Semantics, shamantics.

Last summer, I made the mistake of following along with a pal of mine while she attended a summer philosophy class. Philosophy of religion, it was. As an avowed atheist, I thought that it would be fun, not to mention funny to take a class on a subject that I cared not one iota about. I am proud to say that my budding abilities of prognostication did not fail. There is really nothing more unintentionaly amusing than reading the works of Alvin Plantinga. The more I sat through discussions about the problem of evil or whether my brain is functioning properly, I realized that what I spend most of my spare time musing about is not whether God can communicate to me through some sort of God-sensing apparatus located inside of my head, but something else entirely. No, it was a short conversation I had with the professor concerning my declaration that many, if not all so-called “philosophic” arguments are, in fact, mere arguments of semantics. Of course, as a professor, and a philosophy professor at that, the response that I expected. What I got was an objection to my (completely unoriginal) statement that all arguments are semantic. My remark, in its intention, was meant to be one of those off the cuff things that students say more to appear to know more than they know than as a real statement in need of a counterargument. Oops. Now, if there’s one thing that I hate, it’s an argument. And the one thing that I hate more than just any argument is an argument about philosophy with a philosophy professor. (The one with the phd always wins). So, sensing, no — knowing that the odds were not in my favor, I quickly ceded the point to the professor, agreeing that there are at least some truly philosophic arguments, and went back to making fun of Plantinga (which I’ve heard is not a good thing to do). Although outwardly I continued to participate and gave the appearance of a student convinced that there are in fact legitimate philosophic arguments, inside I was steaming. I insisted (inside my head, at least) that I was right. We may try to dress up an argument to make it seem philosophic, I thought, but when we strip it naked, the emperor is a pale, flabby semantic argument (with hair on it’s back, no less). Well, these many months later, I realize that I was wrong… or at least, somewhat wrong. My wrongness was revealed by way of simple observation. Observation one: I once had a disagreement with a fellow student over the merits of positivism. He was trying to convince me that any theory that fails by way of its own principle must be thrown out of our philosophic grab bag. As any philosopher knows, real philosophic theory must be airtight, like Kant. I, of course, insisted that the beauty of positivism is the fact that the verification principle fails to prove the theory right ( but that’s another argument for another day). The thing is, is that each of us was on exactly one side of the argument, and neither was moving from his spot. We weren’t listening to each other, because we had already made up our minds where we stood. I argued that positivism is right, and he argued that I was stupid. And that made me think… So, fast forward to the election of 2008, and Prop. 8. Now, I’ve argued for and against gay marriage (because I am a professional devil’s advocate), but all the while, I realized that I was never actually addressing the question. I’m not sure if anyone has even actually asked the right question. Or if we know what the “right” question is. What I remember arguing most of the time was what the word “marriage” means. You define it one way, and I say it’s another (and my boyfriend says it’s this…). But, no one is even getting close to what we should be asking ourselves. I asked myself why is that so? First, I went along with the old song and dance that the language that we use is defective, so any time we try to communicate (especially philosophically), we end up further away from the question. We get so bogged down in the language itself, so the thought goes, that we’re really asking nothing at all. As Gloria Estefan sang, the words get in the way. So, when we argue over things like gay marriage, we get ourselves caught up in the messiest of all semantic arguments — constitutionally-based semantic arguments. And, like my fellow philosophy student and I, each side of the gay marriage argument holds fast to what it believes is right and sticks to it, no matter what the other side says. But, on the biggest of all political days I made a revelation. It was on the night of November 4, 2008, that I realized exactly what I should have said to that philosophy professor. It wasn’t that I believed that all arguments are semantic, it was that I just don’t care what anyone else thinks. I plain don’t care. I don’t want to know what you think, or believe, or intuit, or got gettierally correct, or dare I say know , I’ll always be convinced that what I think is right. There’s not an argument in the world, philosophic or otherwise, that will convince me that positivism isn’t the 3rd greatest philosophic theory to emerge from the mind of a human being. I actually think that not caring what the other philosopher thought was the motivation for many philosophic theories. I can imagine Kant just not giving a flying fig what Hume thought, or knew empirically. And if you do have a slamdunk debunking philosophically correct argument, I probably won’t care enough to change my mind. More importantly, I will try my absolute hardest to ruin your argument as thoroughly as possible — even if that means quibbling over or intentionally distorting the meaning(s) of every word that you use. And if taking philosophy classes has taught me anything, it’s the bevy of fallacious arguments that we have at our disposal. So, I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter whether all arguments are semantic or philosophic, neither or both. No one cares anyway. dli

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