Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Naturalism and Language

Perhaps this is a little tighter...

My thesis is that any sort of philosophical naturalism that is taken seriously is incapable of explaining language. And since it cannot explain language, it cannot explain information. And since it cannot explain information it cannot explain, or account for, life.

There is no information without language. This is self-evident and undeniable. If you don't think so, try to deny that proposition without using a language.

There is no language without symbols. This is also self-evident and undeniable. Try to communicate information without the use of symbols.

Symbols are characters, or more generally, "things," that represent other things, both material and abstract. The key word here is represent. In any written language, letters  are arranged into words, or terms, to represent things in the universe, whether real or imaginary. Different words have different tasks (noun, verb, etc...) and they are arranged into sentences and phrases using the rules of the language (grammar and syntax) in order to communicate a message (the semantic content) for a purpose (why are you speaking in the first place?). Other languages that rely on signs, clicks, scents, or whatever still have symbols that relate one thing to another. Think of the sign language you may see on the freeway on any given day during rush hour traffic. No words are exchanged, but messages are being communicated.

So how do we account for this "representation" thing? How is it that "cat" can mean a certain kind of mammal? The letters "cat" mean, or represent, or refer to an actual instance of a cat, or cats in general. How does that happen?

If one takes seriously the position of naturalism, or something like naturalism, that nature is all that there is and that this includes only material or physical things, or things that can be described by our best physical theories, then since physical things are all that exist, all things must be explainable by physical theories (or physical laws or physics). A philosopher would say that the natural world is "causally closed." This means that all explanations begin and end in physical laws. There is no place for mind, and certainly no place for Mind, in any explanation of anything. So the naturalist must be able to explain the idea of representation, or symbols, by only using the laws of physics if he wants to explain language and thus information.

I'm not sure that we could even imagine how to do this. In fact, I am sure that we cannot. We can't imagine how physics could explain language because nothing in language has anything to do with sub-atomic particles in energy fields. What equations of quantum physics tell us that "cat" represents a certain kind of mammal? What part of general relativity tells us that "act" ("cat" rearranged) means to do something in one context, something done in another context, and a segment of a play in yet another context? What part of the Standard Model describes this "context"? The laws of physics are themselves "written" in the language of mathematics. But there is no law of physics that says "cat" means a certain kind of mammal. I'm certain. I've checked. Thus, naturalism utterly fails to account for language and therefore information.

So what?

If naturalism fails to account for what must be explained if we are going to explain life, i.e. information, then any naturalistic explanation for life, one that eschews Mind, must be false. After all, if Darwinian evolution, or something like it, is true, it could explain language and information within the constraints of naturalism. But it can't explain language and therefore it can't explain information. Therefore, it is not true. This (modus tollens) is a valid form of argument and the premises are true. Therefore, it is sound and the conclusion is necessarily true. Darwinian evolutionary theory, or whatever comes in its naturalistic place, is false. It is false now. It will always be false. In fact, it cannot be anything but false.

Therefore, we are finished. Naturalism as the basis for any explanation of anything fails because it is logically incoherent. It claims that physics can explain everything but physics can't explain language, or anything else that exists in the abstract. Things like economic laws, or the very laws of physics themselves, or the mathematics in which they are written, for that matter. Therefore, the proponent of naturalism is not being intellectually serious (or honest) when he argues against Mind and mind by using language when his own assumptions, strictly adhered to, not only deny the existence of language but have no hope of ever explaining it.


libtard said...

Well I don't think its quite so QED as you make it out.

You postulate that naturalism attempts to explain *everything* through physical laws, which would be metaphysical or ontological naturalism. But clearly naturalism does not explain, not attempt to explain, the rise of man-made constructs. For example, naturalism can explain why a skyscraper doesn't fall down, but it hardly answers the question of why it was built.

Therefore naturalism is useful as an explanation of things arising directly from nature, *before* the point at which man alter those things.

Naturalism as a philosophy is *not* a dogmatic belief that the modern view of science is entirely correct; instead it simply states that science is the best way to understand the processes of the universe.

You are postulating that the entire rise of language is something that can be treated like a natural process, like erosion. But it is not, and their is an entire field devoted to understanding how *man* has developed language.

You are indeed correct that language is an abstraction, and that it carries information. But this is not to say that language came into being as a pure abstraction. Consider the less-than-language communications between animals. Certainly there is some degree of abstraction taking place when a robin is singing or a blue whale is producing its songs. Evolutionary linguistics attempts to understand how man got from that less-than-language point to now. Obviously there are no fossils or written records to go on, but we do see things like cave paintings that date to incredibly long ago.

Once again, naturalism does not offer a system of clockwork that, if set in motion, would lead to exactly the present world; nor does it make such claims. It does however claim that various rules govern various processes of the world, and that by and large these processes can explain things that occur outside the domain of man.

*But* once you cross into the domain of man, naturalism makes no attempt to describe a process that would lead to Britney Spears CD's or reality TV shows.

Thus your argument is that no natural process could give rise to the beginnings of language. I must emphasize *the beginnings* because man is a unique animal that is able to eschew the natural processes from governing his life to some extent. Man cannot break these laws, but he can go about his life operating at a level higher than eat/sleep/f**k.

Its very reasonable to postulate that inter-individual communication of a very basic form (such as 'I am ready to breed') can be granted through natural processes. After all, many animals display this behavior. Clearly many animals have the ability to communicate key messages to each other; even honey bees can do this. And the fact the communication is evident in so many animals, in so many forms, suggests that a basic level of communication is a *natural result* of the development of larger life forms.

Language then becomes the formalization and development of these communications into more complex structures; a development which we have only observed in man and no other animals.

So the key question is if you accept that naturalism can explain communication in animals? I would argue it can. Once this is given, increasing levels of abstraction and formalization can be inferred once this development arises in man.

Tom said...

libtard, first of all let me say that I welcome this discussion and you have raised excellent points that need to be addressed for this argument to be as decisive as I would like it to be. I will get back to this as soon as I can. I hope you keep reading. I can use the push. ~tgp

RkBall said...

"My thesis is..."

Tom: just to clarify -- are you saying that philosophical naturalism is incapable of explaining any and all language including human language, or just language embedded in nature, as in DNA?

In language, one thing represents or symbolizes another. Money is an example of this -- the intrinsic value of a one-hundred dollar bill is about one cent; the value is almost entirely symbolic.

Tom said...

Hey Richard, I am saying both. (I am preparing a talk on this for November 30th.) One cannot read anything about biology these days without reading of languages and information. Indeed, departments of bio-informatics are springing up all over the place. Life and information/language seem to be inseparable. The naturalist metaphysics that claims to explain everything by means of physical laws is just irrational. Think of it. In order to have language we not only need symbols and rules, we need free will and we also need purpose or intent to communicate. Any naturalism worth its salt also denies free will and purpose. Neo-darwinian evolutionary theory is the naturalist story of life so it suffers from the same inability to explain what must be explained. Thanks for your comments. I don't get to this as often as I should but I'll check in more often from now on.