Assist with labeling and this debate tactic

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rawdedoc's picture
Assist with labeling and this debate tactic

Hi all.

My best friend and I are both super opinionated on various topics will get into debates fairly often. All kinds of topics. Religion, alien life, morals, etc. In the past few years I've avoided contentious conversation with him because when he starts feeling like he's wrong or can't refute my points in a reasonable way he uses this debate tactic that I think is super disingenuous and frustrating.

The easiest way for me to explain what he's doing is an example. For the sake of brevity below is just a summary. I cut out most of it as the actual debate doesn't seem super important to label the tactic. There was a lot more in the beginning and I've totally skipped to the end. The important part i'm trying to show is the end.

Friend: I don't think there is alien life in the universe.
Me: Ok, why not?
Friend: We now know that there are tons of planets in the Goldilocks zone and we haven't seen any incoming signals.
Me: I don't see how you get from lots of planets in the Goldilocks zone and no detectable signals to no alien life. What if life is just extremely far apart and the signals haven't reached us or we don't have the knowledge or tools to detect them.
Friend: It's odd. We should have gotten signals by now.
Me: I'm not convinced it's odd. Since earth is the only planet known to have life how can you say it's odd if you don't have anything to compare it against.
Friend: All scientists think it's odd, it's odd.
Me: How do you define odd? I would be okay if you said it was interesting instead of odd.

Friend: Words don't even have meaning.
Me: What are you talking about? Of course words have meaning.
Friend: Only the meaning we give them. You can define them however you want. Have you ever read a white paper? You can define words however you want in the beginning.
Me: You can't define words however you want and you definitely can't redefine colloquial terms totally differently.
Friend: Yes you can. Why not?
Me: So I write a paper tonight claiming the sky is red. I define red as blue in my paper. Do you think that's honest and I can do that?
Friend: Yes.
Me: I'm done with this conversation. When you're at the point where you say words don't have meaning I don't see how I can argue with you.

So that's an example but that happens all the time. I think when he feels backed in a corner and doesn't have any way to refute my points he suddenly opens an escape hatch by reverting to a philosophical argument about the meaning of words and how they can mean whatever he wants. The most annoying thing is when I don't realize he's started down that road and terms we've been using for the whole conversation start changing without me realizing it.

Sorry for the long post. After every argument I try to explain why I think what he's doing is disingenuous and wrong. I'd like to see if I can track down some info if there is a name in debate for this tactic. I've seen a few close but none seem an exact match.

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Cognostic's picture
I assume you mean diverting

I assume you mean diverting to the meaning of words during a discussion. Don't argue with him. He is correct. Words have different meanings. (Your distinction between "odd" and "unusual" seems to be splitting hairs. Seriously what difference does it make?) The only reason we talk about the meaning of words is so that each person in the discussion can understand how the words they use are going to be interpreted. Nothing at all wrong with that. So you agree on the point that words have different meanings depending on how they are used and who is using them. Then you pin down a definition of the word and how it will be used in the discussion you are having. No problem at all. If his definition is different that yours, you opt to use one or the other for the sake of the discussion and you find another word to express what you want to convey. Communication only works when we agree on the usage of words.

rawdedoc's picture
I agree with your post. I

I agree with your post. I think mine may be poorly written.

I agree that it would be splitting hairs to make a distinction in this case between odd and unusual. The distinction I made in the conversation was between odd and interesting. I think the difference there is enough to take the time to talk through the differences and get on the same page. I actually ended up asking what his definition of odd was and we went with that. Even so, I think when a conversation devolves to the point of saying that words don't have meaning and blue can be red then we're at a point where everything has to be defined and it's going to be hard to continue the conversation.

rawdedoc's picture
I agree with your post. I

removed, put in reply

Anonymous's picture
Hi, raw. There's a lot of

Hi, raw. There's a lot of things you can do to steer the debate. First, slow the momentum down. Just don't respond until you are ready. Second, repeat what he's saying ("let's be sure I understand you; you said that words have no meaning?}

And more importantly, don't get emotionally caught up in it. It sounds like he just wants to spin you, not communicate with you. From the very beginning, you are biting at his fishing line. Instead of asking why not, respond like, "that's interesting." That way, you don't bite. (he sounds very manipulative, but that's just my opinion)

Sapporo's picture
The second example is a form

The second example is a form of solipsism. The first example just seems to be two different opinions that have resulted in a stalemate.

turning_left's picture
This reminds me of how things

This reminds me of how things sometimes go between me and a friend of mine! We have really great conversations, but when he feels like he's stuck and can't justify his position, he goes off on a tangent like this in order to avoid the actual topic. So frustrating!

