August 01, 2006

Between good and evil

I sat down to read today's Science Times, thinking that this article on sibilants (D5 in print) might be interesting (it wasn't). Instead, what I found interesting were the letters to the editor on the facing page (D4 in print), in particular the large number of letters concerning this article in last week's Science Times (which I hadn't read until after reading the letters). The article is "Faith, Reason, God and Other Imponderables", by Cornelia Dean, and is one of those collective, superficial reviews of several recent books clustering around a certain topic, the topic in this case being the (supposed) conflict between religion and science. I comment here on four of those letters, two of which involve interesting examples of linguification.

One of the letters I found interesting was a very short one from Doug Fox from Trumbull, CT. Mr. Fox refers to the following passage from the article:

Of course, just as the professors of faith cannot prove (except to themselves) that God exists, the advocates for atheism acknowledge that they cannot prove (not yet, anyway) that God does not exist.

Mr. Fox writes:

Since the existence of God can be neither proved nor disproved, the only possible position for a scientist is agnosticism.

This seems like a perfectly logical argument: until something is proven or disproven to exist, a rational scientist should believe neither in its existence nor in its nonexistence. (Let's put aside the fact that beliefs and hunches are often, if not invariably, what lead scientists to go about coming up with ways to prove or disprove things -- in other words, science arguably progresses because of the beliefs of scientists, not despite them.)

However, there's a presuppositional catch to Mr. Fox's argument: that the existence or nonexistence of God, as opposed to anything else, is particularly deserving of attention. As Derek Lessing of Erdenheim, PA points out in his letter, there are plenty of imaginable things the existence of which can be neither proven nor disproven, yet nobody bothers coming up with fence-riding positions (or terms) like agnosticism to characterize their views on the matter.

(In general, Mr. Lessing's letter challenges the perceived substance of the claim that the existence of God can be neither proved nor disproved, citing an interesting thought experiment proposed by Carl Sagan: we cannot prove or disprove the existence of "a special dragon in [Sagan's] garage -- invisible, incorporeal, breathing fire with no heat and floating in the air", but still we feel that there's a significant difference between belief and disbelief in such a dragon: disbelief is rational, belief is irrational. What's different about God?)

In another letter, from William Horwitz of Irvington, NY, we find the first interesting example of linguification (emphasis added):

It is striking that in "Faith, Reason, God" the term "agnostic" was never used. To many who embrace the as yet incomplete state of human knowledge, the role of humanity in forging a mature morality of its own and an acceptance of the mystery of existence, religion and atheism are two sides of the same coin, both rooted in an epistemology that posits unwarranted certainty and both worthy of a pox on both their houses. It's a shame the article made no attempt to distinguish between atheism and agnosticism.

It's true that "agnostic" appears nowhere in the article (the linguified claim in Mr. Horwitz's first sentence), and it's also true that no distinction between atheism and agnositicism (or between faith and agnositicism, for that matter) is explicitly made in the article (the other claim in Mr. Horwitz's last sentence); assuming that the claim in the last sentence underlies the linguified claim in the first one, then this is presumably a case of linguification that not even Geoff Pullum would take issue with.

[ Yikes! As I was finishing that last sentence, Geoff passed right by my cubicle in the staff writer's room here at Language Log Plaza. He does that every so often to "keep us on our toes". Lucky for me he didn't linger at my cubicle and look over my shoulder, because I didn't have time to hit the key combination that brings up a text editor with one of his old posts in it (randomly selected) -- a trick we learned that invariably fools Geoff into thinking we're hard at work, after which he shuffles excitedly out of the room, mumbling something that sounds like "insanely great". ]

However, if Mr. Horwitz's linguified claim is really that agnosticism is given no characterization in the article at all, that claim is false. It's particularly clear from Mr. Fox's letter quoted above that agnosticism, or the belief "that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God" (according to the definition in the New Oxford American Dictionary conveniently installed on my Mac), is a major theme of the article.

Finally, consider the linguified semi-rhetorical question asked in this letter from William Payne of Overland Park, KS (emphasis added):

In "Faith, Reason, God," Richard Dawkins is quoted comparing faith to a disease yet pointing to Steven Weinberg's statement that for "good" people to do "evil" it "takes religion." If God does not exist, what do terms like good and evil really mean? Do they mean anything an individual wants them to mean? And if they can mean anything, don't they ultimately mean nothing?

Apparently for Mr. Payne, "good" and "evil" can only have meanings in the context of a God that gives them those meanings; what is "good" is what God says is good, and what is "evil" is what God says is evil -- and presumably, the only way we mere mortals can know whether to do good or to do evil is to consider what God says will happen (for example, if we do good, we go to heaven; if we do evil, we go to hell). This naive view of word meaning reminds me of an exchange between Jim McCloskey and a student in a class that I was an undergraduate reader for at UCSC:

McCloskey: Where do words come from?
Student: The dictionary.
McCloskey: Ah, but where does the dictionary come from?
Student: [hesitates a little] God?

I'm especially amused by Mr. Payne's slippery-slope conclusion that without God, we have word-meaning chaos that "ultimately" leads to nothingness. It reminds me of these lyrics from "Zero" by Smashing Pumpkins:

Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness
And cleanliness is godliness, and god is empty just like me

-- Eric Baković, smiling politely

More discussion of linguification on Language Log (all within the last month):

Linguifying (7/3/06)
Four more examles of linguifying (7/5/06)
Classical linguifying (7/5/06)
So ignorant, as that they know not the name of a rope (7/7/06)
A linguification from an unusual source (7/7/06)
The dictionary of fools (7/9/06)
Snowclones of linguification (7/9/06)
Underlying claim false, linguified claim true (7/10/06)
Throughout the ranks of left-wing bloggers (7/11/06)
Not a Slip of the Tongue (7/17/06)
It's hard not to read this and not do a double-take (8/1/06)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 1, 2006 03:33 PM