What are words?
These black symbols that you’re staring at right now all carry invisible, untouchable, silent meaning. We can translate this meaning through many other patterns, such as español, русский, 中文, or العربية. Or we can translate it into a pattern of sound waves in the air—such as if you read this sentence out loud—or into a pattern of Braille bumps for the blind. Or we can translate it into binary bumps on a DVD and then use a DVD player to translate it back into sound waves or light waves. Indeed, we can translate it through an unlimited variety of media. But what exactly is that it that we are we translating?
We have no idea. Even if scientists can explain what words mean, it is impossible for them to explain what they are. Literally. Impossible.
“They’re completely unknown in animal systems,” says linguist Noam Chomsky, Institute Emeritus Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have no idea how they evolved, when they evolved, where they came from.” He says we don’t really even know how they work. “We have very little understanding of how each person has [words] innately as part of their fundamental nature.”[i]
The one thing we do know is that we have no choice but to take our linguistic ability for granted, as Chomsky put it, as innate.
That’s a lot to take for granted. If we did not have words then we would not have agreements, treaties, constitutions, or any governments at all. Nor would we have any science or technology. We wouldn’t have sports or recipes or movies or songs. Suffice it to say that we use words all the time, whether to work or to rest or to create or to destroy. We fill libraries with books and ask students to spend years studying them. And today, more than ever, politicians fight over which books our students read—especially when it comes to explanations about the origins of life and morality and, for that matter, the very nature of cognition itself.
Nevertheless, when we ask the question, “What are words?”, we suddenly realize that there is a dinosaur in the school library—a really big dinosaur. There is a spectacular mystery that the modern scientific establishment does not want to talk about. Instead, they insist that we simply take our linguistic ability for granted as instinctive, intuitive, and innate.
BUT CAN YOU THINK WITHOUT THINKING?
After all, words flow through our minds as easily as a love song. Therefore, as some of the more robust books on the issue conclude, we don’t really need an explanation:
- The Language Instinct by cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker
- The Math Instinct by mathematician Keith Devlin
- The Number Sense by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene
- The Human Instinct by biologist Kenneth Miller
- The Consciousness Instinct by cognitive psychologist Michael Gazzaniga
They have all concluded that our ability to think and communicate in words simply happens. When children learn the meaning of a sentence like “No ice cream until you eat your squash,” they’re just following instincts. As Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker put it:
Some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.” It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.[ii]
The research with which Pinker backs up this conclusion is fascinating. Our ability to do language comes as effortlessly as our ability to pull our hand away from fire or our ability to drink water when we are thirsty. “The crux of the argument is that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation—not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it.”[iii]
Nevertheless, as exhilarating as the science behind this conclusion is, the establishment’s explanation does not actually make any sense.
After all, instincts are things we do automatically, without thinking, because they are programmed into our bodies. You pull your hand away from a fire for the same reason that bacteria construct proteins, for the same reason that antilock brakes engage when you slam on them: that’s what you are programmed to do. By contrast, we cannot communicate without thinking any more than we can think without thinking.
For example, you cannot comprehend this sentence if you’re on autopilot. (And if you are on autopilot, that means you’re most assuredly thinking about something else!) Nor can you comprehend the meaning of a sentence like “What’s the square root of nine million?” without concentrating your mind just a bit. Smart phones and supercomputers can simulate such calculations instantaneously, yet they cannot comprehend what such an equation means (whether it’s on paper or on the computer’s hard drive) any more than a communication satellite can comprehend English, my colon can comprehend organic chemistry, or a trigonometry textbook comprehends trigonometry.
Why do we comprehend such things? What exactly is the meaning behind the medium?!
A DEAFENING SILENCE
This same mystery engulfs not just human language but also every other form of information, regardless of whether we translate it into English. So whether we are talking about verbal information (such as the words you’re reading now), biological information (such as the genetic code carried as nucleic acid bumps on a DNA molecule), geological information, meteorological information, etc., scientists remain absolutely stumped as to what it is. Although some of our most cherished discoveries—such as those regarding entropy, quantum mechanics, or DNA replication—are all about the flow of information in nature, the nature of that information remains a complete enigma.
For example, James Tour, professor of chemistry at Rice University, says that although scientists have a clear understanding of what a DNA molecule is, they have no idea what the code that DNA carries actually is. We can translate that code from nucleic acid bumps on a DNA molecule into black symbols like the ones you’re staring at now. Then we can translate it into electromagnetic waves and shoot it across the planet so that other scientists can download it onto a computer, edit it, and then translate it back into nucleic acid bumps in order to provide gene therapy for sickle cell anemia. “What is the code?” Tour asks. “Even if you had the nucleic acids and even if you could hook them up, what’s the code?!”[iv]
In his book, Programming the Universe, MIT physics professor Seth Lloyd tells how he begins his graduate course on information by teasing his twenty-odd students with the question, “What is information?” None of them say a word. Although his students can talk all day long about how to use information and what a bit of information means, none of them even speculates as to what a bit of information is.
What do my students’ answers, or lack thereof, reveal? That it is far easier to measure a quantity of information than to say what information is. And more broadly, “How much?” is frequently an easier question to answer than “What is . . . ?”[v]
Now Lloyd himself doesn’t try to answer the question either. Nor does Dr. Hans Christian von Baeyer, a professor of physics at the College of William and Mary, in his book titled Information: The New Language of Science (2003). Nor do the authors of a 423-page textbook titled Information Science published in 2006 by Princeton University. Nor does Michio Kaku, a theoretical physics professor at the City College and City University of New York, in his 436-page book The Future of the Mind (2014), in which he says that someday our minds could be downloaded (i.e. as information) into a computer. Nor does Caltech physics professor Sean Carroll in his 480-page book titled The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). The list goes on and on of scientists who avoid the question altogether.
It’s a deafening silence. Yet taking information for granted might be like a fish taking water for granted or a musician taking scales for granted or an astronomer taking telescopes for granted. Water is a big deal for a fish, scales are a big deal for a musician, telescopes are a big deal for an astronomer, and information—and our ability to perceive, translate, and use information—is a very, very, very big deal.
Part of what makes this discussion so tricky is that the question “What are words?” is itself nothing but words. As will be the answer. That means that when we try to author the answer we will inevitably beg the question:
- Linguists call words “syntactic objects” or “units of language”.
- Philosophers call them “Platonic Forms” or “items in a superseded ontology”.
- Neuroscientists call them “qualia” or “intrinsic entities”.
- Physicists call them “emergent properties” or “a fifth phase of matter”—i.e. solid, liquid, gas, plasma, information.
- Biologists call them “evolved memes”.
Materialists will expound and extrapolate and pontificate on these concepts in a feverishly pathological drive to explain the mystery away. But at the end of the day, all this enlightenment proves to be about as helpful as pointing a dozen spotlights at the night sky to try to see the stars.
Let us approach the question from another direction. Rather than trying to see what words are, let us consider what they are not.
What Words Are Not
They are not physical.
In a recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, atheist Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, tried to address this mystery:
Do words even exist? Are they part of your ontology? Should they be? This talk of words being “made of information” is pretty dicey, isn’t it? Just a lot of hand-waving? Some philosophers will bite the bullet at this point and insist that words don’t exist, strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition; they are not part of the scientific image, which they say should be considered the ultimate arbiter of ontology. But words are very prominent denizens of our manifest image, and even if science doesn’t have to refer to them or mention them, you couldn’t do science without using them, so they should perhaps be included in our ontology. They loom large for us, readily occupying our attention.[vi]
As Dennett explains, some materialistic philosophers will “bite the bullet” and insist that words do not actually exist. (Immediately one can’t help but wonder how they would actually say that.) But Dennett himself can’t do that. After all, he is writing a book! So, what does he do? How does he cling to materialism but still manage to explain why words “should perhaps be included in our ontology”?
First, he calls words evolutionary memes. “Words, I will argue, are the best example of memes, culturally transmitted items that evolve by differential replication—that is, by natural selection.”[vii] Now the term meme was coined nearly 50 years ago by atheist biologist Richard Dawkins to describe “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”[viii] So if, according to Dennett, words are memes, then do either Dennett or Dawkins acknowledge that memes, like words, “have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition”?
No, they can’t do that. Instead, Dennett explains that words are a particular kind of meme: “Which kind of meme are words? The kind that can be pronounced.”[ix] Then he tries to clarify:
What are memes a kind of? They are a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed. There is no term readily available in the technical language of the scientific image that aptly encapsulates what kind of a thing a meme is. Leaning on the ordinary language of the manifest image, we might say that memes are ways: ways of doing something, or making something, but not instincts (which are a different kind of ways of doing something or making something). The difference is that memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically. They are semantic information, design worth stealing or copying, except when they are misinformation, which, like counterfeit money, is something that is transmitted or saved under the mistaken presumption that it is valuable, useful.[x]
Okay, so words are memes and memes are… “semantic information”. (Dennett’s explanations are scattered throughout his book, for it turns out that he himself is the one doing all the dicey handwaving.) He later clarifies that, according to Dawkins, “memes are informational things.”[xi] And that brings us full circle on this rabbit trail: words have no mass or energy or chemical properties, but they are memes. Memes, meanwhile, are informational things.
Where does that leave us? Face to face with an immaterial reality. Therefore, after Dennett surveyed the room and looked directly at that herd of Argentinosauruses, he decided to completely ignore them. Words must be “included in our ontology”, so perhaps we can just take them for granted and quietly assume that our ability to use them is instinctive.
Now, to be sure, just as Dennett tried to wave the mystery away, others have tried to simply deny the immaterial nature of words altogether. (Why? Remember that it is impossible to even articulate a theory as to how the brain could perceive something immaterial.) However, when you look at their explanations you will find that what they are actually saying is not that information is a physical thing, but rather that all physical things serve as mediums of information. (Starlight conveys information about the Big Bang, fossils convey information about dinosaurs, bananas convey the genetic code for banana trees, etc.) For example, in 1999 Physicist Rolf Landauer, who did research both at NASA and IBM, published an often-cited paper titled Information is a Physical Entity. “Information is not an abstract entity but exists only through a physical representation,” Landauer explained, “thus tying it to all the restrictions and possibilities of our real physical universe.”[xii]
What?! First of all, what is an “entity”? (Could my soul be an entity?) That’s a terribly abstract word to use for something that you say is not abstract. Second, what exactly is the it that is “tied to all the restrictions and possibilities of our real physical universe”? If it is a “physical entity”, then what are its physical qualities? Is it soft or squishy or fluid or…? And finally, we can prove than all information is nonphysical.
IS THIS AN OBJECTIVE, TESTABLE, FALSIFIABLE FACT?
Yes. The test is so simple and conclusive that it almost seems unfair to the Darwinist: if you can translate information from one physical medium to another, then you are translating something nonphysical.
For example, The Lord of the Rings books can be translated as black symbols on paper, as Braille bumps for the blind, as binary bumps on a DVD, as electromagnetic waves (such as for a wireless download), or as a magnetic pattern on a flash drive. All five of these media can have the same information in common, yet they do not need to have any physical qualities in common. Therefore, whatever it is that they do have in common (The Lord of the Rings story) has no physical qualities.
That fact can be very hard to wrap your mind around—similar, perhaps, to how a tenth-century farmer might have had trouble wrapping his mind around heliocentrism. But it is incontrovertible. To the extent that we know anything at all, we know that the infrastructure of cognition—the matrix of words with which we think and communicate—is immaterial. No wonder Einstein called our ability to comprehend rational explanations “the eternal mystery of the universe”.
Wait a second, the Darwinist declares: the brain is what ties those five media together. In other words, if we ask, “What do the black symbols, the Braille bumps, the DVDs, the electromagnetic waves, and the flash drive all have in common?” the answer is, “The human brain!”
Not so fast. Step back and take another look. There’s no organic gray matter on the DVDs. And when we shoot the electromagnetic waves across the planet, those waves are not composed of neurons. Those five media don’t have brains in common any more than they have livers or lungs in common. In fact, we should add the brain to the list as a 6th medium for the story. Thus, just as you can use your laptop to translate the story either into electromagnetic waves or into a magnetic pattern on a flash drive, so also you can use your brain to translate it into black symbols or into audible phonemes.
But what is the you that is using your brain? What is an author? “I think. I use my brain to translate and store words. I perceive and potentially even author things like love songs and constitutions and chili recipes. Therefore, I am…what?!” We’ll come back to that question in chapter four. For now, let’s stick to the fact that information is immaterial and that it can be translated through an unlimited variety of media.
Now are we sure that The Lord of the Rings is on those DVDs? Well, consider what would happen if aliens from across the galaxy bought the DVDs but forgot to buy a DVD player. Theoretically, if they worked at it long enough, they would eventually be able to translate them a layer at a time. They would start by decompressing the binary patterns—one layer. Then they would translate these into patterns of light waves and sound waves—a cinematic layer. Then they would start the process all over, working to translate the dialogue—another, completely different layer. Now there are so many subtleties of cultural context to the movies (such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Christian faith, the historical context of World War I, etc.) that they could never be perfectly translated, and trying to do so would be about as realistic and useful as trying to dig a perfectly straight, perfectly round tunnel from one side of Pluto, through its core, to the other side. But still, the aliens could eventually get the gist of the movies.
The point is that the information is there on the DVDs, objectively, for intelligent minds to perceive. Each of those three media can contain the entire movie—the colors, the dialogue, the CGI, everything. All the data is there, like a book sitting on a shelf waiting to be read. The entire cinematic trilogy—the drama, the plot, the characters, the battle scenes, etc.—is on those DVDs. By comparison, just as the dents on a DVD carry several layers of meaning—a binary layer, a cinematic layer, a linguistic layer, etc.—so also the nucleic acid bumps on a DNA molecule carry astonishingly deep layers of meaning, revealing patterns incredibly more complex than scientists first thought.
And what is true for a complex set of information, like The Lord of the Rings or the genetic code for humans, is also true for a simple piece of information, like the number eleven.
Consider, for example, eleven apples sitting on a table—large, red, juicy, sweet, crisp apples. Now one of the apples has eleven small bites taken out of it, and so eleven fruit flies are doing the Macarena on it—a dance with eleven steps. That’s four different ways of conveying the meaning of the word eleven. Yet we can look right at each one of them and observe the absence of any physical qualities in that number.
Now we can represent the number eleven through myriad other media. But there are other numbers, such as π (3.14…) that can never have any physical representation. For example, you can put 3.1 apples in your pie, or with a good laboratory scale, you can put 3.14 apples in your pie, but you can never put π apples in your pie because you cannot cut an apple with infinite precision. (Likewise, going in the other direction, you could have 300 apples or 3 million apples, but you could never have infinite apples.)
Berkley Physics Professor Dr. Richard Muller says that we can prove that numbers like π—which are called irrational numbers because they cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers—exist even though the proof for their existence is completely abstract and cannot be discovered in any concrete, non-abstract ways. He uses the example of the square root of two (1.41421…) which, like π, goes on infinitely. It was the first irrational number discovered by the ancient Greeks. Again, it can be discovered and used, but never physically represented.
What makes this result so fascinating is that it never could have been discovered through the science of physics. No measurement could demonstrate that the square root of two is irrational. The fact that the square root of two is irrational is a truth that is beyond physical measurement; it exists only in the minds of humans. It is nonphysics knowledge.[xiii]
This is not a quirky piece of trivia. In fact, let’s take the mystery even deeper: there are also numbers that we know exist, yet we also know that we cannot ever know what they are. As Dr. Robert J. Marks, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University, puts it, we can prove mathematically that there are things that exist that are unknowable. “They will forever remain unknowable—so abandon all hope. There is no way through, over, under, or around the brick wall of unknowability.”[xiv]
Okay, what do The Lord of the Rings, the number 11, the square root of two, and unknowable numbers have in common? Well, as the parallel titles of the books I listed earlier imply, did you know that mathematics and language are one-and-the-same thing?
Language Equals Math
If we could not do one then we could not do the other, for numbers are nothing but words and equations are nothing more than sentences whose main verb is equal. Although we don’t usually use language with the same precision that we use math—Supreme Court cases notwithstanding—and don’t usually use math as artistically as we use language—smartphones notwithstanding—they nevertheless are both simply different modes of rational thought. Just as we can use electricity either to play a cartoon or to power a bullet train, so also we can use words either to write those cartoons or to calculate the amount of kilowatt energy needed for those bullet trains. In both cases—whether being creative with English (or Chinese, etc.) or being creative with calculus—we are using words.
GRAMMAR IS MATHEMATICAL AND MATH IS GRAMMATICAL
Grammar is so mathematical that laptop computers today have excellent editing and translation programs. For we are actually doing simple forms of math when we discriminate between singular and plural; between right and left (as if translating a graph); amongst comparatives and superlatives (for example: “terrible, tolerable, okay, good, very good, excellent” could be roughly translated as, “On a scale of 1 to 7”); amongst past, present, future, future perfect, pluperfect, etc. (simple translations of a timeline); etc., etc., etc.
Going the other direction, a mathematical equation is simply a sentence whose main verb is “equal”. Math is made of up nouns (numbers, shapes, angles, integrals, etc.), verbs (multiply, add, subtract, divide, differentiate, etc.), adjectives (negative, greater than, raised, etc.), adverbs (when, where, etc.), conjunctions (“as x approaches infinity…”), pronouns (variables), prepositions (plus, minus, etc.), etc. Mathematics is the study of patterns (patterns in meaning, patterns in shapes, patterns in change, etc.) and language is the use of phonetic and/or symbolic patterns in sound and symbol.
This isn’t philosophy, but rather fact: there is nothing more or less to math than grammar rules and vocabulary—rules and vocabulary that a laptop computer can follow translate patterns of English symbols into русский symbols, etc. As a couple of ivy league mathematicians put it:
Changeux: Mathematical language is plainly an authentic language. But is it therefore the only authentic language?
Connes: It is unquestionably the only universal language.[xv]
The universal language Professor Connes refers to there is something linguists theorized about for decades. Linguist Noam Chomsky first proposed that all humans have a genetic component in their brains that allows them to communicate according to universal rules (or patterns) which he called a universal grammar. Thus, for example, even though Chinese verbs have no tense—meaning that a Chinese speaker uses the exact same verb form regardless of whether they are expressing past, present, or future action (leading to clumsy translations like “long time no see” 好久不见)—they nevertheless still have very effective ways to communicate a mathematical timeline. After all, bilingual speakers can provide excellent translations between Chinese and English. Okay, so what is the universal grammar or universal pattern that both Chinese and English speakers—and any other language speaker—can understand? As Connes observes, its math.
Now let us consider vocabulary.
MATHE IS SEMANTICAL AND SEMANTICS ARE MATHEMATICAL
Math is semantical in that all of its parts are related to one another. A child can’t learn the meaning of 3 unless also learn the meaning of 4, 5, 6, etc. He can’t learn the meaning of square unless he also learns the meaning of circle, triangle, rectangle, etc. And although you might learn addition without necessarily learning subtraction, or you might multiplication without necessarily learning division, both subtraction and division are nevertheless always in the context of mathematical reasoning. By comparison, an illiterate person can speak eloquently even if they don’t know the difference between a noun and a verb.
The reason we can use computers (i.e. binary) to store entire libraries is that numbers are nothing more than words. For that matter, just as there are different types of numbers, so also there are the equivalent types of linguistic vocabulary. For example, two primary types of numbers are rational numbers and irrational numbers and these are perfectly synonymous with two primary types of vocabulary—concrete words and abstract words. Rational numbers are the ones that can be fully, concretely represented—at least in theory. Technically speaking, they are numbers that can be written as fractions. You can have 7 apples (or 7/1 apples), 35 and 1/3 pieces of pizza, 10.6578 inches of pipe, etc. Similarly, concrete vocabulary refers to things that can be fully represented—things that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched—such as apples, pizzas, and pipes.
By contrast, both irrational numbers and abstract words communicate meaning that cannot be fully represented. Technically speaking, irrational numbers cannot be written as the ratio of two integers. The most well-known irrational number is π (3.14159…), which goes on infinitely. So although you could have 3.1 pieces of apple pie, and perhaps with the use of a good laboratory scale you could have 3.14 pieces of apple pie, you could never have π pieces of apple pie because you cannot cut the pie with infinite precision (for the same reason that you cannot have an infinitely small piece of apple). Similarly, just as irrational numbers can only be understood/translated and never fully represented, so also the other main type of linguistic vocabulary—abstract words—can only be understood/translated and never be fully imaged. Consider, for example, the abstract word peace. You could have a very peaceful, beautiful island, and yet there could always be room for just a little more peace, just a fraction more unity-in-diversity. You could never have a 100% perfectly peaceful island any more than you could ever have exactly π pieces of apple pie.
All that is to illustrate how numbers are words—nothing more, nothing less.
But it goes much deeper than that, for linguistic vocabulary is dimensional in exactly the same way that math is dimensional (as in three dimensions). Linguistic vocabulary may not often be as precise as mathematical vocabulary, but we can still get an idea of how words nuance each other. Consider, for example, the abstract word freedom. You can’t really begin to define or understand that word unless you also define the word slavery—just like you can’t define the word hot without also defining cold, or up without down, or three without four and five and 500, etc. And just like you can put hot and cold on a number line to define a thermometer, you could also plot freedom and slavery on a number line to show the spectrum of meaning that the words convey.
However, this is just a one-dimensional understanding of freedom, and we still need more context in order to effectively communicate. After all, if you lived in the dark then you wouldn’t have much freedom would you, even if you were not enslaved to someone else. The light of truth and education increases our freedom. So if we want to express ourselves more precisely and clearly, we will need more words. We could start by plotting another number line with knowledge defining one end and ignorance the other:
Now the words freedom and knowledge are not synonyms, nor are the words slavery and ignorance. So these concepts would not run parallel to each other, but instead, intersect each other:
If we want even more clarity, we could add a third line that is defined by the words determinism and randomness.
Again, this line would not run parallel to the line defined by freedom and slavery, for randomness is not a synonym for freedom, nor is determinism a synonym for slavery. Just consider, for example, the laws of gravity. They are textbook examples of determinism, but we would not say that we are slaves to the laws of gravity. Rather than enslaving us, do they not instead free us, so that we can walk around on a planet that orbits the sun? In a similar fashion, traffic laws and police officers don’t inhibit our freedom; instead, they instead provide the order necessary for moving about freely.
