Why We Do Not Actually Know Anything...And Why That Is Okay

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In high school, I participated in the French exchange program in which a student from our sister school in France came to Vermont for a couple of weeks and then we went to France for a couple of weeks. In a nutshell, my exchange student could not have cared less about the program or me, so I spent a lot of time eating Nutella on bread and getting to know his family.

Two thirds of the way through the trip there, I officially became fluent in French. Not only was I able to speak it so much more smoothly, I began to DREAM in French. That is right, my unconscious thoughts had been completely transcribed into another language. That was so cool but also so bonkers crazy to me as the young strapping lad that I was seeing the big world. The switch flipped in my brain. It had beat all the levels of learning syntax and grammar and now advanced to a totally new land of levels. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed bewildered after awakening from having dreamt in French the first time as though I had awoken on another planet with no recollection of how I had gotten there. Or maybe like Neo in The Matrix when skills were  downloaded into him as computer software and he suddenly knew kung fu. But where he could defy gravity, manipulate the fabric of existence, and fight a ton of bad guys at once, I could dream in French. Definitely the same level of cool. 

Prior to my trip, my favorite english teacher back home heard I was going to France and she dropped the bomb question on me of "who is the authority on translation between languages?" As in, "how do we know and who definitively says whether or not a word in one language actually means this other thing in another language?" Maybe there is a scientific answer to her questions but that rocked my world at the time. 

Within my studies of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy in college, I became more and more fascinated with the concept of communication and what constituted "language" across species over the course of evolution (SPOILER ALERT: probably has something to do with how I went on to become a Narrative Coach years later...). In a neurobiology seminar, I led a lecture on how crickets communicate and a subsequent discussion on nonverbal language of other kinds of animals. These discussions taught just how wide the breadth of nonverbal language is and how "verbal language" is just plain sound that air makes moving across parts of our throat. No different than a swan singing or a wolf howling or a cricket rubbing its wings together to chirp. All language is simply an ordering and contextualizing of sound. So when someone does not know how to speak English, it means they have not learned how to form the air with their mouth, breath, and throat in the same patterns to which we grew accustomed.

History tells us how the spread of languages occurred in human evolution as the early homo sapiens began to travel up and out of Africa. The middle eastern languages (Ancient Egyptian, anyone?) and then the romance languages and boom, we have language all over the world. Despite understanding the sprawl and movement of language, I have never heard anyone answer my English teacher's question. I invite any language experts reading this who do know the answer to please help a brother out.

A major topic in philosophy of mind that was presented by Descartes in the 1600s is the concept of "privileged access" that describes how we conscious beings have our own unique self-knowledge. In other words, the way that I observe and interact with stimuli in my surroundings and perceive colors and shapes is theoretically unique to me because no one else can possibly view the world in the exact way that my eyes and brain do. Furthermore, I cannot know how someone else sees a situation even if I am standing right next to them. They may see things and observe them totally differently.

If you are ever bored, think about the question: Does that person see the color Red the same way that I do? and then clean up your brain off the ground. 

I believe the theory of privileged access extends to language. When was the last time that you said "You know what I mean?" after trying to explain something? NEWS FLASH: NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN. If you are lucky, they will recognize what you are talking about and identify that you use the same descriptive words as they might to describe an experience. Even people with complex vocabularies cannot 100% perfectly describe their perceptual experiences because it is possibly always going to be different than the way their audience may see it, regardless of how detailed an explanation they provide. 

So why do we teach? Why do we explain things at all if no one fully understands what is being said? I believe it is to connect. We want to relate. We want to understand each other. We want to know that we are not alone in the world and that our experiences are not somehow incorrect. History itself is storytelling in order to provide another generation context for why they live where they do and how they might want to live in that culture. Tales told around the campfire throughout the millennia are the experiences of the teller to which the listeners try to relate or which they try to remember in the course of their own lives. At least teaching can be effective when it is taught in an appropriate way for students to comprehend the information. 

At the end of the day, even if students comprehend something that is being taught and a friend's story at a bar makes somewhat sense to me, we may still not actually know what the person means. But that has to be okay because chances are we never will. We cannot know what the story they are describing actually looked like to them when they witnessed it. All of the colors and objects and perspective and emotions. 

Perhaps we do not know anything about what is said to us. Perhaps all we need is to be able to feel what we think we understand of the story. What rings true to us and what relates to our life and values. 

Perhaps there is no correct translation between languages at all. Maybe there never has been or will be. But also maybe they are translated just enough for us to be able to connect to each other. Better yet, maybe just enough to help us accept that we all have our very own experience of life in the movie theater of our minds and that that is okay because we are experiencing life differently together. 

My vacation a couple weeks ago took place in multiple French-speaking countries. My French came back quite strongly by the end of the trip and, even though I would not say I was necessarily fluent again as I was in high school, the locals seemed to understand what I was saying. I received the correct orders at restaurants and directions in the mountains, and I even held a whole conversation about a certain kind of popcorn with a local woman in a supermarket.

Maybe we are not as far off as we think.