All arguments – on any subject, legal, religious, scientific – can be reduced to one thing: the meaning of words. But people forget this, and arguments can go on for days, years, centuries and people fail to realise that they are arguing about different things because they haven’t defined what they mean by a certain word.
Let’s take a big one: does God exist? Or do gods exist?
Fire away with an opinion, by all means. But how are you defining God? Is your definition the same as the person you are arguing with? Even if you’ve sat down together and come up with a watertight legal definition of ‘God’ so that you can debate his or her existence, that still won’t do you any good. Because the word is not contained or restricted by the definition. Not once it enters your consciousness. There, it is influenced by your personality, your memories and emotions. Many people have intense connections to this word – dating back to inner experiences, or things that have happened to them or to loved ones, or simply times from childhood. The smell of incense, perhaps, triggering wisps of recollection just beyond reach of full remembering.
I’d venture that there are, at any one time, seven billion or so definitions of ‘God’ available on the planet – one (at least) for each and every person at any one time. And these are fluid, changing constantly depending on our experiences, how we’re feeling, when we last had a good meal.
Try another big one: how do you define ‘you’? Are you your body and mind combined? Is there a soul? What do you mean by that? Are you defined by your job, your name, your social status, your gender, your marital status? Or are ‘you’ something apart from all of that?
Are you always the same person? Have you always been that person, or were you different when you were younger? If you believe in an afterlife, which version of ‘you’ will go there? How will not having your body change who ‘you’ are?
I don’t have answers to these questions. But I do think they are interesting. I would enjoy discussing them but generally I don’t, because I find that talk can turn to argument too quickly – and the meaning of the words become too rigid on the one hand, and very, very fuzzy on the other.
When discussing anything with anyone, it’s not enough to know what a word ‘means’. What does it mean to me? That’s what really counts. And until I know that, then surely I don’t know what I believe.
If I don’t know what it means to the other person, then I don’t know what they really believe, so I really should stop disputing with them. It won’t get me far in any case.
All of which is very problematic for someone whose job and hobbies revolve around writing and the splattering of words onto both paper and pixels.
Words, dammit, are tricky, tricky buggers. They’re like people, really: not contained by definitions.
Photo courtesy of Ape Lad on Flickr and Creative Commons.