So if the freedom/slavery line and the randomness/determinism line don’t run parallel, then we can consider how they intersect one another:
Then we can also consider how the knowledge/ignorance line and the determinism/randomness line intersect one another:
So to get a richer sense of the semantics of how these six words nuance each other’s meaning we could combine them into a 3-dimensional graph, like this:
This isn’t philosophy, but rather semantics. Although these observations might provide fertile ground for a lot of fruitful philosophical discussion, we aren’t doing that here. We are simply observing how words nuance each other in complex, multi-dimensional ways. We are just making observations about how words and sentences work. Although our linguistic semantics are often not as precise and exact as our mathematical semantics, we can nevertheless see how any and all semantics is dimensional. The above six words will nuance each other in a virtually infinite variety of ways, just as the colors red, blue, and green can mix to form an unlimited variety of colors. (By the way, in case you don’t know your physics: even though blue and yellow paint mix to make green paint, it is red and green light waves that mix to form yellow light.) We could diagram many other words in a similar fashion. For example:
- We could make a graph for describing a person’s character with the words proud/humble, bold/time, and obstinate/compliant.
- We could make a graph for describing metal with the words brittle/malleable, rigid/elastic, and strong/weak.
- The easiest example is a graph for describing directions with the words forward/backward, up/down, and right/left.
The purpose of all these illustrations is to show that mathematics and language are one-and-the-same. If we could not do one, then we could not do the other. As mathematician A. Alfred Adler put it:
Mathematics is pure language—the language of science. It is unique among languages in its ability to provide a precise expression for every thought or concept that can be formulated in its terms. (In a spoken language, there exist words, like “happiness”, that defy definition.) It is also an art—the most intellectual and classical of the arts.[xvi]
These are just facts. Now, of course, a person doesn’t need to understand any of this to be able to use language effectively. Someone could be completely illiterate and not know the difference between a noun and a verb, and yet that same person might be able to communicate more eloquently and with greater mathematical precision than another person who has Ph.D.’s in both mathematics and literature.
Sticking to the Facts
Again, this isn’t philosophy; it’s just semantics. Nevertheless, by this point many people might start giving things philosophical names and then insisting that we’re talking about philosophy instead of fact. They might start pontificating about your basic epistemologies and ontologies and existentialities, and you’re going to have to beat them back with a stick. Instead of clarifying the facts, they will mix the facts with a bunch of speculations that fill the room with fog.
If that sounds unfair, keep in mind that Darwinists cannot ever acknowledge the existence of any immaterial phenomena. Otherwise, they will immediately be confronted with catastrophic questions such as, “How could the brain use the five senses to perceive something immaterial?” and, “How do immaterial phenomena evolve?” So instead of acknowledging the immaterial nature of information, they will start giving it esoteric names. They will talk all day long about what they think things like language and mathematics and natural laws are—Platonic forms, qualia, emergent entities, etc.—but they will not tolerate a discussion about what they are not, for Darwinism requires that materialism be true. (If you let go of materialism you immediately get Intelligent Design!) They simply will not discuss such things under any circumstances.
Now materialism, or physicalism, the worldview which holds that the only things that exist are matter and energy, has been around since the ancient Greeks and today comes in many varieties—dialectical materialism, historical materialism, epiphenomenalistic materialism, etc. Furthermore, Darwinists will try to draw distinctions between consciousness, the mind, and rational thought. Add to that the different perspectives brought by psychology, neuroscience, physics, and biology, and getting a grip on the discussion feels about as easy as trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks on a windy day.
But we don’t need to catch the fly. Instead, let us consider the possibility that the presupposition of materialism might simply be wrong. If we just home in on the observations and let the facts speak for themselves, the fog will evaporate.
What if rationality is itself immaterial?
If we can observe the complete absence of physical qualities in a piece of data, then what are we observing the presence of? What is it that has no physical qualities? Does this mean that numbers and equations are spiritual? Not necessarily. However, the rationality that perceives and uses them—that might be spiritual.
Consider The Lord of the Rings movies again. If you’re sitting on the couch watching the movie, and you have a movie camera next to you recording those same light and sound waves, is it comprehending the movie? Can it perceive the drama any better than a paperback book can perceive the plot? Of course not. What we are perceiving through our eyes and ears is something that no camera can see, something that no recording device can hear, something that no DVD player or computer or robot can understand.
For one thing, we are perceiving the translation of a dramatic story with characters and themes, etc.—things that first began as black symbols on paper (i.e., Tolkien’s original trilogy) but have now been recast through lights and sounds and faces. To say that all this drama and artistic expression is immaterial might be like saying that intelligence, creativity, and morality are immaterial.
