What do you mean by that?

I find that in the majority of cases when someone poses a philosophical question that appears deep and difficult, my first response is to zoom in on a key term in the question and wonder ‘what do you mean by that?’. An uncharitable observer might suggest that is just a stalling tactic to mask my confusion. But I suspect it is not. It seems to me that most of the paradoxes, dilemmas and confusions we find ourselves in are really a consequence of being insufficiently clear about meaning. Equivocation is a classic example – where a single word is used in different parts of the argument with different meanings, and then the meanings are implicitly equated under the cover of the fact that they are denoted by the same word. A folksy example of this is:

Premise 1: Dry bread to eat is better than nothing

Premise 2: Nothing is better than chocolate cake

Conclusion: Dry bread is better than chocolate cake

Here ‘nothing’ in Premise 1 means ‘not having anything to eat’ but in Premise 2 it means ‘There is no other food that…’. These are different meanings so they cannot be equated to reach the conclusion.

A more philosophical example is the old classic ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ (ex nihilo, nihilo fit). It seems plausible, because the same word occurs twice, so it just seems to say that you get out what you put in. But the two nothings are very different. The first one means ‘It is not the case that any thing…’. The second one means ‘a state in which no thing exists, including no vacuum, no time and no space’. The first of these is completely understandable, and makes perfect sense when attached to a remainder of the sentence such as ‘..heavier than 1kg remains in a cereal box from which all the cereal has just been removed’. But the second one is inconceivable to most humans, and subject to considerable debate about whether the words mean anything at all. So the sentence as a whole, despite its superficial plausibility, has an unclear, and quite possibly nonexistent, meaning.

‘Free will’ is another good one. Questions about whether free will exists seem impenetrable until one starts to seriously question whether we really understand what we mean by ‘free’. David Hume’s resolution, to say that ‘free will’ is the ability to do what you want to do, is dismissed by free will libertarians as being too weak because it supposes no control over what it is that you want, but they are unable to propose a stronger formulation that is clear and understandable. What they are searching for is a concept of not just choosing what you do but also choosing what you want to do, but attempts to express that clearly seem to me to always end up in a confusion of circularity (Can you choose to want to want to want to do what you want to want to want to want to do? How many ‘wants’ do we have to put in here to describe true Libertarian Free Will? No matter how many we put in, we always seem to need one more!).

The absolute, objective existence of unobserved things is a concept that raises particular ire. Scientific Materialistsi argue passionately that the cup they just put in the cupboard is still there even though the door is closed and we cannot see it. I say I agree, in the sense that, yes my mental model of the universe includes a cup object in the cupboard too, and if we were to open the door we would experience seeing the cup. They then peevishly retort that they are not just talking about a mental model, or what would happen if we looked, but the fact that the cup really exists, all the time, whether being observed or not. My reply is that I don’t know what such a statement means, unless interpreted in terms of a mental model, or potential observations. I can neither affirm nor deny that the cup exists when unobserved, because I can make no sense of either claim other than in relation to components of a mental model. I don’t know what ‘exist’ means when my two clear interpretations (component of a mental model; potential or actual observation) have been thus disallowed.

Now sometimes when we ask ‘what do you mean by that?’, it is possible to arrive at a shared understanding via further discussion. Even if the first definition leads to a request for further definitions (of words used in that definition), it may be that, after the fourth or fifth round of definitions, we arrive at concepts for which we have a shared understanding. If so, everybody is happy and we can proceed with discussion, and in learning from one another. That is always my hope when I ask ‘what do you mean’, and I think it is fulfilled more often than it is thwarted.

But there are some concepts that elude definition, and things like free will and unobserved existence are paramount examples of that. An attempted definition of one elusive term rests crucially on another equally elusive one, then another, and so on. We never get to a point where the meaning is clear. At worst, a discussion of those topics can end with the accusation ‘You know perfectly well what I mean! You’re just pretending that you don’t’, or the old classic ‘You’re just playing with words!’.

If a Scientific Materialist was so annoyed with my failure to understand her that she wanted to derail my thinking at any cost, she could take the tactic of saying ‘You say you don’t know what I mean by “exist”. Well what do you mean by “experience”?’ I could try to explain ‘experience’ but she could then pick another word in my explanation and say ‘but what do you mean by that?’. And so on. The game of ‘what do you mean by that?’ can be played interminably and, if you play it long enough, you will end up in a circle of definitions.

