Truth, cognitive processes, and speech acts

Truth is a cognitive relationship. The philosophical definitions of truth you’ll see in the books and perhaps encounter in your college coursework are mostly terrible, though. The correspondence theory is almost okay, but then there turns out to be no way to verify the relationship between the theorem and the presupposed objective reality, rendering it functionally useless, a philosophical boondoggle. However, if the correspondence is posited to occur between human minds that we do have more or less direct access to if we work together, then things change. Words have a function, which, high-level, is to cause certain chain reactions in human brain tissues. By causing similar reactions in different minds, it becomes possible for individual conscious beings to experience a sort of interconnectedness we think of as communication.

I chose the title “Words aren’t real” for this article to parody the silly “birds aren’t real” movement that took pop culture by storm a few years ago because I thought it would be funny. Humor, like truth, is a cognitive relationship. My enjoyment of the silly article title is caused by a similarity between the old pop culture gag and the key, serious insight this article wishes to present: words are virtual objects that do truly exist in our minds, but they are not real because they lack direct reference in the physical world.

The subject we’re really interested in, here, is the relationship between experienced words and the metabolic activities of neural structures in the brains of living organisms. Importantly, no two repetitions of a higher order process - whether it’s a memory or an enduring attitude toward a particular object of perception over time, including, yes, a word or other verbal object - will ever activate the exact same neurons. Even if the experience is something like a color, where it’s measurably the same at the primary level of experience, the first order process. Neurons in the primary visual cortex map rather directly to specific elements of the visual field, so researchers distinguish between them and the neural firing patterns that less directly represent information from the environment to the brain by calling the more direct relationship first-order and other processes higher-order.

Of higher order processes, there are different levels. The hunger of a judge who passes a harsh sentence before lunch is thought to be a lower order process than the rational deliberation which justifies the sentence. Despite the disparity between the “levels” at which one of these processes or the other will be seen to operate, we must remember that they are part of the same person having the same thought process - the hunger influences the rational deliberation negatively, but perhaps judges with full bellies tend to be more lenient and hence the same process is also at work creating needless leniency for guilty parties. This condition is far more difficult to evaluate, but we have no need to make a concrete evaluation for the purposes of our present discussion. It is sufficient to simply say that there is one cognition composed of many individual processes, rolled up in each of us.

A speech act is the use of a word by a higher order process. This process is observable insofar as it is seen to activate the subprocess and network graph associated with the object of its calculation, our virtual experience. This takes place implicitly for the speaker; and for the listener, if the act is successful, similar processes take place. Now that we have a working understanding of the general ideas involved in psycholinguistics, it’s reasonable to move on to our main topic: the purpose of speech. Words aren’t real, they’re virtual - they only exist insofar as our real cognitive process needs and uses them.

What are words for?

The use to which we put our vocabulary is fundamentally no different from the use one of our cells gets from the process of building new proteins. Energy invested to produce new functionality. A cell’s business is producing proteins because these enable it to interact with its environment, and a brain produces words because they help in a similar way, albeit at an entirely different level that is far more complex.

To explain, we should think of a path in a forest. Animals use the path because it goes where they wish to go. Eventually, people come and perhaps expand the path or pave it. The capacity of the path increases, and more people use it as a result. Soon, a road is built and now heavy traffic can develop. All that is needed for a word to emerge is for one person to consistently use the same sound to describe the same concept. This is the animal path, the first person to decide that the description is most efficient in this way. If the word catches on, other people can start to use it and it can end up incorporated into a language.

Now, languages are tricky things to measure. New words are added each day, but old words drop off and a hundred fads die before catching on for every one that becomes popular. The lexicon of a language is the sum total of all words users of that language use in it, but note - we can’t measure a lexicon to perfect resolution. The words we can find and study are only the most popular ones in terms of usage and since ordinary speech acts aren’t all captured and stored in some database somewhere, we know only that what we know is incomplete.

The paths words give us access to aren’t real, any more than words themselves are. Instead, we can think of them as recipes that our conscious processes can use to propagate information. If I choose to use the word street in a sentence to describe a dance I am seeing unfolding in front of me, most of what I’m describing is lost if I’m speaking into a telephone to someone who is on the other side of the world and has never visited the street I am looking at. If I’m speaking to someone beside me, much more information is passed by the same symbol because the person’s attention is called by my speech to the real object to which I am referring. In a sense, the opportunity for my friend to look at the same thing I am looking at supercharges language by making it less necessary for my friend to imagine the referents of my descriptive utterances.

If you’ve ever been dismayed that a photograph you took of a distant mountain or sunset failed to capture the experience that inspired you to want to save it, then you understand that the devices we have to capture certain aspects of the world are a far cry from the ideal version of them, in which they would capture the entire experience. The good news is that cellphone photos are small enough for us to store many of them, and our own memories can be triggered by them, to give us a personal, full recall experience that people in the past mostly have not had access to.

Still, words do more than recall memories or point to observable scenery. Science is made entirely of words. It is essentially a written conversation that dates back two or three thousand years. Philosophy and religion are also ancient verbal traditions. What enables such complex verbal structures to emerge, influencing the lived experience of so many of our bodies?

Increasingly, theoreticians understand the details of this relationship. The philosophy of cognitive neuroscience now essentially supports computational functionalism, which is the view that mental states are computed. This significant because neuroimaging results show that different neurons fire even when the same process is repeated, which, for something like a speech act, means that every time we compute the meaning of a particular word, different neurons fire. Why? Well, according to computational functionalism, it’s because the firings of neurons are part of a computational process.

Which neurons fire depends upon which word is chosen, which context the utterance is taken in, and which brain is receiving or constructing the speech act. I don’t want it to sound as if I think I know exactly how this works, but my intention is to continue to study until I understand significantly more. It appears that one method by which consciousness can deterministically modify the states of neurons which are associated with networks that become activated by particular words is by verbalizing the word in question, which activates it and any associated lower-order processes. If computational functionalism is right, it’s because this is a sort of query system our consciousness is able to utilize to store and retrieve information.

Yeah, okay, but WHY?

Cognitive control is about the intentional grounding of thoughts, but more broadly, control in cognition is a relationship between a mental model and a system external to it. Thoughts and feedback from the external world form a closed system with real and virtual properties that consist of unique physical sequences of events within as well as without the conscious organism whose thoughts are said to control its behavior (i.e., the relationship between its body and its environment).

I’m thinking there’s maybe a way to describe neural processes with the mathematics and logic of cybernetics, such that reward prediction error could also be interpreted as a breakdown of what we might think of as a virtual control unit our brain spins up to represent a thing we identify in our environment and make predictions about its behavior moving forward, but alas, the deadline is this evening and I do not yet have the next piece of the puzzle. I suppose that means that the concept here is yet unfinished, if anyone else would like to have a crack at it while I divert my attention to earning my PhD and building PageDAO.

I suppose that the TL;DR version of it is that we feel comfortable to the extent that we are part of an integrated process that efficiently relates us to our environment. Losing control makes us vulnerable because our cognition’s function is to extend our existence forward and backward in time a bit to empower us to effectively safeguard our bodies. However, extending the notion of control into the territory of higher-order cognitive processes such as speech and doing so with the particular notion of cybernetic control in mind, we’re able to also postulate that one function of our relentless internal cognitive modeling process is to directly create and evaluate control relationships with objects in our environment.