But there’s more to it than that, and what is particularly hard to digest—similar, perhaps, to how a tenth-century farmer might have had trouble digesting heliocentrism—is to realize that in addition to the drama, all the rest of the movie’s information is likewise nonphysical. The colors, the music, the facial expressions—all of that is, literally, immaterial. (Just keep reminding yourself that this conclusion could be related to the notion that consciousness itself might be immaterial.) One form of media for carrying that information is through light waves and sound waves in a movie theater. Other forms are electromagnetic waves, DVDs, etc.
Thus, for example, when you see the blueness of Gandalf’s hat, that information is just as nonphysical as the gentleness of Gandalf’s character. After all, does the movie camera next to you on the couch have the slightest clue what blueness is, any more than it knows what gentleness is? Does the camera comprehend the meaning of blue any more than an English book comprehends it, or a DVD player comprehends 01100010 01101100 01110101 01100101? The meaning of that word is just as immaterial as the meaning of the drama in the movies, yet for some eternally mysterious reason, we humans can comprehend all those forms of communication.
A GAME OF MAKE-BELIEVE?
How is that possible? Believe it or not, neuroscientists, physicists, and philosophers have all done massive amounts of research trying to figure out what in the world it even means for us to perceive colors in a way that cameras and computers do not perceive them. Because if you cling to the presuppositions of materialism, then our perception of colors is, at the end of the day, literally impossible to explain. In fact, many Darwinists have concluded that colors are illusions created by our brains—hallucinations that don’t exist in “reality”—similar to how Dennett said many philosophers bite the bullet and conclude that words don’t exist.
For example, here is how Anil K Seth, professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex in England and co-director of the University’s Sackler Center for Consciousness Science, tries to deny the existence of color:
Take, for example, the experience of color—say, the bright red of the coffee mug on my desk. The mug really does seem to be red: its redness seems as real as its roundness and its solidity. These features of my experience seem to be truly existent properties of the world, detected by our senses and revealed to our mind through the complex mechanisms of perception.
Yet we have known since Isaac Newton that colors do not exist out there in the world. Instead they are cooked up by the brain from mixtures of different wavelengths of colorless electromagnetic radiation. Colors are a clever trick that evolution has hit on to help the brain keep track of surfaces under changing lighting conditions.[xvii]
Notice how he uses the abstract word real as if it is somehow more “real” that the meaning of the word red. His argument that colors don’t exist follows the same sort of reasoning it would take to argue that the sunrise doesn’t exist since, technically speaking, it’s the earth that is rotating. Yet regardless of your perspective, the appearance of the sun every morning is very “real”, as is the appearance of a rainbow after a storm.
It was the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) who first taught his students to doubt whether the colors they saw were real.[xviii] But I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say no: although philosophers can pretend to doubt such things, they cannot truly doubt them. After all, the word doubt is only coherent in the broad context of things we do not doubt. “I know that the grass is green and that the sky is blue and that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I doubt she’ll go out with me.” If we doubt absolutely everything, if we truly doubted that the sky is blue and that sun will rise tomorrow, then the word doubt would become meaningless. If a person truly doubts everything—as opposed to just engaging a philosophical game of play-pretend—then they might belong in a psychiatric hospital.
That’s how confining the presuppositions of materialism are. So it should come as no surprise that Seth concludes that consciousness itself is a hallucination: “All our perceptions and experiences, whether of the self or of the world, are inside-out controlled hallucinations.” [xix] Now if absolutely everything is a hallucination, what non-hallucinations provide the context for that word hallucination to have any meaning? There aren’t any because, again, it’s just a game of make-believe. As Seth puts it, “We’re all hallucinating all the time, including right now.” [xx]
THE COHERENT ALTERNATIVE
But if you let go of materialism and consider the possibility that our minds are just as immaterial as is information itself, then it all becomes explainable.
However, that also means that blueness and greyness and other colors are immaterial—pure meaning—so let’s put this into perspective. The amount of raw data that we take in through our eyes, through roughly 500 million photons per second, can be truly massive as compared to the amount of data conveyed through the words in a book. But we can use our brains to process all this data because our brains have about 100 billion neurons with at least 100 trillion connecting points. And that’s just the beginning of its complexity, according to David Eagleman, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and CEO and co-founder of Neosensory, a company that develops devices for sensory substitution. He says it’s not just the neurons that are at work, but also chemical processes and protein changes—“quadrillions of interactions between brain cells every second.”[xxi]
Quadrillions of interactions every second.
He says that if we wanted to record a high-resolution architecture of a single human brain, we would need a zettabyte of capacity—the same size as all the digital content on planet earth right now (or when he wrote it in 2017).
All that processing power is why, just as we can use our fingers to count to ten and use a calculator to do trigonometry and use laptop to do our taxes, so also we can use our brains to process scads of electromagnetic data. Thus, when children are about 2 years old, after their brains have taken in about 15 quadrillion photons (which is the sum of 500 million photons a second for 12 hours a day for two years) they can learn to identify the colors of the rainbow. Once they learn the meaning of blue and grey, they can then learn to translate them through different media—such as through the English morphemes “blue” and “grey” or the English symbols b-l-u-e and g-r-e-y. The wonder of language—which we will explore more when we ask, “Where do words occur?”—is that we can compress massive amounts of data (such all those photons) into individual words.
That’s also why, when we see Gandalf’s blue hat on the TV screen, the light waves that our minds translate into meaning (again, something no movie camera or computer can do) are just one of many ways to convey that meaning. Another way to translate it is by reading in the book, “He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf.” Of course, as every parent knows, it takes much more intellectual muscle for a child to read the book than to stare at a screen.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
On the one hand, we are simply saying that the conscious perception of meaning is immaterial. That’s why you can read about Gandalf’s blue hat and grey cloak and understand it perfectly just by staring at black symbols on a page—i.e., without seeing any actual color.
On the other hand, this also means that the meaning of the words blue and grey is immaterial. That meaning can be translated through a pattern of black symbols or through a pattern of light waves or through a pattern of sound waves, etc. That’s kind of bizarre. Does that mean that a completely colorblind person could eventually learn the same meaning of those words without seeing any color? Theoretically, yes. But in the absence of quadrillions of photons of data, learning the meaning of color would be about as theoretically realistic as single-handedly digging that tunnel through Pluto, or learning to read the binary printout of the of The Lord of the Rings DVD’s—about 50 million pages of 1’s and 0’s.
That would not be a fun read.
Thankfully, we have these amazing brains to do so much tedious data-processing for us. So just keep reminding yourself that consciousness and rationality might be nonphysical (spiritual) phenomena and that all of the information you perceive in a movie is likewise nonphysical.
For example, consider the following quote from Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”, of The Fellowship of the Ring: “The wizard’s face remained grave and attentive, and only a flicker in his deep eyes showed that he was startled and indeed alarmed.” Again, one medium through which we could translate this sentence is actor Ian McKellan on a stage or movie set. Here are a few other media to convey the same sentence:
Are we sure about all this? Yes. Aren’t we lost in a labyrinth of quagmires? No, we’re on very solid ground. And there is no counterargument. A materialistic world would be utterly meaningless not just in a deep, moralistic way—as in saying, “My life has no meaning!”—but also in a blunt, practical way such that the meaning of the words like three and four and blue and grey would not exist either. Literally!
But the excellent news is that (immaterial) meaning exists. The mind-over-matter mystery, though more awesome and enigmatic than ever, also remains more certain than ever.
[ii] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 4-5.
[iii] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 20.
[iv] James Tour, “The Mystery of the Origin of Life,” March 18, 2019. Dallas Conference on Science and Faith. Discovery Institute. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU7Lww-sBPg)
[v] Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2006), 17.
[vi] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 3339-3345.
[vii] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 2930-2931.
[viii] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Kindle Location 3765.
[ix] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Location 3414.
[x] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 3420-3427.
[xi] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Location 3504.
[xii] Rolf Landauer, “Information is a Physical Entity”, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.192.2928&rep=rep1&type=pdf
[xiii] Richard Muller, Now: The Physics of Time, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), Kindle Locations 4715.
[xiv] Robert Marks, Non-Computable You (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2022), p. 316 Kindle Edition.
[xv] J.P. Changeux and A. Connes, Conversations on Mind, Matter and Mathematics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 10.
[xvi] A. Adler. “Mathematics and Creativity”, in The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics, T. Ferris, ed. (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1991), 435.
[xvii] Anil K. Seth, “Our Inner Universe”, Scientific American, September 2019. Volume 321, Number 3. (pp. 40-47)
[xviii] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Project Gutenberg, 1912) Kindle Locations 164-170.
[xix] Anil Seth, “The hard problem of consciousness is already beginning to dissolve.” New Scientist, September 1, 2021. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25133501-500-the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-is-already-beginning-to-dissolve/#ixzz7BvejmFMC
[xx] Anil Seth, “Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality”, TED2017. (https://www.ted.com/talks/anil_seth_how_your_brain_hallucinates_your_conscious_reality)
[xxi] David Eagleman, The Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017), 201.
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