Language and Thought

When I planned to write this, I wanted to start by saying that language—our ability to speak and write in a form that others can understand—is backed by a non-linguistic form of thinking. The idea is that language, the vocabularies and grammars that comprise a particular speech, are not the basis of thinking but rather a form of signaling invented specifically to communicate with others. After some additional reflection, it seems the situation is more complicated than that. It seems that some kinds of thinking require a linguistic basis.

I think most of us have had the experience of trying to say something but the exact word we want to use won’t come to mind, so we pause looking for the word. Colloquially, we may even excuse this pause by explaining that the word “is on the tip of my tongue.” Several frustrating moments pass while looking for that word that we know so well but can’t recall. Maybe we think of it. Maybe we give up and use some other word or phrase as a crutch that doesn’t quite do the job we intended. But this phenomenon is very revealing. If language were the basis of thought, how could you have a thought to express without already having the word in mind that you want to use? Clearly the situation indicates that expressing a thought, and the thought itself, are two different matters. The only way to be looking for a word to fit a need is if the need is already clearly in mind. It also suggests that there is some sort of search process intervening between a thought and the steps involved in producing the sentence that expresses it.

There are other hints that we have an inner mode of thinking that is pre-linguistic. Some people are bilingual or multi-lingual: they know and can speak more than one language. A beginner learning a new language starts by thinking in his native language and then translating to the new language. He hasn’t fully internalized the new language yet. But people who are fluent in two languages can report that they can think in either language. There is a conscious decision to speak in one or another language, and then from that point forward, they think normally but gather words and structure from the language they’ve chosen, and it all happens rather effortlessly. Speaking in Spanish, for example, is just as easy and normal as speaking in English for someone who is fluent in both languages, and there is no translation step. You just produce sentences in the desired language. This type of process is easy to understand if you suppose that thinking is the same regardless of the language and there is some final step of generating sentences that intervenes between thinking and speaking.

Looking deeper, it seems that a thought is a highly structured kind of object. I think of it like an old-style wagon wheel with spokes. There is a hub that represents the entire thought. It has no content itself; it’s merely an anchor for connecting concepts. Individual concepts are associated with the thought by creating a link, a spoke, to connect it to the hub. One of the spokes of the wheel connects a subject of the thought. Another spoke associates an action with it. Other spokes might associate an object receiving the action. Additional spokes can associate modifiers with the thought that changes the weight or sense of another spoke. When this thought occurs in the mind, it appears all at once, instantaneously. There is no process of putting the thought together that we can sense; rather, when you have the thought, all of its parts are already there.

I’m not suggesting that thoughts are physically represented in the mind as wheels of hubs and spokes. This is a symbolic way of speaking. Thoughts occur in the mind in a way that is as if it consists of a unit handle with subordinate thoughts attached. It’s a flexible structure that allows a very complicated idea to be assembled and worked with as if it were a single unit.

To speak the thought to an audience, it is necessary to take this fully formed, structured idea and translate it into a linear series of verbal elements. First the sentence must be planned using a basic grammar. The speaker decides whether it will be subject first, or a passive voice with the action first. The subject is then assembled by looking up the word in the language you’re using that names that subject, adding any necessary modifiers, and then speaking it. The process continues, assembling subsequent parts of the sentence until sometime later it has all been pushed out. In actual structure, a subject can be a secondary hub-and-spoke thing that anchors a complex subject, for example “a big cat with stripes and a black face.” In your mind you have an image of the cat, but you can’t say that all at once. Instead, you have to take that idea, the picture, and describe it to the audience using words. The process is complicated, time consuming, and requiring numerous references to memory, and this process is not perfect. If you speak too fast, you can run out of planned sentence parts before you’ve found all the words you need, so you have to pause. People throw out filler sounds like “um” and “ah” to bridge the gaps until sentence assembly can catch up. Sometimes a speaker will change the plan of the sentence midway through it, get confused, and say something that makes no sense.

The architecture of thoughts can be quite complex. The subject could be a secondary hub with spokes that associates a number of different ideas modifying the meaning, like the way a house can be a red house, with a porch, and a garage, and a second story with dormers. Similarly the action can be a hub and spoke arrangement that pulls together a number of different ideas to represent a detailed, complicated action. The more elements in this hierarchically structured thought, the more words it will take, and time it will take, to produce a sentence to communicate it.

This general scheme supports the experience we have of thoughts that pop into the mind whole, already full of references and meanings. In general, we can say the mind thinks in “meanings,” not in words. Pictures would be a type of meaning but other types of meanings can be more abstract. In any case, by thinking in meanings, the complicated business of assembling sentence structures can delay all that work which has nothing to do with the thought itself, and it also delays the choice of which language to use to say it. Such a model reflects the difference between the intent of the thought itself and the complicated linguistic details of creating sentences to express it; by keeping them separate, thinking is faster, simpler, and more economical.

There is one aspect of this puzzle that I haven’t worked out yet, and it is this: Why do people talk to themselves silently, in the mind? If it’s true that thinking is mostly pre-linguistic, which is supported by the kinds of mistakes we make in speaking—the defects in the process illuminate some of the nature of the process—then it would seem that thinking in words would be unnecessary, just adding extra work to the business of thinking. And yet there are problems where some sort of verbalization process in the mind seems essential to working it out. I would like to explain why such a verbalization process helps, but I don’t quite see the answer yet.

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Of Minds, Brains, and Rocks

Finally finished with her morning duties, Sandy rushed out to her car, slid into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and backed out of the driveway. They were having a great sale on women’s shoes at “Tootsy Treats” today, up to 50% off on select footwear, and she was thinking of some summer sandals and something fancy for the party next month on Jack’s birthday. She mentally reviewed her credit card status. There should be several hundred dollars of credit left to fund her shopping spree.

This scenario is typical of the kinds of thoughts that might run through a person’s head when setting out from the house to do some chores. Notice the kind of objects involved. There is a car, a store, shoes, something called a “sale” that involves shoes, a credit card, a credit card balance, and a husband. None of these objects are the kind of things one finds in a brain. There is no mention of neurons, ganglia, axons and dendrites, lobes, synapses, transmitter and receptor chemicals. Even if there were, we wouldn’t know what to make of it. Such objects are completely extraneous to Sandy’s actions. The fundamental explanation of Sandy’s behavior has nothing to do with stimulating certain neurons and activating specific receptors. Her purpose is to buy shoes, and shoes have nothing to do with neurons. All of these items are defined by social conventions and a modern economic society, not by the science of physics, chemistry, or even biology. Commodities are abstract elements of an economic system. Shoes are products made by laborers; they don’t grow on trees and there are no fundamental particles of “shoeness.”

This example highlights the relationship between the brain and the mind. The brain provides the basic processing services that support the operation of thought, but the thought itself comprises a completely different kind of system than the brain. All the elements of thought are drawn from experience, from the sense impressions that provide our basic knowledge of the external world, and from the complex structures of abstract thought that combine these intuitions of objects into such things as stores and the way stores work. Thoughts, in other words, are about the world outside the brain, which is actually very good, because human bodies must function in the external world and are in no sense independent of it. This kind of relationship is similar to the relationship between the paper of the pages of a book and the story written on those pages. The story doesn’t talk about the book itself, how the paper is constructed, or the chemical composition of the ink; such things are all irrelevant to the story. The story is a second level of phenomena, abstract rather than material, imaginary rather than physical. The physical parts of the book represent the story. The printing on the page is one way of representing the story. There are others. The same printing might occur in another copy of the book. This is usually the case when books are published. The story might appear in different languages; the language is not the story any more than the paper and ink are the story.

