Thursday, November 20, 2014
The difference between information and language
I have been reading a marvelous book by Christine Kenneally titled “The First Word.”
It was published back in 2007 and seeks to do an overview of linguistics that covers not only how it attempts to explain how language came about, but to do so via the main schools of thought represented by Noam Chompsky, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Steven Pinker and Philip Lieberman.
This is a well laid out, and easily read, contrasting account of how these different schools approached a very complex question. I encourage everyone to get a copy and read it. It is fascinating even if you don't have a deep interest in understanding how language and consciousness go together.
This first post concerning the book is not meant to be a full review by any means. Even if I had finished it now (which I haven't), I would feel hardly competent to pass anything more than a layman's view of how Ms. Kenneally's work here comes across. So far, in that context, it has been great.
What has prompted a Cosmolosophy post now is her explanation of Chompsky's Generative linguistics; it's ground breaking approach that broke language down to its barest skeletal essentials, which could be applied to any language no matter where it originated. What got me thinking here was his, at least initial, insistence that evolutionary adaptations in general were really not useful in considering how language developed. She does point out that he later suggested that language might have had a role to play in adaptive advantage, but that “...its origins were more likely to have been accidental than the result of slow evolutionary change...” (page 38).
This got me to thinking not only because I come from an information, and systems perspective, but also because I was influenced early on by the views of consciousness expressed by Robert Ornstein; especially in works like “The Nature of Human Consciousness” and “The Evolution of Consciousness.”
Especially in the latter book does he talk about the idea of idealized “simpletons;” environmentally determined neuronal organizations of the brain that took the starting slate of immense plasticity and formed useful approximations of various stimuli. Obviously, some of this had the input of lower brain inheritance, and the limbic system of emotional stimulus and response, but in large part what we're talking about here is “down and dirty” interpretations that occur before the conscious part of the mind is aware of them. And as homo erectus had, by this time, a fairly complex array of sensory apparatus in hearing, seeing, smelling, as well as the various tactile aspects of skin, hair and fingers, quickly interpreting external events had to have a lot of discriminatory weighting ability; something that had to be placed at a lower level of abstraction or else the higher reasoning layers would have been overwhelmed. Survival behaviors would have had no chance to develop because there would have been no such thing as “muscle memory.”
What I am trying to get at here is how objectification is essential in any meaning assessment system. Information is useless without this lower level abstraction. The question, however, becomes where does information utilization as a process of environmental interaction end, and the labeling of these abstractions begin; not only for transfer in social settings, but for the necessary further steps of abstraction to begin so that higher orders of concept manipulation can occur?
It seems to me that information, in and of itself, is not necessarily language. Language is certainly the abstraction of information, but is it an unavoidable consequence of social entities who have already undergone significant aspects of objectification? My sense is that this is indeed the case, and more to the point, that this successive layering of abstraction is also an absolute necessity for there to be what we think of as “sentient” in the concept of consciousness. For only in this language topped layering can there be any way for a singular sense of self to form; what is for me the singularity of a meaning processing system that allows for the unique point of reference that is as fundamental to cosmology as it is for healthy social systems.