Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 5

Categorisation and Social Relations

There is yet another layer of complexity to communication and knowledge. I said earlier that categorisation is the fundamental building block of knowing anything. This includes ourselves and other people. We categorise other people (unconsciously and automatically) into groups, and this determines how we expect them to act, and how we act towards them. Further, we also categorise ourselves as being part of various groups. This is a central theme of social psychology.

How we categorise other people, and how we categorise ourselves, changes the way we understand the world. McGarty (1999) uses the example of a football match to illustrate this:

Imagine you are going to watch a football match at a stadium between a team you support and a traditional rival. In order to understand the game you would, at the very least, need to categorize the players as belonging to different teams. To avoid being arrested you would need to categorize yourself as a spectator and not as a player. These categorizations are relatively obvious and may require little if any conscious thought on your part. More interestingly, however, you may come to categorize yourself as a supporter of one of the teams.

If you are like most supporters, as incidents occur on the field you will come to classify decisions by the referee or umpire as fair or unfair (and hence to be met with silence or derision) and segments of play as worthy of comment, applause or silence. You may well notice that many of your classifications seem to shared by other people who support the same team as you.

However, you could also hardly fail to notice that the classifications that you share with other supporters of your team seem to be keenly contested by the opposition supporters. They seem to classify fair decisions as worthy of derision and often greet examples of the most scintillating play with stony silence. However, rather than being puzzled by this disagreement we actually expect this perverse behaviour from the opposition

We create social identities based on how we categorise ourselves, and how we categorise others. This allows us to predict how people will behave, as with the opposition supporters in the football example. This in turn allows us to describe peoples’ behaviour as ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’ if they do not behave in the way we expect. It also allows us to know what behaviour to expect of ourselves. For example, if I identify myself as a male, this has significant implications for which toilet I use in public buildings.

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Bowker, G. C. and Star, S. L. (1999), Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Inside Technology, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McGarty, C. (1999), Categorization in Social Psychology, SAGE Publications, London.

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 4

Categorisation and Language

Our difficulties in communicating with each other are further exacerbated by the complexities of language. People used to think that categorising and choosing a word to describe a category were pretty much the same thing. That is, by naming something we categorise it together with everything else of that name. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The relationship between categorisation and words is much more complicated (Malt et al., 1999).

The problem comes from the fact that naming and language are tools for communication, not necessarily for categorisation. The two are, of course, closely linked, but they are different. Categorisation groups similar things together so that our brains can save some effort in processing the masses of sensory input they constantly receive. Communication, on the other hand, is about sharing an understanding (at least, that will do as a working definition). This means that when I am communicating with somebody, I will choose words that I think they will understand. If I use words that the other person does not understand, then communication will fail.

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Malt, B. C., Sloman, S. A., Gennari, S., Shi, M.  Wang, Y. 1999 , ‘Knowing versus naming: Similarity and the linguistic categorization of artifacts’, Journal of Memory and Language 40(2), 230–262.

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 3

Categorisation

We have trouble communicating because we can’t get into each other’s bodies and experience things as somebody else does. But that is just the beginning of the problem. Categorisation makes the problem even more complex.

Categorisation is the most fundamental building block of knowing anything. As Lakoff and Johnson write:

Every living being categorizes. Even the amoeba categorizes the things it encounters into food or nonfood, what it moves toward or moves away from. The amoeba cannot choose whether to categorize; it just does. The same is true at every level of the animal world. Animals categorize food, predators, possible mates, members of their own species, and so on. How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and to manipulate objects. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999 p. 17)

Categorisation is essential to almost everything we do. Information from our eyes is categorised into objects so we see a tree, grass, a person, etc., instead of a mass of coloured dots. This allows us to quickly process a scene, looking for important things like danger, food or other people. We also learn by categorisation. We learn, for instance, that certain objects are good for holding liquids and drinking out of. When we recognise similar objects later we then know that we can drink out of them; saving us the trouble of performing trial-and-error experiments.

