Why clear definitions are key to intelligent discussions

Being precise about our ideas doesn't just allow us to have better conversations, it's also an incisive way to learn.

DONALD HOFFMAN: In science and in personal life, we are often making claims. We're claiming either that a scientific theory is true. Let's say evolution by natural selection. Organisms evolve and are shaped by natural selection. Or we're making spiritual claims, you know, god exists. God loves you. Or we're making claims, you know, about politics about Republicans or Democrats and their motives and so forth.

And whenever we're making claims in any area of science, politics, religion, or personal life, if we really want to have an intelligent, and informative, and helpful discussion, we need to make sure that we're using terms in a well-defined way that other people understand and share the definitions. At least, they understand our definitions.

If I'm using the word god, and someone from another religion has a very, very different notion of god, we could be arguing at odds and be unhappy with each other, and not realize that we're talking about very, very different things. And so in science and in mathematics, it's standard to try to define, as clearly as you can, upfront what you're talking about.

Now in some cases you can't. Right? And where you cannot define exactly what you're talking about, you should highlight that and say, we're going to do research to try to find out the right definition.

So for example, the word gene in evolutionary biology. That word was a useful term. But the biologists Francis Crick and James Watson could not define with mathematical precision what a gene was. It was an intuitive notion. It was very, very helpful in genetics but without a real precise definition.

And it's turned out, as we've gone on with molecular biology, our notion of the gene has been refined and refined and refined. So that's perfectly fine. So what we need to do is give provisional definitions or if we can't say precisely to say the kinds of phenomena we're trying to explain. But I would say that it's really important to be as clear as possible about what you're talking about, to define your terms.

Especially, I would say, in spiritual discourse, right? It's very easy to use terms like love, god, togetherness, or whatever it might be and to assume everybody else knows what you mean by love, or by altruism, or by god, or by Brahman, or whatever. And many cases, a lot of arguments and a lot of unnecessary heated discussion could be avoided by just understanding and sharing clearly what our ideas are.

Another thing I would say about this is dogmatism is always the enemy of knowledge. Being dogmatic closes you to the possibility of being wrong. Being non-dogmatic, admitting right upfront that I'm probably wrong, that I could be wrong or that I'm probably wrong, is the most helpful thing that you could possibly do to open yourself up to learning. And that's in all aspects of life-- in science, and spirituality, in a relationship with other people. Even in our relationships, don't assume that I know everything about my partner that I've been with for so many years. To be open that I could be wrong about my understanding of their world.

I think that dogmatism is the biggest problem that we have in our personal lives in our discourse with others. Letting go of dogmatism being clear about our current ideas, being as precise as we can about our current ideas, not because we're insisting that we're right, but we're trying to be precise and clear so we don't have false arguments over nonsense. But also so that we can find out precisely why we're wrong, where we're wrong. And that's how we learn the most quickly.

  • The best way to have an intelligent conversation with others is to ensure everyone understands the terms being used. They need to be clearly defined. If this isn't done, people may get into false arguments over nonsense — they may be talking about very, very different things.
  • Dogmatism is often the enemy of knowledge because it often prevents us from opening ourselves up to the possibility that we may be wrong — it's this humility that allows us to consider different people's perspectives, some of which may be more accurate than our own.
  • Besides the ability to helpful discussions with others, being precise about our ideas and having well-defined terms allows us to also find out precisely where we are wrong. It's a quick and incisive way to learn.

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