The Novelty of Language

I’ve been experiencing the consequences of musa abscondita lately (sometimes described more prosaically as “writer’s block”), so here’s at least a summary of some topics I intended to write a little about. Maybe the Muse will return someday and I’ll be able to explore them a little more thoroughly.

First of all, in Adam’s Tongue (reviewed here) Derek Bickerton makes an astonishing claim about language and its radical novelty as a phenomenon appearing within the evolution of Earth’s biosphere. He insists it was as radical an innovation as the emergence of multicellular life forms in a world that for over three billion years had contained only single-cell organisms. How is this innovation to be understood? — especially when, in Bickerton’s view, symbolic representation, the essence of language, is the origin of all that makes the species homo sapiens unique and special: thinking, art, technology, religion, and so forth.

The question how something so radically new could come into the world is a deep mystery. Surely, this question is close to the heart of what drives “creation science” and “intelligent design” to reject reductionist and mechanistic explanations of how human beings fit in the animal kingdom.

Indeed, it is a question that has motivated much of my own reading over the decades. Early on, as an undergraduate, I was drawn to the ontological writings of German philosopher Nicolai Hartmann, in particular Das Problem des Geistigen Seins (which was published in 1933 but has yet to be translated into English). He proposed that there are 4 layers of being, each with its own set of categories and principles: the material, the organic, Seele (“soul,” i.e., the level of phenomena studied by both animal and human psychology), and Geist (mind/spirit/culture, both individual and communal, the level to which language, art, science, technology, social institutions, and so forth belong). The human being, paradigmatic of the whole of reality, is a stratified construct (Schichtenbau) where, at each level, the higher stratum is both dependent on the lower strata (and subject to their laws) and yet also autonomous, with its own irreducible categories and laws. Part of Hartmann’s project consists in specifying this coexistence of dependency and autonomy.

I mention Hartmann’s work partly because an important category for understanding higher levels with respect to lower levels is das Novum, novelty. Applying this perspective to language, mind, and culture suggests that the innovation that Bickerton sees in human evolution can be understood as an ontological innovation, the appearance of a brand new stratum of being. (I think this may apply equally to Terrence Deacon’s view, in The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain, that language is an autonomous entity that can be a partner in coevolution.)

A related approach is proposed by Stuart Kauffman, the theoretical biologist who has written extensively on the origins of life (another radical innovation!). In his latest book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, Kauffmann begins to develop an idea of “ontological emergence,” which characterizes the appearance of beings that simply cannot be accounted for reductionistically, in terms of their constituents. Life is an instance of ontological emergence, since many biological phenomena (including evolution) cannot be fully explained in terms of, say, biochemistry and physics. Similarly, cultural phenomena (e.g., economics and technological development) can only be understood in terms of cause-and-effect relations for which biology, chemistry, and physics are insufficient.

So, here’s the first topic that I will put off for the time being: an exploration of Kauffman’s ideas on ontological emergence (as well as Hartmann’s on das Novum) insofar as they illuminate Bickerton’s insights into the radical innovation marked by the evolution of human language.

(In reading over what I just wrote, I suddenly understand why the Muse has gone into hiding: this is a large and very difficult topic. She probably realized before I did (1) that this is not a matter for a blog entry, not at least without being carved up into smaller, more digestible chunks, and (2) that I am not really up to the challenge, at least not at this time.)

Here are a couple of related topics, each of which may also be too much for me to do justice to in a blog entry:

  1. Mark Johnston, the philosopher, (in Saving God: Religion after Idolatry, reviewed here) is careful to insist that religion can be thoroughly compatible with natural science and to distance himself from “supernaturalism,” which is an appeal to agencies outside the purview of the sciences to explain natural phenomena. Instead, all natural phenomena can, in principle, be explained by reference to “natural law.”

    On the other hand, Kauffman, the scientist, has a more skeptical view of natural law. He adopts the definition of Murray Gell-Mann that emphasizes the function of natural law to predict the outcomes of events and processes, and he then goes on to argue that certain outcomes are in principle unpredictable. Nature, he asserts, is only partially lawful, and this leaves room for the creativity of the cosmos, its capacity to innovate and invent new forms.

    It would be interesting to examine their two ideas of natural law and to understand whether they are really as far apart as it seems. After all, both thinkers reject the idea of supernatural causation in the form of a “Creator God” or a “Cosmic Intervener.”

  2. These considerations invite another comparison of the views of the two thinkers: how close is Johnston’s (apparent) advocacy of “process panentheism” (the immanence of the transcendent Highest One manifested as outpouring and self-disclosure) to Kauffman’s understanding of the ceaseless and “partially lawless” creativity of the universe? Here’s an hypothesis to explore:

    • Johnston seems to be wrestling with ideas (specifically, personal Christian beliefs) of long standing, trying, with his interest in philosophy, to reconcile them with the reasonableness of the perspective of contemporary natural science, and in the process recovering some profound insights of the western theological tradition. He appears confortable with theological language, once it is purified of its idolatrous encrustations.

    • Kauffman’s perspective, on the other hand, grows directly out of his work as a scientist with a theoretical bent. Having encountered the idea of ontological emergence in trying to understand the origins of life, he extended it beyond biology and eventually saw a way to overcome the gap separating science and humanistic studies. His interest in the manifestation of “the sacred” in the natural world is surely not unprecedented, but it seems to come directly from his experience as a working scientist, not as a former believer nor out of a philosophical position, and his use of theological language seems somewhat metaphorical (and perhaps a bit awkward).

The underlying question that animates these ambitious projects seems to be this: how is it possible (other than by means of supernatural intervention) that a “spiritual” being (in Hartmann’s sense of Geist) can have appeared in the course of evolution? My hunch is that something like “ontological emergence” provides the framework for an answer — but there’s much that remains far beyond my grasp.

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