Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Positive Proposal

Language has various uses. We often get into trouble because we mix them up. We all talk, we all use language to think, language is the most important faculty which is unique to humans (yeah yeah, I know all about chimpanzees and dolphins and your parrot and your dog but human language is radically different), and language is the most important skill in our personal lives and most of our work lives. Remarkably, though, most of us seldom think about the uses of language or even notice them. Talking, hearing, writing, reading, thinking -- we just do them.

For some reason, people tend to assume that the primary function of language is to exchange information. That is only a small part of why we exercise our vocal apparatus. Speech act theory is a way of parsing what we are really doing when we talk, which begins with the observation that we are exchanging social resources (positive or negative) of which information is only one example.

We tell jokes, praise and insult, demand, order, request, make promises, refuse, agree to do things, acknowledge having heard, and of course express our feelings, opinions, tastes, beliefs, love and hatred. We simply entertain, or evoke. We perform ritual acts with socio-legal consequences, such as marrying people, convicting them of crimes, installing them in office, binding them to contracts, etc. These are all speech acts, which can be identified and categorized regardless of the subject matter, often in apparent contradiction to the grammar (Is the Pope Catholic? is not a question after all) and whose classfication survives translation better than other dimensions of meaning.

Now let us suppose that we agree to undertake a project of cooperatively investigating the world, reasoning about what we observe, and trying to determine the truths upon which we can agree. Let's call it Project Truth. It seems clear that there are certain kinds of speech acts which are directly relevant to this task, and others which are not.

The philosophy of positivism, which is an important underpinning to the modern philosophy of science, asserts that the meaning of a statement is equivalent to the means by which its truth or falsehood can be established. Statements that have no means of verification, therefore, are meaningless. In order for this to work, we have to agree on what constitutes verification. But it seems easy to agree that at least the evidence should, in principle, be available to all of us; that the definitions of terms should be clear and shared; and that rules of logic should be mutually understood and agreed upon. Positivism does run into some difficulties, one of the most important of which has to do with statements about probability, which are extremely important in science but whose verifiability is tricky. Another difficulty is that nobody has the time, skill and other resources needed to independently examine the evidence for every claim. The project of cooperative investigation does require us to trust each other, but the good news is that as long as someone who does have the time and skill is checking, liars will be caught eventually. It also helps that claims in one specialized field often have implications for others, so that falsehoods have multiple prospects of being unmaksed.

If we agree to participate in Project Truth, we don't have to give up the other uses of speech. We can still entertain each other, forge social bonds or repudiate them, express our innermost feelings, assert ethical principles. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife or cattle" is meaningless in positivist terms, but you can still say it and believe it if you want to. We just need to keep straight what it is we are doing at this particular moment. If we're working on Project Truth, then we can only ask potentially verifiable questions about "Thou shalt not covet," such as when and where it was first written down. Since there is no way to verify whether the statement itself is "true," we can't argue about whether we agree with it until quitting time.

One of the greatest difficulties the world faces today is that some people have signed on to Project Truth, but most people have not, particularly, much to our shame, in the United States. Project Truth has much wider participation in Europe and parts of Asia, for example. I think that if we are going to get anywhere as a species, Project Truth is our most important undertaking. It gives us a way of expanding the domain of agreement among humans, gaining mastery over many of the problems that most plague us, and it offers the unparalleled thrill of discovery and access to ever growing realms of wonder. It doesn't have to be the biggest part of your life, or even a large part at all. But if everyone gives Project Truth its due, we'll be much better off.

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