Reality and Language

The following article was influenced by this Chasing Wild Geese article. Specifically, I want to comment about the question of whether reality is a majority opinion.

Not only do I think reality is a majority opinion, but I would go further and argue it’s a majority opinion about the least important subset of our experience. Let’s start with a thought experiment, a variation of Wittgenstein’s Beetle in the Box.

Let’s imagine two people (X & Y) who encounter a chocolate bar. What do they experience?

X sees a rectangular brown object, smells the aroma, feels a craving for the chocolate, and experiences fond memories involving chocolate.

Y sees a rectangular brown object, smells the aroma, feels nausea from hating chocolate, and experiences a memory of eating chocolate and puking.

Now when X & Y compare notes, agreeing to be “objective” what do they talk about? Well, they don’t talk about the most important part of their experience, the craving, aversion, etc…. Rather, they focus on the “objective” characteristics, namely the subset of their experiences which they believe are the same. This they take as “real”, never mind that it is also an experience, like what they discarded! So they compare notes on the color, shape, smell and perhaps that it is indeed called a chocolate bar.

But how objective is this? For instance, is the chocolate bar large or small? Well, X thinks it’s small because X loves chocolate and Y thinks it’s huge for the opposite reason. However, neither may realize their feelings about chocolate are playing a role and think they are being objective.

What about color? Let’s say the bar has a red wrapper and X is red-green color blind while Y isn’t. X can differentiate red from most other colors, but sees it as others would see a shade of gray and grew up associating that shade of gray with red. So X says the color is “red” and Y — who sees red as most people (apparently) do — agrees. They both think they see the same thing, but they don’t.

So what do X & Y really share? Possibly the relationships among the words “red”, “chocolate” and “wrapper”. However, their experiences of “red”, “chocolate” and “wrapper” may differ dramatically. So may the words denoting the relationships among “red”, “chocolate” and “wrapper” for that matter…

We live in a private world and can only share a fraction of our experience, and what we do share is the least relevant to what we really value — happiness. But at some point, we start to value this non-representative part as “the real thing”. We value it so much that we treat words — the flawed means of communicating this — as reality. Think how certain words alone can trigger emotions and how putting a label on things can give them an emotional content. For instance, even if something seems bad, labeling it can make it seem even worse and make it seem like “bad-ness” is its essence or identity. This may be a reason why silencing our inner chatter can do much to secure our happiness.

Further Reading

Wittgenstein wrote two books in which the analysis of language played a big role:

  1. Tractatus Logic Philosophicaus with a synopsis here
  2. Philosophical Investigations with a synopsis here

Charles Tart did a lot of work on altered states of consciousness, and had a dismissive attitude towards “reality”. In fact, he described it as a consensus trance. He also wrote a book on states of consciousness, which you can read online in its entirety.

9 thoughts on “Reality and Language

  1. This is great! Having studied literature in university, I got a minor dose of linguistics and the philosophies surrounding its relationship to reality and perception. I have been trying to work out exactly how to formulate something interesting and worth reading like what you have done here.

    I have thought a lot about this topic, but you’ve untangled it in a very fresh way to me. Usually I am bogged down by ‘the sign’ and that impossible crossing-over from the signifier to the referent. I have never really thought of it in terms of the superficial experience overruling the more significant, private one. It makes more sense this way, and is so much more digestible and interesting to read. Well done. And thank you for referring to my site!

    1. Thank you for the compliment!

      In a way, you already did write about it. Not only did your article touch upon this, but it got me thinking and inspired me to write this. I’m not sure I could have written this article had I not read your article which got my thoughts clear on the matter.

      The issue with language, philosophy and reality is a fascinating one, and I think it can be probed at a variety of levels. Unfortunately, a great deal of the philosophy of language seems to stay at a very academic level that seems far divorced from practical concerns.

  2. I just found a copy of Tractatus Logic Philosophicaus in my girlfriends bookshelf the other day. She says she hasn’t read through it all, but that it is a fascinating read. I look forward to it.

    1. This is the sort of book that you should read in many sittings. Take in a line, think about it, see if you can make heads or tails of it for a while, then move on to the next. It reminds me of a really condensed version of Spinoza in that it tries to build up a “mathematical” progression.

  3. However, science has found a way for us to completely agree on some apparently objective properties of reality. The key concept is measurement: if I agree on a measurement unit and a device, me and a totally different person in a completely different environments will get exactly the same results within an error margin, which can also be determined by both of us independently. It is this property of reality which has allowed us to build theories that account for the behavior of matter at ridiculously small scales and ridiculously big energies. You could argue that part is unimportant, but there is definitely some agreement! In fact, there is agreement to an amazing degree of precision…
    So, for example, no matter how much I love or hate chocolate, if I measure a bar and I find it to be 10 cm long, I can guarantee any other person will find exactly the same length (again, within an error margin) regardless of their preferences. I can do the same with the composition, spectral decomposition of its light (color, but defined in a more rigorous way), the aromatic molecules it releases (smell, again in a more rigorous way) and even its texture, by measuring things like its bendability, fusion temperature and so on.
    That’s quite remarkable for a reality that’s not really “out there” and is something that should be explained by any theory positing there is no such thing (it can probably be done, but it does have to be explained.)

    1. Well, we do manage to agree on things; we wouldn’t have gotten far if we disagreed on everything :P. However, even this agreement is subjective as it consists in me having an experience and inference. I experience something (a measurement), experience something else (someone agreeing) and infer the other agreement is an expression of a different subjectivity which is indicative of an objectivity.

      This is not to say there isn’t an objective reality, just that everything is subjectively “delivered” and even subjectivity is the medium through which objectivity is attained.

      There are even some cases that go against the measurement example, although they are more boundary cases so I’m not sure they’re worth mentioning.

      1. In this I think we agree. All experience is delivered subjectively: I’m not even sure what “objectively delivered experience” could even mean!

      2. True. The thing about subjectivity is that it simply means we cannot say anything definitive about experience. To say there is or is not an objective reality is to argue beyond what subjectivity gives us, but it’s a good way to let go.

        BTW, thanks a ton for putting these blogs on your “Awesome Stuff” Page. I am really flattered by the great things you say.

      3. Don’t mention it. I put them there because I like them and I want other people to enjoy them too. And it helps foster this feeling of little community that I am really enjoying…

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