Let me start by making this bold assertion: if you aren’t exquisitely sensitive to the phenomenon described below, then you have zero chance at being intellectually wise in life. Zero.

Most of the examples of the phenomenon I give here are simple and straightforward. But they are merely the obvious tip of a complex iceberg.

Do we have free will?

That’s the type of question one might ask an AI chatbot these days. People think it’s a deep, profound question. I agree—sort of. Since humans have failed to answer it, many people think we might as well ask artificial intelligence. Well, no.

Although a chatbot will offer an answer to the question, no competent philosopher will. But that’s not because the philosophers don’t know about free will. No, the problem lies in the question itself. Any decent philosopher will respond in roughly the following way.

Well, that depends. The term “free will” isn’t like the terms “electron” or “hydrogen". Different people quite reasonably attach considerably different meanings to “free will”, and although humans have some of those kinds or notions of free will, it’s clear that they don’t have all of them. Before I can answer in a helpful manner I need to have a pretty good idea of what you mean by “free will”. If you mean A, then we clearly have free will. If you mean B, then it’s unlikely, on scientific grounds. If you mean C, well, no one is sure yet. If you mean D, then … well … D actually isn’t coherent, I’m sorry to say. You will have to revise it.

I could insert the A-D meanings, but this isn’t an essay on free will. Consider an easier question.

Are there any bats in the attic?

Well, you typically can’t answer a question until you know what it means. Maybe the questioner is asking about baseball bats. That’s fine; now we can offer an answer. Or maybe she was inquiring about flying mammal bats. That’s fine too. After disambiguation we know how to proceed. If you know the attic contains neither baseball bats nor flying mammal bats, then you’re lucky: you can accurately answer “No” even without disambiguation. But usually, you need to know what meaning they had in mind in order to offer an intelligent response.

Did he bury the stolen money in the bank?

Again, it’s a bad question until it’s disambiguated. Maybe he put the money in a strongbox and, in order to hide it, buried it carefully in the riverbank. Then again, maybe he put it in an ordinary savings account in the local bank—an account that cannot be traced back to him, although he knows how to access it anyway. Either way, it’s true that he “buried the stolen money in the bank”.

Does God exist?

*Sigh*. Do you mean the vaguely anthropomorphic god of Islam, Christianity, and so on? Or do you mean god-as-all-of-nature? Or god conceived of as a certain state of consciousness, one that cannot usually be obtained without years of disciplined meditation? Or by “God” do you mean something else?

What do you mean? After you give me a clue, then as a philosopher I may have something helpful to say as an answer. Before then, all I can do is help you figure out what you might have in mind.

In order to have a belief that is true or reasonable or amounts to knowledge, one has to have a belief in the first place. In order to evaluate a person’s claim, you have to know what it means. However, in many circumstances it can be hard to interpret what people are saying. Worse yet, and perhaps more surprisingly, it’s often the case that you don’t even know what your own beliefs and thoughts are.

Dwayne Johnson’s Acting. Former pro wrestler Dwayne Johnson has appeared in many movies over the last twenty years or so. Some of those movies made a fortune. Millions of people saw those films. He is beloved around the world. But is he a great actor?

Well, the term “great actor” has several meanings--and we can’t answer the question until we know what meaning is at issue. When some people think of great actors, they mean to pick out the ones that are great at entertaining. He certainly satisfies that one; just look at how many people see his movies. So if that’s what you mean by “great actor”, then he’s a great actor. But other people have a different meaning in mind: great actor = winning well-respected awards for acting roles. He obviously does not satisfy that meaning. Yet other people have a third, more limited, meaning in mind: to be a great actor is to give convincing, nuanced portrayals of emotionally sophisticated and complicated characters in dramas. If that’s what you mean, then no: he is not a great actor. Even he would probably admit that.


The above examples illustrate one of the absolutely fundamental insights of philosophy: the importance of relevant ambiguity.

A word, phrase, or sentence is relevantly ambiguous when

  1. It has multiple common ways of understanding it.
  2. These common ways are significantly different from one another.
  3. People routinely confuse them with each other in such a way that it causes trouble in communication.

