Language is the main tool we have to communicate to others our view of reality. We choose our words carefully to convey our perspective. But that perspective is itself already shaped by the language we use. Language therefore is far from an objective medium that simply reflects the way the world is. We create different worlds using different vocabularies, even though we are still constrained by a language-independent reality. If we assume its main aim is to reveal the truth, that makes language seem deeply flawed. But if we come to understand language as a tool for convincing and persuading other people, we can come to recognize its strengths, argues Nick Enfield.
When primate scientist John Gluck began his research career in the 1960s, he was taking new-born rhesus monkeys from their mothers and raising them alone in bare steel containers, to study the effects of social isolation. In time, he came to question why he was doing this, and would soon deeply regret the harm and suffering he had caused. In the midst of a successful scientific career, Gluck abandoned his research and applied himself instead to promoting animal welfare. With hindsight, he identified one factor of special importance in explaining how a good man can do bad things. That factor is language.
As a young scientist starting out, Gluck liked the language of the branch of psychology known as behaviourism because it signalled an intellectual stand. The behaviourist does not say that an animal is frightened, only that it is avoidant. He does not say that it is smart, only accurate. He does not say that the animal is hungry, only that it is food deprived or has a latency to consumption. That stand became part of Gluck’s identity within the culture of scientists doing animal experiments. By using the idiom of his teachers and peers, Gluck had elided—some might say erased—the inner experiences of the animals he worked with. “If you must sanitize the language that is used to describe the procedures in regular use,” Gluck wrote, “you have entered morally perilous territory.”
Just as language cannot create physical reality, it cannot merely reflect physical reality as it is.
On his path into that perilous land, Gluck had exploited the power of language for two purposes. One was sense making: to create a version of reality that cohered with his chosen purposes and actions. The other was rationalization: to provide justifications for those actions. When he came to understand the power of words in creating a world and defending it, John Gluck discovered something fundamental. Just as language cannot create physical reality, it cannot merely reflect physical reality as it is. It always imposes a doubly-subjective vision, consisting of the views encoded in the language being spoken and the view of the speaker who chooses the words being used. Language is shaped by our subjective, purpose-calibrated view of reality. And in turn, our view of reality is shaped by language. Just as Gluck’s old worldview was enabled by the language he used, so too would language play a role in recasting that worldview, in bringing about his personal and professional redemption. Gluck’s story has a key insight: We create our worlds by the language we use.
This does not mean that words give us direct control, magical or otherwise, over brute reality. For instance, in my time on Earth, nothing I could say would change the fact that I am subject to the force of gravity. We create worlds with language but this does not exempt us from being accountable to physical reality. This is why truth seeking—a quest that requires us to be maximally mindful of the biases that language and reasoning introduce—must be our highest calling.
Reason evolved for convincing and persuading other people, winning arguments with other people, defending and justifying actions and decisions to other people.
Researchers of mind have long known that human rationality is not an ideal tool for truth seeking. Our patterns of perception and reasoning fall constant victim to an array of biases and shortcomings. In their 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that this doesn’t mean human rationality is poorly adapted to its purpose. That conclusion would follow only if the evolved purpose of reason were to arrive at objective truth. Instead, Mercier and Sperber argue that reason evolved for another purpose. Human reason is the way it is—“flawed” if seen as a tool for classical logic in the privacy of your mind—because it is actually a social tool. Reason evolved for convincing and persuading other people, winning arguments with other people, defending and justifying actions and decisions to other people. These functions may be achieved regardless of whether the content of a proposition is true. I can benefit from convincing someone of something even when that thing is false. (This of course does not entail that it’s good to convince people of false things!)
The idea that language is an infrastructure for social coordination and not for the transfer of information per se helps us understand some of its shortcomings.
It is often said that human reasoning is not as balanced or dispassionate as we would like to think it is, that our inner scientist is in fact an inner lawyer. (With apologies to members of those two important professions, I am using the terms “scientist” and “lawyer” as caricatures for two different ways of thinking about what language is good for.) The scientist seeks to know the truth, while the lawyer seeks to persuade. And in persuading, the lawyer seeks not to get at the truth but to get her way (or to get the way of those who pay her fee). She seeks not to explain but to defend. And notice that while the scientist may sometimes work alone, the lawyer’s job is a necessarily social one, and language is her primary tool.
The idea that language is an infrastructure for social coordination and not for the transfer of information per se helps us understand some of its shortcomings: why language seems to fail us in the ways it does, why it is so ambiguous and approximate, why it distracts and detracts, why it falls short when we try to describe an experience or capture an innermost feeling. At the same time, the idea that language is a coordination device helps us understand why it can be so good at the things it is good at: directing people’s attention, framing situations in arbitrary ways, playing to people’s biases, tuning our interactions, managing reputations, and regulating social life.
One of the most dangerous properties of language is that it allows us to say things that aren’t true. The danger is not just that people may be misled, but that falsehood may be more effective than truth. Truth becomes a collateral victim of human sociality. The strength of human commitment to beliefs in supernatural entities and conspiracy theories—a kind of commitment found in human groups worldwide—draws precisely on the disconnect between a statement and the reality it claims to describe. If a group of people collectively state a belief in something that everyone knows deep down to be false, then the statement, far from seeding doubt, will work as an honest signal of each individual’s commitment to the group. Author Curtis Yarvin explains the attraction of improbable ideas in building social movements. For the purpose of social allegiance, it’s actually better if the belief that people coordinate around is patently false: “Nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. … To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.” This is all very well if your only goal is to secure loyalty in defending a position, but reality will come for you at some point. While real soldiers may pledge allegiance to magical ideas, they are ultimately in the business of physical force, not magic but brute reality par excellence. Once a bullet is flying, neither words nor the beliefs they express can stop it.
As the philosopher David Hume quipped, if you are sceptical that a real world exists, then you are welcome to leave via the second-floor window.
This is why you cannot say that there is no reality beyond our ways of talking, or that reality is whatever we say it is. That caricature of postmodernist thought—as if anybody really lived by it—makes no sense in a world in which our species evolved by natural selection, in which we depend on food, air, water, light, and avoidance of injury to live through each new day. Those who claim to doubt objective reality will still defer to that reality in lawful and predictable ways. As the philosopher David Hume quipped, if you are sceptical that a real world exists, then you are welcome to leave via the second-floor window.
But heeding physical reality as a matter of survival is quite a different matter from coordinating around reality for social purposes. When we talk, our words create the versions of reality—whether social or physical—that we agree to coordinate around, for example, when we want to affiliate with someone, influence someone, recruit somebody’s help, or collectively evaluate a situation and work out what has happened, why, and what action to take. It’s only through our publicly shared versions of reality that social coordination is possible. And it is always just one version of reality that we coordinate around at a time. That version is the one we create with words.
This article is based on edited excerpts from Language vs. Reality by N. J. Enfield (MIT Press March 2022).