The Nature of Language

Everything we believe in comes down to words. Religion, philosophy, and science has that in common with each other. We ask questions, give answers, engage in debate, engage in emotional arguments, and tell each other what is true, what is real, and what is false. All of it comes down to describing the world using language.

Humans are observers that use language to describe the world. Observers have certain limitations, such as only being able to comprehend the world by creating internal models of it. Language has limitations as well. We may find that it's impossible to fully describe the world using language. We may find that it's impossible for an observer to model the world fully.

To better understand the world, we have to better understand ourselves. We have to understand what an observer is and how an observer comprehends the world. And we have to understand the nature of language, what language is, can do, and cannot do.

Assigned Meaning

Signs (e.g. symbols and sounds) do not have intrinsic meaning. We assign meaning. When one human communicate with another human, they do so by use signs with the same definitions. If I tell you I like chocolate ice-cream, but you define chocolate to mean the same as the sign "umbrella", then we would fail at communication. To communicate we have to agree on definitions, unless we're talking about how to *best* define a sign.

When asking questions or answering them, it's important to remember that signs do not have intrinsic meaning. If someone asks you if (x) is immoral, the answer will depend on how you define "immoral". Without realizing it, humans often debate how they believe a sign aught to be defined, rather than the subject matter itself. The categories "moral" and "immoral" can be defined any way we like. There is no false or invalid way of defining these signs. Yet, people often argue about meaning as if signs had intrinsic meaning.

Word Definitions

If you look up a word in a dictionary, you'll likely find that the word is defined using other words. If you dig far enough, you may find that words are defined by words that end up getting defined with the same word they're defining. This is important to know. Our language is not well-defined. There is no smart overall structure to how our language is defined. The very language we use to think and communicate in, is ill-defined.

If you need to define signs the same way to communicate with each other, and you cannot completely define the signs, then where does that take you? Many arguments that people get into, more that most humans realize, are the result of defining signs differently. For instance, if you are arguing if something is "scientific" or not, you may find that the debate becomes "what is science" or "how should we define science".

Pointer Definitions

It turns out that you cannot define the words in a language only using words. You have to point to things. If I point to myself and say my name, or point to a rock and say "rock", you may realize what the sign means. This is how we teach children language. When you get older, you may look up the word "rock" and read its definition, as it is defined using words. But to initially understand a language, you must rely on pointing to things.

Pointing is a really easy way to define something. You can point to Earth's moon and say "Moon". You don't have to be bothered with coming up with a well-defined definition. Consider morality, you start by pointing at a bad behavior and saying "bad" or "good". You give praise to behaviors you consider moral and condemnation to behaviors you consider immoral. This applies to other terms such as politeness and being respectful.

When thinking about religion, philosophy, science, and morality, consider the fact that you can initially define these things by pointing to things you consider to be as such. This is religion. This is also religion. This is science. This is also science. This is moral. This is immoral. This is polite. This is disrespectful. Point, point, point.

You can point at anything you want. You can define the sign "morality" as anything you want. You can point at your dog and say "Moon", and now the sign moon means, or also means, the name of your dog. We are free to define language however we want. So when trying to use language to describe the world, what do we need to think about?

Information-Centric vs Label-Centric

We can use language to communicate how we feel, what we see, how the world works, etc.. If I want to teach you how to use your computer, I can use language. And it will likely be information-centric. That is, your use of language will focus on trying to communicate information, such as what the left and right mouse button does.

If we're talking about what is best, what is good, what is right, what is wrong, or what is beautiful, then it's more likely that our use of language will become more label-centric. That is, we'll focus on what we want (x) sign/label to be defined as. It becomes less about communicating information, it becomes less about describing, and more about fighting over the meaning of a sign.

This is something you want to keep in mind when communicating beliefs. It is ever-present. People develop emotional relationships with words. For instance, you likely don't want someone to call you a "dumb shit". They could technically define it in such a way that you would qualify as one, but most people would not be happy about that. And they would start arguing with what a "dumb shit" really is. This also applies to words like best, pretty, smart, nice, respectful, etc..


Language is used to model the world. You could be using math or just everyday laymen terms. When you say someone is a "nice" person, you are modeling that person with language. You have an idea in your head of what that person is, and you use language to flesh out the properties of that person.

The sign "nice" may be ill-defined and have zero intrinsic meaning, but you still use it to describe. Everyday we use language to describe the world, despite the shortcomings of the language we speak. We use what we have available to us.

When considering if what you're saying is true, remember that language is used to model. For example, The 3 Laws of Motion given by Isaac Newton helped us model physics. Newton came up with a lot of well-defined language, that is, math, to describe the world. But his model breaks down as one approaches the speed of light. At that point, we use Einstein's model of general relativity. But even that model, breaks down as we try to explain the world of the very small, which is where quantum mechanics comes in.

These examples have to do with math, the most well-defined part of language that we speak. Much of our language doesn't do a very good job at modeling, because it's not nearly as well-defined. This is especially true for terms that have positive and negative association, such as pretty vs ugly.

We don't know if language has a one-to-one relationship with reality. We don't know how close a model can be to reality. We don't know how close a map can be to the terrain.


By better organizing our language and defining signs, we can start thinking about the world in a clearer way. Language is not only how you communicate, it also has a special place in how you thinking. When thinking about the world, consider the nature of language. Consider what it is and what you do with it. And think about the signs you use. How you define them. How well you define them.