Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Language and thought: some metaphysically skeptical reflections

Conceptual frameworks are always provisional

The logical positivists took a very hard anti-metaphysical line. They were right, in my view, to see traditional metaphysics as being futile and pointless. The essential problem with metaphysics is epistemic. How (given a basically scientific view of the world) can purely metaphysical statements be justified? Rudolf Carnap and most of his Vienna Circle colleagues didn’t think they could and consequently saw no place for metaphysics as a serious discipline.

There is no denying that fundamental, foundational and relational questions arise naturally in the course of scientific and other forms of rigorous inquiry. These kinds of questions are not only worthwhile, they are necessary and inescapable, and to call them philosophical or (in certain cases) metaphysical is not out of line with common usage. Problems arise, however, when philosophical or metaphysical thinking becomes detached from empirical reality and begins to feed on itself.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Carnap articulated a nuanced account of ontological claims in the context of mathematical and scientific inquiry. He saw such claims as being either trivially true or false (if considered within the theoretical framework in question) or nonsensical (if not). The former were associated with “internal” questions, the latter with “external” questions. Internal questions are asked with a particular framework in mind. Do numbers exist? Within the framework of arithmetic, (trivially) yes. But do numbers really exist in some absolute sense? The question, arguably, is meaningless.

This approach works for formal disciplines and strictly scientific theoretical concepts but the sciences are not entirely formal. They have their origin in our interactions with, and natural curiosity about, the world. It is a mistake to imagine that we are ever entirely locked into specific and rigid linguistic or theoretical frameworks. Frameworks are fluid and necessarily provisional.

Ordinary thinking is an element of our engagement with the world and is never entirely mechanical or formal. It is not formal because interpretation of one kind or another is always involved, in the sciences and elsewhere. And it is holistic in the sense of not being comprised of discrete levels or completely self-contained modules.

Not only are various parts of the brain interconnected in complex ways, the broader physical (somatic and extra-somatic), social and cultural matrix within which neural processing occurs and upon which it depends is also holistic and massively interconnected. Our thinking cannot be separated from this broader physical and cultural context. This fact has important implications for how we think about thinking.

An ability to conceptualize and deal in a practical way with a wide range of contingencies involves various forms of thinking and meta-thinking. My focus here is on aspects of thinking and meta-thinking which relate respectively to language and number.

Metalinguistic awareness

Alfred Tarski developed the notion of metalanguage, though he was concerned mainly with formal rather than natural languages. Karl Popper explicitly drew on Tarski’s concept of metalanguage to defend a form of the correspondence theory of truth. The linguist Roman Jakobson appealed to the same basic idea when, late in his career, he outlined what he saw as the functions of language. One of these was the metalingual (or metalinguistic) function. It applies when a language is used to talk about itself.

The notion of metalinguistic awareness is often employed in discussing such phenomena as code-switching and language alternation. But metalinguistic awareness also applies to phenomena which occur in strictly monolingual environments. As noted above, languages are routinely used in a reflexive way (i.e. to refer to themselves). What's more, a speaker’s awareness of implied as distinct from literal meaning and the use and understanding of various figures of speech also require a certain level of metalinguistic awareness.

Using and understanding irony requires a relatively high level of metalinguistic awareness. Sarcasm is less subtle than irony but provides a clearer illustration that what is literally being said is not always what is actually being said, the intended sense being (in the case of sarcasm) the converse of the literal sense.

Gödel's incompleteness theorems

The general idea that a broader context always obtrudes applies not just to ordinary life and language use but also to specialized scientific and scholarly work. No significant area of study is self-contained. Not even formal disciplines, such as arithmetic.

Gödel’s work demonstrated the limitations of formal axiomatic systems. He showed that no such system is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. He also demonstrated that no formal system which is complex enough to model basic arithmetic can prove its own consistency.

Formal systems then (at least those beyond a certain level of complexity) are not self-contained, not sufficient unto themselves. They are necessarily situated in – and in a real sense are dependent on – a broader context. And any expanded system is dependent on a yet broader context in the same way.

Gödel was a Platonist and saw his incompleteness theorems as vindicating his position on the power of the human mind. The main lesson I take from his work, however, is that productive thinking is necessarily contingent rather than self-contained; that it necessarily engages with a wider world.

What this wider world consists in or of is open to debate. It comprises seemingly very different kinds of things and/or processes: the processes studied by mathematicians; the physical processes studied by physicists and biologists; social and cultural processes; etc..

But on what basis – other than practicality or convenience – do we draw dividing lines between these different kinds of process (and, by extension, between disciplines)?

Mundane concepts

Because of the problems of justifying metaphysical statements I prefer to remain metaphysically agnostic and to avoid making claims about the world which go beyond common sense, common usage and the findings of science and scholarship. Neither ordinary thinking nor rigorous intellectual inquiry requires an explicit metaphysical foundation. Effective thinking, speaking and research do have prerequisites, but such a foundation is not one of them.

Sure, our natural habits of thought involve implicit assumptions and commitments which are often reflected in the grammar of language. This is something to be aware and wary of, however, not something which should form a basis or foundation for serious metaphysical claims or systematizing.

In respect of the existence or non-existence of entities postulated by scientific theories, Carnap’s approach works well because the theories in question are identifiable and distinguishable one from another. If you move beyond particular theories, however, and focus on mundane concepts which we can approach from many directions and in many ways, there is no single language or system or theory to which we can appeal (and so no clear way of distinguishing internal from external questions). Such mundane concepts include concrete things that we might touch or eat or bump into, as well as more abstract notions and social phenomena.

Even something like the concept of number can be approached and conceptualized in very different ways: via formal arithmetic or via psychology and the social sciences, for example.

And what are we to make of birds that keep track of the comings and goings of their potential prey by counting and remembering how many entered or exited the burrow they are spying on? These predators would not be much interested in questions about the concept of number, but their counting abilities derive from a pattern of neural processing which necessarily represents or instantiates the concept in some form. Arguably, some such primitive, pre-linguistic and pre-theoretical notion of number underlies even our most sophisticated mathematical ideas and capacities.

[This is a revised and abridged version of a piece which was published a few weeks ago at The Electric Agora.]