Do we mean what we say?

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
8 min readMar 26, 2021


Considering semantic realism.

Re-Assembling Reality #17c, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

“The sun is rising.”

We know what we mean by this. Everyone knows what we mean by this. No one points the finger and says “That’s a lie!” It’s not a lie. Its just that what we mean is not the same as the literal meaning of what we say. And no-one, in this instance, expects the literal meaning of what we say to be what is really happening.

The sun rises over Hong Kong. Except, of course, Hong Kong is really being turned towards the sun. (Source: slack12 via flickr.)

The sun is not rising. The earth is rotating. And Hong Kong is being pointed towards the sun. But we don’t say that.

We accept that this is is how every-day speech works. But should science be held to a higher standard of truth-telling than every-day speech? Do scientists mean what they say? Does it matter if they don’t? And how about religion? How far can religious people go in waving their hands and invoking ineffability before what they say means nothing at all?

In considering these questions, we come to face semantic realism.

Semantic realism

Semantic realism is committed to a literal interpretation of claims made about the world. [1]

In the semantic realist view, when a scientist says “I detected an electron,” what they mean is “I detected an electron.” And when they say “electron,” they mean exactly the kind of object they think about when they think about electrons: a negatively charged fundamental particle with a rest mass of about 0.5 MeV.

They may have observed simply that their detector went ping. But what they detected was an electron. So says the semantic realist.

Our previous discussions of the difficulty that science has in reliably getting a handle on noumenological statements (Re-Assembling Reality #13) should immediately clue us in to some problems we will face with semantic realism.

A position-and-time-resolved-ion-counting (PATRIC) scanning array detector. It goes ping. (Source: K Murray via Wikimedia.)

When science makes claims about observable phenomena — for example, that the detector went ping— then the claims tend to be stable over time. We may refine the observations (exactly when it went ping, or exactly how loudly it went ping) but these are refinements on a set of claims that tend to converge.

It is relatively simple to be semantically realist about this: when we say the detector went ping, we mean that the detector went ping.

By contrast, when science makes claims about unobservable noumena — for example, that there was an electron (by which we mean some negatively changed findamental point particle) in the system — the picture of reality is less likely to be stable. Is an electron a fundamental particle? Is it a point? Is it a wave-particle? Is it a bare source dressed by a cloud of virtual particles? Is it a thing which existed in the system a moment before the detector went ping?

It is not obvious that the meanings of these questions, much less the answers to them, converge over time. This lack of convergence creates difficulties for those who would embrace semantic realism in science.

For those who would abandon semantic realism, there are various semantically anti-realist positions, but they essentially come down to the claim that, when a scientist says “I detected an electron,” they do not literally mean “I detected an electron,” and no one should take them to mean such.

One option, for example, is to insist that the sentence “I detected an electron” should be interpreted to mean “My theory says that, if there were an electron in the system, then my detector would go ping. And my detector went ping.” One cannot from this logically infer that there was an electron in the system, but we say that we detected an electron because it takes fewer words, life is short, and everyone knows what we really mean.

Naturally, this last point — that everyone knows what we really mean — is demonstrably untrue. Not everyone knows what we really mean. Some people — like semantic realists — naively think that when someone says “I detected an electron,” what they really mean is “I detected an electron.” You can see where the confusion creeps in.

As we have seen time and again in this series of Essays, wherever there exist two views, there is a third view which picks bits of each, and fudges something else to make the bits fit together. An example of this can be seen with constructive empiricism.

Faced with a detector that goes ping, constructive empiricists, just like the semantic realists and semantic anti-realists discussed above, would say that they have detected an electron. When asked what they mean by that, they would side with the semantic realists: when they say “I detected an electron,” they mean “I detected an electron.” And when they say “electron,” they mean a negatively charged fundamental particle with a rest mass of about 0.5 MeV, just like the semantic realists. Unlike the semantic realists discussed above, though, they accept the problems with making reliable claims about unobserved noumena.

