It seems that this is the week in which eigenstate has insisted on making himself the poster child for materialist lunacies. OK. We will oblige him and use his latest as the basis for a post on the licit and illicit use of language.
What is our goal when we use language? The answer to that question seems obvious. Unless we are intentionally trying to obscure, prevaricate, or dissemble, our goal is to convey our true meaning to those with whom we are trying to communicate.
How do we convey meaning? To answer that we need to answer a more basic question. What does it mean to mean? I am sure most people will agree with Wittgenstein on this point. In Philosophical Investigations he wrote that the meaning of a word is its use in the language. Think of language as sort of a game that we play. The game has rules and so long as everyone abides by those rules, things go more or less smoothly. One of the rules in the language game is that we will use word X to mean concept Y. This is not to say that a particular word has only one fixed meaning. A word can have any of several different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
How do we determine the use of a word in the English language? Dictionaries describe for us what English speakers mean when they use a word.
But what if I want to assign an esoteric, non-dictionary meaning to a word? That happens all the time; surely that practice is not illicit. Of course it is not illicit. But if you do that, it should be obvious that the burden is on you, not your audience, to make that clear. If you use a word — any word — you must expect your audience to understand that you are using the common everyday dictionary version of that word unless you tell them otherwise. It is stupid for you to assign an esoteric meaning to a word and then blame your audience for failing to know that. Otherwise, you go down the Humpty Dumpty road:
[Humpty Dumpty says to Alice]: ‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Where does eigenstate come in? In our exchange yesterday I pointed out the self-refuting incoherence of one of the tenants of eigenstate’s eliminative materialism:
Eigenstate believes (and asks us to believe) that beliefs do not exist.
I was referring to one of the key tenants of eliminative materialism – that the perception that each of us has that we can evaluate a claim and choose to accept that claim or put confidence in it (i.e., believe it) is an illusion, mere “folk psychology.”
I was surprised when he came back at me and said, no, “beliefs are real.” Well, this is just confusing, because he also says that beliefs are an illusion. Which is it E old bean, are beliefs real or are they an illusion?
It turns out that the answer to the question for eigenstate was (big surprise here) equivocating on the word “belief.” When he said it was real, he meant that “distributed brain states that realize a proposition or a concept” are real. [Let us set aside that this puerile drivel is all but meaningless; that is another topic] And when he said it was an illusion he meant that our understanding that a belief is something we choose to accept or place our confidence in is an illusion.
Then he proceeded to give me a big dose of the type of scorn Humpty Dumpty poured on poor Alice. He wrote:
The map is not the territory, Barry. Your map is faulty, but the territory is perfectly real. If you insist on using your definitions, you are committing yourself to continued blunders and mistakes.
But it is not “my definition” of belief I insist on. It is not a private word after all. Here is the an exhaustive list of the meanings assigned to the word in the dictionary:
1. something believed; an opinion or conviction
2. confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediatelysusceptible to rigorous proof
3. confidence; faith; trust
4. a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith:
What is common to all of these? The everyday understanding of the word “belief” is infused with “intentionality,” which is a fancy way of saying that “belief” is a mental state that is “about” or “directed at” something. Intentionality is inherently agent-object oriented. Therefore, the common everyday meaning of “belief” ALWAYS describes an agent’s choice to accept something as true or place his confidence in it.
No dictionary anywhere defines belief as “distributed brain states that realize a proposition or a concept.” So it turns out that eigenstate, not I, was using an esoteric meaning of the word. Just as old Humpty was using an esoteric meaning of the word “glory.” I pointed out that I was only asking E to use words in the sense that English speakers use them. For my trouble, I got more scorn:
Barry, you are speaking like a child.
English speakers use different definitions for the same word all the time, and successfully communicate and understand based on those different definitions as an everyday, ho-hum, matter-of-course feature of discussion.
Certainly, it is true that English speakers use words in a different sense all the time. I have already pointed that out. The issue is whether Humpty can use “there’s glory for you” in the sense of “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!” and expect Alice to understand it. The answer is yes, he can if he tells her beforehand that he is using an esoteric sense, but no he cannot if he does not.
If eigenstate is going to say “beliefs are real,” he must expect his readers to understand the word “belief” in the context of its everyday dictionary sense. In other words, he must expect them to understand that he is affirming the common everyday meaning of “belief,” which always refers to an agent’s choice to accept something as true or place his confidence in it. If he is going to use an esoteric meaning such as “distributed brain states that realize a proposition or a concept” he must alert them in advance, and it is almost literally insane for him to berate his listeners if they don’t understand him if he fails to do so.
There is no “received” and singular definition for any word. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.
[It is curious that E appears to know some linguistic buzz words; yet he has not the slightest clue what they mean in practice.]
Yes, there is no received and singular definition of a word. Yes, dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. The issue is, of course, what do dictionaries describe? They describe the common everyday use of words as English speakers use them — i.e., how E should understand his readers will receive the word unless he tells them this is a special case. If Humpty had consulted a dictionary he would have learned that English speakers do not use the word “glory” to refer to a “nice knock-down argument.” If E had consulted a dictionary he would have learned that English speakers do not generally use the word “belief” to refer to “distributed brain states that realize a proposition or a concept.”
The issue is simple. Humpty had no right to expect Alice to know his esoteric meaning (which he actually admitted in the story). E has no right to expect his readers to know he is using an esoteric meaning (which he has yet to admit).
As you’ve granted above, no one owns the definition or controls rights to their usage; they mean what we agree they mean.
Yes, we can agree to an esoteric meaning. The point is, E, that we have to agree before you use the word that way. Even more importantly, if you use the word is two different senses in the same discussion you have to tell people what you are doing. You can’t just put the sentence “beliefs are real” out there unless you immediately explain that you don’t mean what most people would understand you to mean. Otherwise you have equivocated, which is fundamentally dishonest.