So understood, “free will” and “God” are relevantly ambiguous. But “bat” isn’t. Virtually no one is going to confuse the two meanings of “bat”, so it fails to satisfy condition (3). In addition, we restrict ourselves to common ways of understanding, like the ones you find in a dictionary or at least prevalent amongst a great many people.

Return to Dwayne Johnson. It’s easy to see how in a real conversation, two people could appear to be disagreeing over whether Johnson is a great actor even though in reality they aren’t disagreeing at all. Instead, they are merely using different conceptions of what it is to be a “great actor”. When one person says “He is definitely a great actor” and the other person responds with “No way. His movies are fun but there’s no way he’s a great actor”, they could easily be talking past one another: they think they are disagreeing with each other but they really aren’t at all. If they managed to make their meanings clear, then they may well realize that they agree completely in their assessments of Johnson’s acting ability.

So, if you want to write an essay regarding the greatest actors of all time, your essay has to start by ignoring acting performances entirely. You need to go through a linguistic-psychological investigation first, in order to figure out what the people you’re engaging with have in mind with their uses of “great actor”. After that, you can turn to considering Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Jim Carrey, and Lucille Ball.

Part of being a critical thinker means being aware of when ambiguity is having negative effects on one’s conversations and thoughts.


We can look at more cases of this.

Abortion is Wrong?  Is it? Well, first you need to clarify what you mean. By “wrong” do you mean

  • against legal rules
  • against God’s rules
  • against communal standards of behavior
  • against moral rules
  • against prudential rules

Or something else? Or maybe several of those? Each of them is a common way of understanding “wrong”. Furthermore, by “abortion” do you mean:

  • all abortions whatsoever throughout all history
  • all recent abortions only
  • all recent abortions in the second or third trimester
  • all recent abortions on viable fetuses
  • all recent abortions on conscious fetuses
  • all recent abortions except for pregnancies that came from rape or incest
  • all recent abortions except when the woman’s life is in danger
  • all recent abortions around the world or in only certain countries
  • all recent abortions in the second or third trimester where the woman’s life isn’t in danger, the pregnancy didn’t come from rape or incest, and the fetus is both viable and conscious

Or something else? Since people often have quite different ideas in mind when using “abortion”, it’s definitely a question that needs to be addressed. Finally, where does the alleged wrongness lie:

  • In the person performing the abortion
  • In the person having the abortion
  • In the action of abortion, considered apart from the individuals just mentioned

In this case, matters of ambiguity are quite serious. People debate the alleged wrongness of abortion but often talk past one another since they haven’t disambiguated what they mean by “wrong” and “abortion”. This is not to say that they never communicate well. It’s only to say that in many real-life cases, we fail to communicate well because we are using terms with different meanings, and we are blind to that fact.

Life Begins at Conception? I remember running a research seminar for PhD students on the epistemology of disagreement. We started talking about disagreement over abortion, and one student said that at least one thing we can all agree on is the fact that the main moral issue regarding abortion is whether “life begins at conception”.

But he was confused because he had not clarified what he meant by “life”. I started out by saying to him that everyone agrees that a fertilized egg is alive in the biological sense. It’s not at all like a rock or piece of dirt. It’s a living thing, and a human thing (e.g., it’s not canine or feline). Just as clearly, even if something is a naturally-occurring clump of living human cells hardly means there is anything wrong with killing it (e.g., think of a pimple on your butt, which certainly is a naturally-occurring clump of living human cells. No one thinks there is anything immoral about killing it). He was using “life” but giving it some other meaning. Eventually, we figured out that he meant by “life” a conscious living organism.

But even that wasn’t very helpful: what do you mean by “conscious”? Philosophers of mind have figured out that that term has literally around a dozen different meanings, some much different from others, and it’s clear that a fertilized egg inside a womb is “conscious” in only the most primitive of those meanings. (See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “consciousness”.) Because he hadn’t thought any of this through, he was unable to even start to think productively about the topic.

Later in our discussion he realized that the main issue, at least by his lights, was not the current level of consciousness but its natural future level. In reality, he had never even begun to think intelligently about the morality of abortion even though he was training to be a priest and had thought about abortion for years. If he had talked for just a few minutes to just about any philosopher, he would have avoided years of fruitless debate and confusion.

