String of Letters. Language and the Bindings of Knowledge.

Andy and Gavin had hiked miles when they spotted a shadow of a bird. Andy was quick to shoot but he missed. “Grouse,” said Andy. A grouse is a ground dwelling bird, yet nimble in the tops of trees, especially in the winter looking for buds to eat. Grouse prefer to run from danger but this one was in a tree and flew. Gavin took a second longer to breathe and target. He shot and got it. Andy retrieved the bird, “Grouse. Good eating, no matter what they say.” Gavin looked concerned, “Sage grouse. I’ve read about them. Should be on an endangered list. I’ll be more careful.”

A living bird in the bush versus a dead one in the hand, that is the difference between a thing our knowledge of it. Knowledge is a series of bindings. A thing at its source is a physical energy pattern. Knowledge begins with sensation, the first binding. Light from the pattern is transformed as it creates a pattern on the retina. The pattern continues to be shaped by perception, the second binding. Mental schemas and cognitive biases are used to interpret the image and place it in memory. Speech is a third binding. Talking about a memory alters the pattern again, structuring the concept into a story. Written language is a fourth binding. Text encodes speech, structuring the spoken word into letters, words, sentences and paragraphs.

Each binding has two aspects, literal and symbolic. (The idea is comparable to one in semiotics, the study of signs. Saussure said that signs are made up of a matched pair, the signifier and the signified, physical and mental. I was planning to make a direct connection with signs, but I have been cautioned by smart people that “you’re doing epistemology, and Saussure’s theory is decidedly not epistemology. He has no theory of perception, only a theory of semiotic meaning.” I will carry on in my own way till I get better handle on semiotics. Also, I don’t know much about grouse hunting.)

The two aspects, literal and symbolic, are “closest together” in the first binding of sensation. The shadow of bird is a literal physical event sensed by the eye. The shadow is symbolic of a bird — almost definitely the shadow means the presence of a bird, but there is a possibility of error. Symbols represent a thing, and as such always have a degree of error. When it comes to the second binding of perception, “distance” is created from the original energy pattern. Sensation on the retina is now the literal physical event. Sensation was once removed from the thing itself, and perception is twice removed. A perception is more symbolic, and more likely to be in error. The error increases with the third binding of speech. Sensation and perception generally works as a transaction, i.e., they occur in a direct sequence. Speech can occur much later. The perception in memory may have changed, and the presentation of that memory by the speaker can be jaded with agenda.

The game changes with written language, the fourth binding. In the first three bindings, the literal aspect — shadow, sensation on the retina, spoken word — all symbolize the bird in the world, only with different degrees of error. Written language is different. Language is a literal physical thing: letters are written on a page or clicked on a keyboard, words are published in a book or on website. But written language does not refer directly to things in the world. Written letters do not symbolize literal letters standing up in the physical world.

Written words are correlates of spoken words. Learning letters starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L.” The brain learns to detect subtle differences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. There is a tight coupling of brain structures for letters and words and their literal counterparts. (For more on this, see Reading in the Brain by Dehaene.)

The fourth binding of written language is a bigger leap, with more chance of error. The first three bindings pointed to the the thing in the world, the bird. Written language maps to speech utterances. Sometimes a spoken word will sound like the thing it describes. It is called onomatopoeia, e.g., cuckoo, hiccup, ping-pong. This coupling of sound and meaning reduces the likelihood of error in communication. The meaning is obvious even to a new speaker. In rare cases, a written word looks like the thing it describes. It is called iconicity, e.g., the word bed looks like a classic bed with vertical posts on each end. A pictorial language has more of these correlations, such as Chinese, and is less prone to error.

When written language is able to express our experience we consider it a special thing, a gift of words by a poet or novelist, perhaps the occasional non-fiction writer. Knowledge is a series of bindings. The word, binding, is used deliberately. It is a reference to traditional book binding, and also the pain of being tied up. Each binding is a copy of a copy, adding error, compounding an illusion. One wonders if people can know truth at all.