Saturday, June 11, 2016

Generic Pronouns

The use of feminine generic pronouns on the part of male authors is something I’ve lately been noticing more and more. There might be a more precise term for this, but I’m talking about when an author makes reference to some hypothetical individual whose gender is not specified, yet chooses to speak of this individual as she or her. For example, here’s the statement I came across that originally sparked my reflection on this:

“A maturing believer in Jesus can present herself as a model for others to imitate. In fact, if she is faithful to her identity in Christ, she must become a model.”

This generic “maturing believer” can be either male or female, so which gender pronouns are you going to use in reference to this person?

English speakers don’t have a gender-neutral way of referring to an individual. So we have to use some form of either he or she, as most style guides frown upon the use of the third-person plural they when speaking of a singular person. In the example above, the author decides to use feminine pronouns (herself, she, her). I, on the other hand, virtually always use masculine pronouns in these instances, mainly because an English professor in college taught us to simply defer to our own gender. That advice made sense to me, so I’ve always went with it.

I suppose that’s why it feels odd to me whenever I observe male authors using feminine generic pronouns. I once noticed it in a piece written by a professor of mine, and since I had a good relationship with this professor, I asked him about it one day. He told me that it was an intentional effort to be more gender-inclusive. He also, in jest, called me a he-man woman hater for making a big deal out of it. But I wasn’t making a big deal out of it. It just struck me as odd, that’s all: the practice itself, as well as the reasoning behind it.

But another thing to note is that there are certain scenarios which, by nature, seem to call for male pronouns:

“Suppose an intruder breaks into your house and demands that you give her all your money.”

Now that’s just weird. Sure, the generic intruder might be either male or female, but would I ever seriously suppose that the intruder would be a woman? Of course not. So it would be most natural, in this case, to use the masculine pronoun him.

This reminds me of a certain place in A Series of Unfortunate Events where a scenario is imagined in which a “masked woman” climbs through your window at night. I assume Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) intended that to be funny. In any case, it was hilarious to me. Why? Because intruders with concealed faces are always described as “masked men.” But hooray for gender-inclusivity.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Universal Remote

I distinctly remember a thought experiment proposed by one of my professors in college. We were talking about free will vs. determinism, and the thought experiment went something like this.

First, imagine a decision of some sort. It doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s imagine that Frank gets really ticked off at Steve, and thus makes the decision to punch Steve in the face. Now imagine that you own a remote that controls the entire universe – a literally universal remote, as my professor quipped. And with this remote, you could rewind the universe itself back to any moment in the past. So imagine rewinding the universe back to the moment just before Frank made the decision to punch Steve.

It’s important to remember here that since you’re rewinding the entire universe, this means that everything is going to be exactly the way it was in that particular moment when Frank decided to punch Steve. So Frank’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual conditions will be exactly as they were before, as well as any and all factors external to Frank (his environment, etc). Everything will be exactly the same. And once you rewind the universe back to this particular moment in time, you press play and watch what transpires. What would you observe? Would Frank punch Steve again?

But imagine that you rewound the universe repeatedly – let’s say an infinite number of times. The question is, would you ever observe Frank making a different decision than the one he originally made? Would you ever observe Frank deciding to refrain from punching Steve?

Regardless of how you answer this question, there are difficulties that arise. If you contend that Frank would always punch Steve, every single time, then it makes the universe seem programmed, as if there really isn’t any such thing as free will at all. In that instance, it seems that Frank is just doing what he’s hard-wired to do.

But on the other hand, if you argue that sometimes Frank would make a different decision, then how would you explain the alternate decision? Remember, we’re rewinding the universe back to the exact state of affairs in which the original decision took place. So if the exact same Frank in the exact same circumstances can somehow produce alternating decisions, then those decisions don’t tell us anything about Frank. Where do those decisions come from? Do they even belong to Frank? In that instance, it would seem like Frank’s decisions are entirely random.

Granted, this thought experiment is hardly realistic, but it’s just an elaborate way of asking a question that’s actually quite simple: For any decision that you make, would you ever have done otherwise given the exact same circumstances? And either way you answer, you’ve got problems to deal with. So I think the notion of “free will,” even on a bare philosophical level, is difficult to pin down.