Monday, December 03, 2007

Distrust of Language

Ok I spent a good chunk of yesterday watching Richard Dawkins's 5 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children "Growing up in the Universe" which is now conveniently found on the web. It is full of the sciency goodness that I have loved since I was a child, and, despite the title of the lecture series, is a bit more challenging than one might expect. The material, while presented in a straightforward manner, wasn't exactly 8th grade science, either. I found that quite provocative, actually, since many folks try to dumb stuff down for kids. I think Dawkins deserves credit for making the lectures interesting (with some, at times, dodgy props) yet challenging for the kids in the audience.

Through the series of lectures, Dawkins laid out the ideas about the origins of life, the influence of natural selection, designed vs. "designoid" things, how seemingly improbable structures such as the eye can evolve, and how we humans developed such big brains and what those big brains mean to our evolutionary status. I was particularly struck by the final lecture, which Dawkins explored the brain. While listening to it, I suddenly understood why he finds linguistic-based studies so problematic: he openly states that language is a dangerous thing. (One of the 3 dangerous things to humanity, the others being technology and our brains inherent ability to perceive patters or contain a virtual reality.) For Dawkins language can be easily manipulated and distorted to provoke certain behaviors (such as religion one would suppose). Dawkins also does not accept the notion that we make reality out of our world through language. He prefers some sort of virtual reality model as opposed to a linguistic model to who we understand the world. He specifically states that there is little scientific evidence to show that language existed before our brains expanded in size (although I wonder how he deals with the recently revealved language abilities of other primates) and only concedes that it might be possible that we might have evolved an internal monologue before we developed an dialog with our fellow human beings.

I think this where the impasse might be between the two fields: he discounts the influence of language, whereas linguistic philosophy makes it everything--at least as far as our perception goes. I also can certainly understand better now why he thinks that post-modernists are so dangerous: they are, in his opinion, willfully manipulating language into nonsense, and, therefore, willfully misinterpreting data.

Fair enough, but I would point out that the very thing he is attacking in linguistic phenomenology is the very "virtual reality" that he says we also have to be careful of. Language creates a reality that we narrate to ourselves. It shapes how we see the world. It influences what we do and how we do it. Language, indeed, is not an aberration of evolution but one of those peaks that Dawkins speaks of in his "Mount Improbable" analogy. It is how we make sense of this world and how we have achieved consciousness. Granted it is not everything in how we experience the world nor how we react to it, but it is the only means we have to work within the system and communicate with our fellow critters. In other words, there is no consciousness without language.

I still don't really get how Dawkins understands what our consciousness is.


  1. Good job on the article, I enjoyed it.

    The best explanation of consciousness I've come across is Edelman's Neural Darwinism. But, after having just finished Sartre's Nausea, I find it difficult to believe that language is necessarily tied to consciousness.

  2. I haven't read/thought of Sartre in a good long while, but I would refer you to his Being and Nothingness. As I recall he kind of ties into the notion of defining our existence through an interesting binary opposition of things: we know what existence is because we exist, but we create only an approximation of the opposite (non-being) because we can't really know what that is. That makes for some interesting space linguistically, I think. Anyway, I'm not doing his book justice.

    Suffice it to say, I'm not an ontologist by any means, so I should just shut up, but I am interested how our language is related to our consciousness. How we define ourselves through language. I realize, however, that this is a hugely reductive argument and would not take it very far. The mind and consciousness is quite complex and is made of various parts. I still maintain, however, that Dawkins continually rejects language as an important part of our being simply because he sees it as too slippery and too problematic--well maybe. I would need to read more of his thoughts on the nature of language. I some how doubt there is much, however. He, I think, has tied language to religion so much that he sees all of it as a bugaboo.

  3. On and thanks for the Edelman reference. I'll have to dig into it over the holidays.

  4. Interesting--I just came across these same lectures today, I believe on google video. Your last ideas there, about language/virtual reality/ consciousness etc., is also synchronistic--I just finished again reading Terence McKenna's Archaic Revival (and if you haven't read it or haven't read it for a long time I can't recommend it highly enough) and he makes an almost unarguable case for the symbiosis of language and consciousness, and also, some pretty amazing assertions for our continued evolvement.

  5. also--he is an amazing lecturer...there's a ton available on youtube and google--one in particular called "culture is not your friend." I love that.

  6. must find time to look at these videos; the promo images are kind of funny as they look like evangelical book covers. Is this on purpose?

    Also, I want to think more about your critique of Dawkin's notion of language. I think you are right that he discounts it. Maybe (and I just made a comment about this at HH's) he is uncomfortable with the reality that language fills the gap between now and when we understand something scientifically. This could lead to interesting discussions in upcoming lang and society course.