Unfortunately, this learning aspect is yet another mechanism that makes communication difficult. Our knowledge about categories is continually being updated and refined as we interact with the world. This causes problems for anyone trying to study categorisations at the very basic level, because the very experiments set up to investigate categorisation cause us to change and update our categories (Markman and Ross, 2003). It also causes problems when I try to communicate. For example, what I mean by the phrase `politically correct’ today may not be the same as what I meant when I used the term two weeks ago. In the meantime, I may have been to a seminar on diplomatic use of language and thus gained a more subtle understanding of the phrase. On the other hand, I may have heard a politician use a particularly amusing euphemism and that also changes my category. These shifts and changes in categories mean that not only does understanding vary greatly between individuals, but even in the same person.

Our categories are also highly contextual. That is, when we categorise things, we don’t just store information in our brains about which things belong in a group, but also the contexts in which the category is meaningful. We do this automatically and unconsciously. Homonyms are a good example—where one word has several meanings. For instance, the word cake refers to ‘a baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition’.1 However, in the context of alternative music, Cake refers to the name of a band. In the context of a political discussion, the phrase `everyone wants a slice of the cake’ refers to a resource to be shared out. We work out the meaning from the context. And when we communicate, we often leave out a lot of contextual information because we are in the context. When somebody else comes along, however, the context may not be immediately apparent.

The upshot of all this is that categories don’t just vary between different people, they vary within the same person. Categories change over time and are arranged differently to suit different contexts. This makes it difficult to communicate because even if I talk about a concert we experienced together last week, our individual understandings of it may have changed in the meantime. I might also imagine that you immediately understand I mean last week’s concert. You, on the other hand, may have been thinking about a concert next week because you had just been in the process of buying tickets. Our highly-adaptive brains make communication just that much harder.

This is just the beginning of our problems however…


Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 2

The Embodied Mind and Subjectivity

Looking at things from a cognitive perspective, we can see that all our knowledge is situated and contextual. Whenever I learn something, I learn it in a particular place, at a particular time, when I am in a particular emotional state. For example, when I was in Year 11 at school, I learned Newton's Equations of Motion:

v
=
u + at
v2
=
u2 + 2as
s
=
ut + ½at2

Don’t worry if they mean nothing to you. It’s not important. My point is that thousands (probably millions) of other people have learned those same equations, just like me. Those equations are the same, no matter who learns them, but... nobody else learned those equations in the same context that I did. Nobody sat in the same chair in the same classroom at the same school that I did. Yet, when I think about the equations of motion, I always remember that school, that classroom, and my Physics teacher. I also remember when I learned the calculus behind them in my maths class, and later at university. My understanding of the equations of motion will always be coloured and shaped by the context in which I learned them.

The strange outcome of this, is that it is entirely possible for us to dislike abstract concepts. For example, if I disliked my Physics teacher and found the equations difficult to understand, then I may come to actually dislike Newton’s equations of motion. I can form a negative preference toward a mathematical description of the way objects move in a vacuum. The equations are not in any way affected by my disregard for them. They don’t care if I think they’re stupid, because they don’t really exist. They are just a bunch of symbols that have an agreed meaning amongst a smallish group of educated human beings. Is that not strange?

Why is it that we can feel emotions about abstract things like mathematical equations? In their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson [1999] write that all our knowledge and understanding is shaped by the fact that we have bodies. We never learn anything in abstract. We learn things at a certain point in time, feeling a certain way, in a certain location. We learn things in a body. Even the way we think and reason is shaped by the fact that we have eyes, hands, ears and hormones that run through our bloodstream.

This means that there is no such thing as a disembodied, objective human mind that is free from emotional attachment or irrationality. We can never have a completely emotionless, disembodied, objective view of anything. Everything is subjective.

Does this mean, then, that we are doomed to float in a sea of meaningless relativism, unable to know anything or communicate with anyone? Obviously not, or there would be no point to you reading this. We somehow manage to know things and communicate with others, however imperfectly. We can do this, because we all have a few things in common that make communication and shared understanding possible.

I mean to come back to this later, but the point is that we can communicate because we all share the experience of having brains and bodies. Unfortunately, we don’t share our brains or bodies with anyone else. My brain and my body is different from your brain and your body. Our experiences are entirely different too. Although we may have a few general things in common like school, television, driving in cars, etc. we probably didn’t go to the same school, watch the same television, or drive in the same cars. So, I can never communicate an exact imprint of what I know to you, because when I talk about schools, cars and televisions, my words evoke different experiences from the ones you had.

Unfortunately, this problem goes right down to the very building-blocks of our thought processes. Our difficulties with communication stem from the very architecture of our brains.


Lakoff, G.  Johnson, M. 1999 , Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York.

Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 1

Communication is Difficult

Why is communication so difficult?

Sometimes I will talk to somebody, and think that I’m expressing myself really clearly when I’m not. I seem to make perfect sense. Yet when I hear what the other person says in response, it is obvious that they heard something quite different from what I thought I said. What seemed so clear and easily understandable to me, is apparently quite opaque to the other person.

It happens all the time, and not just to me. For example, I frequently observe Christians having an argument over some point of doctrine. One person puts forward an idea X. The other person actually agrees with X but is concerned about the consequences of taking idea X too far, so they explain some of the flaws with X. Now, the first person is fully aware of the flaws of idea X, but they still think it’s a good idea, so they reiterate the good points about X. To the second person, it sounds like the first person didn’t understand the dire consequences of taking X too far, so they restate their understanding of X’s flaws. And so on and so forth. Both of them agree that X is a good idea but shouldn’t be taken too far. Yet a heated argument ensues. Over nothing.

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Why is communication so difficult? And what the heck does that have to do with epistemology or theology? This is the introduction to a few thoughts I’m writing down about things I have been reading for my PhD. Let me know what you think

Crying Man

Dan and Dave's Commuter Church

We had the lovely pleasure of hosting Dan and Emma the weekend before last. I really enjoyed hearing Dan tell me about the Church he’s involved with now, including their new idea for “Commuter Church”. Then this turned up in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A SYDNEY church in the heart of the CBD offers quickie 10-minute church services to attract busy, time-poor city workers. The short "commuter church" services are held at the Parish Church of St Philip on York Street on early mornings before the working day begins.…

read more | digg story

Crying Man

Bruce Milne on Humility in Church

I’ve been reading We belong together: The meaning of fellowship by Bruce Milne lately. Its content is very… accurate. He writes some absolutely fantastic stuff, but at the same time it is one of the most boring books I’ve read in a long time. He has a rather academic style—by which I mean that most paragraphs average 2-3 references to bible passages. This kind of careful, precise writing can be really dry, but he does write some extremely challenging stuff on God’s clear commands for us to look out for each other.

Anyhow, I came across this passage in the book, which echoes some stuff I’ve been thinking (and posting) about lately:

It is in this light that we perhaps need to put a question mark against some holiness teaching which sets forth the Christian ideal in terms of what one might describe as ‘the omnicompetent individual’. By this view the man or woman we are all to strive to become is an individual of all-round spiritual competence, who is able to cope with any pressure, to meet every obstacle, to deal with every situation, and to experience a life of unbroken victory over sin and Satan. One wonders whether this ‘image’ of the Christian life does not owe much more to Christian biographers than to the bible. One recognizes immediately that this ideal has unquestionably produced in the past some remarkable examples of Christian character; but it has equally driven many others to a lonely struggle ending in despair and disillusionment, or to what is possibly worse, the hypocrisy of a double-standard life, whereby we struggle to maintain the omnicompetent image in public and know ourselves to be something very different behind the scenes. The biblical ideal by contrast appears much more that of the onmicompetent Christian fellowship, where in the total life of the whole body the weaknesses and limitations of each are taken account of and complemented by the strength of the whole.*

Of course, as my father-in-law says, whenever you point the finger at someone you’re pointing three fingers back at yourself. I fear I have been guilty at many times of cultivating an omnicompetent image. Whether I did so consciously or not is irrelevant—the damage to others resulting from my lack of humility is the same. For those of you who know me personally, I would ask you to help keep me accountable in this area.

* Bruce Milne, We belong together: The meaning of fellowship, Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England, 1978, pp. 76-77.

Amnesiac Bear

Creation, evolution and Aliens

A friend of mine sent me this question (among others):

[My friend] sees reason and logic in the evolutionary view of the universe, and has trouble reconciling the idea that God created the world in 7 days with the idea that the universe erupted out of the big bang and evolved to this particular point in time the way that the scientists say it did. A related point is how Christianity fits with the idea that it is very probable that there is life in other galaxies - how does this fit in with a “grand narrative” [that] situates humans at the centre and seems to privilege them over the rest of creation.

What follows is my response:

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