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Talking is not Knowing

January 3, 2011

One of my many side interests is animal language. As a small child I always wanted to be able to talk to animals, and I’ve always liked stories which involved robots or aliens or other convincingly-written non-human intelligences. It should come as no surprise, then, that I’ve read several studies by Dr. Irene Pepperberg who studies the linguistic abilities of parrots. Because animal language studies have been plagued with questions about whether a particular hand sign is really an American Sign Language word or a particular sound really means something (think about the arguments about whether a baby has said, “Doggy,” or just mumbled, “Duh-gah,” with academic tenure at stake) it’s becoming more common to have a third party review a recording of the animal responding and write down what they think is being said. In Dr. Pepperberg’s lab the researcher’s questions are edited out of the recording to help protect against bias. Much as I might like to talk about parrot intelligence this isn’t an essay on animal cognition. What I’m actually thinking of is the control run of this technique, when Dr. Pepperberg had a human answer the questions the parrots were being asked and then a recording of the human was scored just as if the human were a parrot. Remarkably, without the context clues provided by the questions the answers given by an adult human were not always discernable. This isn’t any fault of the human. We know humans have mastered language. Instead, it’s a testament to how we actually speak, which involves a great deal of context.

My own experience trying to learn other languages tells me similar things. If I know roughly what a Hebrew passage is about (say, a king going to war) I can probably struggle through it. If I don’t know what it’s about, or am misinformed (I’m told it’s a story about a king going to war but it’s actually instructions for starting the lawnmower), I will quickly get lost. It turns out that I’m not simply taking the data in front of me (words) and turning that into something meaningful. Instead, I’m taking what’s been said before, predicting possibilities for what might be said next, and then using those models to figure out which of my interpretive options makes the most sense.

Before I launch into the meat of these thoughts I’d like to cite one more example. We’ll stick with the bird theme. There are two species of vulture in the local area: the black vulture and the turkey vulture. When I teach my assistants to identify these birds (whether or not they care) I point out two specific characteristics: turkey vultures have red heads while black vultures have grey heads, and turkey vultures flying overhead show a full strip of lighter feathers on the trailing edge of the wing while black vultures show a lighter color only at the wing tip. In reality, though, I don’t identify either vulture species this way. Having seen hundreds of vultures I use body proportions, wingbeat frequency, and flight patterns to differentiate the two species. The reason I teach the other two characteristics is that they always work: black vultures will not have red heads, ever. The reason I don’t use them is that it’s hard to see a vulture’s head in flight, and the trick with the feathers requires the sun’s rays to be shining through the vulture’s feathers.

All of this is really about the same thing: there’s more going on in our heads than we can take out of our heads and hand to someone else. When I identify a vulture I’m measuring a half-dozen things in my head and making a final decision based on the answers to multiple questions each of which is inconclusive on its own. When I teach someone else, I have to simplify the task and so I use a few simple rules that my better students will eventually discard for something like the model I use but can’t teach. Even my speaking, as the very first example suggests, is not inherently clear. A listener or reader is working out a framework of things I might say and using that to resolve any ambiguities in what they hear or read.

By itself this is not exactly news. The problem, though, is that we place a very high priority on communicable ideas. We do this for some very good reasons. Ideas that can be transmitted can be checked by others. Science is founded on such checking via processes such as peer review (and science has a huge impact on how we think we should think). Ideas that can be communicated also extend our reach. A business that can send ideas from one location to another has a huge advantage over one that can’t. Ideas that are transmittable are the basis for inventions and inventions can be patented. There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting to communicate clearly. I wouldn’t be writing this article if I thought communication itself was the problem. However, there is a problem with the gradual emphasis on ideas that are easy to communicate. There’s simply no reason to believe, a priori, that what you can communicate easily lines up with what is important.

