12 August 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The most important word in any language is Why. + news

Essay + Messages from Pilar and Miguel

Dear Friends,
This Sunday we are discussing: The most important word in any language
is Why.
I believe that this topic is rather deceptive. How can we disagree with
such a truism? In my short essay I try to show that to get to this
truism we have to cross the philosophical equivalent of the Rocky
Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
Fortunately, Pilar's and Miguel's messages will keep you in Madrid.
Enjoy and take care


+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Email: philomadrid@yahoo.co.uk
-Yahoo group >> philomadridgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.co.uk <
-Old essays: www.geocities.com/philomadrid
- Blog: http://philomadrid.blogspot.com/
photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/photosphilo
tel 606081813
-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147
Tertulia with Ignacio and friends: Every Thursday, from 19:30 to 21h, at
Moore's Irish Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal).


Dear all,
I highly recommend you to visit Federico Fellini exhibition (at Caixa
Forum) I enjoyed it so much. There are a lot of information and
interesting photographs.
You have time enough until December 26.
They are going to project a few films:
La Dolce Vita (on September 30, 20.30)
El jeque blanco (on October 7, 20:30)
81/2 (on October 14, 20:30)
They are free.
I want to go to watch these films. If anyone is interested let me know.*
See you on Sunday,
*I'll forward your email to Pilar. Thanks Lawrence
Hola tertulianos,
Espero que estéis pasando un buen verano. La interesante conferencia de
Pedro Torrente del pasado 27 de Julio nos inició en las matemáticas de
la navegación y en el uso del sextante, y motivó después una animada
tertulia (podéis encontrar aquí* su presentación). Gracias Pedro por el
tiempo dedicado a preparar esta conferencia y por compartir tus notas, y
buenas travesías futuras :)
Si queréis dar una conferencia en la Tertulia o sabéis de alguien que
quiera hacerlo enviadme un mensaje. La próxima reunión será
previsiblemente en Septiembre; os enviaré la convocatoria cuando
tengamos la conferencia.
Buen verano a todos,
In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
-- Johann von Neumann



The most important word in any language is Why.
Indeed the most important word in our language is why. However, why
could also be the most dangerous word in a language.
It has long been accepted in English that the word why is a linguistic
motivating force for scientific enquiry. Why, we are told, leads us to
think about "cause" and "cause and effect" are indeed the basis of
scientific enquiry.
Moreover, what makes scientific enquiry desirable is that it will help
us understand how things work. And this is just one step away to making
things work for us and the way we want them to work.
But the subject of the discussion raises two questions: 1) is the word
why actually the most important word in all languages? Of course, this
question has a social/linguistic interpretation in the sense that do all
languages have the equivalent language component of the word why in
English? In other words, does why mean the same over all languages?
2) what evidence do we have that the word why in a language causally
links those speakers of the language to scientific enquiry? Is there a
causal relationship between the word why in a language and "the pursuit
of scientific enquiry" in that community of language speakers?
Of course, enquiry per se is not interesting for this particular
discussion since it seems that most biological systems have a sense or
instinct of enquiry. Cats and dogs will enquire whether something in
front of them is edible. A shark will enquiry if a dark object above it
is a seal or a piece of flotsam.
However, scientific enquiry is purely a rational enquiry meaning that we
seek to find causes, understand how things work, and, most of all,
understand processes beyond what we see in front of us. An enquiry
beyond the here and now. Indeed our natural language is a rational
progression of our instincts of communication originally reserved for
day-to-day survival and procreation.
But enquiry can only be scientific if it is also objective. Take this
example of a why question: why should I eat the sandwich in front of me?
In my enquiry I can ask: who made it? Do I like it? Have I eaten this
before? Will I enjoy it? Will my girlfriend be happy if I eat this
sandwich that she prepared for me? And so on.
But so far there is nothing objective nor scientific in my enquiry about
the sandwich in front of me. For that to happen I have to ask questions
such as: is it nutritious? Is it too salty? Does it have a lot of
calories? Will it affect my cholesterol level? What about harmful bugs?
Does it have salmonella.
We all agree that although the first set of questions are interesting
and relevant only the second set represent the semblance of a scientific
enquiry. Although the statements "I'll eat the sandwich because my
girlfriend made it" and "I'll eat the sandwich because it includes
nutritious ingredients" are for all intents and purpose, structurally
the same in terms of language, their meaning and implications are very
Therefore, a relevant philosophical question we can ask is whether there
is something in the meaning of why that will make us think of
objectivity? In other words, does the word why lead to a rational
enquiry (scientific enquiry)? We can even ask a milder version of the
question: does the word why also lead to a rational enquiry? Indeed, we
can go the whole hog and ask ourselves: what came first, rational
enquiry or the word why?
Even if we stick to the scientific meaning of why (also: objective and
rational meaning), i.e. the causal enquiry of an event or a state of
affairs, I don't think we can arrive to an objective enquiry in the
meaning of why. If why means a motivation to enquire the causes of
something it does not imply that that enquiry has to be objective,
rational or scientific.
I would go further and argue that as long as the meaning of a word meets
our needs, then we have no reason to change that meaning. Thus if why
means at least the most relevant meaning for us, a scientific enquiry it
does so because this meaning has served us well. Now, human nature being
utilitarian at heart, we can conclude from this that science has served
our society well. However, there is nothing to stop a society from
establishing the meaning of why to be "enquiry into divine mystery" or
"enquiry into personal opinion". Why different societies would establish
a different meaning of why is beyond the scope of our subject at hand.
However, we can be sure a priori that someone is benefitting from that
meaning; who and how many is immaterial for us now.
I would argue that an "objective" meaning of why would require an
objective (rational ) methodology of (scientific) enquiry for why to
motivate scientific enquiry. This implies two things: 1) we must first
have objective methodology and 2) why might be necessary in a language
but not sufficient for scientific enquiry. If I had to give an analogy I
would compare why to the accelerator pedal/lever in a car, it is
important and it is necessary, but not sufficient for car to go forward.
I started by saying that why is not only important but also dangerous.
Left to its own devises the word why could lead us to the incongruity I
tried to illustrate with my sandwich. There is no doubt that the word
why does lead, as a linguistic consequence, to enquiry, but not
necessarily scientific enquiry. Now whether we take the view that the
word why can be high jacked or it could be flawed it can easily lead the
enquiry to undesirable consequences.
Let's take once again the case of the sandwich. If it makes me sick
there is nothing to stop someone from asking why and after careful
examination discover a dangerous strain of salmonella; but the person
can also ask why and conclude that it is divine retribution for writing
philosophical essays. Moreover, there is nothing to stop someone from
saying that anything good that happens to me is because the chairman of
the party wants it that way and anything bad that happens to me is
because I have transgressed the guidance of the chairman.
How can we, so to speak, get the chairman out of the meaning of why so
that a why always leads to scientific enquiry? First of all, the
language itself must be clear and robust enough to hone in on the
meaning of the word with little or no ambiguity. Let me give you some
neutral and innocent examples of how complicated this issue is. In Italy
(at least when I was there) Free Pizza did not mean free pizza but self
service pizza restaurant. In Italy, or the part of my experience, the
word "free" meant "Libre" + "self service" as opposed to "gratis"+
"waiter service". There is no reason why free should not mean self
service in Italy that's the nature of how natural languages develop.
Yesterday, I tried very hard to persuade a shop assistant that I wanted
some salt free sunflower seeds. Yet he kept giving me sunflower seeds
that were sprayed with a saline solution because these type of
sunflowers are known in Spain as "pipas sin sal" as opposed to seeds
caked up with slat. I eventually found what I wanted. I am in no doubt
that sometime in the past it made sense to use the term salt free to
refer to salt sprayed, probably it has to do with stopping the bugs from
getting to the seeds. In Germany alcohol free beer is always alcohol
free and in Britain tea is always with milk.
However, basically what we are asking when we say that why is the most
important word in all languages is that why means the same in all
languages. Now, it is well and good for natural languages to develop the
meaning of a word for themselves. But what we are trying to establish is
a universal meaning of a particular word (concept). This is not in
itself impossible, we already have passport, stop, kilometre, check-in,
but to establish a universal meaning of why that's really challenging.
Not least because why leads us to make a value judgment.
As I said earlier there is an element of utilitarian forces influencing
the meaning of a word (e.g. why). As long as the meaning of a word
serves us well there is no reason why we should change it. But how
utilitarian is the meaning of why if it does not always lead to
scientific enquiry? Indeed, does scientific enquiry benefit the majority
of people if not all the people in a society?
Hence, if why in some language implies a divine explanation of an event,
the relevance of why in our language does not hold any ground in this
other language. Therefore, unless why across languages motivates a
scientific enquiry when enquiring the cause of something, then does the
statement that "why is the most important word in any language" still hold?
If the meaning of the word why can only explicitly imply scientific
enquiry, if and only if we have a valid scientific method for enquiry,
what is a scientific method of enquiry to go with it? However, it is
easier said than done to say we first need to have a valid scientific
method. And secondly, that today we seem to have settled on an empirical
probabilistic method supported by peer review is, itself, not an
infallible methods, many times we get it wrong.
But consider these two examples: there is a high probability that every
time I eat something with a toxic strain of salmonella I become sick.
And: every time I become stick it is because I have displeased the
founding chairman of the party (who died seventy years ago).
Linguistically, the second example is more precise and certain than the
first example. Or this example, if in the real world my employer were to
ask me: I can pay you some months or I can pay you all months, choose
which option you want. Although I propose to you that for practical
purpose the language, or rather the meaning, of both statements (being
sick and my employer) are the same somehow we are inclined to believe
that the probability statement about salmonella is true and my employer
is just pulling my leg.
I would argue that the reason why we would accept the probability
statement about salmonella to be true is because we also have a language
structure to support the scientific interpretation of the word why. That
language structure involves such tools as "how to", "what if", "what are
the chances?" "what ought I to do?" "what should I do" and so on.
In other words, we not only need the linguistic tool to motivate enquire
(why) but also the linguistic tools to motivate a valid methodology. How
do we investigate "feel bad" after eating an egg sandwich? How can we
today repeat the same conditions in the sandwich that made me feel good
last week?
The difference, therefore, between a scientific method and an
attribution to the whims of the chairman, is that we can always try to
replicate the events considered in the scientific method. We just cannot
do that with the whims of the chairman. In fact there is nothing we can
do about the whims of the chairman.
However, there is one thing we can do with the scientific method and
that is to try and predict future events; i.e. causal sequences. Now, we
all agree that if there are things that are difficult for us to achieve
one of them is predicting the future.
But consider, once again these two statements, 1) if you eat salmonella
infested food you will probably become sick. And 2) if you break rule
number one the chairman will make you feel sick? No doubt, 2) is
linguistically more certain that 1) and there is nothing we can do about
it. Yet 1) makes more sense than 2) (at least for a linguistic community
whose meaning of why is indeed a scientific enquiry; well for some
anyway). Why should this be the case?
I would argue that we have developed our instinct not only to accept why
as "what is" (cause) but also the associated language tool "how to"
(function). It is not enough to know that salmonella is making me sick,
but also how to get rid of salmonella and how to recover from such an
infection. You might argue that even in the example of the chairman we
might well ask what makes us feel bad and what do we have to do to make
us feel good.
The crunch of a "how to" exercise is that it has to work in the real
world. A how to exercise to keep sandwiches free of salmonella means
that after this we don't get sick. And the trick is to do it today, and
then repeat it tomorrow and the day after and so on. However, it is not
just the applying of any "how to" sequence of events that matters, but
rather applying the necessary and sufficient conditions of events. Or
rather the right sequence of events are applied irrespective of whether
we know what they are or not. And the only way we find out what we're
doing is right is by actually doing it. And then learn from that.
And here again we need the supporting linguistic tools to help describe
and understand what is happening when we apply a how to sequence of
events even if sometimes things don't work out. When a scientific how to
sequence of events fails we don't interpret this as salmonella behaving
in a mysterious way, they might do, but whatever way salmonella behave,
in principle that behaviour is not logically excluded from our state of
Some might object that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle logically
excludes us from knowing certain things in the micro world. Indeed, but
in this case we know why we don' know and moreover, it does not preclude
us from accurately predicting the probability of certain events.
However, when we say that the chairman sometimes makes me feel good and
sometimes bad, but when we enquire we are told, well the chairman works
in mysterious ways. This sort of thinking is logically excluding us from
going beyond the statement itself (the chairman works in mysterious
ways). How, I ask, can we investigate the statement "well the chairman
works in mysterious ways" and then find a solution to that undesirable
state of events. The chairman might work in mysterious ways but if my
sandwich is infested will salmonella, not even the chairman can prevent
me from becoming sick if I eat the sandwich.
Put it this way, given a seriously infested sandwich with salmonella, I
can most probably become sick whether there is a chairman or not. But
all things being equal, if there is a chairman, I can become sick with
salmonella even if I don't ingest a strand of DNA from a salmonella bug.
But this latter situation is just straight forward science fiction: for
anyone to be sick there must be a cause, indeed for anything to be
anything there must be a cause. Of course, it does not follow that if I
have the bug I'm going to be sick, but if I have the same symptom known
to be produced by the bug then most probably I have the bug.
To put it in a different way, reasons attributed to the chairman can
never be objective because we cannot make a probabilistic analysis of
the whims of the chairman. Therefore, if why requires an objective
methodology to be useful for us, how to requires an understanding of
probability if things are to happen in the real world.
Now given the nature of the physical brain and how we accumulate
knowledge and probably a few other million factors, we simply cannot
always know the whole causal process of a phenomenon. But we need not go
into all that. What is important for us is that if we want to achieve
something (a how to) what we need to know are the sufficient conditions
that will bring about what we seek.
In other words, it is not necessary for us to be perfect, but know
enough to bring about what we want for our satisfaction. For example, we
might not have total knowledge on how the body fights infections, bust
as long as we can make effective antibiotics to deal with the next
infection we're home and dry. Anyway, whatever perfection means I don't
think we can achieve this.
Hence, a how-to itself requires a linguistic tool kit to help us go
about our business: probability, chance, risk, maybe, confidence, and so
on are parts of that tool kit.
The issue with why is that we have to make a journey from our brain into
the real world out there. However, what matters is that the meaning of
why motivates us to take the right path for that journey.

Take care

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The most important
word in any language is Why. + news

No comments: