Sentences & Reasoning
Every statement is a form of reasoning. Whether any
sentence succeeds at being reasonable is another matter and not always easy to
determine. Syntax involves creating word sequences based on underlying
rules. Decoding of sound sequences must identify individual words and must take
the whole sequence into account to derive syntactical meaning. The transition
from word identification to sentence deciphering is a new brain capacity
that permits the complex language development we are now considering.
Our brain stores nouns and verbs separately and has many
surprising habits of separating words and syntactical rules in subcompartments.
You get something of this effect with computer programs that store data and
program segments in scattered blocks of memory and then keep a map of where all
the pieces are. In addition to a map, the brain seems to evolve a series
of controllers that remember strategies for putting all these pieces together.
A number of different languages can coexist in one brain and speakers with
different linguistic styles can co-exist in one brain. The underlying strategy
seems to be based on grouping objects and actions into meta categories with meta
rules that form the syntax or grammar of the language.
A sentence has a logical form. Subject, verb and modifiers
fit together to form a reality simulation. Declarative statements with a
subject, verb and object are the most reliable of statements. If I tell you that
Jack ran up the hill and Jill followed, you are likely to form a mental image
similar to mine. You could also quiz me in a direct way to get more information
by using the “w” words; who, what, when, which, where, why? Jack who? Jack
Smith. What hill? Sentinel hill. When? 11 AM Friday Sept 1, 2000. Why? To fetch
a pale of water. It all makes sense. When a story is familiar, the meaning can
be invoked with an abbreviated version Jack Jill hill might suffice.
The distinction between form and content is useful in the
analysis of language. Everyone encounters writing that appears to consist of
coherent statements, but on closer reading makes no sense at all. Nonsense is
often in the content and not in the form or grammar of the writing. Sentences
may be well constructed and the inherent reasoning may be more or less
acceptable, but the content is gibberish. You could argue that nonsense is the
natural content of language since it is easy to invent false statements and
difficult to determine what is really going on out there. You can make any
outrageous statement you want and become convinced that it is true if one other
person agrees with you. The improvisations of gossip are more prevalent that the
reasoning embodied in responsible philosophical and scientific discourse.
Formal logic is based on rules that link premises to
conclusions. The problem with premises is that meaningful and true content needs
to come from outside language. Humans regularly use good logic to move from
wrong premises to wrong conclusions and then use wrong conclusions as derivative
premises. In computing, this problem is expressed as “garbage in, garbage out.”
Science is an enterprise that encourages humans to make a
bigger effort to find out what is really going on out there. Statements made by
scientists are manifestations of a more disciplined effort to get reliable
content into sentence form. The human culture world as of the new millennium had
two kinds of people; scientists who make a bigger effort to get reliable content
into their sentences and non-scientists who say or write whatever they want.
Responsible journalism is somewhere in middle. Even when language is used
skillfully, with good content, there are limitations and interesting problems.
Douglas Hofstadter was fond of self-referential sentences
that are both entertaining and unnerving. Some examples:
- This sentence no verb.
- This statement is false.
- I am a liar.
- This sentence has five words.
- This sentence is longer than five words.
- The end is at the beginning of this sentence.
The statement I am a liar is particularly
challenging because it turns logic inside out. If the sentence is true, it is
false. If the sentence is false, it is true. This sentence reveals a fundamental
problem of language that becomes increasingly self-referential as it becomes
more abstract and disconnected from events that are really happening out there.
Thus, a culture world, created out of books, plays, movies, magazines and
statements made on television, cells and the internet become a virtual reality,
mostly fictional, that is disconnected from and incongruent with the real world.