When you are in a discussion on basically anything, it is important to know how words are being used. As I’ve become a better critical thinker over the years, I’ve noticed that many words that are used every day are ambiguous. A word is ambiguous if it has multiple meanings and it is unclear which meaning it takes on in the context it’s used in. When in a discussion, it is important to be clear on what the words you are using mean and to make sure that the person you are having a discussion with is clear on what he means by the words he is using. Ambiguities can cause confusion and it can cause conversations to go off of their original topics without the participants even realizing it, so it is important to know how to be precise and to ask your opponent what he means by certain words in order to avoid confusion and straying from the subject. It also prevents people from talking past each other. Here are some examples of ambiguous words. Keep in mind that my post is mostly about methodology, not specifically about the issues of morality, science, and what is natural. I am simply using them as examples.
First, “morality” is ambiguous. It could mean at least three different things. It could mean moral facts, moral beliefs, or moral behaviors. If a Christian believes that morality can only exist if God exists and an atheist believes that morality can exist without God because evolution and sociology give an account of it, then both people need to make sure they are using “morality” the same way or they will just end up talking past each other. The Christian probably means moral facts when he says “morality” and the atheist probably means moral beliefs and behaviors when he says “morality”. If that is the case, then neither one of them is contradicting the other. They could agree with each other. But until they clear up what they mean by their terms, this ambiguity will go by unnoticed.
Second, “science.” When that word is used it could mean the scientific method, naturalism, or scientific theories. If someone claims that Christianity is incompatible with science, one must ask what the person means by science. Does he mean the scientific method? That can’t be the case, because there does not seem to be any incompatibility between Christianity and a method of gaining knowledge about the world. Some people seem to conflate science with naturalism, which is the view that all of reality is physical. However, that is a philosophical view about the world. Christianity is obviously incompatible with naturalism, but that does not make it incompatible with science. Does he mean scientific theories? If so, then once this is cleared up, the participants of the discussion can discuss the claims of science and the claims of Christianity to see if there is any incompatibility.
Third, the word “natural” is used in debates on moral behaviors often times, especially in debates on homosexual behavior. But does some behavior being “natural” mean “it occurs in nature”? Does it mean proper functioning in some way? Does it mean “Created by God” or “God wills it”? If S claims that a certain behavior is “natural” in the sense that it occurs in nature and P claims it is not “natural” because God does not will it, but neither S nor P are clear on what the other means by the word “natural”, then they will just be talking past each other.
These are just a few examples of ambiguous words, how conversations can go awry if the meanings of these words are not made clear in the conversation, and how the direction that many conversations go will change depending on the meanings of these words. There are many other ambiguous words and I encourage you to think of some and to keep them in mind. My advice to people who get into a lot of discussions on important matters of religion, science, politics, etc., is to always ask “What do you mean by that word?” and to be clear on what you mean by your own words.
For Christians, I recommend the book, Tactics, by Greg Koukl on apologetic methodology.