Thoughts Without Words?

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In Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government is continuously improving on their replacement of old English called Newspeak. The goal of Newspeak is to limit the vocabulary of the people down to the point where they won’t be able to think any thoughts the government doesn’t want them to. It assumes that thoughts can not be expressed without corresponding words, and that thoughts cannot even be thought without those words.

As Orwell writes in the appendix of 1984

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

So, is it true? Is it true that it’s not possible to have certain thoughts if your own vocabulary does not have the words to correspond to those thoughts?

In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker says it’s not true. Words and thoughts are not the same. Potential thoughts are not necessarily limited by a limited vocabulary.

“The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.”*

“People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use — what else, words! It is no wonder that many commentators have trouble even conceiving of thoughts without words — or is it that they just don’t have the language to talk about it?
As a cognitive scientist I [Pinker] can afford to be smug about common sense being true (thought is different from language) and linguistic determinism [the idea that limited vocabulary limits thoughts] being a conventional absurdity… [There is] a body of experimental studies that break the word barrier and asses many kinds of nonverbal thought.”**

An example Pinker uses is the false idea people have about the Inuit (Eskimos) having many different words for snow, implying they have a deeper understanding for snow than us “southerners” do. He says this is based on false data and the Inuit have approximately the same number of words for snow as the English language.

There is more to say about this. I am currently reading this book and will write a review on it later.

A good question to ask at this point is: What is the difference between thoughts and ideas?

*Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Penguin, 2015, page 55.
**Ibid., page 65.

Further reading: Past & Future: Connected by Speech

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God Speaks. You Live. Have Faith.

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In the Bible, faith is not said to be needed in order to believe that God exists. Rather, faith is needed to believe that what God says is true. This is the greatest temptation to doubt: “Did God really say…?”

God speaks, and if He didn’t, we wouldn’t exist. The atheist says he doesn’t believe in God. That’s what he thinks, but what he really doesn’t believe in is that God speaks, and speaks truthfully. God’s existence goes without saying — God is the unspoken Speaker. The atheist would disagree, but that’s because the conditions of proof for God in his mind are incompatible with reality. The atheist demands that God be an objective product of speech. Whose speech? No one’s.

“The atheist says, ‘Believe me that there is no God.’… He invokes your and my belief in the power to speak the truth… Atheism is self-contradictory, because to speak means to believe in God — to say something that has validity before and after my physical existence.”
~Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

God says, “I am,” and all of humanity hears it. To make the claim that God does not exist is really not a valid claim, and anyone who makes it is really saying that he doesn’t believe God’s claim. We all have a belief in God built into us. We all have to choose to believe if God speaks truthfully or not. The atheist takes one extreme and believes that God is lying always. The Christian takes the opposite extreme and believes God never lies (although, he will struggle much with that belief). Most people live somewhere in between those extremes.

Related reading: God’s Idea; The Kingdom of Speech; Past & Future: Connected by Speech

God’s Idea

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In StarTrek, the characters are able to go from their ship to a planet’s surface almost instantly via the transporter device. The transporter works by converting the matter of a person into energy, beaming that energy to a target location, and then rematerializing the person. Now, there is an interesting philosophical question that arises from this method of transportation: If the physical brain of the person being transported is taken apart molecule by molecule, atom by atom, then what happens to that person’s consciousness? If consciousness cannot exist without matter, as some propose, then is the transported person’s consciousness obliterated in the matter-to-energy conversion, which could then be considered death? If so, what rematerializes at the other end?

Another angle on this thought experiment is from the film The Prestige.(Spoiler Alert!) In that film, one of the main characters, Robert Angier, has a machine which enables him to perfectly clone himself. He uses that machine to perform a magic trick in which he disappears on stage and then reappears at the back of the theatre behind the audience. Of course it is an amazing trick as he would have no time to get back there so fast. But, it is really his clone who appears. Meanwhile, the original Angier on stage falls through a trap door below the machine into an awaiting water tank, which closes and locks, thus drowning him. The clone goes on to perform the trick again the next show, clones himself, drowns, and so on and so on. Why would he do something so crazy? Well, you have to watch the film. The real question is: Does Robert Angier still exist after the first cloning?

I had an uncle, Uncle Fred, who was my dad’s older brother. He moved to Canada from Germany after WW2 to start a new life. In Canada, he started his own electrical company, which he ran for a couple of decades before handing it over to his sons and retiring. Late in his life he had Alzheimer’s disease. The disease progressed to the point where he believed his wife was his mother, he still owned his electrical company, his sons were his business partners, and he still lived in Germany. Because of the brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s, his identity and his consciousness became a chaotic mix and match of various events throughout his lifetime. Did my Uncle Fred still exist at that point? Or, had the real man died already?

