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Language and Morality

By admin - Posted on 16 January 2012

Natural logic still seems irresolvable

"There is another big issue that hurts morality that I think we should touch on: LANGUAGE. People generally agree that language is imprecise. But, if it’s so imprecise that it causes major social problems, why don’t we fix it?”

"Maybe the average person can’t deal with much beyond Single Sentence Logic. So they are confined to an imprecise world no matter what. But, even with the best efforts of the great philosophers, some concepts seem beyond definition.”

"So, are the theologians right after all? Are some concepts beyond human understanding?”

"That’s not what I’m getting at. Sure, if there were supernatural meanings, we might not be able to understand those. But, at least we ought to be able to identify them, say why we can’t understand them, and put them aside. I’m talking about issues that only deal with natural problems that also seem to be irresolvable.”

"But I don’t think society has to accept that. So, let’s explore this some.

Need for agreed on definitions

First, we agreed that people have to use similar definitions in order to have meaningful communications, right?

Problems with definitions

"Yes. We discussed that. But I can already see a significant problem. Some people just want to have power. So they try to own the definition of words.”

“Precisely! And unfortunately, fixing language is not going to take the place of fixing human hostility if people have a hidden agenda that has to be dealt with separately. But given that we are truly trying to find agreement, we have to address that there are multiple ways to look at definitions.”

"Hold on! I thought this had a totally simple answer. You just look in the dictionary.”

“Oh yee of simple truths. If the world has a thousand different Bibles, what makes you think there is just one dictionary?”

"Duh? Of course.”

Lexical definitions

“So here are a few of these dictionary problems. A lexical definition reports how a term is currently used in a community. The goal is to inform someone else of the locally accepted meaning of a term. So a lexical definition depends on the accuracy with which local usage is captured.”

"You just introduced a scary new problem! The word LOCAL.”

"Hey. Have faith. The world is very quickly getting better about this as communications improve. In the old world, words would change meaning every time you crossed a river. Humans also have a way of using old words to mean new things. So, being ‘cool’, used to mean a cold temperature. But now it can also mean ‘being very good’, or being ‘emotionally withdrawn’. A very disastrous example of this is the word LIBERAL, used as a political term.”

"Oh yeah. Ben told me about that. The Latin root liberalis means free. Years ago, it meant free of government and was a slogan of the Republicans to imply less government. Now it means free thinking and is a slogan of the Democrats, who favor more government.”

“Precisely! And aptly demonstrating the phrase ‘political football’. But, liberal is also a word that everyone wants to own. It gets pulled back and forth. Another interesting set of words is ‘drugs, sex, and rock and roll’. What do you think is the perception of that phrase?”

"Among the old folks, it has a pretty bad connotation. It’s a deriding term they use to characterize the younger generation.”

"Precisely! But, how about the phrase ‘wine, women and song’?”

"MAN! I never thought of that. It’s the same thing! It just has different words! Hypocrisy if I ever saw it!”

"As I said. Words are political footballs. And different groups of language scholars create different dictionaries to try to enforce their own meanings of words.

Stipulative definitions

At the other extreme, a stipulative definition assigns a meaning to a completely new word, creating words that previously never existed.”

Scientists careless with language

"This is actually a big problem in science. Scientists have to make up new words all the time for new particles and properties. The problem is they try to be cute. So, atomic particles now have properties named spin, color, strange and charm. But each of these words already has a definition that average people are familiar with. So when average people listen to scientific explanations, they get totally confused.”

“Precisely! It would be much less confusing in the long run for new applications to develop new words, rather than taking over existing words and demanding new definitions.

Precising definitions

Combining words into phrases is a way to reduce the vagueness of words. This is called a ‘précising definition’. So the word ‘listening’ can be more exact if stated as ‘attentive-listening’. This can be done with full words, parts of words like prefixes and suffixes, foreign words and made up words.

"Alright. I get the point. The government tightly controls money, but is hands-off when it comes to policing words.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it. In any case, it’s a huge problem, even before you mix cultures. I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke, that the U.S. and England are two English speaking countries separated by a common language.”

"Right-O, govna!”

Hidden contradictions - Riddle – mountain so big

“OK. So let’s assume the impossible happens and people start agreeing on definitions and even apply the definitions correctly to the problem. We then have to deal with confusion in how words are used in sentences. Have you ever heard the riddle, about God’s mountain?”

"Sure. But I don’t have a clue how to answer it.”

“OK. Let’s walk through it. Do you believe that God can do anything?”


“Ok. Then can God make a mountain so big that He can’t move it?”

"That’s where I get stumped. There doesn’t seem to be an answer. If you say yes, he can build it, that implies he can’t move it. But if he can’t move it, that means there is something he can’t do which means he can’t do anything. But if you say no, he can’t build such a mountain, then that also means he can’t do something. So, I’m stuck.!

“This riddle stumps a lot of people. It’s a trick question. To understand this, first let’s take God out of the question. Start with an imaginary super being with unlimited power. Can you describe such a power?”

"Hmmm… “

“No, you can’t. Because there are assumptions built into some of the words, namely, “big” and “move”, that set up an impossible situation. Big relates to weight or mass. Move relates to forces acting on objects. We all know from experience that forces make objects move. So, common sense tells us that no matter how big an object is, if you keep making the force stronger, eventually the object moves, even with friction.

So, this question is a trick because it takes two conditions that CAN’T happen at the same time and starts the question assuming that they can. Remember, we are leaving God out of the question for now. Given we are working with the worldly concepts of force and mass, there is NO condition with FINITE quantities where an object will not move if a big enough force is applied to it. Stated in these terms, ‘is there any object so big it can’t be moved’?”

"Hmmm.. . I see. The answer is no. It’s impossible.”

“And that is an implicit assumption in the details. The question then plays that assumption off against the BELIEF that God can do anything, essentially asking can God do an impossible thing.”

"Hold it! I just figured out a solution. All God has to do is build any size mountain, even one you can hold in your hand, and THEN, turn off the laws of physics!”

“Funny. You’re a clever little bear cub. But bzzzz! Sorry Mr. Nanook. No Cigar. You weren’t paying attention to another small detail. The original question says ‘so big that HE can’t move it.’ So, even if God turns physics off, to meet the challenge, He still has to cause the mountain to move to solve the riddle. I.e. He’s stuck. He still can’t get the mountain to both move but not move at the same time.

But the real KEY to this riddle is just one word, ‘CAN’T’. In it’s simplest form, the question comes down to, ‘can God make anything that He CAN’T do anything He wants.”

"Ahhhh! Right! Now I see it. The question essentially plays the ASSUMPTION that God CAN do anything against the requirement that He CAN’T do something.”

“Precisely! All the rest is the magician’s scientific word distraction that hides the riddle.

Now the Church will tell you that if God set up the laws of physics, then He can change them. So you just need to ACCEPT the premise that God can do anything ON FAITH. But this example shows that physics isn’t even involved. It’s all about LANGUAGE and LOGIC. So if we let the mystery of faith defense let us answer YES to this question, then we have to give up all sanity. Why? Because in that light, no words can ever be expected to have a fixed, logical meaning.

Hidden assumptions - Zen - when the student is ready

Here’s another example. It’s an old riddle. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ ”

"Funny! Yeah, I have heard that. Zen right? Sorry. I don’t have a clue.”

“Correct. It’s an old Zen Buddhist saying. Zen was a Chinese offshoot of Buddhism that focused on BEING AWARE OF DAILY LIFE AND UNDERSTANDING ITS RIDDLES. And, of course, this riddle claims that when the student becomes READY, the teacher ALWAYS magically appears. How can that be?”

" . . . . . .”

“I’m playing a game with you. The simple description of Zen I just gave you had the answer right in it. Here, I’ll give you a hint. Think about what I just said in relation to learning from daily life.”

"Hmmm . . . OH! Yeah! Now I see it. NEAT! The teacher is ALWAYS there to begin with. The teacher is just life around us. What the student has really done is pull together the knowledge to understand what life is saying. And when the student is READY, the pieces of the puzzle are already there and fall in place.”

“Exactly! The teacher is everywhere and in everybody. When the student gets to a point where they have sufficient knowledge, or facts, and are ready to understand and accept the teachings all around them, then they recognize the answers and recognize the teachers. Of course, there are a dozen hidden assumptions in the riddle as well. One, for example, is that the responsibility for learning rests on the STUDENT.”

"The problem you’re presenting is that many questions people deal with everyday are like this?”

“Precisely! And a process is needed in our culture to teach people to spot and resolve these riddles.

Need for Logic - non-contradictory identification

So, at this point, I think we can make a broad generalization. In order to solve the problems of LANGUAGE, we first need to be clear about what LOGIC is.”

"And we already discussed that quite a bit. So, if I remember it correctly, this is how we summed it up:

Need for agreed definitions

Even though the sounds and written symbols we use in language to describe things are relative, once we have established the relationship between the sound or symbol and what it defines, we can no longer use them arbitrarily. If we did that, communication would just be gibberish. People can disagree about what a word means, but, in order to have a logical conversation, they have to accept a working set of definitions. And once they agree to the definitions, then the definitions become an absolute reference.”

“Right. And this led us to Ayn Rand’s LOGIC as: THE ART OF NON-CONTRADICTORY IDENTIFICATION. Does that make sense to you?”

"Sure. If a number of intelligent people use logic to figure something out, then they should arrive at a single solution. That is, when they ‘identify’ an answer, there is only ONE answer. It can have multiple parts to it, but there are no contradictions. And when we talk about logic, we are presuming logic based on tangible TRUTH. That is, it can’t be just a set of ‘logical elements’ that only make sense by themselves. Single Sentence Logic so to speak. The TRUTH has to be based on broad, humanly verifiable evidence. The TRUTH has to be WISDOM.”

“So, what in language can get in the way of this?

Disputes - genuine

I’m sure you know that there are many reasons. One of these I call GENUINE DISPUTES.

Genuine disputes arise due to ignorance of reality. These are disagreements about whether or not some specific proposition is true. People engaged in a genuine dispute agree on the meaning of the words. They can propose and assess logical arguments that might eventually lead to a resolution of their differences. And the resolution can be reached by research. But at the time of the dispute, they don’t have the answer to all their questions and so propose hypotheses that may be different. A simple example would be a dispute about the best time to plant a crop.”

"But these kind of disputes should not be hostile. This is a perfect situation where Ayn Rand’s statement applies, ‘When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both of us will profit.’ “

“Sure, if humans were only so logical.

Disputes - erroneous - misunderstood words

Erroneous disputes, on the other hand, arise entirely from ambiguities in how people use language to express their positions. That is, it’s called an erroneous dispute because the dispute is not actually about the topic the parties think they are arguing about. The dispute is caused by a breakdown in language. An example would be a dispute questioning whether democrats are actually ‘true’ liberals. An erroneous dispute usually disappears entirely once the people involved arrive at an agreement on the meaning of their terms. For this example, defining ‘liberal’ and listing the democratic platform would solve the dispute. If the dispute doesn’t disappear at that point, it then becomes a genuine dispute. This means a MAJOR improvement in our culture can be achieved by just teaching people to recognize when they are disagreeing about the meaning of words.

Disputes - Single Sentence Logic

In order to reduce the time it takes to discuss a topic, people fall back on our old enemy: Single Sentence Logic. So, as a generalization, the single sentence might apply to part of the topic, but it leaves out the overall. I consider this an erroneous dispute because once people face up to the need to get a full description of the problem, it becomes a genuine dispute or none at all. Let me give you some examples from what we’ve been discussing.

People frequently say, ‘pornography is evil.’ First off, both words ‘pornography’ and ‘evil’ are very broad topics. Second, both words are subjective. Each person would have their own view of what the words cover. So having an argument over this statement is mostly having an argument about the definitions of the terms.

Another example would be ‘pornography is a sin.’ Can you elaborate on that?”

"Sure. The word ‘sin’ means very different things to different religions and people. So to even get into such a discussion, the people involved need to be willing to take the time to list out what they understand by pornography and what they understand by sin.”

“Precisely! And very few people will take the time to do that. How about ‘morality comes from God’?

"OK. I get it. People don’t have a clue what the term morality means in detail. They can find out, but aren’t willing to put the time in to do it. And from what you’ve been telling me, the same applies to the concept of God.

“Precisely! And this goes right down to practically EVERY issue brought up for public debates. If a tree falls into a guy’s yard from another yard, it get’s dragged into court where an attorney tries to get an emotional response from a judge. If the question of sex education comes up in a town, the whole town will turn out to throw Single Sentence Logic tirades at each other, completely ignoring the fact that this question has been explored and DEBATED a thousand times before.

Trigger words

And then there is the issue of TRIGGER WORDS.”

"Sure. Ben and George talked about those. When people hear a trigger word, their brain gets distracted away from the meaning and focuses on dealing with the emotions that the word brings up.”

“Precisely! Erroneous disputes. And emotions bring us directly to the ‘bleeding heart’ response.”

"Right. It’s a perfect example of Single Sentence Logic. The whole world for a bleeding heart is narrowed to just the pain they see in front of them.

Desire to own good words - SSL

“And once you bring up trigger words, we need to bring up the psychology that drives people to want to OWN them.”

"Right. Ben explained that.”

“Ben is an excellent teacher, I see. So, am I making my case? There are all kind of ways to get into disputes that don’t really deal with the topic at hand.

The emotional context of language

Let me read something about this from a book called Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa. Page 118.”

“We can communicate scientific facts to each other without knowing or caring about each other’s feelings; but before love, friendship and community can be established among men so that we want to cooperate and become a society, there must be … a flow of sympathy between one man and another. While the motivations on the first side of the fence are fairly straightforward (the desire to communicate clearly and consistently), the motivators on the other side of the fence are more complex and varied."


“When we bring in the concept of ‘sympathy’ between people, we get into a realm known as ‘subcultures’. Let me read from some notes I have from an early draft that preceded an essay by Paul Kershaw titled Humpty Dumpty Bounces.”

“… humans are social animals, and one drive we have is to belong to communities. We tend to reserve the right to define the parameters of our own communities. When someone uses a community label in such a way to exclude us from a community we wish to be part of, or forcibly include us in a community we don’t wish to join, it may threaten our own comfort, and our own ability to choose associations.”

He gives an example using the word ‘pagan’.

“The dictionary defines this as not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim [a benign statement]. But it was also interpreted to mean ‘worshipper of a FALSE god,’ since the word had evolved in a Christian society. So, religions like Hindu rejected ‘pagan’, not because of the benign meaning, but because of the derogatory one. In newly developing subcultures, terms are often in flux and compete for established definitions. Recent ‘earth-centered’ groups want to define ‘pagan’ to mean ‘earth-spirituality’ based on the writings of Starhawk and Murray. If the definitions are distinct, the appropriate meaning can usually be decided from context. If they are overlapping, the threat exists that one will eventually dominate the other, and some portion of a community will be excluded.

Subcultures introduce a significant problem because the subculture, not mainstream culture, gets to define the subculture’s labels. This allows just a few dominant members of the subculture to wrest power from the broad membership, but speak as the larger number. But chaos is certain when individuals decide the definitions for themselves, without reliance on any cultural agreement.”

“Can you think of any obvious social problem where individuals decide definitions for themselves?”

"Sure! Religion. It happens when most people say they are Christian.”

Empty Directives

“Precisely! Another major language problem that comes up all the time in discussions is something called the EMPTY DIRECTIVE. An ‘empty directive’ is essentially a PROCESS, EMOTION, or RESULT WORDED AS A DIRECTIVE. Here’s an example. Say someone asks you, ‘I really want to feel good. What should I do?’ You answer, ‘Put your heart into it. Just do it!’ Do you see the problem?”

"Sure. The answer didn’t give them any details that they can follow to get results.”

"Precisely! The statement is not PRESCRIPTIVE. It doesn’t give someone steps to reach the goal. It doesn’t tell a person HOW to take action. It is not ACTIONABLE.”

"Not ACTIONABLE? I think you just made up a new word.”

"Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But, this is a way our society often responds to issues. Politicians are notorious for this. ‘How are we going to solve the pollution crisis? Well, we’re going to pull together as a nation and do what’s right for people. Or the ubiquitous, ‘we’ll do everything that’s needed to get it done’, which the intelligent citizen can read to mean, ‘we’ll keep working on this until we milk every penny from you that we can.”

"You mean, like evading the issue?”

“Precisely! The problem is, this type of response to a question seeking direction or explanation, pervades our society. There is so much of it and it is so destructive. The bigger tragedy is that most people don’t even understand what is happening, or even that it is happening.

Moral differences between cultures due to language

“O.K. Just one more language pitfall: cultural differences. While people freely admit that cultures are different, because of Single Sentence Logic, they actually hold hidden assumptions about how all cultures are the same. The result is that they also expect that the same morality should apply to all of them. This is an obvious assumption for Catholics because they believe all of humanity is subject to the same Catholic God. But, even Catholics don’t accept a one-world Catholic religion. So, if one Catholic morality isn’t even accepted world wide, how can we expect that any other SINGULAR morality would be? In practice, throughout the world, it is NOT so. Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that, even as an ultimate goal, it should be. That is, there is no reason the world can’t function successfully with many distinct moralities. Let me read something from Sam Harris about this. Page 143.”

“It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth. Many things contribute to such an endowment. Political and economic stability, literacy, a modicum of social equality - where such things are lacking, people tend to find many compelling reasons to treat one another rather badly. Our recent history offers much evidence of our own development on these fronts, and a corresponding change in our morality. A visit to New York in the summer of 1863 would have found the streets ruled by roving gangs of thugs; blacks, where not owned outright by white slaveholders, were regularly lynched and burned. Is there any doubt that many New Yorkers of the nineteenth century were barbarians by our present standards? To say of another culture that it lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own in social development is a terrible criticism indeed ... “

“And the next question is, do we have the right to such criticism? If we accept Harris’ statement, then we would expect different cultures to have different moral codes. And just as George tells us that humans, who have A2, may not have the mental structures for A3, then some of the world cultures may have moral codes still at a social-A2 level. And when two very different cultures interact, the result can be confusing to both of them. For example, Eskimo’s do not usually have many children. But since the white man came to Barrow, this has changed. The government will pay $50 a month for each “illegitimate” child. And since Eskimo’s don’t accept conventional western marriage, ALL Eskimo children are illegitimate. Many girls here now have 6 or 7 children. A lot of ‘double counting’ goes on and a lot of money appears. This produces a lot of strange behaviors in a hunting society that is largely not dependent on money. Unfortunately, most of it goes to buy liquor, which produces a huge alcoholic problem.”

Relation of the soul to air and breath

“The Bible captures this in Genesis 2:7: ‘And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and BREATHED into his nostrils the BREATH OF LIFE; and man became a living soul.’ This is a very powerful verse for someone who is into literal interpretations. BUT, if taken literally, it doesn’t match what modern religions are telling us at all. Try talking about some of these points and see what you come up with.”

"OK. Man was formed from the dust of the ground. That makes sense, in the context of ‘from dust he came, to dust he shall return’. This could have been determined by watching bodies decay back into dust. But if man returns to dust, then how can the body be resurrected? Genesis would have had to say something like, from dust he came, to dust he shall return, but only for a short time and then he’ll get put back together again - but this is part of a future story.”

“Funny. But I agree. To be accurate, I think the Bible would have to say something like that. What about, ‘Breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.‘ “

“Hmmm. . . I think I see what you’re getting at. There is a lot of controversy about when LIFE begins: the egg, at conception, at birth. This verse says man became a living soul WHEN he got the breath of life. So this would say that a person gets life and a soul when they start to breath.”

“That’s exactly what it says.”

“On the other hand, this doesn’t sound much like the Christian soul I know about at all. It says man BECAME a living soul; not that he GOT a soul.”

"Precisely! There are a lot of questions in this verse. In any case, there is a strong connection between the soul and air. Let me continue reading from Stenger.”

“The association of spirit with air is embedded in a number of ancient languages: … the Greek psychein ("to breathe"), which is related to the word psyche for "soul"; and the Latin words anima ("air," "breath," or "life") and spiritus, which also refers to breathing. The soul was seen as departing the body in the dying last breath. … like other ancient Greeks, he [Alcmaeon] viewed the body as containing channels for spirits (pneumata) that were composed of air - one of the four elements of the cosmos that included fire, earth, and water."

"Interesting. The Greek word root psyche is a base for both breathing and thinking. Then the Latin word spiritus, which obviously is a link to spirits, is also related to breathing. Spirits are always portrayed as wisps, like a breeze.”

“YES. And from the breath, the focus of the mythology switches to the soul itself and it’s properties. Let me keep reading.”

Complexity and level of abstraction - breakdown of scaling

“Another observation is what I call the BREAKDOWN OF SCALING. This means, the behavior of material takes on very different characteristics as the amount of material brought together increases. For example, elementary nuclear particles behave very different from atoms; atoms behave very different from gas, liquids and solids; single atoms behave very different from visible samples of pure elements; which behave very different from compounds of material; and compounds behave different from large objects, structures and life forms. This radical change continues at the scale of planets, then solar systems, then stars and galaxies, even though the basic laws of physics appear to remain the same throughout.

Theoretically, all behaviors at all levels can be predicted by the description of behavior of the most fundamental particles. But the behavior at higher levels is currently impossible to calculate using the basic properties just due to the complexity of the math. For example, current mathematics cannot handle more than just 3 electrons. The higher up the scale one goes, the more simplified the descriptions have to become to be manageable. So, they become generalizations. Simplicity is gained, but at the expense of lost detail.

This is an important concept because a similar case applies to information. Basic facts can be assembled into simple concepts. Simple concepts can be grouped into higher level concepts. Does this make sense?”

"Sure. In biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and whatever. Communication systems are broken down into layers: a physical layer - phones, typewriters etc.; a linking system - wires, cables etc.. At higher levels there is software that just sends raw data back and forth. Higher up is software to store and retrieve data on tape drives. Higher yet is software that does user tasks like accounting.”

“Right. But here’s the important fact I was driving at. Through LANGUAGE, any of these levels can be identified with just a few simple words or symbols.”

"Right. You and George talked to me about that.”

“But the higher forms interact in ways that are very different from the primitive forms. Again, at higher levels, detail is sacrificed. So, remember this.” [A critical concept not stated at this point in the novel is that A2 thinking is easily confused by A3 discussions when words are used but not with similar meanings at both levels. The word "soul" is a good example.]