Reality and Language

timo.honkela at timo.honkela at
Mon Mar 27 07:38:55 UTC 2006

On Sun, 26 Mar 2006 Salinas17 at wrote:

> In a message dated 3/21/06 4:21:52 PM, mark at writes:
> << Reality couldn't possibly make language intelligible. At best, a person's 
> *understanding* of reality might be claimed to make language intelligible. I 
> can't imagine what the universe would have to be like for reality to intervene 
> directly in language processing. >>
> (Please forgive the late response.)  
> If you want to experience "what the universe would have to be like for 
> reality to intervene directly in language processing," all you have to do is wake up 
> in the morning.
> I find yours a strange statement and I'm amazed that there was so little 
> reaction on the list to it.
> I presume that you are talking from some kind of non-scientific or mystic 
> point of view.  Which I respect, but it has nothing to do with science or 
> hopefully this forum.

I understand Mark's comment from quite a different point of view. His 
comment is quite short and gives thus, of course, room for many kinds 
of interpretations. For me, though, the first interpretation is the 
one that has nothing to do with non-scientific or mystic point of 

A side remark: In general I have found some recent communications in 
the list have been quite unscientific (to use this beloved term) 
because of many kinds of examples of fallacious argumentation (see, 
for examples, Some 
categories (quoting the web site):

- Ad hominem: attacking the person instead of attacking his argument. 

- Appeal to anonymous authority: an appeal to authority is made, but 
  the authority is not named. For example, "Experts agree that ..", 
  "scientists say .."

- Bad analogy: claiming that two situations are highly similar, when 
  they aren't.

- Argument by emotive language (appeal to the people):
  using emotionally loaded words to sway the audience's sentiments 
  instead of their minds.

- Argument by selective reading: making it seem as if the weakest of 
  an opponent's arguments was the best he had.

- Inflation of conflict: arguing that scholars debate a certain point. 
  Therefore, they must know nothing, and their entire field of 
  knowledge is "in crisis" or does not properly exist at all. 

One would be tempted, for example, to follow these recent tendencies 
by saying that one should not take seriously a scholar who uses 
spelling "Chomskyian" (this is not what I personally think but let's 
use it as a new example of fallacious argumentation).

Back to the original question: You mention that

> Over the long term, the real objective world has shaped our language.  I 
> think that the categories of grammar -- noun, verb, etc. -- mirrors what humans 
> have learned about the world -- that it contains objects and actions, an arrow 
> of time reflected in tense and conditionality, etc.  There may be alternative 
> "realities" but human language has done a very good job of storing a fair 
> picture of the independently existing real world.  Our technological prowess 
> demonstrates this, I believe.

I don't see a great mismatch with your point of view and when Mark 
says, "[a]t best, a person's *understanding* of reality might be 
claimed to make language intelligible." As you say, the real objective 
world has shaped our language over the long term. This shaping process 
has taken place through human beings, individual persons' 
understandings. A very large number of individuals have contributed to 
the formation of the language*s*, the great variety of them, not to 
forget the individual level (we all have a language of our own that 
probabilistically resembles more or less the language of some other 
person - I am aware of the "private language argument" and quite 
critical towards the common formulations of it that do not take into 
account the statistical nature of language learning and emergence). 

The languages mirror the world thanks to this process of distilling. 
However, the process is far from deterministic and "logic-based". 
Moreover, I think it is important to keep in mind what Maturana, 
Varela, von Foerster etc. have presented about the nature of living 
and cognitive systems. For instance, Von Foerster has presented very 
clear arguments supporting the idea that our primitive experiences do 
not consist of objects and events. The emergent mapping between 
emerging language and world is a culturally, socially and cognitively 
grounded complex process. Those regularities that are important for 
human being become reflected in our languages but there is no logical 
more or less one-to-one mapping between the language and the world 
(cf. e.g. early Wittgenstein as a prototypical proponent of such a 
debatable view that many logicians and formal semanticians still seem 
to support).

Best regards,

P.S. Heinz von Foester: Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things, 
BCL Report. No. 9.3 (BCL Fiche No. 104/1), Biological Computer 
Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of 
Illionois, Urbana, 24 S., 1972.  -- Reprinted in the books "Observing 
Systems" and "Understanding Understanding".

Timo Honkela, Chief Research Scientist, PhD, Docent
Adaptive Informatics Research Center
Laboratory of Computer and Information Science
Helsinki University of Technology
P.O.Box 5400, FI-02015 TKK

timo.honkela at,

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