Linguistics v. grammar

When I started teaching in 2000 I was tasked with writing a grammar course, but in turning over the lit I found almost no grammar and a great deal of linguistics. This is not an accident: the two are exclusive or at least at loggerheads. Linguistics is descriptive while grammar is prescriptive and normative. John McWhorter puts it as bluntly as one can put it by saying that linguists look forward with eager anticipation to the day when we no longer care about or bother to enforce the prohibition against saying “Johnny and me went to the store” or “ten items or less” or “If a student has a problem, they need to see the director.”

All this iterates the is-ought distinction and will probably share in both its forcefulness and incoherence. The avoiding of oughts seems to be made even more reasonable by language being so much more conventional and fundamentally arbitrary than, say, morals. Even if we tried to set up the equivalent of a grammatical “natural law” that gave structure to a linguistic positive law the linguists would take it as a Chomskyan universal grammar, not an elevated language of discourse.

Linguistics has some room for elevated or solemn modes of discourse as opposed to vulgar ones, but this can’t be translated into grammar as even what counts as elevated will not be normative. Grammar ultimately has to be based on a canon and a historical norm, along with a sense that it specifies a sort of discourse that we reach for.


Principle of Motion-Observer Relativity: The axiom stating that motion is constituted by observation. Motion is therefore neither perfectly objective (i.e. fully actual prior to observation) nor perfectly subjective (e.g. a useful fiction, a projection of the mind, a Parmenidean doxa, etc.) The subjective as such is not observed, the objective as such is not constituted by observation.

The axiomatic character of PMOR arises both because it triangulates the scientific waffling between naive realism and Einsteinian-Parmenidean eternalism and because we find it at the confluence of so many diverse physical theories.

1.) Inertial reference/ Equivalence. Both uniform and accelerated motions are equivalent to certain rest states and so stipulating one or the other is relative to the choice of a reference frame, which is the act of the one observing.

2.) Aristotle’s account of time. Time is a sort of counting, and so is found according to diverse logoi in both the subject and the object. But as St. Thomas points out, what he says of time is just as true of motion itself.

3.) The Positivist/ Contemporary Empiricist. There can be no account of any physical quantity apart from the instructions explaining how it is to be measured or observed.

4.) The Idealist. While radical Idealisms are outside the pale here, moderate Idealisms simply want all sense knowledge to involve some contribution from the observer. The “est” in esse est percipi need not be an identity. It can simply give a condition.

5.) Wheeler’s Participatory Universe. Physics makes information possible, information makes observation possible, observation makes physics possible.

6.) Augustinian temporalityBecoming is both a whole in the way any story or song is whole, and yet is incapable of existing with all of its parts. The wholeness of time is from the observer contributing his memory and anticipation to experience.


Islamic fundamentalism

Cavenaugh: While they are both labels for mass ideologies, religion and nation differ in use because nations are allowed to use violence in support of ideology while religion is not. If we approve of what Israel does to the Palestinians we consider it a nation and the Palestinian response as “fundamentalism”; if we disapprove of it we speak of “the Palestinian state”.

The tendency to use these labels is so engrained that we can’t even see the manifest nonsense we commit ourselves to when we try to speak of “Islamic fundamentalism” or “the tendency that Islam has to violence.” See Reza Aslan here:

In other words, the violence that bothers us is nationalism, or at least an Islam that is essentially conditioned by nationalism (used in the broad sense since in the Middle East and Africa “Nation” is a bumbling mix of the organic natio and the artificial boundaries inflicted on them by European imperialism.) Blaming it on “religion” or “Islam” is just a ritual absolution for those of us who pride ourselves on either being irreligious or with separating religion from the public square. If all this violence rose from nationalism, even we might be able to commit it!

Aslan might have some ‘splanin to do over why terrorists yell “allahu Akbar” and not “viva Saudi Arabia”, but his basic point stands.

Science contra privacy / autonomy

Science has structural components that lead to undermining privacy and personal autonomy. Two arise from the way in which it increases the reach of the nervous system.

1a.) The presumption for use. Hey, if you’re not doing anything wrong, why are you worried? You wouldn’t object to having a cop monitoring that area, why not a camera? We’re just collecting data/ trying to do our due diligence/ avoid litigation…

1b.) The value of the shocking. Novel and bizarre information has power to catch and keep attention and has always been used as an attempt to hold a crowd.  But when these crowds go to the size that science allows, whole societies of the novel, bizarre and shocking become possible. Outlier cases like child abductions, freak deaths, or terrorist attacks are seen as urgent public problems to be addressed. But one can’t catch outlier freak cases without being a good deal more invasive, making a presumption for surveillance, and going on mass fishing-expeditions for data.