If I was in that position, I'd just go along with the "words have no meaning" thing. It's sort of true, except that the point of words is that we all agree on the meaning (or at least understand what the other person thinks it means) so that we're able to communicate with each other. (Sidenote: I find it ironic that your friend is using words to tell you that words have no meaning. Technically, he's right. Functionally, he's using the agreed upon definition of words in order to tell you that he can make words mean whatever he wants. If he had meant to communicate the same thing, but had strung together other random words with the intention of imbuing them with the same meaning, he would essentially be talking to himself, because that's not how words work.)

But having that conversation with him is possibly fruitless and distracting from whatever meaningful conversation you're having. So when he says "Words don't have any meaning except the meaning we give them," I just wouldn't engage with that part and respond with something like, "Great, I'm wondering what meaning you give the word 'odd'. I need to know what you mean with the words you use to understand you and be able to respond." Perhaps then he'd be stuck giving you a straight answer instead of waxing poetic about the nature of language?

Nyarlathotep's picture
OP's friend - We should have

OP's friend - We should have gotten signals by now.

Not really what you are asking for:

Almost nothing done by human beings on Earth, would be detectable with the equipment we have, if that equipment was located in the Alpha Centauri star system (the closest to Earth). We aren't seriously broadcasting.

Our attempts to listen are recent and very limited in scope. We aren't seriously listening.

Peurii's picture
Just go full Wittgensteinian

Just go full Wittgensteinian on your friend and say that words have meaning in their relevant language games. If he doesn't know the meaning of simple words he is a brute that doesn't belong into the language community.

You can't just go defining a cat to be a dog, because the function of language is to make possible communication between people. Well, you can, but then communication breaks down and language is failing you. Why would one willingly miscommunicate? Well, there's political power to be gained in miscommunication and mislabeling, but what use could there be between friends?

TheBlindWatchmaker's picture
This is an interesting

This is an interesting conversation, Firstly I would ask them to define what they mean by alien life?
Are we talking simple cell organisms? or little green creatures as seen in the Simon Pegg film, Paul?

If we are discussing the former then there is a reasonable chance to find it within our own system such as upon Titan and Enceladus.

But giving the comment regarding 'incoming signals' we will go with the later.

Let's postulate there is one other planet with life similar to ourselves, consider the following:
- They may be in a part of the universe not yet observable to us.
- They may not have the technology.
- They may have become extinct already.
- They may be in an early part of evolutionary progress and thus a primate hybrid, as yet unable to do so.

Or, And my personal favourite, they may not want to get in touch!

Would you want to be involved with a race of beings that believe in multiple mythical deities?
that are in constant state of war somewhere in the world? That cannot seem to get along, no matter what?

The list of possibilities is endless.

LogicFTW's picture
@Orignal Post

@Orignal Post

Adding to The Blind Watchmakers excellent post:

Communication with an advanced alien species is a huge problem of time and distance. (And really both are a problem with time.)

TLDR: Communication with aliens is the stuff of hollywood sci fi shows only. At least until we develop much! faster than light form of communications, (if that is even possible.)

The distance problem is more simple:
With our current listening equipment we can only listen in on things moving at the speed of light or slower. We have a few close neighbors as in within 100 light years away. But our close neighbors are few, stars that have planets that could possibly be conducive to intelligent (communicating across vast distances) life probably number less than 1000, within 100 light years. Even if intelligent life has occurred across the universe millions or billions of times, we are still talking about only 1 in a trillion stars hosting a planet that has life. We have maybe millions within 1000 light years (did not look this up, just a guess.) But still even mere millions in the face of that 1 in a trillion is not good odds! The universe is AT LEAST 14.6 billion light years across and as far as we can tell, continuously expanding and moving apart. Communication using mere light signal beyond 1000 light years is likely beyond our ability to send or recieve in any practical manner.

