Ethical Realism

February 23, 2015

The One Correct Definition of a Word

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 3:48 am
Tags: , ,

I am wondering if the debates we have over certain words are often confused because we assume the word has one correct definition when it doesn’t. For example, does the word ‘atheist’ refer to someone who believes gods don’t exist or someone who just doesn’t actively believe in a god? Why would anyone think we have to define it one of these two ways, and that the other definition has to be wrong? Other examples include debates over the definition of ‘free will’ and ‘knowledge.’ The question is, “Is there really a correct way to define these terms?” We might think that debates over definitions isn’t really substantive because there is no essence corresponding to the words (at least some of the time). Words could also have a tendency to make use of family resemblance concepts that lack necessary and sufficient conditions, so it might be hopeless to try to define words based on how we actually use them using exact specifications. If there isn’t a single definition, then the debate could end up having various opposing views of how people should talk about things.

I will consider the terms ‘atheism,’ ‘free will,’ and ‘knowledge,’ and what it would mean to have a correct definition for them. I will argue that there is a reason to think that there is a reason to think that there is no one correct way to define these terms.


I’ve seen people argue about how we have to define the word ‘atheism’ quite a bit. Philosophers tend to define it as the belief that gods don’t exist, but I’ve seen several people argue that it is better defined as the lack of belief in gods. People have debated reasons to think one of these definitions or the other is the correct definition. What would it mean to have a correct definition in this case? We might think we are just talking about how people tend to actually use the word, but multiple definitions are often given for words in dictionaries because of the fact that people use words in different ways is taken as a reason to think that the word could be defined in multiple ways.

It is true that actual people exist who either don’t actively believe in gods because they think gods don’t exist, have no opinion on the existence of gods, or are undecided. It is also true that actual people exist who think gods don’t exist. As long as you make it clear how you define the term, you will avoid confusion. I personally think most people think of atheists as those who think gods don’t exist, so using the term to refer to those people will tend to avoid more confusion when the term isn’t being explicitly defined, but I don’t really care that many people use the term some other way as long as they make the definition they have in mind clear.

I don’t think there is an essence to what the word ‘atheism’ has to refer to, but I agree that actual people exist who could be correctly described as ‘atheists’ given various possible definitions. Even so, I also think how we define ‘atheism’ can help aid communication and that people have certain definitions of ‘atheism’ in mind. I prefer to define the term in the way that I think will aid in communication and help us avoid confusion.

‘Free will’

The term ‘free will’ is a bit more interesting than ‘atheism.’ I think ‘free will’ is supposed to refer to something and we can have a hard time when we try to spell out what exactly that something is, so it is important for philosophers to try to make that something explicit. I also think free will is supposed to be related to certain other ideas—like the ability to make choices and the ability to be morally responsible. Even so, some philosophers think we could talk about the ability to make choices or be morally responsible rather than talking aboutfree will precisely because it’s less clear what free will is really about.

The debate over how we have to define ‘free will’ is one I’ve seen among many people who don’t necessarily have a strong grasp of academic philosophy or interest in academic philosophy. It is an issue that is central to everyday life and pretty much everyone thinks they understand free will at least to some extent. One way free will is debated is how to define the term ‘free will.’ Many people insist that free will has to be defined in terms of a capacity to make choices that aren’t sufficiently caused by the prior states of the universe (which is called ‘determinism’)—even if we could be morally responsible and make choices in a deterministic world. Other people think free will could be defined in a different way, and they think we could have free will even if determinism is true.

If a person thinks that free will is incompatible with determinism because the capability to make choices and be morally responsible requires indeterminism, then they are making a substantial claim about the world. However, if they think free will must be defined as being incompatible with determinism just because it’s closer to what many people have in mind, then they are saying the word has a narrow correct definition and it’s not clear to me why they couldn’t just think multiple different definitions could be appropriate.

I agree that free will can be correctly defined to some extent as whatever we have in mind by the word and how it’s related to making choices and being morally responsible, but I see no reason to think that it has to be defined in the narrow incompatibilist way. The way compatibilists define the term seem fine precisely because they think we can make choices and be morally responsible, even if the world is deterministic.


We think knowledge is a good thing. I think that is the main reason to think that there are more appropriate definitions for ‘knowledge.’ We want to make sure we are talking about something good.

‘Knowledge’ was traditionally defined by philosophers as “justified true belief.” The main debate over knowledge involves Gettier cases—thought experiments that give us a reason to think knowledge requires more than justified true belief. Consider looking at a picture of a new acquaintance in a police uniform and thinking that she is a police officer as a result. You are correct, she is one. However, the picture was taken two years ago and it was actually a costume used for a movie role, and she become a police officer a year after wearing the costume for the movie. It seems correct to say you have a justified true belief that she is a police officer. You had a good reason to think she is a police officer, and the belief is true. However, some might argue that you didn’t really know she is a police officer. (Of course, you also thought she was a police officer when the picture was taken, and that belief is false.)

I personally don’t see Gettier cases as a good reason to think knowledge has to be defined as something other than justified true belief. It’s good to have a justified true belief, but it is preferable to have a justified true belief based on non-deceptive observations—and it is also preferable to have absolute certainty. Even so, I see nothing wrong with people using the word ‘knowledge’ in a variety of ways (as justified true belief, a true belief based on non-deceptive observations, or absolute certainty). The fact that many people would want to use the word ‘knowledge’ in some less traditional ways given Gettier cases doesn’t prove that is how we have to always use the word. As long as the person defines ‘knowledge’ and makes sure not to cause confusion in how she uses the word, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with thinking that the word can be defined in multiple appropriate ways.


People seem to thin that ‘atheism,’ ‘free will,’ and ‘knowledge,’ have to be defined in the one correct way, and debate over which definition is the correct one, but it isn’t clear that they have one correct definition. The debate over how we define these words could end up being unproductive and really just about how we want people to talk to us. I suspect this is a problem in many philosophy debates. It is true that we often have a certain concept in mind when we use the words, but that doesn’t mean it is never appropriate to have a different concept in mind when using the word.

I am not saying there is never one correct definition of a word (or something close to it). For example, ‘human’ is supposed to refer to something that exists in the world and we can define the word in ways based on actual observations.


  1. James, in making similar points to yours, I have found it useful to distinguish between “dictionary definitions” (either cultural or specialized such as a “philosophy” dictionaries) and useful definitions.

    Both cultural and specialized dictionaries record what a word commonly refers to. But what a word commonly refers to may not always be a useful definition in a particular argument. By useful, I mean useful in making arguments that reveal new insights and knowledge.

    If we seek new insights and knowledge, then we ought to feel free to use definitions of words that are the most useful, not the most common. As long as we are clear what those definitions are, we should be on solid ground.

    So the most useful definition of “atheist” (and the one we ought to use) is dependent on what one is attempting to show.

    My own poster child word in this regard is “altruism”. Its common dictionary definitions are, to me, confusing and misleading in discussions about the reality and origins of very real human behaviors that are commonly referred to as ‘altruistic’ but which may have nothing to do with those inappropriate, but common, dictionary definitions.

    Comment by Mark Sloan — February 23, 2015 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

    • I think another issue is whether the definition is somehow based on reality. Whales really exist, so how we define ‘whale’ ought to be based on the real things that exist. When dealing with abstract words it is often less clear that they are based on reality.

      I am worried by what people find useful because it could just end up giving us a different way of talking and then it’s not clear how it could lead to greater knowledge.

      Comment by JW Gray — February 24, 2015 @ 3:32 am | Reply

      • But isn’t “What people find useful” necessarily the same thing as “what is somehow based in reality” if useful refers to useful in expanding knowledge and insights about reality?

        For example, a dictionary definition of altruism might be: “Unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” which is commonly taken to mean “Acting at a cost or risk of cost to one’s self to benefit others with no expectation of future reward”. (Or as Comte coined the word: the opposite of egoism.)

        As a defined concept, I don’t see this definition conflicts with reality.

        However, a conflict with reality does arise when this definition is applied to human beings regarding human unselfishness and self-sacrifice (or to other biological beings). Due to the evolutionary origins of the emotions that motivate unselfishness (empathy, loyalty, and gratitude), we know that, on average, this ‘unselfishness’ increased the reproductive fitness of our ancestors. So from an evolutionary perspective, human ‘altruism’ is self-serving – even though human ‘altruism’ can include pure self-sacrifice unto death.

        A definition of human altruism based on reality (altruism motivated by biology based emotions) I prefer is “Acting at a cost or risk of cost to one’s self to benefit others without consideration of future reward”.

        Consider a person who believes that unselfishly following the Golden Rule will likely benefit them over their lifetime. By the first definition with “no expectation of future benefit”, this person can never be said to act altruistically when following the Golden Rule. But by my preferred, reality based, definition with “no consideration of future benefit”, there is no such nonsense conclusion.

        The second definition is more useful when applied to the unselfishness of biological organisms because it is based on reality.

        Of course, we could always just coin a new word to contrast with Comte’s definition of altruism as the opposite of egoism, but new words create their own barriers to communication.

        Comment by Mark Sloan — February 24, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

      • I didn’t see your reply until now for some reason. I don’t think the altruism definition captures what I have in mind about basing definitions on reality. We define whales based on what we learn about individual whales, and that’s one reason we now know they aren’t fish, even though we used to think they are fish.

        Atheism, knowledge, and free will can all be legitimately defined in different ways because it isn’t obvious that there is one particular thing in reality we are talking about.

        It is true that there might not be any altruism if it is defined a certain way, so I agree that there can be some consideration for reality when defining the word. Someone else might be satisfied just to think there isn’t any (based on the conception they have in mind).

        Comment by JW Gray — March 6, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

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