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Use-Mention Errors, or, My Close Personal Relationship with Pinkie Pie February 5, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 I remember reading a discussion from Daniel Dennett some time ago about the idea of a Use-Mention Error.  I don’t remember where that was, or I’d link to it.  This idea has been whirling around in my mind lately because of several discussions I’ve seen.  The most recent was a lengthy attempt by a theist caller to philosophize a god into existence on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience, but I’ve also read many theist comments about how, even though some particular dogma doesn’t make sense, they still have a close personal relationship with god in their hearts.  And I just want to scream “BAD ARGUMENT!” at them.

The easiest version of the Use-Mention Error is when somebody confuses a thing with the term for that thing.   Daniel Dennett’s example goes something like this:

Love is just a word.

If you think about it, this isn’t about the thing we call love, it’s about the word “love”.  And when we are referring to the word, not the meaning, we should put it in quotes like this:

“Love” is just a word.

But there’s another sort of use-mention error, and that’s when we get our mental concept of a thing confused with the thing itself.*  And that’s what I’d like to discuss in some detail  here, because that’s the confusion that I see theists trying to take advantage of.

a horse            This is not a horse

So let’s take the example of a horse.  It’s clearly a thing that exists in the real world, and we can investigate its properties.  But we also each carry a mental picture of what a horse is around inside our brains.  And the important thing to remember is that our mental picture is not the same thing as a horse.  We can play around with our mental picture, decide that horses have fangs, or five legs, or live underwater, but none of the changes we make to our mental picture in any way affects the real animal.

Let’s take a hypothetical example.  Let’s suppose that I acquired my entire knowledge of horses from watching My Little Pony.

A Horse       Pinkie Pie!

My mental image might be very detailed, and I could tell you a great deal about what I think horses are.  I could tell you about how they come in bright colors, some of them are magic, some can fly, some can break the fourth wall, and that they all can sing.  If I want, I can go to gatherings with other people who share this mental model, and we can tell each other stories about friendship and sing the songs we all know.  I might claim that my mental picture of horses enriches my life, helps me deal with stress and makes me happy.  Even if it did, none of that changes anything about real horses.  My mental picture of a horse is still not the same thing as a horse.

Suppose that, given my beloved My Little Pony mental model of horses, I wished to find out whether it matched up with real-world horses.  The best way would be to find some real world horses and check my ideas.  Another good way might be to find people who spend a great deal of time with real horses, and talk with them, or read what they have written about horses.  They are also carrying around mental images of horses in their heads, but their mental models are more likely to line up with reality, and very likely to be in good agreement with each other.  But something that would not be helpful at all would be to talk with another person that also has a really inaccurate mental model of horses.  I might gain some different information about horses, or change my opinions about them, but I’d still be totally wrong.

Brain Pinkie Pie                       Brain Bullseye

So how does this apply to theism? Well the most obvious application is that each believer is carrying around a mental model of a god in their head.  The assign this image of god various properties, such as omnipotence, omniscience, loving-kindness, towering wrath, jealousy, smitiness, etc. etc.   They will confidently claim that their mental image of god is exactly what god is really like.  And they will tell you, often very forcefully, that their mental image is the correct one, and it is vitally necessary for everyone else to share their mental image.  But if no god actually exists, then all they have is a close personal relationship with their own mental model.

A proper investigation into the qualities of a god, or whether that god exists, needs to be conducted by examining the real world, not simply mental models.  However, since any god that exists is also very good at hiding, we really are unable to do that directly.  So the next best thing would be to consult with people who have direct contact with that god, to gain what information we can from them.  And there are many people who claim that they have direct experience with a god, and are happy to tell us all about it, often at great length.

Brain Gods

But the problem is that all these people have different mental images of their god, and all disagree on what the right answer is.  Even within a single denomination, there isn’t agreement among all the members on what their god is like, for instance, whether god is involved or distant, benevolent or judgmental**.  And between denominations and between religions there is no consensus on the qualities of the god they believe in.  Based on their testimony, there’s simply no way we can figure out which of these people is more likely to have good information than any other.  They can all tell you about how they believe it in their heart, or how their belief makes them happy, or how they think lots of other people agree with them, but all of that is simply describing their mental model, with no way to check their claims against reality.  And without a reality check, we are just piling misinformation on top of misinformation.  We have to be careful that we never mistake a mental image for the real thing.  And no amount of tweaking a mental image will produce changes in, or a better understanding of, the real thing.

