Language users
Posted by aogSunday, 25 November 2007 at 19:06 TrackBack Ping URL

I was too busy to comment on this Tom Wolfe essay that went around recently, but I must say it’s gratifying to seem Wolfe come to the same conclusion I did — proves he’s a smart guy.

His basis also seems roughly the same as mine, that language makes possible the preservation of extra-somatic (out of body) information. That in turn creates a new, powerful layer of reality that can affect the survival of human groups as much as if not more than genetics.

Just as importantly, such information is self-modifying. That’s again qualitatively different from genetics, as DNA can’t modify itself, it must wait for some external event to provide variance (mutations). Culture, the embodiment of accumulated language, can be modified directly by further language.

Because of this, after language is invented human evolution becomes qualitatively different than that for any other terrestial species. I think language is even more fundamentally human than tool use, because language is a higher level tool that can manipulate higher layers of reality beyond the physical. What I called enhanced reality in the previous post is closing the circle, making the previously invisible linguistic layers of reality part of directly perceivable reality again.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
cjm Sunday, 25 November 2007 at 23:00

language is a model for our senses. words have no meaning if the listener has no personal experience of what they are describing. tell a blind man what “red” looks like, or describe how love feels to someone that has never experienced it. can’t be done.

Gideon7 Monday, 26 November 2007 at 04:00

Language (written) means that humans can create ideas and give them an independent reality outside of any living mind. For example in 1939 Robert Heinlein wrote a manuscript titled “For Us, the Living”. It was forgotten and later discovered after his death. While the manuscript lay hidden, in what way can we say the ideas and concepts of the undiscovered novel ‘existed’? Where do unthought-thoughts really live?

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 27 November 2007 at 15:25

I have to disagree with both of you.

Language isn’t a model for our senses, it is a means of communication. The roots of language are in the senses, but it has long since risen to a far more abstract level. Direct experience and sensory input are but the ground floor of a towering edifice.

For the same reason, language doesn’t create anything that has an independent reality outside of any living mind. All language and its constructs exist only because living minds perceive them. The ideas in Heinlein’s novel didn’t exist after it had been forgotten, except possibly via echoes in the effects of other Heinlein works on people’s thoughts. The ideas were recreated when someone read the manuscript, just like a program is recreated when it is loaded from disk in to running computer.

This is all very similar to this discussion over at the Daily Duck, where I weighed in on my view of mathematics as language. Much of my discussion about mathematics and its relationship to reality apply here just as well, since mathematics is also language.

Bret Tuesday, 27 November 2007 at 16:23

Well, I have to disagree with all three of you, so there!!! :-)

Language is central to all human cognition. The roots of language (and thought) are more in motor (muscle) control than in the senses. In other words, controlling thought (and therefore language) is more like controlling muscles - we basically “flex” our minds when we want to think.

On the other hand, the ideas in Heinlein’s novel most likely existed before during and after he wrote it and while it was lost. There’s no single idea or thought that are unique to any one (or small group of) human(s). What becomes unique is sequencing and expressing many thousands of thoughts in just the right way. That particular sequence was lost when the book was lost. But how is that different than saying the state of the universe is different now than it was a millisecond ago?

I got totally confused by the daily duck discussion. Probably I won’t do any better here.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 27 November 2007 at 17:01

There’s an interesting question — which came first, self aware cognition or language? Is it possible to have self aware entities without language? Or is communication with self essential to abstract thought? I suspect they co-evolved in a feedback cycle, which is why humans advanced so much further on that path than any other species.

P.S. Ha, Bret, you’re really agreeing with my statement

I think language is even more fundamentally human than tool use


Bret Tuesday, 27 November 2007 at 17:59

I think self-awareness and language are only indirectly related, but that’s only my guess. I think that larger brains require more indirect pathways and therefore make it more likely that monitoring/self-awareness modules could be relatively easily added along those pathways. The indirect relationship of language and self-awareness is that language requires a larger brain.

I think the centrality of language to human cognition is very fundamentally human. However, it’s sort of similar to tool use in that some other animals probably have some very low level ability to use language (chimps pick up sign language pretty easily, for example) and some other animals use fairly primitive tools. Humans are just far, far more advanced in both areas.

cjm Wednesday, 28 November 2007 at 13:25

[+] communication is a means of sharing experiences

[+] only the physical world is real, exists

[+] all abstractions are models for reality

[+] models are only useful so far as they relate to some physical element (eventually)

[+] i believe self-awareness came first and provided an impetus to the development of language

[+] the brain is a machine; i can conciously over-clock mine when i am working on a problem. when the fuel chemicals run out, the process stops and i can’t work any more. remember the star trek episode where mccoy gets the brain boost from an alien device so he can put spock’s brain back into spock’s body ?

