NOTE: I didn’t make this chart. I found it on Twitter, and thought it worth archiving here. It has been noted that this “no” may not be entirely unanimous, but it is nevertheless highly significant that the “lack of belief” definition of atheism has really made very little headway among professional scholars, except when they note it as a variant definition, which is highly contentious, and thus usually used only by those who are ideologically motivated in their arguments.
So, this has got to be my number one favorite atheist meme:
Basically, it tries to show how Jesus is an utterly derivative mythological figure, with almost all his legendary attributes being drawn from various mythological demigods before him.
I have to say, it would be pretty persuasive … if any part of it were true.
Unfortunately, not a bit of it is. It is basically an atheist fabrication from whole cloth from beginning to end.
Here are the refutations, if you want to go through them all. They are pretty interesting.
Probably the most interesting thing to know is that there are some parallels between Jesus and Krishna, but the dating in this meme is misleading. Krishna’s story in its original ancient form in he Mahabharata is only about 25 lines long and says almost nothing. It really gets filled out around 200 A.D.— definitely after Christianity had reached India, which it did in the time of the Apostles, with Saint Thomas journeying there and founding one of the earliest Churches, where he remained, and Saint Bartholomew making an extended journey there. Indeed, the oldest Christian church still in existence (in the sense of church building) is located in India.
Similarly, there actually is a story of Dionysus turning water into wine, but that part of the Dionysus story is post-Christian and is a borrowing from the Christian story, in a late pagan attempt to jazz Dionysus up to appeal to Christians or even pagans, who by then had mostly lost all interest in the old myths.
And then I made this for Twitter replies. I may as well stick it on the end here:
As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, some atheists are simply not intellectually serious. They may be very ignorant or uneducated, directly dishonest, deeply confused, ill-informed, willfully obtuse, ideologically dogmatic, or just plain stupid; the end result is the same: it is not possible or fruitful to have a serious, rational discussion about God with such people. Here are some red flags which may alert you that you are dealing with an intellectually dishonest atheist:
✅ 1. A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from a god or gods. This is a distinction 3 or 4-year-old children can easily grasp, so any atheist who claims not be be able to grasp it is either severely intellectually impaired or lying. In almost all cases, the atheist is simply attempting to conflate God with a god in order to set up a strawman and/or trying to annoy you by belittling God—while ignoring the basic conceptual distinction that all European languages mark by differentiating the word “God” from the word “god” by capitalization. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in the entry written by atheist philosopher J. J. C. Smart:
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy.
Theists have little to no interest in discussing gods, at least not when God is the topic of discussion. If an atheist wants to discuss gods, he is free to do so, but he cannot pretend talk of gods has any bearing on or relevance to a discussion about God.
✅ 1.1 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from such things as imaginary friends, faeries, wizards, spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, or other fabulous, fictitious, or mythological entities.
✅ 1.2 A persistent habit of paraphrasing religious ideas in ways which are deliberately ludicrous, derisive, or tendentious, e.g. describing the resurrected Christ as “a zombie,” or God as a “sky daddy.”
✅ 1.3 Persistent use of the fallacious “I just believe in one god less than you” rhetorical trope.
✅ 1.4 Persistent use of tendentious and irrelevant rhetorical mischaracterizations of Christianity, e.g. as “Bronze Age mythology.” Christianity, of course, dates from long after the so-called “metallic” ages, in fact from the prime of the Roman Empire, on of humanity’s civilizational high points. And Judaism, its precursor religion, derives almost entirely from the Iron Age up through historical times—not that the age of a teaching has any bearing whatever on its truth-value.
✅ 1.5 Persistent dishonest characterization of God as some kind of “cosmic tyrant” or “cosmic oppressor” (interestingly enough. the position of Satan).
✅ 1.6 Persistent dishonest characterization of God, especially in the Old Testament, as a moral monster.
✅ 1.7 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish miracles from magic, usually paired with a tendency to attribute magical powers to nature, e.g. in such claims as “the universe created itself out of nothing” or “properties such as consciousness just emerge out of unconscious matter, because they do.”
✅ 2.0 Belief in scientism, the logically incoherent claim that “only scientific knowledge is valid/real/genuine knowledge” or that “only science or the scientific method can establish the truth-value of propositions,” claims which are neither themselves scientific nor established by science, and hence, self-defeating, and which entail such absurdities as “no human being knew anything before Europeans in the 1600s.”
✅ 2.1 Persistent claims that science, which studies physical nature by means of empirical observation and quantitative measurement, has any bearing on the question of the existence of God, who is by definition, beyond nature, not empirical, and not measurable in terms of quantity. Persistent insistence that claims about God must be proven “scientifically” or that any evidence for God must be “scientific” fall into this category.
✅ 2.2 The claim that Galileo Galilei’s run-in with the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 proves (somehow) that there is some kind of natural antipathy between either (a) science and religion, or (b) science and Christianity, or (c) science and Catholicism. This indicates a complete ignorance of the history of the Galileo affair, and is merely a recycled weaponized meme of the early Enlightenment.
✅ 2.3 Use of the non sequitur that the multiplicity of religions proves that no religion is true, either wholly or in part. By this logic, of course, one may also “prove” that no scientific theory is or can be correct, wholly or in part, since there are always rival theories.
✅ 2.4 Claiming or assuming that the atheist, a finite being who is not all-knowing, is not all-powerful, is not all-wise, and is not all-good, nevertheless is in an epistemic position to know with certainty what an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good being would or would not do or have done.
✅ 2.5 The belief the atheist knows the true or real origin of religion in human pre-history, a matter which, since it occurs far in human pre-history, we have no certain knowledge of, but only conjecture.
✅ 2.6 The peculiar belief held by some atheists that their total ignorance with respect to God and divine matters is in fact an infallible indication of their intelligence or wisdom or knowledgeableness precisely about the things about which they know nothing.
✅ 2.7 Repeated assertion of the evidently false claim “there’s no evidence for God.”
✅ 3.0 Persistent use of the burden of proof fallacy, that is, the rhetorical trope which combines an argument from ignorance (“my position is the default position,” i.e. “my position is true until proven false, so I need not argue for it) with special pleading that the atheist be allowed to use arguments to ignorance in support of atheism (i.e. “atheism is true because I am totally ignorant about God or divine matters”).
✅ 3.1 Chronological bigotry, i.e. the absurd belief that human beings who lived prior to (say) Richard Dawkins were one and all somehow mentally inferior to anyone living today, up to and including the greatest minds of the past. This would also include the belief that all human beings in the past were incapable of skepticism or critical thinking, or were somehow exceptionally gullible or credulous in a way we, the Enlightened Moderns, are not.
✅ 3.2 “Arguments” that consist wholly of posting atheist memes, e.g. “Eric the God-Eating Penguin.”
✅ 3.3 “Arguments” that consist of no more than exercises in blasphemy or obscenity.
