Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Chickens and Eggs

For one reason or another, there's a theme recurring in my thoughts today. It began on the bus ride to university, when I was contemplating the philosophy of language (as I am wont to do of a morning); one of the most interesting questions I've come across is where it meets the philosophy of mind. The question in its basic form is this:

Did our language evolve to reflect our concept of mind, or did our concept of mind grow out of the inaccuracies in our language?

The idea here is the possibility that phrases like "I have a body" mislead people into separating their identity from their physical presence - seeing one's body as a possession rather than as the root of the "self". The question here is asking whether this subtle nuance of the language grew out of our natural perception that we inhabit (rather than are) our bodies, or whether this perception itself came out of our habit of speaking this way. I'm inclined to say the former, but it's still a very interesting and thought-provoking question.

The second part of this continuing "Chicken and Egg" theme came when overhearing a conversation in the library about religion and morality. Someone was reporting someone else as saying that most contemporary morality originally comes from religion. They weren't drawing conclusions from this - just stating a fairly widely-held and generally uncontroversial view.

But it got me thinking: why would we assume this to be true, just because many of the laws of today's society (against murder, as a classic example) are also present in religion, which predates modern law? Do we not even think to consider what predates religion? This relates to Euthyphro's Dilemma, which asks:

Is something right because the God(s) approve of it, or do the God(s) approve of it because it is right?

I love Socrates. I think it's fairly clear to anyone who thinks objectively about these things that religious morality grew out of social morality - rules for living together harmoniously. Modern law then grew out of the influence of religious morality. It's generally a harmless mistake to fail to look beyond the initial cause to the root which gave rise to it, but in some insane rare cases, people are actually arguing that (for instance) atheists should be exempt from human rights, because morality comes from God. I'm not going to go into it here, but it may well come up in the future.

And on a final, frivolous note - the egg came first. Dinosaur eggs, anyone? Fish eggs? If you were to ask which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg, then the question might be a bit more interesting. But I'm just a pedant like that.

UPDATE: As regards the first question of language and the perception of the mind, there's been some research on it done recently. It would appear that there is evidence to support the idea that our language does in fact influence our understanding of things such as what it is to be alive. Via ScienceDaily.

No comments: