Monday, July 26, 2010

Human awareness vs. animal awareness

A linguist friend writes to say,
In the syntax classes I have taught I always began by distinguishing between the expression of feelings, at which a dog is nearly as proficient as a person, and the communication of complex information. People can grunt and gesture and smile and frown, and such "body language" garners more interest than the real thing, which is the communication of complex information: "My grandmother came from Poland at the beginning of the 20th century and..." No animal can do that.

[ ... ]

The defining feature of man is language. There would be no science or technology or religion without it. But we take it for granted.
This was in response to a comment I had made in a letter, about an aged senior who had had a stroke. For some months afterward, he was very confused about words, but his sense of concepts remained. For example, he couldn’t remember the name of the place he was living, but he knew it was an old folks home.

I had written,
A bull can paw the ground and bellow and lower his horns, and you don't need any more information about what he is thinking than what you are seeing. So what advantage would language be to him?

Can't think of any, off hand. He might as well just charge.

But if a man, afflicted with old age memory deficits, nonetheless manages to say, "I am worried about what will happen to my wife when I am gone, and about how my unmarried daughter will manage, now that she is retirement age, and how my son will be able to educate his four children" - those are more complex thoughts, and they require language.
I have not seen any worthwhile materialist explanation of how either language or the quest for it came about.