This is rather brilliantly expressed in this video from DarkMatter2525

Another place this error shows up is in theists’ convoluted attempts to establish the existence of their god through argument.  Here’s a common apologetic, the Ontological Argument, very briefly summarized:

  1. God is the most perfect (‘the greatest’) being conceivable.
  2. It is more perfect (‘greater’) to exist than not to exist.
  3. Therefore, God must exist.

If you look closely, there’s a Use-Mention Error in this reasoning.  In the first premise the argument is defining a mental image of what a god is.  The second premise then adds detail to the mental picture.  Then the conclusion jumps from defining a mental image to asserting a truth about the real world.  Oops!  Apologists will often construct more elaborate versions of this same argument, but it mostly seems to be an effort to obscure the fact that they are trying to jump from playing with their mental model to claiming they have established something about the real world.  And no matter how many layers of confusion they wrap their argument in, without a reality check the argument still fails.

I’d love to hear about some other instances of this error that theists have used in their various arguments and apologetics.

*I think this could also be called a “category error”.  Although I think the idea I’m discussing here probably deserves a name of its own.  Maybe there is one, and I’ll find it someday.

**According to a 2005 study discussed in America’s Four Gods

***** Update:  I found the word I was looking for, it’s “reification”.  From the Latin, the word roots give the meaning of “making a thing”.  Perfect.


1. M.M.J. Gregory - February 5, 2015

A very well constructed post.
Plus, I burst out laughing at “BAD ARGUMENT!”
Thanks for that. 🙂


2. Arkenaten - February 6, 2015

I would be more interested in discovering what the average theist – or even deist actually imagines what their god looks like.

Most of us are fairly familiar of ”His” attributes, as you have outlined ( carefully omitting meglomaniacal,genocidal misogynistic despot, I notice 😉 ) but what about how ”He” looks?
What sort of mental picture do they carry around in their heads?

Then the real questions can be asked!

As an aside, two characters in a book were discussing about not thinking of a rhinoceros and one said it was easy not to think of this animal.

A little later the other character cottoned on and retorted:
”You don’t know what a rhinoceros is do you?”


ubi dubium - February 6, 2015

Back when I was a theist, (Presbyterian) my mental model always was of an invisible god. And I think most believers’ mental models don’t actually include “megalomaniac” even though their bible clearly describes their god that way. 🙂 Except maybe Westboro Baptist – I think the god in their mental models is probably a tyrant and an asshole.


3. Daniel Digby - February 6, 2015

I hadn’t meant to be so flippant in my previous comment. You did a beautiful job in showing the disconnect between personal gods and dogma. For Christians recognition of the disconnect usually comes with reading the Bible from beginning to end without study guides. Catholics are well-prepared for such an occasion though, because it’s easily explained. “It’s a Holy Mystery” (and my feeble mind is just too finite to understand God’s ways). I’m not sure how finite ‘too finite’ is, however.

One of my favorite stories is of Daniel Everett, an S.I.L. International missionary who realized how silly Christianity sounded when he tried to explain it in a new language. He lost his faith and went on to be an outstanding linguist. Well, he was outstanding before he started — it’s just that others noticed it when he came back to “civilization”.

I would think that people would notice that their conversations with God always seem to go in one direction and if they want a reply, they have to wait for a “sign”. All I wanted to say is that Allah gives much better signs — especially when ISIS is on your doorstep.

Speaking of Allah, I no longer have to be satisfied with His prophet (PBUH), I’ve seen a statue of the beautiful Allah, Himself.


4. makagutu - February 6, 2015

Brilliant Ubi.
I have never looked at the ontological argument as put here. Just know I will be using it somewhere soon

Liked by 1 person

5. Think Always - February 6, 2015

Great piece here. Since God is hypothetical, there is no way to actually know what he is like. Yet Christianity says we can know what he is like, because the Bible is his Word. So, Christians assert the hypothesis that a hypothetical god wrote a book which humans actually wrote. Of course all of this is assuming they even understand the book correctly to begin with. Having studied the background, history and original languages of the Bible I can say most Christians don’t give a crap about the real meaning of their book. And those that do care have a knack for not caring what certain passages say. Because, you know, cognitive dissonance.

Liked by 1 person

6. cag - February 7, 2015

To me, all arguments for religion are arguments from bullshit.



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