When i say
Trezentos e setenta e quatro mais setecentos e noventa e oito é igual a mil cento e setenta e dois.
(brazilian portuguese for 374+789=1172) do i cause it to become true? Do i magically create this fact by uttering the phrase? I guess most everyone would have a gut feeling that no. That the calculation has nothing to do with the way i speak or the characters i use to write it down. But if we can refrain our guts from interfering we might just as well see this hypothesis as more promising than it at first seems.
Obviously, i do not think that saying 2+2=4 magically makes it come into being. If i said “Gravity doesn’t exist” that wouldn’t cause things to start floating around. But i don’t think the (seemingly) opposed proposition is any better. Namely, that ideas don’t need anyone to think them. That 2+2=4 is «independent reality».
To accept that 374+789=1172 is part of reality, that it exists independently of someone who says it, seems innocent enough, safe enough. It is problematic, though, in that it does not explain why some ideas are more powerful than others, or why some people can «see the truth» and others can’t — and for that i have this nagging suspicion it leads to atrocity.
What’s at stake here is a matter of language. It is about what and how people say things. Or about all kinds of actions people take in order to communicate. This is not a matter of epistemology, of truth. But the way one asks the question causes us to fall into that trap.
So, to make things clear, allow me a weird trip into the realms of language theory. Imagine we live in an Edenic tribe that is under the sway of two tugs. Say Urg and Grur. We are no thugs, the precise term would be «losers», so when any of them comes over and takes our apple we do not complain, we don’t do anything in fact. Anyway, life is still possible, and since they keep the other thugs from the other tribes away it is not so bad a deal after all.
Now imagine Grur had a crush on your little sister. This means he treats you better than Urg does. I realize this sounds awfully dumb but i do have a point somewhere. Further imagine Grur has a lieutenant of sorts, another guy that is not as strong as Grur but is very loyal and always does what the chief says. Now one day, as you are bathing on the pond, peacefully eating an apple, this guy appears and is about to punch you and take the apple. You start screeching “Grur, Grur, Grur”! If you’re lucky, this can be enough to trigger his small brain into remembering your sister is the boss’ preferred girlfriend. If he does remember that, he won’t clobber you (nah, i guess you can say goodbye to your apple either way).
But, saying it works, can you see how your could end up developing complicated name-screeching stratagems?
My point is that language-like actions can be useful even if we assume there is no mind behind those actions. For example ants and bees do have complicated signalling mechanisms without seemingly complex cognition. In this sense, language is more signalling than symbolizing. And, rephrasing, my point is that signalling can already be useful by and of itself.
Further, if signalling is useful without complex cognition, then communication can exist without meaning. That may be a little too much too quick, so let me explain better.
Communication works through two mirror-image actions: To emit a signal and to interpret a signal. Actually each of those two things can happen in isolation. Signal emitting can be any thing that attempts to provoke an interpretation reaction in another individual. Sometimes this reaction is a cognition action: You want the person who receives your message to understand this and this and that (like when you produce a long and intricate academic speech to fellow researchers). But this kind of mental understanding is neither necessary nor unique. A signal emitting action can aim at very different kinds of interpretation. Amongst other deviations, we might want the interpretation to be more diffuse or more value-laden. For example, the clothes we wear usually don’t express a single translatable phrase, but a complex amalgam of styles and qualities that can lead to whole discourses when translated into words.
One of those kinds of interpretation is very important for social animals. We use it all the time, so much indeed that we are usually unaware of doing so. It is the signalling of belonging. «I support so-and-so soccer team» would be the quintessential example. A team shirt is meant to signal this, but there are endless variations of the theme, like inside jokes and even being overtly sad the day after your team lost a game.
So, what i am trying to say is: When i say 374+789=1172 i am neither creating truth nor conveying truth (obviously, since there is no truth), i am signalling that i am one of The Warriors That Say 374+789=1172!
