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17 The ability of language

In the previous chapters it was concluded that the use of language led to a huge increase in human concepts, both in number and in complexity. In this chapter I will discuss the nature of the concepts that could be created thanks to language. The general and specific concepts, the universals and notions such as space, time and causality are discussed. It is concluded that the creative power of language leads not only to abstract disciplines such as mathematics and logic, but also to religious belief, spirituality and misunderstandings such as belief in the Loch Ness monster.

 

17.1 Language creates concepts

For the primeval people who lived without language long ago, the conceptual possibilities were very limited. They possessed concepts similar to the conceptual content of higher mammals such as monkeys, dogs and elephants. In order to survive, all kinds of connections between types had to be laid in his brain. Skills like finding food, catching prey, reproduction and defending against the many enemies required of such mobile species rather complicated brain functions and therefore concepts. However, the realisation of their concepts was entirely dependent on the sensory impressions that occurred to them at a certain moment. Thanks to the development of the language, it became possible to attach a special sound to a concept: the name, description or designation of that concept. This led to a dramatic expansion of the human conceptual apparatus during the further evolution, not only because each concept could be realised just by evoking the name, the accompanying sound, in one's own mind, but especially thanks to linguistic communication with other people.

Because a name, a sound that is bound to a concept, is a complete realiser, the corresponding concept will be realised directly for someone who consciously hears the sound. None of the other types that are part of that concept need to be actualised. Thanks to this mechanism realisation of concepts can be controlled from the mind itself and can be separated from actual sensory experiences. Someone just has to pronounce the word "hunger" or the person who hears it understands what he means because the concept of 'hunger' is realised in his mind. He does not have to experience any sense of hunger at that moment, the realisation of the concept is completely disconnected from the actualisation of most constituent types.

What is going on with that hunger, however, is not made clear with the pronouncement of the word "hunger". The most obvious interpretation seems to be that the speaker is experiencing hunger at that moment. In addition to producing single sounds, the language also offers the possibility to produce meaningful sequences of sounds. Combinations of words like "I hungry", "you hungry" or "dog hungry" already offer more possibilities to make clear what someone means, i.e. which concepts he realises at that moment. The possibilities increase even further by the use of all sorts of connection words, words that are not themselves names of concepts but are given meaning in combination with other words, thus realising concepts: articles, conjunctions, verbs and so on.

If someone tells me "In the park I fell of my bike yesterday", my mind creates a new concept, namely the event that he fell off his bicycle yesterday. I see him, as it were, in front of me, cycling in the park and then, hoopla, he falls. I can also remember the event later and tell others about it. When I talk to the cyclist afterwards, we both understand what it is about, in our minds corresponding images arise. At the moment I hear his statement, my mind realises a concept congruent with his own.
Many languages ​​also know the phenomenon of recursion, the embedding of sentences in other sentences, which in turn increases the language's expressive possibilities. "Yesterday in the park, where the roads are poorly maintained, I drove into a hole in the road and fell off my bike".

Concepts are passed on from generation to generation. Different from animals, for which this passing on is limited to imitating example behaviour by the young generation, the use of human language creates the possibility to transfer concepts through conscious learning. A complication is that concrete concepts generally relate to events and experiences in the past and thus have the tendency to weaken and become less sharp if they are not realised on a regular basis. Humanity has found an ingenious solution: the embedding of events in stories, poems, songs and ballads that are often passed on or sung. By connecting different concepts to one complex concept in such a way, it is easier to realise the whole again than each of the constituent concepts separately. First with the advent of writing, the possibility arose to create considerably more complex concepts that support the transfer to later generations and even make them independent of direct transfer. Learning in school and university is inconceivable in our current culture without books, notebooks and word processors and studying - also old - writings is an everyday habit in scientific work.

The consequences of the use of language by humans can hardly be overestimated. Not only have more and more complex concepts been developed between people and generations, language has also led to the creation of new, different concepts. This gave rise to the possibility of purely spiritual concepts, separate from one's own sensory experiences. Additionally general and abstract concepts could emerge that opened completely new worlds for man. For example, the notion of distance was able to arise, and with it the human consciousness of the space in which we live, alongside the concept of time, through which people started to think in terms of the present, the past and the future. And important abstract concepts as for example 'cause' and 'effect' could be born.

17.2 Spiritual concepts

With every sequence of sounds that are recognised as words, the mind involuntarily tries to bring forward a corresponding concept in the mind or, if that fails, to create a new concept. When I hear the sounds series "bike"-"park"-"fallen" my mind is looking for a corresponding concept. If I just learned yesterday that my friend Pjotr ​​fell from his bike in the Gorkipark that day, that event will probably be the first in my mind to emerge. But if I don't have heard something like that, the mind chooses another way: a new concept is created, a fantasied event in which someone has fallen from a bicycle.
Because it is a rather blurred concept, my mind will have a tendency to obtain more information in some way. Who has fallen? True? When? Is he injured? If I receive answers to those questions, my newly created concept becomes sharper and more powerful.

As said, the concept is, apart from the linguistic sounds that are experienced, completely detached from my sensory experiences, although I haven't seen anyone fall the event has firmly nestled in my mind. Both at me as a recipient and at someone who passes on such an message, who, apart from the sounds - the words - he has heard and passed on, has not any direct sensory experiences related to the event at issue. Otherwise it is with the original source of the communication, the person who has experienced the event himself and whose concept therefore consists of his own sensory experiences. Of course, it may happen that nobody has had an actual experience with a fall of a bicycle and the story is completely made up. Jules Verne, for example, still allows us, dressed in a jacquet and high hat, fly to the moon in a life-sized cannonball. Physicists make it clear to us that such a journey is impossible because the required initial acceleration would leave nothing of us, what nonetheless does not affect the fantasy that has been conveyed. Nice and cosy, together in that ball, with a cup of tea enjoying the beautiful view of the earth.

So language does not only offer the possibility to form extremely many and complex concepts, the development of the language capacity also has had the consequence that, with the same brain functions that also possess the higher species, in the human mind concepts can be disconnected from the actual sensory experiences, apart from the lingual elements themselves that are of course experienced as sensory. The use of spoken language thus opens the possible of spiritual concepts:

17.2.1 A spiritual concept is a concept that as such is not based on own sensory experiences.

 

17.2.2 A sensory concept is a concept that is at least partly based on one's own sensory experiences.

 

17.2.3 A concept is either sensory or spiritual

17.2.4 A spiritual concept can only arise with the help of language, but, apart from that, only makes use of brain functions that higher animal species possesses too.

 

The definition of a spiritual concept requires explanation. After all, a concept is a number of types that are connected to each other in the mind. It then seems obvious to define the notion of spiritual concept as a number of non-sensory types that are interconnected. The example of the fall of the bicycle, however, shows that this idea is not correct. Even if the event as such is completely fabricated, the corresponding concept consists of types that are indeed sensory for both the speaker and the listener, assuming that bicycles and the bicycle fall for their familiar experiences, either because they cycle themselves or because they have ever seen a cyclist falling. The concept as a whole, this specific fall of the bicycle, can therefore be spiritual because it has not been observed, while all kinds of constituent types are actually based on their own experiences.

Another comment about this definition. A concept is an individual possession, the definition only applies to one individual person. It is quite possible that someone else has a congruent concept that is indeed connected to actual experiences, that is to say a sensory concept. The example in the previous chapters with the pyramid makes that clear: I know what the pyramid of Cheops is, but I have never seen it, all my knowledge about it I have from books, images and stories from people who have experience with it. For them it is a sensory concept, while my congruent concept is spiritual.

Through communication, congruent concepts are passed on from person to person and from generation to generation. A variety of processes can occur that change the transferred concept. As a student my aunt visited several pyramids in Egypt, which she still likes to tell about[1]. For me as a child it was impressive and I intended to visit the pyramids once in my live. Unfortunately it never happened, but a colleague at my job to whom I told it has become so curious that he immediately booked a holiday to Egypt. At home he told enthusiastically about those colossal monsters in the middle of the desert, which however turned out to be not quite the same as he had imagined.

One sees here again that a concept is not a fixed term, valid for everyone, defined by the encyclopedia. For my aunt a pyramid was a sensory concept, for me a spiritual concept, while for my colleague it was initially a spiritual concept that became a sensory concept during his visit to Egypt. Moreover, although their three concepts are congruent, they are not the same and in the retelling never all types of the corresponding concepts are passed on, only a part of it. Moreover, the experience of my colleague during the visit to the pyramids may - partly - be different from that of my aunt at that time.


