Saturday, February 26, 2005

Time, mind and language

Laura Spinney has a fascinating piece, worth close attention, in the 24 Feb Life section of The Guardian.

It concerns the Aymara, who inhabit remote high Andean valleys in northern Chile, and research by Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who is interested in how humans develop abstract ideas like time:

Núñez now believes that he has definitive evidence that the Aymara have a sense of the passage of time that is the mirror image of his own and almost every known culture: the past is in front of them, the future behind.

The Aymara case shows that there is a degree of arbitrariness in the way time is presented in human language (backwards or forwards). There are, however, underlying brain functions that are universal to the species:

The only thing that all humans have in common when it comes to temporal experience is their brains' perceptual mechanisms. "There is change in our environment, there is motion in our environment, and we need to be able to deal with that information," says [Vyvyan Evans, a theoretical cognitive linguist at the University of Sussex]. The human brain has therefore evolved to be able to recognise three basic components of time: duration, simultaneity and repetition.

Time, Spinney writes, is a hard concept to pin down, and all languages resort to metaphor to express it:

In fact, with staggering monotony, they all resort to the same metaphor: space. If an English speaker says: "We are approaching the deadline," he or she is expressing imminence in terms of nearness, a property of physical space. Anyone listening will understand exactly what he or she means, even though the deadline is not an entity that exists in the physical world. Núñez says: "There is no ultimate truth that you could discover that is outside that metaphor."

As I understand it - and I may be wrong here - there are ultimate truths about time that can be discovered, but only in mathematics and physics. Language has to use metaphors but that is a shortcoming of language, not an indication that there is no underlying reality.

And that underlying reality is that time doesn't exist. The physicist Brian Greene quotes Albert Einstein:

In a condolence letter to the widow of Michele Besso, his longtime friend and fellow physicist, Einstein wrote: "In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn't mean anything. For we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent."

Returning Spinney's article:

Núñez thinks that the reason the Aymara think they way they do might be connected with the importance they accord vision. Every language has a system of markers which forces the speaker to pay attention to some aspects of the information being conveyed and not others. French emphasises the gender of an object (sa voiture , son livre), English the gender of the subject (his car, her book). Aymara marks whether the speaker saw the action happen or not: "Yesterday my mother cooked potatoes (but I did not see her do it)." If these markers are left out, the speaker is regarded as boastful or a liar.

What an excellent language and culture!

I suppose if Kierkegaard had been Aymara he would have said life must be lived backwards but can only be viewed forwards.

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