Argument and Debate: Forms and Techniques, Part 2

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Obviously, definitions are one of the first things we must agree on before we can enter into a debate. If I propose that we debate the effectiveness of nano-drip technology in curing rickity-splits, we'd both better be sure we know what that means. In English, there are thousands of words that have multiple meanings, some of which are quite close, and could be used in the same sentence, but mean slightly different things. In addition, some words are used differently in colloquial discussions than in scientific debate.

The first thing to understand is the different ways in which words are defined. This essay deals with the multiple methods of assigning meaning to words.

Basic Methods of defining terms:

A: Example. Giving an example is often the simplest way of conveying meaning. Examples are good for processes, or groups of things, but are not generally useful in debate of fact, where more precise language is necessary. If you ask me to explain what coagulation is, and I say, "It is the process that happens when you get cut and your blood hardens," I have given you a definition by example. Note that I have not actually told you anything about the chemical reactions behind coagulation, nor have I told you anything about other liquids that might coagulate under different circumstances. You can see that this is not very useful except for general purposes.

B. Authority. Dictionaries, expert authors, or government institutions are often useful for establishing definitions. In matters of law, constitutionality, and civil matters, the government is often the final word. For semantics, a dictionary is usually sufficient. Care needs to be taken not to commit the fallacy of "appeal to authority." Definitions must be agreed upon by both sides before a debate can be entered. This does not permit one side to use the definition as a back-door to victory. In other words, neither side is allowed to declare victory simply because they choose to define a word in a particular way. As with all stages of debate, the claimant must offer proof for the validity of his definition if it deviates from common usage or authority. (In the case where the debate is about a definition, it is treated as a debate of fact.)

C. Common Usage. This is a double edged sword. If I were to propose a debate regarding "Unions and their impact on local economies," someone might well point out that a union can also be a marriage, a brotherhoods, a federation, or a fraternity. I would be correct in saying that I mean the common usage of union, which, in this case would be labor organizations. The other edge of the sword is the ease with which one can create a conflation of terms, rendering the debate meaningless. Common usage is not acceptable for debate regarding scientific fact. For this reason, one must be sure to properly define all relevant terms, especially if there is a chance of confusion. Later on, we will examine the shared burden for establishing common definitions.

D. Explanation. For a process or series of events, a simple explanation of individual components often suffices. "Making Vinegar" could be defined by a series of several steps, or with an instruction booklet.

E. Negation. Sometimes, it is useful to identify something by what it is NOT. This, like authority, is a potential trap. In order to be defined negatively, a universe of discourse must be provided, from which everything except the thing in question can be taken. If I have a car, a boat, and a bicycle, I can tell you that the item I'm talking about is neither the car nor the bicycle. You will no, by a process of elimination, that I am talking about the boat. If there is nothing left over for something to be once everything else is subtracted, then negation is not sufficient for providing a definition. A negative definition is simply a positive definition that is illustrated through negation.

F. Comparison and Contrast. In some instances, two things may be similar enough that comparison is sufficient to give an adequate definition. For example, if I tell you that a baby bella mushroom is quite similar to a normal white mushroom with the exception of a darker color, you may have a clear idea of what I'm talking about. Note that this type of definition is usually not useful in debate of scientific fact, where precise terms must be used, such as genus and species. Contrast works in the same way. I could say that a portabello mushroom is quite a bit larger than a white mushroom, and that it has a much wider top, proportionally speaking. Again, just as in the case of negation, we must have positive concepts to deal with or contrast and comparison are useless. Without knowing what a mushroom is, the above comparisons are meaningless.

G. Derivation. Seldom as useful as other methods, this one involves tracing the word to its linguistic origins. For example, we could say that "prejudice" is derived from the Latin words "prae" and "judicium," which mean "before judgment." This method is not often useful, as words change meanings quite frequently throughout history, and more often than not, common usage or current authority will be a more reliable source for an accurate definition. In fact, it is a common warning to give to inexperienced debaters: If someone uses derivation, be careful that they are not trying to misdirect you.

It is important to realize that the positive claimant is responsible for providing clear, concise definitions. The negative claimant is perfectly within his rights to refuse to debate until the positive claimant has established the coherency of his definitions. Remember, the status quo is the default. The definition of a word is a positive claim if it differs from authority, common usage, or scientific standards within the context of the debate.

Another important procedural note: It is the privilege of the affirmative to declare which legitimate definition he will use in his proposition. This does not mean that he may define any word how he chooses. Instead, it means that he may choose any definition from an agreed upon list, and declare that to be his definition for the course of the debate. Also, note that the type of definition must be consistent with the goal of the debate. In scientific debate, colloquial definitions are not acceptable. In a debate of public opinion, colloquial definitions would be necessary.

Finally, a note on authority: There is nothing to stipulate that authority is always correct. If a debate shows conclusively that a definition should be different, then it is a viable conclusion. An argument about the constitutionality of a law might conclude that the authority of the constitution is subjugated by the logic of the argument against it, after all. This has been done in the Supreme Court quite often. Just as the Supreme Court is above the authority of the states, so logic and science are above the "authority" of popular opinion.

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin
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