Language & Determinism

Thursday, October 18, AD 2012

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?



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3 Responses to Language & Determinism

  • Agreed, excellent post. It has always amused me how arguments like this get couched in the very language that defeats their underlying premises.

  • It was the atheist philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, who pointed out that determinism is an “empty” concept: it is incapable of distinguishing between any conceivable sequence of events and any other. No test can be devised to distinguished a series of events that is inevitable from one that is not, just as no test can be devised to distinguish an irresistible impulse from one that is merely unresisted.

    As for the supposed “scientific” proof of determinism, Miss Anscombe was able to dismiss it in a paragraph – “The naturalistic hypothesis is that causal laws could be discovered which could be successfully applied to all human behaviour, including thought. If such laws were discovered, they would not show that a man’s reasons were not his reasons; for a man who is explaining his reasons is not giving a causal account at all. “Causes,” in the scientific sense in which this word is used when we speak of causal laws, is to be explained in terms of observed regularities: but the declaration of one’s reasons or motives is not founded on observation of regularities. ‘Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself”

Dumbing Down the Federalist Papers

Tuesday, June 14, AD 2011

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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21 Responses to Dumbing Down the Federalist Papers

  • Allow me to play devil’s advocate. The Federalist Papers are 700 pages long. For a slow reader like me, that’s a bit much for something that’s probably not going to change my opinion on anything. I’m not looking for a New American Bible of the Federalist Papers, but I wouldn’t mind a Cliffs Notes or a book of selected readings.

    Then again, it looks like Beck’s book is 500 pages long, so I could be completely off-base here.

  • A few select essays would be fine, but I think re-writing them in modern prose is a bad idea, and for the reasons Goldstein suggests.

    Now if you want a Cliff’s Notes version of the Papers, you can always go here. At this rate, I should have the series wrapped up sometime before my grandchildren are born.

  • I’m on the fence on this one. I see your point and I don’t disagree, but on the other hand, I think it could be helpful in reaching people who would otherwise be disinterested by showing them how The Federalist Papers are still relevant today.

    Ideally, everyone would read the originals. I’ve read them and they aren’t that hard to understand. However, I’m also very politically tuned in and am already inclined to be interested in examining our founding documents. I’ve got scores of friends and relatives whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of this stuff. So if I can get their attention with a book like Beck’s and by extension possibly get them interested enough to read the originals for themselves then maybe that’s a good thing.

  • Paul, I’ve read some of them, and they’re really good.

  • So it’s the New American Bible for the Federalist Papers.
    Or the Douay-Rheims for the Federalist Papers. Learn Latin you slackers!

    Granted, the original Federalist Papers are still in English but if they can be made more accessible, by all means. Unlike the New American Bible, I don’t even see much of an overlap between people who would read the Federalist Papers and people who would buy Beck’s adaptation.

    I hope Beck releases an annotated Constitution. He won’t though because he knows a lot of his followers believe a lot of crazy things about the Constitution and he doesn’t want to lose them.

  • Bad idea. In its own way, rather like updating the language of Shakespeare. They need to be read in the original language, and if that makes it somewhat harder, then so what? Stretch!

    A dynamic equivalence Federalist Papers we don’t need.

  • I was just directed to your blog via Pat Archbold at the NC Register as one of the best Catholic blogs. I’m always looking for these, so naturally I had to come check you out.

    I am unimpressed. You have managed to sound elitist, snobbish, and boring in this post. Actually, you sound threatened, and I don’t understand why. Yes, most of us can handle The Federalist Papers in the original, but look at the state of our Republic and ask yourself why it’s a bad thing to make such important documents more accessible to more people?

    Commenter RR says: “Unlike the New American Bible, I don’t even see much of an overlap between people who would read the Federalist Papers and people who would buy Beck’s adaptation.”

    May I just say, RR, that you’re completely out of touch. Because of GB, there is a huge movement of people in this country who are delving into our founding documents with great enthusiasm. You’ve got a vast segment of the population (of GB listeners) pigeonholed rather nicely as simpleminded followers, or something. But, whatever fits the narrative, I guess.

    He’s not doing this because The Federalist Papers are “arcane.” It’s because they’re still so relevant. You’re making a bad guy out of the wrong person. Might I suggest you expend some energy criticizing those who would banish our founding documents from study at all?

