The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Anomalies of Language

The structure of any natural language is so complex that no machine has been able to fully master one yet. It is hard to believe that a child can learn a language at all. Its complexity should make it impossible at the outset.

If we analyze the way language works, we can draw two opposite conclusions: on one hand, the power of language looks overwhelming, on the other, its clumsiness is frustrating.

On one hand, we know that on an average western languages are about 50% redundant: we would not lose any expressive power if we gave up 50% of our dictionary.  We can guess the meaning of most sentences from a fragment of them.  We also know that professional translators are able to translate a speech with minimal or no knowledge of the topic the speech is about.  

On the other hand, we tend to believe that humans have developed amazing capabilities for communicating: language, writing, even television. However, in reality human communication is rather inefficient: two computers can simply exchange in a split second an image or a text, pixel by pixel or character by character, without any loss of information, whereas a human must describe to another human the image in a lengthy way and will certainly miss out on some details.  Two computers could even exchange entire dictionaries, in the event they do not speak the same language. They could exchange in a few seconds their entire knowledge. Humans can only communicate part of the information they have, and even that takes a long time and is prone to misunderstandings.

Furthermore, why is it that we can accurately describe a situation, but not our inner life of emotions? Language is so rich when it comes to the external world, but so poor and inefficient when it comes to my inner life.

The Polish linguist Alfred Korzybski noted that the ability to manufacture symbols gives humans a tremendous advantage (the ability to generalize experience and pass them on to other humans, so they do not need to repeat our mistakes or rediscover what we already discovered), but also a disadvantage, that accounts for many of our social and personal problems: there are fewer words (and concepts) than experiences. This means that we use the same word to describe different situations, objects, or feelings. No two apples are the same, but we use the word “apple” for all of them. Worse: we use the word “apple” even for the drawing of an apple, for the dream of an apple and for the string of characters “a-p-p-l-e”, which are completely different objects. We tend to equate situations, objects and feelings that are actually different. We tend to define situations more often by “intension” (the “kind” they belong to) than by “extension” (the unique facts of a situation).

The apparent paradox of redundancy has been explained in many ways. English still adds an “s” to the third person singular of a verb (“he eats”) even though English mandates the subject (“he eat” would be perfectly understandable) and only for the third person singular and only for the present tense. Italian mandates that all the words are turned plural (“le tre belle ragazze”, which means “the three beautiful girls”, where each of those words is a plural, even though “three” should be enough and “la tre bella ragazza” would be understandable). These redundant rules can help with the fundamental ambiguity of language and therefore reduce misunderstandings. Redundancy also helps understand mistakes that people make (maybe “he eat” was just a typo and i really meant “we eat”, and the missing “s” at the end is a clue). However, it could also be that the redundancy serves non-linguistic purposes. For example, language may have been more “musical” than it is today, and some redundancy may simply be there because it helped say the same thing in more or less musical tones. More importantly, language has always been a way to determine someone’s place of birth. It is surprisingly difficult to imitate a dialect, both in accent and in the prevalent words and expressions. Language may have been a powerful tool to recognize members of the same tribe even before it became a powerful tool to philosophize.


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