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Framework Attack

March 21, 2011

In George Orwell’s book 1984 one small aspect of the totalitarian government’s control over the lives of its citizens is control over language. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book but at one point there is a discussion about the elimination of the word “freedom”. One of the characters firmly believes that eliminating the word would eliminate the concept. While this seems like quite a stretch to me (I spend far too much time trying to express things I don’t have words for) it does point out a critical vulnerability in language: if someone else controls the words they control the framework of your communication.

This seems both silly and obvious but this happens more often than we think. I am most often concerned with how this happens when we deal with entrenched philosophical ideas or wrong definitions of words that appear in Biblical translation but I’d like to start by dealing with a much more prosaic misuse of words. This is a rather common means of attacking Christians through attacking their words rather than their concepts.

The concept is easy enough and common in other arenas as well. Find a term your opponent uses (say, “God”). Define this word in the most ridiculous way possible (“invisible sky-wizard”). Proceed to mock any idea that contains this word on the basis of your ridiculous definition. Obviously this is a low-blow but it works much better than it should. One of the reasons it works is because that the definition of the word need not be made explicit. A good example of this is a discussion of souls. In the Bible, as I’ve previously shown, a soul can mean all sorts of things pretty much everyone agrees exist – minds, personalities, lives, and emotional states. However, in modern thought a soul is normally very specifically an invisible “spiritual” (which is used, in another non-Biblical way, to mean “the opposite of physical”) container for some or all of these things which continues on after death. Because of this definition, a framework exists in which the contended aspects of souls are front and center. This framework can be exploited to attack any Christian idea that mentions souls. For instance, a Christian might say that being angry all the time is bad for your soul. That’s pretty normal advice with which few people would really argue. It doesn’t use the word “soul” in a contentious manner, either. Instead, it uses it to mean something like “self”. However, a sufficiently belligerent person could say they reject this advice because they don’t believe in an invisible part of a person, or because they don’t believe in life after death. This would be a terrible answer but it would sound fairly reasonable because of the framework. It would be a framework-based attack.

The framework attack can be made more severe. For instance, someone could claim that they don’t want to take the advice mentioned above because they don’t believe in “spirits and ghosts and all that stuff”. This would create a new framework, one in which several mostly-unrelated ideas (souls, spirits, ghosts, and “that stuff”) are linked together on the basis of a folk commonality. What’s more, it would link an idea that is common in a number of religious traditions and perhaps therefore somewhat respectable (souls) with ghosts which are less respectable. The severe version of the framework attack is worth knowing about but it’s not something people tend to do accidentally. Deliberate use of underhanded tactics is a problem but it’s often one that’s best solved by disengaging from the person using them.

On the other hand, the framework attack can become completely passive. This is perhaps most clearly noticeable when we discuss Christian ideas of humanity. The language Christians use has been culturally bound to ideas that aren’t necessarily the important ones for a conversation. I’m aware of conversations with philosophical naturalists in which Christians, attempting to make points about how they viewed moral decisions, were met with statements like “I don’t believe in a will” or “I don’t believe in a soul”. I doubt the responders meant to be obtuse but the statements were fairly silly. The person who said “I don’t believe in a will” did actually believe that people make decisions which means that he does believe in a will. He may not have believed that people have some invisible, free-floating, ghost-in-the-machine sort of will but that’s beside the point. There was fertile ground for a conversation about wills which was shut down through the insistence of one party that wills didn’t exist because this person had defined “will” in a strange manner. The conversation about souls involved something similar. The person who denied the existence of souls did not mean “I do not believe that humans are people with some real sense of personhood” but, rather, “I don’t believe in an invisible spiritual reality”. The latter comment, however, wasn’t really relevant to the conversation. Again, the conversation was shut down because the definitions being used (obtained from culture) hindered understanding.

The framework attack isn’t limited to dialogue between Christians and non-Christians. I learned years ago that if a fellow Christian identifies themself to me as a Calvinist and wants to argue with me that I’d best make them define every term they are using because the differences between myself and some significant fraction of self-identified Calvinists start with language. We may both speak English but we can’t discuss justification, sanctification, and salvation when we simply don’t mean the same things by these words.

Obviously framework attacks, both passive and actively-exploited, are problematic. They are also clearly things in which we should avoid engaging. Doing this is straightforward enough – make sure you know what someone else really means before you criticize their argument. For instance, if you’re going to criticize Hinduism for having 330 million gods make sure you pay attention long enough to understand that Hinduism is a rather diverse collection of beliefs and that at least one of the main strands manages to simultaneously have millions of gods and only one because all things are part of the same ultimately indivisible whole. One of the most venerable of Western arguments against polytheism, that of Augustine in City of God, simply doesn’t work when applied to Hinduism because of this feature. Avoiding embarrassment by understanding the framework of others is good. It may also lead to the much greater good of understanding our own frameworks, including the parts that have been imposed on us by our culture without our explicit consent.

Keeping our own house in order is one thing; dealing with the framework attacks of others is another. One of the best ways to deal with these problems is to be ready with alternate definitions. We’ll take the example of souls again because this is an area where I feel Christians are frequently written out of a conversation which they have a lot to add to. Imagine the scenario I presented earlier where a person rejects advice to not be angry all the time because they don’t believe in life after death. A simple solution is to say, “That’s not what soul means. Soul means something like ‘self’. Are you claiming you aren’t a person?” Now, this is a little trickier than I’d prefer. Really, soul does mean what this person claimed – in modern English under a specific definition. However, rather than laying out six definitions and saying, “Ok, I’m using definition 2b,” it’s easier to simply say, “No, that’s not what it means,” and offer a counter-definition. In fact, this is part of the impetus for my rather long article on souls and the second one on spirits. This brings us to the real crux of the matter: it’s important to define our terms clearly and intelligently. Christians are already on the sidelines of a great deal of public discourse. We risk further marginalization if we are not careful to defend reasonable meanings for our words. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if one reversed a framework attack on our hypothetical philosophical naturalist and insisted that yes, he did believe in souls. He simply didn’t believe that souls had a supernatural component. As silly as it seems the odds are that it would be easier to have a conversation once it was framed like this, as two points on a continuum rather than two completely opposed ideas. In fact, I highly recommend doing this. By deliberately labeling terms someone else is using in one’s own language, one gives that person a better idea what one means by those terms. Additionally, by telling someone what you think they’ve said gives them a chance to clarify.

Ultimately, a lot of my articles here are aimed at presenting Christian ideas in a clear manner with which intelligent people might disagree but would at least disagree with honestly. In doing so I’ve frequently made arguments at several levels assuming that some of my audience will disagree with at least some of my personal presuppositions and that it would be best if I made a set of arguments that did not depend on them. This leads us to a final jumping-off thought: Christian ideas have become part of the general framework of society before. They continue to be part of the Western world in deep ways even now – the value the West places on the individual human is ultimately a product of centuries of believing that individual humans could be individually loved by God. If we think a half-Christian society has gained something over a non-Christian one (and I suspect it has) we should always try to make it possible for others to adopt some of our ideas even if they disagree with others. This will require careful thinking and wisdom.

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