Tag Archives: thought experiment

Variations on a theme by Wittgenstein


From Philosophical Investigations, §2

“Imagine a language . . . to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant BA is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words block, pillar, slab, beamA calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language.”

Variation 1

After a day of hard labor with builder A, assistant B has eaten — wordlessly — the dinner his wife has — wordlessly — prepared.  He sits crosslegged before the fire, satisfied.  By degrees, a distant look comes into his eyes.

“Block”, he says softly, staring into the fire.  The wife glances quizzically in his direction.

He looks down at his own hands.  “Block”, he says again.  The woman, who knows the language from observing him at work with his colleagues but has never participated in it, looks around to see the block he must be referring to.

Once again, he speaks, slowly, softly, wonderingly: “Pillar”.  The woman grows distraught and finally frightened.

Variation 2

Assistant B has lunched upon strange mushrooms.  The afternoon’s work begins ordinarily enough; but at some point he responds to builder A’s call “beam”, not by tossing a beam, but with a suggestive pelvic thrust.  Builder A, attending to the work in front of him, does not see this, but calls out again “beam”.  Assistant B dances from side to side, erotically, giggling.

Assistant D, from the adjacent worksite, whose mate gathers from the same fields as assistant B’s, joins the dance.  Several other assistants do the same.

The afternoon grows chaotic, as the workers’ conduct deteriorates to a rhythmic bump-and-grind, shouting each of the four words of their language in turn, circling the stock of parts.  Some begin clapping at each bump.  Others join in on the off-beats.

The masons, bewildered, abandon their work but do not join in.  They go home.

Variation 3

Assistant A and his mate luxuriate — wordlessly — under their furs, after a capacious meal.  He holds up his hand, palm upwards.  “Slab”, he says.  She does not understand.  “Slab”, he says again, and claps his hand to his chest.  Tentatively, she presses a hand to her own breast; he grasps it, transfers her touch to himself, and presses his own hand to her breast.  “Slab,” he says, softly.

She smiles.  He chuckles.  She puts a hand to his crotch.  “Pillar”, she says.  He laughs uproariously.

The rest of the evening proceeds wordlessly.


A Thought Experiment

There will be more experiments like this in future postings.  This particular one has occupied me intermittently for several years — it often helps me to reduce religious disputes, as I reflect on them, to their lowest common denominator.

So we posit two populations of persons: tribe-sized, maybe a couple of hundred apiece including women and children.   Presumptively human: identical in biology, metabolism, and neurological processes.  Like us humans in all the important respects, no matter how we prioritize those.

  • Tribe A’s language consists of, oh let’s say      — 5000 words.
  • Tribe B has the same language, but one more word — 5001 words.
    • the one additional word: “God”.

An immediate consequence of that extra word is that tribe B’s language may have an indefinite number of sentences that do not exist in tribe A’s language.

(For simplicity’s sake, let’s stipulate these two tribes have not yet developed writing.  If they’re capable of keeping written records, it’s a completely different scenario.)

We can pose a number of questions about this situation:

  1. Suppose the tribes to be initially isolated from each other.  Then they meet.  How long might it take for the extra word to pop up in their palaver?  How might a conversation proceed from that point?

  2. Suppose them, on the other hand, to be integrated into a single population.  How will members of each tribe identify themselves to each other in daily activity?   Do they need to?

  3. Suppose we just stipulate that there is no distinction between members of these two tribes other than the single additional word in the language of tribe B.  They observe the same phenomena, have the same science, the same math, the same logic.  But we’ve said nothing about their psychology or social structure.

  4. Then what about cultural norms, mores, institutions, myths, narratives?  Is that single word variance enough to generate divergences in these?  Will we find significant differences in moral codes?  Necessarily?  Or contingently?

Of course there could be many more questions.  These are just the first that occur to me.