What you say is what you get

Humans are immersed in language as fish are in water. Language shapes how we perceive the world and how we think about it. While animals communicate, the human mode of communication is marked by its grammatical structure and reliance on sentences. Linguistic diversity introduces variations in cognitive processes, as individuals may conceptualize differently based on their language. Ethnic, political, or religious groups, often aligned with distinct language groups, exhibit divergent attitudes and conceptual frameworks. Language can unite us, but can also divide us. When we are not fluent in another language, we may not understand the words. But also, we may not understand the speaker because we do not think and perceive in their language.

Nuances between languages further complicate matters, as certain terms lack precise equivalents across languages, even within historically and linguistically related language groups. For instance, the English term mind, pivotal in Western philosophy, lacks a precise counterpart in several European languages, underscoring the unique influence each language exerts on fundamental yet ambiguous concepts.

Language structures meaning. Take the verb determine, for instance. We use it in two very distinct ways. It can mean to ascertain something (as when the coroner determines the time and cause of death). Also, it can mean that one thing causes another (as when one state of a physical system determines a subsequent state). By disregarding the first meaning (a person’s action), “determinism” becomes instead a relation among objects, divorced from perceiving subjects. It is then supposedly a property of the world, apart from what human beings are able to ascertain.

Language serves to articulate claims about the world. These are often devoid of substantiation and divorced from personal responsibility, a circumstance that may trace its roots to the evolutionary origin of language in animal calls, particularly those alerting others to immediate threats. The functionality of such alarums diminishes if they are not conveyed assertively, leaving little room for nuanced expressions of uncertainty. It would hardly be functional, in evolutionary terms, for the individual who raises the cry to timidly qualify their claim as merely an opinion, perhaps mistaken. Or for the others to take the time to ponder the reliability of that individual or their possible motives for misinformation. Generally speaking, it is unwise to “cry wolf” except when there is a wolf. Yet, primates are known for their ability to deliberately deceive, and language provides a built-in capacity to do so.

Even innocuous statements, such as weather predictions, often do not implicate the subject making them, but assume a degree of faith in the speaker’s assertions. Suppose, for example, I say: “It’s going to rain tomorrow.” Structurally, that is little different from “There is a tiger in the bush!” Both create expectancy, directing you to consider a possibility that might need action. You might assume that I had checked the weather report before saying this, but in fact I offer no evidence for my claim. In contrast, consider the statement, “I believe it will rain tomorrow.” Ostensibly this is a statement about the world; but it is equally a statement about the speaker. It reminds you that the proposition could be false or mistaken, that it is a belief that occurs in the mind of a fallible and potentially deceptive individual. It reminds you that the claim is the action of a subject and not an objective fact. That simple preface—I believe—qualifies the claim as a personal assertion.

Language allows for lying and may have arisen as much for deception as for sharing truth. Obviously, the ability to alert others to common danger is advantageous for the group—provided the peril is real. On the other hand, the ability to manipulate others through deception is an advantage for the individual, but may be a disadvantage for the collective. For better or for worse, language has hypnotic power. Hence, demagogues can “tweet” absurd propositions that are nevertheless taken on faith.

Aside from mass hypnosis, there is the subtler possibility of self-hypnosis. After all, we think internally (talk to ourselves) in the same linguistic forms with which we communicate. We can lie to ourselves as well as to others. I can shape my own belief and experience by repeating to myself a favorite slogan. By swallowing whole the “truths” propounded by my favorite commentators, I am absolved of the need to sort things out for myself. Also, I have a ready-made clan of like-minded believers to belong to, provided only I do not challenge their beliefs.

When society shares an overriding ideology—as in medieval Christian Europe—there is little need or occasion to take individual responsibility for claims or beliefs. It would be counterproductive to do so, since that would imply that an accepted proposition is no more than someone’s subjective idea, not the objective truth it is supposed to be. The price we pay for attributing personal responsibility is forfeiting the security found in communally accepted truth. Dissent was dangerous for heretics under Catholicism, for Germans under Hitler, and for Russians under Stalin. It was dangerous for Americans in the McCarthy era. In America today there seems no longer to be a communally accepted truth. Whatever one believes will appear, perhaps at their peril, as dissent from someone’s perspective.

No political flavor has a monopoly on reason—or faith. Reasoning is no better than the assumptions and biases on which it is based. What emerged from the ideology of medieval Christianity was a new faith in reason, now called science, based on questioning the evidence of the senses. But that was hardly the end of the story. “Faith in reason” has an oxymoronic air about it. It is no coincidence that America today is divided over the role and authority of science, which fails in the eyes of many to provide an ideology they don’t have to question. Individualism is vaunted there. But when individuals are genuinely autonomous, they claim their values and opinions as personal. There is room for the opinions and values of others, with mutual respect and courtesy built in. The downside, however, is the implication that such values and opinions are not objective truths and are perhaps no more than subjective whims. Some people cannot bear that thought; they prefer that truth should be unquestionable rather than a mere product of thought, and that morality should be a matter of obedience rather than arising from within.

With the aid of their language, some cultures affirm that the earth is where mankind belongs, and reality is thought to be a seamless whole of subject with object. In that view, mankind is an integral part of this whole, which is our “true and only home.” This belief is reflected in the absence of a program to escape mortality or to ascend to a higher reality. Their religions are not preoccupied with a concept of “salvation” or with a separate spiritual realm where human destiny unfolds (much less on another planet). On the other hand, if this world is not our true and only home, then it hardly matters what we do here, either to the planet or to each other. Note that the same illogic applies to the relationship with one’s own body. If this body is no more than a temporary husk for an inner essence, why bother to take care of it?

The English language shares a feature with its intellectual roots in Greek and Latin. This is the ambiguous sense of the verb to be, which can indicate either existence or equivalence. “There is a house in New Orleans,” asserts the existence of a building. “That house is the Rising Sun” equates a building with a name. This might seem like quibbling, but the fact that English glosses over this distinction has profound consequences. It enables us to call each other names with injurious effect, when it is unclear whether the accusation is someone’s motivated judgment or an incontestable truth. The statement “communism is evil” (or “capitalism is evil,” if you prefer) is a claim by someone who makes a judgment and applies a label for their own reasons. It equates communism and evil, as though they were two names for the same thing.  Simultaneously it also implies that the very existence of communism consists thoroughly and exclusively in being evil. Evil—and nothing else—is what communism is, and it is therefore deplorable that it even exists. Such absolutism leaves no place for qualification or debate. Whether or not the statement is true, it allows us to dismiss reason and further inquiry. It places no accountability on the person making the claim, who remains conveniently out of the picture.

Language makes the human world go round and is the source of political power. It’s how society is managed, how we keep each other in check. Whatever threat artificial intelligence poses to humanity lies more in Large Language Models than in a Terminator-style takeover by robots. An AI would only need to master our languages to manage and control us in the same ways, using power channels we have already created. For us, thought is essentially a language skill. Social control depends to some extent on how language is misused or poorly used. We can defend ourselves against manipulation with clear thinking and communication. I believe that simple practices in how we speak can make a profound difference in human affairs. One such is to preface all claims—at least in one’s own mind—with “I believe that…”