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The perils of etymology

philochristos
Posts: 2,614
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4/3/2014 2:37:08 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
Some people think you can derive the meaning of a word by looking at its etymology. But since words are defined by their use, and their meaning changes over time as people begin to use them in different ways, etymology can be misleading.

I was just thinking about the word, "agnostic." Etymologically, this ought to mean "lack of knowledge" or "absence of knowledge." Knowledge, by common use, is justified true belief. So to have knowledge, three criteria must be met: (1) you have to believe it, (2) you have to have justification for believing it, and (3) it has to be true.

Suppose God does not exist. If that were the case, then nobody could know that God exists since the third criteria of knowledge would not be met. But if nobody knew God existed, and an agnostic is somebody who has a "lack of knowledge," then everybody would be agnostic.

But that's clearly absurd because that isn't how we use the word, "agnostic." Even atheists will grant that theists are not agnostic.
"Not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues want of education." ~Aristotle

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." ~Aristotle
annanicole
Posts: 19,787
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4/3/2014 3:33:02 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
At 4/3/2014 2:37:08 PM, philochristos wrote:
Some people think you can derive the meaning of a word by looking at its etymology. But since words are defined by their use, and their meaning changes over time as people begin to use them in different ways, etymology can be misleading.

I was just thinking about the word, "agnostic." Etymologically, this ought to mean "lack of knowledge" or "absence of knowledge." Knowledge, by common use, is justified true belief. So to have knowledge, three criteria must be met: (1) you have to believe it, (2) you have to have justification for believing it, and (3) it has to be true.

Suppose God does not exist. If that were the case, then nobody could know that God exists since the third criteria of knowledge would not be met. But if nobody knew God existed, and an agnostic is somebody who has a "lack of knowledge," then everybody would be agnostic.

But that's clearly absurd because that isn't how we use the word, "agnostic." Even atheists will grant that theists are not agnostic.

I thought the word meant "a lack of knowing" as in "I do not know that God exists" while at the same time "I do not know that God does not exist." To me, it's sort-of a fence-straddling word with person concedes that he just does not know, or does not have a high degree of certainty either way.
Madcornishbiker: "No, I don't need a dictionary, I know how scripture uses words and that is all I need to now."
philochristos
Posts: 2,614
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4/3/2014 3:47:16 PM
Posted: 2 years ago
At 4/3/2014 3:33:02 PM, annanicole wrote:

I thought the word meant "a lack of knowing" as in "I do not know that God exists" while at the same time "I do not know that God does not exist." To me, it's sort-of a fence-straddling word with person concedes that he just does not know, or does not have a high degree of certainty either way.

I think that's roughly how the word is commonly used. What I was arguing was that if you try to define the word according to it's etymology, you get an absurd result. You get a definition that is far removed from common use.
"Not to know of what things one should demand demonstration, and of what one should not, argues want of education." ~Aristotle

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." ~Aristotle