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Can We Talk? Human Language as the Business End of Consciousness

Denyse O'Leary

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Recently, I wrote about the hard problem of consciousness, made much harder by the effort to reduce consciousness to a — for example — fourth state of matter. Which is somewhat like trying to reduce the U.S. Constitution to a flavor of ice cream.

Naturalism (the view that it’s material nature all the way down) hasn’t fared much better with human language than with consciousness. The problem is that the things we communicate to each other are often stuff that nature never otherwise knew. Whether it is "We hold these truths …" or "Love your neighbor as yourself," they are not the counsels of nature as such but of a specifically human nature, which we explore when we explore the human mind.

Science-Fictions-square.gifNaturalist approaches to language suffer from a superficiality that would feel more embarrassing if the basic doctrine were not so widely believed.

We do know some natural facts about language. Communication barriers tend to result in new languages. For example, people who are separated for many generations become mutually incomprehensible. There is a competing tendency for minority languages to simply disappear in the vicinity of a majority language. This is principally because most key social opportunities will be offered to speakers of the majority language.

On the other hand, there are no "primitive" languages, in the way that we can speak of "primitive" technology (knapped stone vs. high grade steel). It is possible to translate the Bible into any language, despite its ancient origin and the complexity of its tangled multi-kingdom histories and abstruse theological arguments.

Yet there is something natural about language — natural to humans, that is. It is has proven very difficult to get a foothold for a simple made-up language like Esperanto because, as a missionary who spent his life translating the Bible into dying languages pointed out to me, Esperanto was devised purely for convenience. It is no one’s "heart language." 

Some say the world looks different to speakers of different languages; others ridicule the idea. It’s hard to say. The people who use a language will tend to put their own stamp on the ideas it conveys. The world may indeed look different to them, but that’s not the word stock or the grammar so much as what they habitually use these tools to mean.

Yet one hears little of these subtle questions when one turns to naturalist accounts of language. One has just learned, for example, that the famed Noam Chomsky is in big trouble. So is Steve Pinker and Jerry Fodor. At least, according to a recent New Scientist review of a new book, The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans, attacking the idea that language is an instinct. We are told, "Whether the new view will lead to a revolution in linguistics, or whether the empire will strike back with overwhelming force we don’t yet know." It’s hard, in this case, to know what the empire would strike back against. We are still where we were. Humans learn to talk and animals don’t. Not all the argumentation or insult available to the chattering classes has ever changed this.

Not that they haven’t tried. Experts have dated the origin of human language as anywhere from half a billion to 50,000 years old (which is not specific enough to be of much use). Also, we are informed that "learning to talk is in the genes," due to the identification of the ROBO2 gene, related to the number of words spoken by children in the early stages of language development. Further, researchers have shown that when mice were genetically engineered to express the human version of a gene, Foxp2, they ran mazes much faster than other mice. ("The key finding was therefore that the humanized Foxp2 gene makes it easier to turn mindful actions into behavioral routines.")

Yet the mice still had nothing to say.

Chimpanzees, we learn, can use gestures to communicate when hunting for food:

Researchers at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center examined how two language-trained chimpanzees communicated with a human experimenter to find food. Their results are the most compelling evidence to date that primates can use gestures to coordinate actions in pursuit of a specific goal.

But so can bees. So where does this get us?

And from the BBC:

Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate.

They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a "lexicon" of 66 gestures.

The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges.

The diagrams in fact demonstrate that the animals act out what they want, equivalent to a cat rubbing one’s legs to get attention, and then running in the direction of the fridge. Yes, animals can create meaning. But the meaning they create revolves around food, territory, or sometimes, sex.

So the main problem is with the content of what animals have to say. Which is easy to discern anyway. Further, naturalism requires that the agent, the creator of meaning, be deconstructed, shown to not really exist. Which makes the problem of human language insoluble.

One aspect of the problem is that human language often includes "qualia," concepts whose overlapping meanings somehow connect all of us. Consider the word "liberty." It could mean anything from the millennial traditions of a sovereign people to releasing thousands of factory farm turkeys from a tractor trailer onto a highway, to advertise animal rights. Yet we all adjust our understanding of the word when discussing an issue at hand.

Some would rid us of qualia. W. Alex Escobar has explained that "Breaking down experiences into millions of parts may help explain consciousness." Yes, that should help us understand our memories of our late grandma’s walnut cake: Break the experience up into millions of parts.

Seriously, because language is so intrinsically human, it resists the mechanistic handling naturalism requires. I remember once being introduced to three Inuit clergy — two Inuit priests and their bishop. They were engaged in a process called "back translation" of passages from the Bible into English from Inuktitut. To ensure that the meaning of the text is preserved, the translated text is then translated back into English by third parties (in this case, themselves), and later checked by the original translator.

I happened to overhear one of the priests turn to his bishop and say, "It’s hard sometimes to work with this text. It feels alive."

Compared to the latest missives from a northern government bureau, I’m sure it certainly does feel alive. I was tempted to shout into the room, "Yes, because the person who wrote it, WAS once alive, and meant what he said."

Yes, there can certainly be a science of language but it will be more like information science, and not at all like naturalism.

Editor’s note: Here is the "Science Fictions" series (the human mind) to date at your fingertips (the human mind).

Image source: Peter Lee/Flickr.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.