Language is the main tool we have to communicate our vision of reality to others. We choose our words carefully to convey our point of view. But that perspective is itself already shaped by the language we use. Language is therefore far from being an objective medium that simply reflects the way the world is. We create different worlds using different vocabularies, even though we are still constrained by a language-independent reality. If we assume that its main purpose is to reveal the truth, it gives the impression that the language is deeply flawed. But if we come to understand language as a tool for convincing and persuading others, we can come to recognize its strengths, says Nick Enfield.
When primate scientist John Gluck began his research career in the 1960s, he took newborn rhesus monkeys from their mothers and raised them alone in bare steel containers, to study the effects of social isolation. Over time, he came to wonder why he was doing this and would soon deeply regret the hurt and suffering he had caused. In the midst of a successful scientific career, Gluck abandoned his research and instead focused on promoting animal welfare. Looking back, he identified a factor of particular importance in explaining how a good man can do bad things. This factor is language.
As a young, beginning scientist, Gluck liked the language of the branch of psychology known as behaviorism because it signaled an intellectual position. The behaviorist does not say that an animal is afraid, only that it avoids. He doesn’t say it’s smart, just accurate. It does not say that the animal is hungry, only that it is deprived of food or has a latency to consumption. This booth became part of Gluck’s identity within the culture of scientists doing animal experiments. Using the idiom of his teachers and peers, Gluck had elided – some might say erased – the inner experiences of the animals he worked with. “If you are to sanitize the language used to describe commonly used procedures,” Gluck wrote, “you have entered morally perilous territory.”
Just as language cannot create physical reality, it cannot simply reflect physical reality as it is.
On his way to this perilous land, Gluck had harnessed the power of language for two purposes. One was meaning-making: creating a version of reality that was consistent with the goals and actions he chose. The other was rationalization: providing justifications for those actions. When he understood the power of words to create and defend a world, John Gluck discovered something fundamental. Just as language cannot create physical reality, it cannot simply reflect physical reality as it is. It always imposes a doubly subjective vision, made up of the looks encoded in the spoken language and the look of the speaker who chooses the words used. Language is shaped by our subjective and calibrated view of reality. And in turn, our view of reality is shaped by language. Just as Gluck’s old worldview was made possible by the language he used, language would also play a role in reshaping that worldview, in bringing about his personal and professional redemption. Gluck’s story has a key idea: we create our worlds by the language we use.
This does not mean that words give us direct control, magical or otherwise, over raw reality. For example, in my time on Earth, nothing I could say would change the fact that I am subject to the force of gravity. We create worlds with language but that doesn’t absolve us from being indebted to physical reality. That is why the search for truth – a search that requires us to be fully aware of the biases that language and reasoning introduce – must be our highest calling.
Reason evolved to convince and persuade other people, win arguments with other people, defend and justify actions and decisions to other people.
Seekers of the mind have long known that human rationality is not an ideal tool for the search for truth. Our patterns of perception and reasoning constantly fall victim to an array of biases and shortcomings. In their 2017 book, The Riddle of Reason, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that this doesn’t mean human rationality is ill-suited for its purpose. This conclusion would only follow if the evolved goal of reason were to arrive at objective truth. Instead, Mercier and Sperber argue that reason evolved for another purpose. Human reason is as it is – “imperfect” if viewed as a tool of classical logic in the privacy of your mind – because it is in fact a social tool. Reason evolved to convince and persuade other people, win arguments with other people, defend and justify actions and decisions to other people. These functions can be performed whether the content of a proposition is true or not. I can benefit from convincing someone of something even if that thing is wrong. (That, of course, doesn’t imply that it’s good to convince people of wrong things!)
The idea that language is an infrastructure for social coordination and not for information transfer per se helps us to understand some of its shortcomings.
It is often said that human reasoning is not as balanced or unbiased as we would like to believe, that our inner scientist is actually an inner advocate. (With apologies to members of these two important professions, I use the terms “scientist” and “lawyer” as caricatures for two different ways of thinking about what language is for.) The scientist seeks to know the truth, while the lawyer seeks to persuade. And in persuading, the lawyer does not seek to discover the truth but to obtain what she wants (or to obtain what she wants). It does not seek to explain but to defend. And note that if the scientist can sometimes work alone, the work of the lawyer is necessarily social and language is his main tool.
The idea that language is an infrastructure for social coordination and not information transfer per se helps us understand some of its shortcomings: why language seems to fail us the way it does, why it is so ambiguous and approximate, why it distracts and harms, why it fails when we try to describe an experience or capture a deepest feeling. At the same time, the idea that language is a tool for coordination helps us understand why it can be so good at the things it is good at: directing people’s attention, arbitrarily framing situations, playing with people’s prejudices, adjusting our interactions, managing reputations and regulating social life.
One of the most dangerous properties of language is that it allows us to say things that are not true. The danger is not only that people are misled, but that the lie is more effective than the truth. Truth becomes a collateral victim of human sociality. The strength of human engagement with beliefs in supernatural entities and conspiracy theories – a kind of engagement found in human groups around the world – is based precisely on the disconnect between a statement and the reality it claims to describe. If a group of people collectively declare a belief in something that everyone knows deeply to be false, then the declaration, far from casting doubt, will function as an honest signal of each individual’s commitment to the group. Author Curtis Yarvin explains the appeal of unlikely ideas in building social movements. For the purposes of social allegiance, it is actually preferable that the belief that people coordinate with each other is demonstrably false: “Nonsense is a more effective tool of organization than the truth.” … Believing in nonsense is a demonstration of unfalsifiable loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army. It’s fine if your only goal is to secure loyalty by defending a position, but the reality will come for you at some point. While true soldiers may swear allegiance to magical ideas, they are ultimately in the realm of physical strength, not magic but raw reality par excellence. Once a ball flies, neither the words nor the beliefs they express can stop it.
As philosopher David Hume jokingly said, if you’re skeptical that there is a real world, you can leave through the second-story window.
This is why you cannot say that there is no reality beyond our ways of speaking, or that reality is what we say it is. This caricature of postmodern thinking – as if someone really lived off it – makes no sense in a world in which our species has evolved by natural selection, in which we depend on food, air, water, light and injury prevention to live through each. new day. Those who claim to doubt objective reality will always defer to that reality in a legal and predictable way. As philosopher David Hume jokingly said, if you’re skeptical that there is a real world, you can leave through the second-story window.
But considering physical reality as a matter of survival is quite different from coordinating around reality for social purposes. When we speak, our words create the versions of reality – whether social or physical – around which we agree to coordinate, such as when we want to affiliate with someone, influence someone, recruit help from someone or collectively assess a situation and practice. what happened, why and what action to take. Only by our audience shared versions reality that social coordination is possible. And it’s always right a version of reality around which we both coordinate. This version is the one we create with words.
This article is based on edited excerpts from Language vs. Reality by NJ Enfield (MIT Press March 2022).