The advert read “Leather backed, fully reclining comfort chair. 5 Year guarantee.” Going by the picture and description the price seemed reasonable. After paying for one, people received a leather backed fully reclining chair that was rather smaller than they thought it would be, one which could fit in the palm of your hand, ideal for a dolls house.

A chair provides an excellent example of how you can picture one in your head, but I can guarantee the one you will be thinking of will be quite different to that in the minds of others. A typical chair may have four legs, but a chair is still a chair irrespective of the number of legs it has. Some have arm rests and a back whilst some do not. A chair can still be considered to be a chair even when it doesn’t serve the function of being able to be sat on. How do you definitively distinguish a chair from a stool or decide when it is no longer a chair? At what point does it become a chair, when you begin to assemble one from a flat pack and when does it end being so when you smash it up?

It is not unheard of to have a tax on one item but not another. So, if there was a tax on chairs but not stools there can be some problems when we try to claim that what we are selling is marketed as a stool but closely resembles a chair. Neither a stool nor a chair can be defined, therefore it comes down to someone having the authority to make individual distinctions. Very few objects can be precisely defined.

You can show someone to be wrong whatever answer they give to a question. Hold three cigarettes in your hand and ask them, “Are there two cigarettes in my hand?” If they say yes, there are two then they can disagree saying that there are three. If they say no then you can argue that there are two cigarettes, which is a true statement. Unless one specifies with better precision “Is the number of cigarettes equal to two?” (No less than, no more than) then you can invite some argument. Some people will reply, when asked the same question, “Cigarettes are bad for you”, and the debate will continue at a complete and frustrating tangent.

Whether your proposition has merit or not, some will dismiss it as invalid. They will nullify the points you are making rather than take them on board and provide justified counter arguments. One way to brush you aside is to class what you are saying as being nihilistic, absolutism, solipsism or equal to some theorem or another. For a start many would not be too sure what these terms really mean. Secondly it is a way of saying that your idea has already been examined and can be discounted. We can come up with an idea and people refuse to examine it fully before casting us aside. It is pigeonholed and ignored. Debates can also be sabotaged by other ploys, word plays along with all the various fallacies each of which complicate things. It can become a mindless mind game. It then takes a long time to break down the linguistic devices to get somewhere.

Not all languages will have as much ambiguity as others, but where there is more than one meaning of a word you can be sure that they will use the other to trash what you are saying. We can pick out an element of an idea and run with it ignoring the central point. I was involved in a discussion about what responsibilities we have towards our neighbours. It is an ethical debate. However, the discussion never got onto ethics it simply focused on what a neighbour is. Are they those living next door, in the same street, or on adjacent farm miles away? If you said to someone that you saw your neighbour on a train, they would understand that you meant someone living near you. The questioner was asking about the level of care we feel we may have towards our neighbours, not what a neighbour is. Their interest lay in possible obligations we may have regarding people living close by. You were hoping for some insight into ethics, but instead you get caught up in a battle of defining things that are not essential to your query.

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