A Beginning of Sorts

Inscrutability of Reference 

The motivation for naming this blog Inscrutable Reference comes from a thought experiment offered by the 20th century analytical philosopher W.V.O. Quine to demonstrate the indeterminate relationship between a word and the object to which it refers. In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker includes the following memorable account of Quine’s puzzle.  

“[I]magine”, Pinker writes,  

a linguist studying a newly discovered tribe. A rabbit scurries by, and a native shouts, “Gavagai!” What does gavagai mean? Logically speaking, it needn’t be “rabbit.” It could refer to that particular rabbit (Flopsy, for example). It could mean any furry thing, any mammal, or any member of that species of rabbit (say, Oryctolagus cuniculus), or any member of that variety of that species (say, chinchilla rabbit). It could mean scurrying rabbit, scurrying thing, rabbit plus the ground it scurries upon, or scurrying in general. It could mean footprint-maker, or habitat for rabbit-fleas. It could mean the top half of a rabbit, or rabbit-meat-on-the-hoof, or possessor of at least one rabbit’s foot. It could mean anything that is either a rabbit or a Buick. It could mean collection of undetached rabbit parts, or “Lo! Rabbithood again!,” or “It rabbiteth,” analogous to “It raineth.” 

This thought experiment I would only later learn had a more formal name for the principle of indeterminacy principle it revealed out and that this principle, in philosophy-ese speak, was the “inscrutability of reference”, or “referential inscrutability” per the always handy Wikipedia. How to categorize this inscrutability or in what philosophical tradition it lay wasn’t as interesting to me as much as the phenomenon itself. Here was something that to me was obvious and true–that we must be somehow cognitively pushed to a converging a priori agreement on the meaning of words, or we would not be able to communicate; we are able to communicate, therefore we must have an agreement on the meaning of words; q.e.d.. How this agreement occurs is still a mystery. 

Quine’s Gavagai thought experiment then did what good thought experiments ought to do. It helped to destabilize epistemic certainty by exposing overlooked and tied over inconsistencies in things we take for granted–it was the sort of thought experiment that could make you go “hmm” as you came to terms with the flimsy foundations of understanding you had for the things you took for granted. The Gavagai thought experiment was then a koan for me not unlike the famous “sound of one hand clapping”, or the less common of asking what is it like to bite one’s own teeth with one’s own teeth[that one you can attribute to me]. These were all questions, maybe even pseudo questions that when considered exposed the mind to paradoxes and puzzles that it found itself incapable of solving without running into contradictions that exposed the shortcomings of our intuitions.

Recently, I’ve transitioned into a new industry, IT, more specifically data management, and have had to learn a lot of new concepts and adopt a more rigidly epistemic attitude regarding my ideas than I had ever experienced before. This experience I imagine is not entirely unlike learning to speak a foreign language as an adult and being very conscious of the mental switches and processes that are occurring inside one’s head as one is acquiring, processing, and using new information to solve problems. It should be noted that I am not speaking of those banal things like taking mental notes of how a problem was solved and coming back to it at some idle hour to confirm whether an indispensable lesson really was learned and what opportunities called for its application next. I am not speaking of the stuff of the Harvard Business Review that lets you monitor your efficacy and growth as an employee. 

Instead, I am speaking of something more basic–the way language shifts and grows in tandem, indeed is a part of the process of learning.I am speaking of instances of noting to myself when a new word was introduced and I had no clue what it meant until one day I just did, or another word acquired a meaning it had never had before because I was exposed circumstances where it was used in unexpected ways. I think that because the inscrutability of reference has always been an intellectual anchor to a deep-seated wonder and curiosity for me about the link between knowledge, language, and knowledge of a language, it made sense that this curiosity would be re-awakened by exposure to a new professional field where acquiring a new language was necessary to meeting basic expectations of competency. I made it a point that every time I learned something new or had sensed a growing level of competency, I would note that occasion and reflect on it later. I became more self-aware–mindful, to use parlance of our times–of myself in the process of learning entirely new fields with their own exacting demands on what it means to be competent in them. 


What wasI searching for? Why was I so hyper-vigilant about keeping track of those instances when my vocabulary expanded in both breadth and scope to meet the need of communicating on common terms with my colleagues. I think it was because I saw this challenge as similar to the challenge of learning a new language and the process of linking words to sometimes elusive and abstruse meanings. I also suspect I wanted to play the part of the scientist and this required being on the lookout for phenomenon of interest. In this case, it meant being hyperaware of those Gavagai moments when knowledge was instantiated almost instantly despite a poverty of stimulus and seeing if I could come up with something that could explain how it occurred. I thought that maybe just maybe by being consciously present as these moments of induction occurred, I could also discern just how the connections between words and meanings were put together, at the moment of instantiation, the Big Bang of the acquisition of language. 

I was unsurprisingly unsuccessful at this. A reason for the futility of my endeavor was well demonstrated in a recent movie I saw called Passing.  The film has (spoiler alert) an intentionally ambiguous ending. You can replay–and I have–a crucial scene in it as many times as you like and you still can’t draw a conclusion as to who did what to whom in it, or who holds the major culpability of the blame for the outcome. I suspect that will be the case if I could ever simultaneously learn something through pure Gavagai-an induction and record that instance to play it again and again to see if the phenomena revealed any of its secrets upon closer scrutiny. I suspect (read: am certain) I could do all that and set up an ideal-like experimental setting to study it within, it would still not lead to any definite conclusions although multiple reasonable explanations could be held to account for what is going on. 

Knowledge of how consciousness does what it does is inherently limited because it is below the conscious realm where the most interesting semantic transformations occur, where words and meanings are tied together. By the time thought is conscious, it may no longer be in a state that can lend insight into its origins; the phenomenon doing the initial meaning-yoking has disappeared. I suspect all this is true. If that is the case, then I can acknowledge at the outset that these internal investigations will not  result in scientific or philosophically sound, to say nothing of useful, accounts of cognitive phenomenon. Consciousness makes one too removed from the origins of thoughts to study them on a level that would yield the most insights into their cognitive formation. These limits are even more pronounced if we set ourselves the goal of treating thought as a sui generis property of the brain and thus an extension of the brain to be studied alongside with it. This would mean that a perfectly legitimate set of questions can be asked about thought and cognition by taking it as a given that these are biological phenomena and our standards of what counts as explanatory success should apply to them as well. 

I say all of this to acknowledge that I’m speaking of matters concerning cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, theory of thought, linguistics, etc. all of them with a stake in the matter and with a particular set of assumptions that they use in outlining problems. I state my own limitations as somebody thinking on these issues because for a long time my humility in writing about them without sounding like an idiot caused me to be reluctant in sharing them. These are to me serious investigative matters handled by different disciplines in different ways. All I can offer are observations or maybe some throwaway insights about how I seem to myself to be learning, what my relationship to my own thoughts are, how I experience things–phenomenology in short– and then use these observations to throw light on other topics that have long interested me and to draw connections where I think they can be tentatively drawn. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized