Writing: Research New Cognitive Science
This article was published in the March 2017 issue of EdgeScience.
Edge Science is a publication of the Society for Scientific Exploration.
Mainstream science has strong social, financial, institutional, and even political drivers. While this is not part of its preferred public image, many educated people understand it. Research is by no means simply an observational and cognitive endeavor. But it is also a linguistic endeavor, I want to show. Even in cases where findings can be reduced to mathematical equations, there are underlying presuppositions, metaphors, and models that get expressed in human language. I want to suggest and present evidence in this essay that English, by and large the lingua franca of world science, creates bias. Speaking in certain ways is in a reciprocal relationship with thinking in certain ways. What if the apparatus we use in our language to speak about scientific findings strongly favors the social, financial, institutional, and political drivers?
Let’s begin with the simple premise that what science discovers is recurrent patterns of behavior in the world around us. Yes, there may be reasons later to qualify or nuance that.[i] Still, as a first approximation, let it suffice. Even when these regularities have very wide scope, are not obvious, and went long unnoticed--they are still simply patterns recognized and verified. But the origin of the whole scientific endeavor took place in and merged with a deist worldview. The struggle between the emerging method of empirical observation and the authoritarian church split what had been a more unified, living, organic cosmos into life and spirit on the one hand, and dead mechanism on the other (Merchant, 1990). But the creator ruled both, in analogous ways, with the divine “law.” One commonly heard cliché is that Newton felt he was explaining the ways of God to man. What’s important here is that significant ways in which we speak about scientific findings are unfortunately still rooted in this historical worldview.
Consider the difference in the following
(1a) There are many laws of nature
(1b) There are many patterns in nature
(2a) That breaks the second law of thermodynamics
(2b) That doesn’t fit with the second pattern of thermodynamics
There is a shift in force and implication between the (a) and the (b) versions of these English sentences. The (b) versions are much more open in feeling, and suggest nothing of a vaguely “criminal” nature involved in coming up with findings that “don’t fit.” The data diverges somehow, but is in no way associated with “lawbreaking.” It’s perfectly possible to here load the (b) utterances with more social opprobrium, using words like “oppose,” “violate,” “flout, or, as in (3)
(3b) Don’t think you can defy the second law of thermodynamics
I want to suggest that regular blind use of this kind of expression steadily undercuts the otherwise widely acknowledged understanding that scientific findings remain a tentative “observed so far” kind of truth. Such use is what’s called a “semantic pathology.” These are instances in which two or more ideas which are important to distinguish are lumped unnoticed together in the same linguistic expression. Calling scientific findings “laws” conflates the notion of “regulated by authority” with “observed patterns.” It muddles prescription with description. While patterns of profound importance are uncovered and persist so far in our investigation of our world, it is problematic that we still teach and talk of those patterns as “laws of nature.”
The Conduit Metaphor--
A Central Semantic Pathology
During 11 years at the University of Chicago and Columbia (1967-1978), I jump started a branch of what is now called cognitive science (Wikipedia, 2010; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 1999). The term and the interdisciplinary approach did not exist at the time. I took some serious flak in doing so, and ultimately walked away from academics. Still, what I had done was discover and document a pervasive, underlying, metaphorical framework in English that serves as our default explanation for how linguistic communication succeeds or fails. These “dead” metaphors comprise a folk model that is patently false. And yet, barring vague terms or unnatural circumlocutions, there is no easy way to speak on the subject without falling into its trap of mistaken entailments.
Here’s what the folk model says we do using language. The writer or speaker first puts her or his meanings or feelings into the words. The words then carry these across to the reader or listener, whose job it is now to take out of the words the same meanings or feelings the writer or speaker put there--and thus receive just what was wrapped up and sent over. Language is modeled here as a conduit, a delivery system, one that brings what’s in your head quite literally into mine. So, relative to the writer/speaker, we say
(3a) Writing teaches you to put your ideas into words more carefully
(3b) Don’t try to pack too many thoughts into too few words
Of the words or groups of words themselves, we say
(4a) That same thought is in several words in the paragraph—don’t be so redundant
(4b) Your words are hollow--empty promises. They are meaningless.
