Monday, August 04, 2008

Lexicon for Debate

One thing I particularly enjoy is having discussions around differences in world-view. It affords me an opportunity to formulate and clarify my own point of view, and also to practice the art of debate. But I've noticed a particular obstacle that tends to get in the way of meaningful discussion, and that is the variable definitions of words.

Discussions of this nature tend to employ a number of words that have similar or related meanings, to the extent that in everyday conversation those words are often used interchangeably. The problem is that the English language (as described by your average dictionary) isn't precise enough to differentiate between some of these complicated concepts reliably.

The result of this tends to be that the participants in the debate end up talking at cross purposes, which is essentially a failure in communication. No meaningful discussion takes place if the two debaters are using different definitions of the same words.

In order to facilitate the most effective and productive debate, it's necessary for the participants to agree on a set of definitions first, so that each may be certain the other understands what they are saying. This almost never happens, since just about everyone assumes that since they have
a language in common, that work has already been done. It hasn't.

What I would like to do here is propose a basic lexicon for these kinds of discussions. I aim to employ this lexicon (or one like it) in my own debates, but what I put forward here is only a guideline - a starting point. Any given discussion or any given debating partner might require some modifications to this list, and that must be discussed and agreed at the outset of any debate. Please feel free to use it yourself and modify it accordingly.

These definitions are based on those that tend to be employed by people in the scientific, sceptical and atheist communities. I like these because they are very specific - much more so than those found in the Oxford Dictionary.

Without further ado, the words:

  • Believe: To hold an opinion that a given idea is true. Belief in an idea is not necessarily dependant on evidence, but it may be informed by it.
  • Faith: To hold a belief without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary.
  • Trust: To have a high degree of confidence in the reliability of an idea.
  • Know: To be certain that an idea is true.
  • Theory: An idea that is supported by evidence and makes specific, testable claims which have been validated by experiment and peer review.
  • Hypothesis: A precursor to a theory - an idea that provides some explanatory power to a given phenomenon, along with testable predictions, but may or may not have been validated by evidence yet.
  • Fact: An observed phenomenon.
  • Science: The best system of obtaining knowledge yet discovered. It is performed by generating a hypothesis, testing its claims and collecting evidence. In science the rigour of the process is more important that the conclusions it produces, and all conclusions are perpetually provisional, pending the discovery of contradictory evidence.

Those are the ones I come across most often. There aren't many, but these are some pretty important and complicated concepts. To mix up definitions of these words is to invite miscommunication.

Do you have some suggestions on how to improve these definitions? Can you think of any other words that should be added to this list?


  1. I completely agree that not defining words properly is a huge problem in debates. A bunch of my fellow-grad students and I have taken to asking anyone who makes a claim what they mean by all the important terms therein... it hasn't made us popular! :)

    I'm not so sure you definition of "know" is a good one. Traditional epistemology defines knowledge as as having a "justified true belief" ( But that runs into the Gettier problem - cue a truly MASSIVE literature.

  2. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource giving many carefully thought-out definitions of such contentious terms, and discussions of their attendant pitfalls.

    The substance of this blog entry is, of course, the essential basis of postmodernism, which is one enormous and farcical celebration of mediocrity because it allows people to hold erroneous beliefs and still feel good about doing so, too. How is one to counter its proponents’ usual assertion that is meant to clinch the debate – you know, the one that goes, roughly, “Well, my reality isn’t your reality!” – except by issuing a hearty chuckle? How is one even to impress on the committed postmodernist (of which New Ageism is the most obvious and pervasive outgrowth) the ironic schism in his or her attempts to debate in the first place? After all, s/he takes the idea of subjective and individually constructed reality as a given, and by that assumption cannot legitimately challenge anyone else’s view, including one that asserts the existence of objective truth. Yet, they blather on with undisturbed passion and conviction, when they should remain silent, and thus negate their own position.

    In short, I would add the terms “truth,” “objective,” “reality,” “measurable,” “phenomenon,” “explanation,” “rational,” “supernatural,” “miracle,” “paranormal,” and, last but certainly not least, the New Ager’s favourite “explanatory” catchalls for those things that s/he pretends to understand, namely “quantum mechanics,” “dimensions,” “energy” and “vibration.”