04 July 2009


Language and The Fourth of July

I'm not one to put a lot of faith in the magical concept of the world. I think we're wired to do that, though, so it's only with the passage of time and the adoption of good habits—like, oh, scientific method and evidence-based reasoning—that one makes a partial break with the wiring one came into this world with. So, I'm very skeptical—skeptical, not formally dismissive—of frameworks where a human—or any other kind of entity in this universe, for that matter—says something and, poof, it happens.

In my framework, matter/energy happened for reasons I think likely never to be explained, forms of matter evolved, then forms of life, then what we think of as spirit, that ensemble of attributes of a living thing that smushes all one's attitudes, dynamism (or lack thereof), vitality, empathy, love of life, life's loves, personal history, etc., into a single dimension.

Some will object that using "spirit" in this sense is not appropriate to the issue of life on this planet (or in this plane, heh heh). That "spirit" as used in a religious sense means something that transcends the physical dimensions, that exists outside the material universe. In that framework, spirit happens first, followed by matter/energy, forms of matter, life, etc. The creation stories of Genesis and the Gospel According to John are explicit about such. The spiritual being wills the Universe into existence, in the case of John, via language.

I can't disprove such a framework. I'm skeptical that any experiment could be designed which could disprove such a framework. So, an alternative likely always remains that this world exists by force of will, and use of language, by a willful, creative, empathetic entity (or entities) that observe different physics than what you or I know.

Still, I'm extremely skeptical that humans are ever empowered to influence the physical world directly by language. No invocation of spells, no "hocus-pocus, alacazam" results in a sandwich appearing beside me at this desk without time and/or the intervention of myself or other creatures. Language, as available to humans, cannot rearrange matter, cannot direct energy, in a short term. And, as you might guess, I'm skeptical that it can direct that which might exist beyond the physics you and I know to influence what happens here, which makes those folks praying each night for their number to hit on the lottery really funny.

The closest set of circumstances on this world that we have where language invocation results in direct action is in these computers, where in the simplest senses I can type symbols and expressions and statements like "1 + 1" and have the machine return "2", but where one (not me!) can also hand the machine tens or hundreds or thousands of files of characters and configure silicon to direct rockets at the capital cities of any number of nations at once.

But... (And there are always "but"s in this kind of piece, no?)

But human language clearly matters in the longer term. Our language, as well as the non-verbal forms of communication we use, consciously or not, does influence others. It enable each of us to organize our own intentions in ways that incorporates objectives and considers alternatives in more formal, maybe better, ways than the alternatives of intuition and split-second judgments (Malcolm Gladwell be damned).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence remains a striking example of how language, shared language, by framing ideals, can influence human actions. Not just empowering the patriots of the American Revolution, the words of the Declaration, the words of the first two paragraphs, particularly when given an appropriate blind eye regarding the author's slave holding and a generous interpretation regarding gender, remain inspiring to freedom-loving people (freedom-loving sentient entities?).
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.—Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.
(Thankfully, we have not only the selective interpretation of our language facility, but also our selective attention, so that we pay less attention to the list of indictments against George III and the government of Great Britain than we do to the aspirations and claims of those first two paragraphs.)

So language does matter: It does influence this physical world; it does invoke feelings in others. So each of us is responsible both in producing language and interpreting it: To choose our words carefully; to strive to understand what others mean. Perhaps a useful strategy would be to listen more, consider more, and speak less. Maybe just shutting up and listening to The Universe via one's own heart would be a better use of time than imploring God about that lottery ticket.

Constructing a social structure that maximizes freedom, incorporates majority rule, and protect minority rights is non trivial, but we've moved from a planet where brutal kleptocracy is the order of the day to one in which brutal regimes of whatever stripe are easily recognizable as outside some mainstream. Influencing change in the ones that remain is problematic, as events in Iran show. But clearly some goodly number of the people of Iran (and Myanmar and China and other locales) have aspirations of freedom and security that are more expansive, more humane, than those of their governments. (A tricky proposition: It also seems likely to me that we project our own view of what those aspirations ought to be rather than listening to what the people there see as their visions of freedom and security. Is there one vision of "humane"?)

Hopefully, with time, those dreams will be realized.

Maybe over the perspective of many years, a perspective likely unavailable to each of us, the impact of language is as instantaneous as the push of a button launching hundreds of missiles.

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