Of the reader or listener, we say
(5a) I can’t get any coherent meaning from his garbled words.
(5b) I found a lot of anger in those kinds of words
This is just a quick look at the careful explication of data and implications in The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language. (Reddy, M., 1979) It has been widely referenced[ii] as having documented that the primary vision the English language has of it’s own workings is that meanings are put “right there in the words.” If they are, of course, communication ought to be pretty straightforward, and work more often than not. Failures are going to be more often attributed to the reader or listener, who “could not even get out the meanings I put there.” Or worse yet, we say the receiver cheated and slipped his own ideas into the packages, as in
(6) I’m sorry, but you are reading that meaning into my word
Instead, what’s really going in linguistic communication is operationally complex and prone obviously—unless we work carefully at it—to failure. After all, words in the simplest sense are squiggles or squeaks. Look at or listen to Chinese or Arabic if you need to renew your perception of this truth. It seems absurd to have to draw attention to this, but words have no insides. Coming right out of Shannon and Weaver’s mathematical theory of communication (Shannon and Weaver, 1971) also known as “information theory,” words can only function as signals. That is, they can only serve as instructions to select and assemble conceptual and emotive structures already present in the receiver’s brain.
The resulting assemblies may be novel to the receiver, but must be built from what was already present in the reader or listener’s mind. Your ideas and feelings (the messages) will literally never get “into” my head or brain, nor mine into yours. Barring psychic transference, which I don’t think is active in the vast majority of human discourse—once again—the best that we can do is to send instead instructions to assemble radically internal patterns of neural firings we hope will converge on our own. Obviously, the success of this process is anything but assured.
“Patterns” versus “Laws” of Nature
With this understanding that the meaning is very definitely not “in the words,” we can now look more deeply at the following. How does what happens in readers’ or listeners’ minds differ when they comprehend the (a-“law”) versus the (b-“pattern”) versions of sentences (1), (2), and (3)? Like all linguistic signals, “law” in “law of Nature” begins as a group of marks or sounds. But the relation between these signals and human concepts is never one to one. It’s always one to many. So there is a set of possible meanings typically called “senses” of the word that must be sorted through. Based entirely on the surroundings (nearby words, syntactic restrictions, and the whole context of the discourse), the reader or listener must select from the set of word senses which one to use in constructing the meaning. Think of a “word” as just the name we give to a set of possible meanings.
These meanings are typically related but distinct concepts. If you trace the etymology of the “law” set back, the root meaning from which the others spring remains “something prescribed as a regulation,” something “laid down by authority with penalties for violating.” So the brain of the reader or listener must access roughly the following set of concepts to begin the disambiguation process.
LAW1 (a civic regulation with penalties for violators, “Congress enacted a new law”)
LAW2 (a whole body of such regulations, “Interpretation of the law depends on precedent”)
LAW3 (the police forces, “Run—here comes the law!”)
LAW4 (the combined institutions of police, lawyers, and courts, “The wheels of the law turn very slowly”)
LAW5 (a principle or fundamental truth that serves as a foundation for a system of truths, “That’s an important scientific law”)
For “pattern,” understood as a noun, there are only
PATTERN1 (a configuration of lines, shapes, and/or colors , “That’s a fascinating pattern of graffiti on the warehouse wall”)
PATTERN2 (a PATTERN1 when used as a model for reproduction, “Of course I made the dress from a pattern”)
PATTERN3 (a characteristic cluster of observed behaviors, “That’s clearly one of the patterns of teen-age life these days”)
Obviously, the set for “pattern” is both accurate and neutral. But LAW5 (the principle) sits alone in a set of coercive legal meanings, and is a kind of generalization from those roots which arose first in the 17th century.
