Sunday, 22 January 2012

A semantic argument. (Also - the answer for who came first - the chicken or the egg!)

A conversation I had recently made me think a little about how a surprising number of disagreements we have can be boiled down to a question of semantics. I want to talk about this for a bit, and then I'll give the definitive answer (literally!) to "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

The conversation, between me and a guy trying to sell me a book that "was the first book to successfully unite Eastern and Western Philosophy" - a claim I seriously doubt. [Future topic: Advertising things as "Eastern", and why it annoys me.] - and told me it would be a spiritual awakening. [Future topic: Why am I am not a spiritual person, and this is fine.]

I explained I wasn't spiritual. This seemed to confuse him. I guess he couldn't comprehend someone openly saying they weren't spiritual in the same way I can't comprehend what it would be like to be a cat.

He pursued a line of questioning as to where we came from, and so on down. I answered as best I could with scientific answers, until we got to "And what came before the Big Bang?"

"Nobody knows, but we're working on it?"

"No," he said, triumphantly, "scientists don't know. But I call it God."

I didn't want to go down the God-of-the-Gaps route, so I asked if me meant God as The Prime Mover. He said not, but he described God as something that "is, but has no cause", and that this idea was something totally new the East could teach the West. Totally wrong, but the phrase "scientists don't know. But I call it God" stuck with me.

I realised that we could have argued about the nature of what came before the Big Bang until the end of time, and not come to an agreement because, bizarrely, we were already at some sort of an agreement: that what came before has no explanation. He left the role of explaining this to God, and I placed it on science's to-do list. That was the ONLY difference. The differences in our viewpoint on this matter purely semantic.

Once you're on the look out for it, semantic arguments are all over the place. Many politicians from all views will argue for the same things in different language, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance argues that "Romantic" and "Classical" philosophies are two ways of looking at the same thing, and don't get me started on people who debate music genres.

By doing this, it's far easier to find things in common with people. And that's always fun.

Oh, and I promised an answer to "What came first, the chicken or the egg?"

The smart-arse answer is, of course, that animals were laying eggs long before the first chicken was a glint in the Rooster's eye. But obviously the question refers to a chicken egg, right?

Or is it a chicken's egg?

If we take it as given there was a first chicken (or some degree of "chickenness", at which point we call something a chicken... it's all hypothetical) we find that the answer depends exactly on the question.

A chicken egg is one which hatches a chicken, and must (therefore) pre-date the first chicken by about three weeks.

A chicken's egg is one laid by a chicken, and the chicken must have pre-dated the egg by about four to six months.

So the answer is - it's a question of semantics.


  1. I agree with the thrust of your post: semantics make a lot more trouble than they're worth. Arguments often spiral into pointless bickering over semantics, where there could have been an enlightening exchange of views.

    And although the core of the arguments do run together, insofar as you point out, I do find it repulsive to equate "I don't know yet" with "god did it". The latter stinks of satisfaction in ignorance.
    To frame it differently, this is how rain was explained when the content of the first book of the bible was created. Back then, god opened a window in the sky (which was a big dome he made to separate sky-water and ground-water) and let water fall out. Maybe you already knew that.

    My point? People being content with a complete handwave of a fascinating, real, and worthwhile question annoys me. I should probably get a blog rather than ranting in the comments of yours.

    Good post.

    1. I should point out that equating "I don't know" with "God did it" (i.e. "God-of-the-Gaps") is different from the "Prime Mover." There is ALWAYS the question of "what came before that?" For many people - including religious people in the scientific community - they say that eventually science will hit a point of "we CAN'T answer what came before..." They place their God wherever this point is. (The point that God transcends time is useful for them here, as time itself didn't exist before the Big Bang, so in some respects asking what happened "before" the Big Bang is like asking what's North of the North Pole...