Language

Language & Determinism

I have been obsessively reading articles on neuroscience, determinism and free will lately. Much of what I read is fascinating, but it is what I haven’t read that I find even more interesting. As I type these words, I am making, with each word, what I would call a choice. Some choices are easier than others, obviously, if I want my post to follow the basic rules of spelling and grammar that currently govern the English language.

I am doing something more than that, however. I am also assuming that what I write will be read by people who can also make choices. If I am merely disseminating information, there won’t be a choice I am imploring you to make. If I am attempting to convince you that one position regarding a controversial topic – free will vs. determinism, perhaps – is correct and the other is false, I am certainly acting as if you have a really-existing capacity of choosing. You will take the information I supply, sufficiently reflect on its implications for your value system, and decide it is worth acting upon or at least considering. That is the hope, at least.

It is a hope that is undeniably present in virtually every appeal for determinism I have read. Here is one of the more blatant offenders:

 We have or are capable of two sorts of attitude, and thus we may respond to determinism with dismay or intransigence. But we can also attempt to respond in another way. We can attempt to change our feelings. We can see what we must give up, and what we can keep, and the value of what we can keep. This can be called the response of affirmation.

Really? We may? We can? How? How might we do that? What faculty enables me to do these things? I call it free will. If free will is something other than this faculty, I don’t know what free will is.

Here is another example, this time of an author spelling out the implication of determinism:

What we should discard is the idea of punishment as retribution, which rests on the false notion that people can choose to do wrong.

I scratch my head in awe and wonder that someone who just insisted that free will is an illusion and choice a myth can make appeals to reason, to an imagined faculty of choosing. In many of the articles I read, the determinists are always described as “rational” or even “hyper-rational”, they’re so rational that they are bursting and oozing with rationality from every pore and orifice.

And yet there is no rational form of communication that can convey their most fundamental premises and beliefs. Advanced human communication, verbal and nonverbal alike, presupposes the capacity to choose. Articles by determinists are filled with moral exhortations for positive action, for changes of heart and attitude, for compassion towards the poor sinners who couldn’t have chosen not to sin.  These are not the grunts and groans of mindless animals, but the deliberately and freely chosen words of conscious beings who would like to see people behave and think differently than they currently do.

There is something deeply wrong with a worldview that must continually acknowledge that its premises sound absurd from the standpoint of human experience  but are justified by “the science.” Free will isn’t the false idea here. It is physicalism. Free will is how we describe what occurs millions of times in the life of millions of human beings every day. Physicalism is how presumptuous opposition to anything even resembling the supernatural or religious ought to be described. But who will have the courage to challenge physicalism instead of merely defending the constantly experienced reality of free will?

 

 

Dumbing Down the Federalist Papers

I remain fairly ambivalent about Glenn Beck (an ambivalence that got me involved in a heated debate on this very site, but that’s another matter).  His style, especially on television, just doesn’t appeal to me.  He also seems to believe that having the dial turned to 11 is the only way to get his point across.  That said, I am appreciative of his efforts to teach American history to his audience.  He’s had some excellent academic guests like Ronald Pestritto on his show, and he has an appreciation of some of the nuances of American political thought that go over a lot of other heads.

Then I saw this, and I’m ready to grab the pitchforks.  From the product description:

Adapting a selection of these essential essays—pseudonymously authored by the now well-documented triumvirate of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—for a contemporary audience, Glenn Beck has had them reworked into “modern” English so as to be thoroughly accessible to anyone seeking a better understanding of the Founding Fathers’ intent and meaning when laying the groundwork of our government. Beck provides his own illuminating commentary and annotations and, for a number of the essays, has brought together the viewpoints of both liberal and conservative historians and scholars, making this a fair and insightful perspective on the historical works that remain the primary source for interpreting Constitutional law and the rights of American citizens.

So it’s the New American Bible for the Federalist Papers.  I wonder if Bishop Trautman consulted on this project.

Just as the average person can probably handle such mysterious words as “ineffable,”  I’m sure that most Americans can pretty much figure out what’s going on with the Federalist Papers without Glenn Beck re-translating it for us.  Yes, there are no doubt some tricky words in the 500+ pages and 85 essays, but that’s what footnotes are for.  Annotated versions of the Federalist Papers already exist, and those should suffice for Beck’s purposes.  Besides, part of the joy of the Federalist Papers is reading Madison and Hamilton’s beautiful prose.

Jeff Goldstein elaborates further on why this is problematic.

On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that anyone can read and understand the Constitution — meaning, we don’t need a special priesthood to interpret the thing (and of course, this is true, assuming a base level of reading comprehension and intelligence, and assuming one can get past the fact that the document itself is like, over a hundred years old!); and yet at the same time, the Federalist Papers, we’re to understand today, are so arcane and abstruse and unintelligible that they aren’t even being taught anymore — a problem happily solved by Beck’s latest offering, a book that rewrites the Federalist Papers using modern language, which can be yours for only however many dollars (through the website, blah blah blah).

I agree with Jeff that this sends a very poorly thought out mixed message.  In fact Beck is playing into the hands of those who criticize the concept of originalism.  He’s conceding that the language of this era is difficult for people to comprehend, so the only way to make these writings more widely accessible is to completely re-write them.  It is a contradiction that I doubt Beck has thoughtfully considered.

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