Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Hidden Bias of Language

 

Years ago I learned that when the Scottish Enlightenment said they loved “Equality” and when the French Philosophes echoed that same sentiment, they were talking past each other. Hume and Locke wanted a voluntary equality of opportunity, while the French wanted a compelled equality of result. But there is no indication that either side understood that the same word meant different things across the English Channel. As a result, it took much longer for the rest of the world to understand the intellectual horror that was the French Revolution.

We tend to think that language is a way of communicating information. But we often miss that language, far more often than we tend to realize, also shapes how we perceive and understand information in the first place. In this respect, language forms a part of our underlying ways of thinking, which means that it also guides our words and deeds.

In conversations on Ricochet, I often encounter people who claim that logic and reason (“Athens”) is its own truth. But I think that this, too, only is possible if we are not aware of the language that we use. We think logic is universal and obvious and true and consistent with mathematics. And yet different scientific communities use different logic! Biologists and Chemists and Physicists have entirely different languages, languages that cannot be properly translated from one to the next – but practitioners are sure that they are rational and logical and right. Of course, scientists can be right and consistent – but only within their specific languages, not outside them. The Newtonian F=MA is not even directly translatable to Einsteinian physics, let alone to chemistry or the squishier studies.

Each language provides its own reality, which means that biologists and physicists live, in any way we can judge, in different worlds. Given the exact same phenomena, experts in different fields immediately diverge by finding a way to translate the data into something that their language can parse. This is both a powerful tool and one that blinds us to other possibilities.

In this way, language can be like a road – it stretches forward into the future, but simultaneously sequesters our gaze away from the rest of the possible paths all around. In sports, this would be “keeping our eye on the ball.” In business, we would call this “focusing on the KPI,” while in education this is called “learning to the test.” Every language employed by humanity probably has a shorthand expression for focusing on the primary goal to the exclusion of distractions. It is a good way to move forward, but we often ignore the cost.

As a generalist who is not within any specific technical world, I find that my conscious desire to reject the underlying assumptions of language can create a lot of friction from people who, unlike me, take language for granted.

Some time ago, for example, I pointed out that CO2 is plant food, only to be told by an intelligent and well-meaning Rico-member that plants, as autotrophs, make their own food – so CO2 cannot be plant food! This example captures exactly what I am trying to say: we are just as capable of making language obscure things, as we are to use it to illuminate. Saying that CO2 is not plant food is precisely the kind of confusion that blinds us to understanding that our categorizations and languages are really just a way of sorting things out to make them intelligible, not as a deep truths in themselves.

I have a long-running argument with a certain Natural Law enthusiast and philosopher who ended up rejecting my understanding that each person is given a divine soul (Genesis tells us that “G-d blew His spirit into Adam’s nostrils”) by saying that my claim was impossible, because it was “bad metaphysics.” It probably is – but I don’t speak metaphysics, and certainly do not assume that the language of metaphysics trumps the Torah. The language barrier between us ended that conversation, as well as others.

Elsewhere on Ricochet, I dug into a discussion with @Climacus about whether the Creator is perfect, and it became clear to me that the biggest differences between our arguments came down to the concepts found within language, specifically, the idea of “perfection.”

I think everyone here knows what “perfect” means – it is such an ingrained idea in Western Civilization. But to me “perfection” is merely a construct, a Greek-invented notion that is not found with the Torah, but which has crept into dominant use across the world. Indeed, I don’t think perfection exists, can exist, or even should exist. I wrote on this some years ago.

What amazes me is how much the mere concept of “perfection” has wriggled its way into our understanding, so much so that we are blithely unaware of how thoroughly this concept has overwritten what we might otherwise have thought about G-d.

But even for people who claim to have no religious belief whatsoever, these underlying linguistic and cultural foundations look very much like the ways in which religious practitioners believe and practice. For example, I know a prominent gay man of Jewish descent who insists on using the phrases, “crossing my fingers” and “knocking on wood.” As far as I understand it, those superstitions are how he makes sense of his world. He is far too smart to believe in G-d. But his language is functionally itself a form of religion.

When we have a road in front of us, we also fool ourselves into thinking that everything must make sense in the context of that road. Specifically, we continue to limit our thinking because we use the words we know, to describe things that we do not know. For example, “Artificial Intelligence” sounds very good – but the ways in which a digital computer works are so different from the ways in which our own minds work that when we use terms from one to describe the other, those terms come with enough baggage to deeply confuse a proper understanding. Computers do not “think” as we do, just as we do not “retrieve” data the way a computer does. And once we start mixing-and-matching in order to get some kind of a translation, then advancement can stop cold. Very complex things (like climate modeling and recognizing objects around a car) so far are beyond the most advanced computers, even though most people – even quite stupid ones – manage to drive cars safely. “Better” computers in the way we measure them are not necessarily the way across the chasm between the ways in which computers and people think.

