Saturday, November 20, 2010

Words Words Words

Intellectual honesty is rare, and is difficult both to achieve and to maintain.  Or so I was told by somebody who had been there and gotten the T-Shirt.

If you care about ideas, and want to share ideas with others and learn about new things from others, you will invariably come on a situation where word choice, and word meanings become crucial.  I've often wished that any discussion that is flirting with transitioning into an argument or debate could have a break to Establish Premise, Define Terms, and Agree to Rules of Procedure.  Of course, this is where most debates of anything contentious would go off the rails.

Defining Terms is a thoroughly scary proposition in itself for anyone on the hunt for intellectual honesty and discovery.  Pick a contentious debate:  abortion?  existence of god?  Republican or Democrat?

If you don't take the time to agree on a basic set of terms, the debate quickly becomes meaningless; for two or more intellectual curious people, the debate on setting the terms can be more contentious than the subject of the "main" debate...

Here's an example, and whether you find this annoying or interesting is probably a good indication as to whether you are reading the right blog or not:

Are natural foods (or a natural diet) better for you?  Discuss and Debate.
So if I'm party to this debate, this is how I imagine this goes (we'll use a hypothetical fellow debater named John):
me -  what do you mean by "natural"?

John - oh, you know, not man made or synthetic

me - so, like, "corn" for example?

John - exactly!  corn is natural; corn chips are not

me - uh oh...i meant corn as an example of something man made, since what corn eat now is arguably                                                                 the first genetically modified crop in the history of wouldn't exist if man had not interfered with the "natural" precursors blah blah blah

John -  you are a pretentious wannabe-Socratic ass!

But, still, I maintain that one of the shortcomings of our language (and therefore our language based human brain operating system) is the lack of precision in words.  And precisely because of that failing of language, intellectual dishonesty is easier to cultivate; when called out or held to account for something we have said, one of the easiest defenses is to claim "that's not what I meant when I said "_____"".

POLONIUS:  ...What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET:  Words, words, words.

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