An atheist who goes by [theresidentskeptic] is one of many atheists who have demanded that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy change its definition of atheism to their preferred one, namely, the dishonest “lack of belief” definition. Here’s how the SEoP’s definition reads:
And here is [theresidentskeptic]’s email and Stanford’s reply:
I am constantly having your definitions of atheism and agnosticism regurgitated to me by people who don’t seem to understand what they mean and your authoritative definition completely muddies the waters.
Your definition which can be seen at the the following link states:
“‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.”
I am forced to point out to you that agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, not claims of belief. Why are you conflating the two? A belief necessarily deals with a single claim; God exists is one claim; God does not exist is another claim- or String theory is true is one claim; string theory is not true is another claim.
A cosmologist who does not know if either position about string theory is true would be considered an agnostic. The cosmologist then disbelieves claim 1; string theory is true, therefore, for lack of a better term, is an atheist with respect to string theory. They do not necessarily believe that claim 2; string theory is false, is true.
Similarly, with respect to god claims, a person who does not know if either claim (god exists / god does not exist) is true would be an agnostic. The person who disbelieves claim 1; God exists is an atheist and this does not say anything about their acceptance that claim 2; god does not exist, is true.
I will use an analogy:
If I made the claim that there are an odd number of blades of grass in my front yard, would you believe me?
No, you wouldn’t unless I could substantiate that claim (if you are rational). Does that then mean you believe the opposite of that claim? That there are an even number of blades of grass in my front yard? No, you wouldn’t accept that claim either. With respect to your belief in the true dichotomy of the nature of the grass then, you are an atheist; you disbelieve claim 1; there are an odd number of blades of grass. If you don’t know which claim is true, you are an agnostic. The terms are not mutually exclusive.
With respect to god claims, I identify as an agnostic atheist; I do not know if a god exists or not, and I disbelieve the claim that a god does exist.
Gnostic: Of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge. –> Therefore it’s opposite, agnostic, relates to a lack of knowledge.
Theist: Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures –> Therefore it’s opposite, atheist, relates to a lack of belief in the existence of gods and not necessarily the belief in the opposite claim, that no gods exist.
Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists
Source [for definitions]: Oxford English Dictionary*
Kindly update your definitions to reflect this.
*EVE NOTE: [theresidentskeptic] is being dishonest here: his definitions are from the Oxford Dictionary, not the Oxford English Dictionary or OED, which is an important distinction—the OD accepts and uses much looser standards than the OED. The OD is what you get from Google. The OED requires a hefty fee to access.
———————————-REPLY FROM STANFORD BELOW———————————-
Thank you for writing to us about the entry on atheism and agnosticism. We have received messages about this issue before and are continuing to consider whether and how the entry might be adjusted.
That said, the matter is not as clear cut as you suggest. While the term “atheism” is used in a variety of ways in general discourse, our entry is on its meaning in the philosophical literature. Traditionally speaking, the definition in our entry—that ‘atheism’ means the denial of the existence of God—is correct in the philosophical literature. Some now refer to this standard meaning as “positive atheism” and contrast it with the broader notion of atheism” which has the meaning you suggest—that ‘atheism’ simply means not-theist.
In our understanding, the argument for this broader notion was introduced into the philosophical literature by Antony Flew in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972). In that work, he noted that he was using an etymological argument to try to convince people *not* to follow the *standard meaning* of the term. His goal was to reframe the debate about the existence of God and to re-brand “atheism” as a default position.
Not everyone has been convinced to use the term in Flew’s way simply on the force of his argument. For some, who consider themselves atheists in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to water down a perfectly good concept. For others, who consider themselves agnostics in the traditional sense, Flew’s efforts seemed to be an attempt to re-label them “atheists”—a term they rejected.
All that said, we are continuing to examine the situation regarding the definitions as presented in this entry.
All the best,
Uri Nodelman Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
CSLI/Cordura Hall email@example.com
Stanford University ph. 650-723-0488
Stanford, CA 94305-4115 fx. 650-725-2166
[EVE NOTE: Emphasis mine.]
[EVE NOTE: You also have to admit that “Based on a false etymology of a word, one grammatically plausible but as it happens, etymologically incorrect in the word’s history, I argue that we should give an established term a totally new definition, because doing so would have the advantage of making the position that I happen to hold (in 1972—I’ll change my mind later) a distinct rhetorical (but not substantive) advantage in arguments and debate about the subject.” If this is not special pleading, there is no such thing as special pleading.]
If you spend any amount of time online following or taking part in debates, you’ll eventually see someone accuse someone else of committing or employing “a fallacy.” What exactly does this mean?
The superficial thing it means as that the accuser is claiming that there is something wrong with the other person’s argument—specifically that the conclusion they are drawing doesn’t follow from the premises they are using; and so (by definition) their argument is logically invalid—where “logically invalid” just means “it is possible that the premises are true and the conclusion is false.”
But people often assume or act as if a fallacy were something more than this, that it is a kind of meta-error that makes arguments erroneous, that it is a kind of formal invalidity maker. But “fallacies” are no such thing.
There is fairly wide agreement about what one is, some kind of error in reasoning, but if you take a close look at how logicians both professional and popular define “fallacy,” you will quickly see that there seems to be no “something more than just an error” that people seem to think there is. Here’s a representative list of definitions:
“A fallacy is a deceptive error of thinking.” – Gensler, Introduction to Logic
“A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning.” – Kreeft, Socratic Logic
“A fallacy is a flaw in reasoning.” – yourlogicalfallacyis.com
“A fallacy is an error in reasoning.” – The Nizkor Project
“A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning or ‘wrong moves’ in the construction of an argument.” – Wikipedia
“Fallacies are deceptively bad arguments.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“A fallacy is a kind of error in reasoning.” – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
There are two basic principles of logic that you must grasp to understand this, and one false principle that you must recognize as false. Let’s start with the correct principles:
(V1) An argument is valid if and only if it instantiates any valid argument form.
(V2) An argument is invalid if and only if it fails to instantiate any valid argument form.
This principle is INCORRECT:
(F1) An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form.
Reasoning is movement of the mind from premises to a conclusion, from point A to point B. An argument is valid if it can get from point A to point B by any possible route; it is invalid only if one cannot rationally get from A to B at all. Note that the fact “you can’t get from A to B by route F” doesn’t entail “you can’t get from A to B at all.” This is why (F1) above is a FALSE PRINCIPLE: The fact that a given argument A instantiates a given invalid argument form F shows nothing at all about the validity of A; A can, in principle, instantiate any number of invalid argument forms and still be valid—it only has to instantiate just one valid argument form to be valid.
Consider: “You can’t reach the North Pole by going south; therefore, you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going east; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going west; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southeast; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” “You can’t reach the North Pole by going southwest; so you can’t reach the North Pole.” ETC.
The fact that there are innumerable directions by which you cannot reach the North Pole doesn’t show anything at all about whether you can reach the North Pole. The fact that there is one direction you can travel in which will get you to the North Pole—namely, north—shows that you can, in fact, reach the North Pole. The only thing that matters is that there is a way that succeeds.
