Language and our perception of reality: reflections on the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis

I recently finished The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains by Joseph LeDoux. This is another in the latest genre of “meta-history” books that integrate a variety of scientific fields and perspectives into a meta-explanation of something. In this case, LeDoux traces the story of biological evolution while focusing on the phenomenon of consciousness and how it may have emerged as a result of various evolutionary adaptations along the way.

At one point (chapter 47) LeDoux discusses the link between language, communication, and consciousness. He quotes Daniel Dennett in Kinds of Minds where he says “language lays down tracks on which thoughts can travel.” He also introduces the Whorf-Sapir (linguistic relativity) hypothesis that says:

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, also known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, refers to the proposal that the particular language one speaks influences the way one thinks about reality.

While this theory fell out of academic favor under criticism from Noam Chomsky, LeDoux argues that “Whorf’s notion that language and culture shape thought and experience is currently thriving again in psychology” (235).

I’ll admit that this idea is fascinating to me. This idea might be able to provide leverage in explaining puzzles around how religion and spirituality manifest themselves in different cultures, peoples, and contexts. Perhaps a person’s ability to perceive God (or the Absolute, or Ultimate Reality, or whatever) is constrained not only by his or her neurophysiology, but also by what language we speak. Perhaps, as God communicates with us, God is constrained/limited by what we’re able to comprehend given the conceptual “train tracks” that have already been laid by the language that we speak(?). (And for the sake of this short essay I’m assuming that God is an entity with independent will who wishes to communicate with humans.)

If this is indeed the case, then we could–theoretically–perceive God more fully by learning a language (including cultural and paradigmatic “languages”) that has “train tracks” that can better direct the ideas more comprehensively in our minds. This idea was explored in Ted Chiang’s short The Story of Your Life and adapted movie Arrival, except in this story language acquisition enabled the protagonists to perceive time differently.

Alas, as near as I’m able to tell as a non-expert, the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis hasn’t made quite as strong a comeback as LeDoux seemed to indicate in The Deep History of Ourselves. Nonetheless, the concept of linguistic relativity is a compelling one for those like myself who are sympathetic to natural theology. Linguistic relativism would seem to suggest that our theologies themselves are bounded by our languages (something which, interestingly, is hinted at in the Book of Mormon) and thus should, I think, lead us to greater humility about the ultimate accuracy of our understandings of God.

Of course, this assumes that there is, in fact, an external God that our mental maps are trying their best to perceive and explain. The statistician in me resists absolute confidence about any particular assertion of truth. I admit that it’s also possible that, as LeDoux and other evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers have argued, that our conceptions of God are mental projections that have resulted from a billion-year evolutionary adaptation process to enhance our species’ odds of survival. Indeed, Occam’s razor would lend toward that explanation as ultimately more likely. Assuming that this were indeed the case, though, much of human history and civilization is premised upon imaged stories. To engage in these stories (i.e. theologies) is a quintessentially human thing to do that has long-reaching consequences for the health, safety, and happiness of our fellow humans, and still (I think) a noble pursuit.

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