Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What is a definition?

  1. Aug 16, 2006 #1
    I don t think we can define anything. Let say, something like an apple. usually, when people try to define a word, it uses other words that group together to form meanings. The general scheme is that someone starts with something specific( it is a fruit, it is round, it has a certain texture) to something general ( atoms, substomic particles ..)

    1) we form a is-a relationship. Ex: apple is a fruth. apple is a configuration of some type of atoms. The flaw to me is that we are defining something we dont know with something we believe we know, but we don t know.

    The second thing about definitions is that nobody agrees with it. we all know that a definition is suppost to "mean" something, but we don t know what all those means is suppost to 'mean'. I thousand people can have a thousand definitions of what the word "love" mean, but those definitions does not tell us anything about the word "love". It is quite obvious to me that a blind person ` s perspection of 'apple' or 'color' is quite different from a non-blind person` s perspective of 'apple' or 'color'. we interpret that which is before us, but what that 'is' before us is anyone s guess.

    2) definition are inseparable from individual observers.

    An apple is a system. we define this system by a set of finited statements. Why must it be finite, and not infinite. A single word that has a infinite, incompressable definition.

    3) a single word might be incapable of being expressed.

    inspite of all this, we still believe we mean what we say when we throw out words. A dictionary is a web of relationships build on a meaningless entities used by meaningless beings.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2006 #2
    Words aren't defined by dictionaries. They are first defined by empirical experience. Then a panel of authors accumulates these definitions and formulates them for accessibility into a reference material. That words all seem to refer to one another is a coincidence of our compiling them this way.

    The dictionary was only invented during the Enlightenment period, but clearly words had definitions long before then. People defined words through common experience. "This is an apple," they said while holding an apple. They did not need to mention color, shape, or anything else at all. They just had to have the experience.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2006
  4. Aug 16, 2006 #3
    It is deeper than words in a dictionary. words and dictionaries are just analogies. it is about definitions, and not completely about definitions. anyways
  5. Aug 16, 2006 #4
    You have touched upon something I have thought about many times.
    While it's not exactly clear in your post, I will try to explain my interpretation.

    Basically the problem is that we have nothing to compare the universe and all it's objects to.
    An apple compared to an orange tells us nothing but the relative relationship between the apple and the orange, it doesn't tell us what these individual things are by themselves.

    The problem is that everything is like this, everything is always relative to something else, and thus you get infinite regress of relativity.
    At some point you must reach an absolute, and nobody knows what that absolute is.

    How this relates to your definition topic is that as you say; an apple is a fruit, an apple is atoms, an apple is round, an apple is this and that, but it doesn't say what an apple IS.
    And it can't, because this comparison is created in the mind, and the mind needs something else to define an apple against.

    Things in nature just are. They're not what they are not, but they are what they are, as simple as that.

    However we CANNOT say that there are no definitions.
    Those definitions in the dictionary are subjective definitions, created for the purpose of identifying words in a language with objects, concepts and so forth.

    This means that the definition is an emergent property of the universe, it's not meant to be deduced to whatever else, it can only be understood from a person(s) mind.
  6. Aug 16, 2006 #5
    We can recognize that our definitions are contextual, apply our best definition to a concept (such as apple) as our current knowledge allows, then move on. If what you mean is that humans can not have perfect definitions, I would agree, but this does not mean we can not (and should not) define.
  7. Aug 16, 2006 #6
    IMO a basic definition is an agreement between people on a sound or series of sounds to label an action or object. Once you fill your vocabulary(brain) with these primitive words...however many there are....you can begin to use these words to create new definitions ...which leads to all those little annoying little connector words in the english and french language.
  8. Aug 17, 2006 #7

    Very often when we speak of the "definition" of a word, we mean the "meaning" of that word. There is no absolute meaning, words take meaning from the way they are used in language, and that's it.

    I have noticed that some advocates of libertarian free will argue that they believe there is some "absolute meaning" in the universe, and this is why they say that a deterministic universe can have no meaning. Imho this is rubbish. Understand meaning for what it truly is (contextual, relative, "the meaning is in accordance with how words are used"), and there is no problem.

    I don't agree with your comment that "at some point you must reach an absolute" - this would be in accord with the premise that there is absolute meaning in the world - and I see no reason to believe this is true.

    Best Regards
  9. Aug 17, 2006 #8
    Well, I have barely thought about this absolute, but it seems to me that the objective world in itself is the absolute, while our subjective worlds(our interpretation of it) are relative.

    Will ponder this for a bit...
  10. Aug 23, 2006 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member

    There is actually a pretty straightforward answer to this. For whatever reason, the dictionary hasn't quite caught up yet, but technically speaking, a "definition" is simply a string of symbols that is equated to another string of symbols. For instance, "bachelor" = "any unmarried male." This does not convey the actual meaning of either of these strings of symbols, but instead presupposes that the person reading the definition already knows the meaning of one string, thereby elucidating for him the meaning of the other string. This 'meaning,' or the semantic content of the symbols, is an entirely different matter, and relies upon intersubjective agreement on how the symbols will function in everyday spoken and written language by the speakers and writers of that language; as such, 'meanings' are always evolving. Oftentimes, there is some empirical reference for a word or group of words, but there does not have to be.
  11. Sep 4, 2006 #10
    Is it? How do you know this?

