Ordinary and Scientific Views of the World and the Nature of Language
by Mark English
I have been engaged in some private and public discussions recently about the extent to which a scientific worldview relates to our ordinary non-scientific view of the world, and I want to pull together some provisional thoughts on the matter, especially as it relates to language.
Science and ordinary thinking
As I see it, there is no clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking. Some kinds of thinking are clearly non-scientific; some kinds of thinking are clearly scientific and a long way from ordinary thinking. But we often do bits of science-like thinking in the course of ordinary life; and scientists even in the course of their work utilize ordinary day-to-day thinking as well as more rigorous forms.
Historically, science arose out of ordinary thinking. You could see this in terms of the development of various kinds of technology. Descriptive and experimental science in the modern sense came later.
Our perceptions are very much a reflection of our sensory capacities. What we perceive is inevitably limited and “slanted” from a scientific point of view. Nonetheless, one of the first steps in the process of scientific thinking could be seen to involve making the most of our perceptions, by making as complete and dispassionate a description as possible of whatever it is we are interested in. As an initial exercise, an old high school chemistry text required students to describe a burning candle. Just observe the candle and describe what you see. A very interesting and challenging exercise.
As any science develops, we get a fuller picture which is often somewhat at odds with an intuitive view. Color is a simple example. The physics and psychology of color take us a long way from our immediate perceptions.
Research in social psychology and other branches of cognitive science has thrown up many counterintuitive results, and being exposed to this material has changed the way I experience the world in significant ways. The split brain/confabulation material is especially notable, I think. But even knowing simple facts about how our eyes and visual processing systems work (filling in gaps in the “picture” and so on) changes one’s experience, at least in subtle ways. (We become less trusting of what we “see” when we realize that our visual systems are generating a picture rather than operating as a camera does.)
When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.
Wilfrid Sellars talked about this in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”:
I [might] seem … to be saying that man’s conception of himself in the world does not easily accommodate the scientific image; that there is a genuine tension between them; that man is not the sort of thing he conceives himself to be; that his existence is in some measure built around error. If this were what I wished to say, I would be in distinguished company. One thinks, for example, of Spinoza, who contrasted man as he falsely conceives himself to be with man as he discovers himself to be in the scientific enterprise. It might well be said that Spinoza drew a distinction between a ‘manifest’ and a ‘scientific’ image of man, rejecting the former as false and accepting the latter as true. But if in Spinoza’s account, the scientific image, as he interprets it dominates the stereoscopic view (the manifest image appearing as a tracery of explainable error), the very fact that I use the analogy of stereoscopic vision implies that as I see it the manifest image is not overwhelmed in the synthesis.
And nor may it be. There is a sense in which our experience of ordinary life stands as it is, not needing scientific validation. Ordinary pleasures, for example. And if you want to know what it is or was like to live in a particular place or time, science cannot really help you. But a writer of fiction might.
On the other hand, there is often, I would say, a lack of congruence between a naïve or intuitive view of certain things and a scientifically informed view. Sellars seems to concede this when he talks about the manifest image competing with and not being overwhelmed by the scientific image in the stereoscopic synthesis of which he speaks.
I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of stereoscopic vision. Implicit in the analogy is the assumption that some kind of real synthesis (leading to a better or deeper view) is possible. In the above quote, Sellars concedes that the analogy carries implicit claims. And in some cases, such a synthesis may be possible. But I see no a priori or other reason to believe that a “stereoscopic” vision is always or even often possible. (Take the case of the examples cited above: experiencing pleasures, or what it is like to live in a certain time and place. Science, social or otherwise, doesn’t really help us much.)
Without going as far as Spinoza, I would say however that there often is a tension between a ‘natural’ (for us) and a scientific (decidedly unnatural for most of us) way of seeing the world. There is no reason to think that a perfect balance is possible – or even that this way of putting things (“perfect balance” etc.) makes sense. It is a metaphor, not unlike that of stereoscopic vision. I would say that some people lean towards a scientific way of seeing things (where that is appropriate, and sometimes where it is inappropriate); others have no time for science or science-like thinking. Most of us, I would suggest, alternate between completely unscientific modes and more scientific ways of thinking, depending on what it is we are dealing with at the time.
Temperamental factors inevitably play a role here. This, I suspect, is unavoidable. For example, I confess to having a certain sympathy with and affinity for Spinoza’s way of seeing things. But I would certainly not go as far as rejecting as false the manifest image (as Sellars represents him as doing). This would be an extreme – and untenable – view.
Very rarely do you come across a set of ideas that is truly exciting. One such set of ideas – which altered my younger self’s view of the world, and which continues to affect the way I see things today – concerns the way that language relates to thought and to the world. There is also the question, which has only relatively recently become amenable to scientific investigation, of how language is generated in and processed by the brain. The common theme here is that the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities.
It is a feature of intellectual history that developments in scientific disciplines allow us to see certain general ideas in a new light. Not only that: in so doing, they winnow the theoretical wheat from the chaff.
