February 15, 2011

Debugging the Declaration of Independence

The NYT has an article about two labs at Stanford, one founded in 1963 by John McCarthy working on artificial intelligence, the other by Douglas Engelbart on intelligence augmentation. 

I don't have anything of value to add to that debate, but it reminded me of something McCarthy once said. If he were debugging the Declaration of Independence, he would have pointed out to Jefferson that, in pulling a couple of all-nighters, he appears to have made a typo by leaving out the word "in" in his most famous sentence. The Declaration reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

From logical and empirical standpoints, this first sentence would make a lot more sense with McCarthy's debugging:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, in that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. [emphasis added]

Think of how much more sensible American intellectual thought would be with that bit of proof-reading.

43 comments:

Polichinello said...

Another homousia controversy thus begins.

Anonymous said...

this is just silly and beneath you.

nobody took the declaraiotn of indepdendence to mean that all men are of equal talent

they understood the statement to mean exactly as you stated that it should have been written with the syntatical adjustments

SFG said...

I don't know. It's kind of hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone living 200 years ago with that level of exactitude. There's no evidence Jefferson believed in blank-slatism, but he was primarily writing a political document, not a scientific one, and who knows what he was thinking at the time?

Simon in London said...

I guess if the Founders had foreseen the rise of Communism, they would have stuck that "in" in.

Anonymous said...

Make "equal" to "roughly equal" and you'd have a better expression of political thought at the time, and a better and more informative empirical fact than McCarthy's.

Anonymous said...

"...who knows what he was thinking at the time?"

If Jefferson were in a habit of dropping prepositions I suppose that would be evident in the body of his writing.

James Madison said...

What a lot of arrogant, errant nonsense. The two of you should stick to your knitting. Just because somebody doesn't say what you want them to doesn't give you the right to rewrite it to suit your own concerns, much less to criticize someone who's a far better writer and thinker than you could ever aspire to be.

Jefferson is going from the most general to specifications of that though in the three that-clauses. First, all people are equal. Next, one aspect of this equality is the possession of inherent rights deriving from God, which no one may take away. Finally, a specification of which among those rights are relevant to the issue at hand.

Having the audacity to suggest that Jefferson was mistaken in the way he composed that sentence at all, not to mention putting forward the trivial and specious "explanation" that he made this supposed mistake because of an "all nighter," is disgraceful.

Though Jefferson didn't include it for obvious reasons, another one of those inherent rights would appear be the right to make a fool of oneself. The two of you would do well to take the advice attributed to Lincoln and not speak about such matters at the risk of being thought fools rather than write something as absurd as this and remove all doubt. You'd be lucky if you had one tenth the intellect that Jefferson had.

Good thing it was Jefferson and not the fabled team of McCarthy and Sailor who wrote the Declaration of Independence or we'd all be singing God Save the Queen today.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if this was a serious post of not, but on the chance that it was, I'm pretty sure that Jefferson did not accidentally leave out the word "in".

He is clearly ( to me ) using the prose device of starting several clauses with the same word, in this case "that".

Sleep Position, Learning, and Memory said...

It seems to me that if you put "in that" then you sort of defeat the beginning of the sentence where they Jefferson describes these "truths" as "self-evident." Writing "in that" is explanatory and thus it suggests such truths are not self-evident. I'm a computer programmer but I don't think it needs to be debugged but rather that Jefferson is a slightly deeper thinker than McCarthy.

Steve Johnson said...

SFG -

Other than that the phrase "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was cribbed from John Locke - the man who fully articulated a theory of the human mind as blank slate.

Which is kind of a lot of evidence for that proposition, actually.

Steve Sailer said...

Jefferson didn't write "self-evident," he wrote "sacred." Franklin changed "sacred" to "self-evident."

Glaivester said...

I think that all these comments decrying Sailer miss the point. He is simply saying that we have misinterpreted the meaning of "born equal" as it was meant in the Declaration, and is pointing out that adding the word "in" would clarify for the modern audience what the "equality" that Jefferson was referring to actually entailed.

James Kabala said...

Mr. "Madison" should have minded his manners, but his basic point is correct. The two clauses are supposed to state separate but related truths. The key word is not self-evident but truthS, plural.

Anonymous said...

"Good thing it was Jefferson and not the fabled team of McCarthy and Sailor who wrote the Declaration of Independence or we'd all be singing God Save the Queen today."

Hmmm. Never considered that Sailer was anything other than a high IQ great grandson of peasants. Does he have some sort of generations long pedigree?