17.3 General and abstract concepts

Language has made possible the emergence of general and abstract concepts. In linguistics, a distinction is made between general expressions such as hamburger in the sentence: "I like a hamburger" and specific as in: "That hamburger looks nice". The meaning of the specific concept is clear: it indicates a specific object. At first glance, the general expression, in contrast to the specific, seems to relate to a collection of such objects. The wish "I want a dog for my birthday" will be fulfilled with a Chihuahua as well as with a Great Dane or an English Bull Terrier. "A dog" would then mean: a random member of the collection of dogs in the world. However, such a collection does not have to exist. If I fancy a hamburger I'm not interested in one of the burgers that exist in the world at the moment, my only wish is a hamburger is made and baked for me. That one does not have to exist beforehand and will certainly no longer exist afterwards. Also the sentence "I hope we have nice weather next week" does not refer to existing good weathers. A general expression does not therefore indicate a number of well-defined objects, but only indicates a combination of a number of properties. As a result, a general statement such as "dogs can bark" is possible, indicating one of the properties that are decided in the general term dog.

The linguistic distinction between general and specific expressions stems from the corresponding concepts. Without language we would only have specific concepts. Specific concepts may or may not be spiritual, as the example of the Cheops pyramid shows. General concepts, on the other hand, are always spiritual and represent a further development[2] of the human concepts, made possible thanks to the development of the language. Applied linguists often advise to use as few general terms as possible in texts to make them lively and attractive. "Max, the dog of the neighbours, was hit by a car yesterday. He was dead immediately" does indeed release more emotions than "A lot of dogs have been killed by cars this year". Stories and novels therefore make extensive use of specific concepts that evoke images directly from the reader or listener. However, if ideas, intentions or general laws are to be put into words, there is no other option than the use of general concepts.

Another development that has arisen through the use of language is that of abstract concepts, which by dictionaries are commonly referred to as concepts that are independent of reality or independent of any sensory experience. Or also described as: not clear, not as form imaginable or immaterial. Examples are numbers and formulas. Mathematics and logic are therefore abstract sciences. But also the concepts 'family', 'love', 'the climate', 'energy' and 'democracy' are abstract, all very ordinary concepts that are indispensable, not only for the development of science, but also in everyday life. Because they are concepts that are separate from sensory experience, they are all purely spiritual concepts.

In our lives we undergo an overwhelming number of experiences every day. Superficially, it seems the concepts we know are all sensory experiences based on that daily flow. That certainly applied to the oldest people who could hardly use language. However, the use of language has opened up the possibility of creating different kinds of spiritual concepts, a possibility that humanity has begun to use extensively during its evolution. Initially only by means of the spoken word, later also in writing, which considerably extended the possibilities. The result has been that modern evolved people have a huge number of spiritual concepts that are passed on to each other and to subsequent generations within communities. 

17.4 The problem of universals and the New Conceptualism

Suppose you have a tomato and a red ballpoint pen in front of you, two objects that have nothing to do with each other but are both red. Both the tomato and the ballpoint pen are said to belong to reality. For the old philosophers, belonging to the reality meant that objects can only be in one place at one time. This indeed applies to both the tomato and the ballpoint pen. But red? That is everywhere and at the same time nowhere. Does red also belong to reality? It is an example of what universals were called by medieval theologians/philosophers, general aspects that are abstracted from concrete objects. A term such as 'red' falls under it, and also general concepts such as 'dog' or 'house'.

In the late Middle Ages, spiritual philosophers discussed extensively the true nature of the universals, later referred to as the problem of universals. There were mainly three currents. The realists assumed that a concept such as' red 'or the general term' dog 'really exists, in line with Parmenides' view that something you can speak about or think about should exist, otherwise you would speak about nothing. Opposite the realists were the nominalists who believed that the universals were names only with no real existence, names as sounds that people can use in language but without own meaning. Pierre Abélard, in Latin Petrus Abaelardus, sought in his Tractatus the Intellectibus a kind of middle way, the conceptualism, in which the universals were seen as notions in the human mind, called concepts. That was, however, a thought with which he and a number of supporters ventured onto slippery ice. Why then would not a concept like 'Divine' be just a concept? Be that as it may, they postulated the proposition that at the same time concepts actually existed, thereby essentially undermining their whole idea of ​​concepts. The medieval problem of universals has never been decided, the subject has more or less silently disappeared from the philosophical agenda.

