The Discussion: Belief
(Part 1: Introduction)

Chris Russell
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

This story is dedicated to the people who were a part of the formation of these thoughts:
Michael Maraun, Jason Houghton, Colleen Shaw, Jarkko Jalava, Shannon, & Craig Lucock

Imagine if language could enable its skilled user to understand anything. Do you think that’s possible--most don’t. In fact, from what I’ve seen, the majority think empiricism has the potential to understand all there is to know, but this way of thinking is naive. It is based on the belief that the bodies five senses are able to, and do in fact sense all that there is to perceive. This common understanding of our capacity to perceive is entirely too limiting. In reality our bodily senses (five?) do not actually "see" or detect all that there is? For example our eyes actually only sense a rather limited area of the light spectrum; our ears also are able to only sense a rather narrow range of vibrations. This pattern runs through our entire being--a limited ability to see, hear, taste, touch and smell the world. But are these the only sense abilities we posses? I would argue (and I’m not the only one who might argue this way) that our ability to think is also a bodily sense. Assuming that thinking is the manifestation of an additional sense ability, and continuing with the known pattern of bodily senses, the ability to "think" must also be limited. Through the advancement of technologies we have discovered that there is more to perceive than what our bodies are showing us, or more exists than we (as a species) are able to perceive with the physical senses we have been given. Thus, there must be thoughts that we are not able to perceive through our natural ability to think. There are things, for a lack of a better term, that we can not think about, just like there are wavelengths of light, for example, that we can not see with the naked eye. Again, we can only hear specific sounds, our smell and taste are weak, while our sense of touch, though good, has been enhanced through modern technology to levels far beyond our natural ability to feel or touch. Our thoughts must be limited in some way too. But how are we to perceive the unthinkable? With light, it was technology that enabled us to discover that there are numerous types of light that exist, while our sense of touch has been enhanced through the influence of both mathematics and technology. What can be used to discover what it is that we can not think of? I will suggest in the following essay that we can in fact use language to sense or "see" what we can not think.

Ironically, it is a common belief that language is very limited in what it can allow us to perceive. I’ve heard many people say that they have difficulty expressing in words what they truly feel. Now this may be true, but that truth may only be for specific persons. I will argue that language is often misused, thus preventing people from perceiving what they are feeling; and that language, when used without restrictions, has the potential to reveal anything to its skilled user. I’ll also argue that only with language will we be able to discover those areas of thought we are unable to think of or perceive. (I’m using the term thought in a unique way from how it is commonly used. ‘Thought’ in this paper must be understood as an external influence, not unlike sound vibrations. Later in this paper this will be explained.) Thus, an analysis of the differences and similarities between thought and language will be useful in understanding the relationship between them.

Thought and language are not the same thing, just as sound and the ear are not the same thing. We can do this with any of the bodily senses: we differentiate between what is sensed (light, sound, touch, taste, etc.) and what it is we sense with (eyes, ears, skin, tongue etc.). Thought, or thinking, is also something that our bodies sense, thus I’m suggesting that we now understand our thought patterns: what we think, our ideas, concepts and even beliefs as something we actually perceive; but with what do our bodies detect thought with? Notice that hearing is our perception of sound, sight is our perception of light; and we hear with the ear and see with the eye. Thinking comes through our ability to sense ideas or concepts and we perceive thought with language. I'm tempted to say that we think with our brains, but this is not so. Looking at the other physical senses again I ask: do we see with the brain, or hear with the brain? No!, and we must also resist the temptation to identify our thoughts as detected with the brain. The brain is a complex piece of machinery which is not nearly fully understood. To answer the question: with what do we detect these ideas and concepts which we call thought, I suggest we look closely at our capacity to use language as the answer to this enigmatic question. Just as without eyes we would not be able to see, without language we would not be able to express ideas and concepts: think. Thus, language must now be thought of as something with which we perceive concepts and ideas, much like the ear or eye senses sound or light. Still language is definitely different from the physical sense organs in a number of ways, but before discussing these differences some of the similarities with our physical sense organs will be noted.