Ideas can be just simple advertisements of behaviour. So “2+2=4” might not mean that there is, in a somewhat badly-defined «reality» somewhere, some species of transcendental entity called “two” that when subjected to the transcendental operation of “sum” to itself generates the “four”. We do not need this “realm” of “meaning” to explain why someone says that “2+2=4”, neither why when the same person says “2+2=5” we say he is mistaken. We can explain the utterance of “2+2=4” simply as “i am part of the team that takes 2+2 to weight 4”. And that is a form of behaviour.
I know any non-sceptic is already having fits of rage at the way this whole thing is derailing, but just bear with me. I have to further clarify before i can finish my point. Basically mathematics is no more transcendental than the act of counting. What i mean is that when you count four apples there is not an abstract entity that is the number four “behind” the apples, or deeper “inside” reality. So much so that, if you could pick one of the four you would look for the fairest one. Counting is not about understanding an abstract notion of “quantity”. Counting is about memorizing the number order, just like you memorize “Iny miny miny moe”. The fact that if you take many apples singing iny miny, you’ll end up with four apples every time, this is not a property of reality itself, it is a property of the rhyme. That is why it is called a counting rhyme. It’s all about the counting, the action, the trick. It is not about «truth» or «ideas» or «abstraction».
Problem is: It looks like it is about ideas.
Mathematics is a specially nasty example, because to teach mathematics means to condition a person into following a set of rules. Then, as long as you follow these rules, mathematics remain the same. If you follow the rule of taking 2 to mean miny and 4 to mean moe (so to say) and if you follow the rule of taking addition to mean subsequent counting, then 2+2=4. Those rules are so simple that it is easy to gloss over them, and further to condition someone to not think of these rules as rules. So you end up with a Platonic: Someone who believes that 2+2=4 is part of reality itself. Not only that, mathematicians tell each other the fable that everyone thinks they are boring but that in fact it is everyone else that is unable to see the perfect truth that they see — this is a recipe to create a band of fanatics extra-loyal to the group, who are literally unable to see beyond their conditioning because telling them they are wrong triggers their reptilian brain into labelling you “enemy” and therefore reacting badly towards anything at all you do and say.
But even normal people (that is, non-mathematicians) run the risk of confusing communication for truth. The risk lies in the question: Is it opinion or is it reality?
That is what you think, or is it what is?
To understand this question, to parse it, you have to create a fence. You have to split «your head» from «the world». And further, if you say that truth comes from your own head, then you’ll also have to take the blame for possible mistakes. So no one, on their right mind, would say that truth comes from their own saying so.
Turns out it is very easy to trick people into tacitly accepting bad dichotomies like that. Mostly, what you have to do is to never ask them if the distinction exist, if it makes any sense. Never ask “Are world and your own mind the only two possible sources for certainty?”. And them just press them into answering something that has to do with the distinction. Having activated their dichotomy-identifying brain gears, they will be locked into that mode of thinking. They will literally become unable to see how foolish the dichotomy is.
So if i ask you whether 374+789=1172 comes from my own saying it, or from reality, you become locked into thinking you can either choose “reality” or “opinion”. In doing that, we hide the action of counting. And i can not even do that one calculation on my head, i had to find a paper and then a pen which for some reason was under a load of dirty clothes, and just then perform the calculation. And this calculation is very much a mechanical thing. One up, one down, this sort of stuff. The trick to calculate doesn’t even have to make a lot of sense.
A more complex phrase, say “The RNA world is still the basis current of life” incorporates a whole load of practices and exercises, a whole lot of methods through which some people explore and question stuff they’re interested in (instead of being «in reality» or being «in the mind»). It is neither reality nor opinion, it is much more like a trick.
Talking is useless without all the other forms of behaviour that accompany it. But once we learn to talk it becomes our foremost means to coordinate all those other methods. Further, one of the most important things about teaching a kid to talk is conditioning him into replying words with words — and thus create the stage in which it can look like words have a reality of their own. In that way we end up tricking ourselves into believing into stuff that simply is not there.
But i do happen to think there are other ways.