August 22, 2010

Rhetorical Translation: Acrostics

I've had the idea for a while now that we should translate some of the rhetorical structures of the original languages. This doesn't necessarily mean that we copy them (though in some instances it will), but that we use rhetorical devices in English which serve a similar purpose.
This concept becomes the most poignant in the poems. I have always had trouble reading the Psalms because they don't feel like poetry to me. I see that as a failure of the translation: poems should feel like poems. Simply changing the indentation isn't enough for me.
  • Some things are simple: throw in some rhyme to group sections together that are clearly grouped in the Hebrew
  • If there is alliteration, use alliteration (even if it is not precisely in the same place, or if it isn't the "best english word" to mean what the Hebrew meant)
  • If there is a pun, establish at least some kind of word connection (puns are untranslatable, but there are other ways to connect two words)
Now I do not consider myself and expert on either language (Greek and Hebrew), so I know there are complexities that I am not taking into account here. Additionally, I know not everything is translatable, but I do think we can do better to represent not only what the authors said, but how they said it.

Now what I have given some more thought to is the Hebrew acrostic poem. The alphabetical acrostic is an incredibly common poetic form in Hebrew. However, translating that structure into English is quite difficult. Here are some of my thoughts:
  • A different structure that serves a similar purpose
    1. Though I know some rhythmic and rhyming structures that can stretch across a poem, I don't know any that can bring the kind of stylized unity as an acrostic
  • Using the English Alphabet
    1. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letter. English as 26. I don't think it's right to just add or split lines to make the acrostic work (especially if you try to do Psalm 119 that way)
    2. Not all English letters are easy to use in acrostics, like 'j', 'z', or 'x' (though 'x' you could solve by use the 'ex' prefix, but there are still other leters)
    3. Though it would seem the first and second problem could solve itself (take out 4 problem letters), in order to make an quasi-alphabetical acrostic like that work, you would need to have the most important letter groups, especially the two most important: abc and xyz. Out of all the letters to remove, 'z' is the most important since there are less usable words starting with 'z' than any other letter.
  • Using the Transliterated Hebrew Alphabet
    1. You still have 'z' to contend with (The Hebrew letter zayin)
    2. There are some Hebrew letters that don't have English equivalents. This isn't that bad though since the letters alef and ayin can use two vowels to represent them (I would recommend 'a' and 'e'), the letter chet is usually represented as a 'ch' anyway, and that really only leaves the letter tsade (it makes a "ts" sound).
    3. You have recurring sounds in letters. Again this isn't too bad. You can use 'sh' instead of sin, 'th' instead of tav, and kaph and qoph have 'k' and 'q' (or 'k' and 'c' if you want to be nice to yourself).
    4. The Hebrew Alphabet isn't known to the English public, so it won't really serve the same funtion. If this is the case, we would essentially have to rely on people learning "Hebrews used acrostics" or simply noticing that so many poems use this same letter order (Psalm 119 will help in that observation).
It is really that last point that I am thinking about the most. A strict English alphabet is out of the question, and a modified one is just cumbersome. Thus if we are essentially relying on consistancy anyway, using Hebrew order makes some sense. But if we still have to get around 'z' , and we have to replace tsade, are we still really using the Hebrew alphabet, and if so, isn't it better to go with the quasi-english one to at least make some kind of connection.

Now you may say that this is pointless, but I think it is important to at least try and see whether or not it works.

Any thoughts.

August 18, 2010

So, are you into labels?

Surely you have heard the phrases, "I'm not into labels" or "I don't want to be labeled". It is a very common thing to say nowadays, and represents an overall apathy to philosophical matters (or whatever subject the phrase comes up in). I first want to say that I completely respect these people, since most of them are really just trying to avoid a fight about something that they don't care about it. But I wanted to discuss the concept of labels within society, and maybe tease out why some people use them, what they are for, and whether they should be used at all.

A Rose By Any Other Label...

First of all, let's get down to the basic question: what is a label? Essentially 'label' is nothing more than another word for 'name'. The only real difference is the term 'label' forms a word picture of some kind of visual "name-tag" being placed upon the thing named. It is clear that no one is really against naming things, but yet they are against labeling. This is almost contradictory.

Almost. What people are really against is having a name forced upon them that they don't want, and that is the key. Naming/labelling is incredibly important, and innate to the nature of man, but it also a very powerful thing.

Consider Adam. Adam's first role within the garden was to name everything that was around him. Why? I mean, didn't God have name for these things? It is important to recognize that within the Hebrew thought, the concept of naming something was exerting your power over it. By naming it, you brought it under your dominion: you define it. Thus by having Adam name everything, God was giving Adam dominion over the Earth.

Though this concept isn't quite as conscience within the minds of our culture, it is still true, and we know it on an intuitive level. When someone else applies a label to us, they are, to some degree, exerting some kind of control over us. They are defining us. That's not always comfortable (especially if we don't like or don't identify with the label being applied). Additionally, the person themselves are also somewhat aware of it, for those that insist on a label for you are usually people who are attempting to categorize you to assess how they are supposed to interact with you (often in terms of "friend or foe"). Let's face it, labels of the basic building blocks of organization, and many people want or need to organize the people they know.

This brings up a second word picture that the term 'label' offers. There is the one picture, mentioned above, of the name-tag that defines me, but the far more disturbing image is the box label. I'm much more comfortable with the name-tag that is there to help distinguish me from others, but not so much with being put in a box with a bunch of people I don't like so I can be filed away, perhaps even discarded.

With all of this, it is quite easy to see why people don't like to be labeled.

So, Labels Are Bad?

Not at all! Labels are a necessary part of human interaction! Like I said above, labeling serves very important functions.

First it defines a thing. It is not wrong for things to be defined. Can you imagine what conversation would be like if we didn't have names for things? Imagine if every time I wanted to refer to John, I would have to describe him because he didn't have a name. Indeed, if we had no names at all, imagining trying to describe him without such words as 'hair', 'shirt', 'male', 'head', 'eyes', and even 'age'. Likewise imagine political conversations if we had no names for positions, and a person would have to describe their entire political platform at the beginning of every conversation. I mean we could do it, but who would want to! If you think that I am wrong, just look at the words that are usually used to replace labels (given that the person is trying to abandon "labeling").

Second it organizes things. As much as no one wants to be organized, it is important for one to organize their social life. I want to know who my friends are. I want to know who my family is. I want to be able to quickly identify who is going to support me in a discussion on politics or theology. This is incredibly helpful, and makes life, well, livable.

Third it works as a short-hand. This is sort of already implied with what I said above, but it is important to note separately. It is often helpful within a conversation though to define a concept and then label it for further reference. For those who frequent this site, I often reference the Machine Gun Hermeneutic. This is a term that I invented, but whenever I refer to it, I link to the first article I wrote on it. The truth is I wrote that article for the purpose of defining a label that I was intending to use. That is the value of labeling.

Label Libel

The real problem is in the mismanagement of labels. Many labels in our society are misused, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of malevolence.

Here's an example from a movie. Have you ever seen Hot Fuzz? Hysterical movie, though I would not recommend it to those who are sensitive (though I do recommend it to everyone else). There is one scene where the main character is being asked whether he believes in God. He says no. So the questioner (a priest unfortunately) says, "So you're an atheist?" He says that it more that he isn't certain about the concept of God, to which which the questioner responds, "Ah, you're an agnostic then." It is true that any belief that is unsure about the existence of God can be called an agnostic belief, but technically (as I understand), one is "an agnostic" if they assert that the existence of God cannot be known. However, the term is often used to label those who are simply unsure, as if they actually fell on the spectrum or something.

Another example is a label I take on myself: Arminian. The concept of Arminianism is that God extends his grace to all, and enables all to come to Him, but that only a few respond to this grace (this is a gross oversimplification, but I discuss it in more detail elsewhere). However, many attempt to define Arminianism as "salvation by works" or "man-centered" or "anything that believes in free-will" even though these are fallacious definitions. Indeed, many attach other labels which are completely foreign to the stance.

But it is incredibly important that we don't try to abandon labels or avoid them. Instead we need to own and defend them.

You see, the real problem is not that you are being labeled, but that other people are the ones doing it. When you label or name something, you are exerting power over it. Therefore the problem is other people trying to have power over you. The solution is not to not be labeled (since they label you anyway), but that instead you control which labels are attached to you.

For instance, I don't see myself as a conservative (politically speaking). That is not a label that I attach to myself. However, I do use the labels federalist and capitalist, and if someone calls me conservative, I can correct by using the terms that I define myself as. Yes, I am on the right side of politics, but not for the same reasons as many, and thus I don't really belong in the same category. On the other hand, I don't mind the label "right-winged" for that implies a spectrum rather than a political philosophy, and that is the side of the spectrum I'm on.

Therefore, to answer the question that I labeled this post with: Yes, I am into labels, and I hope that you will be to. Let us just take the time to understand and appropriately choose the labels we use.