This is a kind of dualism. The writing forms the substrate or medium. The story is the “content” or meaning of the writing. Thoughts have the same relationship to the brain. The brain provides the paper and ink to contain the story of our thoughts. Philosophers are very familiar with the material side of this relationship, but many are unsure of the other side, the meanings and content of thought since it’s not physical. In what sense do these things exist? Actually, this question is the core subject of computer science. In computer science, the study is of abstract structures like numbers, words, sequences of letters and symbols, and algorithms implemented as programs. The concepts and structures of computer science are complex and extensive, in the same way that the domain of our thoughts consists of a plenitude of concepts, but they have nothing to do with the hardware of the computer. The computer itself is a product of electronics and its operation is understood on the level of electronic circuits.

So this reveals the nature of the second “substance” of which Descartes spoke. It isn’t a substance in the material sense. I’ve even heard some philosophers speak of dualism as involving a kind of “ectoplasm,” the material that supposedly ghosts and spirits are made of. This is rubbish. The substance of thought is wholly abstract, made of the same kind of stuff as numbers, geometry, points and planes, data structures, algorithms, computer programs, and music, art, literature and science itself. Science is an abstract construct consisting of complex, intricate structures of ideas.

Traditionally, dualism raises a question that’s supposed to be difficult to answer. Its critics ask, how does a wholly insubstantial object interact with material objects? They’re not of the same kind, so how can they affect one another? This is like asking how can energy affect matter, how can time and space have any effect on matter and energy. You might as well ask how can ink on paper generate a story when a story is not made of ink and paper? The answer is that there are rules that define the relationship. A good way to think about the problem is to consider a computer and a computer program.

Computer programs are independent entities that can exist apart from any computer. Most people are acquainted with this fact because they have to buy the program separately. It comes on a disk. You have to install it on the computer in order to use it. Programs are not part of the computer itself. Generally, when you shut down a computer, you lose all the programs and data that were running on it. If you want to keep them, you have to store this software and data on a permanent storage device such as a disk. Given that software is not computer hardware, we can ask the same question as above, how does the software direct the behavior of the computer?

Some philosophers, for example John Searle, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at UCLA Berkeley, has maintained that the problem is an artifact of language. It appears, he argues, that computer programs and data are a different kind of thing than the computer itself, but it’s only because of how we talk about it. In fact, when the computer is in operation, there are only currents of electrons shunting back and forth within it; there are no magical entities like numbers and programs. So, he argues, the computer is simply executing the familiar laws of physics. The entire field of computer science with all its terminology of data structures, rules of logic, instructions, programs and algorithms is nothing but a linguistic device by which we can abbreviate talking about the electrons moving inside the computer.

With all due respect to these materialist philosophers, this is twaddle. Part of the proof lies in the portability of programs and data. We can publish them as objects in their own right. We can store them on disks, on tape, even as notes on a piece of paper. Not so long ago, programs were represented as punched holes in rectangular cards that computers were able to “read.” The punched card representations of data and software involved no electronic media at all. It was all strictly card stock.

This independence of the message from the medium is familiar with music, too. Music can be stored on plastic disks or in computer memories and it is still music, it can be bought and sold and carried from place to place, even played on different kinds of player devices. The music is not the medium.

So given this independence of software, we still have to answer the question how such an abstract object influences a computer. The short answer is, it controls the computer. We can see the same kind of relationship between software and a computer as we see between natural laws and physical objects. The objects have to obey natural laws. These natural laws define the ways in which matter and energy can behave; it constrains them to work in only certain ways. Similarly, the whole point of software programs is to control the processing of the computer, and that’s what it does. It doesn’t matter that “control” is not a concept in physics. It doesn’t matter that “constraint” is a concept in mathematics. This is the essence of the relationship between a semantic entity and the syntactic forms it spawns.

As it so happens, this type of relationship is just exactly what we want between the mind and the human body. The mind controls the body in order to respond to the stresses of the external environment, and to meet the needs of the body for food, water, and air. The mind can be understood as the software of the brain, and just as computer software involves types of entities (data structures, decision trees, instructions) that do not exist in the computer’s hardware, so too the mind involves type of entities (memories, ideas, beliefs, fears and desires) that do not appear as physical parts of the brain.

Believe it or not, this is more to say about consciousness, but it will have to wait for the next installment.

