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March 30, 2009

Immunized against Idiocy

Check out this delightful refutation from the Clapham Institute of a new, and ridiculous, claim being made in a recent IBM ad -- that "math is the only language all human beings share."

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Diane, did Gina put you up to this? ;-) http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/2008/02/you-math-and-sc.html (How can math be a "universal language" when not even our most excellent Point editor speaks it?)

Or was this a sly way to convict all of us it's time to re-read Genesis 11? http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis%2011:1-9;&version=31;

Either way, your contribution is much appreciated. Thank you.

Jason Taylor

Any Philosophy which scorns the vast majority of human experience is not to be taken seriously. And the virtue of not thinking about a subject simply because one is incapable of knowing for sure escapes me.
Positivists are like Philosophers who were sure there could never be a such thing as irrational numbers because irrational numbers are untidy. Even though they lived in a society that worshiped gods who were notoriously irrational.

Gina Dalfonzo

Nope, she wrote that off her own bat! :-)

Diane Singer

Remember, LeeQuod, I'm an ENGLISH teacher, and the most math-challenged person I know!

Ben W

Is morality really a language, though? In art and math, you use images or logic to convey ideas about the way something is or could be. How do you do that in morality? It seems like morality is more of a statement of how things *are*, written in other languages.

Jason Taylor

Morality is a statement about what things should be not what things are.

Ben W

We're arguing semantics - morality talks about what is "right" and "wrong", in other words, what we should do. Still not a language, though.

Jason Taylor

Semantics mean things and he that dominates semantics dominates thought.

Ben W

Or she.


Ben W wrote: "In art and math, you use images or logic to convey ideas about the way something is or could be. How do you do that in morality?"

I love the story that Ravi Zacharias quotes: Imagine that you are driving through a very rough neighborhood in the inner city of a major metropolis. Suddenly, your car breaks down. You look at your cellphone, but the battery is dead. You see a location a few blocks away where you might make a phone call. You get out of your car and start walking, but suddenly you see a group of ten very large, tough-looking men come out of a nearby building and start walking directly toward you.

At that moment, would it or would it not make any difference to you to know that they had just come from a Bible study?


So, Ben, per your criteria of "what is" and "what might be", morality does indeed constitute a language. PFM itself imagines a world in which criminals are transformed and therefore the crime rate drops, expressing that thought in, ahem, language. (As an aside, I think this might account for why PFM tends to hire more English majors - and teachers - than mathematicians...)

And fascinatingly, mathematics can hardly express itself without morality creeping in. If I were to say to you in all seriousness "2 + 2 = 5", fill in the blank for your reply: "That's wr___!" And if you have the background for it, meditate on "rational" and "irrational" (and why the Greeks prized certain ratios), "real" and "imaginary" (and the value - ahem - of each), and how the idealized world of mathematical models deliberately does not correspond precisely to the messy reality of the physical world, while the moral framework of "good" and "evil" is exactly what you see in the news.

Ben W

LQ - It'd be your opinion of Bible studies that would make that example have meaning, not morality. It might have a totally different meaning to someone who'd never heard of Bibles or who had been taught that Christians were evil or violent.

I still don't see how morality is a language - a "system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc." Morality is the thing being communicated, not the medium of communication.

For "2+2=5", it's not an immoral statement, it's an incorrect statement. Both immoral and incorrect things are called "wrong"; the word "wrong" has more than one meaning. The Greeks prized certain ratios because they were the most useful in understanding mathematics and physics, and we prize the concepts of imaginary and real numbers for the same reasons.

Not sure how I would decide if real or imaginary numbers are "more valuable".. or why it matters? Same with the bit about models vs. the messy world (although the Schrodinger Eq'n describes stuff pretty well - *if* you can solve it). You lost me here.

Steve (SBK)

First of all, I don't think this is a "new" claim:
"math is the only language all human beings share."

Well, I think it depends on the underlying assumptions and intention of this sentence. (Which is strangely ironic because we who share the English language may have different interpretations.)
Are they saying that 'the world' can only really be mutually understood and communicated via formalized math? Or something like, at bottom, everything is math? Humans most easily communicate with math because we all share it? Or maybe just, IBM goods should be purchased by... all humanity because IBM is in the business of applying math?

In any case, I think Ben brings up some interesting things to think about.
I think we might, in fact say that morality is both the "thing being communicated" AND "the medium of communication". In the sense that, what I said earlier about sharing English, applies to morality. We may all share the same morality, with some having clearer insight into what it is or where it comes from, and we understand each other because we have this common foundation. The message travels on the medium of morality, like sound waves in the air. And because, like language, morality is useless until it is communicated - in some way. Is giving bread to a poor man a different language from rescuing a child from slavery?


Ben W wrote: "LQ - It'd be your opinion of Bible studies that would make that example have meaning, not morality."

Ah. Well, I'll be clever (just to make a point) and ask you where it was I said that the story had anything to do with morality.

Evidently, you read the story and inferred that it did. (And you took it further to critique the implication that Bible studies necessarily produce moral behavior.) So the story communicated to you about a moral framework. I believe that this is the answer to your original question, which was "How do you do that in morality?" I.e., even if we disagree about the utility of Bible studies, we're having a conversation about morals. And that is because the ideas of "good" and "evil" are even more foundational to humanity than numbers and addition and logic.

You also wrote: "I still don't see how morality is a language".

