The Problem with Definitions

There’s an inherent problem in communication between beings that are both sentient and sapient and that problem is the problem of definition.

Defining terms, more importantly, defining terms in their use in particular contexts is a huge problem in engaging in meaningful, thoughtful, and, hopefully, productive conversation. This is something that, as a writer and a researcher, I have discovered is often overlooked in interacting with audiences.

As a writer I, depending upon the context in which I am writing, I will often take time to define the terms that I am using, trying to stay as close to standard definitions as possible, depending upon their usage in specific contexts. However, given the things that I have exposed myself to, I realize that sometimes the standard definition may not be adequate for the task at hand and I recognize that I may have to give a specialized, non-standard definition so that I can meaningfully articulate my intentions. All writers do this.

In research for a book that I am writing (that seems to be all the rage) I have been reading several atheists on the matter of morality, and have found that they will either use a word in a manner that violates its standard, i.e. dictionary meaning, or will give it a specialized definition and then proceed to use it in line with its dictionary meaning. What do I mean by this?

Well, let’s take two words, ethics and morals. Ethics, in its standard usage, refers to the rules derived from morals. Morals, however, refers to the interactions between humans in regards to behaviors. That is to say that morals are what we do and ethics are how we do it in a systematized form. The problem is that we use them interchangeably when they are not necessarily synonymous. Maybe this is just unnecessarily splitting hairs on my part, but I think that this is worth considering.

Let’s think about something that an atheist like Alex Rosenberg puts forward in his book An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, when he makes two statements that contrast one another, in chapter 5 (page 53 of the pdf version) where he says,

There is good news and bad news. The bad news first: we need to face the fact that nihilism is true….The good news is that almost all of us…are committed to the same basic morality and values.

Now, anyone who has a passing familiarity with nihilism recognizes that it has a few disconcerting qualities: it denies grounding for morality and is dedicated to repudiating any imposed values and meanings. Theres a number of different forms outlined in this article, but Rosenberg seems to confirm this saying,

Nihilism rejects the distinction between acts that are morally permitted, morally forbidden, and morally required. Nihilism tells us not that we can’t know which moral judgments are right, but that they are all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. (p.54, pdf)

Now, he doesn’t prove that “[…]nihilism is true…,” he just leaves it hanging as a bare assertion, but he gives a sigh of relief that almost everyone is “[…]committed to the same basic morality and values…,” but there’s something in his statement that, “[…]we can’t know which moral judgments are right…,” which seems to beg the question, how does he know that?

He appeals to common moral principles that seem to be shared across cultures, however while we can point to shared moral principles, they aren’t applied equally across all cultures or even within cultures, because there are built into most moral principles what can only be called “othering” principles that distinguish moral principles that do not apply to that one that is other.

For example, the statement, “It is wrong to cause gratuitous pain to a baby,” is dependent upon several necessary presuppositions that provide the preconditions to understand every element of that statement in order for the statement to be true. The statement is and ethical rule that is built upon a moral value that is not imposed subjectively, but are built into the object under consideration by something that unifies them transcendentally. If this were not the case, we could logically say, not “It is wrong,” rather “wrong, what’s wrong,” specifically, “what is wrong with causing gratuitous pain to anyone?” The nihilist necessarily has to answer, “nothing,” which should promptly illicit a sharp rap upside the head, because clearly they have not had the experience of gratuitous pain. If the nihilist complains and says “that’s wrong,” promptly remind him that he has no grounds to say that statement is either true or meaningful. The nihilist has to abandon his worldview to complain about any element of reality.

The problem with definitions, in the final analysis, is that they eventually come back to bite us on the butt.


  1. […] Atheistic presuppositions, such as those espoused in Alex Rosenberg’s book, which I outline here, are stuck in a position where there is only what is. Tsunamis happen. Children get sick and die. […]

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