Words Fail Us

Regular readers of this blog know that I seldom use “us” and “we.” Those words are too often appropriated by writers who say such things as “we the people,” and who characterize as “society” the geopolitical entity known as the United States. There is no such thing as “we the people,” and the United States is about as far from being a “society” as Hillary Clinton is from being president (I hope).

There are nevertheless some things that are so close to being universal that it’s fair to refer to them as characteristics of “us” and “we.” The inadequacy of language is one of those things.

Why is that the case? Try to describe in words a person who is beautiful or handsome to you, and why. It’s hard to do, if not impossible. There’s something about the combination of that person’s features, coloring, expression, etc., that defies anything like a complete description. You may have an image of that person in your mind, and you may know that — to you — the person is beautiful or handsome. But you just can’t capture in words all of those attributes. Why? Because the person’s beauty or handsomeness is a whole thing. It’s everything taken together, including subtle things that nestle in your subconscious mind but don’t readily swim to the surface. One such thing could be the relative size of the person’s upper and lower lips in the context of that particular person’s face; whereas, the same lips on another face might convey plainness or ugliness.

Words are inadequate because they describe one thing at a time — the shape of a nose, the slant of a brow, the prominence of a cheekbone. And the sum of those words isn’t the same thing as your image of the beautiful or handsome person. In fact, the sum of those words may be meaningless to a third party, who can’t begin to translate your words into an image of the person you think of as beautiful or handsome.

Yes, there are (supposedly) general rules about beauty and handsomeness. One of them is the symmetry of a person’s features. But that leaves a lot of ground uncovered. And it focuses on one aspect of a person’s face, rather than all of its aspects, which are what you take into account when you judge a person beautiful or handsome.

And, of course, there are many disagreements about who is beautiful or handsome. It’s a matter of taste. Where does the taste come from? Who knows? I have a theory about why I prefer dark-haired women to women whose hair is blonde, red, or medium-to-light brown: My mother was dark-haired, and photographs of her show that she was beautiful (in my opinion) as a young woman. (Despite that, I never thought of her as beautiful because she was just Mom to me.) You can come up with your own theories — and I expect that no two of them will be the same.

What about facts? Isn’t it possible to put facts into words? Not really, and for much the same reason that it’s impossible to describe beauty, handsomeness, love, hate, or anything “subjective” or “emotional.” Facts, at bottom, are subjective, and sometimes even emotional.

Let’s take a “fact” at random: the color red. We can all agree as to whether something looks red, can’t we? Even putting aside people who are color-blind, the answer is: not necessarily. For one thing red is defined as having a “predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers.” “Predominant” and “roughly” are weasel-words. Clearly, there’s no definite point on the visible spectrum where light changes from orange to red. If you think there is, just look at this chart and tell me where it happens. So red comes in shades, which various people describe variously: orange-red and reddish-orange, for example.

Not only that, but the visible spectrum

does not … contain all the colors that the human eyes and brain can distinguish. Unsaturated colors such as pink, or purple variations such as magenta, are absent, for example, because they can be made only by a mix of multiple wavelengths.

Thus we have magenta, fuchsia, blood-red, scarlet, crimson, vermillion, maroon, ruby, and even the many shades of pink — some are blends, some are represented by narrow segments of the light spectrum. Do all of those kinds of red have a clear definition, or are they defined by the beholder? Well, some may be easy to distinguish from others, but the distinctions between them remain arbitrary. Where does scarlet or magenta become vermillion?

In any event, how do you describe a color (whatever you call it) in words? Referring to its wavelength or composition in terms of other colors or its relation to other colors is no help. Wavelength really is meaningless unless you can show an image of the visible spectrum to someone who perceives colors exactly as you do, and point to red — or what you call red. In doing so, you will have pointed to a range of colors, not to red, because there is no red red and no definite boundary between orange and red (or yellow and orange, or green and yellow, etc.).

Further, you won’t have described red in words. And you can’t — without descending into tautologies — because red (as you visualize it) is what’s in your mind. It’s not an objective fact.

My point is that description isn’t the same as definition. You can define red (however vaguely) as a color which has a predominant light wavelength of roughly 620–740 nanometers. But you can’t describe it. Why? Because red is just a concept.

A concept isn’t a real thing that you can see, hear, taste, touch, smell, eat, drink from, drive, etc. How do you describe a concept? You define it in terms of other concepts.

Moving on from color, I’ll take gross domestic product (GDP) as another example. GDP is an estimate of the dollar value of the output of finished goods and services produced in the United States during a particular period of time. Wow, what a string of concepts. And every one of them must be defined, in turn. Some of them can be illustrated by referring to real things; a haircut is a kind of service, for example. But it’s impossible to describe GDP and its underlying concepts because they’re all abstractions, or representations of indescribable conglomerations of real things.

All right, you say, it’s impossible to describe concepts, but surely it’s possible to describe things. People do it all the time. See that ugly, dark-haired, tall guy standing over there? I’ve already dealt with ugly, indirectly, in my discussion of beauty or handsomeness. Ugliness, like beauty, is just a concept, the idea of which differs from person to person. What about tall? It’s a relative term, isn’t it? You can measure a person’s height, but whether or not you consider him tall depends on where and when you live and the range of heights you’re used to encountering. A person who seems tall to you may not seem tall to your taller brother. Dark-haired will evoke different pictures in different minds — ranging from jet-black to dark brown and even auburn.

But if you point to the guy you call ugly, dark-haired, tall guy, I may agree with you that he’s ugly, dark-haired, and tall. Or I may disagree with you, but gain some understanding of what you mean by ugly, dark-haired, and tall.

And therein lies the tale of how people are able to communicate with each other, despite their inability to describe concepts or to define them without going in endless circles and chains of definitions. First, human beings possess central nervous systems and sensory organs that are much alike, though within a wide range of variations (e.g., many people must wear glasses with an almost-infinite variety of corrections, hearing aids are programmed to an almost-infinite variety of settings, sensitivity to touch varies widely, reaction times vary widely). Nevertheless, most people seem to perceive the same color when light with a wavelength of, say, 700 nanometers strikes the retina. The same goes for sounds, tastes, smells, etc., as various external stimuli are detected by various receptors. Those perceptions then acquire agreed definitions through acculturation. For example, an object that reflects light with a wavelength of 700 nanometers becomes known as red; a sound with a certain frequency becomes known as middle C; a certain taste is characterized as bitter, sweet, or sour.

Objects acquire names in the same way: for example: a square piece of cloth that’s wrapped around a person’s head or neck becomes a bandana, and a longish, curved, yellow-skinned fruit with a soft interior becomes a banana. And so I can visualize a woman wearing a red bandana and eating a banana.

There is less agreement about “soft” concepts (e.g., beauty) because they’re based not just on “hard” facts (e.g., the wavelength of light), but on judgments that vary from person to person. A face that’s cute to one person may be beautiful to another person, but there’s no rigorous division between cute and beautiful. Both convey a sense of physical attractiveness that many persons will agree upon, but which won’t yield a consistent image. A very large percentage of Caucasian males (of a certain age) would agree that Ingrid Bergman and Hedy Lamarr were beautiful, but there’s nothing like a consensus about Katharine Hepburn (perhaps striking but not beautiful) or Jean Arthur (perhaps cute but not beautiful).

Other concepts, like GDP, acquire seemingly rigorous definitions, but they’re based on strings of seemingly rigorous definitions, the underpinnings of which may be as squishy as the flesh of a banana (e.g., the omission of housework and the effects of pollution from GDP). So if you’re familiar with the definitions of the definitions, you have a good grasp of the concepts. If you aren’t, you don’t. But if you have a good grasp of the numbers underlying the definitions of definitions, you know that the top-level concept is actually vague and hard to pin down. The numbers not only omit important things but are only estimates, and often are estimates of disparate things that are grouped because they’re judged to “alike enough.”

Acculturation in the form of education is a way of getting people to grasp concepts that have widely agreed definitions. Mathematics, for example, is nothing but concepts, all the way down. And to venture beyond arithmetic is to venture into a world of ideas that’s held together by definitions that rest upon definitions and end in nothing real. Unless you’re one of those people who insists that mathematics is the “real” stuff of which the universe is made, which is nothing more than a leap of faith. (Math, by the way, is nothing but words in shorthand.)

And so, human beings are able to communicate and (usually) understand each other because of their physical and cultural similarities, which include education in various and sundry subjects. Those similarities also enable people of different cultures and languages to translate their concepts (and the words that define them) from one language to another.

Those similarities also enable people to “feel” what another person is feeling when he says that he’s happy, sad, drunk, or whatever. There’s the physical similarity — the physiological changes that usually occur when a person becomes what he thinks of as happy, etc. And there’s acculturation — the acquired knowledge that people feel happy (or whatever) for certain reasons (e.g., a marriage, the birth of a child) and display their happiness in certain ways (e.g., a broad smile, a “jump for joy”).

A good novelist, in my view, is one who knows how to use words that evoke vivid mental images of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of characters, and the settings in which the characters act out the plot of a novel. A novelist who can do that and also tell a good story — one with an engaging or suspenseful plot — is thereby a great novelist. I submit that a good or great novelist (an admittedly vague concept) is worth almost any number of psychologists and psychiatrists, whose vision of the human mind is too rigid to grasp the subtleties that give it life.

But good and great novelists are thin on the ground. That is to say, there are relatively few persons among us who are able to grasp and communicate effectively a broad range of the kinds of thoughts and feelings that lurk in the minds of human beings. And even those few have their blind spots. Most of them, it seems to me, are persons of the left, and are therefore unable to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of the working-class people who seethe with resentment about fawning over and favoritism toward blacks, illegal immigrants, gender-confused persons, and other so-called victims. In fact, those few otherwise perceptive and articulate writers make it a point to write off the working-class people as racists, bigots, and ignoramuses.

There are exceptions, of course. A contemporary exception is Tom Wolfe. But his approach to class issues is top-down rather than bottom-up.

Which just underscores my point that we human beings find it hard to formulate and organize our own thoughts and feelings about the world around us and the other people in it. And we’re practically tongue-tied when it comes to expressing those thoughts and feelings to others. We just don’t know ourselves well enough to explain ourselves to others. And our feelings — such as our political preferences, which probably are based more on temperament than on facts — get in the way.

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Words fail us.

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Related reading:
Modeling Is Not Science
Physics Envy
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Demystifying Science
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Pinker Commits Scientism
Spooky Numbers, Evolution, and Intelligent Design
Mind, Cosmos, and Consciousness
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
“Settled Science” and the Monty Hall Problem
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Taleb’s Ruinous Rhetoric