Although the New Conceptualism I'm developing here is inspired by the later work of Wittgenstein, it can also be seen as the resurrection after eight centuries of the ancient notion concept, in an attempt to restore the mistakes that the old conceptualists left us by giving the term 'concept' a different meaning. It is nice to look at the old ideas from the point of view of this new conceptualism.

In this new-conceptualist vision realism gets axed directly: man knows concepts and the question of whether there is a real world outside those concepts is unanswerable and meaningless, as will become clear in a next chapter. The nominalism also disappears from the stage, since names are not referring to concepts, they are part of it.
All that remains is conceptualism, albeit in a modified form. Just as it was impossible for the philosophers, who at the time all functioned within the institutions of the Catholic Church, to believe that concepts only exist in the human mind, so it is probably impossible for contemporary believers, if they wanted to, to think in terms of New Conceptualism, in which the question of the existence of non-spirit entities has no meaning. Given the role that religions, a few centuries after the enlightenment, still play in the world, the possible support for the conceptualist theory is probably limited to a fraction of humanity. And many modern secularised people too attach more to concepts such as spirituality, sense of purpose and other metaphysical fantasies than to rational explanations. But no worry about it, ideas adhered to by the masses often turn out to be of little value on the long term.

17.5 Space and time

After believing for centuries that nature was a rational organisation created by God, in the seventeenth century the conviction arose that one can get to know the laws of nature by systematically observing. In the axiomatically constructed geometry of Euclid, an absolutely true description of space was seen and the ideal emerged to explain the whole nature on such a certain basis. In 1687 Isaac Newton formulated his famous laws of mechanics, which added to the three-dimensional Euclidean space the idea of ​​an absolute time and the concept of causality. The success of this for explaining both the movements of the planets and the terrestrial mechanics was so convincing that during that period there was hardly any doubt about such an absolute system of time, space and causality. Even more remarkable were the findings of David Hume who in 1739 in A Treatise or Human Nature put the whole concept of causality at risk. He argued that causality is nothing more than a custom, namely that if two things in our experience always follow each other, we conclude that the former is the cause of the next, without us being able to perceive that causality itself. And although his sceptical argumentation did not detract from the success of Newton's laws, it proved to be the axe at the root of the faith in an absolute and certain empirical science.

Immanuel Kant was already over 45 years old and a famous philosopher in Dantzig when he learned about Hume's ideas that, as he later wrote, awakened him from his dogmatic slumber. Although he was a hard worker, his answer in the Kritik der reinen Venunft appeared only ten years later in 1781, an extensive work in which he ingeniously tried to prove that the Newtonian system and our knowledge of the world do have absolute and certain validity. His theory is rather complex, but implies, among other things, that our knowledge of space and time precedes our observations. Kant speaks about a-priory synthetic judgements, statements which, like mathematics and logic, are a priory, independent of our knowledge of them, but, unlike the analytical statements in mathematics and logic, synthetic. Space and time do not follow, as mathematical statements, logically from axioms, nor are they themselves axioms, but form a kind of framework, created by our mind, within which we make our observations of space and time.

With his theory, he restored confidence to a certain science to many, until at the beginning of the twentieth century Albert Einstein with his theory of relativity put an end to the Euclidean space-time-view as the universal foundation of physics, while quantum mechanics soon afterwards also the concept of causality deprived of its general validity. However ingenious it may have been, Kant's evidence in retrospect turned out to lose out to Hume's skimpy scepticism, which up to the present day, could not be refuted by any philosophy of science whatsoever.

Despite these developments in science and philosophy, most people still experience their environment as a three-dimensional space in which Euclidean geometry, the linear concept of time and the law of cause and effect are valid. That is remarkable, because even if not looked at it from physics but from elementary introspection, there is quite a lot of things that could be discussed. Let's first look at the concept of distance.

We think we are able to see whether something is far or near, whether a thing is big or small and the like. Is that really true? A newborn child at least can't do it and anyone who has experienced the development of young children knows it takes them, after endless puzzling and trying, years to learn shapes and sizes and do something with it. The ability to estimate height and distance is clearly not built into the human mind but must be learned with difficulty. And even then it is extremely weak. If you take a long walk, the way back often seems much shorter than the way there. And estimating distances actually only works within a direct-sight distance, when we see familiar objects such as trees, houses and the like, where we estimate the distance on the basis of the size we observe. We are pretty handy in that, but that these perceptions do not have anything to do with distance, is shown by the fact that we can estimate the same distance on a photograph or painting without there being any actual distance. It is even more clear in a stereoscopic representation of photographs or films, in which we see real depth that is not there.

If we want to express how big or far something is, we can do this in measures of lengths such as meters or kilometres. However, we only can imagine something with it if it fits within our own experience. The fact that a bacterium measures one micrometer does not tell us much, just like the distance to a four-light-year star, a distance that only comes into play when you realise how long a journey to it with a rocket would take .
Our primary experience corresponds to that of the higher species and is limited to what is happening in our field of vision. Only through his use of language has man been able to develop abstract concepts of length and distance, initially based on comparative lengths such as inches, feet and cubits, derived from activities in daily life. Thanks to this abstraction, it was also possible to divide a segment into infinite pieces or to extend a line to infinity, something that is impossible with material objects. For example, astronomers can discuss whether the universe extends infinitely far, what we will never be able to experience and what underlines that our Euclidean space is an abstraction that could only be constructed with the help of language as a human creation.

The same applies to our concept of time. We experience our lives as taking place in the present and remember many events we say happened in the past. But in general we can not remember what was more or lesser far away in that past, which happened earlier and later. Superficially, it seems we can, but on careful consideration, it solely proves to be possible to make an sequence for historical events if we can put such events onto some scale of time measurement. If I remember how, as a ten-year-old, I played football with the boys in the neighbourhood on the public lawn opposite our house, I experience that event again in some respects, as if it were happening again, without any feeling for the time that has passed since then. Actually, I no longer know how old I was, maybe not ten but eight or twelve years? If I want to know if I went to Norway a few years ago and the year after that to Spain or maybe the other way around, I can only reconstruct it on the basis of other events, which is nowadays very easy with the automatically dated digital photos. is. Without such tools, however, I have little insight into the time sequence in the past.

Just as the earliest people had to indicate length in comparison with their own body (thumb, foot) or the number of footsteps to be taken, one could indicate the time by counting the number of days or the number of years. Our modern concept of time with extremely accurate time measurements is a human abstract construction, just like any abstraction only possible through the use of language. Like the length notion makes it possible to go infinitely far away in thought, the concept of time has made it possible to extrapolate in an opposite direction than our memories of the past: the future, which is, although largely unknown, thanks to clocks, calendars and accurate calculations, in certain areas very predictable. In daily life, what is yet to happen is going to play such an important role that most languages ​​have adapted to it by including the future time in grammar. Psychologically, the concept of 'future' has also come to play an important role, which is also evident from the well-known verse: 

Too often we suffer most sorely
And thereby feel most poorly   
From dreaded aches and pains 

The concepts of distance and time play an important role in daily life and certainly in science and technology. Yet they are not elementary human concepts, we have no senses for them. Thanks to the use of language, mankind has been able to develop meaningful abstract concepts with which we can express distances in three dimensions. The same applies to the concept of time, with which we can not only collate events in the past, but also completely unknown events in the future. Animals can't do so, an extra indication that the space and time awareness of people has been possible solely due to the development of language.

17.6 Causality

It is generally assumed, both in daily speech and in science and technology, that a law of cause and effect exists which says that each event is caused by another event and which in turn itself is the cause of other events. For example, a billiard ball only starts moving if you hit it with a billiard cue or if another ball collides with it. A stone you hold at a certain height only begins to fall when you release it. If you eat a lot, you get fat, you eat too little, then you lose weight until you eventually die.

In the past faith in the universal concept of causality was so strong that it was thought possible to derive a proof of God from it. After all, if everything has to have a cause, you can argue that either there can never have been a beginning or that there must have ever been a first cause. The first seemed impossible, so there must be a first cause, which itself has no cause. That was, of course, God, who created the world some six thousand years ago, as was believed at the time.

In the seventeenth century, also scientific confirmation of the validity of the principle of causality was found, particularly in Newton's laws. The law F = m * a says the force acting on an object, is equal to the product of the mass of the object and the acceleration it undergoes. This law was interpreted in such a way that the force exerted on an object is the cause of the acceleration of the object. However, that is an incorrect thought because the law does not say such a thing at all, it only indicates the values of the three units in relation to each other. In addition, in no situation only one force is effective, a more precise formulation is needed: F refers to the net result of all forces acting on a body. Is it then possible to say that all these forces are the cause of different accelerations?

Take, for example a stone lying motionless on the ground. You would say that the total force on that stone is zero, so that it is not accelerated, its speed is and remains zero. However, that is not right, because meanwhile the earth rotates on its axis, therefore moving all objects on the surface in a circular orbit, which means that they are constantly accelerated towards the centre of the orbit. The force responsible for this is gravity, but can you now say that it is also the cause of the fact that the stone is stationary? Of course not, because the force of gravity is much greater than the force required for the rotation acceleration on the surface of the earth. The fact the stone lies stationary on the ground is due to the pressure exerted by the soil beneath it, thus compensating for the majority of gravity.
What is the cause of what in this simple situation? As stated, Newton's law doesn't state anything hereabout. In this law time does not occur, while it is generally assumed that an effect always follows a cause. And the laws of physics that do contain time do not support the causality principle too. For example the law S = ½ * a * t2 indicates the location S which has an object with an constant acceleration a at a time t. You can use this to calculate where the object is after a few seconds, but the formula does not provide information about the cause of the movement. It also doesn't matter at which time t = 0 is mentioned and negative times deliver equally good results as positive ones. Nevertheless, for philosophers such as Descartes and later Kant, these laws were clear proof of the existence of causality, and the concept is still commonly used today in natural science.

It was David Hume who disturbed the causal peace. He stated that although we observe that things t always follow each other, we cannot perceive causality as such. He concluded from this that causality does not exist: it is just the human custom to call A the cause of B if we always see event B according directly as soon as event A occurs.

If you press the accelerator pedal in a car, the car starts to move, assuming the engine is started and the parking brake released. For the moment we assume an automatic gearbox, otherwise the clutch will make the tableau a bit more complex. It clearly seems to be a case of causality: the same thing happens every time you accelerate, something that never happens if you don't accelerate (at least as long as you don't find yourself on a slope).
But what happens on closer inspection? Pressing the accelerator pedal opens a tap that allows gasoline to flow into the cylinder that expands into gas, after which a spark causes the gas / air mixture to explode, releasing heat that increases the pressure of the gas mixture, causing the cylinder to move, which force is moved to the crankshaft, which via the gears rotates the wheels to move the car through friction with the road surface. Roughly like this it worked in cars in the first half of the twentieth century, modern cars work much more complexly. A whole chain of events, partly consecutive and partly simultaneously, is necessary to bring about the movement. What is the cause of the movement? That question is completely unanswerable. Physically only the friction of the road surface could be called the cause of the movement. Nevertheless, it seems to the driver that the car is going to drive because he hits the gas, the movement seems to him to be the result of his pressing of the accelerator pedal, while that is physically pointless. John Stuart Mill, confronted with the philosophical problem, has tried to define causality as the totality of all circumstances, factors that must be met for a certain phenomenon to occur. However, doing so we are jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, in the case of the car you would have to include many more factors: gravity, the strength of the substrate, the smoothness of the substrate, the oxygen in the air, the power and the exact time of the spark from the spark plug, to name just a few.

An entirely different phenomenon that undermines the idea of ​​causality was found in the twentieth century . Physicists discovered that the smallest particles that were found did not behave according to Newton's laws and could only be described with quantum mechanics, whereby events can no longer be predicted directly, but only with the help of the probability calculation.

Nevertheless, the concepts of cause and effect play an important role in our daily lives. If one day my car won't start, I look for the cause. However, I do not mean that I am looking for a specific process of cause and effect, but that of the many factors that are necessary to move a car, I am looking for one that is missing. For example, the battery is empty, an electric cable broken, a connection oxidised, the ignition switch defective, or the starter motor broken. If I can find one factor that is missing, I call it the cause of the dis-functioning, if there are more, it is, strictly speaking, no longer possible to name the cause. As a result, the concept has no meaning in complex systems such as climate theory or sociology. There are innumerable factors involved and self-reinforcing processes are taking place too.

It can be concluded that the concepts of cause and effect play an important role in practical human action, but have no meaning in scientific and philosophical theory formation. Causality is an abstract concept created by man with the help of language that makes human action more effective. But there is no law of cause and effect.

17.6 A remarkable by-product

As indicated, there exist, in addition to sensory, also spiritual concepts, concepts that are not based on one's own sensory experiences. As an example I gave the situation that I hear that a friend has fallen off his bike. The concept that I form as a result is spiritual: although I have not experienced the event myself, it's perfectly clear to me: all constituent types are known to me from earlier sensory experiences: cycling, falling, torn clothes, bleeding knees or worse. The communication about what happened to my friend actualises a number of types in me that lead to the creation in my mind of a concrete concept, similar to the concept that would have arisen if I had been present at the event.

