Language and understanding
It’s very difficult to have thoughts that are not shaped by language. Make an experiment yourself: try thinking of an apple. Visualise the apple in your mind, and focus on its form, its shape, colour, smell, taste. Try to make it as real as possible in your mind.
Feel its round shape filling your hand, the resistance to your bite, hear the crunchy sound as you sink your teeth into it. Feel the tanginess of its juices flowing into your tongue, coming together with its scent. All of this is Apple. But don’t think of the word, concentrate only on what the word represents, that is, all of those sensorial inputs.
Can you think of the apple without thinking of the word? If you think you can, can you hold that idea of the apple for longer than a few seconds without your mind going back to the word?
Think now of a pineapple, trying to make it equally real. Spend a few seconds with it. Then switch back to the apple, and back again to the pineapple. Can you separate the idea of the fruits from their names?
I find this a very interesting exercise for two main reasons. First of all, it’s very difficult for me to keep the idea of a thing separate from its name for longer than a fleeting moment. Secondly, if I need to recall a class of objects, such as an apple, the name is not always the first thing that comes into my mind. The concept of the apple is there, independent of the word apple, but the word comes rushing in very quickly, whether I want it or not.
Is it possible to learn about something without associating a name to it? I have heard people say that everything has a name, but I don’t believe it is true. I can easily come up with a thing that doesn’t have a name yet, and invent one for it. You can play this game too, very easily. For example, the feeling you have when there was a misunderstanding with your colleague but you think that trying to clarify it would be too awkward and has a risk of enhancing the misunderstanding because you are not very confident in your capability to explain your feelings in a clear manner, or on their capability to understand you, so you decide to leave things as they are and carry on as if nothing has happened. Let’s call this feeling “algreation”. So you can say “I wanted to talk to him about it, but I felt too algreated”.
Just like “apple” gives name to a collection of sensorial inputs, so does “algreation”, but to a collection of higher-dimensional concepts. There’s a vast (but probably not infinite) number of possible feelings and combination of feelings that can receive a name. We bother to name a minority of them, and use sentences to describe the rest. We can still understand ideas, or feelings, even if they haven’t been expressed as language, but expressing them as language makes it easier to hold them in our minds. This seems to be a great side-effect of language: not only it allows us to communicate to others, but it also serves as a mechanism for us to reduce our cognitive load, and think more complex thoughts.
It’s probably worthwhile trying to elaborate this.
First, a premise: we are humans, and more essentially we are mammals, so it only makes sense in this context to talk about what humans experience and about our limited mammal brains. We are not trying to describe reality as independent of human existence, but rather reality as experienced by us. So this is not physics, it’s linguistics, or psychology. Given this premise, what can we say for sure?
We have senses. We can detect electromagnetic radiation with two senses: vision and thermoception. We can detect pressure with two other senses: hearing and touch. We have two chemical senses: smell and taste. Finally, we have balance, to sense change of momentum (angular and linear).
Our brain processes these signals via a network of neurons. An input is fed into a layer of neurons, which connect to other neurons, which connect to other neurons, and so on, with each layer integrating signals from previous layers, so that eventually an input is generated in specialized parts of the brain such as the hypothalamus, that effect an internal or external change, via muscle control or hormone release.
The interesting thing about humans is that the majority of our brain is made up of this middle layer, which by itself doesn’t have any easily defined function, but which, when connected to an input and an output, is capable of high level abstractions. This is in stark contrast to most other mammals, where the majority of the brain is dedicated to motor control, or sense detection, with very little “middleware” in between them.
What about these other mammals then? When a rat sees or smells an apple, it has the vague idea of the apple. What would that idea be? It probably holds a memory that this specific smell indicated food at one point, without a clear idea of what the object “apple” means as an entity. The rat has a need, it needs to eat. Its hypothalamus detects a lower glucose level, so in trying to prevent its death, it releases hormones that cause the feeling of hunger, and the smell of apple indicates that the feeling of hunger can be reduced by eating the emanating object.
What is our idea of the apple? It’s difficult to visualise such a straight relationship as in the case of the rat. We might have memories, emotions, all mingled together. The evocation of the idea of the apple in your mind is likely to trigger other memories if put in the right context. This inner layer of neurons in our brain is hardly silent; its vast connection matrix ensures that our concepts have a strong relationship, and are vague enough to allow for creativity.
Still, we can assign a label to the idea of an apple, and call it “apple”. Language seems to be a great simplifier. Perhaps better would be to see language as an operator, transforming the information contained in our brain, which belongs to a certain space, into a more precise representation. Language is a projection.
Precision comes at a cost. By making it more precise, we have to lose information. If I just say “apple”, all I can pass on is the common ideas associated with an apple. There’s no way that only those 5 characters can convey to you everything that the word represents to me. And when you hear me say “apple”, the idea will be recreated in your mind, based on your own experience of an apple. Great poetry is to communicate more than the words, evoking feelings that go beyond the symbols.
Do we also lose information when the word is evoked but not communicated? If I think of an apple and allow my mind to associate the word to it, will it become simpler, more defined? I believe it does, and that’s the key characteristic of language that allows us to think more complex thoughts. If all our ideas were in their natural form, interconnected, complex, and with ill-defined boundaries, it would be very taxing. We all have a mental capacity, a cognitive load we can bear. By transforming our thoughts into language we project them into better defined concepts, allowing us to build these concepts into each other and form complex ideas. I imagine that this is a layered approach: basic feelings are built into aggregated ideas, which are built into concepts, which are given a name, which then form a sentence, and these sentences form a more complex idea which can then have its own label or representation. And thus we build knowledge.
So language, to me, is a key component of understanding. It is not simply a communication tool, it actually shapes our internal thoughts. Without language we are left confused, overwhelmed by our senses. Before language there was no humanity.
“In the beginning was the Word”
P.S.: This work is my own opinion. It is not rigorous and it is possibly flawed in ways that I cannot even imagine. I am not a scientist or a philosopher, I just like to think about these things. I welcome criticism and counter arguments.