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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Language of God

I have been going through all my blogs the last few days to delete a 100% perfect spam job that attached some impenetrable gob of Chinese authored by someone or some computer named "sexy." In the process, I encountered one of my blogs on religion and decided to Google "The Language of God" to see what sort of nonsense there might be out there on the internet and found that some nitwit has a book titled just that. I am a couple of years late in noticing that but gratuitous slaps at religion are never too late or too early.

In an ABC news story prompting this diatribe, I discovered that former President Clinton and the "leader of the international Human Genome Project," one Francis S. Collins, are described as conspiring to claim, in the words of Clinton,
"Today," he said, "we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."
I'm sure I have blogged on the idea that there could be a language of art or music, pointing out how silly such notions are, but worse than these is the notion that the code that determines our genetic make up is written in some sort of language
3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code
which is amazingly complex. Yo, dude, if this code is so complex and wondrous how in hell have humans been able to crack it? We linguists haven't been able to understand the structure of any human language. We must be dumber than geneticists or, more likely, the human genome just ain't that difficult to crack and certainly an unworthy candidate as an example of the language of anything but a very minor god.

Actually, if the human genome is a code then it isn't a linguistic system on a par with Chinese or Spanish or Xhosa, which are anything but code like. Human languages consist of expressions that refer to elements of the natural world as well as a multiplicity of quite abstract notions (justice, democracy, infinity). The strands of DNA don't refer to things outside the organizm from which the DNA is drawn.

This geneticist must be an admirer of the equally silly intelligent design (non)theory for like it, it is restricted to one phenomenon -- the origin of the species. There is no intelligent design theory of physics or linguistics or anything other than the origin of the species. Similarly, the "language" of DNA, while it might bear the slightest resemblance to the graphical representations of organic chemistry being taught way back when (and maybe even now), it bears no relationship to the "language" of physics. Are we to say that the mathematical representations in physics are not instances of the language of God or is it that He is bilingual or multilingual, with one language for the human genome, another for physics, another for statistics, and still another for syntactical structure, etc.?

How a scientist of this guy's reputation could come up with so silly a theory is beyond my simple imagination. But then, whenever my wife says I am imagining something, my reply is allways, "I have no imagination." Neither does this dude.

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20 Comments:

Blogger Akinoluna - a female Marine said...

I got spammed by the exact spammer. I only got stuck with about 50 comments though. :-)

6:12 PM

 
Blogger Andyo said...

"How a scientist of this guy's reputation could come up with so silly a theory is beyond my simple imagination."

Jeez, he saw Jesus in a waterfall. Look it up. It's not that hard to imagine!

This guy is probably the most infamous (legitimate) scientist right now. He got eviscerated by all scientists and people that know something about anything.

He isn't even friendly with the ID people, since he has criticized them (as any legitimate scientist would). Not even Ken Miller, probably the most famous catholic scientist right now (and a great public communicator in spite of that) agrees with him. My guess is only wishy-washy religious people who are a little nutty would find something "of value" there.

Interesting to have a language take, though. Keep it up.

8:45 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

It appears that someone needs to have their literary license revoked.

10:41 AM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I agree with you, Language Guy, that natural language is a unique phenomenon, but think that you are a bit too harsh, sometimes. The genome may not be language but it is a kind of information; the idea is fascinating enough on its own.

Analogies always rely on differences in addition to similarities. They may be of little use during an empirical study, but at the first beginnings of new ideas – the part of the scientific process which most involves creativity – they are sometimes essential...For example, the idea that the brain/mind are hardware/software has been, in my opinion, disproven, but the comparison may have been necessary in the development of Chomsky's idea of a dedicated language module. Or the idea of mathematics as language might have been important in the development of Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

It's interesting in general that two kinds of ideas are really popular right now: that analogies are nonsense – that they prevent the discovery of the true nature of a thing – and that analogies are basic to all thought.

5:45 PM

 
Blogger Gypsy Jane said...

metaphor.

11:07 PM

 
Blogger JerryB said...

I get the impression that when he
says "we are learning the language
in which God created life." it is
intended in a metaphorical sense.
That seems legitimate to me.

Also:
"The strands of DNA don't refer to things outside the organizm . ."

I couldn't find "organizm" in any
dictionary. Is that just a spelling
error or does it have some special
meaning?

12:56 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

le vent fripon, to say that DNA sequencing is "information" is not true. It is data, and that's all. Information could be said to be interpreted data but language is very far from being that. It is not even communication, unless one is dimwitted enough to think that God created this to communicate with us about the nature of life. Why do that though? He would be leaving out all the billions who lived before DNA was discovered, a mean-spirited thing to do. But, this not unprecedented in the case of our Middle-Eastern derived God.

No, saying that this is a metaphor isn't consistent with the man's intent. He is saying something about reality. Moreover, it would be a very lousy metaphor.

jerryb, why do you think the alternatives are just use of a new word or a spelling error? Can't you think of any other possbility? I think most people would assume it is a typo. Why not you?

9:20 AM

 
Blogger aman said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boson

(much much closer to 'god's' actual language methinks.)

12:52 PM

 
Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I still think that it is great that scientific knowledge leads politicians to admire the strangeness and complexity of the universe.

What do you think about terms like "formal language" or "programming language?"

6:12 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Formal languages lack the complexities of natural languages, disallowing ambiguity, self-reference, among other things. Ambiguity is the result of using relatively few words to convey complex meanings. "John likes Bill more than Joe" can mean "John likes Bill more than he likes Joe" or "John likes Bill more than Joe does." The ambiguity comes from reducing the length of sentences to make them more easily processed.

Formal languages (including programming languages) have no such restriction on signal length. Everything must be spelled out explicitly. They are not used primarily to communicate but to do other kinds of work -- prove theorems, axiomatize set theory, allow for explicit formulations of empirical hypotheses, etc. Since they must be "readable" by other humans they can be said to communicate but it is a pretty poor way to do so. Naturally occurring languages are optimized for communication.

8:04 AM

 
Blogger Mark said...

Hi Language Guy,

I agree that it would be silly to call the genome a language, in the linguistic sense. You could not use the genome to talk about the weather, but let us remember that Clinton is not speaking to scientists, and is not using the precise language of scientists.

I would say he means "language" in a metaphorical sense. I think you can draw an obvious parallel between progamming languages and DNA.

DNA is just a very large molecule, and everything it does is mediated through chemical reactions. But if you move up one level of organisation, to the level of cell organelles (the structures that carry out the tasks in a cell) it's clear that DNA carries information, not for conscious minds, but for the co-ordination of the entire functioning of the cell.

Programming languages, which have no linguistic value, cause things to happen on a computer. Computers are not conscious, and you can't use programming languages to discuss anything, but we accept that the word "languages" isn't inteded to be used in that sense here.

Clinton is expressing awe at the complexity of the genome. The function of the genome is vastly more complicated than the function of programming languages, and yet at the same time the genome is vastly more flexible, and, somewhat incredibly, more stable.

When you see it this way, I do not think the level of derision you have directed at Clinton's comments is warranted.

11:00 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Very nice. Perhaps in the extended sense in which programing languages are said to be languages, the human genome could be said to be one, as well. So, English is a language (rule set of a certain degree of complexity) and a communication system. The others are not. I wonder if the human genome exhibits recursivity, a sine qua non of human languages and programing languages. A difference there is that there is no limit to recursion in human languages (since our limited memory capacities take care of that) though infinite loops in programming languages would be a bit of a problem.

2:51 PM

 
Blogger Martin (riverScrap.com) said...

