Tag Archives: equivocation

Stop equivocating!

26 Nov

Dad with daughter

My Dad must have repeated that warning weekly throughout my teen years.  Vaguely aware that he meant it to mean ‘stop arguing‘ or ‘enough of this twisting around of my words!

It wasn’t until ‘logic’ came into my life that I learned both the potential confusion AND danger of equivocal words – those terms that are spelled alike but point to completely different concepts.

Think about pitchers.  Two sorts spring to mind:

Pitcher of lemonade Pitcher throwing ball


It’s only in context that one’s sense becomes clear.

I thought about equivocal words again while mediating on one of God’s teachings in the book of Acts.  The passage is found in chapter 10 where Peter (the leader of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) explains to the Roman officer Cornelius the details surrounding Jesus’ work on earth and his future return:

(verses 42-43) “…..And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

What got me thinking was how some people unfamiliar with the Bible think that God will judge the good and the bad.  Those are the juxtaposed groups they describe.  Yet that is a category error, if one relies on the Bible as the definitive word about God’s judgments.  In the above passage, the people groups mentioned are the living and the dead.  What we can safely infer is that this categorizing is both exclusive and exhaustive.  All humans who ARE living or who HAVE EVER lived fit into one of these two groups: the living and the dead.  

I’ll come back to this teaching in a moment; first let’s look at the erroneous initial division of humans into good and bad.  Here is where my reflection about equivocal terms brought me – pondering the sense of the term ‘good‘.   Many Americans are kind-hearted, generous and desirous of helping their neighbor.

Humanitarian acts

I’m sure you know just such good people.  These God-enabled humanitarian works DO make our world a much better place.  Undeniably.  Yet the term good is problematic precisely because it’s one of those troublesome equivocal words.

Here’s what I mean:

How do we reconcile Jesus telling a well-to-do young Jewish man:

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good--except God alone.” (Mark 3:12)

And in the Old Testament the Psalmist writes:

Everyone has turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 53:3)

Clearly there is good and there is good!

And we could talk about many other examples of how good is used:

  • good to eat (tasty and/or nutritious)
  • good at playing the piano (skilled)
  • that’s good! (almost meaningless, but communicates your acknowledgment of the news)
  • good weather for fishing/sunbathing/growing your garden (conducive to ______)
  • a good dog, child (well behaved)
  • a good wife (meets my expectations)
  • a good report (complete and accurate)
  • and last but not least, a good deed (kind)

You can probably thing of  more uses.

But the distinction that God describes in His word is one that has eternal consequences.  If

  • no one but God is good (per HIS use of the term) and if
  • He is going to judge the living and the dead

Then, knowing the category He uses is crucial.

Back to the apostle Peter’s explanation to Cornelius; obviously if none of us is good in God’s use of the term, and He separates all into either the living or the dead, then knowing that there IS a way to be reconciled and pleasing and loved and favored by God is pretty important.


Bottom LIne

And the news is ‘good’! (life-giving, joyful)

Reprising the 2nd verse (Acts 10:43) where Peter describes Jesus and his work on earth the first time:

“….To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Hmm…I spot another tricky term: ‘believes‘.  We’ll talk about how to understand the proper sense of  ‘to believe’ next time.

Until then, pick up and read all of Acts, Chapter 10 for yourself.  It’s a short account of what’s important.

Logical Gal tracks down meaning for ‘immanence’

16 Jun

Talk about confusing!!

Trying to digest different philosophical views of God and suffering, I came across a reference to ‘the immanent frame of our culture’.  And I had NO idea what that meant!

Building Blocks

You know by now the importance of clarifying terms.  So I looked up ‘immanence’. First I learned (or was reminded) that we should NOT be confused with ‘imminence’ with a middle “I” which means impending or immediate.  Second, I read that ’eminence’  with an initial “E” is yet a different concept as found in titles for certain Catholic officials.

But where matters REALLY got loopy was that depending on which metaphysical camp you choose, you could be thinking of two different properties or attributes when claiming ‘God is immanent’ .

If you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, you might say: ” Yes, God is immanent” and you would be referring to your personal divine experience of God.  And God would be whatever you describe him/her/it to be, as the below book cover suggests:

Immanence per Humanists

Many ‘modern-day’ thinkers consider God to be immanent.  And they are referring to what retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of New Jersey writes is just our own experience of God:

I seek to escape the theistic definition of God as an external being, supernatural in power, who invades our world periodically in miraculous ways. That definition of God simply no longer translates to a post- Galilean, post-Newtonian and a post-Darwinian world. Indeed, I think human beings should give up their almost idolatrous attempt to define God at all. We can experience God, but we cannot define God. So most religious God talk is nonsensical. (from his Facebook page , dated 16 May 2013)

And as quoted by recently deceased UVa alum John Morris (Law ’48), Spong allegedly wrote: ” God, to me, is a call to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that I can be.”

But Biblical Christians mean something entirely different when they extol the immanence of God.

Immanence per Christians

They believe that God, though immaterial by essence, at one time in history DID ‘invade’ our world and walked among us as Jesus from Nazareth.  And God IS present now, inside those who are His followers, in the form of immaterial, invisible Holy Spirit.

Remember – just because something is immaterial (not measurable by our 5 senses) does NOT mean it is UNREAL.  You can’t touch or measure memories or love or covetousness or gravity.  But you can see the effect of these real but invisible ‘things’.

All this underscores how important it is to invest the time to clarify terms.  I’m beginning to realize that the simple question:  What do you mean by X? will do more good in the discussion that might follow, then jumping in to state or question assertions.

Just because someone uses the same term as you does NOT guarantee that they have in mind the exact same concept.

Question: What are some of those equivocal terms you encounter during your reading or discussions? Phrases like ‘saved by grace’  or ‘heaven‘ or ‘prayer‘ or  even ‘homework‘  can refer to entities that are poles apart in the minds of two people.

Logical Gal and Smoke and Mirrors

14 May

confusing words


I was listening to a civil discussion between two  Christian pastors on opposite ends of the Evangelical camp.  Here was what was puzzling:

Both men used the following terms:

  • Biblical
  • Authoritative
  • Christ-centered

Yet…there was a mile-wide divide between their positions. Wouldn’t you think that Christians, or any group for that matter , would employ terms to refer to the same concepts?  Well, you cannot assume that.  If the terms (words) are the same, but point to concepts that are completely different, that is called the Fallacy of Equivocation.

It’s like one person using the word ‘pitcher’ to indicate a beverage container and another person thinking of the player who lobs a baseball.

Pitcher - baseball Pitcher of lemonade


Another area of discussion that offers plenty of room for confusion is in the arena of denominational doctrine:

When certain Christians assert that one is saved by grace, other groups will agree.  Only by shining light on the shadowy areas, can you see that the method of being saved is different for each.  The one group will mean grace alone and the other group will intend grace as the initial factor leading to one’s ability to choose God or accomplish necessary works to be worthy of salvation.


grace alone

Logical Joes and Janes are committed to clarity of terms and asking clarifying questions with gentleness and respect.






Logical Gal and Equivocal Terms

11 Apr

Equivocal Earl


I have difficulty in spotting equivocal terms in certain contexts!  I doubt if I’m the only one who struggles this way.  Sure, it’s pretty obvious when someone is using the term ‘pitcher’.  The two completely different concepts referred to by that term are a container for liquids and a ball thrower.

Yesterday, I couldn’t even pinpoint the different concepts when the radio show host identified the word ‘public’ as the word being used equivocally.

Public funds for public education!

…was the talking point of an anti-choice politician.  I could only see it once  my mentor parsed out that the 1st sense of the word public meant money from everyone and the 2nd sense of public was ‘government-sponsored schools’.

The drawing below is a good example of these equivocal terms in use!

Public education for an educated public

This rhetorically-effective slogan reminds me of another employed by those biased against the supernatural:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanations!


Question: Can you explain the different concepts used in this example of the ‘ole switcheroo’ fallacy  of equivocation?

Logical Gal and False Analogies

5 Feb

I heard a great example of a false analogy today.  The discussion between an atheist and a Christian centered on whether or not there was an afterlife.

The atheist asserted:

“The likelihood of there being a heaven or hell is  as probable as my chance of spotting a unicorn or winning the lottery.  It ain’t going to happen!” 

So what’s a False Analogy?  It’s more properly called a WEAK analogy.  Analogies are neither true nor false.  They range and fall out on a continuum of being helpful……..all the way to what you might call ‘stretching it’!  Equivocal terms often strip them of any validity.

Consider this description that I just made up:

Students are like leaky containers – you pour into both of them and very little sticks!

What this statement assumes is that because students and leaky containers share ONE attribute (they are both empty of something), they are similar in other areas, too!

In that case as well as in the picture below, the differences are far more important.

Often people make the claim that all religions are basically the same because they all teach The Golden Rule:

While it is true that they may all hold out kindness as a virtue, what makes them DIFFER, one from each other,  is far more important.

Let’s revisit my example at the top regarding the likelihood of an afterlife.  In searching an apt comparison as an illustration, the one man tried to link unicorn sightings to lottery winnings. He claimed that the chance of winning the lottery was akin to the number of occasions he might spot a unicorn.  But the analogy is completely weak because there ARE lottery winners.  Contrariwise, unicorns have NEVER been spotted.

So the next time someone attempts to lay a False or Weak Analogy on you, just ask him or her to explain it to you.  In all likelihood, they won’t be able to. Many people just ‘spout’ and assert without really thinking about what they are saying.

Question: What is an example of this False Analogy Fallacy that YOU have encountered?

Logical Gal and how kids can benefit from studying Logic

31 Jan

A friend of mine’s daughter has her doubts about the benefit of studying logic.  It’s a required course for 7th graders at her classical school.  The curriculum introduces informal logic in the 7th grade and formal logic in the 8th grade.

Informal logic consists in all the fallacies or bad arguments people use.  Formal logic is the study of GOOD argumentation: its form.

But back to this pre-teen’s question about the relevance of her course of study.  I hear it as a French teacher and I’m sure math teachers have learned to shut their ears to this perennial question:

When am I ever going to use THIS!!!!

Here is how the study of poor argumentation can help anyone, no matter his or her age.  Armed with the ability to identify the fallacies of others, you will be able to stop them in their tracks when they come at you with:

  • …because I said so (Argumentum ad Baculum – Big Stick) – often used by parents!!
  • …because anyone who is anybody does it (Argumentum Populum – Mob Appeal)
  • …because Justin Bieber said they were the coolest running shoes (Celebrity Transfer)
  • …because these puppies and kittens will die if you don’t donate (Appeal to Pity – avoiding looking at other reasons, but relying on emotions)
  • You shouldn’t vote Joe for class president because he’s a nerd (Ad Hominem Abusive- attacking the guy’s character instead of looking at his platform)
  • You can’t trust what the disciples said about Jesus.  After all, they lived with him for 3 years (Ad Hominem Circumstantial – they must be biased)
  • You can’t tell me not to smoke because YOU smoke (Tu Quoque – you do it, too!)
  • You can either clean up your room now or before dinner. (False dichotomy – there are other times) again, a favorite of parents.
  • If you don’t let me have a cell phone at age 12, then I’ll never have any friends! (Strawman – reframing someone’s position incorrectly)- a favorite of kids!

These are just a few of the more common poor arguments or fallacies that swirl around us all the time. Can you see how useful it will be in giving both the adolescent AND the adult the key to identifying manipulative reasoning?  Even if you don’t remember the name of any of them, once you understand the thinking behind each, they are super easy (and fun!) to spot.  All you have to do, when someone tries to lay one of these babies on you,  is come back forcefully with,

That’s a fallacy!  

Try your hand at spotting what’s wrong in this argument!

How did you do? At least you could probably FEEL that something was wrong.  It’s invalid because of the Fallacy of Equivocation.    In this case, the word ‘headache’ is used equivocally, that is – in two different senses, thus creating the fallacy.  Equivocal words refer to two different concepts.  Both a pain in one’s head and an annoying condition can be called a headache.

Finally, the one fallacy I, as a parent, would want my child to have down pat before launching out on his or her own would be the Fallacy of the Non Sequitor.

If you have a daughter, think of a guy trying to get her to indulge in casual sex with him.  He lays this line on her: “If you love me, you’ll sleep with me!”