:The problem of time
Ofcourse we do not really know the odds of a rise of intelligent in other solar systems, what we do know is: on our own young solar system and planet only in the last (let's make the math easy) 46 years or so could we send and receive light/radio speed communication signals. Our solar system is 4.6 billion years old. That means only 1/100millionth of all that time (so far) were we capable of sending or receiving such a signal.

To put that in numbers we could hope to comprehend, Imagine a time span of 6 years (representing how long our sun will be around from formation to collapse.) In only 1 second of those 6 years worth of seconds were we sending or receiving any signal. Of course that is just in numbers we can understand. We could "miss" the signal of another race by less than 1 in a millionth of a percent off the time our solar system has been around, even if we listened nonstop in all directions for 4600 years. Also we would have to broadcast in all directions for 4600 years to hope our listening/receiving with another alien races to have 1 in a million chance of lining up. And ofcourse the farther away they are the longer we would have to wait for the response. Much faster than light communication will be required. So far we lack the ability to, (if it is even possible,) listen in on any form of communication that is faster than light.



▮          I am an atheist that always likes a good debate.          ▮
▮   Please include @LogicFTW in responses directed to me.    ▮
▮        Useful list on forum usage. A.R. Member since 2016.      ▮

Tin-Man's picture


Thanks for that! Definitely helps put things in a better perspective. I have loved that type of stuff ever since I was a kid watching Carl Sagan on NOVA.

Oh, been meaning to tell you, I like the new look. Pretty dang snazzy....*thumbs-up*...

LogicFTW's picture


Thanks Tin-Man. Yeah I am a big fan of Carl Sagan, and of NOVA.

Thanks for the compliment on my new forum look. I decided I was tired of my yellow white blue old bearded man (stand in for god) avatar even if it pointed out a major logic flaw in religious god creation theory. I figured something a bit less combative would be better.

I also put way too much time into trying to get the spacing right for my copy paste signature, and deciding what to make my signature box "out of."



▮          I am an atheist that always likes a good debate.          ▮
▮   Please include @LogicFTW in responses directed to me.    ▮
▮        Useful list on forum usage. A.R. Member since 2016.      ▮

Anonymous's picture
I have a photo of Carl Sagan

I have a photo of Carl Sagan and moi as a 24 year old hot chick. He spoke at University of Washington. After the talk, he STUCK AROUND with people to answer their questions, discuss. He had a generosity of spirit and love of teaching that was so brilliant. We wanted to stalk him and follow him around.

Since I met the guy, this means I'm better than all of you.

Tin-Man's picture
@MB Re; Your meeting Car

@MB Re; Your meeting Car Sagan

Well, I do have to admit, I AM jealous....*turning green with envy*....

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ TM

@ TM

"*turning green with envy*"

*Grabs handy fire bucket and tosses contents over Tin Man...waits...*."sputtering and cussing" from Tin Man....*thinks* "Fek,shouldn't he be saying "I'm melting" by now?

* Mounts tricycle, turns switch to "turbo escape mode" and fucks off in the general direction of away....*.

arakish's picture
Hey, I also met Carl Sagan.

Hey, I also met Carl Sagan. He was the most wonderous teacher I have ever met. I just wished I had him as a college professor.


Anonymous's picture
Hey, Old man, where have you

Hey, Old man, where have you been? We've missed you.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ MB

@ MB
"Hey, Old man, where have you been?"

Western Australia....the tyranny of time.....

arakish's picture
Yep for me you are either +15

Yep for me you are either +15 hours or -9 hours. Either way it still works.

Like right now, for me it is 0750hrs. For you it is 2250hrs. Provided that damnable Daylight Saving Time ain't fucked everything up.


Anonymous's picture
We don't have daylight saving

We don't have daylight saving time. I think they started it for economic reasons, back in the old days. I really don't see the need for it now.