  • “Might I suggest you expend some energy criticizing those who would banish our founding documents from study at all?”

    Who would those people be Lindy?

  • Actually, you sound threatened, and I don’t understand why.

    You probably don’t understand it because it’s not an emotion I’m feeling.

    ask yourself why it’s a bad thing to make such important documents more accessible to more people?

    You can make the documents more accessible without re-translating them. I’d love for every American to read the Federalist Papers. If I had gone into academics they would have been required reading in any course on American politics that I taught.

    Might I suggest you expend some energy criticizing those who would banish our founding documents from study at all?

    I’m not making Beck a bad guy – I’m disagreeing with his approach. I don’t subscribe to the theory that you can never criticize like-minded individuals. In fact, when a fellow traveler does something that hurts the cause it’s imperative to correct them.

  • One other thing occurs to me. How is that the guy who thinks anyone should and can read the Federalist Papers as written is the snobbish and elitist guy, while the man who thinks many Americans might be too simple-minded to grasp them without dumbing down the words is the populist champion?

  • Paul Z: Fair enough. Obviously, you’re free to disagree with Beck’s approach, but I still don’t understand why you think he is hurting the cause, as you say.

    What is the worst that could happen as a result of reading a translation of TFP? That someone would miss out on the beautiful prose (which is, undoubtedly, a shame) but still have a greater understanding of our founding? How is this a bad thing?

    Perhaps you’re right and one can make TFP more accessible without re-translating them. We can see how well this translated version is received to determine if that’s truly the case. I just can’t deem it a bad idea if it allows even a small segment of the population to better appreciate our founding. Maybe this will fill a previously unfilled niche.

    And, for the record, when someone says they’re ready to “grab the pitchforks,” that strikes me as rather emotional. That’s all.

  • I understand your point and can see the appeal of trying to make our founding documents more widely accessible. As I said in my post the one thing I like most about Beck is that he works hard to educate the public about our early history, so I’m sure his heart is in the right place. It just strikes me as the wrong approach.

    And, for the record, when someone says they’re ready to “grab the pitchforks,” that strikes me as rather emotional.

    Oh, I’m just exaggerating for effect. Tar and feathering would be as far as I’d go. 😛

  • All I’m saying is: Don’t lament another approach to reaching people. Maybe it’s not for you, maybe you hate it, but don’t dismiss the idea wholesale just because you think it stinks. I think that’s the reason I thought you sounded elitist.

    And after listening to Beck introduce the idea–after having heard him firsthand–I don’t think he comes to the idea because he thinks Americans are too simpleminded. He just so earnestly believes in the importance of our great founding documents that he will try every approach in making them accessible to everyone.

  • I get it.

    And I will probably still bookmark this blog. : )

  • “I am unimpressed.”

    Take a number.

    “You have managed to sound elitist, snobbish, and boring in this post. Actually, you sound threatened, and I don’t understand why.”

    Because we are better than everyone else and they don’t know it. 😆

    Welcome to the blog Lindy. Look forward to your thoughts in the future.

  • I vote they be translated into Ebonics.

  • I have no problem with Beck’s approach to the Federalist Papers, but his fans are simpletons. That’s why he’s doing this. His whole show is about him teaching the ignorant with chalkboard and teacher’s desk and all.

  • But for the fact the further you get from the original text the more distortion you get in the translation; Beck’s updating/translating is of no consequence.

    RR no need to be insulting – if one has a sound argument one does not need to rely insults to destroy someone’s position, argument, etc. 🙂

  • In my humblest of opinions, The Federalist Papers, like Cicero or Montesquieu, must be read in the original. No matter how faithful the translation or adaptation, something; even a seemingly irrelevant phrase, is lost. I am no scholar, but to me there is merit in struggling to understand works that form the foundation of our society or culture. These types of works are often read and reread thoughout one’s life like Imitation of Christ, or Anna Karenina or Les Miserables. I fear we have tried to make difficult things so “accessible” we no longer stretch the mind for fear it will tear. LOL.

  • Alecto, are you saying that Les Miserables shouldn’t have been translated?

  • RR – your argument is a sound one, I find Glenn Beck far more arrogant than intelligent, with a need to be Center Stage at any cost. The Missionary version of the Music Man, It’s almost sad.