Language, Consciousness and Identity – Daily Times

Posted: November 8, 2019 at 4:42 pm


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A language is a system of relations; relations between signs and meanings assigned to them which are governed by grammatical rules of combination. When two people know and believe in the same system, that is, in the same meanings assigned to relevant signs, they can effectively communicate through transmitting relevant sequences of signs.

Language is thought to have originated when early hominids brain size increased in volume. This cognitive evolution took place in the Home Sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic Period less than 100,000 years ago. The gene associated with this evolution is FOXP2 that makes language processing possible in humans. Since human language is relational, this progression must have been sudden and must have followed an ascent in consciousness. The ability to draw relations between things is an innate ability of the human mind which allows it to make sense of the world.

Communication systems used by other animals happen to be single tiered, that is, there is a sound that corresponds to a single meaning. This means that the possibilities of expression are finite. Human language, on the other hand, is multi-tiered. It has a finite number of primary elements (alphabets) which can be joined to form a vast number of secondary elements (words) which in turn can be organized using the rules of grammar into an infinite number of tertiary meanings (sentences).

However, the biggest difference lies, not in the nature of the communication system itself, but in the cognitive difference that allows humans to create fictions and project thought into the past and future, whereas animals inhabit a continuous present. This means that humans are uniquely capable of discussing abstract concepts and events that happened in the past or the possibility of which lies in the future. This adds a fifth tier to the human language that is concept. A concept is an abstract entity that allows a human being to make sense of the phenomenological world. These concepts add up to form a world view. A world view is a reservoir of concepts and perceptual data associated with it collected by the senses. This makes humans historical animals. Concepts are drawn from this reservoir at will and compared and contrasted with situations resulting in the negation, affirmation or evolution of that concept.

A human being is a creature that has its existence in language. Human consciousness is embedded in language. An I and you relationship forms the basis of human existence. Thus, there can be no Philosophy without language. This does not only mean that language is the medium through which a philosophical concept is communicated, but also that the philosophical process as it unfolds in the human mind itself is embedded in language. This means that language exists prior to the speech. A human childs consciousness is already embedded in the language before it can learn to say the first word. Language is also the phenomenon that embeds us in time and makes us temporal creatures. An animal is not a temporal creature. Yes, all animals die, but they never experience death, for death is simply a flip between the process of dying and the state of being dead. Death in-itself has no existence. You cannot experience death since while you are alive, death is not, and when death is you are not. Animals only cease to exist as moving creatures. They do not experience death. Only humans experience death, that is, the concept of death, the conception of which becomes possible in language.

Scientists have not been able to find the link between the processing of language by the brain, the consciousness that gives rise to it, and the consciousness that it gives rise to. They can only identify the part of the brain which becomes active when language is processed and the speech impairment that happens as a result of damaged parts of the brain. This is the limit beyond which neuroscience cannot progress. So let us look at the problem of consciousness and language through the lens of quantum physics.

David Bohm (1917-1992) proposed that the phenomenological universe (explicate order) as we perceive it arises from an underlying substratum which he called the implicate order. He arrived at this conclusion because at the Quantum level, explicate order is nothing but disturbances in the Implicate Order. That is, form and matter are mere disturbances in an otherwise still field. This is the case with subatomic particles that do not have a mass of their own; whatever mass they have is because of the speed with which they oscillate. If they were to stop spinning, they would go out of existence, that is, if all the subatomic particles making up our body were to stop oscillating at the same time, we will not drop dead, instead, we will go out of existence instantaneously. We will disappear. Poof! Image a bedsheet with wrinkles.

The wrinkles do not have an existence distinct from the bedsheet. If we were to stretch the bedsheet, the wrinkles will not fall to the floor, they will simply disappear. Bohm extended his hypothesis to explain consciousness as well. He proposed that consciousness was simply the flow between the two orders.

If consciousness is the flow between the implicate and explicate order, then language is the medium through which this flow happens, and creativity is the effect of this flow onto the explicate order. This flow is the collective consciousness of nature and this medium is the meta-language of nature.

For a human being, that is an individual consciousness, creativity means tapping into this river of collective consciousness and drinking from it. But for this exchange to happen, the individual human being has to step into language. This happens as soon as the human fetus becomes conscious. We have already established that language precedes speech, therefore, it is not required for the fetus to have learned a particular speech to have an existence embedded in the language since grammar, that is the ability to draw connections, is hard-wired into his/her DNA. But once the child starts learning a mother tongue (a process which starts in the womb), he/she learns to communicate this outpouring of creativity through signs. Thus we have a sequence of interfaces which makes a relational 8 existence of human being possible: the interchange between the collective consciousness and individual consciousness through language which is built-in, followed by an interchange between the built-in language and a language that is a system of signs which the human fetus learns as a mother tongue. This connection, once established, is permanent. If at any stage the child learns another language, it simply adds another level of interchange, from consciousness to built-in language to mother tongue to the secondary language. This means that expression in ones mother tongue is easier and more profound than when done in a secondary language.

However, there is an aspect of the phenomenological experience that cannot be communicated through language. This is the emotional aspect. One can describe the experience in which interaction with a tree was involved, but one cannot completely communicate how that interaction made one feel. Poetry can come very close to communicating that experience, but not entirely. This is one limitation of language.

But this very shortcoming of language makes a relational existence possible. If I can communicate my experience of being alive to another human being in its entirety, the distinction between I and him/her will disappear. There will be no difference left between one and the other. Opposite poles of a magnet attract because they are two separate entities. If they become one, the attraction between them will disappear. The Sun and Earth attract each other through the gravitational pull. If they were to become one, their attraction for each other will disappear. This also establishes the relationship between man and God as dialogical. Man can only aspire but never become one with God. This makes God the ultimate signified. Between Him and the man lies an infinite chain of signifiers.

Language separates us. Language connects us. We can connect because we are separate. But this separation makes man the loneliest creature in the universe. Man is utterly alone within his experience of being alive which is noncommunicable. Out of this loneliness is born the longing for the Other. That is why man is a stretched creature whose center of existence is displaced. As I am sitting, writing this essay, I find myself stretched towards all my lost loves, my family, my ex-wife, my son.

Language connects us. It does so, firstly, by bestowing us with an identity. When a child can say I am a Muslim or I am a Pakistani, he/she is already the speaker of the language he/she uses to say these words. The phrase I am a Muslim, before being a concept, is already an act of speech. Before the child belongs to a religion or nation, he/she already belongs to a language. This makes the mother tongue our first identity as a relational being. Two things cannot connect until their distinction is not established. Punjabis and Sindhis (for example) cannot connect until they first become Punjabis and Sindhis. This is a true democracy. Democracy takes into account peoples differences.

Coexistence means respecting differences, not eliminating them. Elimination of differences in the way of the tyrant and the oppressor. This understanding of respecting differences to form a stronger unity is the way 9 forward for Pakistan, a country suffering from the paradox of being a nation-state as well as a culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse land. We have to accept that unique circumstances in history led us to a point where we have a country with multiple cultures, religions and languages. We have to make the best of it and recognise and respect others differences.

The writer currently teaches at the Institute for Art and Culture, Lahore as an Assistant Professor.

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Language, Consciousness and Identity - Daily Times

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November 8th, 2019 at 4:42 pm