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What are words?

Materialism 101, Part 5


What are words?

Matthew Connally is a recent graduate of our World Journalism Institute mid-career course, but I first met him in 1992 when he was editor in chief of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at The University of Texas at Austin. From there he moved on to earn a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and become a pastor in Princeton, N.J., and a campus chaplain at Princeton University. From 2012 to 2016 he was a teacher and principal in Nanjing, China, and since 2017 has been a pastor at a Houston-area Chinese church.

So let’s review: a Christian on a highly secularized campus newspaper, an evangelical at theologically liberal Princeton and in neo-Maoist China, and (as this essay shows) a critic of Darwinism. Matt is used to being in a minority, and by taking on Darwinism he’s cementing his position as a smart person who doesn’t believe what the smart set still believes—even though discoveries in recent decades about the complexity of cells, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the information coding in and around us have kicked the legs off materialism’s dining room tables.

This is the fifth in an occasional series of essays for our Saturday Series. In the last installment, he talked about baseball, quantum mechanics, and free will. In this one, he explains how the existence of words themselves challenges materialism. —Marvin Olasky

If we did not have words then we would not have agreements, treaties, constitutions, or any governments at all. Nor would we have any science or technology. We wouldn’t have sports or recipes or movies or magazines. We use words all the time, whether to work or to rest or to create or to destroy. We fill libraries with books and compel students to study them. And today, more than ever, politicians fight over which words our students read—especially when it comes to explanations about the origins of life and intelligence and, for that matter, the nature of cognition itself.

But what happens when we ask the question, “What are words?”

Suddenly we realize that there is a dinosaur in the school library—a really big dinosaur. It’s a spectacular mystery that the modern scientific establishment does not want to talk about: Even if we know what words mean, it is impossible to explain what they are.

“They’re completely unknown in animal systems,” says linguist Noam Chomsky, Institute Emeritus Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We have no idea how they evolved, when they evolved, where they came from.” He says we don’t really even know how they work. “We have very little understanding of how each person has [words] innately as part of their fundamental nature.”i

Can you think without thinking?

But there is that invaluable Darwinian safety net again: the word innate. As with so many other issues related to intelligence, they absolutely insist that we take our linguistic ability for granted as instinctive, intrinsic, and innate. After all, words flow through your mind as easily as a love song. Therefore, as a list of some of the more robust books on the issue conclude, we don’t really need an explanation:

  • The Language Instinct by cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker
  • The Math Instinct by mathematician Keith Devlin
  • The Number Sense by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene
  • The Human Instinct by biologist Kenneth Miller
  • The Consciousness Instinct by cognitive psychologist Michael Gazzaniga

They have all concluded that our ability to think and communicate in words simply happens. By comparison, remember how MIT physicist Sean Carroll concluded that we must take consciousness for granted as intrinsic because “some things just come into being”?ii

So also here, when children learn the meaning of a sentence like “No ice cream until you eat your squash,” they’re just following instincts. As Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker put it:

Some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.” It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.iii

The research Pinker uses to back up this conclusion is fascinating. Our ability to do language comes as effortlessly as our ability to pull our hand away from fire or to drink water when we are thirsty. “The crux of the argument is that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation—not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it.”iv

Nevertheless, as exhilarating as the science behind this conclusion is, the establishment’s explanation does not actually make any sense.

After all, instincts are things we do automatically, without thinking, because they are programmed into our bodies. You pull your hand away from a fire for the same reason that bacteria construct proteins, for the same reason that antilock brakes engage when you slam them: That’s what you are programmed to do. By contrast, we cannot communicate without thinking any more than we can think without thinking.

For example, you cannot comprehend this sentence if you’re on autopilot. (And if you are on autopilot, that means you’re most assuredly thinking about something else!) Nor can you comprehend the meaning of a sentence like “What’s the square root of 9 million?” without concentrating your mind just a bit. Smartphones and supercomputers can simulate such calculations instantaneously. But they cannot comprehend what such an equation means (whether it’s on paper or on the computer’s hard drive) any more than a communication satellite can comprehend English, my colon can comprehend organic chemistry, or a trigonometry textbook comprehends trigonometry.

Why do we comprehend such things? How do we perceive the meaning behind the medium? Before we pursue that question, we should clarify that—as the parallel titles of the above books imply—language and math are one-and-the-same.

Language equals math

If we could not do one then we could not do the other, for numbers are nothing but words and equations are nothing more than sentences whose main verb is equal. Although we don’t usually use language with the same precision that we use math (Supreme Court cases notwithstanding) and don’t usually use math as artistically as we use language (smartphones notwithstanding), they nevertheless are simply different modes of rational thought. Just as we can use electricity either to play a cartoon or to power a bullet train, so also we can use words either to write those cartoons or to calculate the amount of kilowatt energy needed for those bullet trains. In both cases—whether being creative with English (or Chinese, etc.) or being creative with calculus—we are using words.

