Archives for posts with tag: language

I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the fallacy of equivocation. To commit the fallacy of equivocation is a somewhat formal and precise way of saying you have made an error in the way you used a word, specifically with regard to the sense in which you treat its denotative meaning. You might think that this sort of thing is of importance only to intellectuals dwelling among the clouds in firmly shuttered ivory towers, but you would be badly mistaken in this opinion.

If we render it in terms more familiar to the large segment of the population concerned with things like getting enough money to make the rent, or whether or not that cute person is going to call you back, it is most simply expressed by saying that it is a form of lying. It can occur through apathy or by being unclear on what a word means, but most often the cause is that on some level the person who is equivocating wants either to avoid the discomfort of saying something right out, or evade the consequences of speaking plainly–usually manifesting themselves as someone telling them to take their opinion and place it where the sun does not shine.

In other words: the fallacy of equivocation is usually a deliberate misrepresentation intended to get someone else what they want out of you without you objecting to it. This is, as all fallacies are, either the result of intellectual dishonesty or ignorance, either of which is to be pinned down and gotten rid of with a quickness.

The easiest way to avoid accidentally engaging in this fallacy is be sure of your definitions, and be sure you do not use a word in more than one way at a given time. The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, look it up. It matters not at all how smart you are or the degree to which your erudition regularly attracts the adulation and approval of your peers–if you are not sure, look it up. If you are writing anything of consequence, your work will not suffer irrecoverably with the loss of five seconds spent consulting with the Google. If nothing else, catch it  when you edit.

Some examples of this fallacy in action can be found at:

To avoid being fooled by this sort of language, ask a question to pin down the meaning of the statement. The easiest way to do this is by asking for or providing and asking for verification that the sense of the word you are thinking of is what is intended. If the person readily provides you with a more specific meaning, it was probably a mistake–even if it takes them awhile to figure out what specifically they meant to say. However, if all you get is weasel words and ambiguity, or the person tries to change the topic, you have most likely caught them with their hand in the Equivocational Cookie Jar.

This sort of thing is not just for eggheads: you should care about being clear and specific because this kind of thing leads to false expectations, anger, and misunderstandings that can potentially damage or destroy trust and relationships. If you have ever been disappointed by  politician, frustrated by someone who says one thing but does another and squeaks by on a technicality, or misunderstood because someone just assumed they knew what sense of a word you were using–this should matter to you.


Sorry for the delay, I know this is perhaps not the ideal start to my venture into the world of internet content creation, but in light of my desire to avoid copyright issues and my desire to make certain everything is of reasonable quality, I delayed myself drawing visual aids for and re-recording the episode.

I’m going to *aim* for weekly, but I care more about making sure that Friendly Contrapologist episodes are well put-together* than I do holding to a schedule whose tightness I did not realize when I proposed it–so I might fall to biweekly. In any event I will do my best, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Because I worked very hard (I am no artist and was working with a laptop trackpad) to create the visual aids, I would request of you that if you copy any of the images from the video, please give me attribution. As long as you are not trying to sell them as your own work, (though why you would do so with stick figures of dubious merit I have no idea,) it is probably covered in Fair Use.

Cheers, and here is this last/this week’s episode!

*Not professionally obviously, but not purely slapdash either. I hope the effort shows. 🙂


Episode #2: Natural vs Supernatural
Hello hello, and welcome to Contrapologist Int’l Studios. I am Contrapologist, your friendly neighborhood Atheist. In this episode, I want to continue with definitions, but first a quick note as a follow-up to last episode’s commentary on language:
    Words can have multiple shared meanings as well as having different meanings to each individual. So it is possible to get confused in yet another way by not knowing the “sense” in which someone is using a word.
    For example, if you are at the beach and someone says, “cool” yet the sun is beating down on you both, you probably understand them to be referring to something which is cool in the sense of entertaining and awesome rather than using “cool” in the sense of temperature.
    The example provides context, so you can figure it out. Another problem we run into in speaking of complex and important things is that everyone has different context cues, so your view of reality might affect the way you interpret what someone else is attempting to communicate.
    I see this a lot from religious people who translate, “I’m an atheist” into, “I hate God!” or translate, “I support the separation of church and state” into, “I want to deny you your religious freedom!” While I cannot and will not claim to speak universally for all atheists, I personally have no particular feelings about any god or gods in the same way the average churchgoer has no particular feelings about Zeus, Odin, Shiva, Osiris, Epona, Amaterasu, Wotan, Marduk, the Great Spirit, Svarog, Quetzacoatl, and so on and so forth practically ad infinitum.
    So you must always keep in mind that your default way of understanding, be you atheistic or religious, might not be the intended ‘sense’ of the word. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. “
Back to business.

