Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let's take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book." Let's focus on just the verb, "read." To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.
Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it's distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like "right," "left," "forward," and "back," which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like "There's an ant on your southeast leg" or "Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit." One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don't end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.
To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they'll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don't use words like "left" and "right"? What will they do?
The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
An important question at this point is: Are these differences caused by language per se or by some other aspect of culture? Of course, the lives of English, Mandarin, Greek, Spanish, and Kuuk Thaayorre speakers differ in a myriad of ways. How do we know that it is language itself that creates these differences in thought and not some other aspect of their respective cultures?
One way to answer this question is to teach people new ways of talking and see if that changes the way they think. In our lab, we've taught English speakers different ways of talking about time. In one such study, English speakers were taught to use size metaphors (as in Greek) to describe duration (e.g., a movie is larger than a sneeze), or vertical metaphors (as in Mandarin) to describe event order. Once the English speakers had learned to talk about time in these new ways, their cognitive performance began to resemble that of Greek or Mandarin speakers. This suggests that patterns in a language can indeed play a causal role in constructing how we think.6 In practical terms, it means that when you're learning a new language, you're not simply learning a new way of talking, you are also inadvertently learning a new way of thinking. Beyond abstract or complex domains of thought like space and time, languages also meddle in basic aspects of visual perception — our ability to distinguish colors, for example. Different languages divide up the color continuum differently: some make many more distinctions between colors than others, and the boundaries often don't line up across languages.
Such is the origin of almost all the religions that are known to us, and which the hypocrisy or the extravagance of their inventors and their proselytes afterwards loaded with new fables.
These casts seized upon education, that they might fashion man to a more patient endurance of chains, embodied as it were with his existence, and extirpate the possibility of his desiring to break them. But, if we would know to what point, even without the aid of superstitious terrors, these institutions, so destructive to the human faculties, can extend their baneful power, we must look for a moment to China; to that people who seem to have preceded all others in the arts and sciences, only to see themselves successively eclipsed by them all; to that people whom the knowledge of artillery has not prevented from being conquered by barbarous nations; where the sciences, of which the numerous schools are open to every class of citizens, alone lead to dignities, and at the same time, fettered by absurd prejudices, are condemned to an internal mediocrity; lastly, where even the invention of printing has remained an instrument totally useless in advancing the progress of the human mind.
Men, whose interest it was to deceive, soon felt a dislike to the pursuit of truth. Content with the docility of the people, they conceived there was no need of further means to secure its continuance. By degrees they forgot a part of the truths concealed under their allegories; they preserved no more of their ancient science than was strictly necessary to maintain the confidence of their disciples; and at last they became themselves the dupes of their own fables.
Then was all progress of the sciences at a stand; some even of those which had been enjoyed by preceding ages, were lost to the generations that followed; and the human mind, a prey to ignorance and prejudice, was condemned, in those vast empires, to a shameful stagnation, of which the uniform and unvaried continuance has so long been a dishonour to Asia.
The people who inhabit these countries are the only instance that is to be met with of such civilization and such decline. Those who occupy the rest of the globe either have been stopped in their career, and exhibit an appearance that again brings to our memory the infant days of the human race, or they have been hurried by events through the periods of which we have to illustrate the history.
At the epoch we are considering, these very people of Asia had invented alphabetical writing, which they substituted in the place of hieroglyphics, probably after having employed that other mode, in which conventional signs are affixed to every idea, which is the only one that the Chinese are at present acquainted with.
Humans are tool complexes—hands for certain tasks, feet, ears, teeth. etc., for others. Using their human tool complexes, human minds, comprebending variable interrelationship principles, invent detached-from-self tools—the bucket can lift out more water from the well than can a pair of cupped human hands—that are more special-case-effective but not used as frequently as their organically integral tools. Humans invent craft tools and industrial tools. The latter are all the tools that cannot be invented d or opcrated by one human. The first industrial tool was the spoken word. With words humans compounded their experience-won knowledge. (Most indus¬ trial tools are driven by inanimate energy rather than by human muscle.)