Consider, for example, how grammar is so mathematical that laptop computers today have excellent editing and translating programs. That’s because we are actually doing simple forms of math when we discriminate between singular and plural, between left and right (as if translating a graph), amongst comparatives and superlatives (for example: “terrible, tolerable, OK, good, very good, excellent” could be roughly translated as, “On a scale of 1 to 7”), amongst, past, present, future, future perfect, pluperfect, etc. (simple translations of a timeline).

Going the other direction, math is made of up nouns (numbers, shapes, angles, integrals, etc.), verbs (equal, multiply, add, subtract, divide, differentiate, etc.), adjectives (negative, greater than, raised, etc.), adverbs (when, where, etc.), conjunctions (“as x approaches infinity…”), pronouns (variables), prepositions (plus, minus, etc.), etc. Mathematics is the study of patterns (patterns in meaning, patterns in shapes, patterns in change, etc.) and language is the use of phonetic and/or symbolic patterns.

This isn’t philosophy; it’s just semantics.

This isn’t philosophy; it’s just semantics. That brings us back to the question: Why can you comprehend the meaning conveyed by these black symbols you’re staring at? Why can you comprehend the meaning of the sentence “2 plus 2 equals 4”? Or the recipe for glucose: “Six molecules of oxygen plus six molecules of water plus sunlight yields one molecule of glucose and six molecules of oxygen?” (6CO2+6H20àC6H12O6+6O2) Consider not taking this ability for granted and not just assuming that your brain does it instinctively. Remember that Chomsky said we have no idea where words came from. What are they?

  • Linguists will call words “syntactic objects” or “units of language.”
  • Philosophers will call them “Platonic forms” or “items in a superseded ontology.”
  • Neuroscientists will call them “qualia” or “intrinsic entities.”
  • Physicists will call them “emergent properties” or “a fifth phase of matter”—i.e. solid, liquid, gas, plasma, information.
  • Biologists will call them “evolved memes.”

They will expound and extrapolate and pontificate on these concepts in a feverishly pathological drive to explain the mystery away. But at the end of the day, all this enlightenment proves to be about as helpful as pointing a dozen spotlights at the night sky in order to try to see the stars.

Let us approach the question from another direction. Rather than trying to see what words are, let us consider what they are not.

What words are not

They are not physical.

In a recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, atheist Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, tried to address this mystery:

Do words even exist? Are they part of your ontology? Should they be? This talk of words being “made of information” is pretty dicey, isn’t it? Just a lot of hand-waving? Some philosophers will bite the bullet at this point and insist that words don’t exist, strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition; they are not part of the scientific image, which they say should be considered the ultimate arbiter of ontology. But words are very prominent denizens of our manifest image, and even if science doesn’t have to refer to them or mention them, you couldn’t do science without using them, so they should perhaps be included in our ontology. They loom large for us, readily occupying our attention.v

As Dennett explains, some materialistic philosophers will “bite the bullet” and insist that words do not actually exist. (Immediately one can’t help but wonder how they would actually say that.) But Dennett himself can’t do that. After all, he is writing a book! So, what does he do? How does he cling to materialism but still manage to explain why words “should perhaps be included in our ontology?”

First, he calls words evolutionary memes. “Words, I will argue, are the best example of memes, culturally transmitted items that evolve by differential replication—that is, by natural selection.”vi The term meme was coined nearly 50 years ago by atheist biologist Richard Dawkins to describe “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”vii So if, according to Dennett, words are memes, then do either Dennett or Dawkins acknowledge that memes, like words, “have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition?”

No, they can’t do that. Instead, Dennett explains that words are a particular kind of meme: “Which kind of meme are words? The kind that can be pronounced.”viii Then he tries to clarify:

What are memes a kind of? They are a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed. There is no term readily available in the technical language of the scientific image that aptly encapsulates what kind of a thing a meme is. Leaning on the ordinary language of the manifest image, we might say that memes are ways: ways of doing something or making something, but not instincts (which are a different kind of ways of doing something or making something). The difference is that memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically. They are semantic information, design worth stealing or copying, except when they are misinformation, which, like counterfeit money, is something that is transmitted or saved under the mistaken presumption that it is valuable, useful.ix

OK, so words are memes and memes are “semantic information.” (Dennett’s explanations are scattered throughout his book, for he is actually the one doing all the dicey handwaving.) He later clarifies that, according to Dawkins, “memes are informational things.”x And that brings us full circle on this rabbit trail: Words have no mass or energy or chemical properties, but they are memes. Memes, meanwhile, are informational things.

Where does that leave us? Face to face with an immaterial reality. Therefore, after Dennett surveyed the room and looked directly at the problem, he decided to completely ignore it. Words must be “included in our ontology,” so perhaps we can just take them for granted and quietly assume that our ability to use them is instinctive.

Where does that leave us? Face to face with an immaterial reality.