Perhaps the writer or speaker is indeed a real or crypto deist[iii], and, therefore, actually intends LAW1. Otherwise, describing scientific findings via the term “law” is going to activate initially and inappropriately all the connotations of strict social regulation--because LAW5 (the “principle”) is not “there in the word.” So, data that may in the end simply limit the scope of some pre-existing pattern found in nature is automatically associated at first with “breaking” or “defying” a LAW1. Especially if social, financial, instititutional, and political drivers lurk also in the wings. This tends to place honest, hard-working, even brilliant empirical explorers by entailment subliminally in the role of “criminals.” And historically, we know too well the impact of that. Mainstream scientists who ignore, bury, or demean anomalous data are on this background level being good scientific citizens--defending and enforcing the LAW1’s of Nature and science. After all, it’s so easy to say, and so helpful to entrenched theorists to think: “nature’s laws govern the universe.”
How Much Does Language Influence Thought?
Benjamin Lee Whorf spent some of his life as an inspector for a fire insurance company. Though earlier thinkers had raised questions, the entire 20th century debate around the relation of language to thought seems to have been “sparked” by one experience of Whorf’s. For a fire insurance company, he analyzed circumstances around hundreds of accidental fires. Workers, he discovered, were always careful not to smoke around full barrels of gasoline, but became dangerously careless around empty ones (Whorf, 2015, p. 135). But full barrels have no fumes and don’t present the same degree of danger that “empty” ones do. Because the fumes that “empty” barrels contain are precisely what is flammable. It seemed as if, despite knowledge and warnings to the contrary, reverberations of “empty” in workers minds connected strongly with concepts like “powerless,” or “inert”—and therefore safe. An “empty” barrel has “nothing” in it. Too many fires were started this way. It seemed to Whorf that language was confusing their thinking and behavior, and this suggestion fueled much of his subsequent research.
Various versions of what is referred to as the Whorf hypothesis all have to do with the extent to which given languages either constrain or at least influence thought. Interest in this, arguments about, and attempts to gather evidence for and against have waxed and waned since the man died young in the 1941. Most of the work has involved comparing languages, and so this is also referred to as the “linguistic relativity” controversy[iv]. The hypothesis went out of favor in the ‘60’s and 70’s, but came back quite respectably with studies in the 80’s and 90’s (Lakoff, 1987, pp. 304-337; Gumperz and Levinson, 2015). It’s not that the mind cannot think and perceive reality different from what linguistic structures push it towards, but rather that there are clear paths of least resistance that prevail without special effort.
My own conversion to the relevance of Whorf’s ideas came during several summers teaching sailing while doing the conduit metaphor research. People came into these classes with perceptual and conceptual defaults based on automobiles. But suddenly they were faced with a system that had no brakes, didn’t go where you pointed it, couldn’t go some directions at all, and needed its engine retuned every time you turned it. The most important language was based not on “left-right,” or “north-south,” but on expressions referencing the direction the wind was coming from. Even “head up,” “head down” now meant turn the boat towards or away from that constantly changing reference point. Lectures and diagrams on land had some value, but only later. It took generally 12-20 hours on the water for student’s percepts, concepts, and instinctive behavior to be guided by the strange language into a new and stable coherence. The conceptual metaphor that eventually organizes sailing experience is this: the wind is a freely rotating hill blowing from the top down.
Laws and Conduits
Comparing features of the two pathologies discussed to far reveals an interesting interaction. The conduit metaphor in English is hugely powerful because it is productive, pervasive, and largely invisible. Think of “thoughts, ideas, meanings, or feelings” as the messages of language and denote those with “M.” Now take all the terms for words and groups of words (“paragraph,” “book,” “speech,” “tweet,” etc). Think of them as the signals of language and signify them with “S.” Using these variables, we can isolate “core expressions” of the conduit model that generate untold numbers of different utterances. Here are just a few of the likely still incomplete corpus of core expressions my early research uncovered.
put M into S “Try to put those ideas into words”
capture M in S “Capture those feelings in a poem”
S conveys M “His keynote conveyed many great ideas to me”
Against 141 of these, I found only 45 other ways of speaking that avoided these core expressions. And many of the alternatives were vague and/or reverted to the conduit metaphor with the addition some little phrase (See Reddy, M., 2007c for these listings).
Obviously the “laws of nature” pathology, while productive, is not nearly so pervasive. People can also speak, for instance, of “principles,” “truths,” “equations,” “patterns,” “generalizations,” or “regularities.” But “laws” is widely used, very often with extreme dogmatic arrogance.
Cosmologist Sean Carroll comments, "A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception." Scientists today take for granted the idea that the universe operates according to laws. . . . Physicist Paul C. Davies comments, "...to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.[v]
And it has another associated aspect that, oddly enough, soon teams up with the conduit metaphor, in such a way as to strengthen it considerably.
Important patterns observed historically so far in nature give rise to procedures for calculation and prediction. Everyone exposed to science sits at first in classrooms where what are essentially algorithms are handed down as rules that must be followed or else one fails in the subject. One of the greatest blessings of my early education was to have calculus presented to me in terms of its historical development. It was not just a bunch of formulas to memorize and employ. But this typically does not happen.
This means that most scientists begin in a setting where formulas that express the important patterns that are found in nature are experienced pretty much as socially enforced rules. That is, they are LAW1’s in a real sense, not just for calculating, but also for the regulating the behaviors that will pass the course. No one typically hastens to point out that these algorithms are human guidelines for successful prediction, as opposed to constraints on the behavior of the universe. But now here comes another supporting linguistic “leak” from the conduit metaphor. In what I called its “minor framework” (Reddy, 2007c) and is now known as the “knowledge as object” metaphor (Hinds and Arvind, 2017), the conduit folk model allows thoughts, ideas, meanings, and feelings to escape from people’s heads and words into an imaginary ambient space. In terms of the core expressions
M pours out of S “Passion for their work poured out of every tweet”
M is circulating “Those memes have been circulating for ever”
M found [a, its, etc] way into “Angry feelings found their way into the ghetto”
kick M around “We kicked those ideas around for a while”
In addition to the word sense triggers, then, we have two additional factors contributing to this linguistic pathology. First, the patterns discovered by science are experienced first in classrooms as socially enforced regulations for allowed, proper behaviors, with violations being punished by failure. And second, the algorithms thus learned escape into a metaphorical ambient space via the conduit model of language. These two combine with the social regulation word sense associations involved in comprehending “law” to make doctrinaire behavior far too easy and likely. Namely, people will think of the outside world as subject to and ruled by the current, really only provisional human algorithms that model its behavior as observed locally so far.
So How Should We Talk?
But it will not do to say that all the resistance to fair hearings and assimilation of new and anomalous data is based on the social, financial, institutional, political, and now, I hope, well-understood linguistic pressures. When I talk simply about patterns in nature it may seem as if these are isolated configurations of behavior that can simply be tossed out easily if proven wrong. Not so. There are instead clearly patterns based on patterns, indeed better described as amazing, hard won pyramids of interdependent patterns. Findings in physics, for example, underpin formulations in chemistry, upon which biology gets based, and so on. But data now amassing around psychic skills, to mention one area, despite the large amount and high quality of it (Radin, 2006, 2009, 2013), cuts at the very foundations of the current mainstream scientific endeavor. The shift required to actually accept and integrate this is probably greater than the one that put the sun and the center of the solar system.
To be linguistically fair then, the (a--“pattern”) locutions in sentences (1) thru (3) should allow for some adjectival qualifiers. We might say things like
(7a) Nature has many fundamental patterns
(7b) Nature has many fundamental regularities
with other options like “cornerstone,” “foundational,” “central,” “primary,” “major,” “basic,” “widely applicable,” “keystone,” “bedrock,” and so on. This leads to sentences like
(8a) That doesn’t fit with the second foundational pattern of thermodynamics
(8b) That would undercut the second major premise of thermodynamics
(8c) These findings undermine Newton’s third regularity of motion.
