Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Playing With Words, and Why It's Important

    This morning I had coffee with my parents, and we were talking for a bit about what I'm trying to do with this blog. For the most part, what I'm trying to do (and I might change the name of the blog to reflect this) is identify habits of thought that lead us astray or create unnecessary problems. I tried to illustrate with one of the topics for a posting I'm considering (about the role of the church and state in the institution of marriage), and my father remarked that he thinks I'm really just playing with words.

    His point, I think (and he can correct me if I'm wrong and if he ever can bring himself to get near the internet), was that much of my thinking here is really just about words, and not the things-in-themselves. To a large extent, this is true, of course, but there's more to it than that. Words shape the way we think about things, and if we allow them to do so unexamined, we can fall into errors that get us into trouble. To be sure, not all of the errors-of-thought I'm trying to identify here are explicitly verbal in nature; the queueing behaviour at airport baggage carousels may or may not be a result of "waiting for luggage" triggering the "waiting in line" program. But it is true that wherever the errors come from, I am writing about them using words, and that does transform them into word problems, in a sense.

    It's true, of course, that a lot of word-thinking is really just playing games, without much immediate practical consequence. (I won't say without any; as an avid gamer and student of games and game theory, I have yet to find any game that lacks practical cognitive benefits, with the possible exception of hockey). But I maintain that it's still important to be aware of words, and how they can lead us astray if we're not careful.

    For example, here's a problem that's really not a problem at all, but arises completely from our reliance on words and the mental concepts we attach to them. Look in a mirror. You'll notice your reflection has your head at the top, and your feet at the bottom, which is no big surprise. But raise your right hand, and your reflection raises his or her left hand. How can it be that the mirror flips things left/right, but leaves top/bottom unaffected? Isn't that weird, when you think about it?
    Well, like I said, it's just a word problem. Your right hand, and the hand raised by your reflection, remains on your right. The only reason we think it's the reflection's "right" hand is because we try to identify the reflection as a separate individual; we unconsciously rotate ourselves and place ourselves in the reflection's position, and realize that we'd need to raise our left hand to be seen the same way as the reflection. But it's only because we attach words like "left" and "right" to our hands, which are relative to the heading of the entity in question; the starboard side of a ship rotates as the ship does, remaining fixed relative to the ship but not to the world around it.
    A similar word problem arises with the old joke about the Thermos keeping hot things hot and cold things cold: how can it tell the difference? Our choice of words here makes us think the Thermos is doing two different things, when in fact it does only one: it simply retards the flow of heat between its inside and outside.

     Being confused about why the reflection raises its left hand, or how a Thermos can tell the difference between hot and cold, isn't really a serious problem for us most of the time. Most of us realize that the problem in these cases is illusory. Mirrors and Thermoses work just fine whether we understand them or not. Yet being confused about something is to be at a disadvantage in some way, and I tend to believe that we are always better off understanding something clearly than we are being confused about it.

     It's often said that clear writing is based on clear thinking; I'd also say that clear thinking depends on clear "writing". That is, even if you never put them on paper, the words you use to describe a concept play an important role in shaping your thinking, and if you're not careful, the words can lead you into error. Sometimes it's harmless, as with the Thermos or the mirror, but sometimes it can be disastrous, as with the "Wars" on drugs, crime, terror and so on. Declaring "war" on a problem is a fine bit of rhetoric for expressing the magnitude of one's resolve, but rhetoric rarely remains just rhetoric, and as we think of these campaigns as wars, we tend to look for martial solutions. It's no accident that drug enforcement today involves increasingly military weapons and tactics. It's also not surprising that, given the martial mentality, alternative suggestions (like, say, treating drug abuse as a health problem rather than a moral/criminal one) are frequently dismissed out of hand, often with patriotic contempt: "What sort of disloyal coward would even think of suggesting we negotiate terms with so evil an enemy? We'd be winning this war a lot faster if you lot would stop sympathizing with the enemy!"

     So words are very important, because thinking is important. We need to understand the problems we're faced with if we are to have any chance of solving them, and we really shouldn't skip that first step of understanding the problem. We should look very closely at the words we use to describe them, and always remain skeptical of them, always keep in mind how they can seduce us into error. Words are the tools of thought; used properly, they can accomplish a great deal. But used carelessly, they can do a lot of damage.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Tom:

    Krystajo again.

    Interesting post.

    I did find it a bit rambling and and overzealous treatment of the issue at hand, but I have to say . . .

    I go back to my own training in linguistics, particularly psycholinguistics, and the reality of matters is: out language in fact does shape our reality. In this sense, what you are saying is very important. You perhaps see that the most these days in the movement away from the "male dominates" language of every reference to an unknown someone being "he."

    But, indeed, studies have shown that the language and culture that produce the language are intertwined. First the language will arise out of a particular cultural experience [such as Eskimos and snow or Hawaiins and beaches], but subsequently the language now used in that culture will shape the experiences of "young people" and subsequent generations.

    "Playing with words" is thus essentially a way of making a "dress rehearsal" for descendants.