Dwellings are environment-controlling machines. So are automobiles. Automobiles are little part-time dwellings on wheels. Both autos and dwell¬ ings are complex tools. Both autos and dwellings are component tools with¬ in the far vaster tool complex of world-embracing industrialization. I use the word industrialization to include all intercoordinate humanity, all its artifacts, its evolving omni-interfunctioning and omni-integrating, omni-lifesupport-producing capability.
At this point the Wall Street lawyers and Strauss persuaded Eisenhower that the United States Bureau of Standards' scientists were in competition with private enterprise and must be curbed. Strauss assured Eisenhower that the corporations would take on all the bureau's discarded scientists. What the Wall Street lawyers' grand strategists realized was something momentous—to wit... that in the new 99.9-percent invisible reality of alloys, chemistry, electronics, and atomics, scientific and technical know-how was everything. Physical land and buildings were of no further interest to cap¬ italism. Metaphysical know-how was the magic wand of the second half of the twentieth-century world power structures. Physical properties were subject to deterioration, taxable, and cumbersome. Advised to do so by their lawyers, capitalism and private enterprise set about after World War II to monopohze all strategic technological know-how—i.e., all metaphysical properties—and to dump all physical properties. They called for an economic program by which people would be forced to buy the apartments and houses—to get all physical properties off capitalism's hands.
The post-Eisenhower era becomes most suitably identified as that of lawyer capitalism and of "no-risk," sure-thing, free enterprise.
The whole of atomic development was know-how. Scientists had the know-how, and anybody without their technical information could not even speak their language. The Know-How Club, monopolized by lawyer capitalism, was a very tight club. Furthermore, the nonmember four billion plus human beings on planet Earth knew nothing about the invisible micromacro, non-sensorially-tune-in-able reality. Large private enterprise had now hired all the know-how scientists and engineers. They seemingly could keep the public out of their affairs forever. The world power structure had the U.S. government completely emasculate the Bureau of Standards. There was an earnest and concerned battle by a few responsible scientists to keep the bureau intact, but they were overwhelmed. Henceforth all science must be done by the private corporations themselves or under their subsidized university-college and private laboratory work. To appreciate the extent of this know-how monopoly of the big corporations, one need only look over the wording of the scientist and engineering help-wanted advertisements of the big corporations^ in the many pages of The New York Times Sunday business section or of their counterpart publications in other big cities, s.
In the invisible, esoteric world of today's science there is no way for the American government or public, without the U.S.A. Bureau of Standards' scientists, to follow the closely held technical secrets of the big, profit-oriented corporations. To a small extent such popular journals as Scientific American help people follow details of this-and-that special case science without learning of the significance of the information in respect to comprehensive socioeconomic evolution.
No economic accounting books list metaphysical assets. Metaphysics is held to be insubstantial—meaning in Latin "nothing on which to stand." Patents can be granted only for special cases—i.e., Hmited physical-practice appHcations of abstract generalized principles, which principles alone are inherently metaphysical and unpatentable, being only "discovered" and not "invented." But physical patents are capital.
We have two fundamental realities in our Universe—the physical and the metaphysical. Physicists identify all physical phenomena as the exclusive manifest of energy: energy associative as matter or disassociative as electro¬ magnetic behavior, radiation. Both of these energy states are reconvertible one into the other. Because there is no experimental evidence of energy being either created or lost, world scientist-philosophers now concede it to be in evidence that Universe is eternally regenerative.
As recorded in the stone carvings of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the history of worid society begins with humanity at large knowing nothing of physics. chemistry, or biology. Humans recognized but few safe edibles. Humans had witnessed many lethal poisonings by superficially attractive items plucked from the mysterious scenery. Infection was rampant. Average survival was in the neighborhood of twenty-two years, or about one-third of the once-in-a-rare-while-demonstrated, biblically mentioned "three score and ten"-year life-span. Life was so fundamentally awful that no logic could persuade humanity to believe that the living experience was intended by the great God of Universe to be desirable in its own right. The only tenable assumption was that life on Earth was suffered only in preparation for a life hereafter. It was reasoned that the worse life on Earth proved to be, the better would be the suffering-earned life hereafter. Experience seemed to show that adequate sustenance in general was so fundamentally scarce that even in the hereafter none could conceive of there being adequate life support for other than the pharaoh.
