Felix Malmenbeck

Student , Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, Sweden


This conversation is closed.

Where does arguing semantics get us?

[EDIT: Changed things a bit to direct the conversation towards semantics, not apes.]

SUMMARY: Who really decides what words mean?
If I say humans are animals, and my friend says they're not, we're probably just relying on separate definitions of the word "animals". Who are we to say that one definition is more correct that the other?
What authorities can we appeal to? Do definitions become more or less correct by virtue of their usefulness, or by majority opinion, or by some other virtue?

The issue came up recently in an article by Vasko Kohlmayer: "Is Richard Dawkins an ape?"

In this article, Kohlmayer asserts that "Richard Dawkins is certainly is no African ape.", and proceeds to list traits that he thinks separates humans from apes.
[He actually goes a bit further than that, posing it as an argument as evolution, but that's not what I intend for this discussion to be about.]

It's not difficult to come up with counter-arguments, and indeed the discussion went on in the comments section:

"Humans are apes because A."
"No they're not because B."
"B is irrelevant."
"It's just as valid as A, because C."
"No, it's not, because D."

Several arguments were put forth, some appealing to taxonomical definitions, others appealing to authority, some appealing to emotion, some appealing to semantic relativism and some simply amounting to "I don't agree."

What I'd like to understand is... Do such discussions actually get us anywhere?
Even if one side were to convince the other, would we actually be better off as a species? When can one definition ever be said to be more "correct" than others?

  • Mar 25 2012: Arguing semantics may or may not be important depending on the context. I=Semantics is the study of meaning. Thus, if we want to ignore everything about a discussion because it is semantics we might be veering into unintelligibility. ANything goes. In the Dawkins case, some discussions on semantics were too stupid "he is no African ape because he was not born in Africa," versus "he is an African ape because the species originated in Africa." Others were not stupid because the meaning of ape was important for the contextual problem: evolution and our relationship with the rest of life. So. Give me the context and then I can decide the importance of a discussion on semantics. But let us not make it just about semantics as in "who defines this word?" or "ape according to what definition." Context means a lot. Context is important for proper semantics. So, if we are talking about evolution versus stupidity ... sorry, I mean versus creationism ... then it is not a matter of definitions, but a matter of understanding. If we deviate into discussing the semantics, rather than put the word in context and thus talk about the problem, rather than about the word, then I agree, we go nowhere. So, if a friend were telling me "according to what definition," I would say, look at the context!

    Anyway, I don't think I went anywhere in the above. Did I?
    (It depends on the definition of "going anywhere" that you are using!)
    • Apr 20 2012: When discussing precise things; measurements, directions, danger. The exact meaning is very important. When it comes to subjects like music, emotion, or god; we could argue semantics all day and in the end we would really just miss the point. It also seems samantics are important when discussing subjects such as how we should "distinguish absolute-relative from objective-subjective".
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    Mar 24 2012: Semantics get you nowhere. Language is like colors to communicate a picture.
    Most everyone knows red, green and blue but no one knows when it isn't red anymore.
    Sometimes I tried to define the terms I would speak about beforehand to avoid any misinterpretation which never worked.
    It may be helpful with common rules and laws to limit any misconception but for conversation it never works.
    People have their own vocabulary on what they can see. Different language even don't share the same words. An Indian tribe in the Amazon forest is said to have no word for blue because they never see it through the dense canopy.
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      Mar 24 2012: I agree Frans, that language is like colors and often communicates a picture, which, based on our background, education, life circumstances, etc., we may understand....or not.

      I agree that "arguing" around semantics gets us nowhere. What happens when we have an open mind and heart and start "mixing" the colors? What happens when we actually start seriously listening and hearing other's interpretations....like you do Frans?

      Are we then NOWHERE.....or.....NOW HERE?
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    Mar 23 2012: Here is an all inclusive thought on my own personal observations.

    Some discussions are meant to stimulate thought and stimulate progress of the mind.
    Some discussions are meant to trifle members of a certain group the individual or group wants to oppress.
    Some discussions are discussions that pass the time and make life less intolerant, because humans have desires to uplift their own egos', though there are definitely more ways than one to uplift one's ego.
    Some discussions are for "special" individuals that show no signs of emotional connection, so they proceed to possibly close the gap of emotional understanding by using their inquisitions and discussions, or they just keep to their small world of ideologies and tries to shape the world into their own small world of ideologies.
    Finally, some are curious by nature, innocent and with a mind full of bliss, and fully naive to the capacity of dangers, which, with a healthy degree of facilitation and guidance, can make them the next great shift in the world of advancements; or, they could possibly turn out to be key players as the support, rather than the leader.

    I think that the relevance of definitions is most definitely pertaining to the field of subjectivity, besides the "other" factors. We can always agree, that this world will have its disagreements, but could we come to a consensus on solving true crises at hand such as; those that affect our health, safety, education, progressive thinking, environment, and all things pure by origins (not a religious reference). Put aside your affiliations, values, and differences in order to form unity in our world community, to solve those serious issues, so put down your arms and barriers and give embrace to your fellow humans. Let's get crackin now!

    Thanks you for reading my thoughts. Feel free to ask any of your thoughts. =)
  • Mar 24 2012: http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/healthscience/2012/March/Ethicists-Argue-for-After-Birth-Abortion/

    Semantics can lead us into a grey zone of what is right and what is wrong. If you can redefine as you like, say a human is an ape... Can you also say that a new born baby is not a human? Take a good look at this link because that is exactly what some people are trying to say. What defines a human being? If you go by the criteria Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva then we can quickly see the moral decadence that this could lead us into.

    The question is the same. What is the human being? When does our human beingness begin?

    A car being built on the assembly line with thousands upon thousands of parts being mounted... at what point can you rightfully call it a "car"?

    When does the blossom become the blossom on the rose. It grows out of the seed to the stem the leaf and eventually within the stream of time the pedal develops from these lower parts and becomes the blossom or completes our fixed concept of the rose.

    But... was the "rose" always there....?

    If so... how? If not so... when?

    Semantics are very important.
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      Mar 24 2012: A very interesting point. Very often in the debate about abortion, somebody will ask the debaters: "When does life begin?" or "When does an embryo become a human?"
      I'd wager that if you'd ask a biologist, they'd almost certainly answer that the very first diploid cell formed from the merging of a sperm cell and an egg cell constitutes a lifeform, and I also have little doubt they'd classify it as human.
      Those who are against abortion will often say that life - human life - begins at the moment of conception, while those who support abortion seem more skittish about this, because words like "life" and "human" carry a lot of emotional weight with us.

      However, that really doesn't seem to get us anywhere, because carrots are alive and most of us have no ethical problem with eating them, and skin cells are living human cells but we don't mourn the loss of each individual skin cell. To that extent I agree with the bio-ethicists mentioned in that article, not saying anything about their conclusions; if we're going to talk in terms of very broad categories, we need to be careful about making sweeping generalizations about those categories.

      Switching focus to personhood seems a good idea on the surface of it, but unless people can agree on what they're actually talking about, and actually talk about the societal and moral ramifications before they start lumping things into categories, there's a risk we just switch from one argument over semantics to another.
  • Mar 24 2012: At least you are interacting with your own species....which is good. The conversation may evoke other ideas worth having.
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    Mar 23 2012: It was probably a mistake of me to make this specific case so big a part of the discussion. Tried changing some of the wording to make it more about the larger issue of definitions and arguing semantics, and less about whether or not we were apes.

    Please let me know if you have any feedback on how I can improve the original post!
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      Mar 23 2012: I knew your description was more leading towards another issue, but very intriguing topic none-the-less. Thanks for changing the title, but it was pretty funny, which made me curious. =)
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        Mar 24 2012: Hehe, yeah. A specific issue is good for getting people interested, but when it's controversial, there's a risk it'll drown out the larger conversation (as, indeed, I'd argue the case is in the example; the controversial semantics issue drowns out the larger issue of the veracity, extent and fine details of evolution).

        Made another edit today and reduced emphasis on specific arguments against Kohlmayer's assertion that we're not apes; don't want to risk contaminating the discussion with too many of my own opinions on that specific matter.
  • Mar 23 2012: If Richard Dawkins chooses to proudly refer to himself as an animal, specifically an African ape, it is his prerogative to do so.

    Personally, I think of him as a different breed ... more of a horses ass.

    Where does arguing semantics get us? Closer to the center of the Tootsie Pop.

    The agnostics and atheists say 'Natural Selection', the religious say 'Intelligent Design' ... semantics ... as it's all the same force propelling life forward.
  • Mar 23 2012: Interesting, I have wondered about the same myself... while I was a law student there were many different definitions given by different authors of the same thing and you had to break them down and use lenguage in a somewhat technical way to descifer which is really describing reality or at least seems closer. I think definitions should be taken care of carefully, you see... if newton described gravity as "its that thing, when you fall..." maybe his folks would understand him but it would have no greater significance, the point is to describe things (with words) in a scientific way and try to prove that the words you are using are actually those that attach to what is really happening.
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      Mar 23 2012: Indeed, a rigorous, universal description gravity as a vector function carried more explanatory power than "It's that thing, when you fall" ... and yet, I sometimes find myself describing gravity in terms closer to the latter description than the former.

      I suppose there are really two different things to consider:
      WHAT is the definition in use?
      HOW is it being used? [Is it to be taken literally? Is it to be applied universally? etc.]

