Debate Magazine

Evolved Grammar God

By Cris

While contemplating the ways in which our thoughts are conditioned by language in the Sapir-Whorf post, I kept hearing Nietzsche commenting on the “metaphysics of language” in Twilight of the Idols: “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” In many of his books, Nietzsche hammers away at the idea that language simply reflects reality and accurately corresponds to things “out there” in the world.

There is too much slippage, or distance, between symbols arbitrarily assigned to signify the things “out there” for this to be true. Even when word symbols are assigned to something relatively definite (such as “dog”), these symbols don’t carry much meaning without a great deal of context. This, in turn, ensures that language will always be slippery, never quite getting at a speaker’s goal, objective reality, or absolute truth. Contexts are always ambiguous.

This is of course a constant source of individual frustration and cultural madness. Extremely bothered by all this, Wittgenstein spent the better part of his life trying to prove that language could in fact be objective and truthful. In the end, he was reduced to saying very little, indeed almost nothing. He thought this was the only way he could be truthful.

It seems exceedingly odd that natural selection should design such a thing. Selection is not of course an agent and it does not design anything. It is the imperfect communicative outcome of millions of years of evolution. Some might even call it a kluge.

In a new paper, Shigeru Miyagawa, Robert C. Berwick and Kazuo Okanoya propose that language is the merged product of two distinct kinds of communicative systems found in the animal world:

Like many evolutionary innovations, language arose from the adventitious combination of two pre-existing, simpler systems that had been evolved for other functional tasks. The first system, Type E(xpression), is found in birdsong, where the same song marks territory, mating availability, and similar “expressive” functions. The second system, Type L(exical), has been suggestively found in non-human primate calls and in honeybee waggle dances, where it demarcates predicates with one or more “arguments,” such as combinations of calls in monkeys or compass headings set to sun position in honeybees. We show that human language syntax is composed of two layers that parallel these two independently evolved systems: an “E” layer resembling the Type E system of birdsong and an “L” layer providing words.

This makes a great deal of sense, and goes some way towards explaining our naive faith in language. The layering of these two systems gives rise to language that always contains two levels of meaning, which sometimes work at cross or divergent purposes. Poets, of course, have known all this for a long time and hardly need an evolutionary explanation for it. The inevitable result of layering may be metaphor.

All of which brings us back to another metaphor, which John Gray recently discussed in an interview about his new book, which ironically is titled The Silence of Animals:

Spectator: You also say that “atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but giving up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.” What are you getting at here?

Gray: I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshiping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language.

Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

I have long suspected that the “ineffability” and “transcendence” so often associated with (Axial) religions is largely a product of language, which is in some ways ineffable and when played with long enough, can seem transcendent. Our imperfectly evolved symbols and speech are slippery and wonderful “things.”

Cavemen-Speaking


You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • NHS at 70

    This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National... Read more

    10 hours, 38 minutes ago by   Nicholas Baines
    RELIGION, SOCIETY, SPIRITUALITY
  • John Cale: Antwerp 2018/06/24 Setlist

    John Cale: Antwerp 2018/06/24 Setlist

    John Cale performed at Ppenluchttheater Rivierenhof, Antwerp, Belgium - - June 24, 2018. The band: John Cale: vocals, electric guitar, keyboards, viola Dustin... Read more

    11 hours, 26 minutes ago by   Hctf
    ENTERTAINMENT, MUSIC
  • Josie at the Beach

    Josie Beach

    Read more

    11 hours, 28 minutes ago by   Vickilane
    CREATIVITY, PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Communication Lessons

    What is the one question that almost all human beings seek the answer for? For most of their lives? Yeah, I know, there are those strange beings who want "Who a... Read more

    14 hours, 6 minutes ago by   C. Suresh
    DIARIES, SELF EXPRESSION
  • Take Five with Sonny Dhanowa

    Take Five with Sonny Dhanowa

    Photo credit: Hans van der Linden Meet Sonny Dhanowa from Trowbridge in the UK. After studying Biological and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Exeter,... Read more

    14 hours, 24 minutes ago by   Nessascityblog
    DESTINATIONS, TRAVEL
  • Daughter of Madness by Amanda J. McGee

    Daughter Madness Amanda McGee

    GUEST POST5 Favorite BooksWhat author doesn’t like to talk about her favorite books? My problem is narrowing it down, honestly, which is a problem I’m sure... Read more

    15 hours, 58 minutes ago by   Lauriej
    BOOKS, CULTURE
  • Like the Famous Flour Bakery Banana Bread - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

    Like Famous Flour Bakery Banana Bread HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

    version;I'm sure that many enthusiastic bakers would have known or baked this highly reviewed Flour Bakery bread recipe from the book, Flour by Joanne Chang or... Read more

    The 24 June 2018 by   Zoebakeforhappykids
    FOOD & DRINK, RECIPES