Hi there and welcome to cow the pocast. online
taking you on a trip into the strange and wonderful landscape of this here podcast.
This week delving into linguistics
how language shapes what we think
and some of the linguistic traps
that we all fall into
getting in the in the way of clear thinking
and generally causing trouble.
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What you’ve been up to…
All of us
I’m Ant Biggs and I’ ll be your host for the next 20 – 30 minutes or so
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Ok so this week back into the realms of philosophy, or at least looking at stuff.
Of course there’s not everybody will even accept that looking at stuff, or trying to understand stuff is a good idea,
and that’s going to throw anyone a for a while, but that’s what we do here…
And if you want to question why we do it?
Say what’s the point?
Well, at that level,
it’s because it makes me feel better to do so…
that’s the bottom line.
But we’re leaving that level of discourse there of course.
To go a little deeper.
Here comes the rabbit hole…
So bear with me,
I’m about to take a few leaps of faith here, jump into a number of assumptions from the off.
Primarily that philosophy has a job to do
and that that job is to question the nature of reality, the meaning of life,
to question how things are constructed,
the human condition.
This kind of questioning has been around for thousands of years.
There is something fundamental about curiosity,
and of evolutionary value in discovering new truths,
or perhaps we should say new landscapes, opportunities.
And while it might seem that a good amount of this kind of questioning can be answered by science,
and we can look around to see around plenty of support for that idea.
Living for example in western society,
we live by technology,
our faith is in Science to fix problems.
So that science has for many taken the place of religion.
And there has been a rise in scientific dogma,
in simple parallel to christian arguments for child poverty
science is good and science is all we need…
But it’s a mistake to believe that science has all of the answers.
And at the core of this are the value judgements.
And at the core of this are questions of how we are interpreting what we see.
Whilst science can answer what, and can spend billions of pounds in doing so
Can it answer why?
There are those, famous and reputable scientists, who argue,
that we now know everything that we can ever know about matter.
That the Higgs experiment was not about discovering a new particle.
It was not about any deeper exploration of miniature space,
not about stumbling into one of these things.
The work of Cern was to prove how to make a Higgs,
It was to prove that the mechanisms of particle existence
were understood well enough so that we could make a particle that shouldn’t exist…
Anything else out there, dark matter for example
won’t get known.
It’s there ok, we can know that,
but we can’t interact with it.
It’s out of our range.
End of the road…
But that is really only one particular reductionist narrative that has reached its end.
The search for meaning through the discovery of fundamental building blocks of reality…
And adding to the conversation are those who are less scientifically qualified maybe, and by that
I guess I’m pointing a finger at the dangers of scientific dogma…
And these people are challenging the view that this is all we can know,
pointing towards other narratives,
to narratives where we don’t expect to find our answers in the turning cogs,
where we must continue a search for new phenomena whilst the gears of a clockwork universe grind on.
These are narratives in which the fundamentals of existence are pure mathematics, or evolutionary life force, consciousness or mind, meaning, or information.
Again, all of them taken from the theories of respected physicists such as Steven Hawkins, Einstein… Names you will know, and theories which are beginning to take hold. We live in a multiverse, a simulation, the matrix…
I explored this in a conversation between Physicist Sean Carroll and Buddhist Scholar Alan Wallace. In Episode 4, Whats Real, Whats Not, And So What?. Available soon! for more detail.
But to move on,
seeing scientists battling with their own versions of the truth,
in conversations about which theories are more appropriate than others
and which are more important,
to see this is to see science in action,
to see theories raised and critiqued,
to see memes generating and evolving,
in a natural evolution, and survival of the fittest.
But it is also to see scientists themselves indulging in the same basic egotistical,
that challenge all of us every day.
Our basic struggle for hierarchical dominance, and for status.
and the meme of Science,
The ideas themselves…
in competition, in tension, between the old guard,
and a paradigm shift.
This is where new ideas have to
prove themselves against the existing. Rutting Stags…
The nature of science is that a theory stands until it is proven wrong, or inadequate
and people have lives, and careers,
They have the chance of immortality,
and also billions of dollars invested in the scientific establishment.
It isn’t easy to challenge that.
The tension is good
because we get rigour out of that.