There is no doubt that my consciousness, my identity, and my personality are dependant on my brain. If my brain is damaged or functions abnormally, I change. It is a bit disturbing to think about. What happens if my brain is irreversibly damaged? What happens when my brain dies?

As a Christian, I believe that I will remain even after my brain dies. How is this possible? It is only possible if I exist primarily, first and foremost, not as a physical being, but as an idea of God. I suppose you could call that idea a spirit.

I’m speculating now of course, but I believe God’s ideas are not like our ideas. For God, His ideas are so perfect, and so powerful, they all become realities. God does not have half-baked ideas floating around in His mind with which, through trial and error, He comes up with final decisions. God’s ideas are perfect from conception; and being perfect from conception, they become immediate realities. Or, if they are delayed realities, that is only because God wants them to be delayed. The Bible would call these ideas of God His Word. (See Isaiah 55:8-11)

Jonathan Edwards wrote, in his essay on the Trinity, in regards to the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity:

“…God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy. The knowledge or view which God has of Himself must necessarily be conceived to be something distinct from His mere direct existence. There must be something that answers to our reflection. The reflection as we reflect on our own minds carries something of imperfection in it. However, if God beholds Himself so as thence to have delight and joy in Himself He must become his own object. There must be a duplicity. There is God and the idea of God, if it be proper to call a conception of that that is purely spiritual an idea.”

Basically, what Edwards is saying is that God’s idea of Himself is so perfect that it becomes a Second Person, just as real as the First. And the love expressed between the First Person and the Second Person is so perfect, that it itself becomes a Third Person, just as real as the other Two. That’s the Trinity: Father (First), Son (Second), and Holy Spirit (Third).

I exist as an idea of God. An idea so perfect, it becomes real. This is my source of life. The physical is how God brought the idea of me into being, but the idea of me is not based on the physical. Also, the idea of me will never be extinguished — from the moment of my conception, I will always exist. Why? Because God will never forget me.

As a Christian, I believe that when I die, when my brain dies, I will still exist. Exactly in what form I will exist, I don’t know, but I will still be the same I I am today, conscious and aware. Then, sometime in the future, I will be resurrected in a new body, with brain and all. And when I am resurrected, I will not be a Swampman.

The Swampman is a philosophical thought experiment put forth by Donald Davidson in the 1980s…

“The experiment goes like this. Suppose Davidson went for a walk in a swamp and gets hit by a lightning bolt, and consequently dies. Coincidentally, at the very same moment this happens, in another part of the swamp, the lightening rearranges some molecules into the same form of Davidson’s body, copying every structure completely. This ‘being’ is the Swampman, which looks exactly like Davidson to the smallest respects, and it walks out of the swamp. Is this being Davidson? Is this being a being, that is, is this being a person? Does this being have the same thoughts as Davidson? Does this being have thoughts at all? Davidson’s own answer leans towards negative towards all of these questions.
“The reason Davidson opines that the Swampman is not Davidson, and in fact, the Swampman might not even be a person, is because Davidson holds that that Swampman is incapable of cognitive thought, because the Swampman has no causal history, and a being needs causal history of thoughts to have any cognizance in the first place. So while the Swampman’s utterances may feel like they have meaning, according to Davidson, they actually don’t. The Swampman’s propositions are thus not genuine according to Davidson. Davidson while claiming the Swampman’s utterances have no meaning, does not actually outright doubt Swampman’s personhood, yet refers to the Swampman as an ‘it’ rather than as a ‘he’ and it seems to regard the Swampman as not having meaningful qualia.”*

At my resurrection, the idea of me, which has always been and will always be sustained by God whether I am in physical form or not, will be placed once again into a physical body. I will not be a clone, or a replica. My consciousness will be an uninterrupted flow of existence from now until then.

One could argue that God will take the exact same atoms of my original body at the time of my death and use those same atoms to recreate my new body. Why not? It doesn’t really matter I suppose — the atoms which made up my body as a child will probably have all been replaced by the time I am an old man.

If I buy a motorcycle, and over the course of 20 years, replace every part of that motorcycle, is it still the same motorcycle?

The idea remains.

*See Donald Davidson – Swampman

The Trouble with Transporters