Are insight and deception two sides of the same coin? Koli Mitra considers how the artifice of language shapes cognition and creativity.
“In the beginning there was God who was the truth, and truth being invariable, it was singular and it was singularly static and it bored God and God said ‘let there be lies’ and there were lies and lo, the variations that came into being and that from themselves created all the quantum fluctuations that gave rise to all existence and the universe exploded in every direction, for now there were such things as directions, for truth was no longer a singularity. And God saw that it was good.”
Ok, so that’s not a real quote. I just made it up. But …wouldn’t it make a great creation story?
There is a deep insight in the biblical conception of a god who just called all of existence into being with words. The lights turned on in the universe because God gave it a name! I think origin myths like that come out of an intuitive human sense that there is something very special about our use of language, that not only interprets and communicates the world for us, but in a very real sense it creates the world and everything in it.
If we consider how much of the world with which we actually interact is a product of our species’ own invention, we have to recognise our environment as being a product of language, which seems to be the most important catalyst for creativity (or inventive thought). Studies show that preverbal children and animals experience the world as a continuum rather than as a collection of discrete phenomena and ‘things’. It is the acquisition of language – the ability to name and describe things – that allows us to abstract our experience and break it into manageable ‘parts’ that we can then reflect upon and study in depth. This ability to contemplate how ‘particular’ aspects of nature work, is behind every technological invention from the wheel to the internet. Language is also behind the social realities we construct. For instance – ironically – it is my ability to alienate you from myself, by naming ‘you’ as a separate entity rather than an extension of ‘I’, that allows me to form an empathic recognition of your unique inner experience.
Language is so fundamental to our cognitive function that even superficial variations in its application can profoundly affect the way we structure and perceive the world. In his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Guy Deutscher argues that our perception of the world and, consequently, our engagement with it, is formed largely by the features of the particular language we think in. Psychologist Charles Fernyhough goes so far as to suggest that ‘thought’ as we know it is entirely a stream of internal speech.
Humans have the unique quality of being ‘teachable’. We are not simply intelligent enough to ‘learn’; we are also (provisionally) gullible enough to be ‘taught. This means we can process different bits of information without demanding credible evidentiary substantiation at every turn. As a result, we can wrap our minds around a complicated theory or scenario, piece by piece, before we really know whether it’s true, or even plausible.
However, Elizabeth Spelke, Harvard professor of cognitive psychology, finds Fernyhough’s assertion to be an overstatement. She contends that language is not so much the entire content of thought as the mechanism for accessing one’s own thoughts and for connecting/combining many disparate, isolated areas of knowledge into the deeper understanding we associate with ‘thought.’ Spelke’s research has shown that preverbal children and lab mice are equally unable to combine multiple characterisations of a single object or activity. For example, they may recognise such concepts as ‘behind’, ‘round’ and ‘green’ but they cannot process the idea of something being ‘behind the round green’ thing. It is only when children fully acquire language that they can apply all of those associations simultaneously.
In fact, Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall credits the acquisition of language as the prime triggering event in launching the species Homo sapiens on its path toward a “position of dominance in the living world”. In a Scientific American article, he argues that there is no reasonable explanation in the physical/genetic evolutionary history to explain the sudden explosion of modern human cultural behaviour concurrently with the rapid edging-out – and extinction – of every other species in our genus, such as the Homo neanderthalensis (‘Neanderthals’), who had previously survived for millennia, coexisting with the physiologically modern Homo sapiens, living lifestyles very similar to the sapiens). Tattersall says that modern human behaviour was purely a cultural development, facilitated by the novel use of a pre-existing, possibly dormant genetic capacity: namely, the capacity for symbolic expression. He is careful to emphasise that “intuitive reasoning still remains a fundamental component of our mental processes” but he adds that “what we [sapiens] have done is to add the capacity for symbolic manipulation to this basic ability. An intuitive appreciation of the relationships among objects and ideas is, for example, almost certainly as large a force in basic scientific creativity as is symbolic representation; but in the end it is the unique combination of the two that makes science – or art, or technology – possible.”
There are various scholarly approaches all converging toward the conclusion that the activation of the language faculty figures prominently in generating the unique features of the human intellect. Tattersall has posited language as an ‘exaptation’, a term evolutionary biologists use to describe “characteristics that arise in one context before being exploited in another” (the example Tattersall gives is that of bird feathers, which initially functioned as insulation, but is now almost universally adapted for flight). But, while Tattersall emphasises this operational aspect of language acquisition, others focus on the genetic propensity for it. The cognitive neuroscientist Ursula Bellugi identified certain innate, biologic bases of language. Also, her behavioural research has shown that deaf children – with no environmental access to language – ‘babble’ with their hands, even before being taught sign language. Renowned linguist Noam Chomsky had long held that the language faculty is not only innate, but that it is uniquely human, though that view has been hotly debated. Certainly, other species have communication systems; some even have symbolic ones. Consider that, among Charles F. Hockett’s famous 16 ‘design features’ of languages, nearly all are employed by one nonhuman species or other, though only human language uses all sixteen.
Either way, it’s undeniable that there is something unique, and uniquely creative and generative, about human language. And scholars don’t seem to think it is mere coincidence that there is also something “unique, and uniquely creative and generative” about the human intellect. Perhaps it makes sense to require the presence of all 16 of Hockett’s design features in the definition of a complete ‘language’ in the sense that Chomsky finds unique to humans.
