Words for the Nonexistent

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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#21  Postby my_wan » Nov 22, 2010 1:25 pm

katja z wrote:
my_wan wrote:
An interesting thing that occurred to me is: What percentage of non-existent things in our language refer to imaginary intentional agents, with either an interest in humans or is a manifestation of human existence? It appears the common element throughout is entities for which their intentional prowess extends beyond bodily control, to effect the physical world directly through intent. As if the physical world was, in some respects, bodily extensions subject to their intent.

Animism actually makes a lot of sense in a pre-scientific context. The problem how a disembodied mind/intention could act upon the physical world only appears as a problem from the outside. If our bodies function this way (as they do until those pesky neuroscientists come around and point out a few things), everything can. Which is just a restatement of your last sentence. We think in terms of natural causes, but as Robin Horton (I think) argued, in magical thought, the division between the natural and supernatural doesn't even apply, the division itself is an artefact of a certain mindset.

Excellent point. And as I have pointed out many times, prior to the scientific revolution, it was argued on theology that a vacuum was impossible. The argument being that since God is everywhere, if you pull a vacuum how can God be everywhere. The modern supernaturalist distinction was a response by theist to get God out of the way of those damn scientist. Supernaturalism wasn't even conceivable in todays separable form without the scientific revolution. Yet this teleological basis remains the foundation of religion today, i.e., intent based purpose in random events.

Even evolution is only conceivable as an intent based progression with this world view, and they can't conceive of causal factors, including randomness itself, as not requiring a top down model of cause. The the modern separability allows a two channel reasoning, where certain physical events can happen 'uncaused'. Only the top down notion of randomness does not even allow them to see that randomness itself is generally caused by naturalist micro-states. A bottom up progression of emergence, in which a God would be way too complex to define 'cause'. The scientific revolution essentially replaced intent and effect with cause and effect. Only the 'cause' in cause and effect is nonexistent in a top down teleology.

That is why I wonder how many named non-existent things is not intent based teleology, or more generally animism now that you point it out.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#22  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 2:25 pm

my_wan wrote:
Excellent point. And as I have pointed out many times, prior to the scientific revolution, it was argued on theology that a vacuum was impossible. The argument being that since God is everywhere, if you pull a vacuum how can God be everywhere. The modern supernaturalist distinction was a response by theist to get God out of the way of those damn scientist. Supernaturalism wasn't even conceivable in todays separable form without the scientific revolution. Yet this teleological basis remains the foundation of religion today, i.e., intent based purpose in random events.

This is drifting a bit off topic, but I'll yield to temptation anyway ... Interesting (and amusing) point about the vacuum :grin: I tend to disagree with your general point though, I would argue that the distincion between the natural and the supernatural is crucial at least for the big 3 monotheisms. It's what makes possible the notion of miracle - which is defined as the irruption of the supernatural into the natural order of things. This isn't to say that it hasn't shifted a bit over time.

The scientific revolution essentially replaced intent and effect with cause and effect.

Nicely put. :)

That is why I wonder how many named non-existent things is not intent based teleology, or more generally animism now that you point it out.

It's an interesting angle. I still think the answer largely depends on whether you grant existence to the referents of abstract concepts. Do love and hate exist?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#23  Postby my_wan » Nov 22, 2010 3:09 pm

katja z wrote:
my_wan wrote:That is why I wonder how many named non-existent things is not intent based teleology, or more generally animism now that you point it out.

It's an interesting angle. I still think the answer largely depends on whether you grant existence to the referents of abstract concepts. Do love and hate exist?

I would say they do, not so much as a teleological construct, but as physical biochemistry and electronic states of the brain. The fact that individualistic differences exist is not really an issue any more that differences in the morphology of people make some people more or less human than others. The abstractness of a concept is a pattern subset which fits the pattern of many disparate system subsets. An analogy is an imperfect pattern fit. Also called a 'toy' model in some cases. We have a tendency to presume an analogy with a good fit is more generally valid than it is.

The fact that patterns can be stored in the physical processes of our neurons, in a way that we can decompose or connect them, is evidence that all abstractions have a physical referent, even when we define them not to. Of course those physical referent may be processes rather than states, but makes them no less physical. Their applicability outside those neural states is what is in question, like the generality of an analogy.