This shows that when debating the alleged wrongness of abortion, one has got to get straight on how one is using “wrong”, “abortion”, “life”, and “conscious”, for a start. In order to be a wise thinker, one has to be quite sensitive to relevant ambiguity.

Here are some simple cases of relevant ambiguity:

Miracles and Babies. Every birth of a baby is a miracle. By definition, miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Therefore, every birth of a baby is a violation of the laws of nature.

That’s a terrible argument. In the first part of it, “miracle” has one meaning but in the second part it has another meaning. When we argue over whether there really, truly have been miracles, such as those described in certain religious texts, we have something like the second meaning in mind. But even then, we need to work hard to clarify what we mean: a “miracle” in the religious sense has to be extraordinary and in some sense beyond our understanding, but does that mean it has to violate scientific laws of nature? Before you get caught up in the debate over miracles, you had better figure out what the hell you are even attempting to debate.

Today’s Witches. Like many eccentric “goth” young women today, Sara is a witch; witches can do black magic; so, Sara can do black magic.

Again, this is a bad argument, because “witch” is being used with different meanings in the first and second sentences. Roughly put, a “witch” in the first sense is a woman who identifies with a certain lifestyle, while someone is a “witch” in the second sense when she can actually do magic that is somehow evil. It’s not hard to be a witch in the first sense, but it’s very controversial, to say the least, that anyone is a witch in the second sense.

Are You in a Relationship?  For many years Anna has worked closely with Harvey in a law firm. Anna pretty much idolizes Harvey. When she is meeting with her psychotherapist, the therapist mentions that she and Harvey have a “relationship”. The therapist didn’t mean that Anna was in a romantic relationship with Harvey. All she meant by the term “relationship” was that Anna and Harvey had had many important and psychologically significant interactions over the years, ones that made an enormous impact on Anna. But Anna took “relationship” to indicate romance, and got flustered that her therapist was implicitly suggesting that she had romantic feelings towards her coworker.

Definition of “God”. Hakeem worships football. It’s his god. Eliza’s god is poetry. Jo worships the god of Abrahamic monotheism. Sara believes in God--conceived of as a completely impersonal force that creates the universe, without any mind at all. Fatima worships her God: all of living nature. Aleem believes in God too, thought of as the entire universe. It’s not hard to see that the terms “God” and “god” have multiple meanings, and it can be tricky to keep track of them.

For instance, a few years ago in the USA some people who are hostile to Islam tried to argue that the Muslim God isn’t the Christian God. However, they were confused by their prejudice: if the God of Islam exists, then the God of Christianity exists too and vice versa, as it would have to be the same thing. Just because Muslims and Christians have different views about God doesn’t mean, at all, that they are talking about different things: their conceptions of God may differ, but that doesn’t mean the object of the conceptions is different. My conception of democracy, or baseball pitching, or Taylor Swift, or even electrons, might be significantly different from yours, but that doesn’t mean we are literally talking about different things. No, we are talking about the very same thing but just making different claims about it.

Three examples of ambiguous words that do not typically cause communication troubles (so they fail to meet condition (3)) are “wood”, “fraction”, and “bank”.

  • The term “wood” can indicate the substance that makes up most parts of trees or it can indicate a whole forest of trees. In the Winnie the Pooh children’s stories the forest in which the character live is called “The Hundred Acre Wood”. These two meanings for “wood” are of course closely related. That separates “wood” from “bat”, given above, since the baseball and mammal meanings have nothing to do with each other.
  • The term “fraction” can have a straightforward meaning in mathematics: a real number N is a fraction = there are real numbers A and B such that A/B = N. Thus put, fractions need not be less than 1 (e.g.,  8/7 and 8787/3 are fractions greater than 1), they can be negative (e.g., -46/56 and 4/-5 are fractions), they can be equal to an integer (e.g., 4/2 is a fraction equal to 2, and 0/4 is a fraction equal to 0), and they can be irrational (e.g., Ö2/5 is an irrational fraction; a number N is rational = there are integers A and B such that A/B = N). But in much discourse outside of mathematics (e.g., “He paid only a fraction of what he owed them”), a number N is a “fraction” = there are positive integers A and B such that A/B = N and N is much closer to 0 than to 1. I suppose that these closely related meanings don’t cause too much confusion in most areas of life.
  • The term “bank” can indicate a financial corporation or it can indicate the building in which the corporation is housed (assuming the corporation has just one building). Thus, “bank” is ambiguous in two ways: it has two utterly different meanings, since it can stand for a river bank as well as a financial institution; and it has two closely related meanings, since it can stand for a corporation or the building it uses. And that’s just for “bank” as a noun; it has verb meanings too, like when you bank a shot off the backboard in basketball.