BTW, isn't it more important what Jefferson was thinking when he wrote the word "men"? Women didn't have the vote and males of African descent weren't considered men or citizens.

The Wobbly Guy said...

Does it change our understanding of the entire sentence? Would the meaning be any different to the average person on the street?

No difference?

Then why are we even talking about this minutiae?!?

Anonymous said...

A nod to Locke, but writing before Freud or Franz Boas ... no need to state what's is self-evident ;-)

This was simply to brush away the idea of nobility of birth -- and doing away with royalty -- not to contradict common sense and everyday observation.

The tragedy of our times ... with more and more data, but less and less sense, we've actually gotten dumber.

Steve Sailer said...

Obviously, the "endowed by their Creator" bit makes more sense with Jefferson's original "sacred" than with Franklin's substitution of "self-evident."

Fred said...

I think you finally found something in that document the liberals would not want to change/creatively interpret.

Chuck said...

"There's no evidence Jefferson believed in blank-slatism...

Rather, there's evidence that he disbelieved in it -- at least disbelieved in the blank-slatism that Steve's alluding to. (Notes from the State of Virginia, query 14.)

Anonymous said...

If I were proof-reading that now, I'd put a colon after "self-evident", but I don't know if that would have seemed correct in the 18th century. As for what exactly Jefferson could have meant by "equal", his Notes on the State of Virginia are pretty enlightening. He thought that the gap between whites and blacks was so large and permanent that the two races could not coexist with each other long-term at all. It's very clear if you read it that he would have come down on the nature side of the modern nature-nurture controversy.

Kylie said...

"Think of how much more sensible American intellectual thought would be with that bit of proof-reading."

Only until the leftists got hold of it. They would have found a way around it just as they have with everything else not worded to suit their specific agenda.

Luke Lea said...

Change the wording of the single most beautiful sentence in the English language?

As written I interpret it to mean that everyone's happiness is equally important in the eyes of a just God who, like a good parent, loves all his children equally, and therefore our government should be guided by the same principle with respect to its citizens.

Basically your idea of citizenism.

Anonymous said...

the DoI was marketing propaganda, part of the bait and switch con job pulled by the aristocrats. They promised democracy and gave the working class the undemocratic constitution

-cryofan

Difference Maker said...

It seems to me that if you put "in that" then you sort of defeat the beginning of the sentence where they Jefferson describes these "truths" as "self-evident." Writing "in that" is explanatory and thus it suggests such truths are not self-evident. I'm a computer programmer but I don't think it needs to be debugged but rather that Jefferson is a slightly deeper thinker than McCarthy.

Yes, this is a reading comprehension problem.

However, given the sacred legal exercise of finding loopholes, its popularity with certain minorities, and the grave consequences for this nation, a precise and delineated form also comprehensible 200 years later sure would have helped. A lot

Walter McGrain said...

The point behind the anecdote is that unimaginative machine learning - and perhaps the kind of thinking embodied by the implementers of such - fails to "understand" the poetical element of Jefferson's writing.

Jefferson was obviously more concerned with the metrical flow of the "that" clauses than with the dry application of grammatical rules - something a machine might value over beauty.

dearieme said...

Trying to construe Jefferson is like trying to construe Goebbels - rather pointless. They were salesmen making their pitches, that's all.

Whereas trying to construe The US Constitution would be time well spent, if there were any reason to think that SCOTUS would be interested in what it said.

DavidB said...

If you amend the text in the way proposed, what does the plural word 'truths' refer to? In the original text it refers to the three following propositions. In the amended text, what?

Incidentally, did Jefferson intend readers to infer that black slaves are not 'men', since otherwise they would be covered by the 'inalienable' right to liberty?

Bud said...

I'm more bothered by Jefferson's use of the masculine pronoun. Smash the patriarchy!

Anonymous said...

Steve wrote
Obviously, the "endowed by their Creator" bit makes more sense with Jefferson's original "sacred" than with Franklin's substitution of "self-evident."

True, but "self-evident" is stronger rhetorically than "sacred and undeniable". It changes a article of faith to a statement of fact. Ben was probably the best editor of his generation and he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing.

Anonymous said...

Folks, Leftist judges have interpreted no-quota clauses to mean ... affirmative action... do you really think an 'in' would change ...anything?

To illustrate how far they are wiling to bend reality to fit their globalist agenda, nearly every Western European nation has some series of articles, documentaries, commentaries and news stories touting the idea that they (england, sweden, whomever) were always a 'nation of immigrants" and diverse.

sykes.1 said...

