[2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Blame Quintushalls for this.

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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby DonRetrasado » Tue Sep 23, 2014 4:10 am

ReasonablyDoubtful wrote:If you're talking about imagination, then that's a different matter. I assume you mean that we're the only species capable of discussing things that aren't there? For example, we can discuss how to defend ourselves against potential tiger attacks or explain knapping. That's imagination applied to language, not a necessary component of language itself. Language is "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings." Linguistical anthropologists and others that study language like to get a bit snobbish and try to act like there's more to language than that, but imagination is not language; we can apply our imagination to language, but it's no more a necessary part of it than, say, words for computer technology or astronomy. We engage different parts of our mind when using language because imagination is such an inherent part of human language that it's almost unavoidable. We can, however, communicate without it. All that means is that we won't be able to discuss things that we imagine.

Because chickens understand a certain call as meaning "predator in the sky," they have language. Their language does not compose many words and they cannot convery imaginative thoughts, but it is still language. Because bees understand a certain dance as meaning "flowers in bloom, bearing 215 degrees, approximately 25 feet away," then they have a language.

Nope, I was not talking about imagination! As a matter of fact, language has several characteristics that plain just don't exist in animal communications. Yes, human language does use imagination (or "displacement"), and it is a hell of a lot better at it than other animals; if I were only discussing imagination, then I would simply say, yes, humans have a far greater capacity for imagination than other animals, and that's enough to make language a unique faculty. But language has a couple other factors going for it, too.

1. As you ignored me saying earlier, language is creative; that is, we can create novel structures and ideas that simply haven't existed before. The standard example comes from Noam Chomsky, who said "colorless green ideas sleep furiously". This is quite plainly a nonsense sentence, but native English speakers still recognize it as English, and I've even heard a few people try to interpret a meaning out of it. It's a good, albeit extreme example of what linguists mean by "creativity". Not only am I talking about something that doesn't exist, I am not even talking about something that could or could not exist. It may as well be a Jabberwocky. Language can be something in and of itself, separate from communication.

2. Language is recursive. I can say that I was thinking about making a post in this thread about language because I have some relevant experience in the topic and another poster wanted to hear about my opinion and I am quite comfortable discussing it, and I can make this sentence as arbitrarily long as I want to. This is something that animals simply cannot do, and there is no rebuttal to this.

The idea that you'd appeal to me using Merriam-Webster is stupid. Not only is cherry-picking your favourite definition plainly bad mojo, it's also a fact that real-life linguists just don't use that particular definition. In fact, the technical linguistic definition plainly indicates that language is a human faculty. I'm not willing to debate definitions, so if you have a problem with me not accepting your particular definition of language that no one who studies language actually uses, then there's no point in having this conversation.

Casey wrote:After years of reading about this debate, I've come to the conclusion that there's a certain necessary human-centric obsession with determining an arbitrary standard of communication that sets us apart from inferior species. The discontinuity position willfully disregards evolutionary science in a way "my grandpa weren't no monkey" folks would be proud of.


AmagicalFishy wrote:I don't think Casey is ignoring the topic; this discussion may not be spurred as a result of some human-superiority complex, but it sure as hell is human-centric (in such a way that I think there's no real new information to be derived from this discussion; it's counterproductive). That is, the classifications (i.e. - language) are founded on the assumption that some human-feature is fundamentally different than some non-human feature. Then, everyone starts arguing about this classification while some people question the initial assumption. Inevitably, the conversation arrives at a "Language is [this] with [this] caveat that makes it human" vs. "Language is [this] without [this] caveat" That is not the way things should be done (because caveats ad infinitum don't get anyone anywhere also no one cares).

The point was to figure out what is necessary for the creation of a civilization. I assume that we all consider "civilization" a human-exclusive thing? Great. One suggestion was language. Do we mean the part of language-use that is exclusively human? Or do we mean langauge as simply a means of communicating information? If we mean the former, then it language could be a requirement—amongst other things that humans might have. If we mean the latter, then language could still be a requirement—amongst other things that non-humans might not have.

