Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Miraculous Thought Transference

I've already blogged about what I didn't like about Mark Pagel's TED talk. I'm not going to beat up on it more, specifically. Rather, I'd like to problematize the meme that he kicked it off with.
"Each of you possesses the most powerful, dangerous and subversive trait that natural selection has ever devised. It's a piece of neural audio technology for rewiring other people's minds. I'm talking about your language, of course, because it allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else's mind, and they can attempt to do the same to you, without either of you having to perform surgery." [emphasis added]
Hopefully by now, you've caught on to my own subversive juxtaposition. Briefly, I think this meme is cuter than it is true.

I call it a meme, because I seem to recall it showing up in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, and I'm sure it's popped up other places too. Obviously, this meme brushes right up against other issues regarding language and thought. For instance, is language the structure of thought, and does language somehow constrain our thoughts? I'm not well versed enough in these issues to comment, and I only mention them here in order to say that I won't be saying anything about them, except for what I have already said.

Did that make sense? If so, I have succeeded in externalized telepathy. If not, that's sort of my point. Unsuccessful thought implants are a pervasive fact. Just ask the customer and the project leader, or the teacher and the student. If it were so easy to implant thoughts in others' minds, would schooling really take so long? Perhaps thought implant rejection can be blamed on external factors, like inattention on the hearer's part, or the complexity of the thought being transmitted, but I'd be surprised if that was all there was to it.

I'd guess, and this is where I enter into purest speculation, that successful communication between a speaker and hearer has a lot more to do with the fact that people are willing to attribute minds and intentional stances to just about anything, including other people, than with the design specifications of language.

In fact, the ability to implant (false) beliefs in someone else's mind is most definitely not only possible within the domain of language. Just ask Marcel Marceau.

Or, puzzle over this interesting item.

Perhaps language is better  than other natural forms of communication at transmitting propositional content, but it's certainly not ideal for it either. If it were, then there wouldn't have been any need to develop formal logic, or propositional calculus.

So there is the problem that I want to create for this meme. Language does not really "implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else's mind," and insofar as it does, it doesn't do so uniquely above all other forms of communication. It's a pretty meme though, sort of like a poem about linguistics, and it's attention grabbing. But if it matters whether it's true and accurate, I don't think it stands up.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Joe, I haven't seen the TED talk yet, but a couple thoughts on the language as thought-transfer idea: certainly language is but one way to transfer information. All communication, by definition, is information transfer. The question we need to be asking is, what, if anything, is special about language as a communication system. Certainly language has many formal properties that set it apart from other animal communication systems and from the miming of Marceau. But this in itself does not help to answer the central question: how is our cognition impacted by our use of this system. I subscribe to the position that language affects all sorts of cognition we wouldn't want to call "linguistic." So, for example, hearing a word can literally change what one sees. This is not because seeing is linguistic and it's not because the structure of thought is linguistic (Peter Carruthers has a BBS paper called Cognitive Functions of Language where he struggles (badly) with the language and structure of thought question). I think the way to make progress is to stop thinking of language as a thing that is out there. Rather, we can think of language as a neural modulator. There is nothing "linguistic" in the miming of Marceau, yet by virtue of our having acquired a language, the mimes may automatically activate words, sentences, propositions. So, having learned a language, our experiences become colored by it. Take color. There is nothing linguistic about a particular color, yet having learned the word "green" turns the experience of seeing something green into a (partially) verbal experience. The name is rapidly and automatically activated and (literally) modulates the visual process. It also allows us to activate a greenness in another person by simple use of the word. That activation is not identical to actually seeing green, but it's similar.



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