2.) Limitations of case study. The double-blind case study has pretty significant limitations in studying certain populations (see “Gender and Physiology” here for difficulties in studying the transgendered) though these limitations can be overcome by forcing everyone into observational structures, i.e. making everyone a participant in a longitudinal study. This turns at least some defenses of privacy into defenses of ignorance, which sets up a ratchet effect away from privacy or autonomy.

Mutation and the common good

1.) Take natural selection as the paradigm “brute fact” that can account for the initial conditions carried forth by laws.

2.) Selection is a happy accident of a mutation finding an environmental fit conferring reproductive advantage. It is a game of chance whose outcome can be expected if we just get enough tries. Finding the password is just a matter of taking enough attempts.

3.) But a machine randomly trying passwords until it hit on the right one is a code cracker. This is particularly a propos to selection. The mutation of bacteria is their one defense against antibiotics, and the mutations of microorganisms in the face of our genetic modifications resembles nothing so much as an attempt to pick the locks we have placed on plants. If not for the mutation, to find one defeater of a species would be the absolute doom of that species. Mutation and reproduction are thus both species-level survival systems, with mutation being the redundant system.

4.) Mutation provides the same species-level good as reproduction. Mutation often fails, but so do almost all attempts at reproduction (the success rate of seeds is comparable to the success rate of mutations.)

5.) Reproduction differs from mutation in that the former requires complex structures while the latter does not. Mutation occurs only because of the absence or imprecision of the system that might check for it. It is this absence of a system that allows for it to be mistakenly understood as a brute fact.

6.) Mutations arising from the absence or imprecision of the system is defined relative to species-level goods in the same way reproduction is.

7.) And so the paradigm case of an originating fact in nature is defined relative to species-level goods, i.e. common goods.


Dialogue on religion and laïcité

A: We can’t isolate religion from the public square. Christians need to be able to live their faith and work it into policy.

B: Yeah, we tried that system and it ends in endless war.

A: That’s crazy, the largest wars were in the twentieth century by atheist regimes.

B: Pinker has done a good job debunking that, and at any rate I think the sorts of totalitarian ideas they advocated need to be kept out of the public sphere too. We can do that by advocating representative government, compromise, and focusing on shared beliefs. At the end of the day, what’s wrong with those totalitarian schemes is exactly what is wrong with religion: it is a totalizing view of life and a claim to the complete truth of things, and all these schemes end up collapsing into violence and murder.

A: Ah, so we have to cordon off religion out of fear of death?

B: Exactly. It’s a simple matter of survival.

A: But in fact it’s only religion that can confront what we fear in death. I’ve been at the bedside of many who were dying, and what they fear is exactly what religion alone can provide. I say that in banishing this from the public square you are not saving people from death but leaving them defenseless against it.

On good and bad murder in a non-moral sense

Let’s name names and flush out a distinction that everyone seems to work from anyway: there’s good and bad murder. By “murder” I mean the familiar definition of killing the innocent, where the relevant sense of innocence belongs to all individuals not personally guilty of life-threatening acts. The definitions can be tightened up, but the sense just specified remains.

Bad murder is the familiar sort – it’s the one the TV news calls murder, that drives courtroom dramas and detective stories, and that gets committed by gang members, jealous redneck husbands, and the occasional preppy socialite. This is the sort of murder that shocks and horrifies, leads to the call for tougher laws, and leaves us wringing our hands over the terrible callousness of all those other people.

Good murder is, well, you can hear Leon Panetta confess to a paradigm case here:

I was tempted to have the link start at the actual good murder, whose victims are first introduced at 2:04, but a crucial part of good murder is its context. One can’t just start with a description of the act, the one who commits the act has to have his name introduced, have his struggles laid bare, and have all of his difficult moral problems put center stage so as to make us understand why he just had to kill some nameless person(s).

I honestly can’t tell if I’m being ironic in writing all this. I suppose I can virtue-signal and tell you that I think good murder is morally wrong, but I can’t experience outrage over it and I don’t think that I would demand Panetta or his accomplices in the White House should be treated as a murderers, except in a world so counterfactual that it need not be considered in a moral debate. The reason I would spare them prison is not because they lack moral agency (except in the sense that their conscience is deeply perverse) but because the criminalization of murder seems to have limits that keeps it from being able to capture all murders. Everyone is familiar with this sort of thing in the criminalization of lust:

Human government comes from Divine government, and should imitate it. Now even though God is omnipotent and supremely good, he allows some evils to take place in wold he might prevent, since without them greater goods are forfeited, or greater evils ensue. So human government also and those in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, so that certain goods be lost or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine Book 2, c. 4): “If you do away with prostitutes, the world will be convulsed with lust.