Using terms like “regularity,” “principle,” and “generalization,” it’s not hard to see how we could both talk fairly and remove the LAW1 connotations. There can be phrases like: “Boyle’s regularity,” “the great conservation principles,” “Dalton’s regularity of partial pressures,” “Gauss’s regularity,” “Joule’s generalizations,” and so on.
Where Does This Leave Us?
Sometimes pointing certain things out raises as many questions as it attempts to answer. I’ve made, I feel, a good case here that a failure to evolve perspectives is embedded linguistically in what is for non-deists the “laws of nature” pathology. But how would we go about fostering change in that ubiquitous manner of thinking and speaking? Beyond saying that it involves our educational process and must begin somehow with spreading awareness of the problem—I have no immediate remedies to suggest. It’s a daunting task.
But there’s a deeper issue here, as well. I’ve restricted this discussion to a first order phenomenological perspective here. Words have no insides; literal thoughts and feelings can’t “float around”; and only provisionally valid human algorithms cannot bind the cosmos when we see new evidence appearing en masse. Coming to clarity, I think, has to start here. But what about the huge body of evidence for psychic phenomena? What of Bengston’s “resonant bonding,” where hands on healing spreads to mice in isolated control groups (Bengston and Fraser, 2011)? I think also of Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic fields,” and his “sense of being seen” and other experiments (Sheldrake, 1995, 2003, 2012). Doesn’t the observer effect in quantum physics suggest that human thoughts and behavior might well have some kind of impact on nature’s behavior? Something not yet accounted for is happening.
It seems likely that, before too long, we might need a model of the interaction between scientific exploration and patterns of behavior in the world around us that is richer than strict, one-way observation. What if there are patterns in this interaction that allow for and begin to explain how and when influence can go in both directions? But even if human theories should in some way ultimately affect nature’s behavior, one thing is clear. The thrust of discovery in so many fields has been in the direction an evolving, as opposed to a static universe.[vi] So this idea of patterns “out there” fixed for all time and in all places is an article of blind faith and cannot stand.
[i] This essay offers an additional perspective on parts of two recent Edge Science “Observatory” articles. Henry Bauer (Bauer, 2016) pointed out that evidence is treated very differently after a scientific paradigm is accepted. I’m suggesting that there are also linguistic reasons for that. And James Carpenter (Carpenter, 2015) spoke of the fundamental “orienting construct” of in-out, which parapsychological findings do confuse. I will begin here with the simple assumption that science finds patterns “out there,” and come back later to this deeper question.
[ii] In 2007, I received a letter from my brother, William Reddy, professor and chair of the history department at Duke. He had searched the Web of Science and found 354 scholarly/scientific references to my 1979 article spread over 19 different disciplines. This letter is published on my website (Reddy,W., 2007). Google scholar, which I understand is loose and meaningful for comparison only, currently lists 3237. As semantic pathologies go, the conduit metaphor is problematic over wide areas.
[iii] By “crypto deist,” I mean here people who have removed the god, but cling to some mysterious principle of enforcement. One such group is referred to by the “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (Cunningham, n.d.) as “Necessaritarians.” In the words of the peer reviewed article: “[In] the Regularity Theory, Laws of Nature are statements of the uniformities or regularities in the world; they are mere descriptions of the way the world is. On the other account, the Necessitarian Theory, Laws of Nature are the ‘principles’ which govern the natural phenomena of the world. That is, the natural world ‘obeys’ the Laws of Nature.” So, the monarch or congress is gone, but the police are still out there arresting anomalous behavior.
[iv] There is a high quality article in Wikipedia on the history of this controversy (Wikipedia, 2001).
