10. Why do humans have the language that they have?

(We had said that our next Post would be about answering children’s questions about life, but then we realized we couldn’t do this without writing something about language first. Hence this Post, which is intended to be read in conjunction with Posts 11 and 12 about children, which will follow shortly.)

  1. If you take the view, which we have argued throughout this blog and elsewhere, that the original cause must be a conscious being – which Hlatky follows tradition in calling God – the question ‘Why do humans have the language they have?’ becomes: ‘What purpose does human language serve in God’s creation?[1]
  2. (An aside: this way of thinking – of relating everything back to God’s purpose – can be a difficult one to get used to when one has been brought up with an atheistic view of the original cause, where everything is seen as arising out of a directionless and undirected evolution. This way of thinking is also difficult for God-based views that do not ascribe a logical purpose to God’s activity.[2] )

    The human need to understand reality
  3. We have to take a step back and consider the need human beings have to understand the whole of reality. This means understanding cause and effect as it applies to the whole creation, including its original cause. We can safely assume that animals don’t have this need. They appear interested in understanding only those details of creation that they have to understand in order to meet their existential needs. Consider by contrast how children explore causality in relation to the whole of creation. They begin with their immediate, local surroundings, and gradually their interest expands to include everything. And eventually they move on to questions about the original cause and meaning.
  4. As we have argued[3], creation should be regarded as God’s effort to make himself known to and understood by us. This is the need he has. In the original situation, before creation, we, the parts, have no experience; there is nothing there to experience. And so we have no perspective on our situation. So we can’t realize that we are inside God. By connecting to a body in creation and having the perspective we have there – for example, that we are living in a whole (this is what the night sky tells us and it explains why it is such an experience for children when they first notice the stars) – we can understand that the original cause of all we experience must, logically, be a conscious being who is like us in having the same need for relationship. From this follows clarity about our relationship to life, the meaning of life and what our identity is – as we have argued in Post 2 and Post 3.
  5. The question then is: given that we need to understand the whole of creation, could we understand it – including ultimately the original cause and meaning – if we did not have language?
  6. We certainly don’t need language for the practical management of our daily lives: we could achieve this with more or less complex sounds, gestures and behaviour, in the way that animals do[4] – even if we can do this more effectively and efficiently with language.
  7. So let’s look at how human language develops. The first step is that we give a word to all the things  – both conscious beings and objects – that we come across. This is why Hlatky refers to human language as ‘everything-covering’. We then add to those words other words describing actions: what we call verbs. This allows us to describe, using language, the causal links between the things we have named. Expanding this, we gradually build up a theoretical model of how the world ‘works’, and this allows us to orientate ourselves to the changeability of the world. If our model is inaccurate, we run into problems and, ideally, we revise our model. The ultimate goal is, through reality-based dialogue[5], to reach agreement[6] about the original cause of the whole creation and at the same time the creator’s purpose in creating it.
  8. It is this dialogue that cannot be achieved without human language. That is because such dialogue involves us in discussing something – God – that is not within our direct experience. We can’t experience God directly if we are inside him.[7] So we cannot indicate him non-verbally, we cannot point to him. We have to give a name – allot a word – in order to be able to refer to him and discuss him. God, for his part, is stuck with having to ‘talk’ to us indirectly through creation. Hlatky’s hypothesis implies that there is no more that he can do.
  9. But the capacity for language that he endows us with, when used in the way God intends us to use it, is adequate for understanding God, that is, meeting his need – and thereby our own need too.[8]
  10. [To follow up on the theme of language, the reader might like to view this segment of the videoWhat is the significance of language?’, or for greater depth view the video as a whole.] 

Footnotes:

1. Of course, just the word ‘why’, used precisely, implies the purpose of a conscious being. Unfortunately, ‘why’ is often conflated with ‘how’: it is used to mean ‘how is it that…?’, or ‘how has it come about that…?’. ‘How?’ in fact relates to the technical, the mechanical; ‘why?’ relates to the purpose of a conscious being. It is important to distinguish between the two: see, for example, Post 2, paragraph 9.
2. Consider its application to the question of meaning in Post 2.
3. See Post 2, paragraphs 5 & 6.
4. For more on the difference in this respect between humans and animals, see UR p.113; also UR p.124.
5. For a discussion of the problems of not anchoring a dialogue in reality, see UR pp.45-6.
6. We have repeatedly emphasised the need for this agreement elsewhere in this blog (e.g. Post 4). See also UR, p.47.
7. And, as we have said elsewhere (Post 2, paragraph 8), the situation would not be clarified were it possible for the creator to be present in its creation, for example, by incarnating as a human.
8. Hlatky addresses the idea that language might be thought to be inadequate in general terms in Appendix A of Understanding Reality.

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