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Because meaning is an abstraction, words and sign language are interchangeable

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From ScienceDaily:

Contrary to popular belief, language is not limited to speech. In a recent study published in the journal PNAS, Northeastern University Prof. Iris Berent reveals that people also apply the rules of their spoken language to sign language.

Language is not simply about hearing sounds or moving our mouths. When our brain is “doing language,” it projects abstract structure. The modality (speech or sign) is secondary. “There is a misconception in the general public that sign language is not really a language,” said Berent. “Part of our mandate, through the support of the NSF, is to reveal the complex structure of sign language, and in so doing, disabuse the public of this notion.”

To come to this conclusion, Berent’s lab studied words (and signs) that shared the same general structure. She found that people reacted to this structure in the same way, irrespective of whether they were presented with speech or signs. More.

The real story here is that minds use symbols, whether words or signs, to create information. But we are not permitted to talk about it quite that way. We need to pretend that it is a big surprise that sign language is a language.

See also: Andrew Ferguson reviews Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech at Commentary

and

Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

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13 Replies to “Because meaning is an abstraction, words and sign language are interchangeable

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Text, symbolic images, graphical symbols and diagrams, graphs, charts, process-flow diagrams, block and circuit diagrams, ideograms, and more. Think of how traditional Chinese writing works.

  2. 2
    Origenes says:

    Since sign language is a real language, why the stupendous, but superfluous, effort to evolve spoken language?

  3. 3
    daveS says:

    Origenes,

    Since sign language is a real language, why the stupendous, but superfluous, effort to evolve spoken language?

    Perhaps spoken language is more effective and/or efficient in some situations?

    If two people are separated by a fairly large distance, say 100 yards, then ASL for example might be impractical, especially if one person has poor vision.

    You could always break out the semaphore flags, but that’s slow.

    If it’s dark or the people are walking through a forest, again, separated by a modest distance, sign language might be impossible. The same would be true if both people are carrying things and have their hands full.

  4. 4
    Origenes says:

    DaveS: Perhaps spoken language is more effective and/or efficient in some situations?

    No doubt. However, since sign language seems relatively easy to evolve and rather effective, where are all the “sign language people” who did not evolve speech?

  5. 5
    daveS says:

    Origenes,

    No doubt. However, since sign language seems relatively easy to evolve and rather effective, where are all the “sign language people” who did not evolve speech?

    Well, I don’t know, and I also don’t know that it’s realistic to expect populations of sign language people to have survived to the present, if they ever did exist.

    I would speculate that such populations would have been killed off (or absorbed) long ago by our ancestors.

  6. 6
    Origenes says:

    DaveS: … I also don’t know that it’s realistic to expect populations of sign language people to have survived to the present, if they ever did exist.

    Why not? It has been claimed that wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures. Chimps have survived until the present, so why not “sign language people”?
    If I’m correct in supposing that sign language is relatively easy to evolve and rather effective, then we should expect sign language only at the advent of human language.
    Why is there no sign of these people?

  7. 7
    daveS says:

    Origenes,

    Why not? It has been claimed that wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures. Chimps have survived until the present, so why not “sign language people”?

    Are you serious? Do you think it would be a responsible decision to raise a child (who is physically able to hear and speak) in the USA knowing only ASL? Or for that matter, Spanish only, with no instruction in standard English? I assume you agree the answer is no.

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    As to language, here are a few notes: Besides the abject failure of Atheistic Materialism to account for consciousness, (i.e. you are a merely a neuronal illusion according to materialists), I hold that the origin of human language must rank right near the top in terms of the abject failure of Atheistic Materialism to account for the origin of things.

    “Speech is 95 percent plus of what lifts man above animal! Physically, man is a sad case. His teeth, including his incisors, which he calls eyeteeth, are baby-size and can barely penetrate the skin of a too-green apple. His claws can’t do anything but scratch him where he itches. His stringy-ligament body makes him a weakling compared to all the animals his size. Animals his size? In hand-to-paw, hand-to-claw, or hand-to-incisor combat, any animal his size would have him for lunch. Yet man owns or controls them all, every animal that exists, thanks to his superpower: speech.”
    —Tom Wolfe, in the introduction to his book, The Kingdom of Speech
    https://books.google.com/books?id=NPslCwAAQBAJ&pg=PT5

    In fact, Tom Wolfe’s motivation for writing his book came from this rather shocking confession from Darwinists:

    Leading Evolutionary Scientists Admit We Have No Evolutionary Explanation of Human Language – December 19, 2014
    Excerpt: Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved.,,,
    (Marc Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky and Richard C. Lewontin, “The mystery of language evolution,” Frontiers in Psychology, Vol 5:401 (May 7, 2014).)
    Casey Luskin added: “It’s difficult to imagine much stronger words from a more prestigious collection of experts.”
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....92141.html

    Moreover, that humans should master the planet due his unique ability to communicate information is completely contrary to the ‘survival of the fittest’ thinking that undergirds Darwinian thought. Although humans are fairly defenseless creatures in the wild compared to other creatures, such as lions, bears, and sharks, etc.., none-the-less, humans have, completely contrary to Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ thinking, managed to become masters of the planet, not by brute force, but simply by our unique ability to communicate information and also to, specifically, infuse information into material substrates in order to create, i.e. intelligently design, objects that are extremely useful for our defense, basic survival in procuring food, furtherance of our knowledge, and also for our pleasure.

