7.12.2005

what conditions truth?

A mango is neither true nor false. The taste of a mango is neither true nor false. An understanding, statement, or belief about the mango's taste CAN be true or false.

I personally believe in thought outside of language. I believe it is possible for Seb to taste a new fruit without immediately assigning it linguistic labels. But the moment he says, "A mango tastes like X," to anyone OR to himself, he has made a comparison that relies on linguistic categories. to determine whether or not his belief is true when he tastes another mango, he must communicate with himself over time. for his assessment of the taste to be judged "true" or "false," it must be expressed (in language or in signs).

if seb tastes the mango and never states his belief at all, then tastes another mango and recognizes the same taste, i would argue that he has not made a prediction, but has simply experienced the same thing twice. admittedly, these distinctions are pretty crude, but what i'm really trying to get at here is the fact that "true" and "false" are concepts built up in language.

let's return to the sky for a second. imagine trying to express "the sky is blue" without using words. suppose i point to my skirt (which is also blue), and then indicate the sky. setting aside for a moment the fact that it would be difficult to understand that my pointing indicated the colors, the problem we run into becomes even more severe. my skirt and the sky are both blue, but they're not at all the same color. we only recognize them both under the same label ("blue") because we already know that "blue" encompasses many different shades and hues of blue. without the already-defined totality that the linguistic label provides, there is no way for me to describe the color, even by comparison.

this example also demonstrates the extremely useful nature of words that define totalities like "sky" and "blue". without them, we'd be stuck trying to agree on definitions every time we needed to refer to them. in this framework, confirmation holism (which wikipedia article Seb linked to in his comment) is right on. but it's my belief that much of the framework from which we assess concepts already exists in the language we use to talk about it. saying "'the sky is blue' is true" takes for granted that 'the sky' is a well-defined noun (which doesn't include the air between my eyes and 'the sky', for example), the fact that 'blue' is an already-defined color that includes many shades, and the idea that the 'truth' of a statment is a simple property.

3 comments:

Seb (redundantly) said...

Hmmm. You say that you "believe in thought outside of language." I'm glad. But it seems like you imply that while we can think subverbally, we are unable to form mental, but not verbal, categories or concepts that stand for "totalities." For example, it sounds like you believe that we would be unable to have a concept of blueness without a word for blueness.

Is that what you mean to say?

Because if so, I don't think you're giving enough credit to unverbal thought--thought outside of language. What would thought be, if not the creation and manipulation of concepts? Surely you don't mean that all our non-verbal thought is involved in juggling particulars, i.e., non-totalities, i.e., raw percepts.

What I am saying about that mango is that even if I am completely divorced from any linguistic community, even if I'm a feral child, I still have the capacity to form concepts of things like mangoes and that-flavor-X.

Even the fact that we have no word for the idea expressed by "taste of a mango" is indicative of this. In fact, I can right now imagine a chunk of beef with flavor-X. Mangos, or particular properties of mangos, have nothing directly to do with the flavor concept, except that I associate them mentally because I almost always experience them at the same time. This disassociation would not be possible if my flavor-X category were identical with the linguistic category of "the taste of a mango."

So here I am with a mango-concept and a flavor-X concept. And without saying anything to myself or anybody else, I can have an expectation that things I identify as mangos will taste like flavor-X. I can even have a flavor-Y concept that I get whenever I eat a squirrel. Why not? So my beliefs about the world include expectations that mangos do not taste like flavor-Y.

You write that "to determine whether or not his belief is true when he tastes another mango, he must communicate with himself over time."

Now if you are calling the active or deliberate use of these nonverbal categories "communication," then I guess I agree. But then I don't think we're talking about a linguistically contained truth any more. If you think that in order for me to compare beliefs (constituted of non-verbal concepts and relations) with my experience I need to first (a) assign a sort of private morpheme to them and (b) "speak" it to myself in proper syntax, then I disagree with you.

I think we have very different ideas about how the mind and concept formation works. I'm not sure quite how your version works, but for me, concept formation is done by a very fast, virtually unconscious, and evolutionarily primitive associative net that lumps together experience in useful ways. Language is a separate faculty that hooks up morphemes that are learned from the community with these concepts and knows how to sort them into sentences, lets them influence beliefs, etc. (This is an imperfect process...the concept I associate with a word may be different in all sorts of subtle ways with the concept you have attached to the same word.) So really, "linguistic categories" don't exist, except maybe if you took the conceptual contents of what lots of people thought of when you shouted "BLUE!!!" at them, then averaged them together somehow.

I'm beating dead horses here, but one last thing about confirmation holism. You say:

"much of the framework from which we assess concepts already exists in the language we use to talk about it."

I would say that much of the framework from which we assess concepts already exists in the concepts we use to think about them.

Then we try to talk about them. And nobody understands us.

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