[v] Carroll and Davies are quoted here on a web page put up for students by an interdenominational Christian organization called “Cru.” This organization is clearly deist, and possibly creationist. Legitimate sources for each scientists’ statements are given at the bottom of the web page. What is important here is that, regardless of the scientists’ actual views on god and creationism, the “laws” language allows this organization to enlist their statements for its own purposes. See “Scientists Baffled by Laws of Nature.” http://www.everystudent.com/wires/organized.html.
[vi] Rupert Sheldrake explores this and other “myths” of science in his book The Science Delusion (Sheldrake, 2012, pp. 84-109). Scientific “laws” said to affect all time and all space are articles of faith turned into dogmas. He also anticipates the more detailed linguistic discussion in this article. “For the founders of modern science, the metaphor of laws was appropriate because they thought of God as a kind of cosmic emperor whose write ran everywhere, and whose omnipotence acted as a cosmic law-enforcement agency” (p.184).
(All web sources were accessed as of 2/20/17 and are likely to be stable. The three Wikipedia articles cited are careful, well-referenced discussions.)
Bauer, H. (2016). “Is Science Really Evidence-Based.” Edge Science, 25-3.
Carpenter, J. (2015). “Scientific Revolution, Orienting Constructs, and the Challenge of Parapsychology.” Edge Science, 24-3.
Cunningham, A. (ed) (n.d.). "Laws of Nature." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Peer Reviewed Academic Resources. http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat
Bengston, W, and Fraser, S. (2011). The Energy Cure: Unraveling the Mystery of Hands-on Healing. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Gumperz, J. and Levinson, S. C. (2015). Rethinking linguistic relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hinds, D, and Arvind G. (2017). "The Knowledge-as-Object Metaphor: A Case of Semantic Pathology." IGI Global. From the International Journal of Knowledge Management, 11-2. http://www.igi-global.com/article/the-knowledge-as-object-metaphor/142975
Lakoff, G, and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G, and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Merchant, C. (1990). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper San Francisco.
Pinker, S. (2015). The Language Instinct. New York: Penguin.
Radin, D. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. New York: Paraview Pocket Books.
Radin, D. (2009). The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. New York, NY: HarperOne.
Radin, D. (2013). Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities. New York, NY: Deepak Chopra Books.
Reddy, M. (1979). "The Conduit Metaphor--A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language." In Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reddy, M. (2007a). "Original Conduit Metaphor Article." Reddyworks, Inc.
Click here to read article.
Reddy, M. (2007b). "Evidence for the Conduit Metaphor." Evidence for the Conduit Metaphor. Reddyworks, Inc.
Click here to read article.
Reddy, M. (2007c). "Evidence for the Conduit Metaphor: The Minor Framework." Reddyworks, Inc.
Click here to read article.
Reddy, W. (2007). "Scholarly References to 1979 Conduit Metaphor Article." Reddyworks, Inc.
Click here to read article.
Shannon, C, and Weaver W. (1971). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Sheldrake, R. (1995). The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. Rochester, VT: Park Street.
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Sheldrake, R. (2012). The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry. London: Coronet.
Wikipedia. (2001). "Linguistic Relativity." Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity
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Edge Science Bio
Michael Reddy earned a highly interdisciplinary Ph.D. from the University of Chicago with research that helped found cognitive science. During 6 years at Columbia he discovered the first coherent schema of underlying conceptual metaphor to be documented in English. Upon leaving academics, he designed and developed business software, became a chief technical officer, and learned from a seven year apprenticeship in shamanic healing techniques. In 2007, he founded Reddyworks, and got further training in coaching, family constellation work, and energy psychology. He currently helps people recover from ancestral and personal trauma, researches, writes, teaches, and finds himself returning to his original fascination with the social and scientific impacts of conceptual metaphors. Off duty, he sails, loves woodwork, and writes and sings topical songs used to introduce keynote speakers at conferences.