“The significance, purpose, underlying truth, etc., of something.” – Meaning number one from the Oxford English Dictionary
I think that the world or universe does not have any intrinsic meaning attached to it. As a corollary, I think that it is us (humans) that give meaning to our world. In my view the world does not come with labels attached to it. We use language to provide the words we attach to things we find in the world. But, it is important to remember “that the word is not the thing.” This is a word is not the same as what it names or points to in the world. Of course, language does more than just name things; it provides ideas, concepts, feelings, actions, and a lot more.
Now one would think from this first paragraph that I think that we think in language. I do not. The first thing to say is I think that the brain is responsible for all our thoughts as well as our feelings, perceptions, memories, and behavior among a whole lot more. Of course, the brain also produces language, a task at which it is supremely adept. This is not to say that we don’t make mistakes when we speak or write.
Given that the language centers in the brain are in locations different from cognitive production in the prefrontal cortex, it seems likely from this that we do not think in language. That is the number one reason why I do not think we think in language.
Another thing that supports my view of thought is that language use seems so fluid. Most of the time words, and sentences, and groups of sentences, and groups of groups of sentences seem to just flow without conscious effort. This is even more pronounced in a language like Spanish, which is spoken at a faster pace. Of course, we do have to stop and wait for an appropriate word or grouping of words to come into our consciousness at times. But, that does not show that we are thinking in language; it just shows that language production itself has some fits and starts to it.
Another thing about language to consider is there are thousands of languages, as well as, creoles, pidgins, and many more extinct languages to boot. Now, is it really plausible that the brain is capable of thinking in such a multiplicity of languages. It is much more probable that the language components of the brain handle this huge amount of different languages, leaving the thinking component free to do its fantastic job.
There is also the fact that we at times, some of us more than others, think in images, that is visually. Sometimes when I cook I envision how I am going to accomplish the dish at hand. Naturally, recipes are written in language, but if you have spent anytime looking at cooking blogs, they are filled with pictures, which for some people can be a real help. It is not just food blogs, but a lot of cookbooks also have pictures of the steps necessary to complete the recipes in them.
Other uses of pictures are graphs – these are a visual depictions of mathematical relations (also see the next paragraph); comic strips and political comics use illustration to give a better sense of the meaning involved; any pictures at all really can provide meaning – they are suppose to be worth a thousands words; and moving pictures (movies and television shows) gives us vastly more information than just the dialogue.
One also finds people who are able to think in a musical way as was recently pointed out to me. There is some thought process that is marrying sounds with sounds. Than there is mathematical thought. While mathematics uses symbols, which is what most words are, other than a small portion of signs, the flow of numerical thought is quite different than what people usually do with language.
While I have thought about how we do not think in language before, the impetus for writing this blog was my cat Baxter, or the conversation I had with my friend Bette on what the hell he was thinking. It was then that I said that we are the ones who give meaning to Baxter’s thought. Not that he does not have thoughts of his own, but being without the ability to express them in language his ability to have meaning himself is limited.
So, what role does language play if it does not play a role in thinking. I think language is a translation of thought, but not thought itself. Language is one of the most conscious of all mental phenomena. I have come to think that consciousness serves as a focusing device, like a magnifying glass. In other words, what we need to pay most attention to is what is in our conscious awareness. So, language gives us a focus on our thoughts.
Language’s most prominent role is communicating with others. It allows us to transfer our thoughts to other people. At least the thoughts we desire to share, with the possibility of slip ups, giving thoughts that we would not have wanted to share otherwise. Here, I am not talking about Freudian slips of the tongue, which I do not deem to be a window to unconscious thought. These Freudian slips are probably just a brain malfunction. After all, the brain is not likely to operate perfectly.
Getting back to thought itself, I wish to say a bit more. Obviously, the brain has numerous subsystems so to speak with lots of connections to other subsystems. In this respect the brain is modular, but some modules are more connected than others.
Two areas that I think are intimately connected are our thinking and feeling zones of brain activity. There is enough brain imaging studies to show that when humans are thinking, not only are these areas (which could be multiple) active, but at the same time the areas that produce feelings, or emotions, are active as well.
One particularly well studied part of neuroscience is decision making. It seems that we do not make decisions without also having feelings at the same time. By the way, I think the strongest feeling at decision time is freewill. That is right freewill. I think freewill is an emotion, and not a decision maker.*
Now, with language we command the world of meaning within and without. From within it is us that provides the meaning to our lives; we do not and cannot receive it from anywhere else (see below). Granted, some people are at loss when it comes to providing a meaning to their lives and to their activities. Their lives can seem dull or trouble to themselves and others.
From positive psychology (which I am no big fan of) studies have shown that people who say they are happy live meaningful lives and do meaningful activities. However, happiness is a complex set of differing emotions. Joy, pleasure, peacefulness, and in the groove are among the different emotions and feelings associated with happiness. So, what one person means by being happy and another person means by being happy can differ more or less. My big qualm is that these happiness studies rely on questionnaires to assess a person’s happiness. While a well design questionnaire is harder to put a positive spin on it, all questionnaires can be problematic.
Some people turn to the god they believe in, or have faith in, to provide a meaning for their lives. I do not see this as a possibility because I do not believe there is any god or gods to provide that meaning. Is salvation really a goal of life; it seems more like a goal of death to me. I do feel that a person’s belief in god can give them encouragement or strength to help he or she to carry out the meaning that he or she gives to his or hers own life.
What meaning we give to our world matters a lot. Those that see a fearful world, or those that attach other negative meanings or connotations to their world will in general be unhappy. Those that see it more positively will in general be more happy. I said their world because each of us live in our own world of meaning, but a large portion of our worlds is shared. This situation is a milder brand of solipsism (“
But, life is variable and so is the world. This means that the meaning we find in the world changes. A look at the different concepts used through history to understand the world confirms this. At one point humans tended to find the world full of spirits, which over time solidified into gods, eventually becoming a single god for most humans. Then, physical explanations started to appear, and science became the major way that humans understood their world. Of course, there are those who still cling to supernatural explanations, but they do not explain the world as well, if at all.
Can the meaning we give to the world be wrong? Most definitely, yes. We may attach what ever meaning we want to the world, but the world does not have to answer to our meaning of it. Giving the correct meaning to the world helps us to better navigate it. If you look outside and you think it is not raining, and then go outside without an umbrella you are likely to get wet. I know this is trivial sounding, but it points out directly where meaning can go wrong. After all, truth matters despite what some philosophers might say.
This leads me to bring up my idea that the world is not logical. While the world might be one way or the other, there is no if p then q in it. Logic maybe a good tool to apply to the world, but the world has no intrinsic logic it to it, just like it has no intrinsic meaning. Actually, formal logic is not really all that helpful outside of certain applications, such as science, if even there. The world is too gray for a two-valued logic to hold for most things. Life is not black and white most of the time. An multi-valued logics are not precise enough to be of much value.
Actually quantum physicists for the most part think that in the smallness of the atomic world two-valued logic does not apply. There appears to be no law of the excluded middle, that Aristotle set down long ago. The law of the excluded middle is something is either A or not A. Without this law if something is not true it does not mean it is false, and if something is not false it does not mean it is true, as with the law of the excluded middle. For instance, in quantum physics if a particle is unobserved it has no position, it only has a probability that it is one place or another.
Does this mean humans are necessary to observe the quantum world for it to be one way or another? I do not think so. For one, quantum mechanics is a mathematical theory in that it takes mathematics to describe it. It makes it very exact. Quantum mechanics is probably the most accurate theory science has provided us with. Anyway, in the mathematics of quantum mechanics indeterminism is smack dab in the middle of it, so to speak. It is only measurement that provides an exact position within the scheme of quantum mechanics. Second, while I have not read about this, I think it is possible that when the atomic world encounters other aspects of the world, such as other atomic events, this provides the exactness to the world necessary for determinism of above the quantum level without human observation. And last, the universe had been fine before humans were ever around to make a quantum observation.
Also, when dealing with two-valued logic, the sorites paradoxes need to be considered. This occurs when there are definite end points, but the intermediate points are not definite. An example is a sand pile. One grain of sand does not make a pile, neither does two or three and so on. But, at some point we have a pile of sand by adding one grain at a time. Multi-valued logics while thought to be helpful by some is just to imprecise to be really useful. Does it really help to say that we have 30% of sand pile or whatever you have to analyze that it has intermediate positions.
Now, the sand pile maybe a rather trivial example, but life situations are not. Think about our obligations. How obligated am I to help out a friend? There are a lot of depends involved. How good of a friend is he or she, how much can can I help this friend, or do I have something that conflicts, and thus prevents me from fully helping my friend. See how messy the world is. By the way, all of these consideration involve giving some meaning to the situation other than the facts of the matter (my friend lives next door or in the next town). The meaning we desire to provide the situation with is still mostly up to us.
Yes, the world is messy. Yes, meaning can be messy too. Most meaning is complex. After all, we rarely use single words, and we rarely use single sentences, and we often do not use even single paragraphs to produce the meaning we attach to the world.
