Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Language, Logic and Lies

Our global human society, at this unique point in time, is perhaps the most complex series of inter-connected relationships in the known Universe. It has functioned as an intricate web of economic, social, cultural and political structures that have fed off of each other in locally unpredictable, yet generally stable ways. Everything from our computers and cars to our health care products, homes and groceries pass through each thread of this web and are ultimately churned out by the complex machine.

Considering the fact that human beings have only existed for a very tiny fraction of the time since life first evolved on Earth (<0.00005%), the level of complexity we have generated is truly remarkable. Yet, there is really only one thing that makes any of this complexity possible - the ability to communicate and preserve information and emotions through the use of human language (spoken, written, drawn, signed, etc.). For all we know, other living beings, such as apes and dolphins, have similar levels of cognitive ability (information processing, logical reasoning, emotional sensitivity, etc.) as humans. What would prevent them from creating "societies" with our level of complexity is their inability (unwillingness?) to preserve complicated communications between each other and materially build upon them over time.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are born into the world completely deaf and blind. Your mind would still formulate memories and ideas about those memories and other sensations, most likely at an extremely high level of "clarity", but it would be practically impossible for you to communicate any of these thoughts to other human beings. You would have no attachment to an economic, social or political unit, and from your perspective, these arrangements would not even exist. At the same time, the underlying reality of the Universe would be simple - a reality that is perhaps most clearly reflected in the famous credo articulated by Rene Descartes:

"I think (cogito), therefore I am (ergo sum)."
You can easily doubt your five senses, but you simply cannot doubt the fact that you have doubts. This type of simple existence has not really occurred in any human population (beyond some very minimal extent) during the history of our evolution, since it could not be naturally selected for material survival over generations. Most people who are born with genetic abnormalities that consequently make them "deafblind" are not completely deaf or blind, and only recent developments in medical technology and social care have significantly increased their chances of survival (this trend will not last).

If you can easily doubt your own senses, then it stands to logic that it is even easier to doubt the senses of another, expressed through that person's language, or the language of third, fourth... nth parties removed.
Humans evolved not only the ability to learn to communicate distinct ideas and emotions, but to communicate through increasingly more complex forms. As material resources were exploited and economic structures expanded, human language has adapted and grown as well, becoming more specialized and complex. Regardless of the specific form a mainstream language takes (English, Spanish, Hindi, etc.), the primary evolved function of its common usage is to maintain material exploitation and growth within or across regions.

In 2009, it was estimated that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 "living human languages", which are defined as those "in wide use as a primary form of communication by a specific group of living people". [1]. While many have "died" (no speakers as primary language) or gone "extinct" (no speakers at all) over time, the general trend has been an increase in the number of languages, especially when considering all of the various dialects and also "constructed languages" (those that were consciously created by humans, rather than natural evolution over time - i.e. computer programming languages).

Some may argue that this plethora of languages has allowed humans to communicate increasing amounts of meaningful ideas with each other, but, in my opinion, this argument is simply not valid. In 1936, at the age of 25, the philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer completed a work entitled Language, Truth and Logic, which fleshed out specific criterion for determining whether a statement has any "meaning". [2]. The statement must either be tautological or verifiable to have meaning, with the former referring to statements that are necessarily true by their definition (under any circumstances), such as mathematical or logical identities.

To be "weakly" verifiable (capable of being probabilistically, rather than conclusively, confirmed), an empirical proposition must have practical conditions under which it can be affirmed or denied. While Ayer also asserted that empirical propositions have meaning if they can be theoretically (in principle) tested, I would under-emphasize, if not completely disregard, this assertion in modern society (for reasons discussed later).

Perhaps the most important function of human language in the modern world has been to communicate information about the "real world" (external environment) through empirical propositions, with the intention of influencing the thoughts or behaviors of others by asserting the truth of such propositions. I would wholeheartedly admit that I sometimes use empirical propositions, carefully crafted in my writing and asserted as truth, to describe the nature of reality to my readers.

The adjective "wholeheartedly" is a good example of this craft, as it is intended to influence your thoughts about my attitude, but adds very little substance to the sentence. While I am confident that most of my propositions are practically verifiable through a combination of logical identities and reasonably accurate models/data, making them "meaningful", I will refrain from continuing down this same path for the rest of the article.

Instead, I will try to infuse the underlying analytic (philosophical) proposition of this article with more clarity in meaning through the use of an example. The following is a passage from a CNN article regarding the recent "Coalition" air-strikes on Libya [3]:  

Coalition forces made "very effective" progress Monday toward their goal of enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution intended to protect civilians from attack by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the head of U.S. forces in Libya told reporters.
My Analysis: The sentence above contains two propositions that are constructed to assert truths about reality, but have very little, if any, "meaning".
(1) Coalition forces, as represented by the head of U.S. forces, told CNN reporters that they made very effective progress on Monday towards their goal of enforcing a U.N. Security Council Resolution.

