A question of language

A question of language

I’m currently about halfway through The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn, a fascinating book. It’s quite hard to put down.

This isn’t a review; I’ll probably write a wrap-up later once I’m done with the book. Instead, I’ve been musing about a tangential question.

At first, even though I picked up this book because a few years ago an acquaintance who was a new mother raved about it, I was rather put off by the implicit materialist attitude. The book is written by three experimental scientists and so it is not surprising that the language is the scientific language of observation, hypothesis and conclusion. But as a person who sees no conflict between faith and science I do find it jarring that scientific language thse days seems obliged to limit itself to a materialist understanding of the universe that scrupulously omits anything that could possibly sound as if there were a first cause that science cannot explain. Instead, the first cause for anything biological is evolution not God. And in fact very often one could re-write sentences from the book substituting the word “god” for the word “evolution” that the author’s use and it would sound much less jarring to my sensibilities.

“We are designed to take in sequences of sounds and translate them into representations of meanings just as we are designed to take in sensory information and translate it into representations of objects and to take in facial expressions and translate them into representations of feelings. We have an implicit set of rules that allows us to transform the sequences of sounds we hear into sequences of ideas….

We assume this system was designed by evolution, and it is certainly distinctively human.” (99-100)

“Evolution seems automatically to grant most children a fundamental capacity for intimacy, a profound psychological curiosity, and plenty of kinfolk to be intimate with and curious about.” (59)

The thing is, as I got into the book I was grabbed by the ideas. And except when they nudge into this area where science and philosophy start to overlap, when the authors touch on the issue of design and the question of agency that language necessarily begs, I’m thoroughly enjoying the book.

And as I think about it, I’m not sure the authors have much choice in this matter of language. Indeed, though at times evolution is invoked as an agency and that bugs me, I’m not sure there is any way to approach this area of their inquiry without using language that is in some sense politicized. How does one enter into this area where science and philosophy meet and not invoke evolution, design, or God? And each of those words carries a political connotation.

The word evolution makes my skin crawl in this context because here it so clearly points to philosophical questions: why? who? how? If human beings are so complex that only the word “design” will describe what we observe about them, it begs me to cross over from science to philosophy or theology. I don’t believe such complexity can result from random chance.

Evolution has become such a charged word. In most places now it means a random sequence of events that specifically excludes the possibility of God, of a design or a designer. And there is no way of knowing the author’s stance on this issue because they have said as much as they can. To use the word God or to imply a designer is to make this book into a politicized bombshell.

Am I oversensitive? Have I become oversensitized because this is one of the intellectual debates of our time?

I’m not sure I’ve expressed myself clearly here. I’m afraid I might have lost the thread of what I wanted to say when I sat down to untangle why I kept feeling uncomfortable as I read. Any htoughts would be appreciated.

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1 comment
  • does say it’s unconfirmed, and it’s pointed out that it would be difficult to get that resolution of toes etc coming through the amniotic sac, layers of muscle, etc…

    but it’s still a beautiful thought…

    and every mother has FELT that imprint with her body and soul!