That, my dear readers, is an example of something that does not follow, hence a NON SEQUITOR.

Or how about this: “Why not try these drugs, you’re only young once!”

In both cases, there is absolutely NO CONNECTION between the first premise and the second.  Our children need to know HOW to respond before they are faced with the absurd and sinful choices, which will surely be thrown at them.

Question: Which fallacies have you succumbed to?

Logical Gal and even MORE precise definintions

17 Jan

I’ve written about how much I like the idea of making distinctions between this and that.  “As opposed to what?”  is one of my favorite questions for better comprehension.

Well, last night, I heard someone explain the difference between the BROAD sense of the word MIRACLE and the NARROW sense.


In essence  miracle could refer to something supernatural in both senses. Yet there would be real distinctions.  That means we would NOT be committing the fallacy of equivocation (same word, completely different concepts). 

So what are the broad and narrow definitions of miracle?  The broad version describes a miracle as an extraordinary event that seems to defy the laws of nature. (paraphrase of what I heard last night) 

The narrow sense limits the scope of these extraordinary events as specifically those meant to attest to the authenticity of the prophet/person carrying them out.  So Moses was able to change a river into blood to prove that he was sent by God.  Jesus was able to multiply fishes and loaves and raise a man from being 3 days-dead to prove that he was sent by God.

Following on the heals of what I heard last night about broad and narrow versions,  this morning I read about 2 levels of faith in God.  Immediately I saw the connection between narrow and broad.  The devotional recounted  Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples who panicked while he slept in the boat amidst the violent storm.

Luke 8:22-25

22 One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. 23 As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.

24 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples.

So did the disciples NOT believe Jesus? Of course they did.  They had left their professions to join his band of brothers and follow him.  That act certainly indicated a level of commitment and belief.

But as I’m learning, there is FAITH in God and then there is FAITH in God.  Again we can make the distinction between a general or broad sense and a more specific or narrow sense.

These normal rugged men had the faith THAT he was a man sent from God and they might even at times have accepted his words that he WAS God. (John 10:30 – “I and the Father are one” )

But as I read in my devotional this morning, their faith was NOT the (narrow ) kind that expected the Creator God to CARE for his creation because he loved them. It was the more general kind, the kind that doesn’t touch one’s heart so much.   All of a sudden ‘faith in God’ takes on a new sense.  And how I answer the following question affects my presuppositions. Do I believe and trust that God is a loving God whose every action toward me is one motivated by His love for me? 

That is worth chewing on.  To use a word very passé: I like these NUANCED definitions.

Logical Gal and Equivocation

27 Nov

Equivocal terms such as fall – meaning autumn and fall – meaning to tumble down refer to concepts that are completely different.

So in essence, you might be tricking your listeners by pretending to be consistent when all along you are taking advantage of them.  My dad used to accuse me of equivocating when I was being an argumentative little brat.  Since I had not enjoyed any formal training in equivocation, this skill of obfuscation must come naturally, even to middle-schoolers!

Here are a couple of cartoon examples:  This first one actually plays on analogical terms – terms that are similar.  Stealing a material good versus stealing a base to advance in a game.

Yes, much humor and plenty of puns rely on equivocal terms.  But sometimes, disingenuous use of terms are employed as a shortcut o advance one’s point of view.

I’ve heard scientists argue that the universe came into being out of NOTHING.  But they don’t mean the kind of nothing that is NO THING.  They actually mean something existent, that they call a quantum vacuum.  Do you see how they are playing 2 differing concepts off of each other?  One term ‘nothing’ refers to the concept of  NO THING.  The other term ‘nothing’ refers to the very different concept of ‘quantum vacuum’.   Here’s an article that explains this deliberate obfuscation – Something from nothing?

 Does THIS book cover look like a book about nothing? 

So what’s our take away?  Watch out lest WE  be caught in the equivocal trap.  We must strive to say what we mean, ourselves.  Language demands precise thinking!

Logical Gal spots 2 fallacies in one syllogism

4 Oct

The other day I was listening to a radio program recounting a debate that had taken place in Australia.

One of the two debaters apparently resorted to name-calling and sought to be clever by doing so within a verbal syllogism.