Natural — When we speak of “nature” we mean essentially all phenomenon that occur in the world that are, at least in principle, accessible to us in some way. For example, anything on the Earth is natural, so is space, all the planets, stars, and so on. A galaxy we can’t see is still natural because it is possible for us to fly a rocket there, at least in theory. It might take a few hundred thousand years to get there, but it isn’t impossible.
    I know this might seem like splitting hairs, but I want to be very precise about what I mean by natural. A car, a watch, a skyscraper: these are all natural in this sense of the word that we must use when we make use of the natural-supernatural dichotomy. They are natural in the sense that they exist independently of individual human perception and conform to what we call the laws of reality.

Supernatural — This word just means “Beyond the natural.” The trouble with it is that any time anything exists in the natural world, it is instantly defined as natural. So for something to be supernatural it has to be inaccessible to our senses and experience. Essentially this means that any time you claim something is supernatural, you are also implicitly admitting that you cannot know anything about it.
    I’ll re-state this with an example so it makes more sense. Let’s say you want to claim we have souls and that souls are supernatural, and so therefore we can interact with the supernatural. As soon as you claim that souls are a detectable part of reality or in any way connected to reality, they have become natural–not supernatural. Therefore if you can interact with the supernatural, it is not supernatural but natural, and therefore accessible to science at least in principle. In other words, if there are supernatural rabbits, and you claim to have seen one, you exist in the natural world, so you must have seen a natural phenomenon we do not yet understand and not a supernatural one.
    Now, it is also possible to maintain that there are natural and supernatural dimensions, but if you make that assumption and maintain that we have souls, you have to at some point be making a fairly self-absorbed and arrogant assumption about yourself. Namely, if we all have souls and you can interact with the supernatural due to your soul, then why can we not ALL interact with the supernatural, and do so under laboratory conditions?
    To summarize, if we use natural and supernatural together, the sense of those words that allows it and lets them fit together is necessarily that natural means anything humans can experience while we are alive, and supernatural means anything we cannot experience while alive.

That’s all for today from your friendly neighborhood atheist, Contrapologist. Thanks for listening.

There are a lot of people in the world. About is 7.036 billion, actually [USCB]. If we assume we can get to know someone in a cursory 30 second chat, assuming we all spoke the same language, it would take about 6700 years for everyone to meet and greet everyone else even if we assume rigid 30 second time periods, no time for sleep, no eating or drinking (or at least none that interferes with talking) and instant switching from one partner to the next.

Even if we allowed for a mere 3 seconds for changeover between each conversation, that would still tack on another 660 years. Giving everyone eight hours of sleep would tack on another 2300 years or so. Giving everyone an hour time to bathe, brush their teeth, and so forth is good for another 290 or so. Grand total: 9950 years–and that’s still assuming that say, robots are doing all the labor to sustain our industries, agriculture, and the giant conveyor belt never, ever breaks down and always functions perfectly.

The result is that, if humans lived for ten thousand years, and everyone did nothing but meet other people, we would still spend 99.995% of our lifetimes meeting other people. This also assumes, of course, that the birthrate is zero. But let’s divide it instead by the average human lifespan of 69.6 years [World Bank]. The result is about 143–yes, that means that if you had 143 average human lifetimes, you might be able to have a single, thirty-second conversation with every person *currently* alive on the planet as of this instant.

Obviously, then, anyone proposing a system by which we base our actions exclusively on personal relationships would be laughed out of town by anyone who had thought about it for longer than about five minutes. Some kind of compromise has to be made, and our rather curious brains, having evolved as they did to help us maintain relationships among comparatively small social groups of primates, provide us with a surprisingly functional but somewhat problematic solution.

Stereotyping: This brilliant shortcut lets us establish correlative relationships between superficially similar things, which has obvious benefits. If you see someone eat a brightly colored frog and die, you are more than likely going to benefit from avoiding the consumption of the whole category of brightly colored frogs. If say, you are living in a tribe among others and the possibility of violent conflict exists, you are more likely than not to benefit from associating their phenotypical features, clothing, language, and mannerisms with danger or at least the unknown of which you should be wary. So on, and so forth.

Where we start to get into trouble is that while these correspondences are easy to establish, they are difficult to break without a great deal of effort. The mechanisms themselves are quite intricate, and as a I am no neuroscientist I will not attempt to explain them, but the upshot is that what is in actuality a useful approximation can be unintentionally conflated with a bit of guaranteed predictive information. This actually would not even be a problem if a “stereotype” was established with an arbitrary but large degree of precision and applied only with respect to things that met the specific definitions, but that would be antithetical to the purpose of our rather fuzzy system of categorizations.

They are of value specifically because they allow us to benefit from prior knowledge even when dealing with novel situations. Learning by analogy might be the best use we have for these ‘fuzzy’ correspondences. Math, science, and art all rely on establishing correspondences to our previous experience and constructing mental tools of ever-increasing complexity.

A very young child can be said to be starting on mathematics when they establish the line of demarcation between a single discrete object and a group of them. The child continues by learning the words that correspond to specific discrete quantities and learns to place them in order, learning to count from one to two, two to three, and so on. From there it’s a hop, skip, and jump to addition. Subtraction is only addition in reverse, multiplication only addition of group quantities. When we divide, we are splitting a quantity into groups and the problem can be framed as a ratio with fractions. All math problems inherently possess at least one variable, and algebra is just learning to break up a single problem into smaller discrete parts and manipulate those parts. Once we have that, we can look at the relationships between real world shapes and equations with geometry.

When we look closely at a story, the fuzzy correspondences are being made use of any time something happens in the text that we have not personally experienced. When Cervantes’ Don Quixote charges the giants, explosions of neurochemicals construct the notional realities of the errant knight’s tale–he is able to charge the great four-armed beasts never seen on Earth because we have had the experience both of seeing something and having been mistaken and having felt something we wanted to be true even if cold reality stonily folded its arms. We are Sancho Panza, observing Quixote with bemused, if phlegmatic, marvel. We have never been in these situations, but nevertheless a string of correlations forms the connective tissue that allows us to use language to grasp something of value and meaning from the story.

I submit, therefore, that the problem with stereotypes is only that they underlie so much of our accomplishment both as individuals and as a species, that we forget sometimes to confine them to their proper category–probabilistic approximations  useful only in providing a general estimate that allows us to act without freezing, but that can and very often are imprecise, inaccurate, or even outright mistaken. If we remain willing to juggle people between our categories, shift those categories around, re-write their boundaries, or even dispose of them entirely if we find too much evidence against them–we will not go too far afield to treat our fellow humans decently even if we do not know them personally.

Today I’ll be posting the first in a series of short videos aimed at providing an approachable, reasonable, and generally friendly introduction to critical thinking. It will probably be redundant for some people, but I hope it will be beneficial to theists trying to understand atheists, and to people who might be questioning their own beliefs and looking for some way to get traction on the issues.