The first similarity that language has with the other physical sense organs, though an obvious one when language is also understood as a bodily sense, is a bit foreign to our current understanding of language. Currently, one view says that language is a tool that we use to communicate with each other. Language is understood as something that we have developed or invented through our capacity to think and be creative. Communication between people may indeed be an extremely convenient benefit of language, but language is not an invention of man. Language is a gift, not unlike our eyesight, thus like the other organs of sense, language detects what is external to ourselves. Shifting our focus again onto a physical organ in order to better understand what is being said here, I will use the ear as an analogy. Think of a time that you heard a noise, but were unable to identify what that sound was and/or from where the sound was coming from. When this happens what do you usually do? You ask someone if they heard the sound, or if you are alone you focus your attention onto your ability to hear. You might follow the sound, moving towards it in order to discover what the sound is; my point being that we do not always immediately recognize what we are perceiving with our bodily senses. Now take this analogy back to language: the ability to detect or understand ideas and concepts. The logical conclusion is that language detects what is external to ourselves, thus thoughts, ideas and concepts have an external source of origin. The fact that thoughts are external, and are not an intimate part of our being until they are understood or consciously assimilated can be seen in a common linguistic phenomena. For example, when you have a word or name on your "mind", but are not able to actually say the word or detect it, like the "tip-of-the-tongue" phenomena, this is similar to hearing a sound but not being able to identify it. A thought has come to you, but the thought is somehow distant, and you must search and focus your attention on you ability to use language to retrieve the word or idea. As noted, this analogy implies that an unknown external source is the originator of our ideas, and the idea perceived can not always be understood. Here we see the peculiar nature of language -- in that the ideas we perceive to be our own are in fact not our own. Language simply allows us to perceive these ideas and concepts, with the option of integrating them into ourselves through understanding and faith. Without the ability to talk and/or write, ideas would essentially vanish. This is difficult to understand, but as we look at some of the other similarities and differences that language has with the physical senses, it will become evident that indeed if it were not for language we would be without ideas, concepts, and thought as we know it now.

Another similarity that naturally follows the previous one is that language cannot be separated from our thoughts because they are separate. The language that we use in life is different and autonomous from the ideas and concepts that we understand. It may be easier to see this basic quality of language by comparing it directly with one of our physical sense organs such as the ear. When we hear sounds, we do not ever confuse the ear for the sound. That is, we know that the sounds we hear are not a part of our ears, that the ear and the sound it hears are separate, and the sound is autonomous from the ear. Language is the same way. We must start to understand that language is only an ability to sense ideas, and these ideas are not our own, they are both external and autonomous from ourselves. The source of these ideas will be discussed in the dialogue section of this paper.

Finally before looking at the more dramatic differences that language has with the physical senses, we will note that language can also be improved upon. There are two different main forms of improving our physical senses. The first is through practice. Thus, as we practice or focus our energy onto a specific sense, we find that we can in fact improve what that sense can do. For example a professional wine taster has, through great practice and study, been able to actually improve the ability to taste. A skilled wine taster is able to tell you from where the wine came from, how old the wine is, and even the type of grape used in a wine that he is tasting. Now this does not come naturally, it is something that was worked at, and the ability to taste was refined and improved upon in order to gain more information about something being tasted. The same thing can be seen in our ability to hear, see, touch and smell -- so why not also for thought? With work and practice someone should be able to improve their ability to detect, understand and explain ideas. Ideas and concepts will then, as we improve our abilities at using language, come quicker; we will understand more complex ideas, and be less likely to lose subtle, slight or new and elusive ideas and concepts. In fact we see this already. The poet, the playwright, the novelist, philosopher and theologian are all examples of people who have implicitly invested their personal energies into improving their language skills, thus these people are more adept at detecting and revealing those ideas to others. One other thing. With the ability to improve anything comes the opposite -- the potential to impair. Through neglect, or injury any of the senses that we posses can be impaired. Therefor our ability to understand and even to perceive ideas can be deminished. The empirical language commonly used in the sciences, though not looking like it, is actually an example of a corrupted language-form. In explaining the basis for the claim that empiricism is a limiting use of language, Wittgenstein’s explanation of language will be invoked. Wittgenstein (1951) is credited with the idea that language is a "form-of-life", implying that languages can evolve the same as species evolve. The differences in what different languages allow its user to think of, or what ideas and concepts can be detected is based upon the specific evolution of the language being used. What one language may conceives another may not. (This is an exaggeration, in reality these differences are more in shades. Thus one language understands an idea simply or in a slightly different way than another. The details of how languages differ from one another is not a topic which I can possibly take on, since I only know a couple of languages). The language of empiricism is itself a specific evolution of language. The details of this evolution will be discussed when some of the differences between language and the physical organs are looked at. For the moment I simply want to introduce empiricism as an evolution of language which limits our ability to understand, perceive and even think ideas. It is limiting in that it only allows its user to talk about what our physical senses perceive; anything that language (as an additional sense ability) might be able to perceive is disregarded unless it is intimately attached to the perception of one or more of the five physical sense abilities.