But are we sure it’s balanced?
Now I can go on with the need for change, for paradigm shift,
and not just in Science, in everything,
but I’m not going to do that today,
We’re leaving out all the bad stuff in the world.
Must be some kind of New year thing going on at time of writing.
This is about how we recognise how we are distracted from the scientific,
or the objective method,
Even as scientists or science fans,
how we relate that to our everyday lives, and our investments in the future.
How what we think and how we get there is expressed throughout culture
And how that could be a prison.
I guess I just gave an example found in physics
and I shouldn’t conflate all forms of science together.
For the record tho’ I’m a science fan!
And I’m going to come right out and say right now
that the scientific method rocks.
Just suppose tho’
something more fundamental than physics?
And now let me rewind to the point I made
about how physics becomes a hierarchical struggle…
There’s the life force getting involved…
So maybe we could use another narrative..?
So how about meaning?
Maybe this struggle is a struggle for control of the narrative?
Let’s unpack it a bit,
I’m going to take a bit of a side step here
and look at how we communicate our ideas.
Take a look at how we use language.
In science, just like any other subject that we take on,
This is about an underlying narrative.
About the stuff that underlies everything we hold sacred.
Be that physics, or religion, or love,
Existence, beauty, truth!
We are exploring ideas,
changing minds and evolving what we think.
This is a cultural, social thing.
That’s how it’s done.
And it becomes obvious that what we think
has to bear some relation
to how we communicate it.
We need to communicate clearly.
And maybe we are OK to assume that our everyday language is up to the job.
But Maybe not…
What if we used a different language?
In a Ted talk How language shapes the way we think | Lera Boroditsky talks about these differences and what it could mean for us.
“The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is,” Boroditsky says. “Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.”
And each communicates.
She uses the example of putting a jellyfish, in a library, thinking about quantum physics in your head
And there it is,
in your head!
That’s a communication any language is capable of producing,
although it might not involve the same things.
Yes, they have different ways of doing it, different structures…
So do those differences make a difference?
Does the way we communicate dictate the way we think?
And what does that mean for us?
What does that mean for the language of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic Science?
Boroditsky talks of an aboriginal language that talks only in cardinal direction, not relative.
There is no left or right,
there is only North, South, East and West etc
The Kukatja greet each other by saying where they are going,
and refer to their own limbs as being in a specific direction
“There’s an ant on your South-West leg…”
Not your left leg.
The result is they have a continual sense of where they are in their environment.
And where their friends are too.
Another example she uses
is to point out that English speakers,
and presumably some speakers of other languages
will order time from left to right.
Given a number of pictures taken over time,
of a face for example,
we will put the earliest one on the left
and read time from left to right.
In Hebrew or Aramaic time would be read in the opposite direction.
And in Chinese possibly from top to bottom.
The Kokatja tribe however,
align the images with the path of the sun,
however the images are presented.
Always from East to West,
from where the sun rises
to where it sets
independent of where they are sat
and of the direction they’re sitting in.
Time for the Kokatja is not centered on the self .
And an English speaker might instinctively agree
that time exists in an external landscape, with the Kokatja.
But in contrast, and Einstein aside,
time for an English speaker is firmly centred on self,
relative, left left to right.
there are languages in which we learn the linguistic trick of counting.
English of course.
But there are languages where numbers are not learned.
They don’t exist!
No numbers, no science…
A world without maths!
And vision, so fundamental to human activity,
is provably manipulated
It only makes sense once filtered or
translated into reality
One language has only the concept of light and dark, no colour.
Interesting perhaps that the whole spectrum can be described as binary.
But others have many words for many colours,
like Eskimos having a legendary 40 words for snow,
Or in Russians,
where there are two
different types of blue.
For a Russian observer, light blue and dark blue
are separate colours.
And this can be measured.
When brain activity is measured
in response to different colour stimuli,
essentially when colours are seen to change,
the brain sparks up.
The word boundaries are responsible
for the category change in the brain.
It is not the other way round.
These word boundaries, are in accord with cultural differences.
We do not see simply see a reality and give it names.
What we see is shaped by the words we have for it.
Thinking is different…
And then there are the effects that different languages have
in applying gender to nouns.
A bridge in German will be beautiful, or elegant.
In Spanish that same bridge will be strong, or long.
The noun in German is of course feminine,
and in Spanish, it is male.
Perhaps this finds concrete expression in the elegant nature of german engineering,
and is something shared across cultures(?)
To move on, when an accident occurs in England
it is possible to say for example “He broke the vase”.
A Spaniard would say “the vase broke”.
In English it is possible to say “I broke my arm”.
Well, maybe your arm broke, but you didn’t do it.
The English implies some sort of purpose to the occurrence,
as if a natural occurrence needs human input before it can happen.
To say you broke your own arm in many languages would make you out a right nutter…
One of the consequences flowing from the construction of the language here
is that the Spaniard is more likely to forget who was involved in the accident
but he will remember that it was an accident.
The Englishman will remember who did it
and probably forget that it was an accident altogether.
The consequence here is that depending on what you are told about the same event,
and even if you witness the event for yourself
you will be more likely to punish the person if they broke the vase, and less so if it was an accident.
We judge according to our language.
So there are the big effects that flow from linguistic use, such as how we see time…
and the deep effects
such as the adoption of number words,
and there are the early or immediate effects that language will have on our perception,
with colour for example
there are the broad effects like when nouns are given gender,
in how we innately impose values upon anything which we can name.
And finally then,
there are the weighty effects where we impose blame, judgement, and punishment on our fellow humans,
As a consequence of our language!
Of the words that we hear.
Lera Boroditsky in her beautifully presented talk
points out that we are likely to lose half of the languages that we use now
within 100 years.
And that the language of study remains the property of usually English speaking undergraduates at University.
There is an argument for keeping the diversity,
as what we know about the human mind
is either very narrow
or culturally biased
and is certainly next to nothing,
So we could do better…
Knowing what we do,
about the different linguistic landscapes
and how language effects the way people think
is an invitation to each of us to ask
How language shapes what we think?
and how we think the way that we do?
To ask how we can think differently?
And to ask what thoughts we could be creating…
So language guides how we think…
And if this is the case then we need to be careful about how we use it.
And I say this awareness needs to extend, yes into our language of research
but also through our day to day exchanges
and into politics and into economics.
I am not arguing for controlling speech,
This is a serious argument for encouraging dialogue.
For being able to take note of what we are habitually doing,
and judging it with open eyes,
so that we can act accordingly
And yes, if we are to be concerned with truth,
then we need to be careful with it.
So how does that pan out?
Perhaps the only way we will get anywhere productive is to be aware of how to apply logical or critical thinking.
And to do this requires a consistent and reliable approach to language.
I guess this is about being mindful of our language so that we can use it as a tool,
We take control of our ideas.
We don’t let them take control of us.
Look, one of the first points of linguistic carelessness or sloppiness can be found in logical fallacies..
“A fallacy is the use of invalid or otherwise faulty reasoning, or “wrong moves” in the construction of an argument. A fallacious argument may be deceptive by appearing to be better than it really is. Some fallacies are committed intentionally to manipulate or persuade by deception, while others are committed unintentionally due to carelessness or ignorance.”
A fallacy, can be seen to be an irrational product
of subconscious habit, of errors of logic,
of miscalculation, and over-generalization,
like a cognitive bias
The difference between them lies in that a fallacy is used to construct an argument, to manipulate and control, whereas cognitive biases are essentially innocent but ingrained errors of thought leading to poor decisions.
There can not fail to be a linguistic connection between the two. And it may be that if used habitually a logical fallacy becomes a heuristic and will express itself as a cognitive bias when decisions are to be made.
Here tho’ I’m just going to list a whole load of fallacies,
examples are straight out of a youtube video from Jill Bearup
but why not? Check it out here.
31 Logical Fallacies in 8 minutes
Logical Fallacies are phrases that through habit and constant use
have become part of the conversational toolbox.
It’s their common use that allows them to be named.
Easy to slip into
in the heat of the moment, and as you’ll see
they are a major obstacle to creating understanding, and co-operation between people.
And yes we are familiar with all of them,
we use them ourselves,
and we get deflected by them,
time after time.
