Explanation I

by zenquaker

Every now and then I mention something like “I hate pie charts” or “Ichabod’s Theory of Language” that really begs more explanation. The plan was never to leave you in the dark. The plan was to explain thing later when the explanation wouldn’t clog up the semi-narrative pseudo-flow of my normal blogging style. As the motto of the University of Rochester Roleplaying Team states, “Venimus, vidimus, etiam dictum purus” (We came, we saw, we’ll explain later).

So today I am going to explain Ichabod’s Theory of Language. By calling it Ichabod’s Theory of Language I don’t mean to claim that I invented it. It’s kind of obvious, so I expect some more eminent philosopher came up with it before me. In fact, I probably studied it when I was an undergraduate. I just mean to say that it is the theory I subscribe to.

One of the main problems in the philosophy of language is reference. That is, when I say “Bob” you know who I’m talking about, even if Bob is not in the room and I can’t point to him for clarification. Somehow the word “Bob” refers to the person Bob. But how does that work? It may not seem like something to worry about, but it becomes an issue when you talk about abstract concepts (like postmodernism or non-Euclidean vector spaces) or impossible objects (like a round square or a good Ben Affleck movie).

Ichabod’s Theory of Language deals with reference. Now, the word “Bob” obviously does not have a direct relationship to the person Bob, because the word “Bob” is in your head but the physical object Bob is not. (Any Buddhists in the audience are advised to stay quiet and wait for it.) Your mind does not have access to Bob. What does it have access to? You might say it has access to sense impressions of Bob: times you seen Bob, or heard him speak. But your mind doesn’t really have access to sense impressions. The brain does an incredible amount of pre-processing on the information received through the senses before it gets to what we would call the conscious mind. That is how we see one image even though we have two eyes, and how we have a sense of which direction a sound is coming from. It is also the source of most optical illusions.

So we don’t have access to sense impressions. What we do have access to is our perceptions of those sense impressions. Perceptions being the output of the pre-processing our mind does on the sense impressions. But we don’t even have access to that. Remember, Bob is not in the room. We can’t see him, hear him, smell him, and I’m not going any further with that. So all we have are a memory of Bob. Of course, it’s not really a memory of Bob, it’s a memory of a perception of a sense impression of Bob. The trick here is that memory is not accurate. In any given scene certain things stand out to us, and that is what we remember. What stands out to you isn’t the same as what stands out to me, so we will remember the same scene differently. Over time our memories can change, so that the parts we do remember weren’t even there in the first place.

It’s not the case that we have just one memory either. Most likely we have lots of memories of Bob. So what we have is not a memory of Bob, but a set of memories of perceptions of sense impressions of Bob. If we’ve had different interactions with Bob, we will have different sets of memories of Bob, beyond the fact stated above that our shared memories of Bob will probably be different. Just as our memories of Bob will emphasize certain parts of the scene, so will our sets of memories emphasize different memories. Certain memories we’ve had of Bob will have be more important to us than others, they will have more weight.

So what the word “Bob” refers to in the final sense is a weighted set of memories of perceptions of sense impressions of Bob. I think of that weighted set and say the word “Bob.” You hear the word “Bob” and conjure up your own weighted set that is different than mine. The weighted set you conjure up is probably different than the weighted set you conjured up when I said “Bob” yesterday!

Where’s Bob in all of this? He’s nowhere. Bob is just collateral damage in this whole process. The fact of the matter is that the word “Bob” doesn’t refer to Bob, philosophers just like to pretend it does. And now all the Buddhist heave a sigh of relief because they never believed that Bob existed in the first place.

That’s why I think it’s a miracle we manage to communicate at all. When my Mom comes to town and we manage to end up at the same restaurant for lunch it’s amazing. On those occasions when we showed up at different restaurants I was not surprised at all. And when conversations about abstract things like economic policy and morals go down the tubes, I am again not surprised at all.