Communication inevitably deals with the skeleton of an idea. The more rapidly something is reduced to individual and easily-named components the easier it is to communicate. Vagueness is the enemy of communication and vagueness comes from an overabundance of options. The less options you have, the more precise a communication becomes. But some ideas are naturally rich in options. I don’t know if the Inuit actually have fifty words for snow but this meme does point out that snow varies quite a bit. In English, with one word for snow to which adjectives can be attached, descriptions of snow are either really long or fairly vague. “Wet snow” is vague, but a clearer description (“Wet snow that packs well and retains definite sharp-edged imprints when squeezed in the fist but without expelling liquid”) becomes burdensomely long. “Snow” leaves too many options open. You must either be vague or spend extra time specifying each option. But this is hardly the only problem. What if you need to use someone else’s scale of reference? Recently a friend offered me some hot peppers from his garden. “How hot?” I asked. He began to explain but, without a standard unit like the Scoville scale, it became clear that I wouldn’t actually have a clue once he finished. Was his medium hot my mild or my very hot? This particular incident ended with me biting the end off a pepper and announcing several seconds later that I was probably going to cry, but it highlights an important issue.

At this point I’ve laid the groundwork. This is all important because some of the most important truths of Christianity, some of the things we need the advice of others to understand most, are extraordinarily hard to communicate. Take, for instance, the issue of communicating about someone’s personality. There are a lot of options and the listener must adjust for someone else’s frame of reference. If I think someone is funny will you? If I think they are no-nonsense will you think they are rude? If I say they are “nice” what does that even mean, even before we ask whether you’ll agree? Obviously people can communicate about other people, but it would be much easier to communicate about what someone’s hair color is than what they are like as a person. Evangelical Christianity has worn “personal relationship with Jesus” into a cliché. If your personal relationship with Jesus is being sabotaged by the way you falsely project your Daddy issues onto Him it would be a good thing if someone could communicate clearly to you what Jesus is really like. It would be nice if someone could communicate to you what you are really like, too, because you don’t always look so nice from the outside.

I think I feel comfortable claiming that Christian ethics hinges on intent. If two men walk by an unguarded laptop a Christian will not say that the man who was going to steal it until he realized it was an older model is on the same moral ground as the man who never thought about stealing it because it belonged to someone else. Try communicating about intent, something that exists almost entirely inside someone else’s frame of reference. Try communicating to someone how to act like an adult (an important precursor for all sorts of moral actions) when they aren’t one. Neither of these things is easy to communicate or to do right. The importance of being the right sort of person should never be questioned. Jesus did not come to save some magically invisible part of you that you don’t entirely believe in but rather to save you and right now you’re a real piece of work. The Christian life should always be marked by a progression towards the holiness that will only be completed at judgment but this is repeatedly hindered by the problem of talking about it. Instead, we have a church culture that is prone to take the easy way out. It’s hard to make disciples out of people. It’s easy to get people to recite a short list of doctrinal bullet points. It’s hard to get to know people so that you can begin to address issues of personality. It’s so easy to shove a tract at someone that you don’t even have to be physically present when they pick it up.

Don’t get me wrong, doctrine is important. However, doctrine is important because once you know certain things you should start doing something with what you know. The real danger is that we’ll spend a lot of time doing the easy task of talking doctrine and never have the difficult talk about what to do with it. There are things that are known but very difficult to express and some of those things are the most important things we could know.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 9:40 pm

    Great stuff. Actually, it reminded me to drag some articles on ‘Truth’ out of my old files and start working on them again, though, I doubt I have time to write them at the moment (bar the first couple, which have been sitting in a folder for too long).

    Did you ever hear V.S. Ramachandran from UCSD talking about Language and synesthesia (and the origins of language)? I only heard him speak once, but he was a remarkably good communicator, and while some of the things he said were a bit suspect, in general he was very informative.

  2. Eric permalink
    January 6, 2011 4:54 pm

    I went and looked at one of your old truth articles. Really nice.

    I have not heard V.S. Ramachandran. I’ll have to check out your link.


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