How do they square that circle? Simple: they accept that their claim is unreliable. When they say “I detected and electron,” they mean “I detected an electron,” but they accept that they might be wrong. They might not have detected an electron; certainly not in the way that they mean.

In case you are lost, here is where we stand:

It turns out that nailing philosophers down is like nailing high-voltage fog to a wall. (Source: Authors.)

Which is to say,
— Semantic anti-realists and constructive empiricists believe only what they saw.
— Semantic realists and constructive empiricists mean what they say.
— Semantic realists and semantic anti-realists believe what they mean.

Alternatively stated,
— Semantic realists believe more than what they saw.
— Semantic anti-realists don’t mean what they say.
— Constructive empiricists don’t believe what they mean.

Despite these differences,
— When they did the experiment, all three saw the detector go ping.
— When they write up the experiment, all three of them say they detected an electron, despite all three of them agreeing that this is not what they saw.

And still planes fly, computers compute, rockets get to the moon, and the research funding keeps rolling in. Don’t you love science?

Given how insistent some people are that science can and must only deal with facts about the real world, it seems to make surprisingly little difference if scientists do not say what they mean, or do not believe what they say.

How about religion?

Semantic anti-realism is common in religion. There are many statements which are not intended to be taken at face value.

When Isiah the prophet declares, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear,” (Is. 59:1) few biblical scholars expect us to believe that God literally has arms, any more than scientists expect us to believe that an electron is literally a point particle.

Arms and ears may be obvious. But the same things shows up in more subtle ways. In considering whether God is male or female, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#239) is clear:

“God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: He is God.”

In making this statement, the Catholic Church uses the pronoun “He”, but expects us to take it at something other than face value: it is not being used in its plain ordinary sense as the male pronoun.

With that being said, it is not the case that all religious language is not intended to be taken literally. Consider what Mark writes in his gospel regarding Jesus feeding a multitude:

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he [Jesus] looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (Mk. 6:41–44.)

When Mark writes about bread, he means bread. (Source: Nheyob via Wikimedia.)

Biblical scholars agree that, when Mark wrote this, he intended his words to be taken at face value, according to their literal meaning. This was not written as an allegory in which the people were spiritually satisfied having (metaphorically) “eaten” of Jesus’ teaching. Mark is not talking about “spiritual bread”. He is talking about real, physical literal bread.

Scholars may argue over whether or not miracles in general happen, or whether this one in particular happened, or how it happened, or what its significance was. But they all agree that when Mark writes here about “bread,” he meant “bread.”

Overall, religion has some statements for which it is almost universally agreed that they should not be taken at face value, and other statements for which it is almost universally agreed that they should be taken at face value. It has still others over which there is disagreement. The archetypal example of such disagreement in Christianity concerns the interpretation of the word yom, יום‎, in Genesis 1. Should it be taken to mean “day”? And if so, does “day” in this context mean “24 hour period”?

Skeptics sometimes point the finger at religion for ducking scrutiny and avoiding falsification by simply changing its definitions, or by deciding that something should not be taken literally. Regardless of whether this criticism is founded, and regardless of whether it is practice worthy of criticism, this situation does not so much set religion apart from science, as exemplify an area in which they share a playbook.

A special place for mathematics

In our straw poll of what students thought was real, a significant number held that numbers were not real. This is interesting. Not least because mathematics holds a special place in semantic realism.

What is “seven”?

It is not material. It may not be physical. But is it real? To answer this with respect to semantic realism, let us consider how a mathematician (at least, a mathematician who likes Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory) would answer:

Let the natural numbers be defined recursively by letting 0 = {} and n + 1 = n ∪ {n} for each n.

From this, the mathematician has set out what they mean by “seven” (where n=7). Importantly, they have set out exactly what they mean by seven. Seven has all and only the properties that follow from the definition given.

A mathematician who does this is absolutely and unconditionally committed to a literal interpretation of claims made. In this light, mathematicians are the epitome of semantic realists. In a semantic sense, numbers (along with other mathematical objects which mathematicians chose to define) are some of the most real objects that there are.

[1] Chakravartty, Anjan (2017). “Scientific Realism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.