictionaries still, is “immorality.”
Yet a point that I have made again and again on this blog is that atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of a belief in gods. In the same way, materialism is the lack of a belief in worlds other than the material.
This is how practically all atheists and materialists, with whom I am acquainted, use those words. It’s irrelevant whether some dictionary or another defines these words as beliefs. Most people who call themselves atheists or materialists don’t use the word to signify a belief. They use it to signify the lack of a belief.
This isn’t just some semantic game, either. There’s a huge practical difference between “I believe there are no gods” and “I lack belief in gods.”
As an example that might be easier to grasp, consider a coin flip. If you flip a coin and conceal the result from me and then ask me if I think it’s heads, there’s a huge difference between “I believe it’s not heads” and “I lack the belief that it’s heads.” The former statement is a declaration that I am convinced, somehow, that the coin is not heads up and is therefore tails. The latter statement simply affirms that I have not been convinced that it’s heads, and it tells us nothing about what I think of the claim that the coin is tails. I might equally lack belief that the coin is tails (which, in that situation, I would).
But very often, in discussions with religious people, they try to tell me what I *must* believe as an atheist. They make arguments like the following:
An atheist is someone who says he KNOWS FOR SURE that there is no god! So if you’re an atheist, then you must have absolute knowledge of the universe! Do you know everything about the universe? Of course you don’t! So your position is dumb! Checkmate, atheists!
This is a common believer script: the believer uses one particular definition of a word to tell the non-believer what the non-believer *must* believe, and then the believer argues against the definition instead of what the non-believer actually says.
Over on the Thelemic Fruitcake Factory (also known as The Temple of Thelema Forums) a poster who calls himself “Aion” gives us a striking example of this stupid argument [Note: this is the guy who used to call himself “Bereshith” and then “Legis” for a while. I'm kind of hoping his next name will be "Dumbass Formerly Known as Bereshith"]
On a discussion thread about materialism, he said the following:
I admit the weaknesses of my own argument and point to the unadmitted (or unknown) weaknesses of [Los’] own [argument]. Both perspectives have weaknesses. This is nothing new to me.
Although I readily agree that Aion’s stupid arguments have weaknesses, I correctly pointed out in the thread that he never “point[s] to” any weaknesses in my arguments. He just baldly asserts that such weaknesses exist without ever even naming them.
In response, Aion says to me that “it is worthless to attempt to suggest your axioms to you” because “you are either unfamiliar with the logical foundation of your own position, or you are refusing to own it and say it yourself as the result of a defensive posture.”
He further states that “I have far more respect for real, actual Materialists than I have for your partially understood, almost entirely rhetorical jumble of an argument.” And he follows this up by saying “you have not studied the philosophical grounding of your epistemology at all.”
In other words, this “Aion” character defines materialism as involving the acceptance of certain axioms, and instead of actually dialoguing with me about what my position actually is, he simply insists that I must accept whatever axioms he’s talking about if I’m a materialist. If I don’t accept those axioms, then I therefore am no true materialist.
As we can clearly see, this buffoon is paying attention to his ideas about what words must mean and what a “materialist” must believe – his attention is on his ideas about definition, not on reality.
Of course, I don’t know what “axioms” he has in mind because he refused to state clearly what he thought the “logical foundation of [my] own position” actually is. Probably he was just talking out of his ass, as usual, and knew that I would humiliate him once again if he tried to clarify his gibberings.
The kicker, though, is this post, where he posts an actual *script* for how he wants our conversation to go:
This is how the conversation you are attempting to avoid goes:
"Only that which is detectable may be said to be real."
"Can things that are not matter or energy be detected?"
"No. There is insufficient evidence for anything that is not detectable as matter or energy."
"So, only matter and/or energy are able to be detected?"
"So only matter and/or energy may be said to be 'real.'"
"But only matter and/or energy are detectable by that standard."
"So only that which is detectable (matter and/or energy) may be said to be real (matter and/or energy)."
= "Only matter and energy may be said to be matter and energy."
= "Only the material is material."
Closed logical loop.
And there we have it, folks. A literal believer script, delivered from the mouth of a believer. This kid has in his head an idea of how the conversation is supposed to go, based on his definition.
I’ve noticed that most religious believers have scripts that they follow, but never until this post has one actually done me the courtesy of spelling out what the script is. Who needs to go through the trouble of demonstrating a flaw in your opponent's thought process when you can just use your definition of his position to reason out what his thought process must be and then craft that thought process as a circular argument?
Good ol' argument from definition. It sure beats critical thinking, eh?
Another example of the argument from definition appeared on some blog where a guy who calls himself “Acratophorus” (Jesus Christ, what is it with these weirdos and their bombastic names?) insisted that materialism is a belief.