Language can lead us in precisely the wrong direction from a useful understanding of how things actually work. When it comes to innovation, technical language has often required alien concepts in order to change. For years, for example, creating a blue-emitting LED was a holy grail. Nobody could figure it out – they lacked the language to describe what they were even trying to do, until a chemist worked it out with two electrical engineers. Neither language could get there by itself. Most of the history of human innovation, after all, is well-stocked with folly, error, and misunderstanding.

If we are not careful, the language becomes our master; it becomes an inherent (but hidden) belief system. I think that the vast majority of the decisions that a person makes has nothing to do with conscious thought processes, and much more to do with all the unconscious layers that shape the ways in which we think. In other words, unquestioned assumptions, beliefs, and presuppositions are at least as important as the things that we are aware that we have chosen to believe. We walk down a road because it is the path that is open in front of us; and in order to walk down the path, we don’t have to understand why or how it got there.

Seemingly-trivial questions, like “how do I get lunch?” or “What is that object over there?” are simple, but not because they are simple in themselves, but because we have internalized all the layers and layers of learned understanding, not just from the human form, but really from culture and language and tradition. All the things that make up society.

When we ask the same seemingly-obvious questions of someone with a different culture and language, we discover that, without even being conscious of the underlying discontinuities, people truly think differently from each other. It is patently obvious that the same person (in terms of DNA) will have a very different way of thinking if they were born and raised in a different country. The language and worldview of India and Ghana and Lichtenstein and New Jersey are quite contradistinctive, leading to different answers to presumably obvious questions. And that is just with squishy humans: computers do not even know where to begin when presented a question like, “how do I get lunch?”

It is hard to question our assumptions, and harder-still to question our presuppositions, the underlying belief system that allows us to function. Still, it is both helpful and illuminating to make the effort, if only to come closer to making sure that the things we believe are conscious decisions, as opposed to merely being inherited as part of our culture or upbringing. This is, as I hope I have explained, much more than merely a “Eskimos have 35 words for snow, and so they think about snow more seriously than we do” kind of thinking. At least snow is a thing, while the concepts of things like “truth” and “perfection” and “consciousness” are much important to our civilization, while being, at the same time, far harder to isolate in (and perhaps remove from) our thinking.

This kind of blithe ignorance about the different languages that we use makes it very difficult to move forward. It is not easy to get out of the linguistic-cultural boxes that we each inhabit. But I believe that we must try to do so, in order to save and advance civilization.

[Mostly iWe, with significant kibitzing from @susanquinn]

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There are 24 comments.

  1. MarciN Member

    This is a brilliant essay.

    What you’ve described lies underneath the hideous and all too prevalent moral relativism that has plagued humanity since we could talk.

    • #1
    • January 12, 2020, at 9:23 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Your citing of the term “perfect” is, I think, (and forgiving the pun) a “perfect” example.

    This morning our priest reminded us that many people conflate “perfect” with “complete”, and they are not the same thing. This was in the context of Adam and Eve – yes they were made perfect, but they were not complete, GD created them for relation with Him, and relation is growth, learning.

    • #2
    • January 12, 2020, at 10:06 AM PST
    • 13 likes
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Reaching for perfection is such a debilitating process. I don’t believe in perfection, either. I tell people I’m a recovering perfectionist. When I was a perfectionist, I was never happy; nothing was ever good enough, because–of course–perfection can never be achieved by human beings. And when we expect ourselves to be perfect, we expect it of everyone else. And they hate us for it. It is a most disagreeable expectation.

    Instead, I strive for excellence, and even then I don’t always get it. Sometimes, in some circumstances, there is just good enough. And that’s perfect!

    • #3
    • January 12, 2020, at 10:11 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    As @marcin said, brilliant. Thank you!

    • #4
    • January 12, 2020, at 10:15 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge

    It is difficult to express thoughts precisely with language. Partly that is because thoughts are fuzzy things. Also, language and culture are inseparable. Culture is a collection of thoughts and language builds on those collections we hold in our heads. Keep that in mind, when you use Google translate.