Now, to be sure, just as Dennett tried to wave the mystery away, others have tried to simply deny the immaterial nature of words altogether. (Why? Remember that it is impossible to even articulate a theory as to how the brain could perceive something immaterial.) However, when you look at their explanations, you will find that what they are actually saying is not that information is a physical thing, but rather that all physical things serve as mediums of information. (Starlight conveys information about the Big Bang, fossils convey information about dinosaurs, bananas convey the genetic code for banana trees, etc.) For example, in 1999, physicist Rolf Landauer, who did research both at NASA and IBM, published an often-cited paper titled Information is a Physical Entity. “Information is not an abstract entity but exists only through a physical representation,” Landauer explained, “thus tying it to all the restrictions and possibilities of our real physical universe.”xi

What? First of all, what is an “entity?” (Could my soul be an entity?) That’s a terribly abstract word to use for something that you say is not abstract. Second, what exactly is the “it” that is “tied to all the restrictions and possibilities of our real physical universe”? If it is a “physical entity”, then what are its physical qualities? Is it soft or squishy or fluid or … ? And finally, we can actually prove that any and all information is nonphysical.

Is this an objective, testable, falsifiable fact?

Yes. The test is so simple and conclusive that it almost seems unfair to the Darwinist: If you can translate information from one physical medium to another, then you are translating something nonphysical.

For example, the Lord of the Rings books can be translated as black symbols on paper, as Braille bumps for the blind, as binary bumps on a DVD, as electromagnetic waves (such as for a wireless download), or as a magnetic pattern on a flash drive. All five of these media can have exactly the same information in common, yet they do not need to have any physical qualities in common. Therefore, whatever it is that they do have in common (the Lord of the Rings story) has no physical qualities.

That fact can be very hard to wrap your mind around—similar, perhaps, to how a 10th-century farmer might have had trouble wrapping his mind around heliocentrism. (“Now you listen to me, lad. I can watch the sun rise and move across the sky and then I can watch it set—all while I’m standing on flat, un-tilting ground. And I can see that when you were a wee one, your dear old momma must have dropped you on your head!”) But it is incontrovertible. To the extent that we know anything at all, we know that the infrastructure of cognition—the network of words with which we think and communicate—is immaterial. No wonder Einstein called our ability to comprehend rational explanations “the eternal mystery of the universe”.

To the extent that we know anything at all, we know that the infrastructure of cognition is immaterial.

Wait a second, the Darwinist declares: The brain is what ties those five media together. In other words, if we ask, “What do the black symbols, the Braille bumps, the DVDs, the electromagnetic waves, and the flash drive all have in common?” the answer is, “The human brain!”

Not so fast. Step back and take another look. There’s no organic gray matter on the DVDs. And when we shoot the electromagnetic waves across the planet, those waves are not composed of neurons. Those five media don’t have brains in common any more than they have livers or lungs in common.

But they do come from the same sources. They do all have human authors. So, what are those sources? What is an author? “I think. I use my brain to translate and store words. I perceive and potentially even author things like love songs and constitutions and chili recipes. Therefore, I am … what?” We don’t know what our minds are, but we do know what they are not. They are not physical.

A nonphysical author is just a technical way of describing the soul. There is no alternative explanation. Instead, there is a lot of dicey handwaving or incoherent talk of instincts. And remember that this is the same conclusion (the conclusion that our minds are immaterial) reached in the original—and still orthodox—understanding quantum mechanics. (Is baseball supernatural?) There is no alternative explanation for that evidence either.

Where did words come from?

Speaking of instincts, in 1848 Charles Darwin wrote to his friend, John Henslow, a British priest, botanist, and geologist: “I believe there exists, and I feel within me, an instinct for the truth, or knowledge or discovery, of something of the same nature as the instinct of virtue, and that our having such an instinct is reason enough for scientific researches without any practical results ever ensuing from them.”xii

Now scientists search for objective, rational explanations in nature. But, as Darwin observed, there are other revelations that we must deal with, such as those regarding virtue. Why are words like justice and mercy and integrity as self-evident to us as hunger and thirst? Where did such truth come from?

“In the beginning was the Word.”xiii


[i] https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/noam-chomsky-galileo-challenge-origin-of-language/7284178

[ii] Sean Carroll, The Big Picture (New York: Dutton, 2016), 357-358.

[iii] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 4-5.

[iv] IBID, 20.

[v] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Locations 3339-3345.

[vi] IBID, Kindle Locations 2930-2931.

[vii] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Kindle Location 3765.

[viii] Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), Kindle Location 3414.

[ix] IBID, Kindle Locations 3420-3427.

[x] IBID, Kindle Location 3504.

[xi] Rolf Landauer, “Information is a Physical Entity”, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/v...

[xii] Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. 4. (1847-50), Frederick Burkhardt and Sydney Smith, editors (London: Cambridge University Press, 1989); https://www.darwinproject.ac.u...

[xiii] John 1:1


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