For most readers of this blog the most familiar case of good murder is abortion. Even when it is criminalized it is not punished like bad murder and it’s hard to see how it ever could be. We love our mothers with much the same fervor that we love our nation and so we can’t help but excuse them for killing nameless, faceless threats to their security. Occasional attempts will be made to positively justify such killing, or even – God help us – to celebrate it, but for the most part we are content to treat it as a difficult choice that we had no choice but to make.

What goes and what doesn’t

We need to be clearer on the nonsense that science really did cast out: ringing bells to ward off lightning strikes, centuries of bleeding and quack cures that no one ever thought to test, the confused ways of confronting mental illness, the fanciful ways of mixing fact and idealization in hagiography and other attempts at history, the often unreflective teleology, etc. Good riddance to the whole bewildering embarrassment, and God bless science for driving it out. It’s hard to look back on it without feelings of condescension or anger.

But then, no one is fighting to bring back bloodletting or fanciful hagiographic legends. What science drove out is something we’re all happy to part with. Even the most die-hard traditionalist doesn’t want his doctor to tie radishes to his feet to ward off the ague. So it’s hard to see what we can do with this stuff that no one wants to return to – presumably some want to bring it up to cast aspersions on the religion, philosophy, and politics of the time. The critique might have some merit, but the categories one has to jump across to make it are so far apart make it hard to push the it very far – it’s something like an argument that questioned how the Mayo clinic could be of any value since it belonged to a society that dropped the atomic bomb, terrorized nations by murdering their citizens with drones, and was on track to incarcerate a third of the black male population. This isn’t giving context, it’s just poisoning the well.

There are areas where ancient thought could do with a good dollop of experimentation – Aristotle always insisted that the only point of ethics was practice and not theory but the resulting ethics is nowhere as close to the practical as contemporary cognitive science. But it is lunacy to think we can just pitch the ethics and do cog. sci.

An Aristotelian Ontological Argument (using the LBA)

1.) Act and potency are really divided and not just notionally distinct.  We can have a skill to play music when not playing.

2.) Act and potency are not correlatives. Potency depends on act to exist but not vice versa. Shown in three ways:

a.) Potency is defined relative to act but act is not defined (Metaphysics IX. esp. c. 6)

b.) If act as such depends on potency then act, as act, is potential. But they are really distinct (see 1).

c.) Potency depends on act intrinsically and in its logos but act does not so depend on potency (see 2a)

3.) If act and potency are not correlatives and are really distinct, an-act-that-lacks-all-potency  (pure act) is metaphysically and not just logically possible. In other words, when we say that pure act is “possible” we don’t just mean that we see no contradiction (and for all we know there might be one) but that we see that there is not a contradiction.*

4.) To prove that there are no contradictions in a necessary thing is to know it exists, in the same way that to prove there is no contradiction in denying the Fifth Postulate proves that Non-Euclidean quantities exist. Call this the Leibniz-Brentano Axiom. 

5.) Whatever lacks all potency is by definition necessary.

6.) Pure act exists.

*When apologetics seeks to prove that there are no contradictions in the dogmas of the faith, it arguably only establishes logical possibility.

O.J.’s (logical equivalent of a) confession

(I was in the midst of typing this when I got called away to do something and posted it by mistake. This is the full version. UPDATE. Then I went back and added some more stuff.)

In what appears to be recordings made in prison during his criminal trial for killing Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. says:

If the situation was reversed with Nicole and I, and I was the one who was shot and killed, she wouldn’t spend a day in jail (laughter).

at 6:13.

Ah, but then Nicole’s situation would be that she was framed for murder out of racist hatred for being an affluent black woman!

I guess you could say he meant “if I were murdered, Nicole would never be tried for it”. But why begrudge Nicole’s failing to be tried for a crime unless she did it?

I’m not going for a smoking gun, or even for a piece of court-worthy evidence, and I come to all of this convinced that he was guilty already.* I’m speaking to those likewise convinced of guilt who can take the quotation as manifesting something about the character of lies. Lies differ from truths in that it’s hard to tell the events of a lie out of chronological order, and so a fortiori, it’s hard to keep the lie straight when you try to make it function in a counterfactual. Unless by “counterfactual” you mean the truth.

*Not just by the mountain of uncontested evidence but by the ridiculous nature protestations against the rest of it. To take the paradigm example, no matter how racist Fuhrman was, in order to frame anybody he would have had to buy an Aris leather light XL glove from Bloomingdale’s after midnight on his way to driving to the Rockingham estate (and never be found out).** If that’s your theory, you don’t have one.

**Bailey’s insinuation that he found it at the Bundy crime scene requires that the fourteen other cops that got there before him missed it, missed him picking it up, missed him bagging it and pocketing it… and all this in a yard the size of a large foyer.

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