[+] the brain is an electrical device. we know it can function as a transmitter, can it also function as a reciever (ala telepathy) ?

[+] what caused the sudden appearance of self-awareness and intelligence, about 10k years ago (when the h/w had been around unchanged for maybe 200k years beforehand) ?

[+] will the noosphere eventually emerge ? all the individual cognitive cells are currently self-organizing into a distributed conciousness.

[+] are there more than one species of homo sapiens currently present on earth ? at times in the past there is evidence of as many as 5 different homminid species existant at the same time.

[+] the concept of layering is important. each layer is like a stage in a rocket, leading to higher capabilities. what is the next layer after language ?

[+] what role do/did psychotropic drugs play in this process ? they won’t make a dullard creative, but there is no doubt they make an already creative person more so. are they capable of imparting knowledge directly ?

[+] language is the ultimate tool. is it co-incidence that english speaking peoples have achieved so much so quickly, and that english is not a language but an amalgam of every language (and so capable of representing every concept more efficiently) ?

[+] why is mythology so similar across all the different groups, even though they were isolated geographically ? does this imply something other than instinct is present in our brains, a kind of hard coded data that doesn’t change over time ? what else is in there waiting for a triggering event ?

[+] would anything this interesting ever get discussed at the “other site” ?

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 28 November 2007 at 16:13

Oh, the Daily Duck’s not that bad.

Thinking about it some more, I lean toward the language first, self awareness / abstract thought as a side effect of language development. It’s hard, really, to see that much of an advantage to the latter but language is immensely powerful and even in a primitive state obviously useful. It seems to me, though, that better language skills require the same cognitive machinery that abstract thought does so that our intelligence develops as a by-product of improved communication.

As for what caused the tipping point, one is left wondering how much of modern thought / intelligence / language is wetware rather than hardware. Perhaps human brains of 200 Kyear ago were capable but the cultural technology had not yet arisen.

P.S. Ah, layers. That subject was the seed of what lead to my banishment, I think. I have been meaning to do a foundational post on that subject for a long time, as it’s very central to my view of the structure of reality.

cjm Friday, 30 November 2007 at 13:05

forgive me if this is “old news”…the brain itself has evolved in a layer like way, over the many millenia, across many intermediate forms/species. smell for instance, has direct pathways to the really deep primitive parts of the brain, thus bypassing the socialization functions in the higher layers. there is strong evidence that humans still select mates based on compatibility information contained in a candidates individualized body odor.

you must have noticed the fractal nature of, well, nature :) dna for example, with a relatively small encoding structure, produces the full range of tissue types comprising a human being. an undifferentiate cell doubles and redoubles, until a signal is given and cell specialization begins. could the same process not take place at the next higher level/layer ? for a period of time individual humans are more or less the same in terms of capabilities. then, when the signal is given, specialization at the level of the individual begins to occur. human societies already produce a kind of “logical caste” effect, so it’s not inconceivable for the same to occur concretely. brave new world indeed.

Annoying Old Guy Saturday, 01 December 2007 at 20:03

Perhaps. But one might note that the trend in computers has been to keep the hardware general purpose and use software (“culture”) to differentiate by function. I suspect that the same will be true for people, that it will pay more to generally improve the species than to go in for genetic based castes. After all, software’s a lot easier to patch and upgrade.

cjm Wednesday, 05 December 2007 at 09:32

the cpu is generalized but it is surrounded by all kinds of specialized h/w. i would say the pattern is to emulate some function in s/w and then evovle specialized h/w. time will tell (but not you or i)

Annoying Old Guy Wednesday, 05 December 2007 at 10:35

But even that specialized h/w is getting more generalized. I remember the days when you had to be very careful about peripherals to make sure they were compatible, e.g. disk drives, serial connections, even monitors. The trend, however, has been to increasing generalize those connectors so that, for instance, most anything connects to a USB port. Further, more and more devices depend on embedded software rather than dedicated hardware (just consider cars, for instance). The trend I see is ever more soft functionality, less hard.

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