June 19, 2012
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

George Orwell

May 18, 2012
On the Dilution of Meaning

I don’t think that there is anyone alive that would disagree with the premise that the objective of language and, by extension, words, is to convey meaning. When something is said aloud, unless one is speaking to oneself, it is to help the listener understand what is going on in the speakers mind. That being said, it is often the case that how something is said is as important as what was said, if not more so. A sentence can be made general or exacting, depending on how much information needs to be conveyed. Unfortunately, it’s easy to make a sentence either too exact or too general—to the point of losing the message. Today we purposely engage in this muddling of meaning through the practice of political correctness.

Political correctness, for all intents and purposes, seeks to take the feelings of the listener into account and dull the biting edge of some sentences by replacing those words which society has deemed offensive, with other, softer words. What ends up happening, however, is the original meaning intended by the speaker is altered when a word is replaced. Some such commonly replaced words are “retarded,” “black,” and “crippled.” At one point or another all three of these words were considered correct and inoffensive. With time, however, the words began to be used pejoratively and some people got their feelings hurt for being called what they were; so new words were invented.

If you were to look up “retard” in the dictionary you’d find that it means to slow or hinder in the advancement of something. It makes sense that it would be used to describe those whose mental abilities were hindered or slow. It, along with “cretin,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” were all medically accepted terminology at one point in time. They all applied to specific degrees of retardation, but, as one would assume, the words became pejoratives, because no one wants to be likened to a person of severely below average intelligence. So those words were phased out and retarded stayed—for a time. Then it was replaced with “mentally challenged” and “intellectually disabled.” The idea here, I suppose, is to make the terminology so obviously clinical that it cannot be used as a pejorative without making the shit-slinger look silly. The trade-off is drawn-out, less precise language.

With “cripple,” I’ll admit, I don’t really understand the reason for offense to be taken. I don’t believe I have ever heard someone call another person a cripple pejoratively. Perhaps that’s only because I don’t know many crippled people. However, like with “retarded,” “cripple” was replace over time by “handicapped” then “disabled” then the laughably silly “differently abled” then finally by “physically challenged.” While “physically challenged” is more descriptive than “differently abled,” it is still less descriptive than “crippled.” We lose meaning in exchange for the feelings of those who do not want to be reminded of what they are. And worse than that, I feel as though the softer language makes the rest of us feel like those being described are emotionally weak, as though they require our coddling. This is what I think would be most offensive to a crippled person, that the rest of us think they needed to be treated with kid gloves for fear of hurting their fragile feelings.

"Black" is different from the last two examples. Black people have historically been mistreated in America; there is plenty of well-deserved resentment towards the institutionalized racism in this country. And so, as our nation works out its past transgressions against blacks, the language used to describe them has changed over time. In the beginning, even the term "nigger" was not meant as a pejorative, it simply meant "black." But with as much history as that particular word has, it’s understandable to not want to use it to describe a person. Other accepted words to describe black people were "Negro" and "colored," both of which dealing with the color of one’s skin and not their heritage. Now the term "African-American" is the popular, politically correct way to describe a black person. What bothers me most about this term is that it assumes some kind of link to Africa. Black people are not unified in this country because of their African heritage; they are unified by how they look. "Black," "Negro," "colored," these all address what really matters in their identification: the fact that they look different from other people. It’s as simple as that; it’s not about anything else, really. Because of how they look they are treated differently by society, and that is what actually unifies them. The term African-American is also stupid because it doesn’t apply to those which it should: people of African and American decent, e.g. someone from South Africa who becomes an American citizen. That person may be white, but they’re also African-American. The phrase has a proper usage, and using it to lump all blacks in America together is not it.

The point of all of this is that our language and our words should reflect what we mean to say and should not be modified to placate the feelings of the few. While the feelings of others should probably be taken into account when speaking, I think that meaning should take precedence over worrying about the feelings of others. The listener should take your intent into consideration before becoming offended. If there is some uncertainty in their understanding of your intent, perhaps they should ask and have it clarified. We must all learn to fit in the world with its stereotypes and pejoratives; not every interaction you have will be pleasant, occasionally you will be offended—that’s life. The world does not need to fit you, and language should not be subject to feelings.

March 7, 2012
The Transformation of the Essential

In a couple of my rants I’ve made reference to a thing, that when taken as a metaphor, is completely uncontroversial. However, when taken literally, it is something that has been debated and contested since its inception as a concept. Herein you will not find anything strikingly original or revolutionary, I honestly believe all that needs to be said on the matter has been said, and is well documented. So the point of writing this at all is simply to lay out the problem and explicate my thoughts on it. Today I will address the problem of the soul.

In many theologies there exists a concept of the soul, an incorporeal thing which gives man the spark of life. Taken literally, the soul is an answer to a couple inevitable philosophical questions. Those being: “Why does man think?” and “What happens when we die?” The soul answers both of these questions easily. First, we think because something which is akin to that of the god or gods we believe in resides within us. Second, when we die our souls continue to exist somewhere else in much the same way we exist today. This second answer is extremely important; it gives us hope, and consoles us of the fear of our inevitable demise. So why the idea of a soul exists is relatively uncontroversial. It does what all aspects of religions do: answers a question that couldn’t be answered by any other means at the time. It is with this understanding, however, that another problem arises.

As I said before, the soul is the answer to some questions. For it to be an actual answer deserving of any real attention, the soul must be real. This is simply because if we take the soul as a pre-modern answer to complicated problems for which there were no other means of acquiring answers, then we undermine the soul’s validity. We place it in a context wherein it is seen as an invention of a people with a simple world-view. No, for it to be a real answer, that is, one that a person can rely upon, then the soul must actually exist. This is where the real problems lie. Assuming the soul is real, what is it made of? How does it even work? If we are to take the soul seriously, the answer to either of these questions cannot be: “Magic.” That just isn’t good enough when it comes to metaphysics.

Descartes was an early philosopher who attempted to tackle the problem of the soul. He understood that if the soul was not made of matter that it could have no extension, that is, it didn’t take up any space. In his theory he equated the soul with mind, what we thought and remembered were all controlled by the soul through the intermediary of the pineal gland. That notwithstanding, the fact that this is widely accepted, that the soul is without form or mass makes it even less believable. The only thing that it could then be made up of is energy. Energy has no extension or mass, so that works. The issue with this is that if the soul were energy, we would be able to measure it. We have devices sensitive enough to detect energy at the lowest and highest of spectra both near and extremely far away. We have mapped the spectrum of energy from radio waves all the way up to gamma rays, and none of these frequencies have displayed any ability to either give life or store memories… Now, I’m being completely serious here, if we are to take the soul seriously, then there should be serious answers about its composition. Furthermore, how it works should be addressed. Assuming it’s some kind of energy that we just don’t have the ability to measure yet (and assuming it’s a frequency below radio waves, otherwise it would kill us), how could it do what it does?

I’m not even sure where to begin with how it gives life, so let us just move on to its other commonly held attribute: the ability to store our personalities. Because that’s exactly what it must be able to do if it is to be “us” when we die. We now understand that our brains—wholly material objects—are the containers of our memories and personalities. They are also the generators of our thoughts. Many would argue that we, as people, are no more than our brains, for one can lose limbs and organs without necessarily affecting one’s personality or personhood. However, one swift kick to the head by a horse could forever alter one’s memories, personality, and even one’s personhood. As a physical structure the brain does all that. So what then does the soul do? It is not the originator of thought, for if that were true, had you been kicked in the head why would that affect your ability to think? Surely a thing that has no extension cannot be harmed by physical objects. And if it stored your personality and memories, why then would those be affected after some other trauma to the head? Surely it would act as a backup. Some of you may be thinking, “But that’s not how the soul works. It only can do something once the body dies!” This thought only brings about more questions. Are the soul and body separate but still, somehow, connected then? How does the soul acquire its memories? How does it acquire your personality? If it merely copies what the brain has within it in real-time, then is it really you when you die? Wouldn’t it just be a carbon copy of you which isn’t really you? If it is just a carbon copy, don’t you still cease to exist when you die, even if some ethereal carbon copy continues to exist postmortem?

For the soul to be you when you die there must be continuity between it and you. Your personality must be the same within your brain as within your soul, not merely two identical copies, they must actually be one in the same. Since they must be one, and since we know the brain holds this information, then the soul must be the brain. If this is true, then the soul cannot be made of energy or without extension. Finally, if this is true then there is no need to even posit the soul because it would serve no purpose other than the brain and would be superfluous.

Really the soul is just what I said earlier, an answer. But it is an answer which has long outlived its usefulness. Our understanding of the world, and the universe as a whole, is so much greater now than it was however many thousands of years ago that it was when man needed the idea of a soul to answer his important questions about reality. But that is not to say that there is no place for “souls” in this world. One place they continue to be useful is in metaphor. As a metaphor, the soul brings a lot of meaning to an idea in just a single word. It expresses the essence of a thing—any thing—with both simplicity and depth. Many ideas that have outlived their usefulness as literal objects now live a second, perhaps more fulfilling, life as metaphor, augmenting the way we divide and describe the world around us. What’s important is to realize when an idea’s time has come to leave the realm of reality, and, instead, to simply describe it.