Semantics

Maybe it’s just my mathematical tendencies, but I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with the ambiguity of English. Primarily, of late, I’ve been thinking about the simple interaction:

Alice: Do you like mushrooms on your pizza?

Bob: No.

Alice: (throws away the pizza)

Bob: What’d you do that for?

Alice: You said you didn’t like mushrooms!

Bob: I’ll eat them – I just don’t go out of my way to ask for them.

Okay, dumb example. But hopefully illustrative of the larger point. It seems in so many people’s minds that to not like something means to dislike something, as if there are only two options: favor and disfavor. What about “I don’t really care”? Or, in some cases, “I don’t really know”?

This has lately been the cause of some intense discussions regarding religious beliefs. For instance – “Do you believe the Lord returned in 1874?” If I answer no to this, does that mean I disbelieve, or just don’t have an opinion? I can mentally subdivide my options into multiple categories, but have seen far too many people simplify things to the point of “you’re either for me or against me”, and it’s soooo frustrating!

One of my challenges for myself is to devise a better way of illustrating this to be truly eye-opening and convincing to those who’ve never thought about more than two possibilities. Any suggestions about clear ways to explain this concept would be very welcome.

Perhaps just a pie graph would work. I could have one cut into thirds and label them Believe, Disbelieve, Undecided. Then, when someone is asked do they “Believe” and they say no it will be clearer that there are still two remaining categories…

I don’t know – what do you think?

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7 Responses to “Semantics”

  1. I very much understand. From a math standpoint, are you talking about fuzzy logic? – I don’t know, maybe not.

    The nature of language, though, is that it “wears” out. People are, generally, habitual (i.e., lazy) with their speech, and use the same tired vocabulary. Eventually, it just gets overused and loses its precision, and becomes either context dependent or ambiguous.

    In your example, what Bob should have said is that he doesn’t “favor” or “prefer” mushrooms, which are really just synonyms for “like”, but are used rarely enough that Alice would have thought twice; it’s not about using big words (necessarily), but about using precise words. However, Alice sounds like she was making a classic “Amelia Bedelia” mistake.

    As far as being able to express degrees of belief, well, I’m with you there, too. “After many deep and profound brain things in my head,” I’ve come to realize that the problem is teleology – how’s that for using an underused word? Certain beliefs trigger a protective response in people if they believe that one’s different belief (or degree of lack of belief) threatens their eschatology.

  2. Right – I knew the example wasn’t exactly precise, but I actually had a hard time coming up with a relevant one. The conversation that really motivated this discussion was related to “the presence” and that’s VERY often an example of someone reading WAY too much into the word “no”.

    I can understand how people get protective when their eschatology is threatened, but I wish they could get over it! You can’t have a really open and honest discussion if you allow yourself to feel threatened by someone else’s ideas.

    The other issue at play here has to do with applicability and/or familiarity. If you ask me if it’s raining outside and I say “no”, you don’t automatically assume it’s sunny (although maybe some would), because you know from frequent experience that there are more than two options – whereas with more intellectual debates (e.g., “the presence”) people probably find it hard to believe that you could have more than two options… for or against me.

  3. So can you expand on the specifics of the “presence” issue that you touched on? How many points of resolution would have on the answer spectrum?

  4. All I’m saying is that when someone is asked if they believe the Lord returned in 1874 and they answer “no”, most instantly jump to the conclusion that the individual believes the Lord has not yet returned. There are lots of possible points of dissension:

    1) the Lord could have returned, but in a different year

    2) the Lord has not yet returned

    3) the Lord may have returned, but the evidence is too sketchy to be sure of when

    4) there’s lots of arguments one way or the other, but I can’t make heads or tails of any of them

    In any of these cases, someone would have to answer a Yes/No question in the negative and yet people read a lot into that “No”. Some brethren haven’t even studied it, so can’t have an informed opinion.

    Another thing that nags at me is that I suspect there are a number of brethren who have not studied it out thoroughly, but rather who blindly follow the consensus, who are looked upon more favorably (read that how you will – I’m mainly thinking of being “electable” as elder) than those who have studied it out and found the arguments wanting.

    I’m frustrated at Bible Student dogmatism on points that are by no means clear. I’m frustrated by people who say one thing and do another. I’m frustrated by those who say “of course I don’t worship Bro. Russell” and yet more than 60% of their comments in bible studies are direct quotes. They don’t quote and elaborate, they quote and stop – sort of the attitude of Bro. Russell said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

    We were having a chronology study a bit over a week ago and going straight through the second volume numbers. When I pointed out there are questions about the accuracy of the period of the Kings, I was essentially told that these things are too complicated to get into for the majority and therefore we’ll just use the number given us. It’s mind boggling. I don’t care if you believe me, but at least admit that the number is questionable (unless you can give a rational explanation) and don’t pin your calculations on it. It’s like saying that a ladder is rotten, but it gets me where I’m going so I’ll continue to use it.

    And while I’m on a rant… 🙂
    I wanted to try to give the alternate point of a view a shot (because I know I tend to be biased in favor of David Rice), so I read David Duran’s treatment of the time of the Kings. It actually seems to me that what he says is (highly condensed): the numbers of the Northern Kingdom were not assiduously kept (as they were not as important as the tribe of Judah) and thus we can ignore them. That is rather cavalier, it seems to me. Essentially, I don’t like those numbers, so I’ll find a way to discount them.

    Well, better stop before this turns into a book.

  5. Ok – got it. I definitely hear what you are saying and agree. You’re hitting on the head several concerns that I have been wrestling with for several years.

    How people come to their beliefs and what sources they take as authoritative is a fairly large question.

    The point about things being too complex for the majority is a perplexing and oft-repeated retort: does that mean that, for the majority, these issues and beliefs don’t really matter, aren’t really important to know the real background and support?

    As a fellow teacher, you know all too well, that if something is difficult to understand, it doesn’t call for more ignoring, but better explaining. Could you imagine us getting away with that in our classes. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be an academic about this, but who said understanding 66 ancient books and the meaning of life was supposed to be easy?

    I’m starting to form more parts of a general framework to deal with some of these issues – hope to blog about it soon. Thanks for your detailed response.

  6. Well, to further follow up on what you said, we certainly don’t expect everyone to be an academic. That said, they shouldn’t base their beliefs on academic arguments they don’t fully understand. I think that’s the crux of what’s troubling me. There must be at least 10 brethren who are convinced of the chronological date of the Lord’s presence who don’t even really understand the argument.

    If they want to believe blindly, fine. I’d just like them to be honest with themselves (and me too, I suppose) that such is their decision. I suspect (and I know I’m throwing random percents around here) that probably close to 50% of those who believe in the 1874 date don’t fully understand the problems with the numbers… and probably also don’t care. And yet a very large group of them probably are also very dogmatic about that date.

    Ignorance coupled with dogmatism… a dangerous blend. This is where I see Dawkins having good reason to be troubled.

  7. Dana's Mom Says:

    Nathan…my cousin Tony and I were talking about some of the ideas you expressed above just last night…one topic was the great company which can be “iffy”. Our meetings get bogged down to 2 paragraphs a week and I can’t remember what we were talking about the previous week because we go so slow. We trudge along sometimes spending way too much time discussing the meaning of ONE word. Bible Students have conducted their meetings the same way for years…..sort of in a rut.

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