    FYI, the Scottish Enlightenment has a special definition of “happiness”, which is key to the Declaration of Independence. It does not mean “joy” or “delight”. Instead, “true happiness in the ancient sense of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, which was to be achieved through a life of virtue, and which had both private (pertaining to an individual person) and public (pertaining to the community) applications.” That is, your happiness comes from utilizing your God-given talents to helping your community flourish. 

    Read more here: https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_jurisprudence/vol7/iss2/6/

    A short read on Francis Hutcheson here: https://www.iep.utm.edu/hutcheso/

     

    • #5
    • January 12, 2020, at 10:41 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  6. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Instead, I strive for excellence, and even then I don’t always get it. Sometimes, in some circumstances, there is just good enough. And that’s perfect!

    One of my favorite professors in Engineering (in a class on optimization techniques) used to say “In school, you learn to optimize, but in the real world, you need to “satisfize” and move on.”

     

    • #6
    • January 12, 2020, at 10:43 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  7. PHCheese Member

    Here is a little trick I have been using for years. Whenever I am in a conversation and can’t think of a word that I would like to use, I pause and explain that I can’t think of the word in English. Instead of thinking I am an idiot people think I’m bilingual rather than word challenged.

    • #7
    • January 12, 2020, at 11:56 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  8. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe:

    I have a long-running argument with a certain Natural Law enthusiast and philosopher who ended up rejecting my understanding that each person is given a divine soul (Genesis tells us that “G-d blew His spirit into Adam’s nostrils”) by saying that my claim was impossible, because it was “bad metaphysics.” It probably is – but I don’t speak metaphysics, and certainly do not assume that the language of metaphysics trumps the Torah. The language barrier between us ended that conversation, as well as others.

    I rejected your language because it was unclear, sometimes self-contradictory, and–above all–unbiblical.

    I never said it was bad metaphysics. Other things you said were bad metaphysics.

    • #8
    • January 12, 2020, at 1:18 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Great post, iWe.

    There’s a next step in your analysis, which is to apply it to “political correctness.” It seems to me that PC is an Orwellian project, aimed at controlling our thoughts by controlling the language that we use. Often, the method is to insist that truthful and descriptive language is impolite, or offensive or hateful, or even the ludicrous claim that such language is actually violence.

    This is one of the main reasons that I strongly resist the use of propagandistic language, especially when that language is promoted by the Left. Never call them “progressive” or “liberal.” They are neither. Never give in to the language of the homosexual and transgender activists, whether it is their tragic hijacking of the once-lovely word gay or the insistence on the use of the wrong pronoun, or a different pronoun, or that I must call Bruce Jenner Caitlyn.

    • #9
    • January 12, 2020, at 2:37 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    iWe:

    I have a long-running argument with a certain Natural Law enthusiast and philosopher who ended up rejecting my understanding that each person is given a divine soul (Genesis tells us that “G-d blew His spirit into Adam’s nostrils”) by saying that my claim was impossible, because it was “bad metaphysics.” It probably is – but I don’t speak metaphysics, and certainly do not assume that the language of metaphysics trumps the Torah. The language barrier between us ended that conversation, as well as others.

    I rejected your language because it was unclear, sometimes self-contradictory, and–above all–unbiblical.

    Just for the record, I categorically reject that my language was unclear, self-contradictory or unbiblical.

    I never said it was bad metaphysics. Other things you said were bad metaphysics.

    I lack the time to find where you called what I said “bad metaphysics,” but my recollection was that it was specifically on this point.

     

    • #10
    • January 12, 2020, at 2:38 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Saint Augustine Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    I rejected your language because it was unclear, sometimes self-contradictory, and–above all–unbiblical.

    Just for the record, I categorically reject that my language was unclear, self-contradictory or unbiblical.

    Of course you do. You’re wrong about that too. We can talk about why if need be.

    I never said it was bad metaphysics. Other things you said were bad metaphysics.

    I lack the time to find where you called what I said “bad metaphysics,” but my recollection was that it was specifically on this point.

    Try here, but especially here. (But don’t forget here. You often get right what William James gets right.)

    • #11
    • January 12, 2020, at 3:23 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    “Perfect” = TBTWNGILP? [That Being Than Which No Greater Is Logically Possible]

    • #12
    • January 12, 2020, at 9:01 PM PST
    • 1 like
  13. Mark Camp Member

    You write

    iWe:

    Years ago I learned that when the Scottish Enlightenment said they loved “Equality” and when the French Philosophes echoed that same sentiment, they were talking past each other. Hume and Locke wanted a voluntary equality of opportunity, while the French wanted a compelled equality of result. But there is no indication that either side understood that the same word meant different things across the English Channel. As a result, it took much longer for the rest of the world to understand the intellectual horror that was the French Revolution.

