We are so immersed in language from infancy onward that most of us take it for granted, never looking closely at what we do when we think and talk. We assume that the connection between the world and the words we use is pretty tight—after all, language allows us to build houses, bridges, and corporations. Closer inspection shows that there’s a lot going on under the hood that escapes the casual observer, and the connection is looser than we might have thought.
Ray Jackendoff is not a casual observer, and in this book he describes many of the tricky bits of language, using them to promote improvements in the way we use and think about it. The problem is that he falls prey to some of the very traps he exposes.
Take his use of “perspectives:” There’s the “ordinary perspective” on language that people typically take, that it’s “a single structured entity out there in the world;” there’s the “cognitive perspective” that looks at “how language functions in the mind;” and the “neural perspective” that looks at “the activity of neurons in the speaker’s brain.” (Jackendoff, Ray (2012-01-02). A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (pp. 14-15). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.) There are other perspectives besides these, of course.
At first blush these perspectives seem like useful approaches to the study of language, thought, and meaning, and no doubt they are, but there’s a danger in any approach that divides the world into neat categories, and Ray is well aware of it. He talks about
…the illusion of binarity. Either someone is bald or he’s not… words have a tendency to sharpen boundaries… The world comes to be divided up into black and white… (p. 223)
His “perspectives” have a tendency to sharpen boundaries, too, and at times he insists that “…it’s important to keep track of what perspective you’re in. If you start mixing perspectives, you end up with weird assertions…” (p. 246) On the other hand,
It’s… common for linguists to shift freely among perspectives, using one perspective to help explain certain properties of another. (p. 16).
So when do you shift freely among perspectives and when do you avoid mixing them? If you’re Ray, you shift among them when it advances your agenda, and you avoid mixing them when the result is frightening.
One of the main points on Ray’s agenda is to change our understanding of rational thinking, but that puts him in a quandary. Once we start thinking in this new way, it opens the possibility that we might apply it to other things, like free will, and Ray doesn’t want that to happen. How can he change our way of thinking about one thing without changing the other? By advising us to keep our perspectives straight. Let’s see how this works in his discussion of illusions.
Optical illusions have been very helpful in the understanding of vision. Certain kinds of visual inputs can’t be interpreted correctly by our brains, and others leave our brains switching between two alternatives, with no way to decide which is “right.” Ray uses a couple of these latter types, the Necker cube and the “duck-rabbit” illusion, to show that,
…just as the meaning of a sentence is unconscious, visual understanding is too. (p. 116)
Optical illusions are “good” illusions for Ray’s purposes; they advance his argument. On the other hand, when someone like Daniel Wegner suggests that free will is an illusion, this is a “bad” illusion, or to put it in Ray’s terms,
This is nuts. All discourse breaks down. There has to be a better way to talk about this stuff. (p. 149)
When free will comes up, Ray definitely doesn’t want us to “shift freely among perspectives.” He doesn’t want us to change our understanding; let’s stick with the status quo:
In the ordinary perspective, yes Virginia, we have free will. (p. 149)
To further bolster the idea that free will shouldn’t be messed with, he calls on Daniel Dennett, proposing that evolution equipped us with the experience of free will, that it’s adaptive. (p. 149) (Daniel Dennett is a fellow conservative and an expert at spinning arguments to come out the way he wants—see my review of his book, Elbow Room.)
Consider that we’re talking about two kinds of illusions—optical illusions and the illusion of free will. No one I know of has ever suggested that optical illusions might be adaptive. They are the result of inadequacies in the brain’s systems for making sense of visual inputs—a bug, not a feature. It seems likely that the free will illusion is equally the result of shortcomings in brain architecture.
Evolution provided us with a brain whose operations make the illusion of free will possible, in the same way that it provided us with a visual system that makes optical illusions possible. That doesn’t mean that either illusion was selected for by evolution; only that the structures and processes that make them possible were selected for because, despite these defects, they have other features that enhance reproduction.
Unfortunately, free will is not the only thing Ray is afraid of. He’s also afraid of the very large and the very small:
As we move from an earth-centered to a sun-centered perspective, and then on to larger and larger cosmological perspectives, persons fade from view—we’re just insignificant specks on a piece of dust. In the same way, as we move from the ordinary perspective to the cognitive and neural perspectives, and eventually to a physical/chemical perspective, we also lose sight of the person entirely—persons are kind of too big. Neither direction offers room for notions like human dignity any more. (p. 246).
Ah, “human dignity,” that’s the rub. Ray is deeply conservative when it comes to traditional values. He is capable of clear thinking about language and meaning as long as the implications don’t threaten such values, but when he thinks they might, he erects barriers between perspectives and clear thinking comes to a halt.
The same extremes of the very large and small which he fears can be seen by more openminded and upbeat persons as welcome extensions of what he calls the “ordinary perspective”—as reasons to regard our existence with awe and wonder. (Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan come to mind.)
Our lack of free will can be seen in an equally positive way. We can look at our lives as things of beauty, appreciating them without the feeling of authorship in the same way we appreciate a sunset or a waterfall. People have difficulty with this point of view if they enjoy taking credit for their accomplishments, which makes as much sense as taking credit for one’s height.
The history of the relationship between science and the ordinary perspective is replete with examples of how one has altered the other to our benefit. We don’t believe in devils and witches any more, and there is an expanding population of us who don’t believe in free will, either, now that neuroscience has come to the aid of logic and introspection.
While Ray is adamantly opposed to having the ordinary perspective on free will altered, he is very much in favor of altering our view of rational thinking:
What we experience as rational thinking consists of thoughts linked to language. The thoughts themselves aren’t conscious. Rather, what’s conscious is the “handles” of pronunciation that are linked to the thoughts, plus some character tags that lend the pronunciation a sense of meaningfulness and conviction. And the conscious sense that one sentence logically follows from another—that your reasoning is rational—is itself an intuitive judgment. So rational thought isn’t an alternative to intuitive thought—rather, it rides on a foundation of intuitive thought. (p. 243)
We can use rational thought more effectively if we learn to appreciate the intricate and not entirely systematic relation of spoken and written language to meaning. (p. 244)
In other words, the ordinary perspective on rational thought needs an upgrade, and the cognitive perspective on language is perfect for the job. Meanwhile, no upgrades on the free will illusion, thank you.
The idea that there is a shaky bridge between meaning and language is an old one, going back at least as far as the Buddha, who supposedly said on reaching “enlightenment,” “This cannot be taught”—the state of mind called “enlightenment” is meaningful in a way that cannot be clearly expressed linguistically. This did not prevent the Buddha and his descendants from trying to convey their experience in one way or another in the 2500 years since. Their enterprise is not unlike Ray’s in his attempt to communicate his intuitive feelings about a piece of chamber music. (Chapter 40)
Another contemporary version of the shortcomings of rational thinking is presented by Antonio Damasio in Descartes’ Error. He points out that without emotional reactions to the options we’re considering, we can gather evidence endlessly without reaching the point of deciding that we’ve gathered enough. (p. 172 of the 1994 edition)
So Ray’s conclusions about the relationship of rationality and intuition have a long history, although he puts them in a new and convincing context. He seems very much inclined to have them become part of the ordinary perspective, an inclination he doesn’t have on the subject of free will. Instead, he casts his lot with those who, even on the cutting edge of science, regard certain kinds of new information with fear and hostility; who insist that the domains of science and religion, for example—like Ray’s “perspectives” when he’s being conservative—“have absolutely nothing to do with one another.” (p. 246)
I’m sure that much of Ray’s thinking on language from the cognitive perspective will eventually be incorporated into the ordinary perspective, as many prior insights of science have been, and that our lives will be enhanced by it. If he had embraced and explored that possibility more optimistically, this could have been a great book. In spite of his shortsightedness, it is still well worth reading. With a positive spin, it can be seen as an introduction to the future of the ordinary perspective on thought and meaning, with an impact far beyond Ray’s limited expectations.