Thoughts on the bus 1: thought experiments re language

I was on the bus this morning and had a couple thoughts re: the limits of language.

First set:

1) An evolutionary biologist could inform is that humans are actually animals. He could point to our similarities with the animals and show us bits of the evolutionary history and how slow and gradual it was, and how our categories break down at certain points (at what point do we say we became “human” in that history?).

2) Ask a microbiologist or chemist or neuroscientist what animals (including us) are. They may tell you that an animal is a huge, complex set of chemical processes. They can point to the cell, or the chemical make-up of the cell, or the way neurons seem to work etc.

3) Then ask a physicist what chemicals are. They may tell you chemicals are bonding clumps of atoms.

4) Ask a particle physicist what an atom is. He may tell you about protons and neutrons and electrons, as well as subatomic particles and entities such as quarks, quantum fields, spin, whatever else.

Now we can ask ourselves, which one of the above is right? Which one is real, or at least most real? The answer: none of them is right. Or, rather, each of them is right in its own context. What kind of context am I referring to? At least partly just the particular linguistic, cultural, and conceptual features of the case–that is, the social environment, how those various descriptions arise due to conventions which are tacitly agreed upon by those who use a given language (or, rather, discourse).

The truth is this: we don’t know what we are. At least we have a really hard time explaining ourselves to ourselves, and sometimes it’s also difficult to live with.

Our microscopes or telescopes and other tools can only go so far, either “down” to the bottom of what we are, or to the “top” (that is, what are we relative to the rest of the universe(s))? Our scientific language can sometimes catch a glimpse. And the slanguage of the heart can often connect us in ways that verbal language by itself never could, without that inner, subconscious emotional state, which is also a state of being (be-ing). Language is more than sounds or scribbles we make, or concepts we think; it’s how we present, how we open ourselves up to communication with others and with the world.

Our normal language is often hopelessly off the mark.

Second set (one more stringy thought and then I’m off):

1) Lets say an alien species is observing is. What do they see? Well, depends on how big they are, for one. Maybe they are microbe size, compared to us. So all they see are a bunch of cells in clumps moving around. They have no notion of there being anything beyond this level of description.

2) Lets say they are huge, either physically or intellectually and imaginatively. They wouldn’t see us at all or perhaps they would see us as we see ants, kind of small and industrious somewhat but still mysterious and maybe a little dumb, and their society as a kind of “ant hill.” Perhaps these aliens use telepathy or something and they think we are backwards for using sounds. Or they speak a purely mathematical language or something. I don’t know. You fill it in. Or maybe they consider the sounds nonsense and think the body language is the only thing that matters, in social interaction. They see our sounds as grunts or barks or meowing. Maybe they  just wouldn’t know any better? (And the thing is: some of the words we use are certainly meaningless–ask Hilary Clinton what honesty means to her.)

3) Lets say they can somehow communicate with us on our level. And they are trying to grasp the concepts of “human” vs “animal” vs “cells” etc. Maybe, from our descriptions, they mistake a car for an animal. We tell them that no, it isn’t one. We tell them it’s just a hunk of metal with wheels. They tell us they have similar “things” but that in their universe of discourse what we call “Cars” are thought of as having their own reality as fellow beings, as fellow “animals.” Maybe they evolved alongside car-like moving things and then, much later, the aliens realized that those animals are actually just self replicating machinery, put in motion by one of their own far in the their past. Anyway, they are open minded and they consider “life” just as a process that repeats itself, or whatever involving “reverse entropy” in some clumps of organized matter. So their universe is filled with life.

4) Lets say that the alien species comes from a planet like ours and they actually are like us and use verbal and written (and body) language. But let’s say they consider all their species as being “one” since they, (like us), require their environments, and their environments them. So many co dependencies, to even exist. They think in “We,” and don’t have words for “I” or “me.”

5) Lets say the alien species is actually humans in the future, time traveling somehow, maybe a bit evolved. Lets say that humanity became communist at some point and a part of their campaign was to eliminate individuality. That is, they started removing “I” and personal names etc, and maybe they were always connected somehow via their phones and internet (or the equivalency) and they vote on every decision they make, as one, by a random democratic vote. And they are always online because, let’s say, usually they are always in some kind of enhanced reality, where they implant something in your brain to make you hallucinate and see the world like you’re on acid or another powerful drug. It’s something that allows these future homo sapiens to be totally okay with the concept that because they are co dependent in a fundamental way they are actually one thing, or one person. We already say, “The Will of the People.” We do represent ourselves via some larger entity. These humans would be doing the same thing. Their language would describe the world in a vastly different way, most likely. It would be near incomprehensible to many of us.

Ok, off the mark enough for today. Peace ‘BE’ with you. 🙂



Thank you for visiting my blog! As I wrote in the “About Me,” I am not a professional philosopher or critic. I would say that I definitely have a passion for philosophy, especially, and I read a lot–and I like the idea of being able to share some of my thoughts and reflections on what I’m reading or on whatever other topic that I may find interesting. I majored in Philosophy and English at The University of Texas at Austin, and I currently work in Austin at a non-profit clinic where I coordinate a pediatric integrated behavioral health program. Please do feel free to comment on any of my posts or reach out to me with comments, suggestions, questions etc. Thanks again! I hope that at least some of what I write here will be enlightening.