    Although the ‘top-down’ implementation of information into material substrates , that allowed humans to become ‘masters of the planet’, was rather crude to begin with, (i.e. spears, arrows, and plows etc..), this top down infusion of information has become much more impressive over the last half century or so.
    Specifically, the ‘top-down’ infusion of mathematical and/or logical information into material substrates lies at the very basis of many, if not all, of man’s most stunning, almost miraculous, technological advances in recent decades.

    Here are a couple of articles which clearly get this ‘top-down’ infusion of information point across:

    Here is one by Peter Tyson
    Describing Nature With Math By Peter Tyson – Nov. 2011
    Excerpt: Mathematics underlies virtually all of our technology today. James Maxwell’s four equations summarizing electromagnetism led directly to radio and all other forms of telecommunication. E = mc2 led directly to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The equations of quantum mechanics made possible everything from transistors and semiconductors to electron microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging.
    Indeed, many of the technologies you and I enjoy every day simply would not work without mathematics. When you do a Google search, you’re relying on 19th-century algebra, on which the search engine’s algorithms are based. When you watch a movie, you may well be seeing mountains and other natural features that, while appearing as real as rock, arise entirely from mathematical models. When you play your iPod, you’re hearing a mathematical recreation of music that is stored digitally; your cell phone does the same in real time.
    “When you listen to a mobile phone, you’re not actually hearing the voice of the person speaking,” Devlin told me. “You’re hearing a mathematical recreation of that voice. That voice is reduced to mathematics.”
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/p.....-math.html

    Recognising Top-Down Causation – George Ellis
    Excerpt: page 5: A: Causal Efficacy of Non Physical entities:
    Both the program and the data are non-physical entities, indeed so is all software. A program is not a physical thing you can point to, but by Definition 2 it certainly exists. You can point to a CD or flashdrive where it is stored, but that is not the thing in itself: it is a medium in which it is stored.
    The program itself is an abstract entity, shaped by abstract logic. Is the software “nothing but” its realisation through a specific set of stored electronic states in the computer memory banks? No it is not because it is the precise pattern in those states that matters: a higher level relation that is not apparent at the scale of the electrons themselves. It’s a relational thing (and if you get the relations between the symbols wrong, so you have a syntax error, it will all come to a grinding halt). This abstract nature of software is realised in the concept of virtual machines, which occur at every level in the computer hierarchy except the bottom one [17]. But this tower of virtual machines causes physical effects in the real world, for example when a computer controls a robot in an assembly line to create physical artefacts.
    Excerpt page 7: The assumption that causation is bottom up only is wrong in biology, in computers, and even in many cases in physics, ,,,
    The mind is not a physical entity, but it certainly is causally effective: proof is the existence of the computer on which you are reading this text. It could not exist if it had not been designed and manufactured according to someone’s plans, thereby proving the causal efficacy of thoughts, which like computer programs and data are not physical entities.
    http://fqxi.org/data/essay-con.....s_2012.pdf

    What is more interesting still about the fact that humans have a unique ability to understand and create information, and have come to dominate the world through the ‘top-down’ infusion of information into material substrates, is the fact that, due to advances in science, both the universe and life itself, are now found to be ‘information theoretic’ in their foundational basis.

    Renowned physicist John Wheeler stated “in short all matter and all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe”.

    “it from bit” Every “it”— every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. “It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has a bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances, an immaterial source and explanation, that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment—evoked responses, in short all matter and all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”
    – Princeton University physicist John Wheeler (1911–2008) (Wheeler, John A. (1990), “Information, physics, quantum: The search for links”, in W. Zurek, Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information (Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley))

    In the following article, Anton Zeilinger, a leading expert in quantum mechanics, stated that ‘it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows.’

    Why the Quantum? It from Bit? A Participatory Universe?
    Excerpt: In conclusion, it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Thence the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word.”
    Anton Zeilinger – a leading experimentalist in quantum mechanics:

    In the following video at the 48:24 mark Zeilinger states that “It is operationally impossible to separate Reality and Information” and he goes on to note at the 49:45 mark the Theological significance of “In the Beginning was the Word” John 1:1

    48:24 mark: “It is operationally impossible to separate Reality and Information”
    49:45 mark: “In the Beginning was the Word” John 1:1
    Prof Anton Zeilinger speaks on quantum physics. at UCT – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3ZPWW5NOrw

    Vlatko Vedral, who is a Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, and is also a recognized leader in the field of quantum mechanics, stated

    “The most fundamental definition of reality is not matter or energy, but information–and it is the processing of information that lies at the root of all physical, biological, economic, and social phenomena.”
    Vlatko Vedral – Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, and CQT (Centre for Quantum Technologies) at the National University of Singapore, and a Fellow of Wolfson College – a recognized leader in the field of quantum mechanics.

    Moreover, information, besides being foundational to physical reality, is also found to be foundational to biological life. Here is a video and article that get this point across:

    Information Enigma (Where did the information in life come from?) – – Stephen Meyer – Doug Axe – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA-FcnLsF1g

    Complex grammar of the genomic language – November 9, 2015
    Excerpt: The ‘grammar’ of the human genetic code is more complex than that of even the most intricately constructed spoken languages in the world. The findings explain why the human genome is so difficult to decipher –,,,
    ,,, in their recent study in Nature, the Taipale team examines the binding preferences of pairs of transcription factors, and systematically maps the compound DNA words they bind to.
    Their analysis reveals that the grammar of the genetic code is much more complex than that of even the most complex human languages. Instead of simply joining two words together by deleting a space, the individual words that are joined together in compound DNA words are altered, leading to a large number of completely new words.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....140252.htm

    It is hard to imagine a more convincing proof that we are made ‘in the image of God’, than finding that both the universe and life itself are ‘information theoretic’ in their foundational basis, and that we, of all the creatures on earth, uniquely possess an ability to understand and create information, and have come, completely contrary to ‘survival of the fittest’ thinking, to ‘master the planet’ precisely because of our ability infuse abstract information into material substrates.
    I guess a more convincing evidence could be if God Himself became a man, defeated death on a cross, and then rose from the dead to prove to us that He was God.
    But who has ever heard of such overwhelming evidence as that?

    Shroud of Turin: From discovery of Photographic Negative, to 3D Information, to Quantum Hologram – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-TL4QOCiis

    Verses and Music:

    Genesis 1:26
    And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

    John 1:1-4
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and that life was the Light of men.

    Danny Gokey – Rise [Lyric Video]
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eUGUC4Ko30

  9. 9
    Origenes says:

    DaveS: Are you serious? Do you think it would be a responsible decision to raise a child (who is physically able to hear and speak) in the USA knowing only ASL?

    I have not presented my position clearly. My mistake. When I posed the question “where are all the ‘sign language people’ who did not evolve speech?”, I was referring to an imaginary race of people who lack the capacity to speak, not by decision, but for the reason that the capacity to speak did not evolve in this race of people.

    Of note:

    Wiki : (excerpt)

    The gestural theory states that human language developed from gestures that were used for simple communication.

    The important question for gestural theories is why there was a shift to vocalization. Various explanations have been proposed:

    1. Our ancestors started to use more and more tools, meaning that their hands were occupied and could no longer be used for gesturing.[70]
    2. Manual gesturing requires that speakers and listeners be visible to one another. In many situations, they might need to communicate, even without visual contact—for example after nightfall or when foliage obstructs visibility.
    3. A composite hypothesis holds that early language took the form of part gestural and part vocal mimesis (imitative ‘song-and-dance’), combining modalities because all signals (like those of nonhuman apes and monkeys) still needed to be costly in order to be intrinsically convincing. In that event, each multi-media display would have needed not just to disambiguate an intended meaning but also to inspire confidence in the signal’s reliability. The suggestion is that only once community-wide contractual understandings had come into force[71] could trust in communicative intentions be automatically assumed, at last allowing Homo sapiens to shift to a more efficient default format. Since vocal distinctive features (sound contrasts) are ideal for this purpose, it was only at this point—when intrinsically persuasive body-language was no longer required to convey each message—that the decisive shift from manual gesture to our current primary reliance on spoken language occurred.

    Note that all three “explanations” assume that a subtle vocal control system and various related neuronal adjustments are already evolved and are ready for usage. IOWs what is in need of an explanation is assumed — emblematic for Darwinian thought.

  10. 10
    daveS says:

    Origenes,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    As far as I can determine, there isn’t much if any hard evidence pertaining to whether such a population of nonverbal humans ever existed. In fact, it looks like there is evidence that some ancestors of modern humans communicated though speech. I can therefore only speculate about whether a hypothetical sign language people could have survived to modern times.

    If they were completely isolated from other humans, then I suppose it would be possible. Could such a population have remained isolated up until, say, historical times? I’m guessing that would be difficult.

    On the other hand, if this population was in contact with a group of verbal humans, wouldn’t they be at a tremendous disadvantage? I suspect that, as often happens when a more powerful people-group meets a less powerful people-group, the sign language people would be killed off, enslaved, and/or assimilated, and would eventually vanish as a distinct entity.

  11. 11
    Paul Giem says:

    DaveS and Origenes,

    There actually was, and may still be, a society whose main language was sign language. At one point approximately 2/3 of the population of Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) was deaf, and the de facto language of the island was sign language. Non-deaf people of the island learned it, just like one might learn Spanish in Tijuana (Mexico). It is really no surprise, as a kind of sign language is being used in this post (written English). It is just a matter of enough people who speak (or write, or sign) the language congregating in the same vicinity. In fact, that probably includes virtual vicinity, as proficiency in English is currently being spread on the Internet.

    I agree with the thrust of News’ post.

  12. 12
    daveS says:

    Paul Giem,

    Thanks, that’s interesting example.

  13. 13
    kairosfocus says:

    PG: Good to see you. KF

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