Guest post: True but irrelevant, or relevant but false

Guest post by Bjarte Foshaug.

Hardly anything has greater potential for introducing absurdities into an argument than using words in a different meaning than your opponent while continuing to act as if you were both still talking about the same thing. Now, obviously words don’t mean anything in themselves, but get their meanings from us. If someone wants to apply the word “fish” to what most people call “bird”, and vice versa, they are free to do so. But then it’s either disingenuous, or stupid, or both, to go on talking as if everyone else were using the words in the same way. It’s as if we were having a conversation about clubs for hitting baseballs (let’s call them “bats(1)”), and I suddenly started talking about flying mammals (let’s call them “bats(2)”) and how you’ve completely misunderstood baseball for failing to consider the relevance of Chiroptera to the sport.

We see this whenever atheists present arguments against the existence of a supernatural, intelligent creator of the universe (let’s call it “God(1)”), and “philosophically sophisticated” theists answer by pointing to the existence of Life, the Universe and Everything (let’s call it “God(2)”), as if this refuted the atheist position. And we see it whenever feminists present arguments for the equality of people with a strong preponderance of certain innate, physical traits more commonly found in mothers than in fathers (let’s call them “women(1)”), while trans* activists try to make it all about people who think or feel a certain way, or subscribe to certain cultural norms etc. (let’s call them “women(2)”).

I am sure we are all familiar with Daniel Dennett’s concept of “deepities”, but anyway: A deepity is an ambiguous statement with two possible interpretations. One of these interpretations makes the statement true but trivial, while the other makes it profound but false. I have identified a similar kind of phenomenon except that in this case the statement is either true but irrelevant, or relevant but false depending on which interpretation you choose. God(2) is no more relevant to a conversation about God(1) than flying mammals are to a conversation about clubs for hitting baseballs. The only thing that makes it seem relevant is the word “God” itself, which clearly doesn’t mean the same thing in the two cases. I would argue that the same thing goes for women(2) vs. women(1).

In both cases there is usually an element of trying – consciously or not – to have it both ways: If challenged, you can always fall back on the “safe” true but trivial/irrelevant interpretation, but for all other intents and purposes you take credit for the profundity/relevancy of the second interpretation. I can’t tell you how many religious people in my experience have attempted to first “prove” the proposition “God exists” TRUE by pointing to the existence of God(2) before changing the definition back to God(1) in order to make the proposition thus “proven” seem profound or relevant.

Trans* activist rhetoric seems to be full of equivocations like this:
• Being a “woman2”, is all about how you think or feel about yourself. Yet if a person who rejects the entire framework of “male” vs. “female” ways of thinking or feeling
 simply calls herself a “woman(1)” as a convenient shorthand for certain physical traits, she is still considered “cis”, which implies acceptance of that very same framework and identification as a woman(2).
• Being a “woman(2)” has nothing to do with physical traits, yet feminists who fight against discrimination of women(1) based on physical traits, are being inconsistent or hypocritical if they don’t change their cause entirely and turn all their focus towards the discrimination of women(2).
• Being a “woman(2)” has nothing to do with physical traits, yet straight men(1) or lesbian women(1) who are attracted to women(1) based on physical traits are being inconsistent or hypocritical if they don’t consider women(2) as potential partners.
• Etc. etc…

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