PHILOMADRID

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Should good things be imposed on others?

Photos + essay


Dear friends,


This Sunday we are discussing Should good things be imposed on others?
Maybe you would be able to come and tell us what you would want to
impose on others.


I have posted some photo form our various trips on the picasa website; I
hope to add more by Sunday. And Julian had uploaded his photos on a
separate picasa page. The links are below.

Julian:

http://picasaweb.google.es/juliand1/ToledoByJulian?authkey=JL7h_vLAwEQ
Philomadrid: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo


Take care


Lawrence
IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW


++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Should good things be imposed on others?


The idea of "good" is an entrenched concept in philosophy and
practically in any other discipline. I am even inclined to agree with
those philosophers who believe that our idea of good is something we
inherit and evolves in living systems.


Nor is the idea of "imposing" on others the good or what is good a
strange one. Moreover, those who do want to impose good on others are
usually well intended, well meaning but in many cases they are also
misguided. Think of the missionaries of days gone by who believed that
all heathens should be converted to their religion and saved from the
devil; they still do and the devil is still in business.


However, this quest to impose good on others is not limited to big
ethical projects such as converting heathens, exporting democracy,
utopian equality, or being environment friends by being a mass consumer.


Let me start with a rather personal and insignificant story which I
experienced recently. I apologise in advance if you miss the point, but
if you have some background in photography it will help.


As with most mobile phones today my new mobile came with a camera and a
built in flash. To my horror I discovered that I could not set the flash
be turned off until I wanted to use it. I called technical services, and
to cut a long story short, the bottom line was: "•....but surely it is
good that the flash comes on automatically." I assured this person that
it wasn't. (If you are wondering, it is off putting, to say the least,
if the flash goes off every time you want to take a picture of a product
or the price of a product in a shop, or want to take a picture of a
notice or billboard, they'll be saturated with light, or a pictures near
a window, the light gets reflected back.)


What is important for us is that because something might be useful we
assume that it is also good. And in the case of the flash on my mobile
(and many other things in life) it is a very short walk to go from
useful to good to imposing it on others. Mind you, the issue is not a
technical one or of cost, all my past mobiles had this feature I wanted.
The issue is that someone somewhere took a decision on my behalf that it
is a good thing to disable this off/automatic switch.


But if you say that this flash issue is a very minor problem in the
scheme of things, then surely you have missed the point which has
nothing to do with flashes on mobile phones. The point is that someone
has made a choice for me and a few other people like me on the sole
belief that it is a good thing. One cannot even argue that this was a
strategy to get me to buy a more expensive mobile; I wanted a better
mobile any way but they did not have any within my price range.


Take a more serious example. If you buy a PC in one of the EU countries
the chances are that it will come with software in the language of that
country; thus if you bought a PC in Italy it would be in Italian, in
Spain in Spanish etc. These things usually follows the formula: country
+ buyer = language of country. At face value this sounds like a good
idea and in many cases there is legislation to back it up. However, as I
understand the spirit of the legislation, it says that goods (i.e. their
documents etc) should be made available in the language of the customer.
But this is usually interpreted to be the language of the country it is
sold.


Maybe people might not know much about flash features on cameras, but
they certainly know a lot more about the language they want to use.
There is no doubt that having a product with the language of choice is a
good thing, however it is not a good thing to make it difficult or
impossible to obtain a product with the language different from what the
supplier wants to give you. Technically it is not an issue, just
sticking with software, most software is already available in many
languages and a PC has no problems processing software in different
languages.


Having excluded technical problems, the issue of language must then be
one of choice at the very least and to be charitable maybe also coupled
with a misinterpretation of the spirit of the law. Relying on my recent
experience, I wanted to buy a software package from a company in Madrid
but was told that they cannot make it available in English. The original
product was of course developed by an American company in English. After
further investigation I discovered that I can obtain the same software
in English from the UK and the price difference (not including transport
and bank charges) was that the English version was €30 cheaper. I agree
that I was not shopping at the same type of outlet, one was a bricks and
mortar outfit and the other an on-line store. Never the less the
difference is noticeable. Some years back a client I worked for in Italy
wanted to buy a technical software package and the version from the US
in English cost the equivalent of 900 pounds sterling and the Italian
version was priced at the equivalent of 3,000 pounds sterling.


Again the point is not that one expects to pay more for a translated
version of a product (considering the economies of scale it is not that
much to translate documents), nor that it is a good thing that one
should be able to buy things with the language of choice (today it is
not even a minor issue since language versions can be downloaded from
the internet). The question I ask myself is this: is there a correlation
at the very least, or a causal relationship in the worst scenario, that
legislation backs up the idea that products should be sold in the
language of the country they are bought and the price difference between
the original version and local version? To put it in an other way, by
having a 30euro difference in price who is gaining the consumer or the
exchequer? (Tax authorities)


Excluding the notion of a conspiracy theory, I would say that at face
value there might be two principles operating in this more serious
example: good things are desirable and utilitarian principles apply when
imposing good things. Evolution and genetics establish the premise that
good things are desirable, and religions provide the argument for the
other preposition: the more one prays the better, the more converts the
better etc.


But while philosophers were contemplating what is good in the 18, 19 and
20th centuries, mathematicians, statisticians and social scientists were
busy creating and establishing the mechanism which today would decide
what is good. I am thinking of course, of the bell curve also known as
the Gaussian distribution, the standard normal distribution or normal
distribution. I won't go into the details about the bell curve (see
Wikipedia: normal distribution or Critical Mass by Philip Ball, Arrow
Publishers, for a historical perspective). As you know the bell curve is
a statistical picture of the distribution of a set of data give two
variable. This also reflects the probably value of some phenomena taking
place given these variables (it is more complex than this description).


What is important for us is that managers and politicians have in theory
a tool to decide what is good in the real world away from the smoke
castles of metaphysics. But more important than being a tool to tell us
what is good, the bell curve can also be used as a predictive tool. We
now have a tool to ascribe a probability to a future event; I will not
go into the merits of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's arguments against the bell
curve, google the name. Hence, what is the probability of a customer
wanting full control of the flash on their camera, what is the
probability that someone wants a version of a product in English on
mainland Europe, what is the probability that a heathen in darkest
Africa can come up with a convincing argument against god or a maxims
machine gun? Thus today when good is imposed it is either because the
negative effects only apply to a few people or to defenceless people. So
next time you want to buy a shirt or a blouse with blue and pink spots
and cannot find one you know why. You don't fit on someone's bell curve
and hence you're shopping on the wrong bell curve. In the brave new
world, what the majority on a bell curve decide becomes the de facto
standard which is immediately misinterpreted to mean good.


These examples, or rather the type of good that I have been concerned
with have another feature in common. Those who are imposing the good
know in advance the consequences of their actions. Or at least a
reasonable person can find out in advance the kind of consequences their
actions will imply.


Those who decided not give full control of the features of the flash
knew in advance that there will be some people who would want to use
such options. Those who pass legislation about language for products
know in advance that these products might incur an additional cost or
that these products will be sold for a premium compared with the
original standard product. Those who legislate about abortion or birth
control know in advance that the lives of some people will be affected
negatively (see for example S Levitt and S Dubner, Freakonomics
(Penguin), for a discussion on this point).


Of course as philosophers we are not concerned about second guessing the
decisions of a manager or a politician. Our task is to consider the
actions we find ourselves with, actions by politicians or managers, what
are the philosophical implications and what are the ethical
consequences? And why should this be relevant anyway?


We are also concerned with the fact that the actor of a strategy has
enough information to give a predictive value to the consequences of
their action. In which case I would argue that given these predictive
values (even if they are probabilistic) it makes these actions value
judgments and not scientific decisions.


I might have given the impression that I am only concerned with the
negative effects of imposing good on others or maybe questionable
candidates of what is good. There are many good things that have been
imposed and had positive benefits: employment laws, certain health
policies, good defence systems and so on. However, negative instances
can be very serious to the individual. The question is whether we are
prepared to discriminate against a minority. Take for example using
taxes to stop people from smoking. One can validly argue that such
policies discriminate against rich people since they will always be able
to afford cigarettes. And hence not benefitting from the government's
policy on smoking. You might say that maybe rich people ought to look
after themselves, yes, but that's a value judgement and misses the whole
point altogether. The point being, are you prepared to discriminate
against a minority?


There is a second class of actions (imposing good on others) that have
unforeseen consequences. In an article in the New York Times (January
20, 2008; www.nytimes.com) Dubner and Levitt published an article under
the heading "Unintended Consequences."


We are all familiar with this class of actions, but I will refer to an
example given in the article. The authors refer to the Americans with
Disabilities Act (AWDA), which gives disables people a wide range of
well meaning rights. The authors refer to a patient with hearing
difficulties and therefore has the right to have a sign-language
interpreter present when they visit a doctor. However, the medical
insurance nor the state pay for this service and has to come out from
the pocket of the doctor. In the case they give the doctor would have
had to pay more to the interpreter than what he would have charged for
the therapy; as it turned out the physiotherapist was landed with the
bill. The consequence are straightforward. Some disabled people do not
receive the health service they deserve. (see Wikipedia or google under
unintended consequences).


The authors call this the law of unintended consequences. Commenting on
the article, Andre Gelman
(http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2008/01/what_kind_of_la.html)
writes in his blog: what kind of law is this? It is neither a law like
the law of gravity nor a fun law like Murphey's law. I would say it is
more like Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time available to do
it in). We know it is true and we can rely on it but we do not have a
good mathematical model to describe it.


For me, the more serious issue is Gelman's second comment of belief:
unintended consequences are often intended consequences. However, Gelman
concedes that the authors give some valid examples that prove the law of
unintended consequences. But if these consequences are intended surely
they ought to be classified as value judgments as I argued above.


One important difference between value judgments and the law of
unintended consequences is that the actor of a value judgements has
enough information about the nature of the consequences; or at least
they ought to have. Thus those wish to legislate against abortion or
contraceptives ought to know that some people will be born who will have
a hard life to say the least. This would be a case of value judgment.
However, Levitt and Donohue (2001 see Freakonomics) have shown a link
between Roe vs Wade (approving abortion in the US) and a reduction in
crime in the early 1990s (mothers with an unstable background were not
giving birth to children who might be brought up in an environment that
leads to crime). This is surely the law of unintended consequences at play.


The issues of this discussion are quite important even if at the
practical level they seem insurmountable. But at least at the
philosophical level we can identify the questions we have to ask
ourselves. For example, what is our definition of good we use for our
actions? (Kant's or the bell curve) What kind of instruments do we use
to impose good? (AWDA or Settings Options) Do we have enough predictive
information about our proposed action. (Abortion: unwanted children vs
loved children)


But there are two more basic questions we have to ask ourselves more
than anything else: do we care about the consequences our actions have
on others? And, can we be bothered to find out what those consequences
are and then mitigate them?


Take care


Lawrence

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Should good things
be imposed on others?

Monday, January 21, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Toledo Saturday, Peter’s birthday party Thursday and How does language define our world?

Two news items: Day trip to Toledo and Peter's birthday part this
Thursday; meeting as usual Sunday


Dear friends,


Because of the football game last Sunday we couldn't have the meeting as
usual so we'll have the discussion this coming Sunday. You will remember
the topic was How does language define our world?

In the meantime there are two interesting news items:


PETER
This Thursday Peter is organising his birthday party in Cafe Madrid and
this is what he has to say: Hi. This is Peter. On the 24 January
Thursday I'll be having my birthday party in Cafe Madrid metro Opera
c/Escalinata at 20.00. You're invited to have cava with us. It'll be
followed by Antoine's intercambio that starts at 21.30. It'll be very
nice of you if you could come. You'll be very sorry if you don't. See
you there. Peter.

So we'll see Peter Thursday.


TOLEDO
You will also remember that this Saturday , we are going on a day trip
to Toledo while it is still fresh and cool there. Bring your own picnic
or buy it fresh from Toledo. We have agreed to catch the 10.30am bus
from Mendez Alvaro, although there are buses every 30min. Hence the
meeting time and place is 10.00am near the information point in Estacion
Sur, see link below for a photo of the info point.

This service should take one hour, we then have to wait at the station
in Toledo for the bus to get to the city centre, unless we decide to
walk. The information I have from the Continetal/Alsa web site is that
the return fare costs 7.90 Euros and you can get the ticket from the
Continental ticket office just opposite the info point; you can just
about see in one of the photos.

http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/photosphilo

(album: Toledo 26 January 2008)


Take care

Lawrence


IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW


++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


How does language define our world?


We mustn't make the mistake, which is quite reasonable to do, that when
philosophers talk about language we are only talking about natural
languages. Our project is not exclusively about French, German, English,
Spanish or Cantonese. Although I propose to look into these natural
languages later on.


We have to think of language as a means for conveying information we are
in possession of to other people. There are many definitions of language
so I am intentionally keeping away from them in order not to get stuck
in a metaphysical quagmire. However, I also intentionally do not use
communication because as Dawkins pointed out communication is all about
manipulation. And it is too early to get involved in a moral discussion.


The expression "our world'' also needs clarifying here. We are of course
excused for thinking that our world refers to the objective and
ontological word out there which we all participate in. Of course, our
world can also mean our experiences and our personal development in the
world out there. For example, I enjoy conversing with my girlfriend when
we are having afternoon tea on Saturdays. This personal world of
feelings and emotions is no less part of the world, our world, as Marble
Arch is part of London.


However, we usually place limits to what is acceptable as legitimate
information when it comes to our personal experience, or our personal
world. Some of these objections are legitimate while others are not so
legitimate. If I insisted that, "I enjoy conversing with the present
king of France during afternoon tea on Saturday" you would immediate
come two conclusions. The first is that I studied philosophy in Britain
during the early eighties, when it was common to invoke the present king
of France in philosophy of language. And the second conclusion is that,
in the absence of a reasonable explanation, I urgently need psychiatric
help.


But what we are or are not allowed to share with others is usually based
on whim or prejudice or both. For example, why is it alright to say we
speak to God, but not that God speaks to us? At face value, this
sentence need further explanation, despite the fact that a large number
of people who profess to believe in God. So, my conversations with my
girlfriend are in, but not those with the present king of France, and
God is some where in the wings.


Going back to language, the reason why we need to qualify what we mean
by language is because our world is not only defined by natural
languages, but also by other types of languages. An idea which we find
expressed by Wittgenstein amongst many philosophers. By far the most
important of these languages, even more than natural languages, I would
say are mathematics and scientific languages.


We know what mathematics is. A good essay on what is a scientific
language was written by Werner Heisenberg, in his collection of essays
Physics and Philosophy: language and reality in modern physics (Penguin
classics). The issue here is how can we describe natural phenomena using
a natural language when such a language was developed when we were not
aware that these phenomena existed? Heisenberg describes the issue much
clearer than my attempt here. But to give a practical example, our
natural language idea of location is different from that of a quantum
physicist. The quantum physicist needs a scientific language to describe
his or her experience in the same way that the lawyer needs his or her
legal language. Thus, using natural language words to explain scientific
phenomena might lead to misunderstanding or confusion; hence mathematics.


Thus a psychiatrist needs a scientific language to describe that part of
the world concerning human mental functions. For a professional
psychiatrist the word crazy does not have enough meaning to describe his
or her professional world. In fact the word crazy does not really belong
in a psychiatrist's clinic, but maybe at tea party. Which explains why
psychiatrist would only use this word crazy when they are having tea
with the present king of France (OK, I'm joking, and I certainly don't
know what psychiatrists do during tea parties).


The same reasoning, of course , applies to mathematics as a language.
Except that mathematics is not only more versatile but more far
reaching. Something a natural does not have which is why mathematics is
the primary language of science.


Thus, the language that preoccupies the philosopher when discussing
language is not the same language we employ in our every day life
activities. But does this mean that philosophers also need their own
language to describe their world in the same way as scientists and
lawyers do? Indeed philosophers have had their own language ever since
Thales or Parmenides. And in the same way that Heisenberg identifies a
gap between natural language and scientific language, we might also
identify a gap between natural language and a philosophical language.
Indeed it was Wittgenstein who early in his writing identified
metaphysics as leading to complete darkness (Tractatus). However, I
would say that it is the occupation of philosophy to bridge this gap and
to relate the "professional" world with the world of the natural language.


So how does language define our world? The first obvious way is that the
language we employ to describe or inform others about our experiences
might not be adequate for the task. I can no more describe the state of
my brain using day to day English any more than I would be able to
describe the beauty of a painting by Sorolla or Rembrandt using mathematics.


Even if the correct language is used to define our world, we still have
to select the right ''aspect'' or ''style'' for our purposes. For
example, it is not enough to say that mathematics is the primary
language of science; we have to define the mathematics for the task at
hand. A simple example would be using trigonometry or geometry to design
a building and probability statistics to prepare a clinical study. The
same applies for natural languages. Today in business we use the direct
speech for most of our linguistic exchanges with others. It is simpler,
easier, quicker and most of all precise and clear. In other words we
would be communicating (in Dawkin's sense) more effectively by using
this style because people react much better to this style of communication.


Even if we get the first two factors right we still have to determine
whether our version of the language we are using is sufficient for our
purposes. Take a practical example. It is one thing to use a slide rule
to calculate the probable trajectory of an atomic particle in a two slit
experiment, and another to calculate the behaviour of fuel rods in a
nuclear reactor. For latter purpose scientists use such tools as super
computers and Monte Carlo routines. Therefore, how refined and how
advanced our language is will determine how far we can take a definition
of our world.


But these three factors, which I only give as examples from a possible
number of factors, do not include the most powerful factor of all; at
least in my opinion. We are as important for our language as much as our
language is important in defining our world.


How we develop our languages (natural and otherwise), determines how we
define our world. If in our language pork has the semantic meaning of a
religious taboo then our world is going to be defined differently from a
world where pork is defined as a food source and maybe a source for some
pharmaceutical components.


But more seriously, our languages develop as a direct result of our
experiences and knowledge acquisition. In a way, this factor has the
strongest impact on how language defines our world. Imagine two people,
one is fully conversed with the teachings of an extremist demagog and
the other is fully informed on the economic and political cycles of
international commerce. Who is more likely to have a realistic view of
how income distribution that actually takes place in the real world? I
purposely used the words demagog and informed here, but more about this
later.


We mustn't forget that there is a huge gap between what we want and what
we can achieve. What we want tends to be more prone to ending up in a
metaphysical cul de sac. This is not to say that what we want dos not
play a role in how language defines our world.


In effect our knowledge, awareness and enlightenment help us to interact
with our world in a way which would be different if we did not have
these qualities. And just in case we need a practical example here,
knowing about the basic characteristics of epilepsy would define our
world of these unfortunate people differently than if we believed that
these people were possessed by the devil.


The foundations of a language are usually put fair and square on
culture. Language is a public activity. And this is even more so when we
are referring to natural languages. As Wittgenstein pointed out, how can
we begin to understand a private language?


But language, as a natural language, is also inherently linked with
evolution and genetics. Not necessarily in the Chomskian sense of
inherent grammar, but in the Darwinian and Sforza's sense of
evolutionary survival. The latter proposes a direct correlation between
biological and linguistic evolution. Sforza (Genes, Peoples and
Languages; Penguin) accepts that this correlation is not perfect, but
nevertheless significant enough. The main differences between genetics
and language is that genes mutate randomly and only affect the next
generation who inherit the genes. Whereas, language changes are faster,
can affect non related language speakers and can be aimed at changing a
certain aspect of a language (e.g. political correctness). However, all
children are born with the ability to learn a language and, as Sforza
points out there are no relevant genetic difference in learning (or not)
a language. So everyone has an equal chance of learning a primary language.


How does this affect us when considering natural languages in our
debate? First of all, if a natural language does not evolve, in the same
way that genes evolve and have to evolve, it might easily end up in the
equivalent of metaphysical darkness.


In the same way that some genes might dominate, I think that we can
safely conclude that some natural languages also dominate. Thus
surviving dominant genes (in humans) will also take with them genes that
are better disposed for linguistic skills. Which, in my opinion, makes
more sense to inherit genes that help us learn languages rather than
inherit genes with a pre packaged syntactical system. For example, until
the turn of the twentieth century people were happily talking about
luminiferous aether to describe the medium through which light travels,
then Einstein et al came along and people had to start talking in
statistics and probably to understand light; the present perfect, eat
your heart out! Last time this happened was when Descartes introduced
his concept of dualism, and since then we have been speaking of body and
mind. This duality in effect displaced the theory of the soul and what
we have today is just an archaeological relic. I would say that in a few
decades time duality would follow the same trajectory as the soul into
metaphysical oblivion.


Of course, language is not the only factor that can give us an
evolutionary advantage. Being killed by a passing train does not usually
require exceptional language skills. So, in itself, a natural language
does not necessarily give us the edge in how our world is defined. One
can happily survive as an individual and as a gene without having the
need to know more than one's native tongue; billions have done so. The
way I read this is that in an equal survival race, if any anyone should
have the edge it should be the one with the better language skills.


This does not mean that knowing a number of languages will in itself
conclude into survival /for example by getter a better job/. Nor does it
mean that know just about one language will lead to oblivion /for
example not find a job/. What it means is that given a situation where
language is the decisive factor the one with the better language skills
should have, on a balance of probabilities, the advantage. But this does
not mean that all situations depend on languages skills as many a
politician has proved.


As I like to point out to my students of English, if you are an
exceptionally gifted person in your profession the chances are that
irrespective of whether you know English well or not, it won't stop a
company from giving you the job. They will then have to spend some money
on you to bring your English skills to an acceptable level. On the other
hand, given an average, or just above average, situation, not knowing
English will certainly exclude you from any selection process in most
professional job applications these days.


Whilst natural languages can certainly define our world, at least at the
day-to-day level, we have to compare our world with the world of other
people, if we want to compare survival advantage. However, there are two
issues about natural languages that can have a direct effect on the way
we define our world and in effect our survival.


The first is that, natural languages have a direct emotional and moral
effect on us which mathematics and scientific languages do not seem to
have. Take the following two statements, 1) People should do their best
to avoid subjecting others to passive smoking. 2) Smoking must be banned
when there are non-smokers present. Do you remember my use of demagog
and informed earlier on?


Natural languages have the capacity to introduce non linguistic factors
in the way our world is defined. Moral implications and emotional
feelings can even change the meaning, implied or explicit, or any
proposition we might put forward. I purposely used such words as demagog
and banned to make you feel emotional about issues of politics and
smoking respectively. When I used "informed" and "best to avoid" I
wanted you to feel morally neutral. Now consider E=MC^2, 2(pi)r and
2+2=4, no matter how you look at these mathematical structures they
neither imply nor import emotion or moral feelings. What you see is what
you get.


This is not to say that emotional and moral feelings do not have a place
in our life, but that these can easily interfere with our world in a
negative way or at the very least in an unintended: foe example, using
pig for pharmaceutical components, believing people are possessed by the
devil, or imaging that our five euros contribution to a charity will
solve world poverty.


The second problem about natural languages is that of translation. When
two speakers of different natural languages meet they have very few
options if they want to share information: use hand jesters, use a
common third language or translate /interpret/ what they have to say.
Apart from being time consuming and costly, translations are no where
close to conveying the full semantic and pragmatic meaning of a text in
a natural language. Of course, I am not talking about expressions such
as where is the bathroom? or Does your tailor charge a lot of money? I
am thinking more on the lines of political, legal or philosophical texts
(or conversations).


Some try to solve this problem by advocating learning a second or third
or fourth language. Sure this might get us a good bargain at the
tailor's, but from the evidence of the UN and EU it does not necessarily
lead to political consensus and harmony. But in most cases we have no
choice so we learn not only to take it or leave, but we also learn to
accept second best. People who speak (quite well) a common language are
more likely, on the balance of probability of understanding each other's
intentions, than two people who don't.


Compare the situation with that of the scientific community. At the very
least, most scientists would today be very familiar with the mathematics
of their science. And those scientist who try to play a part at the
development and discovery end of their science would certainly be
familiar with their scientific language. And although a scientific
language might today be based on English (other eras would easily
involve other languages), most of these scientists would today be able
to read and understand a scientific text written in English. If they
didn't they would just be glorified bureaucrats. Writing and speaking
are a different matter, and are not key features compared to reading.


Thus scientific language and practitioners, unlike natural language and
speakers, revert to a higher order language to exchange information.
Maybe even a higher order level in the Gödel sense of higher order level
axiomatic system.


Furthermore, when scientists want to inform their colleagues about their
world they already have a common language (mathematics) which would
require little or no adaptation to get things going. It is also that
much easier then to adapt any scientific language based on a natural
language. The concepts and their meaning would have already been in
place and established.


Natural languages do not have all their concepts in place and
established. And they certainly do not have all concepts in common. On a
good day, such discrepancies would be solved by borrowing or adapting
concepts from other natural languages. On a bad day concepts would be
foregone or fudged.


Indeed, language does define our world. However, if we want to take the
discussion to the next level we need to ask ourselves what kind of
definition is our language giving us? And further more, is our language
leading us to metaphysical darkness?


Take care


Lawrence

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Toledo Saturday,
Peter's birthday party Thursday and How does language define our world?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How does language define our world? + News items

Essay + two news items


Dear friends,


This Saturday we are visiting the exhibition "Warhol sobre Warhol" at
the Casa Encendida, Ronda Valencia, 2, which is half way between Atocha
and Embajadores. We'll meet out side the Casa around five, or inside if
you arrive later.


On Sunday we will be discussing the topic: How does language define our
world? It has been some time since we discussed a topic in the
philosophy of language, I am therefore looking forward to this meeting.
I hope you will have the time to read my essay for the meeting, which
you will find at the end of this email.


The third news item is that on the 26th January, a Saturday, we are
going on a day trip, (bring your own picnic) to Toledo before the
weather changes into crazy hot temperatures and would put Toledo out of
bounds. I propose catching the 10.30am bus from Mendez Alvaro. This
service should take one hour, we then have a wait at the station in
Toledo for the bus to get to the city centre. The information I have
from the Alsa web site is that the return fare costs 7.90 euros. The
last bus from Toledo leaves at 22.30pm. We'll confirm every thing this
Friday.


Take care

Lawrence


IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW


++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


How does language define our world?


We mustn't make the mistake, which is quite reasonable to do, that when
philosophers talk about language we are only talking about natural
languages. Our project is not exclusively about French, German, English,
Spanish or Cantonese. Although I propose to look into these natural
languages later on.


We have to think of language as a means for conveying information we are
in possession of to other people. There are many definitions of language
so I am intentionally keeping away from them in order not to get stuck
in a metaphysical quagmire. However, I also intentionally do not use
communication because as Dawkins pointed out communication is all about
manipulation. And it is too early to get involved in a moral discussion.


The expression "our world'' also needs clarifying here. We are of course
excused for thinking that our world refers to the objective and
ontological word out there which we all participate in. Of course, our
world can also mean our experiences and our personal development in the
world out there. For example, I enjoy conversing with my girlfriend when
we are having afternoon tea on Saturdays. This personal world of
feelings and emotions is no less part of the world, our world, as Marble
Arch is part of London.


However, we usually place limits to what is acceptable as legitimate
information when it comes to our personal experience, or our personal
world. Some of these objections are legitimate while others are not so
legitimate. If I insisted that, "I enjoy conversing with the present
king of France during afternoon tea on Saturday" you would immediate
come two conclusions. The first is that I studied philosophy in Britain
during the early eighties, when it was common to invoke the present king
of France in philosophy of language. And the second conclusion is that,
in the absence of a reasonable explanation, I urgently need psychiatric
help.


But what we are or are not allowed to share with others is usually based
on whim or prejudice or both. For example, why is it alright to say we
speak to God, but not that God speaks to us? At face value, this
sentence need further explanation, despite the fact that a large number
of people who profess to believe in God. So, my conversations with my
girlfriend are in, but not those with the present king of France, and
God is some where in the wings.


Going back to language, the reason why we need to qualify what we mean
by language is because our world is not only defined by natural
languages, but also by other types of languages. An idea which we find
expressed by Wittgenstein amongst many philosophers. By far the most
important of these languages, even more than natural languages, I would
say are mathematics and scientific languages.


We know what mathematics is. A good essay on what is a scientific
language was written by Werner Heisenberg, in his collection of essays
Physics and Philosophy: language and reality in modern physics (Penguin
classics). The issue here is how can we describe natural phenomena using
a natural language when such a language was developed when we were not
aware that these phenomena existed? Heisenberg describes the issue much
clearer than my attempt here. But to give a practical example, our
natural language idea of location is different from that of a quantum
physicist. The quantum physicist needs a scientific language to describe
his or her experience in the same way that the lawyer needs his or her
legal language. Thus, using natural language words to explain scientific
phenomena might lead to misunderstanding or confusion; hence mathematics.


Thus a psychiatrist needs a scientific language to describe that part of
the world concerning human mental functions. For a professional
psychiatrist the word crazy does not have enough meaning to describe his
or her professional world. In fact the word crazy does not really belong
in a psychiatrist's clinic, but maybe at tea party. Which explains why
psychiatrist would only use this word crazy when they are having tea
with the present king of France (OK, I'm joking, and I certainly don't
know what psychiatrists do during tea parties).


The same reasoning, of course , applies to mathematics as a language.
Except that mathematics is not only more versatile but more far
reaching. Something a natural does not have which is why mathematics is
the primary language of science.


Thus, the language that preoccupies the philosopher when discussing
language is not the same language we employ in our every day life
activities. But does this mean that philosophers also need their own
language to describe their world in the same way as scientists and
lawyers do? Indeed philosophers have had their own language ever since
Thales or Parmenides. And in the same way that Heisenberg identifies a
gap between natural language and scientific language, we might also
identify a gap between natural language and a philosophical language.
Indeed it was Wittgenstein who early in his writing identified
metaphysics as leading to complete darkness (Tractatus). However, I
would say that it is the occupation of philosophy to bridge this gap and
to relate the "professional" world with the world of the natural language.


So how does language define our world? The first obvious way is that the
language we employ to describe or inform others about our experiences
might not be adequate for the task. I can no more describe the state of
my brain using day to day English any more than I would be able to
describe the beauty of a painting by Sorolla or Rembrandt using mathematics.


Even if the correct language is used to define our world, we still have
to select the right ''aspect'' or ''style'' for our purposes. For
example, it is not enough to say that mathematics is the primary
language of science; we have to define the mathematics for the task at
hand. A simple example would be using trigonometry or geometry to design
a building and probability statistics to prepare a clinical study. The
same applies for natural languages. Today in business we use the direct
speech for most of our linguistic exchanges with others. It is simpler,
easier, quicker and most of all precise and clear. In other words we
would be communicating (in Dawkin's sense) more effectively by using
this style because people react much better to this style of communication.


Even if we get the first two factors right we still have to determine
whether our version of the language we are using is sufficient for our
purposes. Take a practical example. It is one thing to use a slide rule
to calculate the probable trajectory of an atomic particle in a two slit
experiment, and another to calculate the behaviour of fuel rods in a
nuclear reactor. For latter purpose scientists use such tools as super
computers and Monte Carlo routines. Therefore, how refined and how
advanced our language is will determine how far we can take a definition
of our world.


But these three factors, which I only give as examples from a possible
number of factors, do not include the most powerful factor of all; at
least in my opinion. We are as important for our language as much as our
language is important in defining our world.


How we develop our languages (natural and otherwise), determines how we
define our world. If in our language pork has the semantic meaning of a
religious taboo then our world is going to be defined differently from a
world where pork is defined as a food source and maybe a source for some
pharmaceutical components.


But more seriously, our languages develop as a direct result of our
experiences and knowledge acquisition. In a way, this factor has the
strongest impact on how language defines our world. Imagine two people,
one is fully conversed with the teachings of an extremist demagog and
the other is fully informed on the economic and political cycles of
international commerce. Who is more likely to have a realistic view of
how income distribution that actually takes place in the real world? I
purposely used the words demagog and informed here, but more about this
later.


We mustn't forget that there is a huge gap between what we want and what
we can achieve. What we want tends to be more prone to ending up in a
metaphysical cul de sac. This is not to say that what we want dos not
play a role in how language defines our world.


In effect our knowledge, awareness and enlightenment help us to interact
with our world in a way which would be different if we did not have
these qualities. And just in case we need a practical example here,
knowing about the basic characteristics of epilepsy would define our
world of these unfortunate people differently than if we believed that
these people were possessed by the devil.


The foundations of a language are usually put fair and square on
culture. Language is a public activity. And this is even more so when we
are referring to natural languages. As Wittgenstein pointed out, how can
we begin to understand a private language?


But language, as a natural language, is also inherently linked with
evolution and genetics. Not necessarily in the Chomskian sense of
inherent grammar, but in the Darwinian and Sforza's sense of
evolutionary survival. The latter proposes a direct correlation between
biological and linguistic evolution. Sforza (Genes, Peoples and
Languages; Penguin) accepts that this correlation is not perfect, but
nevertheless significant enough. The main differences between genetics
and language is that genes mutate randomly and only affect the next
generation who inherit the genes. Whereas, language changes are faster,
can affect non related language speakers and can be aimed at changing a
certain aspect of a language (e.g. political correctness). However, all
children are born with the ability to learn a language and, as Sforza
points out there are no relevant genetic difference in learning (or not)
a language. So everyone has an equal chance of learning a primary language.


How does this affect us when considering natural languages in our
debate? First of all, if a natural language does not evolve, in the same
way that genes evolve and have to evolve, it might easily end up in the
equivalent of metaphysical darkness.


In the same way that some genes might dominate, I think that we can
safely conclude that some natural languages also dominate. Thus
surviving dominant genes (in humans) will also take with them genes that
are better disposed for linguistic skills. Which, in my opinion, makes
more sense to inherit genes that help us learn languages rather than
inherit genes with a pre packaged syntactical system. For example, until
the turn of the twentieth century people were happily talking about
luminiferous aether to describe the medium through which light travels,
then Einstein et al came along and people had to start talking in
statistics and probably to understand light; the present perfect, eat
your heart out! Last time this happened was when Descartes introduced
his concept of dualism, and since then we have been speaking of body and
mind. This duality in effect displaced the theory of the soul and what
we have today is just an archaeological relic. I would say that in a few
decades time duality would follow the same trajectory as the soul into
metaphysical oblivion.


Of course, language is not the only factor that can give us an
evolutionary advantage. Being killed by a passing train does not usually
require exceptional language skills. So, in itself, a natural language
does not necessarily give us the edge in how our world is defined. One
can happily survive as an individual and as a gene without having the
need to know more than one's native tongue; billions have done so. The
way I read this is that in an equal survival race, if any anyone should
have the edge it should be the one with the better language skills.


This does not mean that knowing a number of languages will in itself
conclude into survival /for example by getter a better job/. Nor does it
mean that know just about one language will lead to oblivion /for
example not find a job/. What it means is that given a situation where
language is the decisive factor the one with the better language skills
should have, on a balance of probabilities, the advantage. But this does
not mean that all situations depend on languages skills as many a
politician has proved.


As I like to point out to my students of English, if you are an
exceptionally gifted person in your profession the chances are that
irrespective of whether you know English well or not, it won't stop a
company from giving you the job. They will then have to spend some money
on you to bring your English skills to an acceptable level. On the other
hand, given an average, or just above average, situation, not knowing
English will certainly exclude you from any selection process in most
professional job applications these days.


Whilst natural languages can certainly define our world, at least at the
day-to-day level, we have to compare our world with the world of other
people, if we want to compare survival advantage. However, there are two
issues about natural languages that can have a direct effect on the way
we define our world and in effect our survival.


The first is that, natural languages have a direct emotional and moral
effect on us which mathematics and scientific languages do not seem to
have. Take the following two statements, 1) People should do their best
to avoid subjecting others to passive smoking. 2) Smoking must be banned
when there are non-smokers present. Do you remember my use of demagog
and informed earlier on?


Natural languages have the capacity to introduce non linguistic factors
in the way our world is defined. Moral implications and emotional
feelings can even change the meaning, implied or explicit, or any
proposition we might put forward. I purposely used such words as demagog
and banned to make you feel emotional about issues of politics and
smoking respectively. When I used "informed" and "best to avoid" I
wanted you to feel morally neutral. Now consider E=MC^2, 2(pi)r and
2+2=4, no matter how you look at these mathematical structures they
neither imply nor import emotion or moral feelings. What you see is what
you get.


This is not to say that emotional and moral feelings do not have a place
in our life, but that these can easily interfere with our world in a
negative way or at the very least in an unintended: foe example, using
pig for pharmaceutical components, believing people are possessed by the
devil, or imaging that our five euros contribution to a charity will
solve world poverty.


The second problem about natural languages is that of translation. When
two speakers of different natural languages meet they have very few
options if they want to share information: use hand jesters, use a
common third language or translate /interpret/ what they have to say.
Apart from being time consuming and costly, translations are no where
close to conveying the full semantic and pragmatic meaning of a text in
a natural language. Of course, I am not talking about expressions such
as where is the bathroom? or Does your tailor charge a lot of money? I
am thinking more on the lines of political, legal or philosophical texts
(or conversations).


Some try to solve this problem by advocating learning a second or third
or fourth language. Sure this might get us a good bargain at the
tailor's, but from the evidence of the UN and EU it does not necessarily
lead to political consensus and harmony. But in most cases we have no
choice so we learn not only to take it or leave, but we also learn to
accept second best. People who speak (quite well) a common language are
more likely, on the balance of probability of understanding each other's
intentions, than two people who don't.


Compare the situation with that of the scientific community. At the very
least, most scientists would today be very familiar with the mathematics
of their science. And those scientist who try to play a part at the
development and discovery end of their science would certainly be
familiar with their scientific language. And although a scientific
language might today be based on English (other eras would easily
involve other languages), most of these scientists would today be able
to read and understand a scientific text written in English. If they
didn't they would just be glorified bureaucrats. Writing and speaking
are a different matter, and are not key features compared to reading.


Thus scientific language and practitioners, unlike natural language and
speakers, revert to a higher order language to exchange information.
Maybe even a higher order level in the Gödel sense of higher order level
axiomatic system.


Furthermore, when scientists want to inform their colleagues about their
world they already have a common language (mathematics) which would
require little or no adaptation to get things going. It is also that
much easier then to adapt any scientific language based on a natural
language. The concepts and their meaning would have already been in
place and established.


Natural languages do not have all their concepts in place and
established. And they certainly do not have all concepts in common. On a
good day, such discrepancies would be solved by borrowing or adapting
concepts from other natural languages. On a bad day concepts would be
foregone or fudged.


Indeed, language does define our world. However, if we want to take the
discussion to the next level we need to ask ourselves what kind of
definition is our language giving us? And further more, is our language
leading us to metaphysical darkness?


Take care


Lawrence

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How does language
define our world? + News items

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How does language define our world? + News items

Essay + two news items


Dear friends,


This Saturday we are visiting the exhibition "Warhol sobre Warhol" at
the Casa Encendida, Ronda Valencia, 2, which is half way between Atocha
and Embajadores. We'll meet out side the Casa around five, or inside if
you arrive later.


On Sunday we will be discussing the topic: How does language define our
world? It has been some time since we discussed a topic in the
philosophy of language, I am therefore looking forward to this meeting.
I hope you will have the time to read my essay for the meeting, which
you will find at the end of this email.


The third news item is that on the 26th January, a Saturday, we are
going on a day trip, (bring your own picnic) to Toledo before the
weather changes into crazy hot temperatures and would put Toledo out of
bounds. I propose catching the 10.30am bus from Mendez Alvaro. This
service should take one hour, we then have a wait at the station in
Toledo for the bus to get to the city centre. The information I have
from the Alsa web site is that the return fare costs 7.90 euros. The
last bus from Toledo leaves at 22.30pm. We'll confirm every thing this
Friday.


Take care

Lawrence


IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW


++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


How does language define our world?


We mustn't make the mistake, which is quite reasonable to do, that when
philosophers talk about language we are only talking about natural
languages. Our project is not exclusively about French, German, English,
Spanish or Cantonese. Although I propose to look into these natural
languages later on.


We have to think of language as a means for conveying information we are
in possession of to other people. There are many definitions of language
so I am intentionally keeping away from them in order not to get stuck
in a metaphysical quagmire. However, I also intentionally do not use
communication because as Dawkins pointed out communication is all about
manipulation. And it is too early to get involved in a moral discussion.


The expression "our world'' also needs clarifying here. We are of course
excused for thinking that our world refers to the objective and
ontological word out there which we all participate in. Of course, our
world can also mean our experiences and our personal development in the
world out there. For example, I enjoy conversing with my girlfriend when
we are having afternoon tea on Saturdays. This personal world of
feelings and emotions is no less part of the world, our world, as Marble
Arch is part of London.


However, we usually place limits to what is acceptable as legitimate
information when it comes to our personal experience, or our personal
world. Some of these objections are legitimate while others are not so
legitimate. If I insisted that, "I enjoy conversing with the present
king of France during afternoon tea on Saturday" you would immediate
come two conclusions. The first is that I studied philosophy in Britain
during the early eighties, when it was common to invoke the present king
of France in philosophy of language. And the second conclusion is that,
in the absence of a reasonable explanation, I urgently need psychiatric
help.


But what we are or are not allowed to share with others is usually based
on whim or prejudice or both. For example, why is it alright to say we
speak to God, but not that God speaks to us? At face value, this
sentence need further explanation, despite the fact that a large number
of people who profess to believe in God. So, my conversations with my
girlfriend are in, but not those with the present king of France, and
God is some where in the wings.


Going back to language, the reason why we need to qualify what we mean
by language is because our world is not only defined by natural
languages, but also by other types of languages. An idea which we find
expressed by Wittgenstein amongst many philosophers. By far the most
important of these languages, even more than natural languages, I would
say are mathematics and scientific languages.


We know what mathematics is. A good essay on what is a scientific
language was written by Werner Heisenberg, in his collection of essays
Physics and Philosophy: language and reality in modern physics (Penguin
classics). The issue here is how can we describe natural phenomena using
a natural language when such a language was developed when we were not
aware that these phenomena existed? Heisenberg describes the issue much
clearer than my attempt here. But to give a practical example, our
natural language idea of location is different from that of a quantum
physicist. The quantum physicist needs a scientific language to describe
his or her experience in the same way that the lawyer needs his or her
legal language. Thus, using natural language words to explain scientific
phenomena might lead to misunderstanding or confusion; hence mathematics.


Thus a psychiatrist needs a scientific language to describe that part of
the world concerning human mental functions. For a professional
psychiatrist the word crazy does not have enough meaning to describe his
or her professional world. In fact the word crazy does not really belong
in a psychiatrist's clinic, but maybe at tea party. Which explains why
psychiatrist would only use this word crazy when they are having tea
with the present king of France (OK, I'm joking, and I certainly don't
know what psychiatrists do during tea parties).


The same reasoning, of course , applies to mathematics as a language.
Except that mathematics is not only more versatile but more far
reaching. Something a natural does not have which is why mathematics is
the primary language of science.


Thus, the language that preoccupies the philosopher when discussing
language is not the same language we employ in our every day life
activities. But does this mean that philosophers also need their own
language to describe their world in the same way as scientists and
lawyers do? Indeed philosophers have had their own language ever since
Thales or Parmenides. And in the same way that Heisenberg identifies a
gap between natural language and scientific language, we might also
identify a gap between natural language and a philosophical language.
Indeed it was Wittgenstein who early in his writing identified
metaphysics as leading to complete darkness (Tractatus). However, I
would say that it is the occupation of philosophy to bridge this gap and
to relate the "professional" world with the world of the natural language.


So how does language define our world? The first obvious way is that the
language we employ to describe or inform others about our experiences
might not be adequate for the task. I can no more describe the state of
my brain using day to day English any more than I would be able to
describe the beauty of a painting by Sorolla or Rembrandt using mathematics.


Even if the correct language is used to define our world, we still have
to select the right ''aspect'' or ''style'' for our purposes. For
example, it is not enough to say that mathematics is the primary
language of science; we have to define the mathematics for the task at
hand. A simple example would be using trigonometry or geometry to design
a building and probability statistics to prepare a clinical study. The
same applies for natural languages. Today in business we use the direct
speech for most of our linguistic exchanges with others. It is simpler,
easier, quicker and most of all precise and clear. In other words we
would be communicating (in Dawkin's sense) more effectively by using
this style because people react much better to this style of communication.


Even if we get the first two factors right we still have to determine
whether our version of the language we are using is sufficient for our
purposes. Take a practical example. It is one thing to use a slide rule
to calculate the probable trajectory of an atomic particle in a two slit
experiment, and another to calculate the behaviour of fuel rods in a
nuclear reactor. For latter purpose scientists use such tools as super
computers and Monte Carlo routines. Therefore, how refined and how
advanced our language is will determine how far we can take a definition
of our world.


But these three factors, which I only give as examples from a possible
number of factors, do not include the most powerful factor of all; at
least in my opinion. We are as important for our language as much as our
language is important in defining our world.


How we develop our languages (natural and otherwise), determines how we
define our world. If in our language pork has the semantic meaning of a
religious taboo then our world is going to be defined differently from a
world where pork is defined as a food source and maybe a source for some
pharmaceutical components.


But more seriously, our languages develop as a direct result of our
experiences and knowledge acquisition. In a way, this factor has the
strongest impact on how language defines our world. Imagine two people,
one is fully conversed with the teachings of an extremist demagog and
the other is fully informed on the economic and political cycles of
international commerce. Who is more likely to have a realistic view of
how income distribution that actually takes place in the real world? I
purposely used the words demagog and informed here, but more about this
later.


We mustn't forget that there is a huge gap between what we want and what
we can achieve. What we want tends to be more prone to ending up in a
metaphysical cul de sac. This is not to say that what we want dos not
play a role in how language defines our world.


In effect our knowledge, awareness and enlightenment help us to interact
with our world in a way which would be different if we did not have
these qualities. And just in case we need a practical example here,
knowing about the basic characteristics of epilepsy would define our
world of these unfortunate people differently than if we believed that
these people were possessed by the devil.


The foundations of a language are usually put fair and square on
culture. Language is a public activity. And this is even more so when we
are referring to natural languages. As Wittgenstein pointed out, how can
we begin to understand a private language?


But language, as a natural language, is also inherently linked with
evolution and genetics. Not necessarily in the Chomskian sense of
inherent grammar, but in the Darwinian and Sforza's sense of
evolutionary survival. The latter proposes a direct correlation between
biological and linguistic evolution. Sforza (Genes, Peoples and
Languages; Penguin) accepts that this correlation is not perfect, but
nevertheless significant enough. The main differences between genetics
and language is that genes mutate randomly and only affect the next
generation who inherit the genes. Whereas, language changes are faster,
can affect non related language speakers and can be aimed at changing a
certain aspect of a language (e.g. political correctness). However, all
children are born with the ability to learn a language and, as Sforza
points out there are no relevant genetic difference in learning (or not)
a language. So everyone has an equal chance of learning a primary language.


How does this affect us when considering natural languages in our
debate? First of all, if a natural language does not evolve, in the same
way that genes evolve and have to evolve, it might easily end up in the
equivalent of metaphysical darkness.


In the same way that some genes might dominate, I think that we can
safely conclude that some natural languages also dominate. Thus
surviving dominant genes (in humans) will also take with them genes that
are better disposed for linguistic skills. Which, in my opinion, makes
more sense to inherit genes that help us learn languages rather than
inherit genes with a pre packaged syntactical system. For example, until
the turn of the twentieth century people were happily talking about
luminiferous aether to describe the medium through which light travels,
then Einstein et al came along and people had to start talking in
statistics and probably to understand light; the present perfect, eat
your heart out! Last time this happened was when Descartes introduced
his concept of dualism, and since then we have been speaking of body and
mind. This duality in effect displaced the theory of the soul and what
we have today is just an archaeological relic. I would say that in a few
decades time duality would follow the same trajectory as the soul into
metaphysical oblivion.


Of course, language is not the only factor that can give us an
evolutionary advantage. Being killed by a passing train does not usually
require exceptional language skills. So, in itself, a natural language
does not necessarily give us the edge in how our world is defined. One
can happily survive as an individual and as a gene without having the
need to know more than one's native tongue; billions have done so. The
way I read this is that in an equal survival race, if any anyone should
have the edge it should be the one with the better language skills.


This does not mean that knowing a number of languages will in itself
conclude into survival /for example by getter a better job/. Nor does it
mean that know just about one language will lead to oblivion /for
example not find a job/. What it means is that given a situation where
language is the decisive factor the one with the better language skills
should have, on a balance of probabilities, the advantage. But this does
not mean that all situations depend on languages skills as many a
politician has proved.


As I like to point out to my students of English, if you are an
exceptionally gifted person in your profession the chances are that
irrespective of whether you know English well or not, it won't stop a
company from giving you the job. They will then have to spend some money
on you to bring your English skills to an acceptable level. On the other
hand, given an average, or just above average, situation, not knowing
English will certainly exclude you from any selection process in most
professional job applications these days.


Whilst natural languages can certainly define our world, at least at the
day-to-day level, we have to compare our world with the world of other
people, if we want to compare survival advantage. However, there are two
issues about natural languages that can have a direct effect on the way
we define our world and in effect our survival.


The first is that, natural languages have a direct emotional and moral
effect on us which mathematics and scientific languages do not seem to
have. Take the following two statements, 1) People should do their best
to avoid subjecting others to passive smoking. 2) Smoking must be banned
when there are non-smokers present. Do you remember my use of demagog
and informed earlier on?


Natural languages have the capacity to introduce non linguistic factors
in the way our world is defined. Moral implications and emotional
feelings can even change the meaning, implied or explicit, or any
proposition we might put forward. I purposely used such words as demagog
and banned to make you feel emotional about issues of politics and
smoking respectively. When I used "informed" and "best to avoid" I
wanted you to feel morally neutral. Now consider E=MC^2, 2(pi)r and
2+2=4, no matter how you look at these mathematical structures they
neither imply nor import emotion or moral feelings. What you see is what
you get.


This is not to say that emotional and moral feelings do not have a place
in our life, but that these can easily interfere with our world in a
negative way or at the very least in an unintended: foe example, using
pig for pharmaceutical components, believing people are possessed by the
devil, or imaging that our five euros contribution to a charity will
solve world poverty.


The second problem about natural languages is that of translation. When
two speakers of different natural languages meet they have very few
options if they want to share information: use hand jesters, use a
common third language or translate /interpret/ what they have to say.
Apart from being time consuming and costly, translations are no where
close to conveying the full semantic and pragmatic meaning of a text in
a natural language. Of course, I am not talking about expressions such
as where is the bathroom? or Does your tailor charge a lot of money? I
am thinking more on the lines of political, legal or philosophical texts
(or conversations).


Some try to solve this problem by advocating learning a second or third
or fourth language. Sure this might get us a good bargain at the
tailor's, but from the evidence of the UN and EU it does not necessarily
lead to political consensus and harmony. But in most cases we have no
choice so we learn not only to take it or leave, but we also learn to
accept second best. People who speak (quite well) a common language are
more likely, on the balance of probability of understanding each other's
intentions, than two people who don't.


Compare the situation with that of the scientific community. At the very
least, most scientists would today be very familiar with the mathematics
of their science. And those scientist who try to play a part at the
development and discovery end of their science would certainly be
familiar with their scientific language. And although a scientific
language might today be based on English (other eras would easily
involve other languages), most of these scientists would today be able
to read and understand a scientific text written in English. If they
didn't they would just be glorified bureaucrats. Writing and speaking
are a different matter, and are not key features compared to reading.


Thus scientific language and practitioners, unlike natural language and
speakers, revert to a higher order language to exchange information.
Maybe even a higher order level in the Gödel sense of higher order level
axiomatic system.


Furthermore, when scientists want to inform their colleagues about their
world they already have a common language (mathematics) which would
require little or no adaptation to get things going. It is also that
much easier then to adapt any scientific language based on a natural
language. The concepts and their meaning would have already been in
place and established.


Natural languages do not have all their concepts in place and
established. And they certainly do not have all concepts in common. On a
good day, such discrepancies would be solved by borrowing or adapting
concepts from other natural languages. On a bad day concepts would be
foregone or fudged.


Indeed, language does define our world. However, if we want to take the
discussion to the next level we need to ask ourselves what kind of
definition is our language giving us? And further more, is our language
leading us to metaphysical darkness?