I objected that I’m a materialist, that I use the word to signify that I *lack* belief in worlds other than the material, that the material world obviously does exist, and that the burden of proof lies with the one who claims that something *more* than the material world exists.
For my patient troubles to educate him, this “Acratophorus” dingbat repays me by telling me that “most modern materialists don’t really understand the genealogy of their own belief system” (echoing Aion above), that the people I know who use “materialist” in the way that I do must not be very smart, and that I’m “stinking up his blog” with my ideas.
You notice, of course, that he never responds to the point that he has a burden of proof that he has not met.
If he wanted to, he could give an argument for why he doesn’t have a burden of proof in this case. Or he could accept that he has a burden of proof and provide evidence. He doesn’t do any of that – he just shuts down the conversation on the grounds that I’m not using his preferred definition.
Could it be that…he’s incapable of responding to the points that I raised? If so, finding the flimsiest excuse for dismissing my points does seem like a pretty strategic move on his part.
You’ll notice that in these examples, the believers are not interested in engaging with the actual arguments. They’re content to remain in a meta-argument, arguing about the process of arguing – and trying to make things fit their preconceived definitions – in the hope that we’ll all forget about the actual argument and their inability to address it.
One final example. This one comes from a blog post I stumbled across the other day, one about science, religion, and Thelema (an intersection of topics that is right up my alley). It was posted by an "Izi Ningishizidda," and I have no idea who that is.
Unfortunately, the post is literally insane. She ends up arguing that “Homo sapiens sapiens is getting very close to extinction. […] We have a few years, at the most, before human life ends,” and that in the present “Aeon” what is “actually going to happen” is not “that far off” from the future depicted in the Terminator films, complete with “Killer robots, dystopian patriarchy and motorcycle gangs” (and here I thought Skynet wasn’t going to become self-aware for a while yet….). Luckily, Ningishizidda assures us that this grim future “could be a good thing for Homo sapiens sidus (the term I coined to refer to the emerging subspecies of star humans who don’t quite have all of their genes together yet)”
Ah, yes, the star humans. Hooray for them, I suppose.
So anyway, the article is completely loopy, and spending much time addressing it would just be dignifying it way beyond the level that it deserves. But it takes an interesting twist on the argument from definition, one that is worth mentioning here.
Ningishizidda disingenuously quotes Carl Sagan, making sure to put these words in large letters:
“An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.” – Carl Sagan
Then Ningishizidda says this: “at least Carl Sagan declared atheism as “stupid””
And, of course, Ningishizidda has totally and completely missed the point. In that quote, the famous atheist Carl Sagan is discussing one particular definition of “atheism.” To take that and to try to spin it as some assault upon not-believing-in-gods as a whole is to miss the substance and to focus instead on the words.
Sagan is precisely right in that quote. There are “some definitions” of atheism that are stupid. For example, to define atheism as "Absolute knowledge that there are no gods whatsoever" is absurd, for the simple fact that nobody can have absolute knowledge of anything.
Luckily, practically no atheists define the word this way.
Sagan, of course, famously did not believe in any gods or the supernatural. Ann Druyan's discussion of her life with Sagan – and how their rejection of supernatural claims like the existence of an afterlife enriched their appreciation of their relationship – is authentically moving:
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.
This is a beautiful sentiment, and the way that supernaturalists try to co-opt Sagan's words to make it sound like he's criticizing non-belief in the supernatural is absolutely disgusting. People who use Sagan's quote in this way should be ashamed of themselves.
Like a lot of people, Sagan simply wasn’t comfortable with the word “atheist” as a label for himself, mistakenly thinking – perhaps encouraged by those dictionaries I mentioned earlier – that atheism is some absolute belief.
It’s not. Sagan was an atheist, just like everyone else who doesn’t believe in gods. Atheism, as I’m using it, is not a claim to absolute knowledge but a statement that one is unconvinced of god claims.
As we step back from the examples I’ve given – three loons in the loony-toon conference that is the world – we can see that all of them are more interested in words – in their ideas about what words must mean – than in engaging with actual arguments.
And this, of course, should be expected. If they made a sincere attempt to engage with the arguments and if they employed a shred of intellectual honesty, they wouldn’t be able to hold onto their delusive beliefs for long. But for the time being their delusions are safe, guarded from critical analysis by their focus on ideas about reality instead of reality itself, manifesting in this case in the ever-popular believer script called the argument from definition.
So the next time you're having a discussion with someone, ask them what they mean and respond to what they say, not what you think they have to say in order to accord with your preconceived ideas. Pay attention to what they're saying -- to what is -- and not to the world that only exists between your ears.