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Katie van Schaijik

A personalist pet peeve

Jul. 13, 2009, at 10:41am

I am just now reading an address by Archbishop Chaput on Catholics and the media about which I’ll have more to say soon. For now I just want to mention a personalist pet peeve of mine. It is the propensity seen everywhere lately to use the computer metaphor “hardwired” to refer to human nature, the sexes, or individuals. A friend of mine described her husband to me as “wired” to love fast cars. Men are frequently said to be “wired” to respond sexually to female flesh. Women are “wired” to love babies. It’s everywhere. The Archbishop does it in this address:

The great Jesuit defender of the American experiment, John Courtney Murray, argued that the natural law – the idea that human nature is hardwired with universal, basic understandings of right and wrong – gave all Americans a common language for their democracy, regardless of their creed.

I dislike it. I find it misleading, degrading, depersonalizing. Computers are inorganic and unfree. Persons, are genitum, non factum. Begotten, not made. And it is of the very essence of our nature and dignity (confer Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture) that we have spirituality; that we are open to the world as it is, that we are capable of relating to it in truth and through freedom. We don’t find murder evil because we are “wired” to find it evil—as if we might have been wired otherwise by some omnipotent techie in the sky. We find it evil because it is evil and we have been endowed by our Creator with the moral and intellectual power to recognize it as such.

Not “wiring”, endowments. Gifts. Powers.
Let’s take care to cherish and promote human dignity in small matters as well as large.


Scott J • Jul 13, 2009 - 5:45 pm

We find it evil because it is evil and we have been endowed by our Creator with the moral and intellectual power to recognize it as such

I think this is exactly what Archbishop Chaput meant with his “hardwired” term. I agree it is not, strictly speaking, a highly accurate term. However, note that he did not say we are “hardwired” to see murder as evil, but, to understand right from wrong. So, we are oriented to prefer “the good” from all that is “not good” (i.e. evil). I think he simply used the term “hardwired” because it is commonly used and is perhaps more readily understood than a more accurate but also more abstract and subtle term.

It might be interesting here to point out that the language of the Bible (especially OT, pre-Wisdom literature) often uses concrete, tangible images from the non-personal world that would have been familiar to a contemporary man, to transfer to persons.  [perhaps this isn’t the best example, but one that comes to mind now is Ps 42:1, the “panting” or “thirsting” of a deer or hind for water] But this is not to say I think “hardwired” is the best term to use; I don’t.

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 13, 2009 - 7:51 pm

I have no doubt at all that the Archbishop meant the right thing.  But I think it’s a bad, misleading metaphor.  “As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after Thee,” is an example of a good metaphor.  The deer thirsts for water, needs water.  We thirst for God, need God.
A thing that is “wired” is a thing that is, precisely, not free.  It does what the programer wants it to do.  That’s the essence of “hardwiring”.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 3:18 am

I agree. This example of a Biblical image is definitely better than “hardwired.” But, the latter does convey the idea (prescinding from the impersonal, unfree aspect which is not helpful) that the desire or orientation for doing the right thing is present in all human beings. I think this aspect is what the Archbishop was aiming at—the universality of our yearning for the good.

Also, your objection Katie is especially effective if one presumes “hardwired” would describe the entire brain. However, one could take “hardwired” to mean only a teeny weeny little circuit somewhere in the midst of the otherwise not hardwired brain, sort of like a tiny compass, that merely provides a stable reference point, indicating “desire the good act” so that the rest of the brain always has it to then use in a free way. A small hardwired chip in the midst of otherwise unconstrained brain circuitry is not necessarily incompatible with free thought.

[I pursue this last train of thought mostly for fun! :) I don’t think it is especially significant. I don’t really disagree with the substance of your point, Katie.]

Katie van Schaijik • Jul 14, 2009 - 8:28 am

I agree it’s not very important, just a pet peeve of mine.
About your second paragraph, I disagree.
It’s a question of what an analogy is and how it works.  (This would be a fascinating philosophical study all its own.)

If I say, “God is my rock”, I mean to say that, like a rock is firm, solid, unmoving, so is God.  If I said, “God is my fortress,” I mean to say that He protects me from marauding enemies.  If I say, “He is the Good Shepherd,” I am emphasizing His tender loving care, and His watchfulness over us.  If I say Jesus is the “morning sun,” I refer to His power to dispel darkness. 

An analogy is all about drawing attention to the essential quality of a thing to indicate that this essential quality is present in a different way in another order of being. 

The essential quality of “wiring” is that it is inorganic and unfree. It’s a bad (and highly unpoetical) image for the moral life, because almost the core truth of persons (especially when it comes to the moral life) is freedom.

Scott J • Jul 14, 2009 - 5:16 pm

Well! I agree completely Katie with what you say about analogies.

We disagree as to specifically what aspect of the “hardwired” analogy is that essential quality of the thing being used for comparison.

I just think that the relevant essential quality is not the aspect of being inorganic, but, rather, specifically that aspect that denotes being universally and unchageably present (i.e. “built in”) in all iterations. In computer lingo, there are two basic types of “wares” so-to-speak. Software and hardware. The specific difference between them is that software is easily changeable; all that is required to change software is to change the contents of the memory of the computer (which is made to be easily emptied and changed) . With a software change, nothing of a permanent physical nature has to be altered. However, hardware is “hardwired.” It has traits that are determined by physically permanent structures. If hardware is to be changed, one has to physically alter various physical aspects of the component.

So, thinking in terms of computer lingo and what makes hardware (as opposed to software) “hardwired,” it seems to me that the most distinguishing element is the permanence and universality of something wired into hardware. The distinguishing feature of software is its non-permanence and the ease with which it can be altered. Just sayin’! :)

(Oh, and isn’t it true in some sense that we are “unfree” from the basic, universal human orientation to prefer right from wrong? This of course does not remove the personal freedom of our individual acts. In fact, it makes personal ownership of human action possible. Without a stable reference, there is no constantly applicable responsibility.) So, from a certain point of view, the “hardwiring” of our moral preference for right over wrong has to be unfree lest it not be able to serve as a foundation for a universally applicable moral law.

Matthew Chominski • Jul 14, 2009 - 1:44 pm

I too find references to human beings in technological and mechanistic terms troubling and erroneous. It is especially annoying when I find myself doing it.

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