Are we trying to figure out what, when communicating, humans have that non-humans don't? Imagination was a suggestion. Do we mean ideas that aren't a reality in the thinker's mind? Do we mean things that the thinker does not actually sense, but are there for all intents and purposes (i.e. - a chicken hearing a call, seeing/hearing no predator directly, but acting as if there is one)?

Arguing about denotation can be tempting, but if avoiding it is difficult—just explicitely state the idea and abandon the disagreed-upon word.

These are valid points, and in some ways I understand the mentality and even agree partway. I do see a lot of people using phony justifications to explain how humans should feel superior to other animals (often as some kind of hackneyed defense of intelligent design or how animals don't feel pain, which I do not agree with). I don't see why humans should feel superior to other animals, frankly it doesn't even cross my mind. However, as far as language is concerned, it simply is just different from animal communication. As I wrote above, there are some features that you just don't witness in animal communication; yes, human language is fundamentally different than other forms of animal communication, no ifs ands or buts. Even if you could show that some animals had some features of human language, the fact is they are still an order of magnitude away in terms of complexity from humans. If this weren't true, you'd be able to have this same conversation with a chimpanzee. I have no idea why this is, and I can't speak to any other aspect of animal behaviour, but the point is that even by instinct you should be able to see the difference. Look back at my point about recursion if you need a better idea of what I'm trying to say here; it's literally impossible for an animal to understand my sentence, even though you probably can.

As far as if language is a requirement for civilization, I have no idea. I only wrote that as a joke, and it got blown out of proportion. Sorry, guys! For what it's worth I really did once read that crows had their own cultures and all, and I'm genuinely very interested in the animal. But no, they don't have language as we define it.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby Casey » Tue Sep 23, 2014 5:42 am

The problem is "by instinct" is not a rational or falsifiable position to hold. The most coherent explanation of the fundamental difference of human language and animal language is the discontinuity theory and that's a theory that willfully ignores the mechanics of evolution to remain cogent. At some point in our history "language" was not "language" and it's highly unlikely that it was some sudden binary switch from not-language to language and highly more likely it's literally just an extension of already extant communication processes that exist in thousands of non-human species today. The distinction is clear here: there's nothing individually or uniquely special about human language; humans simply believe it to be so through "instinct" or at best "complexity."

This is why I said it was a "necessary" human-centric obsession to determine what makes humans uniquely adapted. We're sociologically adapted in many many cultures to understand animals as "Other" than ourselves, but we have no reliable method of validating this belief (especially without a religion that explicitly professes human dominance and superiority), so we're constantly searching for one to resolve this dissonance.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby DonRetrasado » Tue Sep 23, 2014 7:41 am

Casey wrote:The problem is "by instinct" is not a rational or falsifiable position to hold. The most coherent explanation of the fundamental difference of human language and animal language is the discontinuity theory and that's a theory that willfully ignores the mechanics of evolution to remain cogent. At some point in our history "language" was not "language" and it's highly unlikely that it was some sudden binary switch from not-language to language and highly more likely it's literally just an extension of already extant communication processes that exist in thousands of non-human species today. The distinction is clear here: there's nothing individually or uniquely special about human language; humans simply believe it to be so through "instinct" or at best "complexity."

This is why I said it was a "necessary" human-centric obsession to determine what makes humans uniquely adapted. We're sociologically adapted in many many cultures to understand animals as "Other" than ourselves, but we have no reliable method of validating this belief (especially without a religion that explicitly professes human dominance and superiority), so we're constantly searching for one to resolve this dissonance.

Can you name me an animal that has something between language and not-language? Don't forget I named you some features that are unique to human language, for example, recursion. We can arbitrarily keep "merging" sentences and ideas together, whereas other animals can't do that even once, so it sure has hell. There's no non-human animal that can only manage a couple of phrase structures at a time, whereas humans can string them together arbitrarily and infinitely (barring some practical limits, like time). I could explain this concept in more detail but at that point we're basically getting into a beginner's syntax course.

Seriously, I have no vested interest in this debate except that I spent a long time studying linguistics. In fact, I agree that people tend to underestimate non-human animals in a lot of other ways. But while I'm not great at explaining my thoughts, there are some very obvious reasons why language is unique as a form of communication. I understand no one likes being told "trust me" but the whole reason we have schools for linguistics is because it's not an easy thing to understand without some training. That's why I say "you should be able to understand this by instinct, but the reason people have these instincts is because there are concrete reasons behind them". But if you feel like the very obvious and extensively studied "complexity" of language is not enough to distinguish it from the rudimentary forms of communication that other animals use, then I don't see this conversation really going anywhere.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby DonRetrasado » Tue Sep 23, 2014 7:42 am

If you want a really dumb reason why language is different from animal communication, it's 'cause animals don't take linguistics courses :P
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby Kaharz » Tue Sep 23, 2014 11:42 am

Casey wrote:The problem is "by instinct" is not a rational or falsifiable position to hold. The most coherent explanation of the fundamental difference of human language and animal language is the discontinuity theory and that's a theory that willfully ignores the mechanics of evolution to remain cogent. At some point in our history "language" was not "language" and it's highly unlikely that it was some sudden binary switch from not-language to language and highly more likely it's literally just an extension of already extant communication processes that exist in thousands of non-human species today. The distinction is clear here: there's nothing individually or uniquely special about human language; humans simply believe it to be so through "instinct" or at best "complexity."


I'm trying to understand the core of your argument. If human language is not a unique form of communication because it evolved from some other non-language form of communication, wouldn't that make almost any other trait non-unique? I get that a lot of people equate human uniqueness with superiority. I personally don't. By any decent yardstick, we probably are not superior. And really almost any definition of superiority is probably going to be very situational and thus deeply flawed. But I don't see a problem in considering certain traits of any given species to be superior to those of others. It only becomes a problem when value judgements are added.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby AmagicalFishy » Thu Sep 25, 2014 11:28 am

Kaharz wrote: If human language is not a unique form of communication because it evolved from some other non-language form of communication, wouldn't that make almost any other trait non-unique?

Yes.

At least, in the particular sense of "unique" that human language seems to often be described with. That is—it is not an isolated mechanic which can be described by a (somewhat fluffy) single-trait word like "imagination" or "recursion" (i.e. - there was no language, then the binary imaginative-recursion switch turned on, then language emerged). We probably have the building blocks of language from things that are already here. It's likely an aggregation of many things that are fairly common in the animal kingdom, with maybe some interesting nuances that come forth when certain traits are mixed together. While some people may just mean this when they say unique, I think what Casey is talking about is the general connotation surrounding discussions of the difference between humans and non-humans.

Also, to throw a wrench at a monkey: While I understand that superiority really needs a context to make sense (having no short-term memory is superior to having one if the metric is maximization of not-being-able-to-remember-things), I'd describe humans as superior for most common metrics (including survival), and thus superior as a whole.

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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby AmagicalFishy » Thu Sep 25, 2014 11:31 am

(Since I can't edit: Maybe one of those interesting nuances is something like the mind's ability to comprehend recursive mechanics?)
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby GUTCHUCKER » Thu Sep 25, 2014 6:53 pm

I may be missing a uni course or two, but all of this reads like a bunch of wank to me.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby AmagicalFishy » Fri Sep 26, 2014 2:07 am

you read like a bunch of wank
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby GUTCHUCKER » Fri Sep 26, 2014 4:04 am

No u
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby Kaharz » Fri Sep 26, 2014 10:11 am

GUTCHUCKER wrote:I may be missing a uni course or two, but all of this reads like a bunch of wank to me.


Damnit Gutchucker, I was just about to climax.
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Re: [2014-09-08] Bigger asses for bigger brains

Postby GUTCHUCKER » Fri Sep 26, 2014 11:45 am

Looks like I came just in time. And you didn't.
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