Not All Languages Are Equal
There are some languages that existed before we encoded them. Think of those as the "universal languages". If we think of mathematics, the Pythagorean theorem held true way before we found the equation to prove it. If we think of music, sounds held the capacity to harmonize in pleasant ways way before we came up with musical notations to capture what's essentially a set of vibrations. And if we think of physics, gravity was pulling objects towards the Earth way before that apple caused the click in Newton's mind.
Let's consider these as "found" languages; elements of reality that already had sets of rules to them and all we did was discover them. But what I want to address today is rather our verbal communication; let's call it our "designed" language.
Language As Technology
Yes, I do mean designed as in technology. My current view, indeed, is that language is a technology. First of all, we came up with it. It was not "found" in the same way mathematical truths are discovered. It is a set of fictions we all agree to leverage as a tool to refer to things. It is not part of our nature, it simply makes life as a society much more efficient.
Secondly, other species don't have it. Most species do have forms of communication, but sophisticated verbal language is unique to humans.
Finally, it is a technology because it is an extension of this innate capacity for communication. Marshall McLuhan said every technology is an extension. Well, we extended our innate capacity for communication —that which is indeed part of our nature and shared by other species— and built a whole new system around it.
Technology As Amputation
To this, McLuhan would add that every technology is also an amputation. Some tools act as extensions attached to the body (clothes, bicycles) and some act as amputations of functions using external devices (like how writing amputated memory).
"An example of an amputation would be the loss of archery skills with the development of gunpowder and firearms. Amputations from automobiles have made us more obese and generally less healthy."
As we come to rely on these technologies, these extensions, they become replacements to our original capacities. As we stop using and stimulating those natural functions, evolutionarily-speaking, they slowly die.
Here I want to ask, if language is a technology and every technology is an amputation, what is language amputating us of?
If a Tree Falls in a Forest
I want to anchor this inquiry in a bit of a thought exercise; something I like to call a nothingness visualization.
Let's take a moment to try and imagine what it would be like if there were truly nothing.
What we're aiming for is a brief glimpse at complete nothingness; not a single sensation, sound, smell, object. No signal of any kind. Not even some being, there to acknowledge that there is indeed nothing. What would it be like if beyond the infinite outer-space of complete darkness, there wasn't even a darkness, a concept of black, to be perceived. Imagining real emptiness, with no one there to witness it.
We can start by slowly zooming out of the world, gradually imagining things removed. The world without buildings, without people, without animals, without nature, without matter, and then no Earth at all. And then no other planets around. No bright stars in the darkness of the universe, no light at all.
Finally, no darkness either, nothing to see, and no one to see it. Not emptiness, because empty requires there to be a space devoid of contents. Just pure nothingness.
This exercise is an idea you can just momentarily grab a hold of. Once you catch it, it clicks in your mind and you acknowledge the thought for the briefest moment. Before you know it, you picture empty black space again, instead of nothingness. The true nothingness is so far beyond our comprehension, that just contemplating it as an idea is elusive.
From this exercise, we can realize that a source of consciousness and a reality are both required for there to be existence. If there is nothing for the consciousness to witness, it's just as if there were nothing. And vice versa, if there is no consciousness to witness a reality, it's just as if there were nothing.
It's a bit like the famous saying about perception and observation: "if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" To tie this back to language, let's look at it this way: do we know of things solely because we have language to refer to them? When we lack the language to refer to something, does the thing really exist? And again, if we do have language but to refer to something that doesn't exist (yet, maybe?) does it make that non-thing real in any way? That's why I'm starting to think of language as holding creative capacities. Let me elaborate.
Language Is Self-Referentially Biased
Language is a pattern-matching technology and our understanding of reality is additive. We attach new experiences onto existing knowledge. Therefore, reality (or our perception of it, which is all we got and, at this point, is the same thing) is a product of our shared agreements. Understanding reality is about associating what we perceive to existing patterns that we recognize. It's about matching new stuff to old stuff; that which we already experienced, perceived, or is broadly agreed upon.
"In fact, studies have shown that there is an intimate relationship between the world we perceive and the conceptual categories encoded in the language we speak. We don’t perceive a purely objective world out there, but one subliminally pre-partitioned and pre-interpreted according to culture-bound categories."
—Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality? by Bernardo Kastrup for Scientific American
This bias for pattern-recognition creates loops, closing us off to the potential of entirely new categories of reality, to new concepts that cannot or should not be matched. This default for existing categories is limiting the potential growth and expansion of our reality, especially as we design new things, systems and technologies because everything needs to be matched to something that exists (which has already been matched to some pre-existing thing itself, ad infinitum).
I say especially as we design new things because this is where the technology of language's amputations come in. Language shapes our perception of existing (found) reality because we pattern-match it to existing language. But it equally affects the way we go about creating new things. It amputates us of the possibilities of the designed reality, since we don't know better than to pattern-match it to existing language as well. Would we have gone out and created technologies and systems differently if our language had been different, less self-referential, more expansive?
- Is Language a Technology?, by Mark Changizi, Ph.D. for HuffPost
- Consciousness and Language by Harry Haroutioun Haladjian Ph.D. for Psychology Today
- What We Do When We See by Christopher Butler
- Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality? by Bernardo Kastrup for Scientific American
- Are we close to solving the puzzle of consciousness?, by David Robson for the BBC
- Consciousness Doesn’t Depend on Language, by Christof Koch for Nautilus
- Imaginary Numbers May Be Essential for Describing Reality, by Charlie Wood for Quanta Magazine