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December 21st, 2018
Compare the usefulness of language in two different situations.
The first one is every day life, your job, your relationships, running errands, scrolling through social feeds, watching a movie, reading a book. How much of these things are a function of language? All of them are intimately tied to language and our use of it.
Now compare to the second situation: The effort to survive in the wilderness with absolutely no other person or help? How useful is language in this situation?
In this second survivalist situation, language might play some kind of tertiary role if we can find some way to write things down in order to log memory of things we’ve figured out, but chances are most of our efforts are not going to revolve around making the sounds of language and trying to make graphical marks.
This is all language is, a bunch of sounds and graphical marks. And it’s utility is completely dependent on the presence, interaction and contribution of other people.
How many times are we told to not care what people think? As though this is somehow freeing for our personalities to have more agency.
Is this not a bit of a contradiction to the fact that our greatest attribute as a species is our ability to cooperate? We have skyscrapers and Wikipedia and a global food system, not to mention rockets flying to space and robots exploring other planets, all because we have figured out how to cooperate with each other. And is not caring what other people are thinking and doing a core structure in the mechanics of cooperation?
Language as an invention is a construction that is purely for the purposes of finding out the details of what someone else thinks and feels. Whether this be a new found philosophical work that we are interested in, the instructions for a gadget that someone else built or a raging twitter feed full of hot tempers and stunted perspectives, language is the bridge between minds.
Those people who instruct not to care what people say or think are spelling out a kind of paradox since such a statement is riding on the core assumptions of language as a technology and therefore counting on the fact that someone listening will care about such a statement. This paradox is most elegantly illuminated in the following two sentences:
This sentence is false.
The previous sentence is true.
Here we run into a kind of zen koan, but if we look at the previous instruction to not care what people think, we can see another subtle form of this zen koan. It’s akin to saying, don’t care what anyone thinks, except the person who came up with this thought because it’s a thought worth caring about.
We might narrow our use by tacking on some stipulations: only care about what some people think. But which ones?
Such a path inevitably leads to a narrowing of knowledge and inputs, which is not good. While it is good to maintain a kind of information diet in order to free up concentration and attention for meaningful tasks, deliberate ignorance cements the problem into place.
We might find the advice to pay no heed to what people say or think very attractive, but why? Is it not almost always to forgo some kind of vulnerable emotional reaction we might have? The real problem here is not what people say, but how we integrate such things into our minds. If we can change our thinking to accept any and all incoming language with the full knowledge that we will be able to parse out what is important and useful and what is simply designed to try and get the best of us, then we open ourselves up to a much larger and more nuanced understanding of what our great game of cooperation is doing. And by doing this, we can, through a calm, thoughtful and peaceful lens determine a better way that we can be of use to our fellow people. If we spend our time merely reacting with hot emotions to everything we hear and read, then we rob ourselves of a thoughtful integration of everything we experience. We rob ourselves further by withdrawing the possibility of figuring out a more fulfilling way to live in relation to our fellow people.
In the realm of language, all things can be true, as we can demonstrate with paradoxical koans. The great balancing act is observing which parts of our language game map well onto reality. Unlike language, not all things can be true in the world of matter and the laws of physics.
This difference in scope between language and reality is both a source of great ill for our efforts of cooperation because people can pontificate fictions, but it also functions like a cattle prod for reality. By imagining with language some state of reality that we have never seen, we can push our manipulation of reality to test whether something dreamed in language is actually feasible, and through this imaginative stretch, we haul the configuration of reality through better and better iterations and improve the lives of ourselves and our fellow people.
Such a process is not without much crumbling on the part of language against the laws of reality. Dreams should be reimagined as fast as reality gives us feedback about what is possible.
It is only by moving through such huge amounts of fiction and testing them against reality in much the way a prospector will sift large quantities of rock to find gold, that we sharpen our nuanced understanding of reality and how to alter it for greater benefit.
Here lies the whittling tool for our use of language. By testing reality with action, we come across useful information far more efficiently than simply batting around ideas between people. Language is the infinity tool through which we can imagine anything, but reality is the validating tool that we must constantly use to hone our idea of the possible. By listening to the vast cacophony of people we share this world with, we can best get an idea of what actions we might want to take to try and improve reality.