14 May 2021

Empty words

While I dislike engaging in arguments, I hope that some of what I post will be of use, in the context of arguments, to those who do choose to engage in them.  With that in mind, there is an issue often encountered in internet "discourse" which I believe it would be useful to discuss explicitly.  Consider two statements:

"I believe X."

"I believe X for reasons A, B, and C."

There is a tendency to consider these statements equivalent.  They are far from equivalent.  The first is essentially a zero-content utterance; only the second has anything to which you should, or even can, give your thinking attention.  The substance of a statement about belief is not the belief itself, but the reasons given for believing it.

(The exception would be cases in which a statement of fact either is not in dispute or will be accepted as self-evident by the likely readership, such as "China is a dictatorship" or "World War II ended in 1945".  But such statements are generally not formulated as assertions, since they are things which don't need to be asserted -- they're more likely to be used as supporting facts in a line of argument.)

Let me use my recent post about Mars as an example.  If I had merely said "Humans will not be able to colonize Mars in the foreseeable future" and left it at that, readers would have learned nothing except that I hold a particular belief which might or might not have any basis in fact.  It would have been a zero-content utterance.  The substance of the post was not the conclusion it reached, but rather the evidence I cited supporting that conclusion.  Similarly, if I'm trying to make a serious case against an opponent's position, then I need to address whatever evidence and arguments that opponent has cited to back up their stance.  Just saying "I don't agree with your position" would be another zero-content utterance.

Now consider the following statements, each of which is commonly encountered in certain contexts:

The Bible is the word of God
Silence is violence
Socialism has always failed
Trans women are women
America is the greatest country on Earth
Humanity is doomed to wipe itself out

Whether any of these statements is true or false is irrelevant to my point here.  My point is that, the way they are actually used, they are not positions supported by evidence -- in fact, they are not really even assertions.  They serve two purposes -- first, they signal membership in a tribe defined by adherence to a particular set of beliefs; and second, like the "four legs good, two legs bad" in Orwell's Animal Farm, they drown out any doubts or questions challenging that set of beliefs, especially doubts or questions within oneself.  That is, they are chants or slogans, tools for hypnotizing and browbeating the human mind into a fundamentally sub-human state of unquestioning acceptance beyond the reach of facts or logic.

Always be aware of the essential distinction between empty words and meaningful language.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I agree.
But meaningful language that's used to deny humanity is harmful. No matter how brilliant the reasoning behind its use may be.


14 May, 2021 04:13  
Blogger Mike said...

This is a great post. :)

14 May, 2021 09:56  
Blogger Jack said...

When I hear "I believe X," I mentally add "(and I am not interested in learning anything that might cause me to question it)" at the end. I find that this is usually warranted.

14 May, 2021 13:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Not sure I agree, depending on what you mean. Is it "harmful" to deny the humanity of a horse or a giraffe? And if something is true, it remains true no matter how unhappy it makes people.

Mike: Thanks!

Jack: True, the word "believe" has become rather tainted through association with religion. People with an evidence-based point to make tend to avoid it.

15 May, 2021 00:56  

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