Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Robot Words We Use

    Words are mental entities that create boundaries for the concepts and phenomena they identify.  By creating these boundaries, words can turn different concepts and phenomena into the building blocks for thoughts.  And verbal thoughts are the basis for the way we order our world and communicate with other people.

    Now some concepts and phenomena lend themselves to more precise boundaries than others.  It is much easier to create mental boundaries around a house than around a wave in the ocean.  A wave is constantly shifting shape and size as it moves along the surface of the water.  It has an imprecise beginning and an imprecise ending.  I have called it a continual stimulus, because it continues over time and space with borders but without precise borders.

    I have also had to think of a name for stimuli like the endless darkness in a darkened room or like the hum that occurs in total silence.  In these cases, it is not a matter of imprecise beginnings and endings as with continual stimuli, but a complete lack of beginnings and endings.  To give a visual label to this idea, I came up with the name of continuous stimuli, which, of course, is very similar to continual stimuli.  But, for me, continuous carried the notion of forever ongoing, while continual only carried the notion of somewhat ongoing.

    Anyway, I think this linguistic problem I have here is symbolic of the difficulty in trying to accurately order and name all the concepts and phenomena of the world with language.  And to the extent that I come up with a name for one of my concepts, it occurs within the pre-existing structures - the words - of a given language.  In this case, it is English.  It is true that words can be created - particularly in philosophy - to describe concepts for which pre-existing words are inadequate.  But even then, no language has the words or the word components to adequately name all the phenomena in the universe.

    So the fact that I had particular difficulty giving a name to a continual stimulus - a name that adequately described its visual properties - is not surprising.  And, particularly, of all the three stimulus categories in my model - discrete, continual, and continuous - the continual stimulus has been the most difficult for me to adequately name.  Sometimes I have also used the term blendable, but blendable doesn’t describe what a continual stimulus is when it is by itself, or how it moves over time.

    Given my difficulties in naming this stimulus, it explains why I have been thinking of taking a different approach to my stimulus model.  At least sometimes I am thinking of using more philosophical terms to define stimuli instead of visual terms.  For discrete stimuli, I am thinking of the term determinate stimuli, because such stimuli can be adequately identified in terms of boundaries.  For continual stimuli, I am thinking of the term indeterminate stimuli, because such stimuli cannot be adequately identified in terms of boundaries, even though such boundaries do appear to exist.  And finally, for continuous stimuli, I would like to use infinite stimuli, because an infinite stimulus does not appear to have either spatial or temporal boundaries.

    By using these new terms, I know that I am losing something in the suggestive properties of the names I use as well as gaining something.  There is something very immediate, very experientially present about using terms that can be understood visually.  And yet there are no good words that adequately describe all the things that a continual stimulus is and does.  It may be more precise to describe what a continual stimulus isn’t, at least in comparison to a discrete stimulus.

    And this leads us to the realization that words are imprecise and incomplete instruments in conveying the reality of many aspects of human experience.  They are great for math and logic and for computer programs that are built on combinations of ones and zeroes.  And they are great for giving us streams of information on the Internet.  But they are not as good for defining natural settings, emotions, and non-logical ideas.  These are areas where words suggest and describe rather than precisely define.  Nevertheless, people can make a connection to these areas of experience through words, as long as they realize that words do not subsume all meaning in these areas.

    But increasingly today, people not only want to have easy control over their living environment through technology, but they want to have easy control over the mental phenomena they talk about.  The best way to do that is to turn the verbal field of experience into one filled with easily definable discrete concepts.  This is the world today of hard science and technology.  The verbal world people live in today is one that is reconfigured to be easily controlled and manipulated.  So, for example, we talk about a brain being hard-wired, as if it were like a computer.  By talking and thinking this way, we feel we are more able to not only fully understand the human brain, but also to control and manipulate it.  And increasingly the approach of control and manipulation is utilized in more intrusive forms of marketing on movies, television, computers and smartphones.  Very poetic indeterminate words, that are meant to be simply suggestive in poetry and literature, are used to get people to buy very focused determinate products.  Atmospheres are created to get people to buy discrete services and products.  This is the nature of advertising today.  Indeterminate words in the service of very determinate purposes.

    So not only do we begin to model our minds after computers and robots, but our language, in order to have a sense of control through precise focus, becomes modeled after the different complex signals that operate computers and robots.  In most situations, there is little room for words that only imperfectly name the concepts and phenomena that they talk about.  And poetic words are used for discrete strategic purposes in marketing and advertising.  Today, no meaningful gravity is ascribed in serious discussions to these poetic concepts and phenomena that are simply used to talk about that which is indeterminate.  Perhaps this helps to explain why poetry does not have a very large following in modern technological society.  The truth with which it deals does not lead to control or manipulation over something, but rather an intimate understanding and communion with different aspects of the flow of reality as it is.  Poetry’s language and content deal almost entirely with indeterminate stimuli.

    And this brings us back to the problem I had at the beginning of this article.  I was trying to find an accurate precise name for a phenomenon that by its nature was very imprecise.  And that is why I decided that more than one name was useful, because each name could emphasize different aspects of the phenomenon.  This notion of using different names to describe different aspects of the same phenomenon is not unique to me.  Again poets think of different descriptive names within their poetry for certain phenomena they’re discussing.  The same is true for theologians.  Look at all the different names there are for the Divinity in Judaism.  Including a name that is simply “The Name”.

    Normal everyday language is much more sophisticated than a code.  In everyday life, there is not always a simple one-to-one correspondence between words that are names and the concepts and phenomena they represent.  And if I have created a philosophical model where the names do not perfectly describe the concepts and phenomena for which they are designated, at least I know that I am not eliminating concepts and phenomena from my model and my world, just because I have difficulty finding the perfect names for them.  This is in distinction from modern technological language which is increasingly having influences in areas of life for which it was not created.  To the extent that this language or language style starts permeating non-technological areas, like most of the social sciences, it eliminates the areas of imprecision from our own self-perceptions, the indeterminate continual stimuli areas, which contribute to our perception of ourselves as organisms, as animals, as mammals, as primates and as humans.  What is left is terminology that subtly contributes to viewing ourselves within a technological framework in terms of machines, of computers, and of robots.  We are the terms we speak.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

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