Sunday, November 21, 2010

Language and the Soul

Language – the ability to create and exchange meaning between individuals – is what makes us human and different from all other of earth's creatures. Without the ability to use words and grammar, we would not be able to think, plan and act. Thus its evolutionary value. Through language – and with the help of that other great discovery, control over fire – we have conquered the world and subdued nature. It was the bite of the apple that got us tossed out of Nature's Garden to make or break our own.

Think about thinking without words. Not really possible. Without words we might be able to store and recollect images – as we do in dreams – but we could not give them meaning, nor relate one to the other. We might be able to put images together into sequences – for example, how to shape an ax head from a piece of stone – but we could not pass that knowledge to anyone else except by showing. Teaching that way can work but is very inefficient. Perhaps this is why the technology of the Neanderthals changed so little over tens of thousands of years. Images could also be painted on cave walls or drawn in the sand. This would be a bit more efficient. But with language, what we learn can be codified and passed around and on. Knowledge explodes.

We are not the only animals that can communicate with each other. Apes, dogs, whales, ants and others do it through various means. But we are the only animal with words and grammars. Grammar allows words to become veritable skyscrapers of meaning. With language we can develop society, culture, technology, and history.

But think too about what language does for us. It allows each of us to become an individual self. Without words, we remain prisoners of our instincts and reflexes. We can only react to the outside, input determines output. After millions of years of evolution, the early hominids were very clever reactors. But to become an individual cable of rising above simply reacting to inputs, we must be able to think, to tell ourselves – to construct – stories of who we are, what we do and how we do it. We are what we can say we are. With language we move from being an “it” to being an “I.”

Everything modern science tells us leads to the conclusion that our mind is based on our brain and our brain on physiology. Yet we are also conscious, and that science cannot explain. It may be consciousness that provides the space for using language. Where does the next word that you will say come from? Who or what process is behind the curtain stringing our narratives together? Where exactly does it take place? Within our consciousness, we somehow generate our self using language. Then we somehow cross the boundary into the physical and our thoughts emerge from our mind and radiate outward through our brains into action, including speaking.

Perhaps we can call this something within a soul, with no judgement about where that might come from? And what might become of this soul when the body that provides it the mechanisms of perception, thought and language is no more?

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