WeeklyTech #175

What do you mean by that? Defining your terms as an intellectual virtue

For years now, I have led a discussion on Charles Taylor’s definitions of what it means to be secular in my worldview/philosophy courses at Boyce College. One reason for this is that the term secular can take on different senses and mean different things by different people in different contexts. I vividly remember years ago writing something about our secular culture in a paper. My professor circled the word and wrote boldly in the margin “what do you mean by this?” That note caused me to slow down a bit and think more deeply about the words I use as they carry a lot of meaning (and at times unintended baggage) that we need to be aware of if we are to engage in honest debate over important ideas. Failure to clarify our terms not only leads to confusion but also can be counterproductive to thoughtful dialogue with others.

According to Taylor, there are three primary meanings of this term which he indicates using secular1 (sacred vs. secular), secular2 (areligious), and secular3 (an age of contested belief). I make it a point to emphasize these definitions in class and the need to be clear on the terms we use in intellectual debate. Words matter and when you are communicating with others one of the most important things you can do is to be clear with what you mean. One may decry the secularization of our society and shedding of a settled and shared moral consensus, while another simply means that we currently live in an age of contested belief. Different understandings of the issues at stake will naturally lead to different next steps to address the problem.

Intellectual honesty and clarity at times feel like a lost art in popular culture as performative posts on social media and much of the tribal nature of public discourse deem it fashionable to use our language to cover up or obscure what we really mean in order to gain social standing, recognition, and even “win” a debate. This is one of the many reasons why I enjoy studying philosophy since by its very nature as a discipline it seeks to bring clarity to what we mean and ask the hard (and at times uncomfortable) questions. Take for another example the branch of philosophy known as metaethics, which seeks to answer questions about the meaning of ethical terms and the source/nature of moral values and obligations rather than particular theories of ethics (normative ethics) or applied ethics. The goal of metaethics is to help us understand how we all approach ethical decision making in a way that helps us communicate more clearly what we mean by certain terminology and concepts.

One of the metaethical concepts that my students always find illuminating is the difference between non-cognitivism and cognitive subjectivism, which at times can seem like very similar ideas even though they are vastly different in terms of grounding and application. Non-cognitivists, often described as expressivists, do not see ethical statements as having any truth value per se as they are merely expressions of emotion or prescriptions for action. For non-cognitivists, there are no moral facts or truths which results in a form of moral nihilism. But on the other hand, cognitive subjectivists actually hold that ethical judgements are either true or false, right or wrong but that truth value depends on someone’s mind (thoughts, beliefs, feelings, hopes, etc). Moral truths are then relative to various individual or cultural commitments, yet still do exist. These two ideas may seem similar on the face but are communicating two vastly different notions of moral truth.

Routinely in public discourse, we tend to throw out certain terms and/or conflate ideas which often does nothing to actually advance our argument or bring clarity to the debate we are having. As Alan Jacobs describes in his wonderful little book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, we tend to lump people and ideas together as we seek to navigate the wide world of information overload today. Lumping does have certain cognitive benefits, but it also has many downsides as we employ language that glosses over real world complexity, whether that of particular ideas or more importantly people whose value is not simply the sum of their ideas.

As we all engage in the public square — whether online or in person — wisdom would have us slow down and recover a sense of epistemic humility, a responsive awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge and our posture toward others in discussion or debate. Each of us must understand that we all have our particular limits on knowledge and that none of us are perfectly consistent in living out what we believe. This is due to our finite or limited abilities, as well as the nature and pervasiveness of sin. Part of retrieving and developing intellectual virtue will inevitably be seeking clarity and understanding in debate, especially in the terms or ideas we use. Modeling this virtue may not always change the outcome of the important debates we have today, but it does remind us of the complexity of life and the need to speak truth clearly as we engage our fellow image bearers on some of the most important questions of our day.

Sometimes the simplest and most important question we can ask in a conversation is: what do you mean by that?

The Rundown

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By definition, an experiment is based on inductive reasoning and observation of how concrete elements behave in a controlled environment. Such an experiment is designed to verify or falsify a general hypothesis and is dependent upon evidence. In these ways, an experiment differs from abstract theory.

We Need a Manhattan Project for AI Safety by Samuel Hammond | Politico

Worries about artificial intelligence have suddenly seized Washington: The White House just hauled in a roster of tech CEO’s to press them on the safety of their new AI platforms, and Congress is scrambling for ways to regulate a possibly disruptive and risky new technology.

Sacrificing for the future by Samuel D. James | World Opinions

Sacrificing the present for the sake of the future is an increasingly endangered idea in our contemporary life. Ours is an age of aggressive “instant gratification,” a fact that shows up in everything from our technological addictions to declining Western birthrates. 

Baptist groups supporting ‘God-given rights of parents’ by Tom Strode | Baptist Press

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention (MWBC) signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday (May 8) that urged the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to rule parents have legal standing to contest the guidance of the Eau Claire (Wis.) Area School District. The policy permits staff to conceal from parents their child is identifying at school as a gender different than his or her biological sex.

Shallowfakes by James R. Ostrowski | The New Atlantis

This dystopian fantasy, we are told, is what the average social media feed looks like today: a war zone of high-tech disinformation operations, vying for your attention, your support, your compliance.

Preteens shouldn’t be on social media – I know because I was one by Rikki Schlott | New York Post

I’m an avowed libertarian. I believe that, more often than not, government intervention makes things worse. But, if there’s one regulation that even I can’t squawk at, it’s imposing a minimum age on social media use. As a member of Generation Z, I’ve seen firsthand how detrimental growing up with social media can be.