Mental Maps and Modules, Language Shapes Reality
Reality is Subjective
As usual, a bit of explanation may be in order before I push forth. Jerry Fodor seems to have introduced the current modularity of the mind concept, with phrenologists introducing a similar, but completely off base, concept before him. Even before that, Rene Descartes said some equally incorrect things about the pineal gland and before Descartes I'm sure you could come up with even more theories about how the mind works. When I speak of the mind, however, I'm not speaking about the concepts of Descartes, or phrenologists, or even Fodor, but instead about the ideas of Steven Pinker. The reason I mention the others is because Pinker's thoughts may not be entirely original, and mine even more so. Also I'll be mentioning Korzybski who was not the first to philosophize about perception and Wittgenstein who didn't come up with the concept of language shaping our reality all by himself. As far as I know, Richard Dawkins did first introduce the meme concept, and if not then he at least submitted the name. If you want historical accounts of all these ideas, complete with who thought up what first, you'll have to look elsewhere.
"The limits of my language means the limits of my world." - Ludwig Wittgenstein
Starting with Korzybski, we have the idea that the map is not the territory. Alfred Korzybski was a philosopher and scientist best remembered for his theory of general semantics. He helped in the development of e-prime which is basically a modification of the English language that removes any words such as "be" or "is" that make the sentence a fact outside of the human mind. Nothing "is," things only appear to be. Savvy? The map is not the territory goes along similar lines. The idea is that everything we witness is an interpretation of what reality is (more on this later). It states simply that the pain that comes from a rock falling on your foot is not the rock; that a politicians positions are not the politician himself; that a map of New York City is incomplete and will never and could never become the territory know as New York City. In order for a map of New York City to truly represent New York City it would need to include the buildings, the people, the insects, the animals, all of the feelings and emotions of each of these biological creatures, all of the history of New York City from it's conception at the beginning of time to the it's demolition at the end of time and for every second to contain everything that had ever existed within the limits of New York City; in other words it would need to become New York City itself. This may seem obvious, but we need look no further than our own relationships to see how this information could greatly affect our lives. When we look at a person with disgust or distaste because they are homeless we are forgetting to account every detail of that person's life in our opinion of them. None of us know all of the circumstances and the history of even our closest friends. Concordantly, when we look at a homeless person with despair at the current state of affairs in the world, or with pity we are still forgetting to account for every detail of that person's life. This is clearly flagrant prejudice towards a person we don't know either way, but sometimes the effects of confusing the map with the territory can be a little more subtle. Take, for instance, a person in your life who you've been anything but agreeable with. When you hear of that person's misfortune, you may think to yourself that they probably deserved it or that karma (if you're superstitious) really is a bitch to those who had it coming. Whether that's the truth or not who knows? But you have already associated negative thoughts with this person and reevaluating that now would be too much work. Just like we allow our friends a little bit of slack when it comes to moral dilemmas, we're consistently confusing our opinion of a person and the bits and pieces we've built up about our depiction of life with the truth itself. Thus, our interpretation of reality is not reality; the map is not the territory.
Now a bit more about "mental modules." The modularity of the mind is a concept that the mind is composed of several innate structures that evolution has established over time to serve some sort of adaptive function. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker purport a theory that one of these mental modules may function to help us acquire language, that we're evolutionarily predisposed to understand the concept and uses of language. A mental map, then, is a sort of hardwired mental software that we utilize to help us cope with the concept of the world. An intrinsic map found in humans is the ability to recognize faces. Humans are exceptionally good at making faces out of just about anything including clouds, burn marks on a piece of toast, cheerio alignments in a bowel of milk and just about any other structure where even the faintest traces of two eyes and a mouth could be noticed. When children complain that they have seen a face in their closet at night or outside of their window we don't immediately look for the culprit to comfort ourselves that they are alright, but to comfort the child to let them realize that what they saw was simply in their imagination. I bring up the idea that language is a proposed module for a few reasons I'll get to in a moment.
I wish to bring up the meme to illustrate another way in which our mind can be manipulated to show us different versions of reality. A meme is "a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, and it is transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena." A meme is just about any concept that we've picked up along the way that helps shape and mold us into the people that we are. The good thing about knowing what a meme is comes from our ability to manipulate the memes we choose to live by. Some memes are harder to get rid of than others. For instance, a meme about believing in Jesus as our lord and savior or you will burn eternally in hell is infinitely harder to rid yourself of than a meme about what song or movie you should be listening to or watching to keep up with the times. Teenage fads come and go, but religious beliefs stay forever. Or something. Part of what keeps a meme propagating is fear, but another part is veracity. Not all memes continue to propagate because they have been around forever or because people are afraid to get rid of them or lose them. Something important to keep in mind when learning about memes is that a vast majority of memes are quite useful for our daily lives and that a good deal of our personal knowledge comes from replicated memes. Meme theory has become it's own study so I don't wish to give any incorrect impressions or overstep my boundaries into a specialized area of knowledge. I only bring up the concept to let those interested look into an area of study that specifically deals with the way our knowledge is accumulated and can be manipulated.
