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July 15th, 2020
Does human language really make as much sense as we think it does? Or is this coherence an illusion bolstered by our total immersion in the medium?
We certainly like to think we're making sense. But so do the characters in any fantasy novel, or science fiction movie. And we as readers and watchers go along with the odd logic, the magic, the unknown science. This is referred to as suspension of disbelief. We suspend some sort of common sense notion that what we are seeing or reading is not something we could possibly believe. And this trick of the mind allows us to 'temporarily' believe in the unbelievable. Seems legit, but what if the division here is not so clean as theatre critics like to pretend.
What if, we are in fact quite prone to believing in nonsense? Well, this certainly seems true of other people. Conspiracy theorists of every variety seem perfectly capable of believing the unbelievable - at least as it's described by anyone who isn't apart of that group.
The problem is of course that these terms are relative when smeared across the topics of conspiracy theories and theatre productions lacking a 4th wall. We do a lovely job of compartmentalizing these different aspects of experience with unsettlingly ease, all the while failing to see the spinal cord of human psychology that runs smoothly through each one.
It's likely we compartmentalize like this, and we invent quaint terms like 'suspension of disbelief' because it casts us in an ideal light of control. It's as though we consciously choose to suspend certain mental faculties in order to enjoy a drama at the theatre, but those conspiracy theorists holding their signs and shouting on the street corner? Oh they have nothing to do with this mental phenomenon of choice when it comes to belief.
The reality seems as though it might be backwards. Instead of being in control of what and how and why we believe something, it's that our attention can become magnetized by beliefs and concepts without our explicit and conscious choice.
The larger point is that all of language, or at least a huge majority of the language we use and the communication we engage in, might only make sense on it's own terms. Think for a moment really, how often does language of any verbose nature really touch the brick and mortar aspects of reality? Certainly the shorter uses of language ping off of solid reality all the time.
Did you take out the garbage?
Are the kids in bed?
Where is the remote?
These all concern the physical orientation of reality, and luckily, their coherence is really dependant on our experience of physical reality. Things fall apart when we just imagine the garbage where it's supposed to be, respond that it's been taken out, and then deal with the consequences later when our failure to report on the actual nature of reality is discovered. In that case it looks as though we've lied.
But the more verbose uses of language, for example, this very post and episode can and should be questioned about the way it makes sense. You might understand each sentence in turn, and find the larger point brightening in your mind, but to what degree do these words touch base with solid, verifiable reality in the same way that the earlier questions do? Certainly far less.
These words could, in reality, be spinning a cognitive fiction. Of course, isn't this what we're always trying to do when we build an arguement or a case to try and convince anyone of anything? How persuasive do the words really need to be if the argument regards some facet of brick and mortar reality that we can touch and see? Given the amount of dissension and disagreement that perpetually abounds and resounds throughout culture, the answer seems to be that we do need to speak very persuasively about obvious things. Now that doesn't sound quite right, but at the same time it paints an accurate picture of our discourse. So what's going on?
Perhaps it's the discourse itself that contains the problem. Not the way we use it, but the medium itself: language. Each word, afterall, is a concept, and not the thing it refers to, like boat. The word boat as you hear it or see it on the page is a piece of reality that isn't actually connected in any direct way to a thing that floats in the water that you might use to travel. That connection exists indirectly through our minds as they exist in the form of a network that hosts all these words.
What if that network of words has attributes that allows it to become untethered from physical reality? It certainly seems to be the case. And we don't have to point at hot opinions about the current state of public discourse. We need only think of Harry Potter or Star Wars, or Game of Thrones. These are primarily vast constellations of words that purposefully separate from the reality that we experience on a day to day basis. The proof is in the pudding in that you can drown in these fictional puddings. Whole swathes of time pass while you immerse yourself in a fantasy world and quite literally forget about the real world, all because of language.
So how do we assess the language that's being used around important topics? How do we ensure that we don't talk each other into a mutually crazed la-la land that leaves the bunch of us walking off the edge of a cliff without noticing as we describe an endless ground that we can trick ourselves into seeing?
Language and communication is always at risk of this sort of mistake.
The only safeguard consists of a counter-intuitive practice: we must regularly seek to separate emotion from language in order to inspect the meaning that is being conveyed across the plains of communication. It's the emotionally laden language that can turn our minds into hot balloons that rise unanchored off into an unreality that blinds us more and more from what's going on. When we shuck the emotional resonance from the words we use, we begin to see them in an honest light, one untainted by momentary swings of feeling. And this practice, this discipline is something that Tinkered Thinking continually attempts to achieve, by dissecting the words and the concepts we use, not with a heavy or hot heart, but with a placid wonder, and a curiosity that is not afraid to question even itself.
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