Should I have to qualify the messiness of the world because of the simplicity of the forces of physics, which rules all things in the universe? Not really. While the universe is ruled by a small set of forces and twelve fundamental particles and the particles responsible for carrying out the four basic forces, their combinations are virtually infinite. Virtually, of course, because while the number of combinations between particles and the forces are stupendously large they are still finite, thus their combinations are still finite. But, I bet you cannot count them all.
So, the universe, as far as science can tell, is both simple and complex. It is simple because the forces and particles that determine the universe is a small set. It is complex because the number of combinations allows for such complexity as the human brain, which is said to be the most complex thing in the universe.
Oh, without my brain none of this blog would be possible.* Ultimately, the brain is responsible for all meaning in the world – complexity contemplating complexity.
If the universe is ruled by deterministic rules and a finite amount of matter, is there any freedom in the universe? A lot of people wish that at the very least they have the ability to make their own choices. Well, they do have the ability; it is just that the ability is produced by the brain, which is part of the deterministic world.*
Oh, what about randomness? Randomness does not really save the day because this would make our choices being made in a willy-nilly fashion. So, the supposed randomness of quantum physics cannot save the day for free choice proponents. I am using the term free choice instead of freewill because I do not think freewill as free choice exists.* Quantum physics, which seems to force on us the idea that randomness is ultimately the beginning of all action down at the atomic level.
Where does this leave determinism? I think it leaves it basically unchanged. It is not that there is randomness at the quantum level, but that these quantum actions are uncaused. Randomness enters the picture because of the probabilistic wave equation used in quantum mechanics. But, the equation itself is deterministic – you plug in the numbers and presto-chango out comes an answer. So, determinism is still there; it is just that noncausal quantum actions are responsible for all actions deep down at the very bottom of things. To me uncaused does not mean randomness. Also any noncausalness goes away once the level above the quantum one is reached. From here its cause all the way up.
So, quantum physics does not rescue free choice. Yet, I do think we possess freewill; this is because I think freewill is an emotion as I mentioned earlier. Without it our deterministic choices would not be carried out. Whenever we make a decision the emotional center in the brain is just as active as the rational center. I take this to mean freewill is an emotion. It is a necessary component in carrying out our actions. Without the emotion freewill we would not act at all. Of course, this does not save some of us from a deterministic brain because the brain determines our emotions as well as are thoughts.*
Finally, since this is a blog about meaning, I would like to say something about the sticklers of language. These are people who insist that certain words are not really words. I just saw a newscaster say that irregardless is not a word. She said “it wasn’t in the dictionary.” Well, it is in the dictionary at dictionary.com. Though, it is stated that it is nonstandard. The standard is regardless – no “ir” to it. But, if you are in a conversation with someone, and he or she uses irregardless, I bet you understand what she or he means.
This goes for phrases and whole sentences. In a book review I wrote I used the phrase worser and worser. I feel that the majority of readers knew what I meant – things are even worse than we supposed. I say whole sentences because we often come across ungrammatical sentences from time to time, yet we usually understand what is being said or was written. Even a sentence that uses only “dictionary words” and its grammar is meticulous can still be misunderstand.
Misunderstanding is rife. Even when we use the same words, they often carry more than one meaning. I take this as buyer (of words) beware. This is why it is so important that we make clear what we mean by defining a word or words when disagreement raises its head, not necessarily its ugly head because disagreements can be fruitful. We often need to reevaluate are thinking. Disagreements can do this. They can either lead to a change in our thinking or lead us to provide better reasons for our thinking, if we pay the attention the disagreement deserves.
I was once in a conversation about belief. One person insisted that if someone believed something about him it carried with it the assumption that in the speakers mind that it was true. This follows from a philosophical view of belief, which he apparently knew nothing about. If he did, he would have known that beliefs do not necessarily have to be true. If beliefs are true, this amounts to knowledge in most philosophers’s books (catch the pun). The other person was talking of belief in a psychological sense – that beliefs were firmly held thoughts. She, however, did not try to negate the other person’s meaning. She was only seeing belief in other terms, where he could not give up his meaning of the term. He was in distress because of this, so real world communication has important consequences.
In addition to definitions it is often necessary for people to be aware of and give their presuppositions when communication goes awry. Without these presuppositions being made clear significant communication is not possible in these situations. Arguments just do not follow through from one person to the next. This kind of thing often comes up in religious discussions, where the believer has a different world view than the nonbeliever, based on different presuppositions. So, any common understanding is unlikely. It is not impossible, but it takes extreme clarity to bring understanding about.
I close with the hope that my readers will get what I mean; Baxter certainly does.
At least when he is awake.
* See my blog – Why Are People Afraid of Their Brain?