|Language and Thinking|
Sentences & Reasoning
Every statement is a form of reasoning. Whether any sentence succeeds at being reasonable is another matter and not always easy to determine. Syntax involves creating word sequences based on underlying rules. Decoding of sound sequences must identify individual words and must take the whole sequence into account to derive syntactical meaning. The transition from word identification to sentence deciphering is a new brain capacity that permits the complex language development we are now considering.
Our brain stores nouns and verbs separately and has many surprising habits of separating words and syntactical rules in subcompartments. You get something of this effect with computer programs that store data and program segments in scattered blocks of memory and then keep a map of where all the pieces are. In addition to a map, the brain seems to evolve a series of controllers that remember strategies for putting all these pieces together. A number of different languages can coexist in one brain and speakers with different linguistic styles can co-exist in one brain. The underlying strategy seems to be based on grouping objects and actions into meta categories with meta rules that form the syntax or grammar of the language.
A sentence has a logical form. Subject, verb and modifiers fit together to form a reality simulation. Declarative statements with a subject, verb and object are the most reliable of statements. If I tell you that Jack ran up the hill and Jill followed, you are likely to form a mental image similar to mine. You could also quiz me in a direct way to get more information by using the “w” words; who, what, when, which, where, why? Jack who? Jack Smith. What hill? Sentinel hill. When? 11 AM Friday Sept 1, 2000. Why? To fetch a pale of water. It all makes sense. When a story is familiar, the meaning can be invoked with an abbreviated version Jack Jill hill might suffice.
The distinction between form and content is useful in the analysis of language. Everyone encounters writing that appears to consist of coherent statements, but on closer reading makes no sense at all. Nonsense is often in the content and not in the form or grammar of the writing. Sentences may be well constructed and the inherent reasoning may be more or less acceptable, but the content is gibberish. You could argue that nonsense is the natural content of language since it is easy to invent false statements and difficult to determine what is really going on out there. You can make any outrageous statement you want and become convinced that it is true if one other person agrees with you. The improvisations of gossip are more prevalent that the reasoning embodied in responsible philosophical and scientific discourse.
Formal logic is based on rules that link premises to conclusions. The problem with premises is that meaningful and true content needs to come from outside language. Humans regularly use good logic to move from wrong premises to wrong conclusions and then use wrong conclusions as derivative premises. In computing, this problem is expressed as “garbage in, garbage out.”
Science is an enterprise that encourages humans to make a bigger effort to find out what is really going on out there. Statements made by scientists are manifestations of a more disciplined effort to get reliable content into sentence form. The human culture world as of the new millennium had two kinds of people; scientists who make a bigger effort to get reliable content into their sentences and non-scientists who say or write whatever they want. Responsible journalism is somewhere in middle. Even when language is used skillfully, with good content, there are limitations and interesting problems.
Douglas Hofstadter was fond of self-referential sentences that are both entertaining and unnerving. Some examples:
The statement I am a liar is particularly challenging because it turns logic inside out. If the sentence is true, it is false. If the sentence is false, it is true. This sentence reveals a fundamental problem of language that becomes increasingly self-referential as it becomes more abstract and disconnected from events that are really happening out there. Thus, a culture world, created out of books, plays, movies, magazines and statements made on television, cells and the internet become a virtual reality, mostly fictional, that is disconnected from and incongruent with the real world.
Dr. Gislason wrote: "In this brief reflection, I describe some basic truths about languages that are aspects of human nature most likely to endure. I feature storytelling and selftalk as the two most important features of the human use of language. I consider how languages fit in the larger scheme of intelligence and human interactions. Interesting challenges emerge when language is used to describe itself. Spoken language is an innate ability of humans that emerges in all human groups. Spoken language is the key to interaction among humans. There are several thousand languages in human groups that enhance group cohesion and at the same time separate groups that cannot communicate. I trace the evolution of sound communication from animals who have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years to computer programming that uses condensed forms of cryptic languages that are received and expressed by electronic circuits."
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The author is Stephen Gislason and the publisher is Persona Digital Books.