Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:
1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)
As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:
5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.
What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean "He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.
The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:
9. He figuratively glowed.
But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".
Alan Turing famously devised the Turing test, which was intended to test whether a machine can think. If it could show enough behavior consistent with thinking, Turing claimed that it really does think.
Turing tests have come under quite a lot of criticism for relying on the fallacious inference from something appearing to have a certain property to the conclusion that it does have that property. Turing tests take the behavior that follows from genuine thinking to be sufficient to establish that there is such thinking, even if the same behavior can be produced by a computer program. I would take the fact that it comes from a computer program to be sufficient reason to think such behavior can occur without genuine thinking.
So the usual criticism of Turing tests is that they assume thinking is occurring just because the usual behavior resulting from thinking is occurring. While I'm not interested in diminishing that objection, it occurred to be recently that Turing tests aren't just not sufficient for thinking (things that pass the test might not be thinking). They're not even necessary (things that think might fail the test). For one thing, someone who thinks might simply refuse to comply with the test and thus could fail. But more poignantly, someone with a communication-related disorder, e.g. someone with autism and dyspraxia who is completely non-verbal, simply cannot display the behavior the test is looking for. Being unable to communicate is certainly not a sign of being unable to think.
I would argue that more harm is caused by those who take passing a Turing test to be necessary for intelligent thought than is caused by those who take passing such a test to be sufficient for intelligence. We recently attended a communication seminar for parents and educators of non-verbal and mostly non-verbal children. At one session an autistic college senior was present. He can now speak in a somewhat limited manner, but he can communicate by typing on a portable device at a level that's almost certainly far beyond what most kindergarten teachers would have ever expected if they had seen his communication level in his younger years. He had no verbal language until age 12, but because his teachers taught him to type they knew that he was able to grasp much higher levels of thought than most teachers would have even speculated. At last night's session, there was a guy with Down Syndrome and autism who, as far as I could tell, can even as an adult do little more than grunt was typing out sentences that indicate a pretty high-level grasp of some pretty abstract and complex phenomena.
With a son who can't speak much more than five syllables at a time (unless he's singing or engaging in echolalic repetition of Veggie Tales or some other TV show), we've been able to see something like this firsthand. We knew in kindergarten that he was reading fairly complex words for the level of verbal behavior we normally saw, because he'd occasionally see a word and say it. (I remember him saying "banana" one time when there were no pictures of a banana, just the word.) But it's been very hard to get him to demonstrate his intelligence with writing, until this year, with his teacher and support staff working very hard with him to get him typing. Six months ago we could get him to trace over words we wrote out with a highlighter, or we could get him to point to words sometimes on a communication device, which could then pronounce them for him (but they had to be programmed in first, since he wasn't typing them). Now he's showing reading comprehension by completing "because" clauses to answer why certain characters did certain things. It makes me wonder how much he's been wanting to be able to communicate for years but unable to get his mouth or hands to do anything to show it.
The Turing defender might now say that he is able to show it, so it's not an objection to the test, but he's only now able to show it, and there's no reason to think he just started to be able to think on this level. I suspect most teachers would have assumed he couldn't handle the level of math that he's doing (basically right on second grade level) or the vocabulary and reading that he's doing (which is, as I said, at a pretty good level for demonstrating reading comprehension, better than his older brother could demonstrate at that age). He happens to have a teacher with 25 years of experience working with kids like him, who is informed about technology and methods to get kids like him communicating. Many educators encountering a kid like him might well assume low ability levels and not work to get him to communicate. In effect, they're using a reverse Turing test and concluding that someone isn't intelligent because they can't show it in the typical ways.
In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Muslims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.
What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush's statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.