Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Ethics of Inventing Words

Sinbad, from Someone Say Grace wrote to object to my characterization of how the term ‘atheist fundamentalists’ is used and to point to a blog posting, “Ignominiously Defining Fundamentalism”, which offered a definition whereby ‘atheist fundamentalist’ actually makes sense and where some people are guilty of the moral charge that the phrase is designed to describe.

Of course, every word ever invented was, in fact, invented. Some people write as if there is a natural law of meaning – that words have a natural meaning that can be discovered by reason alone. In fact, words have whatever meanings that people agree to give them, and nothing more. If existing language does not suit our needs, then we redesign language to make it more useful – the way we may add an addition to a house or remodel a kitchen.

I have long had an interest in the moral principles governing the use of language since I started studying ethics. I have held, in some cases, that the use of equivocation fallacies and other fallacies of meaning are morally culpable mistakes that an intellectually responsible person would not have made in a particular circumstance. As it turns out, Sinbad’s attempt to define a new term, ‘fundamatheist’, provides an excellent opportunity to look at how an intellectually responsible person would approach the definition of a new term.

Inventing Language

In my own writings, I had concluded that human actions are geared to creating states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of one’s desires are true. However, I did not want to be constantly writing the phrase, “There exists a desire that P, for some proposition P, and a state of affairs S, where P is true in S.” So, I decided to remodel an old English Language term, ‘fulfilled’. I stipulated that, in place of that long, drawn out phrase, I will simply use the term ‘fulfilled’ in that role, which would reduce the word count on my writings significantly.

Note: I would swear that I actually borrowed this new usage from somebody else. However, I have never been able to identify the ‘somebody else’ who first defined ‘fulfillment’ in this way.

So, there is thing wrong – let alone morally wrong – in inventing new terms or remodeling old terms. There are problems when somebody uses these in rhetorical tricks – verbal ‘slight of hand’ used for the purpose of confusing others and scoring rhetorical points.


Sinbad wants to add an addition to our language – the term ‘fundamatheism’, which is a shortened version of ‘atheist fundamentalism’.

Christian fundamentalism is based upon the idea that the Bible + common sense = readily ascertainable truth. Fundamatheism is a similarly narrow epistemology whereby science + reason = readily ascertainable truth. In each case, the emphasis is on the readily ascertainable part, with the Truth so obvious that those who disagree aren't just in error, they're evil or damned or irrational or delusional or mentally ill or or or. Both fundamentalist and fundamatheist have a base-level arrogance. The fundy mindset isn't at all humble and rejects the idea that being wrong is even a remote possibility. Moreover and most (a-hem) fundamentally, those who disagree are inferior -- and that idea is incredibly dangerous and not terribly constructive, as history makes ever so clear.

Clearly, he holds that there is something wrong with being a fundamatheist – that this is a state to avoid. That is to say, reasons for action exist that will reduce the numbers of fundamatheists and/or the strength of their fundamatheist attitudes.

Here, I run into a bit of confusion over how Sinbad wants to use the term.

Interpretation 1

In one case he talks about refusing to deny the possibility of being wrong. In other words, the fundamatheist will not entertain the possibility that the proposition, ‘I am wrong’ has any chance whatsoever of bring true.

I think that Sinbad would have trouble defending this statement, at least among the most public atheist advocates. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but I seem to hear a lot of atheists using Bertrand Russel’s ‘orbiting teapot’ comparison to the God hypothesis. This is not an argument that says, “I have no chance of being wrong.” It is an argument that states, “As a matter of fact, if there is no evidence supporting a hypothesis, there is no reason to adopt it.” There is less evidence for the existence of a God than there is for an orbiting teapot.

In fact, in this area, we are far more likely to see intellectual responsibility on the theist side. Far too many theists argue, “There is at least the slightest small smidgen of a possibility that a god exists; therefore, a god almost certainly exists.” That is an invalid inference. When it is used by somebody who should have known better, it is an example of morally culpable intellectual recklessness.

Interpretation 2

Elsewhere, Sinbad defines a fundamatheist as one who takes the proposition, “You are wrong,” and infers from it, “You are evil, damned, irrational, delusional, mentally ill, or in some way inferior to me.” Let’s be clear – it is not just the case that the fundamatheist views those with different views as being inferior, but as morally inferior – as being worthy of contempt.

Yet, there has to be more to it than this. Sinbad himself is saying that fundamatheists are worthy of contempt. So, it must sometimes be acceptable to hold others in contempt for their beliefs, the way Sinbad holds fundamatheists in contempt for their beliefs. There must be a standard for distinguishing permissible from impermissible cases of holding others in contempt for their beliefs. By this standard, Sinbad’s attitude towards fundamatheits would be permissible, but fundamatheists’ attitudes towards theists are impermissible.

Here’s another example. I hold that the sun is a big ball made up of mostly hydrogen that converts matter into energy that is released in the form of protons. I am not strongly disposed to take seriously the claim that the sun represents the wheel of a chariot being driven by Apollo across the sky. Furthermore, I do hold that any, today, who accept the Apollo version would have some sort of mental or moral defect whereby they are either incapable or unwilling to accept the facts of the matter. Am I a ‘fundamatheist’ with respect to Apollo? Do I have an attitude towards Apollo that makes me worthy of condemnation?

If this does not qualify me as a fundamatheist, then why is it that I cannot adopt the same attitude towards those who believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?

It would seem that Sinbad either needs to further redefine his terms so that an Apollo-denier is not a fundamatheist, or so that fundamatheists are not necessarily worthy of condemnation. Or he needs to defend the claim that those who deny any plausibility to the story that the Sun is a chariot being driven across the sky is worthy of condemnation.

Without this, we have reason to reject his proposed addition to the English language.

Additional Considerations

I think that it is possible to refine Sinbad’s term, make it more precise that allows for the possible existence of ‘fundamatheists’ which is substantially along the lines originally described. That is, it is a term that refers to atheists who unjustly condemns others for not recognizing that the proposition, “‘At least one god exist’ is almost certainly false.”

Now, there is a matter of being simply wrong, and there is a matter of being culpably wrong. A person cannot be held morally responsible and condemned for every false belief he has. All of us have false beliefs. Moral culpability can only be assigned to a particular type of false belief. It is a false belief that puts others at threat of harm and which a morally and intellectually responsible person could have been expected to see as a false belief.

Sinbad seeks to use ‘fundamatheist’ as a term of condemnation. This means that a ‘fundamatheist’ cannot merely be wrong in saying that others are guilty of a culpable error. The ‘fundamatheist’ must be guilty of a culpable error himself – a belief that threatens harm to others and which an intellectually responsible person could be expected to see as false.

A ‘fundamatheist’ then could be defined as an atheist who classifies another person as mentally or morally deficient for holding a false (religious) belief where we have reason to expect a competent and responsible person to reject that belief. Furthermore, consistent with the intention to use the term as a term of condemnation, the ‘fundamatheist’ would have to be culpably wrong in holding that the theists are guilty of intellectual irresponsibility.

Now, we have a term that we can use, and we can appeal to real-world evidence to determine whether or not it applies. That is to say, we can prove whether or not an individual truly is a ‘fundamatheist’.

The question then becomes, can this case actually be made against any of the leading atheist spokesmen. Or is the charge that these ‘fundamatheists’ are making a morally culpable error itself an example of unjust, unfounded accusations?


Sinbad said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am about to get on an airplane for the East Coast and won't be back (or likely able to blog) until Tuesday p.m. at the earliest, but I want to give your comments the care they deserve when I'm back.

Sinbad said...

I have responded here:


Thanks for your patience.