The other way that we are able to improve (or impair?) our use of language is through technologies. This possibility of altering our language use through technology is a complex and subtle topic that will not be discussed in depth here. Instead I will simply note how we have improved (or impaired?) the abilities of the other physical senses through our advances in technology. For example technology has revealed to us wavelengths of electromagnetic energy (light) that we are not able to see with the naked eye. As well our hearing has been regenerated in the face of hearing loss, plus there are any number of other technological advances that have improved our ability to sense the physical world. But to say that language can be improved upon through technology is disregarding the nature of language. Language differs from the physical senses in ways that disallow such a simple equation as language plus technology equals improved language. These differences will be my next topic.

The first and most obvious difference that language has from the other physical senses is that language is not a physical organ. In fact if language is to be identified with any physical senses, it would need to be all five of the physical organs we posses. Language is the synthesis and organization of all the physical senses. We speak of what we see, touch, smell, taste and hear; but we also use our tongue to speak (which is also used in taste), we use our ears to hear others speak, and our eyes to see what it is we are talking about (and see our writing). While our ability to touch is used in expressing our thought, ideas and feelings. Language has no physical organ that we can identify as the sensor of ideas and concepts, and it is this unique non-physical nature of language which makes the other physical senses manifest. We do not perceive light, for example, with the eye. Our eyes act as a sensor to light, then our brains allows the light sensed to be processed and coordinated with all the other incoming sense data, finally it is language that produces our ability to perceive or understand all that we sense. We may be tempted at this point to identify the brain as the organ which we use to perceive, but this misleading and temptingly complicated interpretation of the brain’s function in the process of perception must be disregarded. Perception does not come from the brain -- perception originates in language. Thus, the assertion that thought originates externally is explained by removing perception from the brain’s role in understanding thought, ideas and concepts. When language is conceived as the ability to sense ideas, it becomes obvious that they are separate, and the brain loses its responsibility to provide perception. Language now can be understood as the source of our ability to perceive -- all our physical senses and our thought senses are perceived through language. The common mistake of identifying our brains as the source of our thoughts is due to the belief that our thoughts and the language that detects the thoughts are not separate. Parts of the brain have been correlated with bodily functions such as the physical senses, memory, feelings, voluntary movement, and even language, but no part of the brain has ever been identified as the source of ideas, concepts or perception. Nor would it ever be suggested that the brain detects sound, light or any of the physical senses, it is plainly understood that only the physical organs detect what we sense, not the brain. Thus the brain does not give us thought, rather it is with language that thought is understood.

The next feature that separates language from the physical senses is a logical extension of the above points. Since language is important to all the physical senses in that it allows us to understand what it is we are physically sensing, we can conclude that language is the foundation upon which all other senses are made manifest. That means that we speak of what we hear, see, taste and touch, but we do not taste, for example, what we say. The only time we could go that way is with metaphor (which is itself a form of language use); where as in the direction of language to physical senses there is acceptance and logic, and this makes language the most useful and used gift we have -- not sight, as is often believed. As well, it is language: the understanding and explaining of ideas, thoughts and concepts, not hearing nor seeing etc. which make humans unique among God's creatures. All life on earth has one or more of the physical senses, but it is a debatable question whether any animal or plant life actually has language. Again, we come to the conclusion that without this ability to use language, which allows us to sense and perceive ideas/thoughts, we would not be able to make sense of many of the things we come into contact with. Language brings meaning to our physical and mental senses.

