You can’t understand without love

July 7, 2014 § 6 Comments

 [5] And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building.

[6] And he said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. [7] Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their tongue, that they may not understand one another’ s speech. [8] And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city. [9] And therefore the name thereof was called Babel, because there the language of the whole earth was confounded: and from thence the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all countries. — Genesis 11:5-8

The relationship between symbols and meaning is one of the deep mysteries of philosophy, and anyone who tells you otherwise, who thinks that we have it mostly figured out, is most likely just ignorant. Familiarity doesn’t primarily breed contempt, it breeds an ignorant indifference; and because every moment of our lives is meaningful we tend to think of meaning as something that we hold firmly in our grasp.  The same is true of other everyday mysteries like time, space, consciousness, love, moral right and wrong, virtue and vice, cause and effect, etc.

Meaning is something that modern people think they can tame and manipulate with language. Rather than viewing language as a desperate and fragile attempt by a conscious being to use formal symbols to trigger familiarity in other minds, modern people view language as an assertive thing, something that creates the reality desired by the will, something inherently manipulative the purpose of which is to trigger behaviors in other people. They think of meaning in language as something verified by behavior. They think that language is a tool, which can be used to build a tower to Heaven.

But in the real world language and meaning don’t work that way.  When human beings attempt to build a tower to Heaven to be like God, they just end up looking even more foolish and small — and their language becomes confused.

Part of the modern confusion about language comes from the conflation of information and meaning. According to information theory there is less “information” in a coherent English sentence than there is in a random string of characters of the same length. The reason is precisely because symbolic “information” does not contain any meaning in itself: it unlocks meaning, and the more meaning that can be unlocked by a string of characters in a shared context the less actually needs to be said.

This confusion has been made worse by the anthropomorphisation of computers and other machinery.  It is bad enough that dogs think of their humans as dogs and humans think of their dogs as humans; but the notion that computers apprehend meaning is as widespread as it is manifestly wrong.

In the real world, language is a fragile symbolic means of attempting to awaken another mind to a shared apprehension of meaning.  So it is no wonder that attempts to use language positivistically end up destroying the possibility of shared apprehension of meaning.

§ 6 Responses to You can’t understand without love

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