Hence, from this perspective, the only thing conceivable that is not real in some sense is things defined not to have physical referents.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#24  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 3:32 pm

my_wan wrote:
katja z wrote:
my_wan wrote:That is why I wonder how many named non-existent things is not intent based teleology, or more generally animism now that you point it out.

It's an interesting angle. I still think the answer largely depends on whether you grant existence to the referents of abstract concepts. Do love and hate exist?

I would say they do, not so much as a teleological construct, but as physical biochemistry and electronic states of the brain. The fact that individualistic differences exist is not really an issue any more that differences in the morphology of people make some people more or less human than others. The abstractness of a concept is a pattern subset which fits the pattern of many disparate system subsets. An analogy is an imperfect pattern fit. Also called a 'toy' model in some cases. We have a tendency to presume an analogy with a good fit is more generally valid than it is.

The fact that patterns can be stored in the physical processes of our neurons, in a way that we can decompose or connect them, is evidence that all abstractions have a physical referent, even when we define them not to. Of course those physical referent may be processes rather than states, but makes them no less physical. Their applicability outside those neural states is what is in question, like the generality of an analogy.

Hence, from this perspective, the only thing conceivable that is not real in some sense is things defined not to have physical referents.

Thanks. :thumbup: Again ( :grin:), my own approach would be different, and I was thinking more of the social dimension of these phenomena (I'm sorry, love and hate were a poor example because they are as much subjective states as they define interpersonal relatios). Basically, my point is that if you focus on social realities - social institutions (marriage ...) and conceptual tools for ordering and making sense of social relations (justice, good and evil ...) - the distinction between the existent and the non-existent is effectually blurred, as such (for us) clearly fictional constructs as gods have very real social effects.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#25  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 4:56 pm

my_wan wrote:Hence, from this perspective, the only thing conceivable that is not real in some sense is things defined not to have physical referents.

This criterion seems too narrow, because most words for nonexistent things are defined as having some physical (but hard to detect) referent (e.g. werewolves, Nessie, Santa Claus).

katja z wrote:Basically, my point is that if you focus on social realities - social institutions (marriage ...) and conceptual tools for ordering and making sense of social relations (justice, good and evil ...) - the distinction between the existent and the non-existent is effectually blurred, as such (for us) clearly fictional constructs as gods have very real social effects.

I don´t think that the distinction is blurred, because the very real social effects of clearly fictional constructs are caused by the verbal behaviors of language-users, and not by the imaginary referents of those fictional constructs.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#26  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 5:05 pm

seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:Basically, my point is that if you focus on social realities - social institutions (marriage ...) and conceptual tools for ordering and making sense of social relations (justice, good and evil ...) - the distinction between the existent and the non-existent is effectually blurred, as such (for us) clearly fictional constructs as gods have very real social effects.

I don´t think that the distinction is blurred, because the very real social effects of clearly fictional constructs are caused by the verbal behaviors of language-users, and not by the imaginary referents of those fictional constructs.

That's a good point. I was being imprecise. I should have said the distinction ceased to matter. Is that better?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#27  Postby my_wan » Nov 22, 2010 6:56 pm

seeker wrote:
my_wan wrote:Hence, from this perspective, the only thing conceivable that is not real in some sense is things defined not to have physical referents.

This criterion seems too narrow, because most words for nonexistent things are defined as having some physical (but hard to detect) referent (e.g. werewolves, Nessie, Santa Claus).

I'm with katja z on the social side, but needed to narrow the definitions to their foundations to something more concrete and absolute. So the when you get into the social side of the definition you are better able to distinguish what type of referents you are loosening the definitions for. So yes, the definitions need broadened, but not at the expense of loosing sight of what type of referents your choosing to be inclusive in that broadened definition.