Roughly put, relevant ambiguity can be more on the side of being linguistic or more on the side of being conceptual. It is more linguistic when the differing ways of understanding are just different dictionary meanings. It’s more conceptual when the differing ways of understanding won’t be found in a dictionary.

A “Kind” Partner. My best friend TessaMac is a tremendously gifted dating, relationship, and mindset coach. She has learned that her clients often don’t know what they want in a romantic partner. Her clients usually say they want a partner who is “kind”, but what does that word mean to them? What do they really want? A person who is kind to them, or to others as well? And do they want kindness in the sense of doing things for them, or receiving emotional support, or something else? She has to help her clients dig deep to discover what they are looking for in a “kind” partner.

The phenomenon of relevant ambiguity can be devastating. It can ruin one’s life.

Is It Cheating? Every day at work Gwen has lunch with a male colleague. They have incredibly intimate conversations, talking all about their respective sex lives, sexual pasts, and sexual fantasies. Nothing is held back. This goes on for months. Eventually, Gwen’s husband Abdul finds out all about it. He angrily accuses Gwen of cheating on him.

Gwen adamantly denies cheating. She and her colleague have never even touched each other, she says. Neither one has ever even seen a photo of the other one nude. All their interactions were purely conversational. They didn’t even flirt, for God’s sake.

Abdul doesn’t care. He still says it’s cheating. You can’t talk that way to someone of the opposite sex who is attracted to you, as the colleague is or at least might be. The argument between Abdul and Gwen goes round and round, endlessly, with little chance at resolution.

Part of the reason for the frustrating debate is that there was confusion on multiple levels--caused by the relevant ambiguity of “cheating”. For starters, they were disagreeing on two separate matters. She said she didn’t cheat; he said she did. She said she didn’t do anything morally wrong; he said she did. The first disagreement concerned the application conditions of the concept of marital cheating: does it apply to what Gwen did or not? The second dispute was a moral one: was what she did morally permissible in her marriage? For the latter one, it didn’t really matter whether what she did counted as cheating. Even if it didn’t amount to cheating, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s morally okay.

There were two hurdles that Gwen and Abdul faced--ones that they needed to sort out before actually getting to the important threat to their marriage.

  • First, they needed to separate the linguistic-conceptual issue of what “cheating” amounts to from the moral issue of whether Gwen’s behavior, however you conceptualize it, is morally okay in their marriage. They needed to tease these separate issues apart.
  • Second, if they wanted to continue with the linguistic-conceptual issue, then they needed to realize that “cheating” has multiple meanings that are subtly different and easy to confuse--and they were talking past one another because they were focusing on different meanings. Clearly, one can use “cheating” so that only sexual touching is involved. But there is an expanded meaning to the term as well.

If Gwen and Abdul had been sufficiently reflective, they would have eventually realized that the linguistic-conceptual issue isn’t anywhere near as important as the moral one. But my main point is simpler: if one doesn’t have a vivid sense of relevant ambiguity, it can literally ruin one’s life.

Here is my final example, one that is relevant to critical thinking: “refutation”. People use it in three main ways:

  • an argument that successfully proves that something really is false
  • an argument that is intended to prove something is false (and so it might succeed but it might fail)
  • a mere denial of some claim

On the first meaning, a refutation is by definition an argument that succeeds in showing that something is false. Thus, no one can refute a true claim, in that sense of “refute”. On the second meaning, someone articulates an argument, intended to be a “refutation”, but it might have a false conclusion or be otherwise defective. On the third meaning, the person isn’t giving an argument or reasons at all. They are just saying “I think this claim is false”. That’s fine, but it’s quite different from giving an argument.


