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BrassButtons
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PostSubject: Words vs Facts   Tue Apr 26, 2011 8:45 pm

I enjoy debating. Ever since I started posting on forums it has been one of my favorite pastimes. I'm always trying to become better at formulating arguments and using logic, which is why awhile back I began reading "Straight and Crooked Thinking" by Robert Thouless. The book is a very worthwhile read for anyone interested in logic and debate, however I only want to discuss one of Thouless' points which I've been thinking a lot about--that of words vs. facts.

Many debates are, on their surface, debates about facts. "Are videogames art?" is one I see frequently on another forum. If you look a little closer though, you see that the disagreement actually has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with words. In order to determine if videogames fit the criteria to be art you must first define what "art" is--and this is as far as that particular discussion ever goes. If everyone agreed on a definition there would be no debate. Similarly if everyone merely accepted the differing definitions ("under his definition they are, under mine they aren't") then there would be no debate. It is nothing more than a semantics argument.

Yet even when this is pointed out the debate will continue, and people will still speak as though they are arguing over facts rather than the definition of a word. This is extremely evident if you look at any debate regarding Objectivism. Rand had a tendency to use uncommon definitions of words, and she made a point to clarify exactly what definition she was using. Despite this people will argue against Objectivism based on their own definitions of the terms. For instance Rand held altruism (which she defined as giving up something of value for something of lesser or no value) as a bad thing. People argue that she is wrong because altruism (which they define as being charitable to the less fortunate) is a good thing. The disagreement is not over the philosophy, but the word usage. Yet even when the difference in definition is made clear people will continue to argue over whether or not Rand was right to condemn altruism, and they will do so using the same definitions they had at the start.

Something to keep in mind is that not all arguments over definitions are purely about semantics. Sometimes a disagreement over words is also a disagreement over facts. If there is a reason to use a specific definition of a term then deviating from that definition is not merely a case of semantics, but of equivocation. If one person says "the Theory of Evolution is true" while another says that it is false because it is "just a theory" this is not a case of people arguing over words rather than facts. The first person is using "theory" as a technical term with a specific, non-debatable definition. The "theory" in "Theory of Evolution" can only mean what the scientific definition says it means. The person saying it is "only a theory" is making a factually incorrect argument about what a scientific theory is. In this case what appears to be a disagreement over words is actually a disagreement over facts.

So why is it so difficult to recognize the difference between factual debates and semantics? And why, once the difference is made clear, will so many people continue to debate as though the disagreement over word usage were actually a disagreement over facts and ideas? It accomplishes nothing. No questions get answered, no misunderstandings get corrected, no agreements are reached. I understand that debating can be fun, but in such cases there isn't actually anything to debate. Either everyone involved agrees to use a particular definition and the discussion moves from there, or they don't agree and the discussion stagnates. Why does the second possibility seem to be so much more common?
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IMagius
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Wed Apr 27, 2011 1:01 am

Why? In my personal experience, (and I am one that will commonly not agree to a specific definition of a certain term, for a specific point within a larger scope) it's because far too many people will start that "what if" game. They will break a larger debate into much smaller pieces, use their own very specific definitions of certain terms, and while I may agree with their point for that specific case I know it is contrary in view of the larger picture.

And there is where the trouble begins. Break a "large" debate topic into little pieces, and there is a very good chance that I will agree with 50% or more of the small pieces. But if I know who I am debating with, and how they debate, I will refuse to agree based on their debatign methods. Far too often, they will move on to a few other specific points, then "use my words against me" when ti comes to summing up the debate as a whole.

And that's just wrong in my opinion. There are probably plenty of things relating to Hitler that I might agree with, but that doesn't mean I agree with him and his reign of terror in the larger picture. Yet, with some people, because I may have agreed with one or two of the methods he employed, that will extend that agreement to all of his methods. And when I try to correct them, they fall back to the "But you said ..." routine - never actually listening to what I say and using a single "Yes" as a "Yes" to an entirely different debate.

I have found it much simpler (less frustrating) to acknowledge their definitions, but maintain my "big picture" stance on the majority of the small picture points.

Yes, I acknowledge that their attempt to use my words out of context is "bad debate etiquette", and my refusal to play along with usually just antagonizes them, but until they play fair, I see no point in playing fair either Smile
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Wed Apr 27, 2011 2:34 am

The problem comes in the listening.

Quite often people will have a point of view about the topic being debated, and usually thats it as far as they're concerned. They will argue endlessly their point of view and their counter arguments against any opposing viewpoint is stated in such a way as to fit in to their original view, without actually questioning their original view.

In essence, people quite often simply do not listen. When someone is debating their view point the other is simply waiting for them to finish so they can have their turn.

People have an opinion about something and its usually very hard to get someone to think differently about the topic in relation to the "definition" of a particular word.

