The Basics: On Reality and Language

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The Basics is a series in which we cover topics, ideas and methods that parents think their kids are supposed to learn in school. The reality is that most of the content in this series is taught by parents themselves, although not in an overt or structured way. Because of this, there may be those who think that their parents or the education system failed them in some way, but it’s just that the “moral of the story” was never emphazised enough.

The First Key Idea

We intend for all our posts in The Basics series to transmit at least one key idea and the logical consequences it has for us. Despite how fundamental or obvious this idea may seem, we think it’s especially important that we bring it out into the open, so that there as few misunderstandings and misinterpretations as possible.

The key idea for this post is that there is a reality which is independent of our experience of it. See, a very basic idea, but it’s forgetting that such a reality exists that may end up hurting us. The point of this idea is that there are events (things we can describe by their positions in time and space) within us and without us that happen, whether we can percieve them or not. Obvious examples of this are:

  • We can see the sunrise or the sunset.
  • We can see the moon. Even when we don’t see it, we can know it’s orbiting the earth. Something similar can be said about other known objects in the universe.
  • The sensations of hot and cold.
  • The chemical reactions that keep us alive. We may not know about them, but they still happen.
  • Our perception of an event.

That last example is extremely important, and we obviously introduced it for a very good reason. You may have realized that there is a big problem with it regarding it’s ambiguity: is it talking about our sensory perceptions or abour the way our brain interprets those sensory perceptions? Even though both happen outside of our control, it’s our sensory perception which gives us the information to interpret and create our view of the world; we don’t know if something feels hot before touching it and it’s that sensation of temperature that lets us know how hot something actually is. Because of this ambiguity, we’ll henceforth talk of sensory perception (SP) and perception (P) to differentiate between both.

The Caveats

Let’s make a couple of caveats very clear. The first one is that when we talk about P, we are just refering to the the interpretation our brain makes of SP, not the value we attach to it. This is getting complicated, but I think the following example should make clear the difference between the three concepts:

You bring a warm cup of coffee to your lips. The nerve endings in your lips react to the difference in temperature between them and the coffee and signal this to the brain, this is SP. Once in the brain, these signals are interpreted so that we know if the coffee has a high enough temperature to harm us or not, this is P. The value we attach to P then is whether the coffee is good or bad for us due to its temperature.

The second caveat is that we are not talking about how our upbringing affects how we attach value to P. A person raised in Sweden may find a sunny day too warm while someone raised in Africa may find that same sunny day normal. For the purposes of this post we won’t consider the effects of upbringing and, to keep things simple, we’ll consider that all our thought experiments occur to individuals raised under the same conditions.

The Second Key Idea: Language as a tool

The second key idea in this post is that language is our tool for communcation. Again, another simple idea, right? This includes speaking, body language, writing and any other mechanism we use to transmit information. As a social species, communicating is vital to our survival, and part of our normal development is becoming proficient in communcating effectively.

At the same time, however, once we learn a language, it helps us make sense of the world by allowing us to put words to SP, P, and the values we attach to them, even if we don’t communicate them to anyone else. This is particularly obvious to those who speak more than one language since that second language may have idioms, vocabulary or gramatical constructions that would be so useful in our mother tongue.

The thing, though, is that we have to remember that language is just a tool. Just as a hammer is useful to pound nails, it’s not useful as a writing utenzil or a vehicle. In the case of language, we are all well aware of experiences that cannot be put to words, how language can be imprecise or how it takes a long time to master its nuances and subtleties.

Bringing it all together

Since the way we understand and interact with the rest of the universe and ourselves is through SP, P, and the values attached to them, it should be clear that each of those steps distorts reality little by little. If we also unconsciously express those experiences in our internal dialogue in a language without being aware of doing so, then we add an additional layer of distortion. Communicating that to other people further distorts reality unless the language has been standardized and made as precise as possible, like physicists using mathematics. Adding in the factors of different upbringing adds complexity upon all of this. Viewed this way, successul communication seems more of a great achievement rather than a given.

All that just serves for us to arrive at the following, obvious, conclusion: reality and our experience of it, as communicated by language, are different things. This shouldn’t be new information to anyone past the teenage years, but it’s so easy to forget that we need to be reminded about if from time to time. The reverse is also true, and I think it’s more important to keep that in mind: Our experciences, as communicated by language, are different from reality. Just as our experiences are a mixture of truths and lies, so are our recollections of them. Our internal dialogue, by virtue of being carried out through language, is only somewhat true.

How Real is Real Life?

If you’ve ever tried acting, or had to read a play for school, then you’ve experienced the limits of language to transmit an experience. The script just serves as a guide, and it comes down to the actors, the scenography, lighting and direction to turn words on paper into something that attempts to replicate life.

In a similar way, real life is not our internal dialogue, our experience or our recollection of that experience. As weird as it sounds, what we see is reality is mostly our own construction. Now, let’s be honest, how important is this in everyday life? Does this mean that we should go around double-checking everything we say, do or think or that we should question the veracity of all we experience? Of course not, but it does mean that we are looking at life through a looking glass that we’ve made ourselves, mostly without realizing so. It also means that when faced with the important moments in life, those that are challenging or that will determine part of our long term future, we should spare some time to understand how much of that experience is real, and how much appears to be real because we’ve made it so.

Hope you enjoyed this post. See you later!

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