Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Learning Language

The study of language acquisition, how we learn languages, must be a fascinating pursuit. Among the many questions researchers are probing are questions about bilingual acquisition: How do babies realize they're in a bilingual environment? What clues aid them in discovering this? How is discrimination between languages produced in infants?

If you're interested in this topic you might go to this article at Science Daily where you'll find a number of links to stories that address research in language acquisition and how children in bilingual homes recognize that they're hearing two different languages.

Whatever researchers eventually discover about these questions it's important to remember that it's all a result of random mutations in our DNA that somehow produced this astonishing capability in our brains. Having read my Dawkins I am assured that if I put on a blindfold and randomly struck keys on the keyboard in front of me I could, if I did it long enough, wind up converting these very words you're reading into Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

It's logically possible, no matter how improbable, that a series of accidental gene mutations just by chance produced the ability to learn multiple languages simultaneously. And since it's possible, the Darwinian logic goes, therefore it happened.

Now recite that to yourself as long as it takes to get yourself to believe it.


The God Delusion, Ch. 9

To fully appreciate the ironies of chapter 9 of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion one has to understand that Dawkins reaches back to 1858 to find a story of how Church authorities in Italy seized an 8 year old child, Edgardo Mortara, from his Jewish parents and raised him as a Roman Catholic. The boy had been baptized by an illiterate house girl when he was gravely ill and for the Italian Inquisition that was good enough to make him a Catholic.

It is a very sad story, but Dawkins concludes, bizarrely, that such tragedies could easily happen in today's religious climate. In a sense he's right but not in the way he intends. If this tragedy could be so easily repeated today why does he have to go back 150 years to find an example of it?

But never mind. He's trying to discredit the Church by showing how it perpetrated terrible injustices on families in the 19th century. He neglects to tell his readers that the state atheisms of the 20th century did far worse and inflicted their horrors on millions of families throughout the world. There have been a myriad of tragic accounts of Communist authorities in the 20th century taking children from "unfit" parents, particularly Christian parents, and raising them in state schools, but Dawkins is blind to the crimes committed in the name of atheism. Or maybe he doesn't think taking children from Christian parents is all that bad an idea.

He calls such abductions as happened to the Jewish boy in 19th century Italy a form of child abuse and deplores it, but then he likens that abduction to teaching children about God and instilling in them the precepts of the parents' Christianity. He says:

I am persuaded that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.

So, teaching children traditional Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse, and what do humane societies do to parents who are abusing their children? They take them from them, of course, just like Edgardo Mortara was taken away from his parents by the Church. In other words, the logic of Dawkins' belief that religious instruction is a form of child abuse puts him squarely in the company of the Italian Inquisition of the 19th century. Oddly, Dawkins fails to see the irony.

I said above that Dawkins was right that children today could easily be taken from their parents, but not by Church authorities. The contemporary fascists who seek to control what children are taught are the Richard Dawkins' of the world. Consider these words of a colleague of Dawkins which he quotes with approval:

Children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense, and we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example in the literal truth of the Bible or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

Yes, this is a revolting passage, redolent of the totalitarian mindset of the Nazi and Communist fascisms of the 1930s. If you teach your children that Jesus loves them you are just as cruel as if you knocked their teeth out. Both the man who wrote this and Dawkins who quotes it are beyond parody.

Who decides what constitutes "nonsense"? No doubt this will be the task of the secular, liberal Darwinians in the academy. Who better qualified to recognize nonsense than people who write books like The God Delusion and who implicitly endorse inflicting the same cruelties on families for which they had just condemned the Italian Church?

Where does Dawkins' kind of thinking end? If parents are to be prohibited from passing on religious beliefs to their children what about moral beliefs which the cogniscenti deem substandard? What about political beliefs or any metaphysical beliefs such as opposition to Darwinism that offend the refined intellects of the arbiters of truth and reason? Who would enforce these contemptible rules in Dawkins' Brave New World? The God Delusion, amongst its many shortcomings, has this singular virtue: It gives the reader a pellucid glimpse into the workings and aspirations of the liberal mind. Their dream is to have total control over all that people think and do. People like Richard Dawkins are a genuine threat to human freedom. In Jonah Goldberg's felicitous image, they constitute smiley face fascism.

Then there is this bit of silliness:

Our society ... has accepted the preposterous idea that it is normal and right to indoctrinate tiny children in the religion of their parents, and to slap religious labels on them ....Please, please raise your consciousness about this and raise the roof whenever you hear it happening....

Richard needs to stay on his meds when he writes. To call a child a "Christian child" is simply an economical way of saying that the child is born to Christian parents and has been baptized in a Christian church. It doesn't mean that the child has made a conscious decision to be a Christian, but even if it did, so what? Most people reassess their religious beliefs as they mature and decide whether they want to retain them or not. It's hard to understand why Dawkins gets himself in such a swivet over it.

He wants parents to refrain from exerting any religious influence on a child, but I wonder if he was punctilious in not allowing his materialist beliefs to influence his own daughter. I doubt it. I also wonder what he would have done had his daughter one day told him that she wanted to be baptized and that she thought her old man's Darwinism was as daft as his atheism. I wouldn't be surprised if Dawkins "raised the roof" but not for the reason he urges us to do it.

There is one more chapter to The God Delusion. We'll examine it in a day or so. Meanwhile, don't let your children out of your sight around these people.