    What, exactly, do you mean by "objective world", and do you have any access to this world?

    Best Regards
  12. Sep 4, 2006 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I believe this is much like Descartes dilemma: how can we know anything exists?

    His answer was to deny everything until he could prove it, and he went all the way back the beginning. Ultimately, yes, he had to start with an initial, fundamental assumption:

    I think therefore I am.

    By this, Descartes means that inasmuch as he is capable of forming this thought at all, he can label that he is doing the thinking. Therefore, he must exist.

    So, now he can start to define things that are his thought versus things that are his sense. As he goes, he labels them. This is me. That is not me. That is a thing I see, this is a thing I imagine.

    By this process, he is able to work his way outwards from self to the whole world.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2006
  13. Sep 5, 2006 #12
    Well it occurs to me that nobody will ever see the universe from a third perspective, not even god.
    Not bible god but a creator of sorts.
    Regardless, the assumption is that we are sensing something which is not created by us.
    In this inherent assumption also lies a fact, the fact that this world which is not created by us most be absolute.
    It cannot be relative.

    This is because a world not created by observers, is created by something which is not changeable, its definition does not change.
    The only definitions of a relative world that would change, would be the relative values, but even those would be calculated by the absolute, and be thus absolute.

    I hope I am making some sense here.

    If we say that a definition is a comparative statement to something else, then we can say that the definition of objective is that which is not comparable to anything.
    This is counterintiutive of the meaning of the word definition, but if we go a little deeper we see that the absolute is actually "everything."
    It is all that has ever existed, will ever exist, and could possibly exist.
    The absolute is that which does not change, because any change it makes is already history and thus a part of the absolute.

    What this means to me is that even god would be relative to the absolute, because he himself would be an observer.
    Once again I'm not talking a religious god, but an omnipotent creator of any kind.

    Thus, imo the absolute exists because it is observerless, but no observer can ever perceive it, but it still exists.
  14. Sep 5, 2006 #13
    Agreed. But this does not lead to the safe conclusion that there IS an objective world. In the end, Descartes is left with a subjective perspective - the impression that there is a "self" and something "outside the self" which is perceived by the self.

    But does this lead to the safe conclusion that the "objective world is absolute"?

    It seems to me that such a proposition is at best a premise, not a conclusion.

    Best Regards
  15. Sep 5, 2006 #14


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    True, but I think that it might go further. Along the same lines as 'unfalsifiable theories', if there is no way, even in principle, to determine whether there is an objective reality as opposed to an illusion, then it is a invalid question to ask.
  16. Sep 5, 2006 #15
    I sympathise - any perspective is a perspective by definition, and hence all perspectives are subjective. The scientific ideal of a subjectiveless 3rd person perspective is an approximation at best.

    Either it's an assumption or it's a fact - which is it to be? If you wish to claim it is a fact that "solipsism is false" then you will need to show why you think this is a fact rather than an assumption.

    How do you know the world that you perceive is not created by you?

    Not in the last sentence, nope.

    But it does not follow from this that the world of your perceptions has any objective reality.

    This is a definition of absolute - but it does not follow from this definition that there IS anything which is absolute. I can define a tooth fairy - but it does not follow from this that tooth fairies exist.

    "the absolute exists BECAUSE it is observerless"?

    Does this mean that anything which is observerless necessarily exists? I don't think so! :wink:

    Best Regards
  17. Sep 5, 2006 #16
    then perhaps we are in agreement.

    The proposition that there is an objective reality is a premise. We can assume it is true, or we can assume it is false. But it is a premise, not a conclusion - there is no way to prove it one way or another.

    Best Regards
  18. Sep 5, 2006 #17
    Agreed. Thus, there is no absolute "meaning", all meaning is derived from relative or subjective relationships.

    A lesson here for all those philosophical libertarians who insist that free will must exist, and determinism must be false, otherwise there would be no meaning in the world. poppycock.

    Best Regards
  19. Sep 5, 2006 #18
    The problem as I see it is that on some level the absolute has to exist.
    Once we encapsulate everything that exists into something, it becomes the absolute, regardless of what substance or form it has, be it subjective, metaphysical, physical or some other form of existence.

    The only way for an absolute to not exist would be if nothing existed, but clearly, you exist, don't you agree?
  20. Sep 5, 2006 #19
    It certainly seems that "something" exists at some level - but just what that something is, in the final analysis, anybody's guess. The problem is that we cannot extrapolate with certainty from our subjective perceptions of the world to any particular objective existence - there is more than one possible solution to the equation.

    Best Regards
  21. Sep 5, 2006 #20
    I agree that we can't observe anything objective from our subjective state, especially not to our sense and definition of objective.

    But if we were to define objective and absolute in another way, namely that which includes everything, then we could conclude with certainty that everything exists.
    Saying that only half of something exists is a fallacy.

    Furthermore, if we agree that everything that exists, exists, then we can also agree on that in itself, this everything is absolute, because it is everything.
    How can everything be relative?
    If everything was to be relative, it would mean that there would be something that was not included in everything, because how can somethign be relative to something which doesn't exist?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook