This might be a good time to note that, although we use words as though they mean to others exactly what they mean to us, this is never the case. The precise meaning or nuance of every word differs from one person to another for several reasons.
Minor misunderstanding is vital to language development, for we learn a language by linking mental images of objects and events to words and phrases that we memorize. But the library of mental images we each must have before we can begin to learn a language is built from life experiences, and these are unique to each possessor. Every word a speaker or writer uses is defined for that person by the bank of memories carried within their mind.
Each person hearing or reading these words interprets their meaning using their own memory set. (A couple of crude examples: one person says “tree,” thinking of a small fir tree in a garden; the other person hears “tree,” and thinks of a large maple tree in a forest. Or, one person says “look at that motor,” admiring a vehicle's colour; the other says “yes,” seeing the same vehicle, but thinking of the engine that powers it.)
We can never convey precisely what we have in mind to another person, but as long as we are sane we can get close. Legally, a person whose internal mental model is not reliably realistic of the external real world is said to be insane. Furthermore, each of us defines what we consider to be true by referring to what we know about ourselves and our universe (i.e., by referring to the memories of reality that life has delivered to our minds since infancy) and this is constantly changing, as our knowledge about objects and events keeps changing. Thus, even our personal definition of the “truth” will change as we ourselves age and mature.
The fact that word meanings change over time and become more precise as we understand more, can be readily illustrated by considering the word “atom.” Two thousand years ago there was debate about whether such a thing even existed.
Two hundred years ago a few believed that atoms existed, but no one knew anything about their structure. Twenty five years ago physicists wondered about the possibility of quarks existing within atoms; today we know that quark trios make up the protons and neutrons that are nuclear components of every atom, and that quarks are possibly composed of dimensionally bound energy fields.
Now, not everyone knows such details, but some do, and given enough study, most of us could learn more. So the images that the word “atom” conjures up in the minds rather depends on our level of understanding, and for those with more learning each word or expressed concept is clearly more meaningful, precise, potentially useful and valuable than the mind images of those who do not know very much about such things.
Remove language, and third-level thinking will disappear, mental consciousness will degenerate, and what we have been calling second-level thinking will be all that remains. Uninhibited feelings and emotions may then dominate behaviour as they once must have done in dinosaur days.
- Reality differs from person to person, and greatly depends upon the accuracy of each person’s sensory perceptions. This is unquestionably demonstrated by people suffering from synesthesia (who often see black letters, words, and numerals as coloured differently, or as coloured symbols, or who may experience loud noises as bright lights, and so on). See Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes,” Scientific American, May 2003, 52-59.
- The concept of “truth” is convoluted and personalized precisely because each of us uses our own experiences to interpret what different words mean. And as Ullian (W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief [Random House, 1970]) argued, everything we think we know about the universe is subject to revision. Mathematics comes closest to being the “truth” (as we shall see in Mathematical Problems), and religion frequently claims to be absolute, but both give way in light of new knowledge (mathematics more readily than religion). Try as we may, our mental deliberations and verbal expositions can never represent the whole, real, or perfect truth because we can never know it, and because we can never find words precise enough to think or express it. Furthermore, different people will always interpret their personal experiences of the same event in different ways. The “pure and simple truth” can never be expressed. Quine pointed out that no statement is necessarily true except those we ourselves decide to be true. In fact, extending the discussions presented in earlier sections of this chapter, since the words we use must necessarily be selected from our own mental dictionary of meanings, each one of us defines our own truth. This truth can never be conveyed to another. The best anyone else can do is to try to assimilate the general idea, then, using their own frame of reference, guess at what is meant.
It is interesting to note that a “Theory Of Everything” (see Gödel’s Theorem, General Systems Theory, and The Conservation Laws), if ever formulated, is expected to be only expressible mathematically. It would be impossible to sufficiently define words to represent all that this theory would be capable of telling us. A Theory of Everything would devolve to other less-comprehensive theories (e.g., quantum mechanics or a theory of gravity), which could be more or less understood through defining words, but the Theory of Everything itself could not be linguistically defined.
- For a discussion of consciousness see the postscript to this chapter, Consciousness And Conscience.