The last difference that language has from our physical organs is that there are many types of language which mostly do the same thing. Language is used in order to understand, or make sense of our physical senses and non-physical thoughts, but the number of different types and forms of language that currently do this is quite amazing. Different languages can be found all over the world, and different languages will detect different physical things and non-physical thoughts, whereas there is only one type of ear that detects sound, and one type of eye that detects light etc. An ear is an ear, and for an ear to do what its supposed to it must posses the essential parts that make it an ear. I guess that since the ear (and other physical organs) is bound by the physical nature of the organ, it is not free to come in different forms. Ears may look different from each other, but the defining criteria which make them ears do not change. When we look at language, on the other hand, we find that languages differ in more than just their dialect, grammar, syntax, lexicon etc.. What language can sense will differ with different language use. This will definitely need some further explanation in order for this statement to be understood. An analogy will work best to illuminate how it is that different languages detect different things from each other, while still remaining a language. In a single person's life-time their hearing abilities will likely change. Usually this change goes from good to less-good to poor. None the less it is still hearing that the ear does; it detects sounds even though the sounds that it can detect have become limited. Now apply this "change" to language in the form of evolution, since we have learned that language can evolve the same as a species does. Thus, we are no longer talking about a singe life, but are now speaking of language as a "form-of-life". We have languages which evolve the same as species evolve, and the differences in what our different languages allow its user to think of or what ideas and concepts can be detected is based on the specific evolution of the language.

Before moving on to another feature of language, I would like to apply this notion that language evolves to a specific example. I have spent a lot of energy over the last two years trying to make clear why empiricism, as a form of language, is different than other forms of language. I've talked of its limitations, and where these limitations originate from. I've also tried to depict and explain what the consequences of using this limited language will be (are!). Now applying what has been said about the evolution of language, it could easily be argued that the language of empiricism is indeed a type of current evolution of language. That is, our very own language use is in the throws of evolving. I would like to attempt to describe the history of this evolution, but am reluctant to say that any of this is concrete. I will thus give only a brief outline of this evolution manifesting itself ultimately in the language of empiricism.

I will suggest that the first move in this evolution towards empiricism took place some time after the Dark Ages. Then we need to look at a number of influential thinkers in Western civilization to identify specific occurrences of change. ( Without researching names, I would be reluctant to do any name-dropping here, but I invite you to identify some influential people in our society who have changed the way we think about reality.) The evolution of language that ends with empiricism is not seen nor started in the layperson's language. This evolution is initiated in the universities with the sciences. Thus, as science and its predominant methodology took over society, the language that society used also changed. Eventually what the empirical method, used by scientists, said in the universities and other intellectual institutions was also said by the whole of society. In the end what was accepted by society, and what can be talked of with any sort of understanding or logical sense has been limited by the language of empiricism. With this limited example of a specific evolution of language culminating with empiricism, the point that different languages detect different things is evident. For the language of empiricism, though using the same words, grammar, syntax, etc. as its predecessor, is not able to sense or understand many of the ideas, concepts and thoughts that were once common.

There may be other similarities, and even more likely further differences between the physical and non-physical senses we posses, but instead of searching for them I will continue with an analysis of the difference between language and thought. Given what we have said thus far, we come to some extraordinary conclusions about the relation between language and thought. When said in a blunt and general statement, language can change the way we perceive ideas, and limit or expand the thoughts we can have. Keep in mind that ideas are autonomous from the language we use, thus depending upon the language being used, different thoughts and ideas will be perceived. This is a unique feature of language that does not appear in the physical senses. An ear will only hear sounds, for example, and will be limited by its natural make-up or biology. Whereas language has no such physical constraints, its remains free to perceive what ever its user will allow it to show them, given their ability to use language. As mentioned, the current language use that dominates our current society is now limited in what it will allow us to sense. When a concept is not understood, this is not because of language’s limitations, rather the lack of understanding comes from the language being used. Further, when language is changed, as in our change to an empirical based language, this change does not in turn change ideas and concepts; but it does change our understanding and our potential to perceive these said ideas and concepts. Therefor we can conclude that language can and does change, where as thoughts or ideas do not. Only our ability to explain, perceive and understand these ideas change with the change in language.

Do not conclude from this that I am saying there is an ultimate language that we are or should strive to use. What is it I am saying then? Essentially this discussion is a reaction to the empirical language that has evolved and come into common use. I am desperately trying to show others that we are limiting our selves in what we can understand because of our predominant use of the empirical language. One common saying among ourselves today is that language is an extremely limited tool. It does not have the ability to describe so many of the things which we believe exist. Emotions, feelings, personality, love, truth (Truth) and God are examples of some of the things that are not accessible with the limited use of an empirically based language. It is not generally realized that we can't speak of these things well, not because of our languages' natural limitations, but because of the unnatural limitations which we impose on language through empiricism. Empiricism acts like a dogma in its tendency to limit what can be understood. In conclusion, language is limited only because we have forced it to be such. Language, when in its natural state, or used naturally without restraints can actually allow its skilled user to understand, explain and identify anything.

Next issue: Part Two: The discussion