So is it just a silly game, or ‘playing with words’ to object that I don’t know what somebody means by something?

I was perplexed by this for quite a long time. I felt that my objections about the lack of clarity of concepts like ‘free will’, ‘a state of nothing’ or ‘absolute, unobserved existence’ were valid, but I felt that I would be unable to defend myself if those with whom I was discussing turned to me with a question about what I meant by one of my key terms, which usually revolve around concepts like ‘experience’, ‘observation’, ‘meaning’, ‘understanding’ or ‘feeling’, and then met all my attempted explanations with requests for further definitions.

This seemed such an obvious avenue for fruitful counter-attack that I found it strange that nobody used it. Now I think I know why they don’t. I think it’s because those terms are meaningful to them. Most people have a firm understanding of terms that are directly connected to first-person experience, perhaps because that’s where we all start in learning to speak. We see, we point, we name, we imitate.

If somebody did ask me what I meant by ‘experience’ for instance, I would try to describe what an experience was to me. I have a strong feeling that they would understand what I meant. Of course we can never know what it is like to be somebody else. But we make the working assumption that it is pretty similar for them to what it is for us. And that assumption seems to work, in the sense that communication is frequently effective, that we often get along, cooperate and achieve things together. It’s like how I assume that red looks the same to you as it does to me. It may not, but that doesn’t seem to matter. When we talk about red together, say buying a red cardigan, we seem to agree that the outcome of the discussions is what we expected.

What would I do then, if somebody claimed not to know what experience means, and met all attempted definitions with requests for further definitions? The only time someone ever did this to me it was not an annoyed Scientific Materialist but one of my children, who spotted an opportunity to confound their father and exploited it for all it was worth, for the sheer joy of it. Bless them! My patriarchal heart swells with pride at their ingenuity.

I have come to the realisation that the best response to such a line is simply to point out that we seem to have insufficient common vocabulary for a constructive discussion. That is neither a declaration of victory nor an admission of defeat. It is just an acknowledgement that for discussion and argument to achieve anything, there must be a certain minimum amount of shared language, and if that is not present there is no point.

Does it seem a little asymmetrical and unfair for me to demand a definition of ‘existence’ but not offer one for ‘experience’? The asymmetry comes from the fact that my interlocutor has not asked for a definition of ‘experience’, so it’s fair in the sense that I have attempted to provide definitions wherever requested. But in any case, this is not a poker game, where the winner takes all. For me, scientific, mathematical or philosophical discussion is a collaborative enterprise, the fruits of which are an improved understanding and acceptance of the world for both parties. Discussions where we start with opposing views can be especially useful, because they exposes one’s own views to critical analysis, both at the hands of the interlocutor, and in one’s own attempts to explain them clearly. My views have often changed as a result of such discussions, I hope usually in the direction of increased sophistication.

Discussions with a fervent advocate of Scientific Materialism or Libertarian Free Will usually end up with a realisation that we simply cannot reach a common understanding of what the key term – say ‘absolute, unobserved existence’ – means. In the first several such discussions I probably left with a somewhat smug feeling that the concept they were upholding had no meaning, but they were unable to realise that. Now I’m not so sure though. It is certainly possible that they are just mistaken, muddling themselves up with words that they think mean something but in fact don’t. But it is also possible that there is some real idea, feeling or concept of which they have an elusive sense, but which they are simply unable to put into words. After all, the ability to express something in words is a hopeless arbiter of what is real and meaningful to us. I cannot express Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the colour of a sunset in words, but those are both powerful experiences.

So perhaps the best way to resolve a frustrating discussion of this sort is for the party that has asked for an explanation of a key term to say to the party that is unable to supply one:

“It sounds like you feel very strongly that there is an important, real concept of x (say ‘absolute, unobserved existence’). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any way to express the concept in words clear enough to allow us to consider it logically. Although I feel as though there may be no such concept, you may be right that there is one, just hiding beyond the limits of our language’s ability to describe it adequately. It’s also possible that you may have fruitful discussions about it with others that share your sense of the existence of such a concept. Unfortunately, you and I don’t appear to have any such shared sense, so we will have to discuss something else. So tell me, what do you think is the future of Capitalism?”

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, January 2013

iScientific Materialism is a philosophical position in ontology that has absolutely no relation to how much one understands, believes or relies on science. So please don’t conclude from the fact that I am not a Scientific Materialist that I am anti-science. That would be the complete opposite of my real view.


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