Ambiguous Words

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.

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2 Responses to Ambiguous Words

  1. Sam Harper says:

    This is an excellent post! Good examples! I always characterized the misunderstanding between theists and atheists on morality depending on God to be a confusion of moral epistemology and moral ontology, but your characterization of the different meanings of “morality” is a little more clear and doesn’t require the technical terminology. I like it!

    While it is frustrating that atheists so frequently misunderstand the premises of the moral argument, I am also frustrated with a lot of well-educated Christians who are ambiguous about it and could easily be a lot more clear. I’ve heard many Christian apologists who I respect begin a blog post or speech by asking, “Can we be good without God?” That is just ASKING to be misunderstood. It isn’t clear from the question whether you’re asking whether we can be good without belief in God, or whether you’re asking whether we can be good without the existence of God. It would be so easy to rephrase the question to avoid the common misunderstanding!

    I have become a little frustrated over the phrase “free will” since learning about the distinction between the libertarian and compatibilist definitions. Before that, I thought I had a clear understanding of what “free will” meant, but I didn’t. And it seems that most people don’t. If you ask people what they mean by free will, they’ll say something like, “It means the ability to choose” or “the ability to do what you want,” or something like that. But now, knowing the distinction between libertarianism and compatibilism, that definition is unhelpful because it lacks precision.

    I recently had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness on the issue of free will, and I could not for the life of me get him to be clear about what exactly he believed. I explained to him as clearly as I could the distinctions between libertarianism and compatibilism, and I asked him follow up questions to get at his view, and he just would not be clear. I didn’t used to feel the need to ask people what they meant by “free will,” but now I do.

    I don’t think you can assume people mean it in the libertarian sense because most people haven’t thought it through that much, and they way they define free will always turns out to be something a compatibilist could say just as well as a libertarian.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Sam!
      I think “free-will” is another good example. I could have given more examples in the post, but I think giving a few was adequate to encourage others to look for their own ambiguities or to just plain get into the habit of defining words and finding out how words are being used.

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