Sunday, 8 February 2009

Foghorns, mist and grammar

But if each of us can see only our own segment of blackly shining asphalt, how can we extrapolate that to a common picture of the world to share with our fellow travellers? We need signposts, foghorns, landmarks, lighthouses – a map, in short – by which we can navigate the terrain.
Some like Steven Pinker see evidence for a lingua franca: a common grammar shared by all human languages which is pre-wired by evolution into the cognitive faculties all human beings. On this view language – and therefore the particular rendition of the universe it affords – is as much a product of our biology as our arms or eyes, and through the office of this grammar there is a universal means of perceiving the world. In other words, after all, there is a single common map by which we do orient ourselves and avoid colliding with each other, and by reference to which all uncertainties and misunderstandings can be resolved.
It is courtesy of just this innate universal grammar that we can “shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision”.
As we pass the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, one might remark in the margin at the huge variety of social, political and philosophical literature which claims Darwin’s intellectual antecedence. Some might see this as evidence of the rude health in which Darwin’s Dangerous Idea finds itself a couple of centuries on – universal acid indeed, as Daniel Dennett termed it. Others might wonder whether such universal acidity is symptomatic of weakness in Darwin’s programme: a theory which can be all things to all people ends up being nothing to anyone; there’s a point where flexibility needed for multiple applications tips into ambiguity and incoherence.
For me, Pinker’s account or universal grammar, Darwin-certified or not, leaves something out. Even if it were sufficiently, exquisitely, precise as to permit only a single literal interpretation for a given statement (as far as I can tell, it isn’t), there would still be an infinite universe of possible figurative interpretations of the same statement, and grammar – the rules for constructing meanings from words – cannot help us with our vocabulary. When Lou Reed tells us, at the end of his exquisitely miserable single Perfect Day, “You’re going to reap just what you sow”, grammar is no help in determining whether or not he was talking about gardening, and whether it really was a “perfect day”, or perhaps there was just a little bit of irony interlaced. 
But – and here’s the thing – the ambiguity conferred by the possibility of metaphor is not an obstacle only for our poets and novelists. Exactly the same ambiguity, the susceptibility to figurative meaning, infests every statement, however strictly empirical or even mathematical. Indeed, that was the very problem with Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, so deftly exposed by Goedel. This is significant, because it suggests there is no difference between literature and science might not be as ontological as scientists tend to suppose.
So how are we meant to identify each time, from the infinite set of possible meanings, the right one? Like any natural language, English is no more and no less than a formal logical system, like Mathematics. In these technologically revolutionary times we are confronted, as never before, by the fact that English is a numeric system: Every character can in theory be and, for the purpose of electronic processing of data, is assigned its own digit – the ASCII code. A computer can only understand text by reducing it to numbers.
And in the same way that a mathematical system is, English is (non-viciously) circular (you can only validly define an English expression in terms of other English expressions: evidence: the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a document which defines and explains the set of “every word in the English language” wholly in terms of words taken from that very same set).
Ultimately, the meanings we hang on the intricate latticework of words we create each day comes from beyond the formal set of symbols which comprise the English language. “Meaning in the world” when we apply our own respective vocabularies to the formal symbols in the language. Notwithstanding the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the set of formal symbols in practical use in any single person’s language will almost certainly be unique, and the precise meanings which that person assigns to that set of symbols, being completely functional on that person’s individual life history, definitely will be.