Monday, July 16, 2007

Wittgenstein, Aliens, and Yip Yips

{ Podcast this essay } This Yip Yips meet the telephone video brings up many issues in philosophy of language. Were even the most friendly aliens to make an initial landing on Earth, things would not go well for them in understanding human ways. Of course, this is contrary to every Hollywood movie one sees on the subject.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most famous 20th-century philosopher, once said that "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him."[2] This is probably overstated, since mammalian threat sounds are understood widely; hence, growling, hissing, etc. are all commonly taken as non-neutral encounters among differing mammal species.

But Wittgenstein's quip would not be overstated if there were a radically different evolutionary heritage at work. I was in Boston, recently, and was finally able to observe live jellyfish up-close. How could one possibly tell what mood they are in? Is it even sensible to say jellyfish have moods? It seems not, at least given how we attribute that mental state to one another, and possibly to other animals with relatively large brains.

Whether sporting a "brain" or not, on the assumptions that aliens built spaceships and landed on Earth, they would necessarily have some sort of physical structure which allows them the ability to process information to guide action. But the way they perceive the world and parse objects could be so radically different from ours that even the simplest interaction with our most basic technologies would bamboozle them. Indeed, by observing objects in the world, it might be unclear to them just what things are alive and what things are not. There are many natural kinds of objects in our world that seem alive, yet aren't. [3]

And certainly there are a host of artificial kinds of objects in our world with very complex behaviors which appear alive. Such robots and computer-driven toys are ubiquitous. Some years ago, I obtained a wind-up, Bug's Life, Rosie the spider toy from a McDonald's Happy Meal. For minor pedagogical thrills, I occasionally let it plod across my desk. "Why is this not considered alive? Or sentient?" I ask students with feigned puzzlement. The answers do not come readily, even to intelligent people wanting to give a defensible answer.

Many of the kinds of unstated assumptions that we naturally make about pragmatical issues in language are brought to the fore by the Yip Yip encounter with the old school telephone. Here is something known by adults to be a nonliving, inanimate object, but Yip Yips approach it as if it were a sentient, living creature. Perhaps in Yip Yip land -- Apparently they are from Mars -- virtually all shiny black things which sit quietly near windows are alive; so, they make the natural induction that here they've found a likewise living creature dwelling on Earth -- thus the amount of labor they invest in trying to communicate with it.

Yips do seem to share the basic biological response that sudden-impacting sense events are, by default, to be taken as threatening. See how they duck-and-cover beneath their chins as their basic survival pattern.

Notice also that while Yip Yips know books are used for attaining information about things on earth, they don't quite have the context down for use of the word "call". The Yip Yips, of course, are characters on a children's program, a program that has interests in teaching children language and reading skills. The writers must ask the deep questions of what someone who has very little experience and skills in language must think about. Yips are stand-ins for the pre-philosophical puzzlements of very young children. Wittgenstein address these kinds of puzzlements in many ways and in various places within his writing, but here is a particularly relevant quote from him on the subject:
Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to 'guess' the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself".

Suppose, however, someone were to object: "It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need --of course!-- is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or to its colour, or to its number, and so on." -- And what does 'pointing to the shape', 'pointing to the colour' consist in? Point to a piece of paper. --And now point to its shape -- now to its colour -- now to its number (that sounds queer). --How did you do it? --You will say that you 'meant' a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?[4]

How is it all done, indeed. There is a mysterious air about setting the context for what is "meant" by something. Yet moving from no language to competency in language is regularly seen in the natural development of children, and it is thought that certain rules for learning the rules of language -- call them "second-order" rules -- are somehow encoded into the DNA of all humans. For example, when a parent talks to a child, the child's default glance is not to the adult's feet, but to that moving, sound-emitting hole in the front the adult's head.

Recognizing the oddness of Yip Yips is probably about as close as we adults can get to feeling the conundrums of entering the linguistic world faced by each child as s/he works out, day by day, his or her semantic and pragmatic competency in a native tongue.


[1] "Yip yips meet the telephone" YouTube (Accessed 7/16/2007)

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/2001). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. p. 190.

[3] Examples of things that might appear to look alive but are not: [rocks 3.1], [crystals 3.2], [electricity 3.3]

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations section 32 & 33.


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At 9:42 PM, Blogger pastorsbride said...

Your blog makes me think too hard.

At 11:06 AM, Anonymous mr. wright said...

Two questions:

Question the first: would infants be said to have no language? I would think that it would be impossible to have no language of any sort, but maybe that's just me...

Question the second: could you say the spider isn't alive because it has no chemical processes, and would that be a defensible answer?


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