The Artifice of Words.

It has been said that language is the very essence of what makes us human. If we are to fully understand what it means to be human, then, we must understand what language is, how it works, how we use it, or misuse it.

Linguistics, often defined as 'the scientific study of language', is a broad term covering a wide range of different disciplines. The traditional 'core' areas of the subject deal with the structure of human languages in terms of how speech sounds combine to form syllables and words (phonetics and phonology), how words combine into meaningful utterances such as sentences and phrases (morphology and syntax), and how we extract meaning from utterances we read or hear used by other people (semantics and pragmatics). But beyond this, linguists are also interested in matters such as how languages evolve and change over time, how they are learned by children and by adults, how languages are used in social settings, the historical and contemporary relationships between languages, the roles of language in nation-building and identity marking, the development of writing systems, how the brain processes speech and language, how communication is possible when speech and language are impaired, etc. Linguistics therefore has close links to many other fields of enquiry in the social, physical and medical sciences, philosophy, and the arts and humanities. Our understanding of language origins, structure and use changes constantly with new discoveries in neuroscience, animal behaviour, archaeology and palaeontology, sociology, and psychology, etc.

A closer examination of words, language, and meaning reveals that all words are abstractions, only the degree of their abstraction defers.

Throughout my writing, I often mention language and the artifice of words. Now the term 'artifice of words' may sound strange to some people, especially those who have no familiarity with the philosophy of language, linguistics, or aesthetics. While we are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of words a day, whether oral, written, or broadcast, very few of us have actually taken the time to consider the symbolic abstraction that underlies the meanings of the words we use and the rapid mental associations we make to interpret such generic terms like dog, tree, hot, bad, love, blue, and god.

Language, how things 'mean' something, and truth are important subjects of consideration not simply because they are used in everyday life, but because language shapes human development, from earliest childhood and continuing to death. Knowledge itself is intertwined with language, its transmission and distribution. Notions of self, experience, and existence mostly depend on how language is used, what is learned through it, how it is interpreted and on-going assumptions derived from interpretation. The topic of learning language leads to all kinds of interesting questions. Is it possible to have any thoughts without having a language? What kinds of thoughts need a language to happen? How much does language influence knowledge of the world and how one acts in it? Can anyone reason at all without using language? Does language influence the "primal experience of being" (i.e., the animalistic pre-language state) in such a way so as to distort one's experience and worldview in order to confirm language's abstractions? The philosophy of language deliberately considers these types of questions. It is an important point of study because language is inseparable from how one thinks and interprets the world. People in general have a set of vital concepts which are connected with signs and symbols, including all words (symbols): "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on.By incorporating "meaning," everyone has shaped (or has had shaped for them) a view of the universe and how they have "meaning" within it. In a great many cases—especially when considering religion and politics—people infer meaning from words alone, from the abstractions inherent in language, because the objects of the describing words (entities or agencies like "god" or "afterlife" or "angels") are nowhere in evidence in the 'real world'.

By definition, then, and necessity, language is abstract and assumptive. The linguistic meaning of words is presupposed and inferred. There are essentially two different types of inferences when it comes to words we use: conceptual meaning and associative meaning.

The conceptual meanings of an expression have to do with the definitions of words themselves, and the features of those definitions. This kind of meaning is treated by using a technique called "semantic feature analysis." The conceptual meaning of an expression inevitably involves both definition (also called "connotation" and "intension") and extension (also called "denotation").

One issue that has bothered philosophers and ordinary people for as long as there have been words is the problem of their vagueness. Often, meanings expressed by the speaker are not as explicit as the listener would like them to be. The consequences of vagueness can be disastrous to classical logic because they give rise to the Sorites Paradox (in which the definition of a word like "heap" can be constructed or deconstruction one grain of dirt at a time until the object in question can no longer be considered a "heap" by definition but becomes something else).

Most people don't think about the abstractive and assumptive properties inherent in language although both are constantly used in day-to-day interaction. This is best demonstrated by an example. Consider the sentence:

The Dog Chased the Ball into the Street and Got Hit by a Car.

If you're like most people, the sentence above makes perfect sense to you. You know precisely what it means. You can imagine it, almost picture it in your mind's eye. But how? Every element of this sentence is completely abstract.

- I say "dog" but you've been given no description of the breed of dog or its size, whether it is a small Boston Terrier or a large Doberman Pinscher, or sleek or fat, or old or young. You have a fuzzy nebulous "feeling" for the idea of "dog" even though you know nothing about the animal in question beyond the word.
- I say "ball" but you've been given no description of the ball regarding it's type or size, whether it was rolling, bouncing, or flying through the air. It could just as easily be a tennis ball as a basket ball, or any other type of ball a dog is apt to chase.
- I say "street" and once again you know nothing about the type of street, its size, or the materials used in its construction.
- I say "car" and know nothing about its make or model, size or shape, color or speed.

What makes this kind of abstraction possible is your awareness of having actually had physical interaction with specific dogs and balls and streets and cars. You can conceptualize based on this interaction and thus infer the meaning from a broad abstract sentence like "The dog chased the ball into the street and got hit by a car."

Now, here's the kicker:

When it comes to supernatural religion it may be surprising to most believers to consider the simple fact that religion is all talk, only talk, and nothing but talk. Supernatural religion consists only of words, an ancient collection of words mostly recounted in anonymous third-person narratives (a fictional technique or unwarranted hearsay), and that's it. Because supernatural religion is comprised only of words, there's nothing empirical, physical, nothing of substance that you can point to besides art (derived from the word artifice or artificial) in any of its aspects: literature, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, theater, motion pictures, television, etc.

So, when believers talk about the "Will of God" or say things like "God is Love" or "God is Omnipotent and Omniscient" or ask "What Would Jesus Do?" not only are they utilizing a generic abstraction (like using the words 'dog', 'street', and 'ball') they are using an abstraction twice-removed because they are inferring God's godliness only from the artifice of words and not from any actual associations in the 'real' world. Ask a believer to describe "God" and to drill down to the particulars (as with the description of "dog") and you will be handed a list of generic abstract terms that are by themselves quite meaningless until they are weighed against 'real' properties that exist in the physical world.

I realize this is heady stuff, so let's try to make it a clearer with another example.

When believers explain that "God is Love" where are they getting this information? Are they observing God in action, then deducing from His behavior that he is a loving god? No. They are quoting and interpreting words in the Bible to make their case for a loving god while ignoring or conveniently forgetting other words in the Bible that make a case for a petty, judgmental, infantile, and merciless god. In either case, the very idea of a loving god was not derived from any behavioral evidence apparent in the 'real' world (with it's illness, disease, war, pain, suffering, cruelty, etc) but only from the artifice of words. Now, who wrote the words from whence believers derive the interpretation that 'God is Love'? In nine out of ten times, they don't know who wrote the words because the various authors are anonymous or the words subject to centuries of editing and redaction. In other words, believers are basing their interpretations of the attributes of God only on words written thousands of years ago by who knows whom? And apologists like to carp that rationalists and skeptics rely too much on naturalistic presuppositions!