    So the Scots misunderstood what the French wrote, because of an undetected lack of common definitions: some writers used “equality” to mean one thing and some readers thought the writers used it to mean something else.

    It’s an interesting historical example of the everyday human error of semantic confusion.

    You then wrote

    We tend to think that language is a way of communicating information.

    Were you suggesting that the existence of errors in the use of language to communicate information implies that humans don’t use language to communicate?

    • #13
    • January 13, 2020, at 7:26 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. Ontheleftcoast Member

    But to me “perfection” is merely a construct, a Greek-invented notion that is not found with the Torah, but which has crept into dominant use across the world. Indeed, I don’t think perfection exists, can exist, or even should exist. I wrote on this some years ago.

    And there you wrote:

    But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result.

    Or perhaps not. The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect… (Deut 32:4)

    The word translated there as “perfect” is tamim.

    You are absolutely correct about the limitations of language, however. Our wetware seems to be incapable of simultaneously grasping immanence and transcendence, and that is necessarily reflected in the imperfections of all human language.

     

    • #14
    • January 13, 2020, at 8:24 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

     

    We tend to think that language is a way of communicating information.

    Were you suggesting that the existence of errors in the use of language to communicate information implies that humans don’t use language to communicate?

    I think al I am saying is that while we use language to communicate, we are often unaware of all the baggage with language that lead to misunderstanding.

    • #15
    • January 13, 2020, at 8:43 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. iWe Reagan
    iWe Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result.

    Or perhaps not. The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect… (Deut 32:4)

    The word translated there as “perfect” is tamim.

    And “perfect” is a mistranslation. Which is easy to see when you realize that the same word is used to describe Noah, Avraham (early on), and animals that are fit for sacrifice. The word refers to being part of a process (and thus in flux, not in stasis).

    • #16
    • January 13, 2020, at 8:47 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Eridemus Coolidge

    They never stopped to figure out when they first wanted to “reduce” carbon emissions, how were they going to exempt anything from being a target? And once under their control, why not go for the “ideal”of a return of the lower castes to some kind of peasant existance to ensure their own continued comfort? It seems like whatever science might have originally led us to invent was soon overtaken by anti-“capitalist” politics and loyalty to the globalist agenda. Talk about spoiling your chances and total lack of faith in human capabilities.

    Maybe the craziness of what it could ultimately lead to will be its undoing, replaced with simple patience in the emergence of privately invented solutions vs. government forced deprivations.

    • #17
    • January 13, 2020, at 8:58 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Ontheleftcoast Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result.

    Or perhaps not. The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect… (Deut 32:4)

    The word translated there as “perfect” is tamim.

    And “perfect” is a mistranslation. Which is easy to see when you realize that the same word is used to describe Noah, Avraham (early on), and animals that are fit for sacrifice. The word refers to being part of a process (and thus in flux, not in stasis).

    Hashem, the Creator ex nihilo of everything, is qualitatively different from His creations even though (whatever it means) He breathed the breath of life into Adam. We have to infer from references to material things and creatures referred to as “tam” what t’mimut (“perfection”) means in reference to a Being whom we cannot completely, comprehensively, or even perfectly apprehend or comprehend due to the limitations of our being in part material creations of the immaterial Being who created matter. We can imperfectly grasp it in transcendent moments, but we are notoriously incapable of completely articulating in prose, poetry, graphic arts, sculpture or even music what it is we have momentarily grasped.

    As it says in the Tikkunim, “no thought can apprehend Him כלל” and whether you choose to translate that word as “completely” or “at all,” in this context it’s… immaterial.

    We have texts that inform us that He is transcendant, others that He is immanent, others that tell us that He does not change. We cannot comprehend and certainly cannot articulate how this can all be true at once.

    Fortunately, neither our jobs in this world nor our places in the world to come depend on our doing so.

    • #18
    • January 13, 2020, at 10:39 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  19. Mark Camp Member

    iWe (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    We tend to think that language is a way of communicating information.

    Were you suggesting that the existence of errors in the use of language to communicate information implies that humans don’t use language to communicate?

    I think al I am saying is that while we use language to communicate, we are often unaware of all the baggage with language that lead to misunderstanding.

