Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Definition of Faith & Invoking the Dictionary

There exists a strange tendency to use the dictionary as a source of authority for arguments in many topics. Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, wrote a penetrating blog article on this strange phenomenon whereby she shows that the dictionary's primary if not only function is and always has been to describe how language actually is used at the present moment as well as to catalogue how language has been used and evolved over time (read the article here: Accepting that no one has a monopoly over language, Stamper argues that not only for sanity's sake but also for the simple fact that a rigoristic prescriptivism has always stood awkwardly and arbitrarily aloof from the rest of language users we must draw true wisdom from deeper reflection and not a "slot machine" usage of the dictionary.

What are the implications for rational dialogue? Primarily, while we can look to a dictionary to understand how a word is being used by the majority of people, we also know that in specialized fields of study, some words must take on specialized meanings that while being related to their quotidian signification will also differ from them. To take one example that comes up very frequently: faith. Atheists will very often wave the dictionary definition of faith in front of apologetic (in the Greek sense) believers so as to stop any possible conversation dead in its tracks because, after all, atheists have SCIENCE, and believers have
firm belief in something for which there is no proof (definition 2b [1], Merriam-Webster)
Hence from the start the discussion introduces a seemingly-insurmountable dichotomy between science/rationality and faith/irrationality. Of course, the attempt to point out to the atheist pseudo-scientist that the entire enterprise of science presupposes cenoscopic knowledge that transcends the scope of science while simultaneously grounding its very possibility, and that this same semiosic dynamic provides the same very psychological-intellectual framework by which the act of faith is made, leads to the response, "Nya, nya, nya, nya, nya-nya! I have science, and you have blind faith!" The irony as many theists have already noticed is that such behavior, closed to the possibility and openness of any dialogue, is reminiscent of three year olds and is itself a manifestation of the blindness that it denounces.

Unfortunately, with these sorts of people, wherever they exist, after the calm, deliberate attempt to show them their practice of invoking the dictionary as a "voice of authority" has failed, the only remaining option is to let them go on their way and to pray for them in sorrow.

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