How to Define an Idea. Challenging the Existence of our Most Fundamental Beliefs.

Cecil (CJ) John
Mar 17, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

As a student of logic and a lay philosopher, I often engaged in heated debates over polarizing ideas and controversial questions. Posting any of the following questions in a social media philosophy forum is sure to stoke tempers and passions:
1. Do rights exist?
2. Do emotions exist?
3. Is there an objective morality?

Rights (natural rights) and morality are ideas that many of us hold dear to the heart. However, heated debates often commence without a consensus on the precise meaning or significance of these ideas.

Morality is (or would be) the code that meets the following condition: all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse it¹.

Take the question: Is there an objective morality? First, let’s look at this definition from Stanford University.

For there to be an objective definition of morality, we first have to agree on the definition of “code” and “rational,” and we have to agree on the objective specifications of the “certain specified conditions.” So here’s an oxymoron for you; A precondition for an objective definition is the stipulation that it’s one with which all rational agents agree. The fact that supposedly rational agents argue that theirs is the objective definition is in itself an ironic display of irrationality. How can one propose that there is an objective moral code or principle, let alone an objective moral system if they can’t agree on the definition of morality or the fundamental terms on which that definition depends? Furthermore, how can anyone claim to be objectively rational with what we know today about heuristics and cognitive bias?

A precondition for an objective definition is the stipulation that all rational agents agree on the definition. The fact that supposedly rational agents argue that theirs is the objective definition is in itself an ironic display of irrationality.

To be able to rationally and effectively debate an idea, we must be able to first distinguish between its affective (emotive) meaning, and it’s rational (cognitive) sense. We ought to be concerned with the cognitive meaning of an idea. The objective is to avoid vagueness² and ambiguity.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Let’s talk about the Declaration of Independence³. In my opinion (and I’m by no means an academic), the declaration was not an academically sound philosophical proposition, and I don’t think it was intended to be. It was a powerful appeal to the emotions reinforced by the reference to authority, namely “the creator.” It’s interesting that avowed atheists reference as evidence that natural rights exist, even though the philosophical basis for the postulation of natural rights was that the creator endowed them. As an aside, It shouldn’t be controversial to ask about the sincerity of the proclamation “all men are created equal.” Some of the founding fathers continued owning slaves and women weren’t allowed to vote until 143 years later.

As an aside, it shouldn’t be controversial to ask about the sincerity of the proclamation “all men are created equal.” Some of the founding fathers continued owning slaves and women weren’t allowed to vote until 143 years later.

How can we argue that natural rights exist without an objective definition of what a natural right is? Some say that a right is a moral principle. That depends on the meaning of morality. As we ponder this declaration, we see the reference to as extensional definitions of rights (right to life, right to liberty and right to the pursuit of happiness). What’s missing is an intensional definition that denotes the objective meaning of a right as an idea and its structural characteristics, it’s attributes and actions.

To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions⁴.
Ayn Rand

Ideainformatics™ is a framework I developed for the definition of an idea, a universal definition for the exact meaning of a concept. The objective is to arrive at a precising definition for an idea or concept. Ideainformatics™proposes that ideas:

1) Be described using an Object Oriented Paradigm⁵.

2) Are expressed via language (formal or natural). We will look at the contribution of linguistics, namely structuralism.

3) Be visualized using the Unified Modeling Language (UML)⁶.

The medium for defining an idea⁷, of course, is language. Since a word⁸ is a symbol for a concept, it has no meaning apart from the content of the concept it symbolizes⁹. Without words, we have no concepts.

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

When we ask whether an idea “exists,” we mean does it exist objectively. In this series we will also look at different interpretations of “objective” including the following:

1) A lexical definition of objective.

2) A universally accepted conceptual definition.

3) A structural concept with clearly defined characteristics (attributes and actions).

4) Objective as opposed to subjective.

5) Does the idea exist in space and time, as a percept that’s measurable scientifically or by observation?

6) An objective characteristic (attribute or action) of an object.

7) An objective principles (e.g., moral) or scientific law, e.g. mathematical.

8) Is the idea real? — is it a real objective concept or a social or affective construct?

The precise definition of an idea involves exploring in sufficient detail the following subjects. The purpose of this series is to address them individually:
1. Introduction to Ideainformatics™ Structuralism¹⁰ and the linguistic sign.

2. Object Oriented Principles and the Unified Modelling Language.

3. Abstraction and Concept Formation.

4. Conceptual Common Denominators (attributes and actions of an idea).

5. Intensional (connotative) vs Extensional (denotative) definitions¹¹.

6. Various definitions of the term objective.

Reality: Is an idea an objectively real concept or is it a social or affective construct?

Please join me on this journey in How to Define an Idea. I plan first to lay out the framework as described above and then use it to ask some of the polarizing questions I asked including “Do Rights Exist?”. Your constructive feedback would be invaluable, and ideally, if this ends up being a collaborative effort, mine would have been well worth it. Yes, I know my citations don’t include page numbers. That may be an outdated paradigm in this age of the web and electronic books. Given time, I’ll adapt accordingly.

If you are interested in the complete series, the table of contents is as follows:

  1. Challenging the Existence of our Most Fundamental Beliefs.
  2. All I know is What I have Concepts for.
  3. The Architecture of Meaning: Part 1
  4. The Architecture of Meaning: Part 2

Cecil (CJ) John is an architect, technologist and innovator and has worked with some of the largest companies in the world including the IMF, US Federal Government and some of the top 5 consulting companies. If you like what you have read, you can follow me on Medium for more great content. You can also sign up for my newsletter or contact me by email, Linkedin or Twitter.

Notes:

  1. Source: Stanford University. (2002). “The definition of morality”.
  2. A vague expression creates a blur of meaning, whereas an ambiguous expression mixes up otherwise clear meanings. Source: Hurley, Patrick J. (2015). “A Concise Introduction to Logic”.
  3. Source: Jefferson, Thomas. (1776). “The Declaration of Independence.”
  4. Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). “Ayn Rand Lexicon from A to Z”.
  5. Object-oriented programming (OOP) is a programming paradigm based on the concept of “objects”, which can contain data, in the form of fields (often known as attributes), and code, in the form of procedures (often known as methods). Kindler, E.; Krivy, I. (2011). “Object-Oriented Simulation of systems with sophisticated control”. International Journal of General Systems: 313–343.
  6. The Unified Modeling Language (UML) is a general-purpose, developmental, modeling language in the field of software engineering that is intended to provide a standard way to visualize the design of a system. Source: Booch, Grady. (2005). “Unified Modeling Language User Guide, The”.
  7. An idea, (in Kantian thought) is a concept of pure reason, not empirically based in experience. Source: Stanford University. (2009). “Kant’s view on space and time”.
  8. Words are the basis unit of any language, and a term is any word or arrangement of words that may serve as the subject of a statement. Source: Hurley, Patrick J, 2015. A Concise Introduction to Logic.
  9. Peikoff, Leonard. (1986). “Ayn Rand Lexicon from A to Z”.
  10. Specifically the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure as it relates to his work with the linguistic sign.
  11. The principle that intension determines extension, whereas the converse is not true, underlies the fact that all extensional definitions suffer serious deficiencies. Extensions can suggest intensions, but they cannot determine them. Source: Hurley, Patrick J. (2015). “A Concise Introduction to Logic”.

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