And logic is just like that. If there is a valid route from A to B, it doesn’t matter whether there is an invalid route from A to B, or many, or an infinite number (which there are: there are always an infinite number of invalid routes from A to B you can propose).
AN EXAMPLE: Consider the following argument:
This argument instantiates the invalid argument form affirming the consequent. Is it invalid? No. Why not? It also instantiates the perfectly valid form modus ponens. So it really doesn’t matter that it instantiates an invalid form, since it also instantiates a valid form—which is all that matters.
THE UPSHOT: people think that IF they have correctly identified an invalid argument form that an argument instantiates, THEN they have shown something about the argument’s validity. But they haven’t. That no more works than what is sometimes called the “fallacy fallacy,” which is to hold that showing that an argument for conclusion C is invalid shows that conclusion C is false. But this doesn’t work. An argument for C can be invalid and C still be true. And it is just as wrong to hold that showing an argument A instantiates an invalid argument form F shows that argument A is invalid.
Suppose Sophia and Jacob are having a Twitter exchange, and Sophia makes an argument, to which Jacob responds by typing (in all caps of course) “BANDWAGON FALLACY!” and ‘helpfully’ providing Sophia with a link to yourlogicalfallacyis.com’s description of the Bandwagon fallacy:
1. Jacob hasn’t shown anything about Sophia’s argument. All he has done is say the name of an alleged fallacy. If Jacob’s position is that an argument is proven to be invalid on the condition that someone says the name of a fallacy, then he’s in pretty dire trouble. Sophia can simply elect to accept Jacob’s rule and proceed to “refute” all Jacob’s arguments by saying the names of various fallacies; or she can ask him to prove his rule is correct—and defeat every argument he attempts to give for it by saying the names of various fallacies; or if Sophia is feeling particularly snarky, she can post one of my cards to Jacob, which uses the rule he is implicitly appealing to to defeat itself. When someone thinks they can refute your argument by saying the name of a fallacy, this is the name of the fallacy you say to refute their argument that they have refuted your argument by saying the name of a fallacy:
THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument. All Jacob as done so far is argue “I have said the name of an error; therefore your argument is in error.“
2. Suppose Jacob mans up and really does try to show that Sophia’s argument fits the alleged pattern of the “bandwagon fallacy.” And let’s suppose he succeeds. Well, he still hasn’t shown anything about the validity or invalidity of Sophia’s argument. We’ve allowed that he has shown that Sophia’s argument instantiates a type of reasoning that, as an informal fallacy, can be invalid, but it is the nature of informal fallacies (aka material fallacies) that they are sometimes errors and sometimes not. I’ve written a lot about this, mostly for Twitter. If you like, you can have a look at what I have to say about material fallacies HERE. But just to give some examples:
(a) an appeal to authority is sometimes erroneous, sometimes not; appeal to experts in their fields or a scientific consensus are not errors of reasoning. In the 1990s, Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s Last Theorem is indeed a theorem. How do I know this? Because a few dozen of the the few thousand people capable of understanding Wiles’ proof checked it very carefully and agreed. So, my belief that Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound is based entirely on the authority of some of the world’s foremost mathematicians. I could verify Wiles’ proof for myself, but it would require around a decade of mathematical study before I’d be in a position to—and frankly I don’t have the time or inclination. That is what expert mathematicians are for. If we were disallowed from appealing to authority, we’d have to establish all knowledge for ourselves at all times, which would completely defeat the point of the division of intellectual labor, and completely wreck science, since no established scientific “conclusions” could ever be appealed to.
(b) an argument from parts to whole is not always an error. If you argued that “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg, so the entire Yellow Brick Road weighs 3.5 kg” you’d be making an error (and if you want to call it “fallacy of composition” go ahead). But if you argued “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is brick, so the Yellow Brick Road is a brick road” or “every brick in the Yellow Brick Road is yellow, so the Yellow Brick Road is yellow” you wouldn’t be making an error.
(c) An appeal to universal human experience is not an “ad populum fallacy,” for example in the case of such claims as: “minds exist” or “human beings by nature are divided into two sexes” or “time has three dimensions, past, present, and future” or “anger and fear are emotions found in human beings” or Euclid’s Common Notions: “The whole is greater than the part” or “equals added to equals are equal” or “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another.” The point here is that there really are COMMON NOTIONS, as Euclid uses that term, namely, things which all human beings know or can recognize that do not stand in need of any formal proof, because they are too simple or too obvious to have one (this is also called the consensus gentium, “the consensus of the whole species”—I’ve discussed how it differs from an ad populum error HERE.
THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed to TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form some informal fallacy or another. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a form which may or may not be an error; therefore it is in error!“
3. But let’s make it a bit easier on Jacob, and suppose that he has detected in Sophia’s argument not an informal fallacy but a formal fallacy, such as affirming the consequent. Now, formal fallacies are different from material or informal fallacies in that they are invalid just in virtue of their form, and so do not depend on the situation, context, or content as to whether they are valid or invalid. They are simply invalid. Period.
Now, let us suppose that Jacob succeeds in showing that Sophia’s argument does indeed instantiate the invalid argument form called affirming the consequent (P⇒Q; Q; ∴P). Has Jacob now shown that Sophia’s argument is invalid? No, he has not. He has not, because to do so, he would have to be appealing to principle (F1): An argument is invalid if it instantiates an invalid argument form, which as we have seen, is a false principle.
Sophia is therefore entirely within her epistemic and logical rights to says to Jacob, after he has demonstrated that her argument instantiates the form of affirming the consequent, “So what? You still haven’t shown my argument is invalid. You wasted a lot of effort on showing something that has no logical bearing on whether my argument is valid or invalid.”
THE UPSHOT HERE is that Jacob has still failed TO DEMONSTRATE HIS CLAIM that Sophia has made an error in her argument, even if he has shown that her argument instantiates the form even of a formal fallacy. All Jacob has done so far is argue “Your argument instantiates a formally invalid argument form, an error; therefore it is in error.” And this argument is an enthymeme that requires the false principle (F1) as its hidden premise, and so is unsound.
4. Jacob’s problem is that, in order to show that Sophia’s argument is invalid, he has only two options: (A) the direct logic-indifferent method, in which he can show that Sophia’s argument is invalid by showing that, while her premises are true, her conclusion is false. This isn’t really a “method” at all—it is simply showing that Sophia’s argument is a case of the very definition of an invalid argument, namely, an argument with true premises and a false conclusion; or (B) Jacob can attempt to show that there is NO logically valid argument form which Sophia’s argument instantiates (remember, her argument only needs to instantiate ONE to be valid), in any formal-logical system, including those which have not yet been discovered or constructed. In other words, to use method (B) Jacob would have to prove the nonexistence of a logical form which Sophia’s argument instantiates. And as most people are well aware, it is damn-near impossible to prove absolutely the nonexistence of something (showing it to be contradictory is the only way I know that this can be done).
THE UPSHOT HERE is that all appeals to fallacies as a way of refuting arguments or proving invalidity all seem to be instances of (B)—and they all fail because they can’t actually do the work of demonstrating invalidity. THE MOST they can accomplish is to raise a doubt about the validity of an argument by suggesting that the argument in question has nothing more to it than the invalid form it instantiates. That is to say, that the person making the argument is appealing to the invalid form as a valid form, which he or she means to establish validity, either in the mistaken belief that it is valid or disingenuously as a rhetorical move. But if the person making the argument says “No, I see that pattern is invalid, but that’s not what I’m claiming makes my argument valid,” then an appeal to fallacy really can’t DO anything else. People WANT to say “No! Your argument instantiates an invalid argument form! It’s invalid!” But they can’t logically say that. That’s (F1) again, and (F1) is false—obviously false, even: “You can’t get from A to B” obviously does not follow from “You can’t get from A to B by route F.”
A fallacy is usually a name given to some general type of error or mistake. The problem with this is that errors do not, strictly speaking, have ‘types’—there are no general forms of error, because error by its way of being is indefinite and indeterminate—and what is indefinite and indeterminate is cannot be defined or determined rigorously.
Fallacies aren’t very useful because they CAN’T DO MUCH.
Naming a fallacy certainly doesn’t show anything about an argument’s validity or invalidity.
Showing that an argument fits the form of a informal fallacy doesn’t show anything at all, since material fallacies aren’t always fallacious—that depends entirely on the content, and you’d still have to show that the argument in question is in error, something which, if you are able to do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely redundant and superfluous, and if you can’t do it, makes the citation of the “fallacy” completely toothless and pointless. So in the case of informal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.
Showing that an argument instantiates a formally fallacious argument form also doesn’t show anything about the validity of the argument. Because (F1) is false, from the fact that a given argument A instantiates a given formally invalid argument form F, NOTHING FOLLOWS ABOUT THE VALIDITY OR INVALIDITY OF A. So, once again, if you are going to get anywhere, you’d have to show an error in the argument itself, and the appeal to the fallacy (1) does not show any error, nor (2) add anything to the demonstration of error if one is able to show an error in the specific argument. So in the case of formal fallacies, citing the fallacy accomplishes nothing either way; everything turns on whether you can demonstrate an actual error in the argument. EITHER WAY, the citation of the fallacy adds nothing and does nothing.
Basically, citing a fallacy or appealing to a fallacy is just a roundabout way of saying “Your argument is in error”—and this is something that still needs to be shown. Either can you can show an error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is superfluous and adds nothing; or you cannot show any error, in which case the citation of the fallacy is pointless and accomplishes nothing.
EITHER WAY, the citation of a fallacy ADDS NOTHING and DOES NOTHING.
It is with satisfaction and pleasure that I learn that Peter Geach, one of the greatest logicians of the 20th century, and a philosopher I respect extremely highly, makes the same point that I do: that ‘fallacies’ understood as invalid argument forms are not invalidity-makers of arguments:
As Geach notes, if it were the case that invalid argument forms were invalidity-makers, then all arguments would be invalid, since all arguments can be reformulated an the conjunction of all their premises with &s, leaving us with the invalid form
or more simply
which gives us a simple modus tollens
Philosophers are (or should be) interested in truth, not originality, so I am always pleased to find points that I make in philosophers I respect.
As you know, the Image of the Cave, which is the centerpiece of Plato’s Politeia (or Republic) is an image of human nature in chains and the story of an escape—a healing, Socrates says—from our default condition, which is one of bondage and ignorance.
There are people, though, who think that healing is what we need to be healed from, and anywhere outside the prison is what needs to be escaped. In a quite literally Orwellian “freedom is slavery” argument, I have been told that only they are truly free who are slaves, and that free men and women are enslaved—by their freedom.
This is one of those times that I will choose Socrates’ simplemindedness over the sophisticated sophistry of the sophists—I’ll go with the freedom of the mind that’s just freedom, not the sophistical freedom that is the “true freedom” of mental slavery.
But let’s take a look at this idiocy, shall we? It’s meant to “cure” me of Platonism, and since Platonism is, at bottom, the belief that reality exists and can be known, it is meant to cure me of these beliefs too. Let’s see if it succeeds, shall we?
Nine whole points. Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
1. Plato’s essentialist, historicist and degenerative Theory of Forms or Ideas is a bad idea.
1. This is nothing more than name-calling. And it isn’t even accurate name-calling. Platonism is as anti-historicist as one can get, since to be a Platonist is to hold that there are entities and intelligible structures in reality that do not vary over time—things like mathematics or the laws of nature. It is the Caveman (as I shall call him) who is the historicist, as we will see, and who holds that human thought is incapable of rising above its historical situatedness. As for “degenerative,” the word holds no meaning here. Again, Platonism holds that there are entities and structures within reality that do not change, and being changeless, cannot degenerate. If the Cavemen is asserting there is something “degenerate” about Platonism itself, he hasn’t said what it is or even might be, so that claim can be ignored.
2. Nothing — mind, matter, self, or world — has an intrinsic or real nature.
2. Pure self-contradiction. Supposing it were true, it would be the nature of all these things not to have a nature. To be able to assert this, one would have to know that being or reality is this way—but what is being denied even as it is being asserted is that there is a way reality is. And “there is no way reality is” is just as self-contradictory an assertion as the assertion “there is no truth” (a proposition the Caveman also accepts, as we will see).
3. That does not mean that the world does not exist. The world is independent of our mental states.
3. Flat contradiction of 2. Caveman now states, in opposition to his self-contradictory principle 2, that the world does indeed have a nature, and that that nature is “to exist independently of our mental states.” Remember he said this, because his right to say this is going to be an issue.
4. It means that truth, knowledge and facts cannot exist independently of the human mind. Truth, knowledge and facts are properties of sentences, which make up larger theories and descriptions.
4. Idiotic on several levels. I am certainly willing to concede that knowledge cannot exist apart from some mind (it doesn’t have to be a human mind)—since knowledge JUST IS the apprehension of some true proposition by some mind. Notice however that Caveman in the next sentence will ridiculously ascribe knowledge not to minds, but to sentences. No, Caveman, sentences do not KNOW THINGS.
[Philosophy 101 lesson: Following the principle of charity, I’m going to take Caveman’s “sentences” to mean “propositions,” although strictly speaking he is confused. Propositions are the primary truth-bearing logical entities, and they relate to sentences in that they are expressed by sentences. Using the standard philosophical example, consider two sentences: “Snow is white” and “Schnee ist weiss”. The sentences are different. One is an English sentence and one a German sentence. The can be found in different locations on your computer screen. If they were spoken, they would be spoken at some time, in some place, by some speaker, etc. However, they both express the same proposition, which is the logical expression of the relation between a real entity, snow, and a real property of that entity, being white. That snow is white is a state of affairs in the world or a fact. The relation of snow to whiteness is an intelligible proposition which is true (the fact that snow is white makes the proposition ‘snow is white’ true). Propositions are universal. Sentences are particular. When you are I or anyone comes to know ‘snow is white’, we have the same propositional attitude towards the very same proposition, viz. that snow is white. If this were not so, we would not all know the same fact or truth about snow, but we would each ‘know’ an individual fact or truth relative to us—but the nature of knowledge is such that it is common to all. And once we have propositional knowledge we can express these propositions that we know in the linguistic entities called sentences. And it is irrelevant whether we do this by means of English, or German, or Chinese.]
As I’ve just mentioned, facts are best construed as the truth-makers of true propositions. This is because facts, as states of affairs, exist independently of their being known, that is, independently of human minds—contrary to Caveman’s assertions. It should be a fairly trivial point to note that IF Caveman is correct, we human beings produce not only the entities that may or may not be true, affirmative sentences or negations, BUT ALSO produce the truth-makers of these things, this makes FACTS and TRUTH things that are produced by human beings. We would, in this case, not only be the ones who produce claims about reality, but we would produce/create/manufacture the truth-makers that make our claims true. And this means that we human beings have the power to make any claim about anything true or false by our creative wills. Hello Nietzsche, my old friend. It’s good to meet with you again.
Finally, Caveman’s claim that truth is a property of sentences, which I will charitably take to mean “truth is a property of propositions”, is a half-truth. There is a very important way in which propositions are the most common locus of truth—for us, since we are essentially discursive creatures or creatures of λόγος. But this is not the most primordial sense of truth—discursive truth is itself always grounded in a deeper openness of reality to comprehension that makes discursive truth possible. To put it very simply: we could not grasp or express discursive, propositional truths of the form “S is P” if S and P and their relation where not already given to us in such a way that we could grasp them in their belonging-together and thus come to know them precisely in this belonging together.
So even where Caveman gets close to saying something true, that “truth is a property of propositions,” he’s right only with a series of necessary qualifications.
5. The world can cause us to hold certain beliefs. However, neither the world nor some notion of unchanging Forms decides which description of the world is true. The world does not speak or provide descriptions. Human beings do.
5. Okay, I have decided that this is not a true description of reality.
See the problem?
The problem is an equivocation on the verb “decide.” In one sense, as creatures capable of knowing or believing, it is up to human beings to ‘decide’ what to believe. On the other hand, the way that reality is is not a matter up to human ‘decision.’ Reality is the way it is, regardless of whether human beings ‘decide’ otherwise. If Caveman seriously disagrees with this, I have a simple challenge for him: I challenge him to ingest a large quantity of cyanide and ‘decide’ that cyanide is non-toxic to human beings. If reality is controlled by human decision, he should not have a problem doing this and not dying. I maintain “Cyanide is a lethal poison to human beings” is a true description of the world. I further maintain than no amount of human “description” can change this fact.
We can do another thought experiment to bring this home: suppose that the earth became unstable for some reason and was soon to explode, much like Superman’s home planet Krypton. Suppose also that (for some odd reason) Caveman was the one who was tasked to find a solution to the imminent explosion of the earth. His solution is “Because the world does not decide what is or is not true, it is not true that ‘the earth is going to explode’. Nor can anything in the world ‘decide’ whether the earth does explode. These things—’facts’ or ‘truths’ or ‘knowledge’—are all contingent on human description. So all we need to do, as human beings, is to describe the earth as ‘not going to explode’ and it will become true that the earth is not going to explode.” Do you think that would work? I think *KABOOM*.
If human ‘decision’ could alter reality by means of ‘description,’ why would we not redescribed reality into some kind of ideal state for human beings? Why do we not live in a perfect world, if it is entirely within our power to create reality as we see fit by description?
Oh, wait, I think I know! It’s because this is bullshit, and we can’t actually change reality by redescrbiing it, isn’t it? Damn. I knew this was too easy.
6. That does not mean that truth, facts and knowledge are subjective. It means that they are a product of shared vocabularies, language games, social practices, in short, forms of life which are again contingent upon and conditioned by historical, social, environmental, and cultural factors and, in the final instance, human evolutionary biology.
6. Time to cut the bullshit. This means that we cannot have knowledge of reality. THAT is what the denial of Platonism MEANS, as I’ve said. “Contingent, historical, circumstantial truth which is produced by a variety of social factors” IS NOT TRUTH.
Caveman is putting forward a theory of reality that serves as a DEFEATER for all theories of reality INCLUDING HIS OWN. If this account is TRUE, then it itself is merely a product of some historically contingent form of life, etc., etc., and “in the final instance” of human evolutionary biology. In other words, he is FIRST a SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVIST about reality, but SECOND (inconsistently) a BIOLOGICAL REDUCTIONIST.
Neither of these things is coherent, either with the other, or with itself.
Social constructionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is a mere social construction or convention.
Biological reductionism fails because it is self-defeating; if true, it is an unwarranted theory, because as a theory (like every theory) it is merely the outcome of mindless biological forces.
Each theory provides its own defeater, because it provides a defeater for all theories.
Any theory that provides a defeater for all theories, including itself, can be immediately rejected as unwarranted and wholly irrational.
So, that’s what I’ll do.
In this case, each theory also instantiates a performative contradiction insofar as the one who puts forward the theory intends that it be taken to be a true theory about nature of reality—which means that the proponent of the theory, despite his wishes, is committing himself by the very fact of offering a theory of reality, to the view that REALITY CAN BE KNOWN, or in a word, to PLATONISM.
Nietzsche understood this: TRUTH stands or falls with PLATONISM. That is why he said things like this
What we can see from this is that Caveman is one of those sad specimens of the 20th and 21st centuries, a feeble Nietzschean. He thinks he is a late-Wittgensteinian, but of course he isn’t consistent in any way, nor is there anything Wittgenstein discovered that Nietzsche was not aware of.
Caveman’s problem is not (yet) the wild incoherence of Nietzsche or the late Wittgenstein. Caveman’s problem is that he sees, dimly, that his shallow Nietzscheanism cum Wittgensteinianism requires him to reject Platonism—but his isn’t actually prepared to DO THAT, since that entails giving up the idea of TRUTH once and for all.
This is sane, to an extent, insofar as the rejection of TRUTH and REALITY is tantamount to embracing the irrational void of pure nihilism—but the inconsistent attempt to embrace the nihilistic void is, if anything, worse. It merely makes one a failure on all sides, a half-and-half, a lukewarm neither-this-nor-that, a rebel when convenient, but utterly conventional when that is convenient. “Hypocrite” would be another word.
But here’s the deal Caveman: YOU DON’T GET TO RENOUNCE PLATONISM AND KEEP IT TOO.
It’s one or the other: BEING or NOTHINGNESS; PLATONISM or NIHILISM.
And lest I be accused of putting to much weight on Nietzsche’s assessment of meaning of Plato (although Nietzsche, as his arch-enemy, understood Plato better than almost any other thinker), let us add some additional testimony:
7. We communicate successfully every day, and we use knowledge successfully every day, because we share imagined (and conditioned) realities and social practices on many levels.
7. What’s amusing is that Caveman thinks our success in knowing and communicating shows that we can “do without” Platonism.
Actually, what it shows is that Platonism is true; that is, we can know things and communicate them.
At bottom, Platonism is the theory of theories, the theory we can know things. No anti-Platonism can be coherent, since it has to assert we cannot know anything to be true, and so, by its own (anti-) theory, it cannot know what it asserts as true to be true. Caveman is merely another in a long line of people trying to escape truth by asserting the “truth” that “there is no truth” or to escape knowledge by claiming to know that “nothing can be known.” Caveman fails, and all such attempts will always fail, forever and necessarily.
8. Truth, knowledge and facts can always be redescribed by changing the language game, by changing the habits of speaking, by scientific research coming up with better theories, better descriptions that pragmatically explain better, work better according to what we want to achieve.
8. This is simply the thesis of the sophists, that because we speak about reality, we can change reality by changing the way we speak. See above for why that doesn’t work.
Caveman thinks he is being bold and new. But there is nothing new here. It is the same old sophistry that philosophy, in the person of Socrates, rose up to destroy.
Platonism is the view that, not man, but reality and truth are the measure of all things. The fact than it is man who does the measuring does not change the fact that what man measures is not man’s creation, nor is it under man’s arbitrary control.
This is of course how SCIENCE operates. Human beings gain what technological power and mastery over nature they have, only insofar as they submit to the objectivity of reality. Here is Bacon, one of the founders of empirical scientific method making this point:
The postmodern rebellion against reality is, to paraphrase Sartre, a useless passion.
9. Plato’s hypothesis of truth, knowledge and facts as unchanging essences (or “The thing in itself”, in Kant’s description) — only every seen as poorly reflected images on a cave wall — is entirely optional.
9. Platonism is “optional” only so long as you are willing to regard reality, truth, and knowledge as “optional.” And it is far from clear that that is even a coherent thing to do.
Caveman keeps making assertions which have the appearance of being meant as possibly true assertions—but since he assures us repeatedly that “truth” is a kind of social fiction (or perhaps biological fiction; see Nietzsche’s remark above)—this is in vain, a useless passion.
It is not clear that it is in any way meaningful to say that everything is a fiction, an illusion, a falsehood, etc., since these very concepts of “fiction,” “illusion,” “falsehood” seem to by parasitic on the idea of truth.
And the idea of truth is ultimately the same as the truth of ideas, that is, of an intelligible reality which shows itself to the human mind in such a way that it can be known.
Caveman has failed in his attempt to persuade me to reject truth in favor of fiction, to reject philosophy in favor of sophistry.
I remain, as always, a friend of truth, a seeker of truth and a friend of wisdom.
Which is to say, a philosopher.
Which is to say, a Platonist.
As I wrote in my post “You Can’t Prove a Negative”, this claim—that you can’t prove a negative—is a silly urban legend of logic that needs to die.
So it came up again on Twitter, and someone was kind enough to direct me to an essay by another philosopher addressing this same absurd bit of “folk logic” (as he aptly calls it). I also think his view that “you can’t prove a negative” is largely a view held by people who have “a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it.” In other words, “you can’t prove a negative!” is code for “you can’t prove I’m wrong, so I’ll continue to think I’m right!”
I think it is worth reblogging, so here is Steven D. Hales “You Can Prove a Negative”:
THINKING TOOLS: YOU CAN PROVE A NEGATIVE
Steven D. Hales
A principle of folk logic is that one can’t prove a negative. Dr. Nelson L. Price, a Georgia minister, writes on his website that ‘one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative.’ Julian Noble, a physicist at the University of Virginia, agrees, writing in his ‘Electric Blanket of Doom’ talk that ‘we can’t prove a negative proposition.’ University of California at Berkeley Professor of Epidemiology Patricia Buffler asserts that ‘The reality is that we can never prove the negative, we can never prove the lack of effect, we can never prove that something is safe.’ A quick search on Google or Lexis-Nexis will give a mountain of similar examples.
But there is one big, fat problem with all this. Among professional logicians, guess how many think that you can’t prove a negative? That’s right: zero. Yes, Virginia, you can prove a negative, and it’s easy, too. For one thing, a real, actual law of logic is a negative, namely the law of non-contradiction. This law states that that a proposition cannot be both true and not true. Nothing is both true and false. Furthermore, you can prove this law. It can be formally derived from the empty set using provably valid rules of inference. (I’ll spare you the boring details). One of the laws of logic is a provable negative. Wait… this means we’ve just proven that it is not the case that one of the laws of logic is that you can’t prove a negative. So we’ve proven yet another negative! In fact, ‘you can’t prove a negative’ is a negative so if you could prove it true, it wouldn’t be true! Uh-oh.
Not only that, but any claim can be expressed as a negative, thanks to the rule of double negation. This rule states that any proposition P is logically equivalent to not-not-P. So pick anything you think you can prove. Think you can prove your own existence? At least to your own satisfaction? Then, using the exact same reasoning, plus the little step of double negation, you can prove that you aren’t nonexistent. Congratulations, you’ve just proven a negative. The beautiful part is that you can do this trick with absolutely any proposition whatsoever. Prove P is true and you can prove that P is not false.
Some people seem to think that you can’t prove a specific sort of negative claim, namely that a thing does not exist. So it is impossible to prove that Santa Claus, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, God, pink elephants, WMD in Iraq, and Bigfoot don’t exist. Of course, this rather depends on what one has in mind by ‘prove.’ Can you construct a valid deductive argument with all true premises that yields the conclusion that there are no unicorns? Sure. Here’s one, using the valid inference procedure of modus tollens:
1. If unicorns had existed, then there is evidence in the fossil record.
2. There is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record.
3. Therefore, unicorns never existed.
Someone might object that that was a bit too fast after all, I didn’t prove that the two premises were true. I just asserted that they were true. Well, that’s right. However, it would be a grievous mistake to insist that someone prove all the premises of any argument they might give. Here’s why. The only way to prove, say, that there is no evidence of unicorns in the fossil record, is by giving an argument to that conclusion. Of course one would then have to prove the premises of that argument by giving further arguments, and then prove the premises of those further arguments, ad infinitum. Which premises we should take on credit and which need payment up front is a matter of long and involved debate among epistemologists. But one thing is certain: if proving things requires that an infinite number of premises get proved first, we’re not going to prove much of anything at all, positive or negative.
Maybe people mean that no inductive argument will conclusively, indubitably prove a negative proposition beyond all shadow of a doubt. For example, suppose someone argues that we’ve scoured the world for Bigfoot, found no credible evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, and therefore there is no Bigfoot. A classic inductive argument. A Sasquatch defender can always rejoin that Bigfoot is reclusive, and might just be hiding in that next stand of trees. You can’t prove he’s not! (until the search of that tree stand comes up empty too). The problem here isn’t that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about negative claims (like the nonexistence of Bigfoot), but that inductive arguments won’t give us certainty about anything at all, positive or negative. All observed swans are white, therefore all swans are white looked like a pretty good inductive argument until black swans were discovered in Australia.
The very nature of an inductive argument is to make a conclusion probable, but not certain, given the truth of the premises. That just what an inductive argument is. We’d better not dismiss induction because we’re not getting certainty out of it, though. Why do you think that the sun will rise tomorrow? Not because of observation (you can’t observe the future!), but because that’s what it has always done in the past. Why do you think that if you turn on the kitchen tap that water will come out instead of chocolate? Why do you think you’ll nd your house where you last left it? Why do you think lunch will be nourishing instead of deadly? Again, because that’s the way things have always been in the past. In other words, we use inferences — induction — from past experiences in every aspect of our lives. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the chicken who expects to be fed when he sees the farmer approaching, since that is what had always happened in the past, is in for a big surprise when instead of receiving dinner, he becomes dinner. But if the chicken had rejected inductive reasoning altogether, then every appearance of the farmer would be a surprise.
So why is it that people insist that you can’t prove a negative? I think it is the result of two things. (1) an acknowledgement that induction is not bulletproof, airtight, and infallible, and (2) a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it. That’s why people keep believing in alien abductions, even when flying saucers always turn out to be weather balloons, stealth jets, comets, or too much alcohol. You can’t prove a negative! You can’t prove that there are no alien abductions! Meaning: your argument against aliens is inductive, therefore not incontrovertible, and since I want to believe in aliens, I’m going to dismiss the argument no matter how overwhelming the evidence against aliens, and no matter how vanishingly small the chance of extraterrestrial abduction.
If we’re going to dismiss inductive arguments because they produce conclusions that are probable but not de nite, then we are in deep doo-doo. Despite its fallibility, induction is vital in every aspect of our lives, from the mundane to the most sophisticated science. Without induction we know basically nothing about the world apart from our own immediate perceptions. So we’d better keep induction, warts and all, and use it to form negative beliefs as well as positive ones. You can prove a negative — at least as much as you can prove anything at all.
Steven Hales is professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania.
Abusus non tollit usum is a Latin expression, which articulates a fundamental principle, both of life in general and in law. It means “abuse does not take away use.”
This is a very obvious principle, which essentially states that we should not get rid of a good or useful thing because said thing can also be misused—since literally everything that can be used can be misused in some way.
A hammer or a screwdriver can be used to commit a murder. This is not an argument for banning hammers or screwdrivers. Words can often be misapplied; this is not an argument to stop using the word in its proper, useful application.
This principle is so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said. But I have learned from experience that a favorite fallacy of certain ideologues is the “argument to abuse,” which goes:
Among anarchist-libertarians, it looks like this:
Among feminists it looks like
Among the Politically Correct word police it looks like
The fallacy should be obvious. It’s an argument from “some” to a conclusion about “all,” containing the hidden, self-evidently false premise that “Whatever is true of some Xs is true of all Xs.” This doesn’t work unless you can demonstrate that in all cases the thing in question is bad—but of course this is just what pointing to only some cases fails to do.
I once again apologize for insulting your intelligence with ridiculously simple graphics, but some people seem to need them:
As some of you know I have been involved in an argument on Twitter with one DrJ (@DrJ_WasTaken) concerning the usage of the term “fish.” It began when he asserted that Geoffrey Chaucer was using the word “fish” (or “fissh”) wrongly, because Chaucer includes whales under the term “fish.”
I pointed out something I took to be something very obvious, that correctness and incorrectness in word usage is conventional, and is therefore contextual and relative to the community of language speakers of which one is a part. The fact that many modern English speakers would not use the word “fish” in such a way as to include whales merely reflects a change in usage, where popular language has tended somewhat to conform to usage in science, in which whales, being mammals, would not be regarded as “fish.”
Although it is not actually clear that biologists use the word “fish” in any formal sense—”fish” is, at most, a paraphyletic classification, similar to “lizard” and “reptile.” That is to say, it based on phylogenetic ancestry, but includes a couple of arbitrary exclusions. For example, here is a chart of the paraphyletic group Reptilia:
Reptilia (green field) is a paraphyletic group comprising all amniotes (Amniota) except for two subgroups Mammalia (mammals) and Aves (birds); therefore, Reptilia is not a clade. In contrast, Amniota itself is a clade, which is a monophyletic group.
In other words, “reptiles” seem to be defined as “all animals which are descended from the Amniota, with the (semi-)arbitrary exclusion of mammals and birds.”
There was once a Class Pisces, but this is no longer recognized as a valid biological class. Nowadays, the biological use of “fish” seems to refer to three classes: Superclass Agnatha (jawless “fish”; e.g. lampreys and hagfish), Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous “fish”; e.g. rays, sharks, skates, chimaeras), and Class Osteichthyes (bony “fish”), but excluding Class Amphibia, Class Sauropsida, and Class Synapsida, although these all belong to the same clade. So “fish”, like “reptile” is a paraphyletic classification. It includes some members of a clade but just leaves some other members out. Here’s a chart:
I think this element of arbitrariness in the biological taxonomic classification of fish is important, and goes to substantiating my point about the flexibility of the usage of the word “fish.” In this case, the point is: the term “fish” even as used in contemporary biology is essentially arbitrary. It involves drawing a line around certain kinds of living beings and saying “These are fish.”
The issue is that DrJ holds the position that, for any given English word, such as “fish,” there is one and only one absolutely correct usage of this word, that this correct usage is completely independent both of all historical context and of actual usage, and that any other usage of the word is, in some absolute way, INCORRECT or WRONG.
Thus, he maintains, that English speakers in Chaucer’s day, including Chaucer, were using the word “fish” wrongly, because they do not use it as modern scientists use it, which is the one, single, eternally correct way—even though, as I mention above, this modern “scientific” usage is essentially an arbitrary paraphyletic grouping.
This position generates what I take to be a number of absurdities, more than sufficient to refute the position by a reductio ad absurdum. For example, it entails that in many cases, and definitely in the case of the word “fish,” whatever English speakers first coined the word “fish,” used the word they had created WRONGLY, the very instant they used it at all. They had just now made a new word to name something, but they were ignorant of the fact that the word which they had just now created, really names something else—their intentions in creating the word notwithstanding.
Now, there are many natural facts about animals, e.g. that whales give live birth and so are mammals. But “the correct name of this animal or animal kind in English” is not a natural fact. I would have said that it is a social fact or a convention (which still seems correct to me). But DrJ denies this. He maintains that there are facts about the correctness of word usage which are neither natural facts nor conventions.
As a Platonist, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are such facts, non-natural facts, for example, facts of logic or mathematics. Logical facts and mathematical facts are neither natural or physical, because they are about things which are immaterial, nor are they conventional or social, since they are entirely objective. I would not, however, have thought that English word meanings were the sorts of things about which there could be transcendent metaphysical facts outside time and space, not subject to the actual usage and conventions of English speakers. I had always taken it to be obvious that word usage was a convention or social fact.