This being evident to all, it was commonly assumed that if the pharaoh— the people's leader—could be safely delivered into the next world with all his sovereign equipment, thereafter he might be able to get all his people safely delivered to him in the afterlife paradise.
The authority—to employ whatever technological capabilities he could muster from the nonobvious but intellectually conceptual resources hidden in the scenery—went to the artist-scientist-inventor to support his reorganization of environmental potentials for the advantage of the life hereafter of the pharaoh—and his most faithful servants.
This meant, then, that the Greeks, in attempting to communicate their mathematical conceptioning, defined the circle as "an area bound by a closed line of equal radius from one point," the triangle as "an area bo)ound by a closed line of three angles, three edges, and three vertices." The Greeks talked only of the area that was "bound" as having validity and identity, while outside (on the other side of the boundary) existed only treachenerous terrain leading outward to boundless infinity—an unknown and unknowable wilderness. The feedback from this worid view has ingrained fundamental biases into our present-day thinking. We can conceive only of (' one side of a line as definable, organized, and valid. "Our side" is natural z and right—"God's country"—and vice versa. All humanity has thought of its own local area as being familiar, organized, and a priori, with all else remote and unthinkable. The Greeks oversimplified conceptioning with their mis assumption that geometry could begin with plane geometry which they said employed only three tools: the straightedge, the scribe, and dividers. They failed altogether to include the surface on which they scribed as constituting an equally essential component of their otherwise experimentally demonstrated proofs of their various propositions. Because the earth of the Earth on which they scribed was so large and its limits were unknown to them, they concluded that it was an infinitely extended surface. They failed altogether to recognize the fact that you cannot have a surface of nothing. Any surface on which they scribed had to be a topological feature of a system. They obviously knew naught of Euler's topology nor of my systems geometry (see Chapter 4, Synergetics, vol. 1). Systems always divide all Universe outside the system from all of the Universe inside the system. All systems are finite subdividers of macro- and micro-Universe. Not knowing that ththey were always scribing on a closed, finite system, the Greeks defined a plane geometrical polygon as "an area bound by a closed line of so many angles and edges." They assumed that the area on the "outer" side of the line continned laterally to infinity and was therefore undefinable. What their closed lines always did was to divide all the finite surface area of the polyhedronal system on which they scribed into two finite areas both of which were exactly bound by the surface-drawn polygon's perimeter. Draw a triangle on the sand of a beach. You inadvertently divide all the surface of planet Earth into two areas, A and B—"A" the triangle which you consciously and visually drew and "B" the enormous area on the "outside" of the consciously drawn triangle, consisting of all the rest of the surface of our spherical planet Earth. All that remaining surface of our spherical-surface Earth is bound by the closed-perimeter figure of "three angles and three edges" which you scribed in the sand. Unbeknownst to them, the Greek Euclideans were al¬ ways dealing in polyhedra of "system geometry." Humans could not make a local Earth-surface triangle without inherently making a vast terrestrialsize triangle. The two terrestrial triangles, little A and vast B, in turn brought inherently into play the almost spherical, vastly high-frequency-triangulated polyhedronal system on whose surface they were scribing. This in tum and unbeknownst to them affected the rest of the Universe—the macro-Universe outside the system upon which they scribed and the microUniverse inside the system upon which they scribed. Thus humans have always unknowingly affected all Universe by every act and thought they articulate or even consider.
We may soon discover that all babies are bom geniuses and only become degeniused by the erosive effects of unthinkingly maintained false assumptions of the grown-ups, with their conventional ways of "bringing up" and educating" their young. We now know that schools are the least favorable environment for leaming. The home TV is far more effective, but we are al¬ lowing the big money-making advertisers to poison the information children assimilate in their four to five hours a day of spontaneous tuming-on, looking at and hstening to the TV.