The word "in" does not change the meaning of the sentence.

Anonymous said...

This is so stupid. This guy McCarthy has a tin ear. The Declaration was just that something declared - i.e. a public statement. It was meant to be read in public - and it was. The cadence and meter mattered.

I might point out that "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears" make no physiological sense. Ears are attached. So Antony should have said "Friends, Romans, and my countrymen, please listen carefully".

Albertosaurus

Luke Lea said...

Apropos my interpretation above, no one raised the objection that what is "equal" for all citizens in one country might be inconsistent with what is "equal" in the world at large (ie, God's view might not be America's view).

Since discussions rarely get to this point I will raise it myself. The answer is that this inconsistency is apparent but not real -- provided social policies in a "rich" country are correctly designed. Immigration and trade policies are two examples, but to keep it short for purposes of illustration let's just consider trade.

Is free trade inconsistent with the welfare of the American people? As practiced now clearly it is. But in theory it is not. Why not? Because of the principle of compensation, which we ignore at our peril. To do it right it is necessary to compensate the losers out of the gains of the winners. That amounts, in this case, to taxing capital for the benefit of labor.

But, you say, we don't know how to do that, at least not in a way that is fair and efficient. The progressive income tax is certainly not efficient because it penalizes entrepreneurship, savings, investment, and hence future growth and welfare.

However, we know in principle how to circumvent this problem. It was worked out a long time ago by Irving Fisher. It is called a progressive consumption tax, or more accurately, a graduated expenditure tax. I am not going to go into the technical details except to say that it is rougly like allowing unlimited contribution to IRA accounts with no penalties for early withdrawals.

There are two practical problems of implementation however -- so severe that until recently they were insurmountable. One was simply book keeping. But that's been solved by computers and the internet.

The other is the need to register all bank and brockerage account not just in this country but around the world. (That's because we have an international financial system with, currently, tax havens hidden around the world.)

In other words, to implement a graduated expenditure tax requires the cooperation of all our major "rich" allies overseas, especially Europe and Japan. If that seems unlikely remember they need to collect their taxes too.

The bottom line: there are no national solutions to our problems of trade. To get "equality" in America requires "equality" in places like Europe and Japan. Only then can there be an efficient program of trade and investment to speed the development of poor countries overseas.

This is a truncated argument hastily stated. But I've spent a lifetime on it, I know my economics, and believe me it is right. Research it yourself and forgive my typos. I'm old and half blind.

Anonymous said...

Don't get too bogged down in the details. This is just the means that some anal retentive & cowardly nerds are using to transform the constitution without actually having to come up with their own comprehensive document delineating powers, rights, etc.

So much easier to be a critic than a founding father, eh?

And how this is unworthy: What happens is the constitution is cratered in areas in which what may be no more than stylistic differences from one era to another are picked apart for minutiae. What is written is no longer what is meant while leaving all kinds of inconsistencies in which yet another part of the constitution will bear out what was originally meant. How and when these commas and clauses will be deployed will also be idiosyncratic. Strict constructionism, however, is possible if you stick with the letter & the obvious intention.

Yet these geniuses who think they have some right to lord it over the rest of us due to test scores, attending certain schools or plain chutzpah would balk at the thought of having to create a constitution while focusing on that level of detail. Not only would the document not get approved by the majority of lawyers who peruse it, once the rest of us got wind that clauses and commas were being employed to make us second class citizens, we'd certainly react to the extreme.

This puts me in mind of some Ivy League Asian immigrant type who insisted that comma placement meant Americans didn't have the right to own guns. Yet centuries after the writing of the constitution no one had bothered to remove all the firearms from all the citizenry. Stupid Americans, takes this Asian guy to come along in 2000 or so to set you straight about your rights.

OK, I'm done with my rant for now. Let's suffice to say that language is necessarily ambiguous so looking closely at a sentence or paragraph will get you considering other possible meanings. What matters is what most English speakers believed was intended at the time. The following hundred years or so of acting on those beliefs is of no little import in interpretation either.

Language is ambiguous, therefore, there is no separating text from context in interpretation.

Dave R. said...

The missing "in" isn't the most important error to me. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was originally "life, liberty and property" - itself a well-known phrase, but they went with prose over principle and really messed up later American thought.

Anonymous said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you know Latin--as Jefferson did--you'd realize that the "that" phrases are all noun phrases and that all the "thats" add up to the "these" in the first phrase. Adding "in" would completely ruin the structure of Jefferson's writing.