Take care


Lawrence

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: How does language
define our world? + News items

Friday, January 11, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Personal Development + Exhibition Saturday (2 news items)

Two news items Exhibition + Oscar


Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing Personal Development. Quite a challenging
topic. Between my work schedule and the nature of the topic I took the
easy way out and did not write an essay. In any case I'm hardly the
right person to write about such things.

In the meantime here are two news items which might interest you:

SATURDAY - PHOTO EXHIBITION AT Canal Isabel II <metro Rios Rosas or Canal>
This is an exhibition of the photography of the famous photo journalist
Don McCullin. He is associated with such places as Vietnam, Yom Kippur,
Nigeria and many other locations. We've all seen his photos.

We are meeting on Saturday (12 January) more or less at 5pm outside the
main entrance of CIii. Just in case you arrive early there should be a
bar open somewhere near the gates.


JOSEOSCAR - VILLAGE HOUSE IN SANTANDER CANTABRIA 8-14 January
This is a bit late, sorry. Oscar has offered accommodation (a bed) to
anyone who wants to spend a few days in San Vicente de Toranzo whilst he
is there until the 14 January. Unfortunately, he cannot be with during
this time, he is there on personal business, but he'll do his best to
make you welcome. The village is about 40km from Santander; you can
check it out on Google Earth just paste the name of the village. I can
assure you it a very nice area; we were in the area this Christmas it is
just a few kilometres away from such incredible places as Suances and
Santillana del Mar; 26km as the crow flies to Suances.

Oscar tells me that there is a bus that leaves from Avda America
(Continetal Auto) which takes about 5hours. The bus stop is about 2km
from the village, but he also told me that he would be able to pick you
up. If you are interested the best thing to do is to give him a call on
651099874.


Take care

Lawrence

IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW

++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Personal
Development + Exhibition Saturday (2 news items)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Differences in cultural mentalities

Dear friends,


This Sunday will be the first meeting for the new year. Expressions like
these, of course, are the result of tradition and, most of all, culture.
It is therefore apt that we should be discussing "differences in
cultural mentalities." I have managed to write a short essay for this
meeting which you find at the end of this email.


I hope you will find the time to come next Sunday. And during the coming
few Sundays there are outings to plan and Christmas lunch to organise,
of course everything in good time.


Take care


Lawrence

IF YOU DON'T GET AN EMAIL BY FRIDAY PLEASE LET ME KNOW


++TINA HAS A FLAT IN USERA SHE WOULD LIKE TO RENT:
The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
matutina.gonzalez@fnmt.es


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAY_FLAT_mayte_AlmerAVillaDeNJar

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo/HOLIDAYFLAT_Paloma_MarbellaNearElviria
*************************************

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
-Group photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
-My tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Differences in cultural mentalities


Differences in cultural mentalities implies comparing cultures and
assessing beliefs and mental dispositions. But can we really compare
cultures? And what are cultural mentalities?


We can assume that at face value cultures are different. And although we
are individuals we can accept that when we tend to have the same
publicly expressed thoughts we can speak of a collective cultural
mentality; or mind set to use a different term. However, beyond the
differences of cultures and common mentality, we find the common scope
of survival in all the senses of the word: genetic, social, physical,
psychological and all the other ways we have to survive, including I
must add, ethical survival. It is evident that culture and ethical
systems are closely linked maybe through religion, legal system or
traditions.


We can also assume that cultures are influenced by geographical
circumstance followed by other cultures. Geographical circumstance gives
rise to some specific characteristics of a culture (e.g. food, dialect,
costumes..) which in turn give rises to the differences we are
interested. Island communities, in a tropical latitude, might develop
differently than say mountain communities in northern latitudes. This,
of course, despite the similarity that both communities have that they
are isolated to a certain extent.


One very important element for mentality and culture which should be
mentioned is the family. Families, peers and guardians are probably the
most influential group of people in our formative years. Usually we see
this group as a source of personal education and knowledge transfer
which, in theory, ought to serve us in good stead for the rest of our
life. We do not call the early years of our life as the formative years
for nothing. However, the discussion on this topic usually centres on
the adult "forming" the child.


What the same discussions often fail to mention is that the formative
years are also the same time we learn how to learn; how we process and
make sense of the information, knowledge and communication we come into
contact with. Learning how to learn is as important, in my opinion, as
learning about things. To give a real life and practical example, in
western society we have developed and adopted the scientific method as a
means of learning how to learn about things. Other societies might have
opted for spiritualism or mythology for the same purpose.


Of course, the situation is not that clear cut, since in most cultures
and societies we would find different degrees of methodologies being
employed as a way to learn how to learn about things. We might even
employ different methodologies ourselves from time to time. For example,
scientific values, ethical values aesthetic values and so on.
Furthermore, different groups within the same society might employ
different methods of learning. What is, however, clear, is that the
scientific method does have a good stronghold on all relevant learning
about the world around us. To put this in a context, most people, today,
would probably go to a hospital for serious medical treatment and not a
place of worship. Having said that, given the wide range of nosocomial
infections and the haphazard hygiene standards of some hospitals, a
place of worship might be a good proposition.


If our way of learning is compatible with the way the world around us
generally functions, the more able we are to function ourselves within
that world. Of course, there are many activities that human beings get
involved with, so the issue is not that simple, but it is nevertheless,
relevant.


The relevance of the family on culture and cultural mentalities is an
issue which Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza mentions in his book Genes,
Peoples and Languages (Penguin Books 2001). What I think is relevant
here is the study Sforza refers to by Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd
(1981) who studied the three major types of families in France. Le Bras
identified the following family structures (my summary; pp 184-185): 1)
The family with the head of the household having absolute patriarchal
authority. This type of family is found in the northwest of France and
may have been inherited from the Celts. This might explain why in the
northwest of France monarchies and authoritarian systems are popular. 2)
Another type of family group is a more relaxed form of the patriarchal
system and where the family will provide a home for those members who
need help. This system in found in the southwest area of France. This
area also has a strong socialist support. 3) "The strict nuclear family
frequent in the northeast, in which children can marry and have children
only if they have the ability to live independently." This is also the
area with most influence from the Franks which were barbarians of
Germanic origin. This family structure was also found in Germany and
England after the Anglo-Saxon conquest.


The strict nuclear family that, as Sforza writes, "encourages youth to
relocate in the search for employment probably favored industrial
development." This is a very interesting observation which I am sure you
will agree. And if this is any reflection of reality, it might also
explain some very important cultural differences within Europe.
Differences that might not always have had good consequences. But this
might still be classified as theory.


Let us take a more practical example. Last week, 28th December, the
department of health in the UK issued the news (see e.g. The Guardian on
line, Rickets makes return in ethnic minorities) that rickets, a bone
disease, is becoming increasingly common amongst children from certain
ethnic minority communities. This disease is associated with poverty and
malnutrition, no surprises there, but the disease is caused by vitamin D
deficiency. One cause of this deficiency, apart from not eating the
right food, which can be fixed with modern medicine, is lack of
sunshine. The Guardian reports from the briefing by the department of
health: "Dark-skinned people do not absorb as much sunlight through the
skin and may also wear clothing that limits exposure to the sun for
cultural reasons." Furthermore, in winter, the sunshine north of
Birmingham is not of the right wavelength for the body to make vitamin D.


Surely this might be a good example of differences in cultural
mentalities. Luckily, in this case, the situation can be solved by some
pills, even if communicating this fact might have to breach their own
barriers for this to happen.


Maybe we cannot compare the face value of cultures, and maybe the pomp
and pageant aspect of cultures might even prejudice our beliefs about
cultures. But it certainly seems clear that cultures have a place and
time, and whist places don't change that fast, we do change. Sometimes,
it might even make sense to change.


Take care

Lawrence


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Differences in
cultural mentalities

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