Thursday, January 19, 2012

Words Cannot Describe

Towards the terminal end of my first marriage an incident occurred which later caused me to explore words and language in an attempt to understand what the hell happened.

On a Saturday morning the three of us (including my son who was 9 at the time) ventured out to the Whitfords City shopping mall to accomplish several errands.  We were a little early, and the store we needed to visit was not yet open.  My wife said, "It's ten minutes to wait."  With the sounds of other shoppers all around and my well-documented high-frequency hearing loss that mainly affects speech decoding, what I heard was this: "It's ten minutes to EIGHT."  Boy, how could I have made that mistake?

This startled me because, if true, it would have meant that a temporal shift had occurred of some 60 minutes or so into the past.  I immediately looked at my watch, which on that day was the Wenger Standard Issue.  Looking at my watch is something I have always found to be both helpful and reassuring during temporal-shift  situations.

I discovered it was not actually 7:50 AM, but 8:45 AM.  So I said, "No, it's quarter to nine by my watch."

A number of minutes passed without further conversation or incident, until suddenly I realized I was now at the mall all by myself!  I looked all around, and my family was gone.  I went back to the parking lot where we had left the car, and it was gone, too.  So I did what any sane person would do.  I went to the food court, found a comfortable chair, and had myself a cheeseburger and an ice cream. Yup, there's nothing like a nutritious breakfast (and that wasn't).

A few hours later, She Who Must Not Be Named returned to find me sitting confused but otherwise content at a table in the food hall of the mall.  She had that look on her face.  The look that meant I had done something totally unforgivable, and that I was the most contemptible thing on the planet.

I still had no idea what had happened.

Nor did I find out until several weeks later during marriage counselling (what a waste of an hour THAT was!)  I learned why I had been left at the mall as a punishment.  And incidentally, why enjoying my punishment was  a reprehensible, despicable and also very naughty thing to have done.

She explained to the counselor that because I am clearly a moron she had tried to make me somehow comprehend that we had to wait ten minutes before the store opened ("ten to wait," not "ten to eight.")  And in response, she recounted, I had called her a bitch.  Right in front of everyone at the mall.

Now, why would I say a thing like that?  In the context of the situation, it doesn't even make sense.  To hear an insult and profanity instead of what I actually said could only mean she was consciously or unconsciously anticipating that I must someday say such a thing even though I had never done so before.  So what really happened?

No language, words or sentence is ever totally correct.  There is always something not quite right or not fully defined.  More words are always needed, no matter how carefully something is explained. Of all the languages, Mathematics comes the closest to being precise in everything it says.  But that is what I call a  Quantitative language (and there can be more than one), while English, Hindi, Japanese, and Hungarian are examples of what I call Qualitative languages.  They are used when discussing qualities, while some system of mathematics must be used to have a meaningful discussion about quantities.

Mathematics begins with some very simple assumptions and builds on them so that eventually, nearly any proposition expressed mathematically can be decided either true or not true, relative to the truth of the initial premises.  But even Mathematics has its limitations.  For example, the absolute truth of any statement is no more true than the initial assumptions.  The starting assumptions are very hard to prove, because what do you use to prove them with?  It's like determining how accurate a ruler is if all you have is one ruler.

Ultimately, the assumptions have to be demonstrated empirically.  For example, there is a quantity we call "one," and it exists empirically because you can see examples of things of which there are just "one."  Same with "two," "zero," etc.  Then, you can prove mathematically that if you put the one thing together with the two things then you get "three," and this "three" is identical to the number defined by some things of which there are empirically "three."  And so on.

Kurt Gödel at age 20
Another limitation exists, which nobody knew about for a long time.  It turns out that no system of mathematics can be constructed that is able to determine the validity of every possible proposition within that mathematical system.  In other words, no matter how "complete" you think your system of mathematics is, it will always be possible to propose a statement that can neither be proved or disproved.   Just as in Science, there will be untestable statements in mathematics.  This is called Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (or GIT for short).  He proved it (ironically if you ask me) in 1931 at age 25, much to the dismay of mathematicians who up until that point were feeling way too smug about the perfection of their art.

So any language is imperfect.  An obvious statement to some, a thunderbolt to others who will likely send me threatening emails in which they misconstrue everything I've said (thereby proving my point).  Information Theory (which by the way is NOT "just a theory") tells us that to describe something absolutely perfectly requires an infinite amount of data, whether bits of 1's and 0's, words, sounds, or mathematical scribblings.  But usually there comes a point where "close enough" is close enough.  We can shrink an image file down to a few kilobytes and it still more or less shows what we needed it to show.  With words, we have a far more effective means of maximizing the bandwidth, so to speak, of our voices, blogs and books.

Of course qualitative languages have the added disadvantage that when we discuss the qualities of things (good, bad, blue, hot, mine, Hungarian) these are almost always subjective judgements.  They are what each person decides they are.   So how is it even possible to communicate at all?  On its own, language - even mathematics - isn't enough.  One additional thing is needed to make communication possible.  The human brain.

In your brain there is a conceptual model of your world with language labels attached to all the various features.  It began to form as soon as your cells differentiated enough to make neurons that were capable of making synaptic connections.  Your internal model of the world is by no means perfect, and it never stops developing, improving, refining, or adapting.  Sometimes slowly, as you gradually get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, or rapidly, as you make an instant correction for a sudden cross-wind while riding a bike.

When I use a word, it obviously doesn't contain within its letters or sounds the entire meaning of the word or even ANY of the meaning (that would take far too much bandwidth and time).  Instead, it simply points you to a particular feature of your internal model of the world, like a hyperlink points to a web page.  That works if your model is similar enough to mine to have that feature, and it works even better if your version of the feature is pretty similar to the one I have.  In other words, if you and I have enough shared or common experience, we can communicate.  The more shared or common experience we have, the better we can communicate and the fewer words are needed.

Shared experiences are things you and I have personally done together.  Visiting the zoo.  Fighting the Ostrogoths.   Working at the same company.  Common experiences are things we have done separately, but which are largely the same.  We may have read the same book, visited the same cities, or once owned the same kind of car.

The internet analogy is really interesting for how inaccurate it is: You have a hyperlink on the screen of your computer, and it retrieves a web page that is outside on the internet that anyone can see, and of which everyone who is now accessing it sees the same version.  Language is the opposite.  I send you a hyperlink (a word) that links to a web page stored on your computer.  I have no idea what is stored on your computer, if anything.  I just have to hope that you have linked that word with the same page on your hard drive that I have it linked to on my hard drive. And that the pages are similar enough for what I am saying to make any sense to you.

Then if we, through ongoing exchange, detect a bit of confusion, we can compare versions of our models and argue about which one is correct.  If both people are willing to defer to the outside objective reality rather than insist on his or her own internal representation of reality as the correct one, then these conversations are productive and useful.  Even enjoyable to someone who loves to learn.  Because both participants usually learn something.

So, how can a day at the mall turn out so differently for two people who started out on the same trip?  Easy.  If they internally model the world differently,  every experience will mean something different to each person.  In my ex wife's model of the world, we might surmise that there is the belief that men are all jerks and women are victims unless they act angry all the time.  Well, it's one possibility: who can say for sure.

In my model of the world, people are generally friendly and just want to know what time it is.

When someone is stressed, feeling under attack, unhappy, or generally out of rapport with you, then regardless of anything you say, they will hear only what they are capable of hearing.  Regardless of anything you do, they will interpret it and make a meaning out of it in the way that most reinforces their own beliefs and assumptions.  It has nothing to do with you, and there is little you can do about it.

Knowing the extent to which that disease was rampant in the relationship, it is clear to me now that on that Saturday when I sat there at the mall by myself, eating a cheeseburger and wondering how I was going to get home, my marriage was already terminal.  It would soon be dead, smelling bad, and in need of a quick and comprehensive burial.


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