The "thats" are also in a hierarchy: 1) The Creator granted certain rights; 2) Some of them are.... 3) There is a certain type of government that works with the Creator to preserve those rights; and 4) There are governments that destroy those rights and in turn may be destroyed by their subjects as they seek to restore the natural order intended by the Creator.

It's a beautiful and beautifully constructed piece of writing that shouldn't be messed with by people who don't understand the language--however clever they may be in wiring complex machines together.

Gene Berman said...

Well, I won't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to pedantry (which subsumes anti-pedantry, as well)and I concur with those who find the addition of "in" to be just a bit more explanatory, thus both restrictive and dismissive (of readers' intellect), and, therefore, wholly unnecessary.

Nor do I believe the more restrictive form expresses Jefferson's belief on the subject any more thoroughly nor that such difference would have escaped attention from any number of other intellects who'd probably "had a
crack at it" before final draft.

Nor do I believe that Jefferson (and many others) held any such belief as that other races (black, in this case) were not men nor were differently-entitled to the "self-evident" rights: blacks were not the only group to whom some of the expressions of such rights (liberty, property, the franchise) were denied for some time. The reasons for the Revolution were one thing (and needed expression); the "facts on the ground" were quite another. (Nor were there doubts in any quarter that those major contradictions would, one day, be arbitraged; most simply did not expect such process to lead, as it did, to civil war.)

Jefferson explained (somewhere) that his continued slave-holding was (and intended as) a benefit to those unfortunates, who, if freed, would be subject to harassment and injury by the majority. I will not find fault with anyone who finds such claim self-serving--of course it was. At the same time, his slaves enjoyed extraordinary (for the times) privileges: regular work hours, freedom to come and go when "off duty," and freedom to contract as labor for cash hire with neighbors on their own account, and to "shop" where they might (the local general store ran charge accounts for some, whose tastes ran to imported crystal and Wedgewood chinaware). There's simply no sense or profit to the endless debate about such matters in which we have the benefit of so much hindsight.

Everyone (at the time) argued their own perceived interest. The South wanted slaves counted fully as "men" for the census and the apportioning of representation; it was the North who held out for the "3/5 rule" to diminish political clout of the South (and I never heard of anyone soliciting black expression on the matter: they'd most assuredly have voted to be "3/5" for such purpose). The South favored immediate suppression of the slave trade (making their own live, breeding stock a source of monopoly rent); the North (where most American slave-traders and transporters actually resided) were intent on (and achieved) delay of passage of such laws for some decade or so.

Remember the general played by Alec Guinness in "Khartoum?" I forget the guy's name but he (already retired) went expressly (at the urging of his friend, William Wilberforce--leading abolitionist and author of "Amazing Grace"--for the purpose of suppressing local slave trade. No matter how diligently he pursued such mission (which cost his life), he expressed privately (in letters) that the cognitive deficiency of most natives was so great that their best hope for mere survival was as slaves to a kind master.

I don't pretend to know "right and wrong" in such matters. If I had to "boil down" my observation of the characteristic error to which humans (and especially those who call themselves "liberals") are
prone, it would be this: to simplify that which is actually complex or even unknowable and to complicate enormously that which should be (and actually is) quite simple.

That's my opinion and I'm stickin' to it; of course, I could be wrong. (Dennis Miller doesn't say it any better.)

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad Jefferson used 'happy-' than 'gay'.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Steve, stop being funny. Even TANSTAAFL, that card, thinks you try to hard to be funny.

Anonymous said...

what about this phrase from Magna Carta: And if anyone die indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; and if any children of the deceased are left under age, necessaries shall be provided for them in keeping with the holding of the deceased; and out of the residue the debt shall be paid, reserving, however, service due to feudal lords; in like manner let it be done touching debts due to others than Jews.

ben tillman said...

Actually, if you know Latin--as Jefferson did--you'd realize that the "that" phrases are all noun phrases and that all the "thats" add up to the "these" in the first phrase. Adding "in" would completely ruin the structure of Jefferson's writing.

I'm not sure why you need to know Latin to realize that, but you are of course correct otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Remember the general played by Alec Guinness in "Khartoum?" I forget the guy's name but he (already retired) went expressly (at the urging of his friend, William Wilberforce--leading abolitionist and author of "Amazing Grace"--for the purpose of suppressing local slave trade
Huh? WIlberforce was never in Khartom, it was Chinese Gordon (played by C. Heston in the movie, unless there is a different movie) and it was John Newton, not Wilberforce that wrote Amazing Grace.
Grade: d-