In “Why Good Grammar?” Richard Mitchell makes this observation about the ordinary use of the mind:
As Holmes often remarked to Watson, it is not at all uncommon for the eye to see without noticing, and when the mind works like an organ of the senses, it is to be expected that it will do the same, which can perhaps be described as thinking without thinking about, without considering, reflecting, comparing, weighing, or judging. It is the condition in which the mind serves as a registry, a perpetual catalog of whatever presents itself.
He describes the mind of man as something that tends to respond rather than reflect. Like the beasts of the field, man can exist in a perpetual state of autopilot. I suppose this is something like what Behaviorism teaches. Men, like dogs, are trained to respond one way or another in response to stimuli. Mitchell might agree that it is natural for the mind of man to respond to stimuli mechanically, which seems to be the point of his comparison of the mind with other sense organs, but he would not agree that thoughts are mechanical things or even physical things at all. The “perpetual catalog” of things we see is a physical response, a real “registry” lodged in physical brain cells, but he writes that “predication,” making statements about things, only happens through language, and language is subject to grammar, “the Law by which meaning is found and made,” the medium of logic, of discernment. We have the ability to think without thinking, but sometimes, we would be better off if we would think about thinking.
Is this Eve’s mistake, I wonder? Did she think without thinking in the garden when she would have been better off thinking about thinking? I am brought to this chapter in Genesis because it addresses the issue of human knowledge. I’ve emphasized the words and phrases that appear to concern knowledge in this passage:
Now the serpent was more shrewd than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. (New English Translation, Gen.3.1-6)
Thinking without thinking, she enters a dialogue and fails to reflect on her own thoughts, her own words. She says she is tricked by the serpent, but that does not appear to be the case at all. She is simply led along the wrong path by her own natural inclination to think without thinking.
First, a confession: I have often said that the adversary told the first lie. That is a lie itself, and I’m sorry for telling it. The adversary didn’t tell the first lie: Eve did, and she did it before she ever transgressed the command given to not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The ability to lie did not come from Adam’s transgression. It was there in the garden before the transgression.
The shrewd, crafty serpent, the serpent, who considered his thoughts and words, that serpent asked Eve a question. Eve recites an answer she has heard (from God or Adam). She speaks on autopilot. She adds “must not touch it” (from Adam or herself). That is the first recorded lie, attributed to Eve. She says God said something God has not said. She lies about the word of God, a command of God. She lies by what she adds to it. This, to me, helps explain why it is so easy to get it wrong when it comes to what God says. The first temptation was not really to eat the forbidden fruit; the first temptation was to put our words in God’s mouth.
However, the serpent does also lie. He directly contradicts the reason God gives for his command not to eat the fruit. God said that they ought not eat the fruit because dying they would die. The command is not to eat. The reason is dying they would die. To undermine the command, the adversary does not give a counter command. He doesn’t have to. All he does is give a contradicting reason for the command. The command is still not to eat in the adversary’s version. The reason has changed: the reason is dying they will not die but their eyes will be opened, they will know, see, perceive, they will be like divine beings knowing good from evil. The adversary is happy to let Eve recite the command as long as he can get her to follow a different line of reasoning about that command.
The narrative moves inside of Eve at this point. What comes before is a sequence of events that are external. What follows is a sequence of events that are external, but what comes between is the narrative of what happens in Eve’s head at she begins to think about what the adversary has said, but not about her own thinking. She “saw,” perceived, considered, evaluated, reflected, and then judged the fruit as “good”; she understood that it was desirable and attractive to make her wise, to give her insight, to help her discern good from evil. She reasoned that it was good to eat what God said she was not to eat, and so she ate.
The sad irony is this: she already had what she was seeking. She already had the ability to know, to see, to judge, to perceive, to evaluate, to consider, to reflect, to weigh, and to judge things good and evil; she used that ability to transgress the command. If Eve had been thinking about grammar, about the proper relationship between the words spoken by the adversary, maybe she would have stopped to consider that God’s “dying you shall die” and the adversary’s “dying you shall not die” represented two completely different cosmologies. She would have understood that she had a choice to believe one and disregard the other. If she had paid attention to grammar, she might have questioned how exactly “dying you shall not die” is related to God knowing their eyes would be opened. She might have questioned. She might have understood.
So is it important to pay attention to grammar? If grammar helps us discern the logical relationships between our ideas, then yes, I think it is important to pay attention to grammar. It is important to pay attention to what we think.