Yet, the question remains: what is it about human language that unlocks such floodgates of creative potential? As Tattersall explains it, “Members of other species often display high levels of intuitive reasoning, reacting to stimuli from the environment in quite complex ways, but only human beings are able arbitrarily to combine and recombine mental symbols and to ask themselves questions such as ‘What if ?’ And it is the ability to do this, above everything else that forms the foundation of our vaunted creativity.”
So, the role of language in shaping cognitive processes (rather than simply communicating them) is a vast and fascinating subject with is a large body of scholarly literature that covers it (tiny glimpses of which I have referred to above). But lurking under the surface is an aspect of that role that is much less remarked upon and much less intuitively self-suggestive. It has to do with an implication of the ‘what if ’ question that Tattersall mentions. It seems to me that there is something essentially false in how language helps us comprehend, tackle, and, ultimately, construct the world. I should clarify that when I say ‘false’ (a word I use advisedly), I mean it literally, as a description or identification of something as ‘not real’ or ‘not true’ or ‘not factually accurate’; and I emphatically do NOT imply something undesirable or unworthy by it.
Indeed, I contend that this capacity for falsehood is a key ingredient of human creativity. Our ability to articulate the non-existent (that is, the ‘untrue’) allows us to imagine whether it could be ‘true’ in some circumstances; to ponder possibilities beyond what we have experienced in the ‘real’ world as it exists without our artifices. This act of boundless wondering, unconstrained by the limits of what is ‘true’, the probing of things that appear wildly unlikely or absurd, is the start of the sort of process that leads to discovering black holes at the core of distant galaxies, choreographing Swan Lake and composing the Mahabharata.
Of course, other animals can also deceive through their behaviour, but only we can create falsehood in symbolic, linguistic ways. A songbird can vocally mimic another creature but it cannot spontaneously generate a unique combination of arbitrary symbols to create something absolutely new.
I think the power of falsehood as a cognitive tool can be seen, not only in the expressive or formative function of language, but also at the other end of communication: the receptive function. Behavioural studies – not expressly related to linguistics – have found that humans have the unique quality of being ‘teachable’. We are not simply intelligent enough to ‘learn’; we are also (provisionally) gullible enough to be ‘taught’ – not behaviourally trained, like circus animals, but ‘taught’ to understand and internalise something suggested to us. We are willing – and, more importantly, we are able – to receive instruction and ‘wisdom’ from others simply ‘on faith’. This means we can process different bits of information without demanding credible evidentiary substantiation at every turn. As a result, we can wrap our minds around a complicated theory or scenario, piece by piece, before we really know whether it’s true, or even plausible. We start learning parts of an idea or a discipline before we develop the ability to grasp the whole.
In fact, very young human children often exhibit ‘blind faith’ in adults, trusting received directives over empirical experience – and, consequently, appearing dimmer than many animals, certainly the smart ones like chimpanzees! As we get older, though, we start taking stuff ‘on faith’ only provisionally and our scepticism (and our appetite for evidence) kicks in. But, when we grow out of the ‘blind faith’ stage, we don’t revert to a ‘blind imperviousness’ phase that chimpanzees seem to be forever stranded in. We stay open to apparent falsehoods. We use language to assess ideas that may yet prove to be false. Language makes it possible to articulate an idea – a hypothesis – in a way that makes sense semantically and syntactically, so that it can be understood and provisionally accepted by those who know the words and the usage rules, even before the truth of the idea can be demonstrated empirically.
It is the acquisition of language – the ability to name and describe things – that allows us to abstract our experience and break it into manageable ‘parts’ that we can then reflect upon and study in depth. Language is also behind the social realities we construct. For instance – ironically – it is my ability to alienate you from myself, by naming ‘you’ as a separate entity rather than an extension of ‘I’, that allows me to form an empathic recognition of your unique inner experience.
The songbird in my earlier example can only deceive by providing immediate audio evidence – however deceptive – of the purported truth of its ‘assertion’ (that it is a different animal). It cannot present the idea of something false without having to provide that supporting sensory evidence. It cannot build, as we can with the language of mathematics as well as words, a model of organic molecules or of the changeable fabric of spacetime. Such concepts turn out to be correct, but they are experientially false – i.e., ‘patently’ false – but, because they can be articulated, they can be conceived of and potential evidence for proving them can also be articulated and then investigated.
In a sense, all invention is ‘false’ by definition. We intuit this in ordinary speech, when we say ‘synthetic’ to mean inauthentic and ‘made up’ to mean ‘not real’. But the thing to remember about artificial constructs is that – while they are constructs and therefore we should always be willing to revisit their foundational principles – they also produce new realities and illuminate deeper truths. One of my favourite quotes is Alfred Korzybski’s adage: “the map is not the territory.” But it doesn’t mean the map isn’t useful to exploring the territory. Without the map, each one who enters the territory would have to discover it anew, facing all the same perils – and we would never build a base camp from which to launch the next expedition. Language is the map we use to navigate ‘reality’; like all maps, it delivers, at best, an approximation of the ‘reality’ we set out to explore. But vast new universes of previously unimagined realities emanate from that process. Consider our cousins, the chimpanzees: impressive, highly intelligent beings who are genetically 95 to 99 percent identical to us; so they occupy essentially the same ‘territory’ that we do, but their species has never invented so much as a river raft to travel on, while 24 members of ours have orbited an alien celestial body and hundreds have orbited the one we live on – because we have the ‘map’.
And, perhaps just as importantly for some of us, the map itself is endowed with a sublime poetry that invites us to study it for hours, luxuriating in its ersatz ‘truths’ and its tantalising possibilities for ‘unreal’ adventures – with absolutely no intention of ever visiting the territory.