fri 11 apr 2003 12:00:00 osdorp / de aker
time, mind, size of now
so anyway. sitting on the balcony in the sun today i was thinking.
it started when i was getting coffee, and pani asked me if i thought the notion that language *creates* our conciousness of time was terribly obvious, or would some people think it a novel idea. (she was reading a little beat up paperback of karl popper's "unended quest.")
she draws informally from multidisciplinary sources in her linguistic thinking. novelists like lem, philosophers like karl popper, and unemployed engineers in california. and me. seems like everybody's invited. i like that. her intellectual pursuits arise from accidental collisions of ideas. and she ends up working for the ideas that infect her, to coin a van driem expression.
so we talked about this idea that language *enable* time-awareness. i pointed out that other animals are *somewhat* aware of time in the sense of a difference between future and past, or of now versus soon -- at least to the extent that a successful cheetah knows how fast to run and when to jump to catch the animal he or she is chasing. running and jumping involve time-predictions based on experience and an intuition for physics. so at least in that sense, animals are conscious of time. but humans are aware of history, of the continuity of self and culture, of celestial cycles and even why they happen. so we are much more time-creatures than any other beast.
apparently popper thinks language is what *gives* us this capability. i'm more inclined to think it's a coevolutionary thing, that mentation and language evolve together in this respect. time-awareness is informed by lots of human evolutionary developments -- hunting, and the patient observation herd migratory behavior; planting and reaping, and seeing the relevance between seasons and celestial cycles; and even just hand-eye coordination itself, and the possibility of time-consuming manual work. all these things serve to grow human awareness of time. and language serves to describe them. in the case of human evolution, nature selects for creatures capable of understanding the relevance of time. since language helps formally encode this understanding and make it sharable, language is a survival predictor in this sense.
some of this seems to touch on what van driem was saying, or at least to pass close to it. but i was left wondering, why is pani so intent on van driem? what's the connection between her ideas and his, that makes him so important to her? i was looking for the kernel of their covalue or corelevance as thinkers.
if, as van driem suggests, memes are about meaning rather than mere imitation, then there must be such a thing as a *semantics of memetic natural selection*.
and if there is a semantics of natural selection, then the coevolutionary behavior of language-organism and that of its host culture could be describable within that framework.
which might explain the relevance between what pani is thinking about and what van driem is thinking about. and why, without really understanding it, she feels like she needs van driem and his ideas.
pani told me today that the thing that interested her in studying linguistics in the first place was this idea (by somebody, 1948?) that languages shape and circumscribe how we can think. and that apparent cultural differences are influenced by language. pani, for example, wonders if grammars affect average personality types. polish has much more flexibility with regard to word order, it allows for very creative constructs without bending the rules. german word order is more rigorous. so, she says, maybe that explains why polish people seem more "chaotic" than germans. simple cultural stereotype perhaps, but it helps give the picture.
pani is interested in the variation of verb tenses between languages and how they affect different cultures' perceptions of time. there are verb tense sequences that never happen in polish, and there are things you can say in polish that you can't say in other languages. she wonders about those differences and how they affect personality.
she's also interested in anna wierzbicka's ongoing (over 30 years now) project to devolve languages into irreducible "semantic primes" which are beneath all languages (and into which all human conception could be rendered?). some of the primes have to do with time consciousness and causation.
another thing she's interested in she got from stanislav lem.
her time-thoughts ... basically it's about what i'm calling "the size of now." i may be convoluting a bunch of different sources here, but the main idea goes like this: in scientific time measurement and the mathematics of physics, etc, a particular instant, "now," occupies no actual time, it's just an infinitely small point on a continuum. but in consciousness there's no such thing as that infinitely thin "now." "now" must have width in order to contain the substance of experience. so "now" has meaning to us only as a quantum. and the granularity of the now-quantum varies between conscious entities.
the now of a fly, for example, is on quite a different scale from the now of a human being. the fly sees my hand coming to swat it, and moves out of the way at what seems to him a leisurely pace. my now is huge compared to his. extrapolating from there (she told me about this at the chess bar "het hok" on lange leidsedwarstr one night) it's possible to imaging a creature whose now is somewhat wider than our now. which might account for the appearance of prescience in some people. or a creature whose now was vastly greater, which to us would seem like god. she used the analogy of standing at an intersection of a hill in san francisco, from which vantage point she could see two cars moving on different streets below her, and could know something about how likely they were to collide at an intersection. her different vantage point allowed her a different concept of space and time.
so it's partly about how different grammars shape how different cultures perceive time. and it's partly about how awareness of time is a memetic evolutionary selector.
(i wonder what robert wright ("nonzero") would have to say about all this.)
as i said a couple weeks ago, this isn't about whether van driem is right or wrong. because i don't think it can be proven or disproven. this is about whether van driem's theory has some cognitive utiltiy. it's about whether seeing thru that lens gives us an enlightening view. if seeing language as an organism in a coevolutionary bond with human culture helps us think and make cognitive progress, then the theory has merit.
so. time, mind, and the size of now.