Linking sensory data together, as second-level thinking does, can produce meaningful results precisely because everything in the universe is linked to every other thing through causality. Causality simply means that nothing in the universe happens without some preceding cause. This more-or-less obvious fact (known to René Descartes over three hundred years ago) actually reveals several other important details about the universe.
Causality states that everything that happens has been caused by some previous event or events, and it means that everything that exists today was created from some thing or things that existed in another form at an earlier time. In other words, events and things don’t just appear out of thin air, something causes them to appear.
It is easy to understand that everything is made from smaller pieces, and that these are, in turn, made from even smaller fragments. Also we can readily understand that the properties of any structure depends upon the properties of its components. For example, we don’t build railway bridges out of wood these days; it’s not strong enough. We use steel made mostly from iron, because iron atoms are tightly bound together by an electromagnetic force. (Wood is made from larger, widely spaced, carbon-based molecules that are only weakly held together.) The properties and behaviour of everything can be similarly explained in terms of more fundamental properties, once we know enough. The point is, we wouldn’t discover any such relationship through second-level thinking, nor develop any such explanation with all its useful predictions, if the universe was not causal.
Causality affects everything about us; it allows us to learn and it allows us to make things that work. Consequently (although not consciously) we have built this concept deep into the roots of the languages we use and the thinking we do. However, we don’t usually go around saying that the universe is causal; we just expect it to behave rationally or logically. Rational behaviour has been defined as behaviour that is consistent with, or based upon, reason or logic, and neither is possible without the existence of limitless causal relationships. One single break in this chain of causality would negate every one of the explanations and predictions we so much rely upon in all aspects of life.
The fact that the universe is causal has a number of very interesting linguistic consequences. One is that the very words and languages we use must grow out of, and conform to, the reality that surrounds us. This cannot be otherwise. We might try to invent a language not limited by the nature of the universe, but what could it possibly be? Existing words could not be used, for each one carries some of our understanding about the nature of things. Words would have to be invented, but none of these could refer to anything within the universe, by definition of what we are trying to do. We would end up with gibberish, not a language. It would convey no meaning and bring about no understanding. In fact we could not even invent such a language, because we are unable to think without being affected and constrained by the logic and rationality of the knowledge about the universe that we carry within our brains.
Steven Pinker argues in support of Chomsky's theory that a “Universal Grammar” underlies and constrains all languages. He further claims that the existence of a Universal Grammar is evidence that culture is not just a matter of nature and nurture, as the standard social science model would have us believe. This, he suggests, means that morality cannot be relative to time or situation, but must be universal and becomes built into our minds by our use of a language.
As for morality; we devise our moral statements using words whose definitions vary from one language to another, and that change from time to time and from person to person, as previously noted. Some might conclude from this that no humanly stated moral law or ethical principle can be universal or permanent. By the same token, it has been known since Herodotus (to name just one historical writer) that varied opinions as to right and wrong have existed simultaneously as far back as can be traced. It is difficult to conclude from mere variety of expression that there is no underlying human basis nor that such a basis is impossible.
- This is why we expect our religions and their teachings to be rational and are disappointed when they appear to be irrational. (More about this in later chapters.)
- Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994).