And in the ensuing radio discussion about the quality of the debate, a listener pointed out there was a logic error within the syllogism.

Here is the syllogism (unfortunately it was intended to demean)

All mammals exhibit homosexual behavior

Joe is a mammal

Tf, Joe exhibits homosexual behavior

Can you identify the error?  You don’ t have to know anything about Joe’s sexual preferences to notice the problem.

Remember that a syllogism is limited in form by the requirement to have exactly 3 terms.  What are the terms in this one?

  1. mammals
  2. (that which)  exhibits homosexual behavior
  3. Joe

“ So…….??”  you say.

Here’s the problem: the term ‘mammals’  is actually used equivocally to mean two different concepts.

In premise 1, the term mammals really means species of mammals

So then in premise 2, mammals is used as a particular MEMBER of a species of mammals.

If we were to accurately state the premises and conclusion of the one advancing the argument, we would quickly see that he has used clever wording to cover up his Fallacy of Equivocation.  To reach his conclusion, he has to employ more than the 3 terms. (I’ve colored each term – only ‘ Joe’  is used twice.  We actually have 5 terms in this syllogism.

P1 – All species of mammals are species that have members that exhibit homosexual behavior

P2 – Joe is a member of a species of mammals that exhibits homosexual behavior

Tf – Joe is a mammal that exhibits homosexual behavior

And if that weren’t enough, he also commits the Fallacy of Division.  This happens when we assume that a quality of the group applies equally to every member of a group.

If we say “ Texas A&M sure is a passing team” in the sense that they pass the ball  a lot, it does not follow that every member of that team is a higher-than-average passer!

It may be that the Jones family is very artistic.   But Billy Jones is not necessarily artistic himself.  He might take after his great-great grandfather who played for Texas A& M!

A cake may be tasty, but each ingredient is not.  Have you ever snacked on butter? Do you see the fault in the reasoning?

Back to Joe and the name-calling debater.  Not only did his accuser have to cobble together multiple terms and then hide them, he also committed the Fallacy of Division and presumed to announce something about Joe that stretched beyond the known facts.

Remember, whoever makes the claim has to be able to defend his thinking!

What is Chili?

11 Jul


Terms matter! 

Once when we were engaged to be married and were visiting my parents, Mom prepared a tried and trusted entrée she thought Mike would like – chili!  The only problem was that she left out the kidney beans!  My fiancé, who was less than tactful, remonstrated, “This isn’t chili – it has no beans!”

Was he correct?  It depends on how you define ‘chili’.  (Why did she omit the beans?  She was probably distracted by the presence of her articulate and handsome future son-in-law!)

One of the fundamental laws of thought is called the Law of Identity.  It’s pretty intuitive: a thing is the sum of its component parts, characteristics (or ‘predicates’ to be technical) and NOT something else.

Let’s suppose that you define ‘chili’ like this:

·         Chili is a thick soup or gravy composed of meat, beans, tomatoes and seasonings

What happens, then, if you leave out or add something to this ‘soup or gravy’?  According to the Law of Identity, it is NOT ‘chili’.

Such a rule or guideline is useful in all kinds of conversations.  When we talk with people, our first responsibility is to get clear what they have in mind when employing a term.  So we ask them:

 What do you mean by ‘chili’?”


 “What exactly is ‘chili’?

Being clear and precise about the definition is important. If you add or take away a defining component, you have changed the thing whether it is material (concrete) or immaterial (an idea).

When I engage in conversations about controversial items like prayer, God, marriage or even Christianity, I CANNOT assume that the person with whom I am talking defines the term in question the same way as I do.  This Law of Identity is basic!

For example, if I mean by marriage the historical and biblical definition:

a covenantal relationship recognized and supported by society between one qualified man & one qualified woman for the purposes of companionship, love, mutual support and the raising of children if possible

….then taking away or adding a part changes its identity.  It is no longer ‘marriage’ but something else!  That is fine, but we should be honest.  Fuzziness doesn’t help anyone.  Such equivocating with terms allows people to hide.  No progress can be made toward establishing meaningful conversation and/or solving problems.   

What concepts do YOU see in everyday life that are ‘allowed’ to stay fuzzy?