I have spoken of DrJ’s belief in PLATONIC WORD-MEANING HEAVEN. I intended this term to show (what I take to be) the absurdity of his position, but I want to stress that it is LOGICALLY NECESSARY that he believe in something like this. If the CORRECT meaning of words is determined neither by nature nor by convention, it MUST necessarily have some kind of eternal, transcendent ground beyond convention and outside of nature—if not God, then at least something like Platonic Word-Meaning Heaven. I don’t care what he calls this transcendent ground beyond nature which determines eternal correct word meaning—all that matters to me is that he must believe in such a thing, because whatever it is (and perhaps he knows the one, true, eternally correct name for it?), this is what he is appealing to when he holds there is a standard of correctness for words which is non-conventional and above nature. He cannot be, for example, appealing to the usage of modern biologists, because his claim JUST IS that this usage is eternally correct, and—he has been very clear on this point—it was correct in Chaucer’s day, before any actual English speaker used the word “fish” in this way—which is what enables him to say that Chaucer’s use of “fish” is incorrect, and that the use of “fish” by whichever English speakers who first used the word “fish” was equally incorrect.
We are not debating about HOW the word “fish” is used by modern biologists (although that might be interesting—it’s paraphyletic nature seems to add an ad hoc, arbitrary element, which makes his case that it is the one, true, eternally correct use even more suspect.)—we are discussing the grounds of DrJ’s claim that ONLY the use of the word “fish” by modern biologists is or can be CORRECT, and that any and all other uses, past, present, or future, are, necessarily, INCORRECT or WRONG. It is very clear DrJ is maintaining that correctness in word-usage is in some way an eternal truth comparable to the truths of mathematics and logic. I remain unconvinced by this claim, and have yet to see any good evidence offered for it, beyond a dogmatic insistence that it is so, ad nauseam. But I want to know what his actual arguments are for this Platonic position on word-usage. I am a Platonist, so he’s already got my concession that there are such things as eternal, non-physical, not-temporal standards (e.g. of math, logic, ethics, etc.). I’m just not convinced that word usage is like that. Given the way that words vary among languages and the way they change meaning over time, it seems absurd to me to class word-meanings among the eternal objects—although of course we are forced to speak of eternal entities by means of temporal words, but that’s another story.
My suspicion is that he is continually confusing the USAGE OF A WORD TO REFER to some truth about the world with the REFERENT BEING REFERRED TO IN THE USAGE. That is to say, I think he is doing the equivalent of confusing the natural fact that snow is white with the English sentence “snow is white.” The fact of the color of snow is what it is, regardless of how that fact is EXPRESSED in English. The very same fact can be expressed in German as “Schnee ist weiss.” But the WORDS USAGE which expresses the fact is CONVENTIONAL. Nothing in the fact of snow’s being white in any way entails that the stuff has to be called “snow” or the color called “white.” These are arbitrary sounds that convention has linked with the frozen precipitate that falls from the sky and the color or tint which is a quality of said precipitate.
Plato’s Cratylus is devoted to the question of whether or not there are “true names” for things, or whether names are conventional. Cratylus says there are true names, and Hermogenes holds they are conventional. For SOME MAD REASON the two call upon Socrates to decide the matter—Socrates then proceeds to refute Cratylus and argues him into conceding that words are conventional, and before Hermogenes has time to gloat, Socrates turns on him, refutes him, and argues him into the position that there are true names for things. And with the opponents having switched sides, and the question still unanswered, Socrates leaves. RULE OF LIFE: DO NOT ASK SOCRATES TO “SETTLE” AN ARGUMENT.
Anyway, I have a number of questions for DrJ that still remain unanswered, to wit:
1. What are the reasons for your belief in a transcendent ground which determines CORRECT word usage over and above actual historical usage? Can you demonstrate that such a Platonic realm of word meanings exists? Or that there are transcendent facts about word meaning in the same way or in a similar way that there are transcendent truths about mathematical entities and logical entities?
2. How do you access this transcendent place wherein the one true eternal correct word meanings of English are stored? I would like to know the true, eternally correct meanings of words, so I can use them properly. How do I check which definition is the one, true, eternally correct one? What sort of argument would demonstrate that usage X of a word is the ‘one, true, eternally correct’ one and usage Y is not?
3. If your thesis is true, why don’t linguists, who study language, recognize that it is true? Or if any linguists do maintain that there is one and only one eternally correct usage for any given English word, can you please give me their names? And can you point me to their arguments as to why they think this is true?
4. If your thesis is true, why don’t lexicographers recognize it to be true? Why do dictionaries, at least every one I am familiar with, give more than one definition for some words? Are lexicographers unaware that there is and can be only one true correct meaning for each word? For example, the Oxford English Dictionary says of itself
The OED is not just a very large dictionary: it is also a historical dictionary, the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. It traces a word from its beginnings (which may be in Old or Middle English) to the present, showing the varied and changing ways in which it has been used and illustrating the changes with quotations which add to the historical and linguistic record. This can mean that the first sense shown is long obsolete, and that the modern use falls much later in the entry.
Why does the OED focus on “the varied and changing ways in which [a word] has been used” instead of on the “one, true, eternally correct meaning” of a word? Shouldn’t the one, true, correct meaning be regarded as more important than all the historically incorrect usages? Why does the OED speak as if multiple senses of one word are all valid, if this is (as you say) false? Or again, the OED says
What’s the difference between the OED and Oxford Dictionaries?
The OED and the dictionaries in ODO are themselves very different. While ODO focuses on the current language and practical usage, the OED shows how words and meanings have changed over time.
Why does the OED think that word meanings change over time, when they are, in fact, static and fixed by your transcendent standard of correctness? Why do all dictionaries think this? Why have you not corrected the OED and the various other dictionaries on this extremely important point? Surely, if it is worth taking the time to explain to me on Twitter that words have only one, true, eternally correct meaning, it is worth explaining this to the OED and other dictionaries, so they can change their priorities. Or can you point me to a dictionary whose policy is to give ONLY the one, true, eternally correct definition of each word?
5. If every English word has one, true, eternally correct meaning, does this go in reverse? Does every eternal meaning have only one true word to which in corresponds? Or do you hold that although there is only one, true, eternally correct meaning for each word, there can be arbitrarily many words (e.g. in other languages) that express this meaning? In other words, is “fish” the one, true, eternally correct word to express the one, true eternally correct meaning of “fish,” so that all other languages are wrong to not use the English word “fish”? Is Chaucer’s “fissh” wrong? Is the German “Fisch” wrong? Are they “less wrong” than the French “poisson”? Is it always English words that are correct, so that all speakers of non-English languages are always using all words wrongly, just because they are not speaking the one, true, eternally correct language, English? Or are the true, eternally correct words divided among the various languages of the world?