I believe this is because you are focused on the "formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures" etc., rather than on the conveyance of meaning between one human and another. As you read this, the keystrokes I typed have been conveyed to you by several electronic devices, including my keyboard, some routers and servers, miles of wiring, possibly some satellites, and a rather complex stack of software from TCP/IP through web server code. But before I called your attention to it, were you thinking about how electrical impulses transform bits from a server into colored pixels on your computer screen, or were you looking for meaning in the message I typed? Marshall McLuhan was wrong.

You also wrote: "The Greeks prized certain ratios because they were the most useful in understanding", to which I could reply "So?" I.e., already you've assumed that "useful" is something like "good". So even in math, I reiterate, you can't get away from moral language.

Finally, I believe I "lost you there" because you're not seeing the difference between symbols that convey meaning and symbols that do not. If I say "2 + 2 = 5", you say, in response, "That statement does not correspond to reality." Fantastically enough, imaginary numbers do correspond to reality - that's why we find them useful, and therefore "good". And even though "2 + 2 = 5" follows the syntactic rules of mathematics correctly - it's a well-formed equation - it fails to convey meaning. (That is, of course, unless we've puckishly redefined "2" to mean "half of five"... and we could do that if these are mere symbols rather than symbols that have some context surrounding them. Ah, yes - I remember programming in LISP, where *anything* could be redefined to mean something else.)

And as usual, I completely agree with SBK. Except to ask this: if you were dropped into a jungle surrounded by cannibals, would you rely on "math is the only language all human beings share" by conveying a sequence of prime numbers to them (a la the movie "Contact")? So maybe "all" doesn't mean "all", after... all.

I'll leave you-all ;-) with this thought: I once met a woman who was both blind and deaf, so she could neither read nor hear. Yet, she had earned two (count 'em!) Ph.D. degrees. How did she do that? By reading books? (Bzzzt!) Listening to lectures? (Bzzzt!) How *does* meaning get transmitted when the means of transmission is severely limited? And how does it get transmitted sufficiently well that someone can earn two advanced degrees? So I firmly believe that language is more about the message than about the means of conveying that message.

Steve (SBK)

I agree. Your example (of the cannibals/primes) shows, in effect, that "math" is a learned language. Which makes me think IBM has to be saying that "the idea" of math "behind everything" is what we all share (even if some don't have any concept of "math as defining reality"). Which, as you imply, shows that the mental message or idea is what is shared, not the way it is communicated. We are all in the same reality. Math is merely an idea based on reality. Morality is part of the reality that is shared by all humans.

(I would also add to my previous comment's ending sentence:
"Is giving bread to a poor man a different language from rescuing a child from slavery?" They are the same language. Different words (or little-L logos, if you will))

Ben W

"Ah. Well, I'll be clever (just to make a point) and ask you where it was I said that the story had anything to do with morality."

Surely you can do better than that - you quoted me asking about how one communicates with morality, then write something of your own.. it's pretty standard to interpret that as a reply to my question about morality.

/sigh. I feel like half of the disagreements in this conversation are caused by the vagaries of the English language: "wrong" as a synonym for "incorrect" and "immoral", although they're not synonyms for each other. Or the Greeks "prized" certain numbers, so I talked about "usefulness" and "value", which you turn back into a conversation about "right" and "wrong".

Is a hammer moral or immoral? I say no, it's just a tool; it has value but no inherent morality. It can be used for good or evil. "Value" and "morality" are not the same.

" As you read this, the keystrokes I typed have been conveyed to you by several electronic devices..."

Right - computers use digital languages to communicate with each other and deliver commands, and pass along the information that is translated back to ASCII and English.

I'm definitely not opposed to the idea of morality as a language, I just don't understand it. Even if there is a "universal morality" (something I disagree with, as cultures vary significantly in their morals), that doesn't mean it's also a "universal language". You might as well say paper was a language, just because words are written on it.

I'm totally on-board with "math isn't a universal language".

But how do you convey meaning in the "language of morality"? Can you give me an example? No resorting to other languages here (such as English, sign language, or actions with meaning).


Ben W wrote: "it's pretty standard to interpret that as a reply to my question about morality."

Yes, but this is entirely my point. You can't show me any "formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like" in my message, and yet you interpreted it to be about morality.

I believe that this is because morality is actually pre-lingual; it is understood even by humans who cannot yet communicate with what you would define as a language. There is no way to point to formalized symbols and so on, because "good" and "evil" are communicable even without formal, symbolic language as a transport mechanism.

And I myself believe that there actually is a "universal morality" in the sense that every human being understands what "good" and "evil" are. You're right in that different cultures apply the label "good" or "evil" to different situations, acts, things, and so on - but no culture anywhere can be found that lacks any concept of good and evil.

"No resorting to other languages here (such as English, sign language, or actions with meaning)."

Hm. Well, this little Comments box seems to want me to type into it using characters from my keyboard, so I'm not sure how to transmit this to you. I tried to show that this already happened, via the Ravi Zacharias story, but you're not accepting that a non-symbolic transmission of meaning took place. I'm thinking of St. Francis of Assisi saying "Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words."

It's funny, in a way, Ben - you and I have been engaging in dialog, and all our comments have been read and approved by Gina (and also Diane, I believe). I'm (non-verbally!) sensitive to the load of reading that both of those fine ladies have, so I feel it is not good to subject them to more long messages from me. (I feel like I'm turning into - no, I won't name him.) So I'm willing to concede here, if it will help our discussion to come to an amicable end.

Besides, I need to get some flowers for my wife. She tells me that when I do that, it communicates to her that I care and I appreciate her. Go figure. :-)

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