Tuesday, May 6, 2008


So, every now and then I get to daydreaming about synaesthesia. There's a kink in my brain wiring that may qualify as an example, but I've never been sure. I am blessed to have a natural ability to spot spelling and grammar mistakes effortlessly. A few years back, it struck me that what actually happens is that a sentence will taste wrong; I actually feel an unpleasant sensation that closely parallels the jolt of an unexpected flavor. I'm not just talking about food that's burnt, or badly made, but also food in odd combinations that just don't seem right. Years and years ago, when I was ten, I actually spotted, plunked down money for, and chewed, (brace yourself) chocolate bubble gum. It was just as awful as it sounds. I had to spit it out after a few seconds.

At any rate, I get a similar bump when someone sneaks a comma splice, or a misspelled word, or a misuse of punctuation, into their writing. It certainly streamlines the process of grading written work, although not enough to raise it above the level of sheer drudgery. But this morning, it got me to thinking about one of my favorite subjects, which I've already treated in an earlier post here: deliberative versus associative thinking.

Spoken language is arbitrary and conventionalized. Objects and concepts are attached to particular words for the sole reason that we've decided they are, and because we are confident that others will recognize those words when we use them. Written language is mostly functional, but at the margins it's governed by aesthetics and heritage: we spell the way we do and arrange sentences the way we do to maximize understanding and minimize error, to please ourselves with prettiness, and because others have done it a certain way and we follow their pattern. (Pattern. Here comes the associative part.)

Grammar is, mostly, rule-governed. But, as I've described above, I usually attack it with no conscious attention to the rules. I go at my grammar-policing in an almost entirely associative mindset: does this sentence taste right? And that's a typical and predictable behavior, as most people make most decisions through both a deliberative and an associative process, deriving confidence in the result from the degree of overlap between the output of the two processes.

The thing is, I've noticed more and more that I do the same thing for arguments, for reasoning. On more occasions than I can count, I've heard someone stake out and defend a position, and I've thought "That's a really bad argument." Back in the day, it used to be the case that I would have in mind what, exactly, the problem was with the argument: the flaw, the answer I would use to refute it if the need arose. Now, more and more, I just get the same unpleasant jolt that I get with bad writing. Somehow, bad reasoning has some unfinished abrasion to it that knocks up against my critical faculties and makes me gag on it.

I was thinking about this as I walked to work this morning, and I thought "This is all getting to be a little too yin-yang, a little too much in line of tired variations on dialectical tension." But the more I thought about it, the more I decided it wasn't. From my vantage, it seems as though the two modes of reasoning operate independently of one another, although they're brought to bear on the same questions. But what they don't do is, they don't necessarily, or even very often, move to opposing poles and generate tension. Very often my gut and my brain tell me exactly the same thing. When my gut tells me a sentence isn't properly constructed, often my understanding of grammar rules is just one step behind, ready to label the mistake and explain to a student what it would take to salvage the idea.

It also got me to thinking about salvation, about being justified through Christ's death on the cross, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit, and daily putting to death the Old Man of the flesh. On the one hand, through the law I learned what sin was, and through the Bible I learned how, of my own free will and without fear, to conduct my life in a way that it is an offering of love and gratitude to the God who forgave my sins. On the other hand, God judges the contents of my heart to the exclusion of the nuts and bolts of my deeds. I can do what's good and right with a loving heart, or I can do it without sincerity; I can fall down and make a terrible mess of things even as I try my best to seek God's face and follow in obedience, or I can make the same terrible mess as a result of my selfishness. The choices I make and the deeds I enact are concrete, perceptible, sequential, deliberative; the condition of my heart is associative and impressionistic. They're both part of the equation, sometimes allied, sometimes opposed, sometimes in some odd configuration that I can't quite pin down.

And the last thing I chewed on this morning was, which one is prior to the other? When we're newborns, we have sensations and notice repetitive patterns before we ever have the concepts or language to categorize them, but it's also the case that our experience is fundamentally incomplete until we interpret it. From the study of emotion in my field, we know that the set of physical sensations associated with any particular feeling can be assigned any one of a dozen or more labels, which is why self-talk makes such a difference. What one person finds exciting, another may find terrifying, even if their measurable physical outputs are identical. So, I'm not sure it's possible to assign one priority over the other.


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