One more shall we? Wittgenstein has been criticized for obscurantism, pretentiousness, homosexuality, and a many other off handed remarks about people who felt he had a point, but he was being a douche about the whole thing. Despite the many complaints and perhaps bigoted and/or hypocritical remarks about the man himself, I go to him for a quick point. Wittgenstein felt that the limits of language were, in fact, the very limits of our own personal understanding. He felt that "what we can not speak about we must pass over in silence." This was in the Tractatus, a work he later disregarded as rubbish, but despite Wittgenstein's feelings about his endeavors he made a valid point. He made mention that if we were to understand a lion's language, that roar meant gazelle and roar roar meant tasty gazelle for instance, that we would still not have an entire understanding of a lion's world. Understanding our interpretations of a lion's language is not the same as living in a lion's world nor is it the same as truly understanding what a lion is saying through its own version of communication. Another point if I may. A snake can see in infrared. Now pretend for a moment that a snake can see only in infrared without any other visual cues and you are asked the question, can you see as a snake does? Most would jump to answer, "of course I could if I had infrared goggles or the like. What kind of silly question is that?" Now the problem with this reply is that goggles are merely a representation of heat signals designed to show us, in color, the different temperatures of the world around us. Without the visual cue "color" we would be unable to recognize what was going on in the world of infrared because we are not accustomed to a world in which we can see only in heat. The same can apply to bats that are capable of painting a clearer picture through the use of echolocation or dolphins who do much the same. Relating to the world of language, there is an often cited example of the Eskimos having as many as four hundred words for the English word snow. Benjamin Whorf had it pegged at about seven; apparently the mass media knows something Sapir and Whorf did not. Regardless of the hyperbole most use when citing the concept of linguistic relativity, the Eskimo example illustrates a point. The language that we use and the way we understand language can often shape the reality of the way we think of our world.
Now I may have jumped around a lot, but I feel it is necessary for all of these concepts to be lumped together to become something of a uniform theory. That theory is that reality is, largely, relative and subjective. The philosophy of perception has a fairly extensive history. Philosophy itself is perhaps the oldest of disciplines, rightfully so considering all that is required is a mind and a lust for thought. The idea is one that I'm sure many have stumbled upon themselves when lying awake late at night wondering what it is all about. If objective reality does exist then it is indeed outside of our own minds and something that is possibly quite unknowable to ourselves. The more we learn about objective reality the more we can draw an accurate depiction of what it might mean to us subjectively and I think that's the real purpose when we even look for truth; how can we relate truth to us? For us to comprehend the massive scope of the universe we're forced to cope with utilizing mental maps and modules for how the world works and because of this we're limited to a very narrow view point.
Of course another major proponent of this is language. Without language we would never have come as far as we have, but on the same hand nothing has been a greater contributor to relationship problems, teaching problems, financial problems, and most foul ups in general than language. Communication is key. So the old adage goes; along with courage is key, knowledge is key or any other virtue you wish to sell at the moment. If I actually knew what was key I wouldn't be describing it, I would be using it to take advantage of you. Communication is quite vital however, despite my pitiful attempt at humor. The problem with communication, however, is that any given word can have any given association attached to it. The word "hurt" can mean emotionally scarred, physically marred, a sort of financial loss or some other sort of business like connotation. Thus the sentence, "(S)He hurt me," has a variety of important meanings. We generally look to other factors in the conversation that allow us to discern the meaning of ambiguous words or phrases and most of the time it seems to work out alright. The problem is we talk to communicate and we communicate (most of us) on a daily basis so accidents are statistically bound to happen. Of course simple slip ups in meaning aren't the only thing keeping us from communicating as we would like.
Say we take the term "hurt" to indicate a song title by the same name. Hurt is a song written by Trent Reznor and was covered by Johnny Cash. Say I have a sort of intimate relationship with the song Hurt because I can relate to the lyrics and now the term "hurt" has a personal significance beyond the definition. Say that because of my connection to the term, I now use the term hurt only when I want to convey very deep, very emotional, very raw painful experiences and this becomes it's personal significance to me. When someone says to me, "(S)He hurt me" to mean "(S)He kicked me in the shin and it was pretty painful" I no longer perceive the meaning in the same way the speaker had intended it. This is an extremely crude example, but I believe that it illustrates my point well enough. We have personal connections to words and ideas of what they mean due to our life experience with those words and what we have used them to convey as well as what we have heard others use them to convey. Curse words are a fine example of this, where as some become visibly offended at the words "ass" or "damn" others use them in casual conversation at an excessively high rate.
Then there is, of course, just the simple problem of misunderstanding what someone said. Then there is the problem of filling in words you missed, or the problem of not knowing what a word means and trying to define it in context with the rest of the sentence. Then there is the problem of misinterpreting what someone really means when they say something or the problem of missing a hidden meaning or the problem of... Language is riddled with problems.
So here we are with a subjective representation of the world that we've gained through our sensory perceptions and models we've built up in our heads explaining to other creatures that are no better off what we view and see and vying for a consensus based on the best tool that we have for communication. And this tool is deeply flawed as well. When someone is so sure of what is objectively true or moral or what is necessarily important I'm sure to remember that we're all on the same page in this book. The importance of reminding ourselves that reality is subjective isn't that we can then move on to make whatever we want to out of reality, although you certainly can if you wish, it's just to remind ourselves that we don't have all of the tools necessary to make out anything for certain. The lesson is quite similar to that of the agnosticism and Socratic method post, but I feel it's so important that there are multiple ways to come to the same realization and each way equally important to remind ourselves of on a constant basis. The problem of subjective reality is that everyone starts fighting for who has the most accurate depiction of it and who knows the most about what is really real and I don't see that as the point. The point is we all have something subjectively real to bring to the mix and most of us forget that we're just as smart as the next guy using the same tools to get different answers. The point is that we all have something to contribute to the vast array of knowledge we've accumulated and something subjectively new that might help foster understanding or bring about new realizations in some way.