As I said - it is the listening.
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Wed Apr 27, 2011 11:12 pm

Another issue is getting people to recognize that they're arguing semantics. I know you said that you come out and say, quite literally, "Here's the definition she's using" BB, but the fact of the matter is that most people simply cannot comprehend a change in definitions. They deal with words as concretes, each with an iron-clad definition which cannot be altered. They forget that language is symbolic, meaning that a word STANDS FOR some concept. The word "two" is NOT 2, any more than the number is--it stands for the concept. Seems simple when you look at relatively simple concepts, but move on to such a concept as "art" and most people are simply incapable of comprehending that people have different definitions.

A perfect example: I have a very specific definition for the word stupid, which has been the same since I was very young (less than 10, I believe): one who doesn't know and actively avoids knowing. My older sister and I have known each other all my life, and the overwhelming majority of hers, and she knows, if you ask her, what my definition for stupid is. Yet every time I say "So-and-so is stupid", she fires back with a diatribe about how I can't simply insult people, and calling someone stupid isn't an argument, etc., ignoring nearly 20 years of knowledge. She knows intellectually what my definition is, but she can't understand it or use that definition.

Secondly, WFR: People are stupid. As StephenH said, they don't want to listen, they simply want to hammer you until you back down. It's not just definitions--check out the JREF forums to see many, many examples of this argument:

A: X is true!
B: No it isn't, here's proof.
A: X is true!
B: Here's more proof. No, it isn't.
A: You agree that X is true!
B: No....I said that's NOT true.....
A: Expert Y said X is true!
B: Did you read the paper? Because the conclusions clearly state X is false.
A: You never disproved X!
B: See Post 2 and 4.
and so on.

People only listen enough to find a chink in one's armor. It's particularly funny when it's a scientific debate, one which can actually be tested--these people actualy refuse to see Reality.

The more I think about it, the more I think the main issue here isn't words vs. facts, but rather order of operations. Properly, logic works by observatoin, evaluation, and then conclusion. Alternatively (once you've observed enough) you can forumlate multiple potential conclusions, then observe, then evaluate which conclusion is true. Most people, however, start with some conclusion (say, Rand is evil) and look for evidence to support this (out-of-context quotes, misquotes, blogs written by anti-Rand writers, etc). The people reach the conclusion BEFORE they apply logic to it, and a conclusion which is reached outside of logic can rarely be altered via logic. Words vs. facts is one aspect of this. The fact that people rely on fallacies is another. The prevalence of cherry-picking is another. And so on. They're all bad enough problems on their own, but are symptoms of a more serious problem: reaching the conclusion first, and THEN thinking about it.
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Wed Apr 27, 2011 11:47 pm

Good points Dinwar.

I tried to say something similar about people reaching a conclusion first.
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Thu Apr 28, 2011 12:24 am

I didn't read your post. Wink

(Sorry....Couldn't help myself....)
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Fri Jun 10, 2011 1:42 pm

While I agree with most of the comments above, I think that the dangers of using ideosyncratic definitions of words should be acknowledged. If I redefine a word in an unusual way and then use it in an argument then it will tend to cause confusion and opposition even if I begin by stating my definition.

This is partly because people find it difficult to suspend their usual understanding of a word, especially when that word is laden with significance (e.g. altruism or god). People are not stupid but they are emotional and can be inflexible.

More importantly, if I redefine a word, people will justifiably suspect my motives for doing so. Often, a term is redefined in order to strip it of certain aspects of its meaning as a prelude to discrediting it. In my opinion, this is how Dawkins treats the word "god" and, to a lesser extent, how both Dawkins and Rand treat the word "altruism". Rand's definition of altruism encompasses only a part of the meaning of the word as usually understood. Others may suspect (justifiably, in my opinion) that by attacking the term "altruism" as she redefines it, Rand is seeking to discredit the term as it is more usually defined.

Those who take pride in their ability to think analytically also have a tendency to treat words as if their subjective, emotional connotations are superfluous. This is also a case of oversimplification. Language is richly interwoven with emotional resonances and we ignore these deeper meanings of words at our peril.
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PostSubject: Re: Words vs Facts   Fri Jun 10, 2011 2:19 pm

StephenH wrote:
The problem comes in the listening.

Quite often people will have a point of view about the topic being debated, and usually thats it as far as they're concerned. They will argue endlessly their point of view and their counter arguments against any opposing viewpoint is stated in such a way as to fit in to their original view, without actually questioning their original view.

In essence, people quite often simply do not listen. When someone is debating their view point the other is simply waiting for them to finish so they can have their turn.

People have an opinion about something and its usually very hard to get someone to think differently about the topic in relation to the "definition" of a particular word.

As I said - it is the listening.
Sounds like something Terry would say.

I don't have any deep-seeded opinions of the topic at hand, but I do find the points made here interesting... and most importantly, they actually make sense! (Hooray for understanding!)

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Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass... it's about getting out there and dancing in the rain.

We should create a loop. That way when he gets back he can feel jealous that he's been out of it.
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