    But what is this baggage? If you write a sentence and use the word “set” to mean “six games, win by two, in tennis” and I mistakenly think you were referring to a set in set theory, is that the kind of baggage you are speaking of? Because: the historical case you give is simply such a case, and nothing more.

    I would hardly call such a semantic accident “baggage”: “I thought this word meant this to you when you wrote it, when in fact you meant that.”  That characterization, “baggage“, instead suggests something substantive: some collection of beliefs, values, fears, or desires concerning the real world.

    No, it was just an error caused by a combination of the writer not specifying his definition, and the reader subconsciously assuming an erroneous one.

    • #19
    • January 13, 2020, at 4:12 PM PST
    • 1 like
  20. kidCoder Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    I would hardly call such a semantic accident “baggage”: “I thought this word meant this to you when you wrote it, when in fact you meant that.”  That characterization, “baggage“, instead suggests something substantive: some collection of beliefs, values, fears, or desires concerning the real world.

    Perhaps baggage is a cultural mismatch. Little bits of expression mean a lot in some cultures, and not others, so meaning can easily be lost. Defining terms is a start, but often too cumbersome and even then occasionally inadequate.

    • #20
    • January 14, 2020, at 9:03 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  21. Mark Camp Member

    kidCoder (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    I would hardly call such a semantic accident “baggage”: “I thought this word meant this to you when you wrote it, when in fact you meant that.” That characterization, “baggage“, instead suggests something substantive: some collection of beliefs, values, fears, or desires concerning the real world.

    Perhaps baggage is a cultural mismatch. Little bits of expression mean a lot in some cultures, and not others, so meaning can easily be lost.

    Defining terms is a start, but often too cumbersome and even then occasionally inadequate.

    True and true. If I disputed either of these facts, I would be quite stupid. 

    But I think you didn’t read my note carefully. I was addressing an entirely distinct question than either of these two.

    • #21
    • January 14, 2020, at 9:34 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. kidCoder Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    But I think you didn’t read my note carefully. I was addressing an entirely distinct question than either of these two.

    No, I read your note, and think it’s more than a semantic mismatch.

    • #22
    • January 14, 2020, at 3:26 PM PST
    • 1 like
  23. Boss Mongo Member

    Great post. Thank you @iwe. And

    iWe: The Newtonian F=MA is not even directly translatable to Einsteinian physics, let alone to chemistry or the squishier studies.

    Works good for mayhem and destruction, though.

    iWe: When we ask the same seemingly-obvious questions of someone with a different culture and language, we discover that, without even being conscious of the underlying discontinuities, people truly think differently from each other.

    My South American and Middle Eastern brethren never fail to amaze me with their insight and intuition when I am in their countries; they have a calculus about the environment that has oft proved key to understanding the tactical situation (and, uh, personally surviving said situation, which I’m in favor of).

    iWe: This kind of blithe ignorance about the different languages that we use makes it very difficult to move forward. It is not easy to get out of the linguistic-cultural boxes that we each inhabit. But I believe that we must try to do so, in order to save and advance civilization.

    Yes, because the issue is not just about the languages, but about the inherent assumptions that the language insinuates (I think this is commensurate with the OP). When learning a different culture, one must learn the members’ myths about themselves and their culture.

    In one cross-cultural communications course I took, the instructor told us (all US students) that we had never even examined our own cultural myths and the assumptions that they promulgated.

    He had three different (all male class) individuals come up to the podium, pull out their respective key rings, and narrate what exactly each key was for. As the students did so, he provided commentary about the personal/cultural/linguistic myths and concomitant assumptions that each key entailed. 

    One of the best blocks of instruction I ever received.

    • #23
    • January 14, 2020, at 4:35 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  24. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    iWe, you say, and quite rightly, that: And yet different scientific communities use different logic! Biologists and Chemists and Physicists have entirely different languages, languages that cannot be properly translated from one to the next – but practitioners are sure that they are rational and logical and right. Of course, scientists can be right and consistent – but only within their specific languages, not outside them. The Newtonian F=MA is not even directly translatable to Einsteinian physics, let alone to chemistry or the squishier studies.

    I once lived a short ways from Bell Labs in Illinois outside of Chicago. In my going to parties held by engineers, it was almost impossible for the engineers to talk to each other about things happening in differing departments. After all, the abbreviations and the various electronic components being discussed were understood on the micro level only by the engineers working on that specific engineering situation. Of course in many ways that was okay, as people began to realize that at parties, maybe they should relax, have fun and not talk shop.

    • #24
    • January 14, 2020, at 8:30 PM PST
    • 3 likes