As I understand it, the richness and symbolic potential of language stems from its ambiguity and polysemy (both for segments and constructions). To that end I don't see any parallels with genetics, as surely the point of genetic code is to stipulate as precisely and unambiguously as possible what the definition of the code is. If strings of DNA were open to interpretation... well... it wouldn't be pretty!

4:55 PM

 
Blogger Koos said...

I am a language guy, too, and see painful misunderstandings arise. First, the other language guy, as opposed to myself, the real language guy, claims formal languages disallow ambiguity. This is not so. The LANGUAGES generated by THE GRAMMARS in the Chomsky hierarchy can definitely be ambiguous. Then, ambiguity does not correlate with shortness of the signal. There are some very long ambiguous sentences.

Want one? Hold on: "The shooting of the hunters went on all through the dark ages, and it was not just hunters that got shot, but the hunted themselves as well, if I am not mistaken."

The functional explanation (as us real language guys call it) of ambiguity arising because of the length of the signal would not pass muster from many professional linguists.

Another thing that happens in this discussion is the mix-up of languages and grammars. The genome would be the language, the formal set of so-called re-write rules, mathematical divices, are the grammars. Grammars specify regularities in sequences of symbols. So, in some sense, damn right that the Genome, and messenger RNA, and the resulting protiens, are a language. And these languages can be described by grammars.

6:49 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

I suppose I should have qualified my comments. First, in talking about the existence of ambiguity in natural human languages (the ones learned orally or visually -- sign language) is due to the fact that our short term memories cannot handle long utterances as well as shorter ones. Since human languages are used in context rich circumstances, it would be rare that a listener even notice that an ambiguous utterance was unambiguous -- context would guide them to the correct interpretation. So, going for short to relieve the burden on short term memory doesn't cost us much. Your long utterance explicated the ambiguity and constitutes cheating. There are obviously ways to work around our perceptual limitations. The worst cheating is to resort to written language which is irrelevant to the origin of language and its early circumstances of use.

As for formal languages, I could care less about Chomsky's hierarchy and should have said that these were not being considered, but rather care about formal languages used in programming and in theorem proving. Sorry if I didn't include Chomsky's exercise in formal grammar. I wonder if Chomsky thinks about these any more himself. I understand his formal grammar work did spawn some interesting mathematics but these things have nothing to do with human natural (do I need more qualifiers?)language so far as I know. Its amazing how I managed to go so many years since reading Chomsky's formal grammar work without every once finding a use in semantics and pragmatics.

I might add, since you are interested in formal grammara that in my opinion the concept of grammar as first proposed by Chomsky strikes me as a vastly improbable concept as an account of linguistic knowledge. I take the view that we store linguistic knowledge but not in the form of Chomskyan style grammars -- a single representation used equally by speaker and hearer. My book on Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction goes into this. I had an epiphany while working with a colleague in computer science in the development of a utterance (not sentence) generation in which I learned that accounting for utterance production requires a very different approach to the issue of language use than does language perception.

10:22 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Drat, in recovery from a cold and my mind is weak. I wrote "it would be rare that a listener even notice that an ambiguous utterance was unambiguous" when I should have written it would be rare that a listener even notice that an ambiguous utterance was ambiguous.

Also, add "device" after "generation".

My joy at taking care of my 19 month old ill grandchild was tempered by catching a gawdaful 24 hour virus. I am only moderately functional today.

10:26 AM

 
Blogger Tom said...

Hi Language Guy,

Belief in religion is less a function of intelligence as it is a function of DNA. Collins (head of the human genome project) is predisposed to spiritualism on account of a gene as yet undiscovered. Oh the irony!

Charles Heehler

3:35 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

An outstanding point of view. How do you account for the different belief systems?

4:55 PM

 
Blogger Tom said...

Random mutations.



Charles Heehler

11:45 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

That is almost certainly partly true. The mutations of Judaism that gave rise to Christianity and Islam happened at different times and at different places. Like many mutations, the environment (existing pagan religions) played a role. :-)

8:57 AM

 

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