Guest post: The arbitrary link between words and meanings

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on The social world is every bit as real as a booster rocket.

It’s interesting that critical thinking is often held (especially among movement skeptics) to be more closely associated with “hard” subjects like the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering than supposedly “soft” subjects like linguistics, psychology, philosophy etc. As someone with one leg in each camp*, I can definitely say that the former has been more useful in terms of employment. But in terms of critical thinking, I have to say that the most important lessons I have learned in my life – whether at school or from books – have come from “soft” fields like psychology, including things like heuristics and biases, cognitive dissonance and rationalization, motivated reasoning and wishful thinking, the fallibility of perception and memory, cognitive illusions, conformity and groupthink, willful blindness, the human tendency to find meaningful patterns and connections in random chaos etc.

But probably the most underrated lesson – both from studying linguistics and communication, and from working for years as a (technical) translator – has been to make me hyper-aware of the arbitrary link between words and meanings, between signs/symbols and the things/concepts/ideas they point to, between names and things named etc. As others have pointed out (I was thinking of posting this comment in the comments section of this post), words don’t mean anything in themselves, but get their meanings from us. If, by some historical accident, what we call “fish” had been called “bird” and vice versa, this would be no more or less “correct” than our current way of using the same words.

But of course this doesn’t prevent people from thinking and acting as if words were inherently meaningful. Now, I don’t believe in (a strong version of) the Whorfian hypothesis** (the idea that our native language forces us see reality in certain ways while making other ways of thinking practically unthinkable), but I do think language affects thoughts in more subtle ways. For one thing, it seems to me like people often fall into the trap of assuming that things that are called the same are the same, or different version of the same kind of stuff, or at least related in more than name only. This is why sophisticated theologians are so eager to get unbelievers to apply the word “God” (Why “God” specifically? Why not “Ogd” or “Dog”?) to something that exists (Life, the Universe, and Everything etc.)***. Never mind that this “something” has nothing to do with what most people associate with “God”: As long as something called “God” exists, then “theism” is right, and “atheism” is wrong, and from there it’s a free-for-all. The same thing goes for “free will”. The difference between “free will compatibilists” and “free will incompatibilists” isn’t that the former believe in something the latter don’t believe in, since the “free will” accepted by the former has nothing to do with the “free will” rejected by the latter (the counter-causal kind). To bring up compatibilist free will at all in a discussion about counter-causal free will is therefore just a red herring and changing the subject. The only thing that makes it seem relevant to the topic is the expression “free will” itself.

And as we have seen the same goes for pretty much every word in the vocabulary of gender apologists. This is why I keep making distinctions like “women₁” (people with innate physical traits more representative of mothers than fathers) vs. “women₂” (people who think or feel some unspecified way about themselves) or point directly to the definition rather than use the word “woman” itself. Getting gender apologists to do the same would be illuminating indeed…

Words and labels can also create an illusion of understanding where there is only confusion. I quite like the answer that Neil deGrasse Tyson once gave when asked if he identified as a secular humanist (or something similar). I don’t remember the exact wording, but in essence his answer went something like this: “If I tell you I’m a secular humanist, you are going to think you already know a lot more about my actual views than you do. If you are truly interested in knowing where I stand, you’re going to have to stick around for the long version. And if you don’t have time for that, then no real understanding is going to be conveyed by me just giving you a label.” The same thing goes for “feminism”. Saying that “feminism” is a movement that fights for the equality of women doesn’t get us very far when we cannot even agree on what it means to be a “woman” (woman₁ or woman₂?) or what is meant by “equality” (making our various group identities irrelevant with respect to how people are treated, or making sure everybody is treated the way that’s appropriate to their particular group identity?).

Or language can create an illusion of sharp divisions where really what we have is a continuum. One example might be creationists’ insistence that there are no transitional fossils between Homo and Australopithecus. After all every such fossil ever discovered was called either one or the other of these names, so clearly they must be sharply divided. When astronomers were debating whether or not Pluto should still count as a planet, what they were discussing were not objective facts about Pluto, only what would henceforth be meant by the word “planet”.

Another linguistic trick, much favored by religious apologists, is the use of double negatives to evade the burden of proof. Nobody wants to be the one holding unjustified beliefs, so apologists of every kind have made an art form of re-framing belief in supernatural woo as a “lack of atheism”, “absence of philosophical materialism” etc. Instead of being blinded by the syntax, we need to look at who is actually attempting to add something to our ontology. We know – as well as it’s possible to “know” anything – that the physical, material universe exists. To me “atheism”, “philosophical materialism” etc. are just different names for refusing to add something more to the picture of reality painted by science without a minimum of justification. Any such addition has to earn its place, or Occam’s razor takes care of it. Thus expressions like “lack of atheism” or “absence of philosophical materialism” boil down to little more than an absence of an absence of (certain subsets of) unjustified beliefs.


* I have a Bachelor’s degree in media studies and (the equicvalent of) a Master’s degree in germanistics. Shockingly, this turned out not to be every employer’s dream, which is why I went and got myself a second Bachelor’s degree in renewable energy engineering.

** Popularized in George Orwell’s 1984 and more recently in the movie Arrival.

*** I once defined “sophisticated theology” as the art of saying “It doesn’t matter what you believe in as long as you call it ‘God’” in as many words as possible”

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