The truth asserted is that the missile attacks in Libya were designed to enforce a U.N. Security Council Resolution, and the Coalition forces believe they made a lot of progress towards that end. To practically verify the truth or falsity of this assertion, it would have to be possible to examine video/audio recordings or primary witness descriptions of the negotiations that took place in the U.N. meeting before the resolution vote, the complete and original copy of the U.N. Resolution, any detailed records of strategic plans developed for the attacks, video or witness accounts of the results of missile attacks and also to question the head of U.S. forces about the alleged statements to CNN reporters, such as the following:
"I assess that our actions to date are generally achieving the intended objectives," said Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command. "We think we have been very effective in degrading his ability to control his regime forces."
While all of these things may be theoretically possible, none of them can practically be done by any individual or entity existing on Earth. Our global society has built-in hurdles that would prevent any person, organization, court of law, etc. from gathering all of this information for assessment. It should be noted that I am not making any value judgments about the CNN article or its reporting practices, even though my commentary may create that impression (an illusion of complex human language).
(2) The U.N. Security Council Resolution was intended to protect Libyan civilians from attack by military forces that take direction from Ghadhafi or are, at least, fighting to protect his position in power.
The proposition asserted is that the above is, in fact, true, regardless of what any third party has said. In the original passage, the relevant phrase is structured so that "the head of U.S. forces in Libya told reporters" condition does not apply to it, especially since the only quoted words are "very effective", which relates only to the first proposition. Once again, we would have to conduct extensive interviews with U.N. representatives and, more importantly, relevant executive officials that influence and determine outcomes of U.N. resolution discussions, to assess their intentions with any significant degree of probability.
Of course, almost every proposition in this article and many others fails to meet a basic threshold of practical verifiability, given the enormous amount of evolved complexity that we are dealing with. While these propositions may have no "meaning" in the Ayer sense, that does not suggest that they have no value to their readers at all.

Propaganda comes in the form of outright lies (consciously misstating the truth), partial-truths (consciously withholding part of truth or context needed), truth revealed for misdirection (consciously done) or asserted truths that simply have no meaning (consciously or subconsciously done). The latter are perhaps the most misleading and subversive, since they constantly inform our complex reality through network media, yet we have no way of affirming or denying their validity.

They do, however, provide us with key insights into the collective mindset of those making the propositions. The frequency and extent at which mainstream corporate media outlets, politicians and academics use these propositions reveal a surprisingly clear thread of our global society's complex web; one in which seemingly diverse and "professional" institutions all maintain and reinforce the same descriptive narratives of reality.

When the majority of citizens in Western nations ask why their dwindling tax dollars are spent on military operations in other countries, ones they perhaps had never heard of before, a somewhat coherent response must be provided. Meaningless propositions are the most effective way to validate this response, since meaningful ones are scarce, contrary to the narrative and usually appeal to logic, rather than emotion. As a result, we end up with propositions and narratives that sound something like this:

An oppressed population in Libya has decided to rebel against their leader, Moammar Gadhafi, and, in response, this leader has decided to massacre innocent civilians and restore his oppressive order. A coalition of dozens of nations, with diverse interests, subsequently convened and decided that Gadhafi's actions are universally unacceptable and clear violations of objective standards of international law. After the Security Council, consisting of five permanent members (U.S., U.K., China, Russia and France), adopted a resolution, the U.S. and European nations launched missile attacks on various "command-and-control" sites that are critical to Gadhafi's oppressive strategy, as a means of enforcing the resolution and its underlying intentions. These attacks have been largely successful at immobilizing military forces loyal to Gadhafi and will, therefore, ultimately save the lives of Libyan civilians and restore peace. In addition, with stability returned to Northeast Africa, the national security of Western nations is also enhanced.
Is this narrative supported by meaningful propositions, either analytically or empirically? No, it is not. It is propaganda, which is almost always either a complete lie or a severe distortion of the truth. Lies work well to preserve material exploitation and growth in cultures that do not value the truth, because they also do not embrace uncertainty or doubt. They trust in the language of others, because, without it, the material world becomes too simple for their acquired tastes.

The current trend towards greatly reduced complexity, however, is not a matter of choice, and it has the power to transform the most compelling narratives, supported by meaningless propositions, into the most obvious mockeries of straight forward logic. These narratives eventually take a stand in direct opposition to the thoughts we are all initially born with:

"I am thirsty."

"I am hungry."

"I am..."


  1. No one really wants to see how far the rabbit hole goes.

  2. Hi Ashvin,

    Interesting article, read it over on Automatic Earth. Very logical. Umm, not sure why I am writing. I liked the second half when you got on to your example detailing language use, propaganda & Libya. You might enjoy this blog post Sell Freedom – Buy Control.

    Your intro is a bit of a stretch- “Our global human society, at this unique point in time, is perhaps the most complex series of inter-connected relationships in the known Universe.” Is this hyperbole really necessary? And regarding your comment, “practically impossible for you to communicate any of these thoughts to other human beings.” - I guess you haven’t experienced telepathy yet.

    ..the underlying reality of the Universe.. perhaps most clearly reflected in the famous credo articulated by Rene Descartes: "I think (cogito), therefore I am (ergo sum)." This is old hat. Do you really think that this is the underlying reality of the universe? So there is awareness of thinking - this is proof conclusive of first person identity? Need there be awareness of thought for existence, need there even be thought? Feeling? Sorry, the cogito line so beloved of western logical philosophy is a pet peeve of mine. It’s limited.

    Regardless of the specific form a mainstream language takes (English, Spanish, Hindi, etc.), the primary evolved function of its common usage is to maintain material exploitation and growth within or across regions. Here we go again with your broad and sweeping statements – material exploitation - really, the primary evolved function of language? Poetry, song, drama, aesthetic experience. I would recommend reading Bruce Chatwin’s “Songlines”, or “The Singing Neanderthals” by Steven Mithin.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts & feelings about the so called “real world”.

    Incidentally here is a quote, which I cannot verify, attributed to someone who actually was deaf and blind, Helen Keller. Language worth contemplating: “It gives me a deep comforting sense that "things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal."”