Thursday, May 8, 2008

Josh's Favorite Assignment

What is a cheeseburger? A piece of beef with cheese on a bun? What if it's soy cheese? What if the burger is really REALLY small? What if I take individual atoms off a McDonalds cheeseburger, one at a time, until there is nothing left. At what specific point did it stop being a cheeseburger? Which was the crucial atom?

The first milestone of the cheeseburger activity is to realize that the word "cheeseburger" is just a tool we use to organize our own thoughts and to communicate with each other. The fact that we have such a word does not necessarily mean that certain objects in the world actually ARE cheeseburgers and others ARE NOT. Rather, we use the word to denote a rather fuzzy collection of things. If we try to define exactly which things are cheeseburgers and which aren't, we find that language and reality do not have a 1:1 correspondence. As Korzybksi said, "The map is not the territory."

THIS IS TRUE OF MOST WORDS. Good. Asian. Conscious. Reasonable. Our private thoughts and communiques are so inextricably bound to language that we often forget that the words we use presuppose a set of categories the world is not obliged to obey. To forget this is to place undue trust in our own concepts, falling victim to false dichotomies in myriad forms. The designation of certain groups of people, for example, or even certain collections of cells, as being "human beings" has profound historical, contemporary, legal, and economic significance. Millions of fates and lives turn on the belief that words have meanings and realities beyond our own conceptualization. What if there simply "is" no such thing as a human being? What if there simply "is" no such thing as "right?"

Writing assignment (2 pages): Without using any form of the verb "to be" (e.g. is, are, am, were, was, etc.), critique ONE of the following statements: (1) "Human life begins at conception." (2) "Every American has a right to decent health care." (3) "We have an obligation to protect and preserve ecosystems."

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