Limits of Language Part 3: Definitional Attacks

This is part of my Limits of Language series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

Ambiguous definitions are easy to reveal using a simple rhetorical tool: the definitional attack.

This is how to do a definitional attack:

1. Take the word and come up with two examples, one fitting the definition and one opposed to it.
2. Now take a third example, probably hypothetical, from between the two examples.
3. Now try to define it into one or the other category. If it fits in either, take another example between that and one of the remaining extremes. Continue until a point of obvious ambiguity is reached.

In the language map model, this corresponds to trying to find some very fuzzy midpoint between the who word regions. If we can show that this fuzzy midpoint exists, it proves that the edges of the word regions are not perfectly sharp, which proves that the thing in question is not fundamental and should be demerged when necessary.


This section lists some words which commonly cause confusion. I will define some of them and conduct definitional attacks on others.

At first glance, it seems like the difference between something which is alive and something which is dead should be obvious. In most situations, it is, which is why these are the only two common words referring to this concept.
The difference between alive and dead is not absolute, however. To do this, I will perform a definitional attack.

Take the examples of a living man and a dead man. Now consider a man who is unconscious, not breathing, but whose heart is beating. Most people would consider him to be alive. Now consider the same man with no heartbeat, but still warm so that he could be revived using a medical defibrillator. If he is still considered alive, consider the same man a minute later. Brain damage has begun to set in, revival will become more difficult. If you still think he is alive, just keep taking second-by-second examples. At which second is he now considered dead?

It becomes obvious somewhere in there that there is a possible state that is not fully covered by either of the words “alive” or “dead”. Therefore, in cases where we are discussing a person who is near the edge of life and death, it is better to stop using the words “alive” and “dead” since neither one of them fully fits the situation. Instead, we “demerge”, and individually discuss those things that together define life and death. Temperature, heart rate, and breathing are examples of what we would talk about when the “alive” versus “dead” dichotomy breaks down.

Note that “alive” and “dead” might be placed as ends on a continuous spectrum. I wouldn’t recommend it, however, since this approach presents its own problems. See if you can think of what’s wrong with a spectrum-based view of this situation.

Makers of food and herbal products are well known for plastering the word “natural” all over their products. But what does it really mean? Bottles of herbal pills certainly don’t grow on trees fully formed.

Usually “natural” is taken to mean that the ingredients are taken from nature. But this is a tautology – it is always true. The only source of matter is from nature, whether a material is taken from a plant, an animal, the ground, the air, or the ocean, it must ultimately have a “natural” source.

Some will say that “natural” means that the ingredients were not processed. But they were – they were collected, purified, ground up, measured, mixed and reacted.

The only things that are really “natural” – that correspond to language map points fully within the boundaries of the word “natural” – are things which have never been touched by humanity in any way. It might be hard to point out any plantlife on Earth that fits this description fully, though much untouched forest is close enough that it could be called “natural” without too much of a loss of language accuracy.

So what is the difference between “natural” and “artificial”, then? The answer is obviously that there is no absolute difference. These two words are the ends of a spectrum. To more processing a product has undergone, the more artificial it could be said to be. Under this view, we should not be selling “natural” products, but “very natural”, “a little bit natural”, or “quite natural”. Of course, herbal remedies which are “a little bit natural” probably don’t sell very well, so we are stuck with the false “natural” versus “artificial” dichotomy.

If one were interested in thinking or communicating accurately, products like this could not have a “natural” or “artificial” label attached to them, since neither definition fits fully. Instead, we need to “demerge” to a lower emergence level and begin communicating in terms of the factors that usually come together to define “naturalness” and “artificialness”. In this case, instead of using the words “natural” or “artificial”, we should, for example, specify what processing steps were performed on the product.

Life is one end of an arbitrarily defined spectrum. We can easily perform a definitional attack on the distinction between life and nonlife.

This is different from the “alive” and “dead” dichotomy. “Alive” and “dead” refer to the states of something which at one time was fully and inarguably alive. “Nonlife” refers to things which never exhibited the characteristics of life.

Most people who think about the definition of life realize that it may be a difficult matter to clear up. They don’t know the half of it. It’s not just difficult to pin down an exact definition of life. It’s impossible because of the way language works.

Let’s do a definitional attack on “life” to see what happens.

There are lifeforms on this planet which take the form of inert pieces of matter. Viruses, for example, are pieces of genetic material surrounded by a protein shell. They have no autonomous life functions. The only thing that makes them resemble living beings is the fact that they self-replicate and evolve.

Say we take viruses to be a form of life. If viruses are alive, then, and a rock is not, what about prions? Prions consist of a protein, which, when it comes in contact with certain other proteins, folds those other proteins into copies of itself. Prions do not contain genetic material, but they do self-replicate and cause diseases. BSE, also known as mad cow disease, is caused by prions.

Prions, however, are just molecules. So are they alive? If so, what about crystals? Crystalline molecules expand in their environments by adding more atoms to their surfaces in a precise pattern. In this way, a crystal pattern could be said to “self-replicate”. This fits part of the definition of life. So are crystals alive?

The point is not to answer the question. The point is to show that the question is impossible to answer absolutely and is therefore meaningless. The word “life” is a tool, and has no existence on its own. As a tool, it should be discarded when it becomes more of a hindrance than a help. When we approach the edge of usefulness of these words, we need to “demerge” and forget the original word, replacing it with all of its component parts.

Most people understand believe that good and evil do appear on a spectrum, and that there are actions that are partly good and partly evil. It should be easy to attack absolute concepts of “good” versus “evil” with a definition attack. I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Commonly Misleading Concepts

Some words are obvious hotbeds of definition confusion. These words have been abused in every way imaginable by people who are well-meaning but ignorant, and by those who want to borrow the connotations of a word for their own purposes. I will discuss some of these poor words here.

Energy is frequently discussed as though it is some sort of substance. In many interpretations, it “flows”. Sometimes it is related to some theoretical intrinsic property of life. All of this is wrong.

Energy is not fundamental, it is an expression of other physical conditions. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work. Energy is not a form of glowing fuzzy stuff or ray beams.

Did you know that when you get out of bed, you gain energy? An object lifted off the ground is given energy as it is lifted. It is said to have potential energy, because now, dropping it will cause it to strike the floor and do “work” on the floor surface. In this case it is obvious that the energy has no substance, it is just an expression of the position of the object relative to the ground.

Be wary of anyone who says something has “energy” without understanding exactly what this entails. Energy cannot exist on its own (though light waves come close). Energy is usually an expression of the position and velocity of particles, and is known to exist in various well-defined forms.

Beauty is a very old concept. It is applied to all sorts of human-made objects, art or not, in a variety of media, from the visual to the auditory. It is also applied to many aspects of nature. But what is it?

Beauty is actually best described as something which elicits a certain emotional response. Beautiful things, by definition, make the observer feel an awed sense of contented wonder.

So arguments about the existence of beauty or its absolute application are meaningless. It is just a word. For anything considered beautiful by one person, there is another person, hypothetical or not, who would not consider it beautiful at all. As with other words listed here, one should not attempt to stretch the word beauty beyond its meaningful limits.

Paranormal phoenomena are a favourite target of skeptics, frequently because they are so easy to break down. Paranormal phenomena almost always consist of a deliberately constructed Doopy the Demon. That is to say, they are created to appear to be something outside the understood natural laws of the universe.

In all cases, however, there is a way to create the observations which are called “paranormal” through natural means. In this case it is simply a matter of, once again, choosing the simpler explanation. The observation could either require a total rewriting of the laws of physics, or it could be accomplished via what are usually rather simple means of trickery, hallucination or self-deception.

In the 1970’s, a man named Uri Geller claimed to have paranormal abilities. One of his best known tricks was his ability to bend spoons. Others demonstrated how they could replicate Geller’s performances through trickery and get what appeared to be the exact same results. This means that Uri Geller’s magical paranomal ability to bend spoons is a Doopy. It is an excessively complicated explanation for something which can be understood through a much simpler explanation.


The best part about understanding the limits of language is how many strange questions simply collapse into obvious meaninglessness when confronted with these rhetorical tools. Issues which may have troubled you for years can simply vanish as it becomes clear that they lack substance.

It becomes obvious which questions are answerable and which are not. One can finally learn to appreciate the unbelievable unity, completeness, and simplicity of the universe we live in.