It is possible to identify some of the known faculties that we generally assumed to be coordinate in those whom society does concede to be adult geniuses. The publicly accredited characteristics of genius consist, for instance, of an actively self-attended intuition. The intuition, in tum, opens the conceptual and perceptual doors. With those doors self-opened, the in¬ nate faculties frequently combine and employ the individual's scientific, artistic, philosophical, and idealistic imaginings in producing physically talented, logical, far-sighted, and practical articulations. Leonardo da Vinci, who fortunately weathered the genius-eroding susceptibilities of childhood, manifested and coordinatingly employed all and more of such conceptual faculties and articulative capabilities.
In the graphically recorded history of the last eight millennia, as well as in the dim twilight of pre-Indo-Chinese, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and South and Central American graphic documentations of history, there have appeared, from time to time, individuals who grew to maturity without los¬ ing the full inventory of their innate, intuitive, and spontaneously coordinate faculties. These unscathed individuals inaugurated whole new eras of physical environmental transformation so important as, in due course, to af¬ feet the lives of all ensuing humanity. We shall hereafter identify such un¬ scathed, comprehensively effective, and largely unidentified individual articulators as the artist-scientists of history.
Since the dawn of the most meagerly revealed human history there have been a number of importantly distinct periods of historical transformation of both the physical and cosmological environments of society. Each of these eras has been opened by the artist-scientist. The invisible power structures behind-the-visible-king first patronize and help to develop the artistscientists' advanced-environment breakthroughs, but always go on, ever more selfishly, to overexploit the breakthroughs.
The environment—everything that is "not me"—is subdivisible into two parts, physical and metaphysical. The metaphysical environment consists of human thoughts, generalized principles and customs. The artist-scientist types seem to have avoided attempting to reform the metaphysical environ¬ ment. They are documented only by their employment of the cosmic laws— generalized principles—to reorganize the physical constituents of the livingry and the scenery. The artist-scientists apparently assumed intuitively that a more man-favoring rearrangement of the environment would be con¬ ducive to humanity's spontaneous self-realization of its higher potentials. Human travelers coming to a river and finding a bridge across it sponta¬ neously use the bridge instead of hazarding themselves in the torrents.
Scientist-artists originally conceived and designed the bridges. The powerstructure-behind-the-king, seeing great exploitability of the bridge for their own advantaging, accredited the workers and materials to build the bridges.
Physiology and biology make it clear that at the outset of graphically re¬ corded history a universally illiterate—^but probably not unintelligent—hu¬ manity was endowed with innate and spontaneously self-regenerative drives of hunger, thirst, and species regeneration. The a priori chemical, electromagnetic, atomistic, genetic, and synergetic designing of these innate drives apparently was instituted by a wisdom—a formulative capability inherent in Universe—higher than that possessed by any known living humans. These drives probably were designed into humans to ensure that human life and the human mind—long unacknowledged as humanity's highest faculty—ultimately would discover its own significance and would become established and most importantly operative not only aboard planet Earth, but also in respect to vast, locally evidenced aspects of Universe. As such, mind may come not only to demonstrate supremacy over humanity's physical muscle but also to render forevermore utterly innocuous and impotent the muscle-augmented weapons and the latter's ballistic hitting powers. Mind possibly may serve as the essential, anti-entropic (syntropic) function for etemally conserving the omni-interaccommodative, nonsimultaneous, and only partially overlapping, omni-intertransforming, self-regenerating scenario— which we speak of as "Universe."
In the end, politics is about story. Robert McKee, Hollywood's master of storytelling, views the world from the top of America's other great cultural export—its movies.