Tin-Man's picture
@Old Man Re: "Fek,shouldn't

@Old Man Re: "Fek,shouldn't he be saying "I'm melting" by now?"

*high-pitched squeal*... *standing straight up on tippy-toes*.... Ay-Eeeeeee!!!... *cough-cough-cough*..... Pfffffft!....*cough*.... Pfft-pffft!... Cold-cold-cold!.... What the...?.... *looks around frantically in all directions*..... *spots tailights of Old Man's tricycle quckly fading away*.... Oh. Figures. Should have known.... *wipes dripping water from face*... Hey, Arakish!... Do me a favor?... Next time you see Old Man, could you please explain to him I was NOT turning into a witch? The reason I'm turning green is because of the copper spray coating I got at the body shop at the beginning of summer so I could look all nice and tan at the beach. It starts turning green about this time every year. No biggie. I'll be going to get it buffed off in a couple of days..... *looks down at puddle of water around feet*.... Ugh. Anybody got a towel? And a mop? And where the hell is my oil can?...

arakish's picture
@ Tin-Man

@ Tin-Man

***tree branch slowly slides down into front of face***

"here is one of them.."


Tin-Man's picture


*takes oil can from branch*....*starts squirting oil in joints*.... Thanks, pal. I can never keep up with where I leave those damn things.

Sheldon's picture
Next tie he says words have

Next time he says words have no meaning say "so you admit you're wrong at least".

Whatever he says next next just say "thank for you having the decency to admit you're wrong, and I accept your apology"

Then no matter what he says just say "fancy a pint?" and on no account directly acknowledge any reference he makes to the argument again.

His rules that words have no meaning, so you get to pretend they mean whatever you want.

Tin-Man's picture
@Sheldon Re: "His rules that

@Sheldon Re: "His rules that words have no meaning, so you get to pretend they mean whatever you want."

Dammit, man, I LIKE how you think! lmao...

Oh, hey, Raw! And if what Sheldon suggested does not work, you can always try throwing your friend to the ground and tickling his belly until he finally agrees to listen to reason. Just another option to consider.

David Killens's picture
Dave Matson's picture


Anyone can define words any way they want! All you need to do is pull out a little dictionary that translates his odd words into their common meaning. You create that little dictionary by asking him to carefully define the words he is using if they mean other than what you see in a normal dictionary. In your example you talked about writing a paper that said the sky is red, and you defined red to mean what everyone else takes to be blue. No problem! He takes out his little dictionary and notes that "red" means "blue" in your paper, so you are just saying the sky is blue. No grounds for disagreement!

However, you can accuse him of using a bad definition. It's not wrong, it's just bad. It's bad because it sows unnecessary confusion. If it's incoherent or has a contradiction, it would still not be wrong! How can the "definition" be wrong if there is no definition! (You are not defining anything if your list of qualifications is incoherent or has a contradiction.)

A definition is a declaration by a speaker or writer as to what he means when he uses that word. No claim about the real world is made, so a definition cannot be wrong. It can be poor and thoughtless if it sows unnecessary confusion. If it is incoherent or has internal contradictions then it is not a definition.

So, there is nothing to sweat. You just translate the weird words into their normal meaning and work up your usual rebuttal. Of course, words do have meaning, but that meaning is relative to how an individual or group defines them. So, it's a good idea to ask what the really key words mean in a debate.

A classic example of different definitions for a common word is shown in the use of "theory." To the public at large, "theory" refers to some iffy, half-baked idea. To the scientific community, "theory" is a badge of high accomplishment! Speaking of the "theory" of evolution is not an admission by the scientific world that they are dealing with a half-baked idea!!

arakish's picture
I think the main reason the

I think the main reason the public-at-large uses theory instead of hypothesis is because of the same reason Southerners don't use big words. They are lazy speakers. Why use 50 syllables to say something when I can say same exact thing using only 15 syllables?

Theory is 2 syllables, hypothesis is 4. Additionally, individually, the public-at-large can be quite intelligent, but in a group, they are quite stupid.


Jack6's picture
It's a red herring. Simply

It's a red herring. Simply agree that it's odd then move on with pertinent argumentation. It will defuse the rhetoric...don't let it dissuade yours.

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