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For Friday: Plato’s Idealism

The next Friday discussion will be held on Friday, May 19th, 2017 at 9PM ET (0100 UT) in the #Philosophical channel on Undernet. The topic will be Plato’s Idealism.

Platonic Idealism is one of the oldest of all philosophies and has had incalculable influence on not only the development of western Philosophy, but on thought in general. We will be looking at the general outlines of Plato’s philosophy through the lectures of Professor George Brooks. The first episode can be found here.

Going into the discussion, we needn’t spend a lot of time discussing whether Plato’s ideas are true or not. The question of what the world is has undergone considerable evolution since Plato’s day (ca. 400 B.C.) and any coherent discussion of such a question must consider a great many more issues besides what Plato believed, but a good place to start is, What did Plato believe? Because there is no doubt that his influence has carried forward. So the question for Friday is: What is Plato’s Idealism?

Hope to see you there.

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Our Political Leaders

I suppose the big problem with either party, the Democratic and the Republican leaders both, is that if you listen to what they promise–if you listen to what they say about themselves–it’s all going to be great. Everything they do is for you and I, the little guys of the world. They want to make jobs, they want world peace, they want prosperity for all. But it’s all bullshit. They’re lying. And most people don’t have enough experience or enough critical thinking to see through it. So we keep electing the liars… and there they are, again, today, lying while they screw every single American who doesn’t make at least $500K a year. It’s a club for the rich, and we ain’t in it.

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For Friday: Immanuel Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason

Immanuel Kant is generally considered to be the greatest philosopher of the modern era, that is, the period beginning with the 1700’s and proceeding to the current day. His first work, the Critique of Pure Reason, examined the relationship between our faculties of reason and sensibility and the real world, and lead to a conclusion that is somewhat similar in its basic character to Plato’s claim that we live inside a cave but can never leave it to see the world as it truly is. Unlike Plato’s claim, which was based on intuition, Kant proceeded through a series of arguments to establish the idea more in the nature of a proof, and in doing so, elucidated the basic faculties of reason and thought by which we may apprehend “reality,” to the extent that we do.

There is a fundamental gap between Kant’s view of our epistemological ground (basically, how we know things), and the way science and scientific knowledge is presented to us. The problem concerns what Kant called the “noumenon,” or the thing-in-itself. In Kant’s view, the thing in itself is forever beyond our reach; we can know how things seem to us but not how they really are. Science educators, however, tend to present science as a collection of facts about things in themselves, as if this is how objects and events really are.

The problem for Friday is to view a short lecture in four parts presenting the fundamentals of Kant’s ideas, and then to form a judgement of your own about this relationship, or “gap.” Do you think we can know things as they actually are? or, are we more limited, as Kant and Plato seemed to think?

The “reading” for Friday consists of the following YouTube videos:

Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 1 of 4) and
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 2 of 4) and
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Part 3 of 4) Space & Time
Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: Part 4

You may also find the interview by Bryan Magee on Kant to be interesting, although it’s not an assignment: Geoffrey Warnock on Kant

When choosing your approach, you might want to consider the following “argument:”
Most plants and leaves look green to us, so much so that it is customary to say “grass is green” and “this leaf is green.” This kinds of statements imply that green-ness is a quality of the plant material, and yet, is it really? Something looks green to us because the object reflects light, and the light it reflects predominates in the green section of the color spectrum. Thus it is green light that reaches our eyes, and so the leaf looks green to us. And yet, consider that in the absence of light, the leaf doesn’t look like anything, and in such cases, the leaf is not green; it’s dark. Further, you might wonder why it is that if the leaf absorbs red and orange kinds of light, why don’t we consider that to be what the leaf is, and not the colors it rejects? But in either case, you could admit that the light we see is not a part of the leaf at all, so in that sense, the leaf is no color at all.

So now, how do you see the leaf without color or brightness? Does this mean that you cannot see the leaf as it truly is? Can this kind of analysis be used with respect to our other senses as well?

Hope to see you Friday. Remember, the time is Friday, April 28th, at 9pm ET, or, if you’re in Europe, some four hours later. In Australia it would be Saturday morning. The place is the Undernet IRC channel #philosophical.

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For Friday: Consciousness, What is it?

I have been unable to find a good video lecture that provides an overview of the field of Philosophy of Consciousness. The best source I know of was written by David Chalmers and published in 2003, titled

Consciousness and its Place in Nature

Unfortunately for our purposes, the paper is rather long and fairly technical, so I will give a brief summary here. I would encourage you to read the discussion above if you have the time and patience.

There are a wide array of people who have studied the problem of consciousness from the standpoint of philosophy, and many of them have credentials in both philosophy and psychology. Neuroscience and neurobiology are not particularly relevant here as they are more concerned with how the physical structures in brains work than they are concerned with what it is like to be that brain, so we will focus on the philosophical aspects. Principle philosophers engaged in this question include Daniel Dennett, John Searle, David Chalmers, Ned Block, Thomas Nagel, and we could also throw in some comments by Sam Harris, and even, going back in history, David Hume. In particular, there are videos by Dennett, Searle, and Chalmers available on youtube that provide various perspectives on the nature of consciousness. The problem with them is that each one has a rather narrow focus, trying to present their own particular view of the problem and their own particular approach to it without exposing what others have said on the subject and what criticisms arise with their approach.

Philosophies of consciousness fall into four or five main categories.

Eliminativism. Eliminativists include Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland. The main argument is that there is really no such thing as consciousness. Consciousness is treated as an illusion, and dismissed as “folk psychology;” that is, a belief shared by many if not most people, and yet unsupported by factual, scientific investigation. In this approach to understanding the mind, all the work that needs to be done can be done by neurobiology and those aspects of psychology that study overt behavior. Objective analysis of evidence is the primary method of eliminativism, and it is unconcerned with subjective, personal accounts of unverifiable phenomena.

Eliminativism has not had wide success. It is popular with people who share a materialistic view of the nature of the world. It has the advantage that it dispenses with all forms of spiritualism and “the ghost in the machine.” According to the eliminativists, there is no ghost, and there is nothing going on that is not visible to an objective, external observer. One suspects the main reason why some philosophers take up this view is to support the work of neuroscience, the projects of artificial intelligence, and to avoid untidy and distracting arguments with people who think these scientific projects miss the point or lack important epistemology. This is not to say that eliminativists are not sincere. Some certainly are. Dennett’s perspective on the matter (to the extent that I understand it) is that the electrochemical, neural activity in brains makes symbolic representations of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, but in fact they are no more real than an image of a flower is a flower. No scientific instrument can find anything in brains that is not something physical.

Epiphenomenalism. This big word is essentially the belief that consciousness really does exist, there is something going on in the brain that could be called “mind” and “experience,” but it has nothing to do with what people actually do. In this view, consciousness has no causal powers. It is like a helpless observer who can watch what is happening (like, watching a movie) but there is no way for it to participate in the action. Epiphenomenalism is an appropriate approach to some other phenomena as well, for example an experienced auto mechanic can identify problems with an engine, and tell whether it’s functioning correctly, by listening to the sounds it produces, and yet it’s obvious that the sounds do not affect the engine, and the engine was never designed to produce those sounds. So this view is like saying that consciousness is a side effect of brain function, but has nothing to do with what the brain is doing.

Epiphenomenalists are not particularly interested in explaining how consciousness arises. For them, the question is roughly equivalent to studying how an automotive engine produces sounds–nobody really cares. It has nothing to do with the function and design of the engine. There is also something of a fatalist attitude toward free will, since epiphenomenalists do not think people are able consciously to influence their own actions. It’s like your awareness of things is along for the ride and all you can do is accept whatever happens.

Panpsychism. David Chalmers has at times proposed a sort of panpsychism. The term, much older than contemporary philosophy of mind, refers to the belief that there is some element of mind and consciousness in all matter; that everything has some fundamental component of consciousness. This idea goes back to thinkers including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who proposed that the fundamental unit (or “particle”) of matter was the Monad (see Monadology) and that one of its properties was intellectual content. Chalmers’ argument is that if we assume that every particle of matter has a basic element of consciousness to it, then the appearance of complex forms of consciousness in certain types of matter can be understood simply as a form of accumulation of components. The unfortunate side effect is that you have to wonder if it’s moral to mistreat your mouse pad, and what it thinks of a mousepad’s life in the Universe. This rather Douglas Adams-esque problem is rarely discussed by panpsychists, as they usually suggest that awareness, as such, only arises in the more complex combinations of “consciousness particles.”

Dualism. There are two kinds of dualism, property dualism and substance dualism. Both forms suggest that the nature of the mind is fundamentally different from the nature of matter. Under these views, consciousness both exists, and has the potential of causal interaction with the material world. Most of the philosophers who reject dualism do so on the basis that it’s unclear how anything that is non-material can causally interact with material substances. On the other hand, the idea that mind and matter are different kinds of things seems quite common and very familiar to the average person, leading to a kind of frustration for many philosophers such as John Searle, who decries the situation that everyone he speaks to in audiences seems to want to be a dualist.

The problems of dualism are not unique to philosophy of mind. There are also dualist problems in understanding how natural law regulates matter, and how geometry has any relationship to the form and shape of physical objects. This question has a more general form in philosophical discussions of the relationship between mathematics and the sciences, since mathematics, being abstract, would seem to have no binding or necessary relationship to how physical forces and objects behave; and yet mathematics is fundamental to our understanding of nature.

The great problem with dualism, as far as most professional philosophers are concerned, has to do with the way it allows some form of “spirit” (“the ghost in the machine”) to re-emerge as a component of reality. This causes an emotional conflict with the objective purity of science, and so these guys want to avoid it at all costs.

Well there you have it. Most philosophies of mind and consciousness are some form of the above views. If you would like to know more,  you might like the following lectures on YouTube:

The Magic of Consciousness by Dan Dennett (56:23)

Consciousness & the Brain by John Searle (A TED talk; 15:50)

Hard Problem of Consciousness by David Chalmers (9:18)

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For Friday: Can We Reach the Stars?

There is a lot of talk in the news lately about “exoplanets,” planets in other solar systems around other stars. “Exo-” is a prefix often used in space science to mean outside our solar system, for example “exobiology” is the study of life on other planets.

But there are two questions that have to be answered before we need even consider the question of whether we should commit the effort, the money, and the human lives that would be required to travel to other planets: Is there anyplace to go? And, How would we get there? Many exoplanets have been found; over 2,000 by the last count I’m familiar with, hundreds confirmed and thousands waiting for confirmation. Recent headlines tout the discovery of “Earth-like” planets, but what does that mean? What counts as “Earth-like?” Artists’ illustrations show these new planets with cloud cover, continents, oceans, sometimes even landscape views. How do we know what they look like?

Check out Crash Course Astronomy #27 to learn how astronomers discover exoplanets.

As you will see, nearly all of these exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means. That means we have no images of them and only scanty information about them, typically their distance from their star, their mass and size, and how long it takes for them to make one circuit around their orbit. That’s not much. It’s not enough to see coastlines, sometimes it’s not even enough to tell whether the planet is rocky, like Mars, or gaseous, like Jupiter.

But new astronomical tools are coming online all the time. The “Thirty Meter Telescope” project is on the drawing boards and the construction site has already been broken, although it won’t be until the 2020’s that it enters service. This optical telescope, over 100 feet in diameter, would be capable of taking photographs of exoplanets. So eventually we may know of places where a human settlement might be viable. How would we get there?

Check out How long to travel to Alpha Centauri? for a delightful and surprising discussion of available and proposed methods for travelling to other stars. As it turns out, even the fastest vehicles currently within our technological reach would take thousands of years to reach even the nearest star–but there are always possibilities.

So what do you think? When might human beings be capable of voyaging to the stars? Now? In ten or twenty years? Or ever?

Be prepared to discuss these issues and questions for Friday, April 14th, at 9PM ET in the #Philosophical channel on the Undernet IRC network. See you there!

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