Not all ideas are equal. Ideas which have a bearing on science need to be tested against the science of the time (unlike moral notions, say, which are tested in other ways). Some ideas will survive this process, some will not. Sometimes, of course, discarded ideas will be rehabilitated as the science in question develops.
The idea I am discussing here concerns the nature and role of natural language and its capacity to help us see and articulate important general truths. There is no doubt about the importance of language as a social and cognitive tool. Language clearly enables many forms of social interaction which are impossible for non-linguistic creatures. The effectiveness of linguistic communication in practical terms is not in question, when it comes to facilitating various forms of social interaction, for example, or making simple assertions about the physical world.
Language also modifies and enhances our cognitive capacities in ways that are yet to be fully explicated. But what it does not do is provide a window into reality. We may use it to help us discover truths about the world but language per se does not reflect or embody these truths.
Religious and philosophical writers with a mystical disposition have long understood that their attempts to capture their total vision, their view of the world, in strings of words were doomed to failure. The best that could be hoped for was a certain amount of ‘brush-clearing’ (clearing up of misunderstandings, etc.) coupled with very provisional assertions. The proposed metaphors and models, claims and doctrines necessarily fall short. The reader/listener always has to take the last step and see for himself or herself. Unless one is dealing with simple and limited and ultimately practical statements about how things stand, what is seen or understood – the Gestalt, if you like – can never be put into words.
At least since the 19th century, certain thinkers have had a sophisticated understanding of how we can be misled in our thinking by natural language. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose academic training was in philology, believed that an implicit – and inevitably misleading – metaphysics may be discerned the pattern of the grammar of any given language.
Questions about the nature and limitations of language can be approached in many different ways, some intuitive, some more intellectual and scientifically informed. In the 1980’s, Paul Churchland and others put forward a radical position on this and other matters which attracted a lot of attention. Arguably his views were/are extreme, and they have been savagely criticized by philosophers in the Sellarsian tradition. (Ironically, Churchland himself was influenced by Sellars who was his dissertation advisor.) But, as William Ramsey points out in his account of Eliminative Materialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Churchland’s approach takes on a different aspect if it is seen in the light of the research program with which it has always been closely associated. It may be justified in pragmatic terms.
One virtue of eliminative materialism is that it liberates our theorizing from [a] restrictive perspective. Thus, the relationship between Eliminative Materialism and science may be more reciprocal than many have assumed. While it is true that eliminative materialism depends upon the development of a radical scientific theory of the mind, radical theorizing about the mind may itself rest upon our taking seriously the possibility that our common sense perspective may be profoundly mistaken.
I certainly don’t want to defend a particular metaphysical position here, but any conceptual framework which removes unnecessary constraints or limits from the scientific enterprise seems to serve a useful function. I know from experience that harmony between our pre-theoretical intuitions and perceptions and scientific findings does not always prevail, and so we always need to remain open to the possibility that at certain points our perspectives may need to be revised, even perhaps radically.
I have some problems with eliminative materialism, as it happens (even apart from the fact that the word “materialism” has a very 19th-century feel to it). But my focus here is language, not metaphysics. And my intention is simply to articulate what I believe is a very important insight about language, an insight which came to fruition in a particular strand of 20th-century thought and was shared, in slightly different forms, by a surprisingly wide range of thinkers. As I see it, the insight has two aspects and involves two main claims.
One claim is that language, given the central role that it plays in our lives, misleads us into thinking there is something in our brains which reflects or mirrors the forms of language (those strings of sounds or characters, sentences and so on). Sure, the processes of the encultured brain (that is, the properly-functioning brain of a person who has grown up in a particular linguistic community) generate the linguistic forms which manifest themselves in spoken and written language, and the brain can process and interpret these forms. But these forms are not ‘in the brain’ as such. They are social. They are cultural. They are practical, a kind of technology. They do what they do. (Basically, they facilitate social and cultural life, and modify our thinking.)
Secondly, not only do these linguistic structures not reflect brain structures (as a naïve view might imagine they do), they do not reflect the structure of most other aspects of the world either.
These are (in my view) important truths and their implications are potentially quite profound for how we see ourselves and the world. But spelling things out in anything like a satisfactory way – and I’m not sure that you can ever be completely lucid and explicit in this area – would have to include a certain amount of science (e.g. basic neurophysiology).
For early (philosophical and psychological) behaviorists the brain was – necessarily – a ‘black box’. But in the latter part of the last century we began to get an understanding of how the brain actually operates. This new knowledge had a profound effect on many areas of research, one of which was linguistics where connectionist – and specifically neural network – models were developed to replace (or at least supplement) the rule-based models which had been dominant until the 1980’s. The crucial point here is that it was realized that, though language operates in what appears to be a rule-based way, the actual processing which produces these linguistic forms is not linear or based in any way on high-level rules. The forms (and “rules”) of language emerge from more basic processes.
This leads us, I think, to see language in a new way. And it lends support to those who argued (for other reasons) that we should not assume that linguistic structures reflect – or can articulate in a satisfactory way – the underlying structures of reality.