We know the terms "sense" and "nonsense". With a slack bicycle tire it is useful to pump in extra air, if you feel hungry it makes sense to eat. On the other hand, it is pointless to carry water to the sea or owls to Athens. The terms "meaning" and "meaningful" refer to activities that are performed for a specific purpose and that contribute to a certain extent or could at least contribute to achieving that goal. Outside the context of a human intention and an intention to achieve certain goals, the term "meaning" has no meaning.

Now someone asks me: "What is the meaning of the moon?" In the usual sense of "meaning," that question is meaningless. Yet I tend to think about what the moon's meaning is, I am even tempted to think it's sense is to illuminate us in dark nights. To resist that temptation it is necessary to realise for a moment what the meaning of the term "meaning" is and in which context it can be applied. Maybe not an obvious question, but also not extremely difficult.

Yet since time immemorial, many have been troubled by questions about the meaning of life, including the purpose of life, without asking whether concepts such as "meaning" or "purpose" have any meaning in this context. In fact, someone who asks such questions explicitly is soon called a sceptical nihilist. A professor of philosophical ethics[3] states without embarrassment: "Every person is condemned to seek the meaning of his or her own life".

What happens here, seen from the conceptual model? When someone says something, he actualises a number of types in the mind of the person who hears it. His mind is set to seek an associated known concept, or, rather, one or more concepts are realised in his mind whose constituent types are most similar to the actualised types. If a congruent concept is realised in the audience, we call the communication successful. The function is powerful and essential for any communication, but it also easily leads to miscommunication if the received types are tied to a known concept that is not consistent with what the speaker has actualised. The listener then thinks he understands something that the speaker does not mean at all.

However, it also happens that the listener of the received types cannot cook any soup at all, he then doesn't posses any concept of which the received types are all part. Then two things can happen. One possibility is that the listener does not understand the message, perhaps asks for clarification or shrugs about the for him meaningless message. The other possibility is that he creates a new concept from the actualised types, in fact what one does when learning new concepts.

Which of the two responses that our mind chooses depends on various factors. If it concerns a concept that conflicts with known concepts, we can easily wonder whether the terms used are used correctly. If Zeno argues that Achilles cannot catch up with a turtle, we are not easily convinced. However, if a sensible, honest and knowledgeable person communicates something in seriousness, we will not easily characterise it as meaningless and tend to create new, congruent concepts.

Then, the language, so cleverly made by mankind, can get us in his power.. Thanks to the flexibility of the language, concepts that have often been developed long ago can be linked and mixed virtually indefinitely into spiritual concepts that have no connection whatsoever with actual, sensory experiences, not of the listener nor of the speaker.

With critical thinking, we saw, the concept of "cause", which has an important function in daily life, factually has no clear meaning. It is nevertheless still regarded by most people as an iron law that every event must have a cause, a view which leads to the conviction that every question about the cause of anything necessarily has to result into an answer.

Don't we understand the lightning? That must be caused by a lightning god. If an animal has no intelligence to rationalise what is useful, it has an intuition, whatever that may be. If we do not understand a number of events, we see a conspiracy. If we do not understand how life may have originated, then a creator is responsible for that, whatever that may be. If we see nothing special about noble persons, they have blue blood.

Concepts such as "cause," "sense," or "purpose," are frequently used outside of their meaningful context and lead to spiritual concepts that are completely unrelated to sensory experiences. Here the language shows its true nature. The enormous power to create and learn concepts leads at the same time to an unbridled production of concepts that form a spiritual world, a world that is in fact independent of any sensory experiences. We must note that language has not only enriched humanity with abstractions such as mathematics, logic and the laws of nature, but also with concepts such as religion, superstition, conspiracy theories, spirituality and the Loch Ness monster. For many, these latter types of concepts represent the ultimate truth of life, for others only a curious by-product of the creative language process.


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[1] This aunt and examples are fictional.
[2] Statements about the development and evolution of language require empirical research and fall outside the context of this book. "Further development" here is just an indication of an internal logic.
[3] Joep Dohmen, emeritus professor at the University of Humanistics in the Netherlands and lecturer Bildung in: Filosofie Magazine, nr 6, Juni 2016