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The Hidden Bias of Language

Years ago I learned that when the Scottish Enlightenment said they loved “Equality” and when the French Philosophes echoed that same sentiment, they were talking past each other. Hume and Locke wanted a voluntary equality of opportunity, while the French wanted a compelled equality of result. But there is no indication that either side understood that the same word meant different things across the English Channel. As a result, it took much longer for the rest of the world to understand the intellectual horror that was the French Revolution.

We tend to think that language is a way of communicating information. But we often miss that language, far more often than we tend to realize, also shapes how we perceive and understand information in the first place. In this respect, language forms a part of our underlying ways of thinking, which means that it also guides our words and deeds.

In conversations on Ricochet, I often encounter people who claim that logic and reason (“Athens”) is its own truth. But I think that this, too, only is possible if we are not aware of the language that we use. We think logic is universal and obvious and true and consistent with mathematics. And yet different scientific communities use different logic!!! Biologists and Chemists and Physicists have entirely different languages, languages that cannot be properly translated from one to the next – but practitioners are sure that they are rational and logical and right. Of course, scientists can be right and consistent – but only within their specific languages, not outside them. The Newtonian F=MA is not even directly translatable to Einsteinian physics, let alone to chemistry or the squishier studies.

Each language provides its own reality, which means that biologists and physicists live, in any way we can judge, in different worlds. Given the exact same phenomena, experts in different fields immediately diverge by finding a way to translate the data into something that their language can parse. This is both a powerful tool, and one that blinds us to other possibilities.

In this way, language can be like a road – it stretches forward into the future, but simultaneously sequesters our gaze away from the rest of the possible paths all around. In sports, this would be “keeping our eye on the ball.” In business, we would call this “focusing on the KPI,” while in education this is called “Learning to the Test.” Every language employed by humanity probably has a shorthand expression for focusing on the primary goal to the exclusion of distractions. It is a good way to move forward, but we often ignore the cost.

As a generalist who is not within any specific technical world, I find that my conscious desire to reject the underyling assumptions of language can create a lot of friction from people who, unlike me, take language for granted.

Some time ago, for example, I pointed out that CO2 is plant food, only to be told by an intelligent and well-meaning Rico-member that plants, as autotrophs, make their own food – so CO2 cannot be plant food! This example captures exactly what I am trying to say: we are just as capable of making language obscure things, as we are to use it to illuminate. Saying that CO2 is not plant food is precisely the kind of confusion that blinds us to understanding that our categorizations and languages are really just a way of sorting things out to make them intelligible, not as a deep truths in themselves.

I have a long-running argument with a certain Natural Law enthusiast and philosopher who ended up rejecting my understanding that each person is given a divine soul (Genesis tells us that “G-d blew His spirit into Adam’s nostrils”) by saying that my claim was impossible, because it was “bad metaphysics.” It probably is – but I don’t speak metaphysics, and certainly do not assume that the language of metaphysics trumps the Torah. The language barrier between us ended that conversation, as well as others.

Elsewhere on Ricochet I dug into a discussion with @Climacus about whether the Creator is perfect, and it became clear to me that the biggest differences between our arguments came down to the concepts found within language, specifically, the idea of “perfection.”

I think everyone here knows what “perfect” means – it is such an ingrained idea in Western Civilization. But to me “perfection” is merely a construct, a Greek-invented notion that is not found with the Torah, but which has crept into dominant use across the world. Indeed, I don’t think perfection exists, can exist, or even should exist. I wrote on this some years ago.

What amazes me is how much the mere concept of “perfection” has wriggled its way into our understanding, so much so that we are blithely unaware of how thoroughly this concept has overwritten what we might otherwise have thought about G-d.

But even for people who claim to have no religious belief whatsoever, these underlying linguistic and cultural foundations look very much like the ways in which religious practitioners believe and practice. For example, I know a prominent gay man of Jewish descent who insists on using the phrases, “crossing my fingers” and “knocking on wood.” As far as I understand it, those superstitions are how he makes sense of his world. He is far too smart to believe in G-d. But his language is functionally itself a form of religion.

When we have a road in front of us, we also fool ourselves into thinking that everything must make sense in the context of that road. Specifically, we continue to limit our thinking because we use the words we know, to describe things that we do not know. For example, “Artificial Intelligence” sounds very good – but the ways in which a digital computer works are so different from the ways in which our own minds work that when we use terms from one to describe the other, those terms come with enough baggage to deeply confuse a proper understanding. Computers do not “think” as we do, just as we do not “retrieve” data the way a computer does. And once we start mixing-and-matching in order to get some kind of a translation, then advancement can stop cold. Very complex things (like climate modelling and recognizing objects around a car) so far are beyond the most advanced computers, even though most people – even quite stupid ones – manage to drive cars safely. “Better” computers in the way we measure them are not necessarily the way across the chasm between the ways in which computers and people think.

Language can lead us in precisely the wrong direction from a useful understanding of how things actually work. When it comes to innovation, technical language has often required alien concepts in order to change. For years, for example, creating a blue-emitting LED was a holy grail. Nobody could figure it out – they lacked the language to describe what they were even trying to do, until a chemist worked it out with two electrical engineers. Neither language could get there by itself. Most of the history of human innovation, after all, is well-stocked with folly, error, and misunderstanding.

If we are not careful, the language becomes our master; it becomes an inherent (but hidden) belief system. I think that the vast majority of the decisions that a person makes has nothing to do with conscious thought processes, and much more to do with all the unconscious layers that shape the ways in which we think. In other words, unquestioned assumptions, beliefs and presuppositions are at least as important as the things that we are aware that we have chosen to believe. We walk down a road because it is the path that is open in front of us; and in order to walk down the path, we don’t have to understand why or how it got there.

Seemingly-trivial questions, like “how do I get lunch?” or “What is that object over there?” are simple, but not because they are simple in themselves, but because we have internalized all the layers and layers of learned understanding, not just from the human form, but really from culture and language and tradition. All the things that make up society.

When we ask the same seemingly-obvious questions of someone with a different culture and language, we discover that, without even being conscious of the underlying discontinuities, people truly think differently from each other. It is patently obvious that the same person (in terms of DNA) will have a very different way of thinking if they were born and raised in a different country. The language and worldview of India and Ghana and Lichtenstein and New Jersey are quite contradistinctive, leading to different answers to presumably obvious questions. And that is just with squishy humans: computers do not even know where to begin when presented a question like, “how do I get lunch?”

It is hard to question our assumptions, and harder-still to question our presuppositions, the underlying belief system that allows us to function. Still, it is both helpful and illuminating to make the effort, if only to come closer to making sure that the things we believe are conscious decisions, as opposed to merely being inherited as part of our culture or upbringing. This is, as I hope I have explained, much more than merely a “Eskimos have 35 words for snow, and so they think about snow more seriously than we do” kind of thinking. At least snow is a thing, while the concepts of things like “truth” and “perfection” and “consciousness” are much important to our civilization, while being, at the same time, far harder to isolate in (and perhaps remove from) our thinking.

This kind of blithe ignorance about the different languages that we use makes it very difficult to move forward. It is not easy to get out of the linguistic-cultural boxes that we each inhabit. But I believe that we must try to do so, in order to save and advance civilization.

[Mostly iWe, with significant kibitzing from @susanquinn]

Comments are welcome!

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