On Definitions

I’m not a huge fan of using logical fallacies as a “I win the argument” button, especially informal ones that aren’t always super critical. But one fallacy I see a lot, and am myself prone to, is the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In writing yesterday’s post it occurs to me that when I talk about Christian empires, both Catholic and Protestant, there’s going to be an impulse to say “Ah, well, those were Christian in name only”, or “Catholics aren’t Christians”, or what have you.

I get that. Growing up Reformed it took me a really long time to even admit that Catholics were Christians (which seems odd to say now).

That’s not to say that we have to throw out the definition of Christian entirely. Of course not. Otherwise it’s not super useful to have the definition at all.

But that’s exactly what I’m thinking about right now: The usefulness of definitions.

Definitions are conceptual categories, and as such they’re constructed inside human minds. There’s nothing about, say, a tree that you can examine with a microscope to discover its treeness. That category exists in your head, and only in your head.

But of course you have the concept of tree, and presumably you have that concept because it’s in some way useful to you, or at the very least you’ve inherited it as part of a cultural legacy (and you can imagine for yourself how treeness might seem different to a carpenter versus a biologist).

One of the uses of definitions is to structure power. One of the ways the Nazi state structured power was to exclude types of people from its definition of human. Once of the ways that American state structured power before its civil war was to categorize Black people as property. One of the ways that Christian empires structured power was to categorize non-European indigenous people as savages.

Now, the ways that we structure power don’t necessarily lead to genocide and exploitation. But it sure would be nice if we could be aware that it can.

When you seek to exclude, say, Christian empires from your definition of what it means to be Christian, you structure power in your own favour. That is to say, you benefit from that, in this case quite immediately, since you no longer have to explain how your religious beliefs can either lead to or be coopted by Empire.

A few examples (unfortunately mostly about culture war stuff, forgive me):

There’s a persistent meme amongst Young Earth Creationists that evolution is just a theory. Now, in some senses, this is trivial confusion about what the word theory means in a scientific context versus what it means in casual, everyday speech. But this meme was started, I think quite intentionally, by people who absolutely should know better, who are aware of this discrepancy in language, and are exploiting it to give folks the appearance of epistemological cover. After all, if we exclude from the definition of theory all the stuff about testing and evidence and observation and falsifiability, it suddenly becomes easy to equate a scientific theory with a naive reading of a religious text.

Or take gender. Right now we have skirmishes over what does it mean to be a man and what does it mean to be a woman and can you be neither of these. What is this but a debate over definitions? Traditionalists try to smush sex and gender together into a binary; progressives try the opposite.

How about abortion? The entire debate hinges on a definition: When does life start? Pro-life folks try to push the definition of life as far back as possible (sometimes as far as conception, which I find both logically and scripturally unsupportable, but you understand the impulse to do so, right?), and pro-choice folks do the opposite. Nominally, pro-life folks are doing this to prevent a child’s death, and pro-choice folks are doing this to protect a mother’s bodily autonomy, though considering that both these positions are leveraged by political parties as wedge issues, I’d say that’s very much what the debate means, but not what the debate does.

I could go on.

The point, anyways, is that definitions are powerful. Conceptual categories are important. They have real effects in the world, and we ignore them at our peril.

That’s not to say any of these things are real, per se. All definitions, all conceptual categories, are constructed in some way. They can be structured in different ways, with different effects. The real question is who benefits.

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