Thank you for visiting Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. This site is not being updated on a regular basis while we are developing new projects for the future. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the videos, podcasts and articles currently available on the site.

The Table Video

Mark Baker& Gregg Ten Elshof

Free Speech: Language, Freedom, and the Soul

Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Rutgers University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
November 16, 2012

Mark Baker (Rutgers University) discusses the link between the human capacity for free action and the ability to communicate with language.


One of the capacities traditionally associated with the soul, the immaterial soul perhaps, is this capacity for freedom. Freedom of the will, and one of the ways that we take ourselves to be importantly different from computers is precisely that, that we’ve got this capacity for freedom. Can you say more about how that shows up in our capacity to use language, where does freedom show up?

Yeah. Well I think that’s exactly at the heart of what we’ve been talking about so far. So it might be programed into me that the word for chair is chair. I don’t have any freedom about that. It might be programed into me that the object of the sentence comes after the verb. I don’t really have any freedom about that. But I do have freedom about whether I talk about chairs and now we’re not. I have freedom about how I answer you, that does not seem to be programed into me.

And I think that the connection here, this whole capacity to make and form new sentences, is really just traditional fee-will applied to the area of language. But I think that that’s interesting, so that’s a convergence between the gap that we find in neurological evidence and the traditional Christian idea of what souls do, they have free will. So that just exactly where the Christian idea of the soul has power, is where there is a gap in the traditional understanding. I find that as an interesting convergence between the holes in the science and what Christianity is offering.

So why not think that our choice of sentences, say, is governed by laws. But they’re very complicated laws, so it’s hard to predict at any given moment, which sentence I’ll choose. Because the laws governing my choice of sentence are very complicated ones. You’ve argued that no, there’s good reason to think that my choice of sentence is free. In the way that my vocabulary may not be in the grammatical, may not be. Why so?

Well, I don’t know that we can just take this, I don’t think we can just, they maybe figure this out. So I don’t know if I can prove that to you. But we can do plausibility arguments. I guess the thing I was gonna say before is, I think we see our freedom of the will most clearly in our language behavior, even more clearly than other things. I suppose I have free-will in lots of ways. But we see it in our language behavior. Why? Because it’s easy to talk. And because there aren’t a lot of consequences to talk. So I may not murder my friend because of the legal consequences, but I might still curse my friend, or insult my friend or so on. So we show what’s in our hearts most fully maybe, because talking is so easy.

There’s such a wide range of things we can do. Such a wide range of things we can say. And there are fewer consequences. So I think maybe that’s the place where we see our freedom of will in the richest, fullest kind of way. Now we come to then the question of, is what I say determined by my situation? I’m sure materialist, who are convinced that that’s the only thing that could be, would say that. It’s just some very complicated process. What’s the evidence for that? So I have never been in a situation like this before in my life. This is my first view of, my first trip to The Center for Christian Thought and so on.

So I have never been in a situation like this before. So now what would you want to know about my history, or my situation or anything, that will help you predict what I’m gonna say next. It just seems you could believe that. But we’re in new situations all the time. We say unpredictable things all the time. Even if you think, oh I’m gonna say something in this general area because you read my book or whatever. You still don’t know exactly how I’m gonna say it. And you can think the more, and more I know someone, I’ve been married to my wife for over 25 years now. I know certain things that are important to her, for sure.

But can I predict more accurately exactly what she’s gonna say, word for word, and so on, how she’s gonna express that? No. It seems to me you could every fact there is to know about what somebody’s thought or said, or all the situations they’d before, you wouldn’t be any better position to predict the details of what they’re gonna say next than otherwise. So why should we believe that? I mean we should believe that if that’s what our philosophy tells us that’s the only thing it could be, then maybe we believe that. But I think to an open mind I don’t see any evidence for believing that.