Transcript below:
Episode #1: Why should I care about language?
    Hello, dear viewer. Thank you for giving me a bit of your time. In the interest of of avoiding wasting any of it, I will simply say: let’s begin.
    First, a bit on language. There are many languages, about seven thousand at the moment. Depending on how you define them, there might even be thousands or tens of thousands more, but the thing we have to understand about what we call a “language” is that it all boils down to this: a language is a pseudo-fixed reference point by which we can communicate by reference to shared meanings.
    So to communicate about quite literally anything, we absolutely must share definitions to as close to perfectly as we can. In the interest of ensuring that you understand what I am trying to communicate, I am going to do my best to lay out the definition of some terms that are commonly used. Please be aware that as a person with an English Literature degree, language is what I do, I value it and I value communication immensely. So I will be making reference to dictionaries, which are the physical representation of our shared meanings.
    If by any chance you feel that my definition does not match yours, that is perfectly fine, but remember that if you want to communicate with me, or anyone else, you are obligated to provide a definition for the terms you use if it varies in any degree from the “standard”.  That isn’t to say that the standard is the end-all be-all–deviation from the standard is fine so long as you explain exactly how you differ from it so we can all communicate effectively.
    In short, if a spade is a spade, but by “spade” you mean “milkshake” it is your responsibility to tell everyone else, “hey when I say the word spade, I mean what you think of as a milkshake”.

Now to definitions of some basic terms:
Atheist — An atheist is a person who holds no positive belief in a god or gods. That is all the word means. You can expand and get more detail by asking whether they hold the “strong” or “weak” atheist position.
    Weak Atheist — Also called “negative” or “soft” atheism.
    This position, shared by the majority of atheists, is that while an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, neither is it evidence of presence. In other words, if you make a claim and show me no evidence, I am simply choosing NOT to believe. It can never be said that the weak atheist position requires faith because it is literally the negation of faith–it is the ‘default’ position. No weak atheist claims to be able to prove a God or gods or transcendent magical sky fairies do not, in fact, exist–a weak atheist simply says they choose to act as though these things do not exist until a preponderance of evidence can be produced to show that they most likely do.
    Strong Atheist — Also called “positive” or “hard” atheism.
    This rare and bizarre position is that a god or gods do not exist and that this is definite. Virtually no atheist holds this position. Let me say it again: virtually no atheist holds this position, because it is also a position that requires belief. Curiously, for some reason most religious folks seem to think that this position is what all atheists ‘believe’. For the obvious reason, the vast majority of atheists do not hold this position because it is a position that is not based on evidence. It cannot be emphasized enough that saying that all atheists hold this position is outright untrue and on par with saying that all black people are thugs, all white people are Nazis, all Americans are obese, or all French people are cowards. It simply is not true.

Agnostic — Where “atheist” deals with belief in a god or gods, agnostic is a word that deals with knowledge. So it is quite possible to be an agnostic atheist, and in fact the majority of atheists are in fact agnostic atheists: they readily admit that they simply do not possess the knowledge to claim that a God or gods exist or do not exist. The problem that this term creates is that the religious often claim that they DO know and will try to get weak atheists to admit that it’s possible a god or gods exist, then try to put a probability on it.
    This is silly for a couple of reasons: first, it is essentially a category error. Because the supernatural is by definition not accessible by humans since we are part of the natural world, trying to put a probability on the existence of a being that we cannot have any knowledge of is like trying to assign a probability to whether love is blue. It is possible to state in words, but the proposition is meaningless. The set of things we know absolutely nothing about and can know nothing about is not capable of having the property of being probable or improbable. It simply is not possible–it could be that God is the noses of undetectable duck-billed platypuses–but we cannot really assign it a probability.
    Second, even if we could assign a probability, the incredibly vast preponderance of evidence is that no supernatural force intervenes in the natural world. So any probability we assign would be vanishingly low. I’ll talk more about this in a future episode.

Deist — I include this for completeness. A Deist is a person who believes in a god, but is agnostic about that god. In other words, while they believe that a supernatural force created reality, they do not believe that they can know anything about that force. This absolutely rules out any Abrahamic tradition like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. and also rules out Shiva, Zeus, Thor, so on, so forth. Nothing whatsoever can be known about the attributes of the supernatural creator if you want to qualify as a Deist. This is not to say they can have no beliefs, but they admit that they cannot know it as an absolute truth.

That’s all for today from your friendly neighborhood Contrapologist. Thanks for listening.