Friday, 1 August 2008

A Linguistic Proof of Total Depravity

In virtually every religion with a dualistic soteriology (i.e. a heaven and a hell), there is a much more graphic depiction of the eternal torments than of paradise. Laymen are wont to write this fact off as evidencing the coercive nature of religion; the point is more about scaring the peasants than providing any actual edification.

I would submit, however, that this fact is merely reflective of a more general principle. We, as human beings, have much more specific ideas about evil than we do about good. When we say that a man or an action is evil, although some of us may dispute the assessment, we all have a pretty solid idea of what we're talking about. But if we say that a man or an action is good, the first question out of anyone's mouth is liable to be, What does that mean? By the time we reach notions of the ultimate good, we have created a meaningless abstraction. If you tell me you believe in God, the term itself is sufficiently vague that I still have no idea what, exactly, you believe (see the works of Rabbi Sherwin Wine). The history of philosophy is an argument over what it is to be good, but discussions of evil have generally been restricted, like Aquinas', to whether good is simply an absence of evil or a thing existent by itself. As to what that thing would be, most thinkers have never thought it necessary to say. Might we infer from this that our natural domain is, in some way, evil? It could be that we are so much clearer in our notions of evil for the simple reason that it is closer to our natures. We are not, of ourselves, terribly disposed to good, and so see it only from afar, never quite able to distinguish the outline.

Some modern philosophers might contend with my misanthropy by suggesting that 'evil' is a leftover word--an artifact of folk philosophy which has no place in a modern, scientific discussion. Indeed, some modern philosophers, like Daniel Dennet, have proposed similar means of discarding 'consciousness'. My admittedly limited linguistic background, however, inclines me to reject this notion. Languages are, by nature, terribly efficient. No word or grammatical structure that doesn't serve a real purpose in communicating someone's thought lasts very long. This is one of the primary reasons that almost all living languages exhibit a general collapse of noun declension and verb conjugation to a minimal number of forms which depend on sentence structure for their meaning rather than changes to the word itself. This may be readily seen in our own English language, as well as Afrikaans, when compared to more complex languages like German or Russian. Even these are highly simplified compared to older languages, like Old Norse or Church Slavonic. Languages lose excess vocabulary in a similar fashion.

If there were no such thing as evil, there would be no word for it. And yet there is a word--a word that we understand much better than its antonym. Could this be a vindication of Calvin? Do we have here a proof, however circumstantial, of the doctrine of total depravity?

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