      Certainly, Newton meant for his description to be taken quite literally and universally, and so it was, and that's both what makes it so useful and what's allowed scientists to falsify it.

      Descriptions like "It's that thing when you fall" are certainly not meant to be taken too seriously; they're over-simplified descriptions that we give to children or use in extremely casual conversations.
      Problems don't start to arise until somebody gets it into their head to apply it more broadly than intended, and start using it in arguments without explaining what they really mean.

      The article I liked to in the original post seems a prime example. Below is my (admittedly rather subjective) summary of said article:

      The author takes a quote by a person, D, who's using a particular who's using a particular definition of the word "ape".
      He argues against that definition by setting up his own definition of an ape, without addressing the definition that D is using.

      He concludes:
      D says humans are apes. I've shown that they're not. Therefore, D is wrong about evolution.

      What he SHOULD have concluded was:
      D uses a particular definition of apes. I use a different one.
      D claims that humans are apes by his definition. I have not addressed that claim, but just so you know, according to my definition, they're not.

      In the end, because the article focuses too much on the words being used and not enough on what's being conveyed by them, it ends up having little value to the subject it's meant to address. [At least in my opinion.]
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    Mar 23 2012: The only motivation for anyone to argue that humans are not apes (or animals in general) is a religious one.
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      Mar 23 2012: That certainly seems to be the case in Kohlmayer's article, but I'm sure there are many who would disagree with you. For example, anthropology professor John Hawks: http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/phylogeny/taxonomy/humans-arent-apes-2012.html

      Another person writes in a comment related to Hawks' entry:
      "I’m an organismal biologist and I am all about the monophyly of formal taxa.
      On the other hand, I think it’s kind of arrogant of biologists to insist on redefining centuries-old vernacular terms for groups of organisms to match recent advances in phylogenetic taxonomy."

      That being said, even if it were the case that the only reasons to argue against calling apes are religious, the question remains:

      Are we spending too much energy on discussing semantics?
      Are we too obsessed, perhaps, with words being used "correctly"?

      What impact do semantics really have on an argument, so long as one is conscious that there are different definitions in play?

      Certainly, there are cases where a semantic misunderstanding can lead to an erroneous argument. For example:

      "The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy - which is a fancy word for "disorder" - of a closed system will always increase over time. But I just cleaned my room with the door and windows were closed! In order words, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong."

      In these cases, we need to point out to the person that the definitions they're using to make their argument don't match those which are used to state the Second Law of Thermodynamics which he uses as a starting point, and therefore his argument is not necessarily valid (and, in fact, in this case it's just plain wrong).

      The same pretty much goes for Kohlmayer's article, but the argument we should have then is not whether or not his definition is correct, but rather its significance for the conclusion he draws.
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        Mar 23 2012: OK. Let me refine my response a bit.

        Whether or not humans are apes is principally a semantic proposition. Define “ape” and “human” properly and with sufficient knowledge of our genetic ancestry we should be able to agree one way or another.

        The fact that people get so wound up with the question is due to the religious implications. Whether John Hawks’ insistence on teaching his children that we are NOT apes is based on his personal religious beliefs, I don’t know. But I do assert that he is able to make a big deal out of nothing because of the religious implications.
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    Mar 23 2012: My own thoughts on the matter:

    Language is many things: A tool for communicating concepts, a tool for eliciting emotions, a toy to amuse oneself with...

    When one moves into the field of assigning labels to things, however, and when one uses those definitions to formulate arguments, I feel that one needs to emphasize the first role - a tool for communicating concepts - and the main merit of a definition becomes clarity.

    At this point, referring to some authority becomes useful.
    "X says W is defined as D. Please bear this in mind when considering my arguments."

    If you wish to use a definition that is widely disagreed with, and the concept it describes is central to your argument, it's a good idea to acknowledge common definitions and explain how yours differs.
    "X says W is defined as D. Y says W is defined as E. In my argument, I shall be defining W as F. Please bear this in mind when considering my arguments."

    It also becomes important to keep this in mind when quoting people as a part of your argument:
    If you define W as F, and you find a scientific paper linking W to X, you can't always assume that the paper says there's a link between F and X; you must ask yourself: "Are we using the same definition of W?"

    If you do this, people may still argue over whether or not it's a good definition by whatever virtue, but at least anybody wishing to analyze your argument will have the ability to do so, because whatever definition they prefer, they can "translate" your argument using the "key" you've provided.
    This allows the conversation to move on to the argument itself, without getting bogged down too much in semantics*.

    *Not to say that semantics aren't INTERESTING, because I think they are (otherwise I wouldn't have started this thread); it's just that sometimes you want to keep discussions separate, and it's seldome appropriate to use semantics as an argument for or against a theory in, say, evolutionary biology or cosmology.