In order to make progress in answering a philosophical question--or even some scientific or practical ones--we often need to do some linguistic-psychological clarification first. I’m not saying that such clarification will answer all of one’s questions. It almost never will. But there are degrees of illumination to be had when faced with puzzlement and confusion. The kind of linguistic-psychological clarification I have in mind usually does increase illumination, even if it doesn’t bring it to 100%.

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10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:41 PM

For a professor of philosophy your posts are rather poor on references.

I think it does not make much sense to put "free will" and "God" to the same category as "bat" and "bank". Many people are confused about the former. There can be a misunderstanding or misdirection, but hardly a confusion about the latter.

Those who have read the Sequences are already familiar with the solution.

Also, it would require an explanation why "God" referring to "an anthropomorphic supreme being of a specific religion" and "a metaphor for all the nature" are two different things, but "God" referring to "the anthropomorphic supreme being of Christianity who impregnated a human female a had a son called Jesus who is also divine" and "the anthropomorphic supreme being of Islam who 'has never had offspring, nor was He born' (The Qur'an, 112:3)" are the same thing. Factually, both are made up, so it's impossible to resolve experimentally. Going by the definition alone, there are similarities, but also differences. Which differences are important enough to make it "a different thing", and which differences mean "we just believe different things about the same thing"? Is Jupiter, the anthropomorphic supreme being of Roman religion, also the same thing? Could you describe a general rule how to figure out whether the Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are two different beings, or just the same being that we have two extremely different stories about?

Those who have read the Sequences are already familiar with the solution. [Rationalist taboo]

Unpacking (as it's called in mainstream phil.) the meaning of a term doesn't necessarily disambiguate, because you might end up with several unpackings of several meanings-- in fact you do: you offer several unpackings of "God" further on.

not downvoting - it's already at -10, which is about right IMO.  There's nothing exactly wrong with it, but it's a lot of text and detail for fairly trivial content.  If it were a reaction to some specific ongoing debate, or if there were a much clearer summary followed by examples, and if the title were less misleading (it has nothing to do with most philosophical questions, certainly not mine, and is not about why there is no answer, but about why many discussions are pointless whether or not there is an answer), it could be a useful post.

I'm not sure why this post is getting downvoted. I found it interesting and easy to read. Thanks for writing!

Mostly I find myself agreeing with what you wrote. I'll give an example of one point where I found it interesting to zoom in on some of the details.

It’s easy to see how in a real conversation, two people could appear to be disagreeing over whether Johnson is a great actor even though in reality they aren’t disagreeing at all. Instead, they are merely using different conceptions of what it is to be a “great actor”

I think this kind of disagreement can, to some degree, also be a 'fight' about the idea of "great actor" itself, as silly as that might sound. I guess I might put it as: beside the more 'object-level' things "great actor" might mean, the gestalt of "great actor" has an additional meaning of its own. Perhaps it implies that one's particular taste/interpretation is the more universal/'correct' one. Perhaps compressing one's opinions into the concept of "great actor" creates a halo effect, which feels and is cognitively processed differently than the mere facts of the opinions themselves.

This particular interpretation is more vague/nebulous than your post, though (which I enjoyed for explaining the 'basic'/fundamental ideas of reasoning in a very solid and easy to understand way).

I'm also confused about the degree of downvotes. (It's not really new content for LessWrong but I'm happy to see more rationality content on the margin, even if it's re-covering the basics)

(I do think opening with "you have 'zero' chance of being intellectually wise without this" is some combination of "not necessarily true" and "sure sounds like you need to have resolved the ambiguity of what counts as intellectually wise to be sure of that", and wish that line was different)

I downvoted it for the first paragraph alone. The rest gave me no reason to change my mind, and only barely enough reason not to give it a strong downvote.

I made a brief comment on the same lines recently:

The crux of an argument can be the meaning of a word, because the soundness of an argument can depend on the truth of a premise, and the truth of a premise can depend on the meaning of a term.

Do we have free will?

That’s the type of question one might ask an AI chatbot these days.Although a chatbot will offer an answer to the question, no competent philosopher will

Some philosophers do, though -- Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Robert Kane have all offerred answers (incorporating claims about what "free will" really or centrally means).