Saturday, December 19, 2009

Comments on meaning in language

Our very social fabric is composed of the network of commitments and agreements by which culture is given forceful authority in our daily life. These commitments and agreements are sacrosanct objects which typically exist in a latent form that shields them from criticism, known in detail by small groups of specialists whose knowledge asymmetry serves to cement them against change. Our conscious awareness of culture exists within our cognition not of the present or past but of the future, as it interacts with and defines our planned course of action.

The philosopher and the revolutionary should not forget, however, that despite the grand vistas of social theory, most of which focus on some or other aspect of the rational design of societies, the world in which we live is very much the product of a mindless process that lacks telos, namely evolution. Evolution expresses itself through every dynasty; it is not a phenomenon restricted to genetics. A perfect illustration of the failure of rationality-based descriptors is in the simple act of commitment.

Supposing Alex asks Beth to do some action. Beth then responds with the assurance "I will". In common usage, this phrase amounts to a pledge that entails some level of commitment to the course of action under discussion. It represents an agreement between Alex and Beth as to some future action by Beth. Commonly, "I will" is said with different words: "OK", "You betcha", "For sure", "A'ight", etc.

The agreement describes a future event. When presented with choices, Beth will choose a course of action that fulfills her agreement. The state of affairs can be characterized in one of two ways.

1) Beth has free will. Therefore her choice is free and she cannot meaningfully commit to or predict her future action. Since the statement is a prediction of a future action, it becomes meaningless.

2) Beth does not have free will. Therefore she has no choice, so she cannot choose to do a particular thing. Since the statement is a declaration of a particular choice, it becomes meaningless.

A nonsensical statement is completely devoid of meaningful content. Philosopher Robert Solokowski ranks these statements below false statements (he feels that semantics are the basis of meaning). He gives an example: "My cat is a filibuster" as being something that cannot even be evaluated as false. In a processing sense, what this and other nonsensical statements do is simply feed data from one function into another function that normally takes a different data class.

Similarly, "I will" seems to contain data from two mutually exclusive worldviews, free will and determinism. Therefore, it is a nonsensical statement. Furthermore, this argument holds without loss of generality for any commitment by any individual within a society. This is symptomatic of a grave error in certain approaches to social theory that seek to describe activities in terms of rational telos.

Of course, people in their daily lives are only troubled by the difficulties of theory insofar as political leaders attempt to use theories to solve real world problems.

It is likely, and perhaps best, that the scientist (or the scientific philosopher) will need to abandon the futile search for meaning in and through language and settle for a more structural and functional understanding of our culture. This example, at least, indicates to me that languages are a great deal more subtle and abstract than commonly believed, and that our philosophy is grossly inadequate and probably best developed not through analysis within historically established modes of thought but through the collaborative and experimental development of completely new ways of thinking.

No comments: