Use-mention error

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A use-mention error or UME is a fallacy committed when one confuses the word used to describe a thing with the thing itself.

Examples

  • Sausage comes from Middle English.

The word "sausage" (in quotation marks) comes from Middle English. Sausage itself, however, does not: it comes from pigs.

  • Love is a four-letter word.

The word "love" does, in fact, have four letters, and is listed under L in dictionaries. The phenomenon of love, on the other hand, is not a word. It may be seen as an emotion or an interpersonal relationship, but it is not a word.

  • A History of God

Karen Armstrong's book A History of God describes the way people's thinking about God has changed through history in the major monotheist religions. Thus, one could argue that it should really be called A History of "God", in that it describes how the use of the word has changed over time. However, since it is a book title, we can forgive this as poetic license.

Use-mention error in theology

The first premise of the ontological argument, "God is the greatest being imaginable", may be seen as a use-mention error: the word "God" is a noun, and the premise defines the sorts of entities that can be referred to by that noun: love is not a being, and therefore does not fall under the definition of "God".

This is different from asserting a fact about God, the actual being. Take, for instance:

  • "The Most Valued Player (MVP) is the player who scored the most points in a season."
  • "Albert Einstein is the greatest scientist who ever lived."

In the first example, if John has scored more points than anyone else this season, he is the MVP. But if Tom comes along and bests John's record, then Tom becomes the MVP.

However, if someone manages to become a better scientist than Einstein, she will not automatically become Albert Einstein.

Likewise, there is a difference between "If some being X is determined to be greater than any other being imaginable, then X shall be referred to by the word "God"" and "If we compare the being God to any other imaginable being, it is objectively true that God is greater than that other being".

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