Is it Zen?

Q: How long is a piece of string?

A: A string has many lengths, but only one is interesting.

I find (by looking at the web 0 1 2 3 4 5 6) that I looked at the question differently from everyone else.  People seem to imagine that the string is hypothetical – it hasn’t been cut yet, or hasn’t been found yet.   I imagined it as real and present, but tangled.  Then, the only interesting length is the one you get if you straighten it out, because all other measurements of that string depend on the precise details of exactly how it’s tangled, and the tangle will be different the next time you take it out of your pocket.  So, only the untangled length is broadly useful; the tangled length is just useful for the here and now.

This says something about the idea of private language: that each of us has our own version of English, and no two are quite the same.  No matter what I say, you’ll never quite understand my intent because you are speaking another language.   But sometimes, our two languages overlap enough to be interesting.

Our languages overlap a lot on mundane bits, like buying groceries.  That’s because we are constantly testing those bits of language against other people and getting feedback.  But, how often do you talk about patriotism or politics or Truth?    Not very often.   So, what makes you think that someone else uses those same words in the same way?   You’ve had very few chances to find out what other people mean with those words, and few other people have had a chance to try to understand your meaning.

The worst thing is when people try to take over the meaning of a word.  This happens a lot in politics, where everybody tries to make their own words mean good things, and make the other party’s words mean bad things.  Political parties probably succeed pretty well, amongst their members.  So, Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labour are really speaking different languages.   To a degree.  And, most people don’t realize it.

This ties in with modern brain science, of course.  People’s brains are only roughly identical.  While we all have frontal lobes, everyone’s are shaped a little bit differently.  This actually causes difficulties for researchers doing fMRI imaging.  In a MRI machine, they can see what spot on your brain is active when you do task X: it shows up as a hot-spot that has extra blood flow.  That’s fine.  The hard part,  though, comes when they try to compare you to someone else.  The two brains are a little bit different in shape, so it’s hard to point to a precise spot in Bill’s brain that corresponds to this spot in George’s.

Oh, you can tell within a few millimeters, because our brains are generally similar.  But not quite exactly.  And, the detailed connections between the neurons, down on the submillimeter scale, will be dramatically different, even if the general pattern might be similar.  Your brain is not wired like anyone else’s.

So, broaden our shared language: talk about something other than the weather.  Make your brain’s wiring closer to the rest of humanity.

(Thanks to Ladan Baghai-Ravary for the Zen-like e-mail exchange that prompted this.)