"1 think that the American ethos is not science-friendly and never has been," he says. "The American model is Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Guys who never went to college and who were geniuses and invented things, and people like them. The inventor versus the scientist. Somebody who can go west, discover gold mines, and create a lot of money without an education. Unlike Europe or Japan or India, or even China these days. In those cultures they admire and compete to be a really well educated person in some field. That is not the American dream. The American dream is Hollywood, sitting in a drugstore and somebody says, 'You ought to be a movie star.' It's an attitude that life a game and that what you gotta learn is to play that game well, but it's not on a gridiron where you actually have to practice, it's a game of manipulation and most of that game is somehow bullshit."
If McKee and Tocqueville are right, the influx of European scientist: starting in the 1930s and continuing through World War II may hare changed the United States and led to a temporary boom. America ma^ be coasting to the end of that momentum now. The importing of such talent declined sharply in the wake of 9/11. We have made the country more difficult and less hospitable for immigrants, closing those door; Ronald Reagan saw standing open to anyone with the will and th( heart to get here. And now science, like our corporations, is going global, and the last great engine of the American economy—our ability to innovate—may be slipping from our grasp
So we are faced with a choice. Will we go the way of the ancient Chinese, nosing our heads comfortably into the warm sand, obedient, productive agreeably alike in thought, but rigid, paralyzed, no longer able to improve*
Or will we take up the mantle of freedom and leadership that science gave us—the commitment to knowledge over the assertions of "but faith, or opinion" that led to the disquieting idea of equality that is the foundation of democracy? Will we be skeptical of claims that seek to crowd out the space for knowledge in the public dialogue? Will we continue to embrace the antiauthoritarian power of wonder, tolerance, and imagination to create a new future—a shining city upon a hill? Will we reject ideological conformity and reward a facts-based press and science education? Will we set aside the left-right skirmishes of identity politics and focus as our founders did on the top-bottom battle for freedom? Will we protect and fund the conditions that encourage diversity, creativity, and prosperity in art and science, not because of what they do for our pocketbooks but because o what they mean to our values as Americans? Will the people, in short, remain well enough informed to be trusted with their own government?
In a century dominated by the awesome powers and dangers of science. there is no greater moral, economic, or political question.
...science, like art, is a cultural expression that makes a nation worth defending. Like great art and great music, its true value lies in exploring the unknown. Today, the opposite argument, the commoditization of science, is virtually the only one heard. It has metastasized from the smaller-minded appeals of the cold war to all of human learning and higher education. Education and knowledge are no longer values of truth and beauty that make life worth living, they are means to the ends of greater pay and more consumption, which somehow are supposed to make life worth living.
The one thing we d0 know about science, the one thing that is predictable about it, is that if we don't value it, if we become inhospitable to the tolerance, freedom, and open exchange of ideas that stimulates it, if we wall it off and call it a separate culture instead of something we all should do, if we cease funding it, if we try to be overly directive of it, if we elevate ideology over science in our public policies, we will stifle creativity and science will go away. We won't t the big breakthroughs. We won't get the economic boons. We won't get the national defense advantages. We won't get the clean environment or healthy children. Germany already proved this can happen with its precipitous fall from arguably the most powerful science nation on Earth to a nation bereft of scientific enterprise in a single decade of Nazi ideological intolerance. China proved it under Mao. The Soviets proved it with Lysenko. The Vatican proved it with Galileo.
When Europeans first arrived in China, three hundred years a^ago, they found that almost all the arts had reached a certain degree of perfection there, and they were surprised that a people which had attained this point should not have gone beyond it. At a later period they discovered traces of some higher branches of science that h had been lost. The nation was absorbed in productive industry; the greater part of its scientific processes had been preserved, but science itself no longer existed there. This served to explain the strange immobility in which they found the minds of this people. The Chinese, in following the track of their forefathers, had forgotten the reasons by which the latter had been guided. They still used the formula without asking for its meaning; they retained the instrument, but they no longer possessed the art of altering or renewing it. The Chinese, then, had lost the power of change; for them improvement was impossible. They were compelled at all times and in all points to imitate their predecessors lest they should stray into utter darkness by deviating for an instant from the path already laid down for them. The source of human knowledge was all but dry; and though the stream still ran on. it could neither swell its waters nor alter its course.