Friday, June 24, 2011

The Social Animal

I'm reading David Brooks, The Social Animal. He has this to say about language:

Words are the fuel of courtship. Other species win their mates through a series of escalating dances, but humans use conversation. Geoffrey Miller notes that most adults have a vocabulary of about sixty thousand words. To build that vocabulary, children must learn ten to twenty words a day between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years. And yet the most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations. The most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of conversations. Why do humans bother knowing those extra fifty-six thousand words?

Miller believes that humans learn the words so they can more effectively impress and sort out potential mates.

Or it could be that men use those extra words simply to express themselves more precisely. Naturally the greater part of our conversation is filled with general purpose words useful in a broad range of contexts. Then when we wish to narrow our meaning, we must employ words that are only occasionally useful. Since the world is composed of infinite variety, there is no limit to the precise but rarely used words we can learn, and the more we learn, the less frequently they are used.

I love the way Brooks writes about "humans" as though he is a space alien who just stumbled across a new life form on the previously undiscovered planet Earth. Why do those strange humans learn those fifty-six thousand words? Why not ask yourself? You've got a pretty large vocabulary and, being a writer, probably have a good idea why those extra words are useful.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Maverick Philosopher on Man

The Maverick Philosopher has a post on the nature of man, and in particular his destiny, here. He identifies man's nature as problematic because man can soar with the angels, but also grovel with the beasts. With respect to the riddle that is man's nature, he writes:
Kierkegaard solves the problem by way of his dogmatic and fideistic adherence to Christian anthropology and soteriology.  Undiluted Christianity is his answer.  My answer:   live so as to deserve immortality.  Live as if you have a higher destiny.  It cannot be proven, but the arguments against it can all be neutralized.  Man's whence and whither are shrouded in darkness and will remain so in this life.  Ignorabimus. In the final analysis you must decide what to believe and how to live.
You could be wrong, no doubt.  But if you are wrong, what have you lost?  Some baubles and trinkets.  If you say that truth will have been lost, I will ask you how you know that and why you think truth is a value in a meaningless universe.  I will further press you on the nature of truth and undermine your smug conceit that truth could exist in a meaningless wholly material universe.

The argument bears a resemblance to Pascal's Wager, but I think it lacks some of the latter's virtues. For instance, what does it mean to "live so as to deserve immortality"? This implies a real distinction among ways of living; in other words, there is a truth with respect to life. But the Mav explicitly denies the value of truth in the last paragraph. He needs to do this because his argument starts with the premise that man's destiny is shrouded in darkness. (I won't ask if he insists that this premise is true.) But as soon as we've given up on whether we can know the truth about man's destiny, then we've lost any possible ground for offering advice on different ways to live. Thus the Mav can't give any substance to what it means to live so as to "deserve" immortality, and he leaves us with the empty exhortation to live a "higher destiny." Chesterton remarked that philosophers start talking about the "higher" life when they wish to talk about the better and worse, but have denied themselves the possibility of doing so.

The argument is similar to Pascal's insofar as Pascal also does not argue from the truth of Christianity to what man must do here on Earth. But Pascal does require that there is truth with respect to different ways of living. His clincher argument for the Wager is that, whatever happens in the next world, accepting the Wager results in a better life in this one:

Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing. (233)

Another aspect of the Mav's argument that is interesting is the notion of "deserving" immortality. Atheists sometimes argue against hell that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal punishment. The converse of the same point would be that no one can possibly do anything deserving of eternal reward. Indeed, the classical philosophers did not argue that man deserved immortality. Plato argued that man's soul is immortal by nature; his destiny varied according to its just desserts, but it was immortal either way. The Catholic Church also holds the immortality of the soul as a matter that can be philosophically established. But such immortality does not necessarily involve the fullness of life, for man is only fully alive in his body. "Eternal life" for the Catholic means eternal life in the glorified body that is assumed at the general resurrection, and this eternal life certainly cannot be deserved. It is gained only as a gift freely given through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 13, 2011

John Paul II, Youth and Hope

 An impression John Paul II always made on me, even in his last days, was that he was essentially a young man. I've not encountered anyone else who has made such an impression, and I've pondered off and on for years what could be the source of this impression.

The youthfulness of JPII is different than, say, the boyishness of Robert Redford or Brad Pitt. It expresses something deeper, as though JPII expressed throughout his life the essence of what it means to be young . Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that JPII expressed the virtue of youth, or the virtue that is best expressed through youth. The most apt comparison I can think of is the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf expresses the essence or virtue of what it means to be old; in Gandalf's case, that virtue is obviously wisdom. Wisdom is the prerogative of age, and the wise man is essentially old, as Socrates is already old when he appears in Plato's dialogs. And so when we imagine Gandalf, we imagine him as eternally old. We can't imagine Gandalf a young man.

The virtue of hope is essentially expressed through youth, and I think it is because JPII so thoroughly embodied hope that he struck me as essentially young. Hope expresses confidence with respect to the future (although not in the future; we hope in God for the future).  With respect to the future we are all young, so hope is the virtue of the young. If one has hope, even if he is 90 years old and physically decrepit, he is young.

I wonder if our culture's worship of youth is an expression of despair; we are without hope and so long for the one period of life when hope, or the appearance of hope, was a possibility. But as Kierkegaard pointed out, such "hope" is not genuine but an aesthetic suspension of the self in possibility. As long as we have the possibility of becoming many things, but have not yet become any, the illusion of hope is before us. But as soon as any possibility is actualized, it must be at the expense of other possibilities ("opportunity cost", although Kierkegaard didn't call it that) and the pseudo-hope of youth disappears. So the aesthetic self chooses to remain in the realm of possibility, not really becoming anything at all, and so retains for itself the illusion of hope; but it is only an illusion and nothing but a yet deeper expression of despair.

JPII appears youthful even in old age because he was the apostle of hope. True hope is not intoxicated with possibility, nor does it suspend itself in the possible without ever becoming actual. True hope is anticipation of what is to come on the far side of actuality; it is longing for the consummation of possibility in actuality. John Paul II was one of the most actual men who ever lived. I'm tempted to use the word commitment with respect to him, but commitment has a voluntaristic tint to it that reflects more our modern subjectivist orientation than what JPII was about. Submission may be a better word because it has an objective orientation; we submit to things that are outside of and greater than ourselves; we "commit" to "values" the significance of which is grounded in our own will. True marriage is a submission rather than a commitment. John Paul II's life was animated by a deep submission to God, and so was grounded in true hope for what will come on the far side of that submission.