The point is that if we aren’t prepared to do the work to free ourselves from these linguistic traps,
then we must be prepared to understand,
there are consequences.
We’ve seen how closely our language is linked to how we think.
Isn’t it time we took our ideas back…
Let’s just take a look at these examples.
So here we are…
First the fallacy of composition.
If it is true of the parts then it must be true of the whole…
It doesn’t follow that because you have a good tyres that your car is good too.
Then the fallacy of division,
If its true of the whole then it must be true of the parts… wrong again!
Same mistake but the opposite way around.
Just because the car is good doesn’t mean it has good tyres.
This is whatever we want to mean by good.
Then the Gambler’s Fallacy
The belief in streaks of good and bad luck… wrong! Scientifically, statistically and categorically wrong!
And then Tu Quoque…
The fallacy that just because someone is no expert in what they are saying doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
It’s latin for Who are you to talk?
Which leads to Straw manning. As featured with fair abundance in the mass media…
which is about undermining an argument through personal attack,
setting up your opponent in such a way as to be able to discredit them.
In this way their argument is defeated despite being true.
Another example is someone saying
“Let’s cut down on our use of fossil fuels…
and being accused of something like
“So you’re saying that we should kill off old age pensioners this winter?”
Essentially we’re painting the person into a corner.
We’re saying “they are evil, don’t listen to them”
and yes there’s a name for that particular fallacy…
This fallacy is known as Ad hominem…
“Don’t listen to that person they are evil…”
Attack the person rather than the argument
but it doesn’t mean their argument has any less weight. You lose..!
Of course then we are able to discredit an argument because of where it comes from… the genetic fallacy –
If we can’t trust the messenger then the news must be wrong – Well, wrong yourself!
That isn’t a logical conclusion that can be made…
And there are the tactical, loaded questions – designed to make the person answering the question to look bad,
to reduce their authority.
“When did you stop beating your wife?” for example.
And if we are at a point where authority is needed
why not quote the bloke down the road
with a fallacious appeal to authority?
Bring in an authority unrelated to the subject at hand.
Yes she may be an expert on lupin beetle,
but that doesn’t make her an expert on the problem at hand!
Many of these “go to” tactics or assumptions merely serve to distract
and the blatantly obvious
Red Herring or fallacy of distraction is a well known example.
Just because someone is in tears doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. It’s irrelevance
And at the same time it’s an appeal to your emotions,
making you feel bad. Well Wrong again!
Just because someone is sad and you are beginning to feel bad about a conclusion isn’t enough to prove it wrong.
Nor is the fact that everyone else is doing something, proof that it is right,
the bandwagon fallacy.
Nor an appeal to nature, or tradition…
it’s only natural and we’ve been doing this for a thousand years do not in themselves prove something true,
However worth saying here that just because something is being expressed in the form of a fallacy
That in itself is not enough to prove that is in inaccurate.
And you’ll see how some of these overlap or act at the same time.
And some of them you’ll know by other names.
How about an appeal to ignorance?
If it can’t be proved false then it must be true.
Or claiming that the burden of proof lies with your opponent.
When there is no burden of proof…
Or the false dichotomy of claiming that you have absolute right on your side.
So that anyone who disagrees must therefore be the spawn of the devil, evil, immoral, Satan.
And with good and evil being on the same continuum we could try that its impossible to distinguish one thing from another… The Sorites or decision point paradox. Well, Not true! We can…
And we can tell the difference between things even when they have the same noun, the same name…
The law of gravity, for example… can not be repealed. The laws of physics are different from the laws of the land.
This is conflation,
of two different meanings, of the same word.
The fallacy of Equivocation
And there are many, many more…
I’m just about out of time, and haven’t really gone into the cave analogy as much as I would have liked…
Enough to say really that we all get this matrix, cave, slavery thing. We all know something’s up and could be better.
We all want to be doing something but can’t work out what it should be…
But hopefully this just goes some way into pointing out how deep this stuff goes…
all the way down into how what we think is dictated by what we say,
and how what we say is mainly subconscious regurgitation of what we hear!
But if we are mindful of what we say, and mindful of what we are told,
That way freedom lies, and that way you can make a difference starting right now.
There is some hope.