August 9, 2010

The Transcendental Argument and Thoughts

The Transcendental Argument

I've written on this topic before. The Transcendental Argument is an argument for the existence of God, though I would say that it is really more an argument against materialism. Materialism is a basic tenant of atheism, and if you dispose of materialism, atheism cannot stand. Thus its opposite, theism, must be true.

Before one can understand how the argument works, one first needs to understand what materialism is. Simply put, it is the belief that material (matter and energy) is all there as, and anything else doesn't really exist, but is merely an illusion in our minds. This has significant ramifications, for not only does it reject the belief in God, or in souls and spirits, but it also rejects the reality of morality, thoughts and even life. Life, after all, is merely a physical phenomenon, and thoughts are just electrical impulses in your brain. This is the philosophy of materialism.

According to the Transcendental Argument, there are things which we can prove exist which transcend material (hence the name). Most of the time, when this argument is used, the transcendental that is used is morality. However, proving the existence of objective morality is difficult (though I would say possible) and therefore this isn't always the best way to present the argument (sometimes it is though, because you can really engage the emotions of people).

Another one used is logic. Atheists love logic. Indeed, one may say that they worship logic and reason (Oh my science!). Because of this, using logic is a very good method of dismantling atheism in particular, since Atheism is so dependant upon claiming to be "the most logical stance".

However, I think a truly powerful transcendental to use, if all you intend to do is to deconstruct materialism, is thinking.

The Absolute Existence of Human Thoughts

As I stated before, materialism claims that material is all there is (hence the name). A necessary corollary to this is that our thoughts and consciousness are merely illusions: they are only electrical impulses in the brain. However, I would argue that an honest examination of human history and society demonstrates that this philosophy cannot hold water.

Question: have you ever heard of someone being run over by a unicorn? Of course not, because unicorns don't exist. This is the basic premise of my argument: Things which don't exist cannot affect things which do exist. Now I am in agreement with materialism that material exists. However, if materialism is to be true, then all events in human history can be explained purely from a physical level, without referencing people's ideas, philosophies, and beliefs.

However, this cannot be done. We can come up with some very simple examples like the notion of the atomic bomb started with an idea. It does not stand that the physical components of the human body and some electrical impulses are sufficient to explain the ability to break apart subatomic forces.

We can come up with something, though, which is a little more provable. I think the best example is racial segregation. Why is it that this group of humans (thought of in terms of physical bodies according to materialism) are in different physical conditions that this other group of humans? The true answer to this is racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is an idea. However, this idea must exist because it has physical consequence.

Indeed, any concept of a choice based off of a belief falls into this same category. Though my decision to have one piece of pie over another can be attributed to chemical impulses, my decision to place one DVD into a DVD player over another cannot.

OK, So Here's the Argument

OK, so here's the arguemnt:

P1: Material is real

P2: If materialism is true, then thoughts are not real

P3: Things which are not real cannot affect things that are real

P4: Thoughts affect material things.

C1: Thoughts are real (P1, P3, P4)

C2: Materialism is false (P2, C1)


August 4, 2010

A word apologists should know

I am a lover of words: a logophile if you will. And there is no greater joy that I have than coming across a new useful word. Now, not every new word is useful. For instance, I recently learned the world 'ululation' which means 'howl'. Well, we have another word for that: 'howl'. However, then there are words like 'obfuscation': to confuse people using unusual words or lofty sentence structure. That is a useful word (and ironic) since you would often have to use several words to describe that same concept.

This is also why I love English. We have a word for everything: 'everything'. OK, kidding aside, the real power of English is in its vocabulary. We do have an incredibly diverse and robust vocabulary with English, if only the population would use it.


OK, so I recently read an essay at William Laine Craig's site, and in it, it used the term parsimonious. It also defined it, kindly enough. Essentially, it means "being favored by way of Occam's Razor". Indeed, Craig's uses the term "principle of parsimony" as another name for Occam's Razor. For those of you that aren't apologists, Occam's Razor states that when considering two possible theories, and all other things being equal, one should prefer the simpler theory.

For those of you who are apologists, theologians, philosophers, or scientists, I am sure that you have run into the same situation as I, where you wished to discuss the attribution of Occam's Razor within a particular argument, and were forced to do great violence to your sentence in order to fit in the full phrase "in accordance to Occam's Razor". Now you don't have to!

Indeed, with the gift of the word "parsimonious" you now have a way to refer to Occam's Razor in any grammatical situation: noun (parsimony), adjective (parsimonious), adverb (parsimoniously), antinym (unparsimonious), or, if you are really crazy and enjoy making new words through derivation, verb (parsimonize).

So to all you apologists out there: enjoy the gift.