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Three short examples of equivocation

Several conversations recently have given me pause to think about equivocations.  That is, arguments in which a word has multiple interchangable definitions.  Theist arguments are full of equivocations, but I’d like to highlight a few that I’ve been dealing with lately, and one from the news:

Death:  Back before we knew about neurons and electricity, we were still keenly aware of death.   When a person no longer has the thump-thump in their chest, and they’re no longer breathing, they’re dead.  Once they’re dead, they don’t come back unless there’s a miracle.  (More on miracles in a second.)
As we became more and more aware of the science behind life, and consequently the science of death, we learned that we weren’t necessarily a hundred percent correct about that whole “heart stopped, therefore dead” thing.  In fact, once we discovered electricity, we learned that people can sometimes be revived once their heart has stopped.  We also learned that sometimes, artificially breathing for someone who can’t breathe on their own can get them breathing again.
In what I consider one of the worst linguistic gaffes of history, doctors and scientists invented two categories of death:  Clinical death and brain death.  Clinical death is usually caused by cardiac arrest, and is basically what we’ve always thought of as being dead — heart stopped, no breathing.  (Apologies to the medical community.  I’m keeping this simple.)  Clinical death isn’t always permanent.  Brain death, on the other hand, is when there is no more brain activity.  Once the brain dies, there is no coming back.
So, the word “death” really means two things now.  First, it means “really close to being gone forever.”  Second, it means “gone forever.”
Here’s a really important point:  There is not one case in the history of mankind of someone coming back from brain death.  It’s permanent.  Anyone who has ever “come back from the dead” has actually been revived from near death.
I wish scientists and doctors had just invented a new word.  Death would still mean “gone forever” and we would have another word for “mostly dead” (to quote Miracle Max).  If that had happened, we wouldn’t have all these silly theists prattling on about how their Uncle Bob was “dead on the table” and Jesus brought him back to life just like he did Lazarus.
Nobody comes back from the dead, folks.

Man Needs God

We hear all the time that man “needs” god, but again, there are two words at work here.  There’s a strong and a weak sense of “need.”  The strong one is that without a certain thing, a man will die.  Man needs air.  Man needs food.  You put a thousand men into the vacuum of space for ten minutes each and you’ll have a thousand dead men no matter how many times you run the experiment.  Man needs air pressure.  This is the strong sense of need.
Sometimes, after arguing with theists all day, I feel like I need a drink.  This is not the same sense of the word.  In reality, if I don’t get a drink, I’ll wake up fine tomorrow morning, and in fact, I’ll probably feel a little better than if I did drink.  Humans feel like they need someone to love them right now.  They need a sense of fulfillment in their jobs.  The list can go on ad nauseum.
Hopefully you see the difference.  One of these words means “a strong desire” and the other means “a necessity for life itself.”  Theists use these words interchangably.  In church, they’re happy to assert that morality, or happiness, or life itself is fully dependent on God.  We need God for all of it.  The arguments tend to get really silly once an atheist points out that he’s happy and moral, but that’s not what I want to go into right now.  The point I’m making is that if we had two separate words for “need,” these arguments would be dealt with a lot faster.
If theists want to say that a lot of men “really strongly desire” God to be the source of morality, I will concede the point happily and we can both go on our merry way.   If they suggest that without God, it is impossible for me to be happy… well… they’ll just look stupid because… um… I’m happy.  Q.E.D.
Finally, a little bit from the news:
This is being called a miracle.  A plane crashed into the icy waters of the Hudson River, and nobody was killed.  People are thanking God for ruining their trip without killing them.
So, you should be getting the hang of this by now.  There are two meanings of the word “miracle.”  First, a miracle is something that is highly improbable but clearly possible.  The Miracle Mets were not defying the physical laws of the universe when they beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.  They were defying odds.  Similarly, when a plane crashes and nobody dies, it’s not a physical impossibility that somehow managed to happen anyway.  It’s a remarkable coincidence.  It’s odds-defying, not physics-defying.
Still, theists are fond of using the word miracle to mean both “things that defy the laws of the universe” and “things that are highly improbable.”  We can end this discussion of miracles really simply.  There has never in the history of the world been a documented phenomenon that could only have happened if the laws of the universe were broken.   What we might call “minor miracles” — things that defy odds — happen all the time.  That’s because when we put billions of people into situations where odds-defying things can happen, it becomes pretty much inevitable that things with less than billion to one odds will occasionally happen.
So, to summarize my thoughts for today:
1) Nobody has ever come back from the dead.  Period.
2) Man clearly doesn’t “need” God.
3) God didn’t ruin your holiday just to prove he loves you.
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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Three short examples of equivocation

  1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/leicestershire/7729450.stm

    At least the report above had the decency to scare-quote “miracle”. In this instance God (and his team of highly trained physicians using the vast wealth of knowledge we’ve acquired using a rigorous methodology not described in his Holy book) was loving enough to prevent death, but not the initial fall and subsequent breaking of an arm, leg, pelvis, jaw and knee.

    Posted by SirMoogie | January 16, 2009, 9:22 pm
  2. I find myself using the word need quite often: I need to take a shower, I need to buy a new sweater…it is just one of those words that is part of my limited vocabulary. 🙂
    I have heard you discuss the death example and when I heard about the “miracle on the hudson” I thought of that word..and I thought of you ! LoL

    Posted by Renee | January 17, 2009, 12:47 am
  3. Few relevant Google results on this subject.

    The colloquial abuse of the word “need” frustrates me. It seems to me that “need” _needs_ to have an end defined as it’s always part of an equation (the end here: for it to be used properly); “need” by itself is incomplete and is mostly used irresponsibly and/or fallaciously.

    Irresponsible: I “need” this and I “need” that: the failure to distinguish between needs and desires seems to bring about (or come along with) a sense of entitlement. Nothing’s owed.

    Fallacious: Say that you need something. Then watch reality tell you no (you can’t have it and/or you manage otherwise). Nothing’s owed.

    In my case, I’ve often felt flawed because I kept being told (passively through media or otherwise) that I “needed” this and that when I didn’t have those things (physical items or abstract ideals) though I didn’t feel that I needed them (quite content without). Maybe I was just “too” (a similar word) literal and sensitive; nonetheless: use “need” correctly.

    Posted by Pierre | October 21, 2009, 7:34 pm

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