I was considering excluding the neural states, and considering if all (or a majority of) the non-existent referents related to intent based teleology. The classical notion of a aether should qualify as a non-intent based non-existent thing. Yet, although the classical aether is dead, it lives on as a malleable vacuum construct. So in a sense you could simply argue we merely got the properties wrong, not the existence of the medium itself. Only in the area of intent based teleology, or animism possessing supernatural qualities, is non-existence (outside neural referents) a common property. Perhaps Higgs will go that way :whistle: .
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#28  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 7:43 pm

katja z wrote:
seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:Basically, my point is that if you focus on social realities - social institutions (marriage ...) and conceptual tools for ordering and making sense of social relations (justice, good and evil ...) - the distinction between the existent and the non-existent is effectually blurred, as such (for us) clearly fictional constructs as gods have very real social effects.

I don´t think that the distinction is blurred, because the very real social effects of clearly fictional constructs are caused by the verbal behaviors of language-users, and not by the imaginary referents of those fictional constructs.

That's a good point. I was being imprecise. I should have said the distinction ceased to matter. Is that better?

The distinction "ceased to matter" for whom, and why? No, I don´t think that´s better. I think the distinction still matters.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#29  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 7:51 pm

my_wan wrote:I'm with katja z on the social side, but needed to narrow the definitions to their foundations to something more concrete and absolute.

But such narrowness doesn´t fit the examples. I guess such fitness is one of the main goals of giving a definition, so how do you solve this problem?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#30  Postby my_wan » Nov 22, 2010 9:32 pm

seeker wrote:
my_wan wrote:I'm with katja z on the social side, but needed to narrow the definitions to their foundations to something more concrete and absolute.

But such narrowness doesn´t fit the examples. I guess such fitness is one of the main goals of giving a definition, so how do you solve this problem?

The point was that the absolute tightest physical definition of "real" needed to be defined. Much like limits in physics are instrumental in setting goals. Now we can start making exceptions, and explicitly disregard mental states as physically real for definitional purposes, to see where we stand. So long as we understand that these exceptions are well defined and do not entail absolute claims.

Once we remove mental states from our operational definition, all sorts of this loses the definition of "real". I still haven't worked out a way to fully classify them. The OP just made me thing in ways I haven't fully explored.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#31  Postby katja z » Nov 22, 2010 9:44 pm

seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:
seeker wrote:

I don´t think that the distinction is blurred, because the very real social effects of clearly fictional constructs are caused by the verbal behaviors of language-users, and not by the imaginary referents of those fictional constructs.

That's a good point. I was being imprecise. I should have said the distinction ceased to matter. Is that better?

The distinction "ceased to matter" for whom, and why? No, I don´t think that´s better. I think the distinction still matters.

For the users, the speaking community (they're the ones to whom their language matters - the linguist is just being nosy ;)). Because of those real effects we've agreed about.

I think we're coming at this from completely different angles. In what sense do you think this distinction matters, and for whom? :cheers:
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#32  Postby Zwaarddijk » Nov 22, 2010 9:49 pm

Why would, btw, a word for something that doesn't exist be more objectionable than a self-contradictory or other non-true sentence? In some languages, it's pretty difficult to decide where the line goes between utterance and word - and speakers of such languages may find themselves necessitated at times to utilize words that are decidedly untrue.

I mostly came to think of this when rereading the original post and coming across this clause:
Doesn't really seem like a word to me if it represents something that isn't but that's probably just the way I am

Yes, it's just the way you are. Most speakers don't have an issue with it.
Also, most people do realize that some words they hear do refer to non-existant things - e.g. Santa Claus, pixies, whatever.

If you never came across such a word - in fact, say you lived in some movement that espoused this idea very strongly and refused to teach their children words for things that don't exist - what would the reaction be the first time some kid heard of an unicorn or god or whatever? 'Everything I've heard words for this far has existed, so I can safely assume these exist too' or what, altho' not necessarily in such explicit terms? A certain number of such words may in fact inoculate us.

Also, they're sort of a necessary result of the flexibility of language - as we invent and discover more things, we need new words; sometimes, we haven't even discovered - just hypothesised - the existence and need a term for it. The term may linger along after discovering it didn't exist.

So ... you seriously want to posit that words refering to nonexistent things shouldn't be classed as words?
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#33  Postby seeker » Nov 22, 2010 10:56 pm

katja z wrote:
seeker wrote:
katja z wrote:
That's a good point. I was being imprecise. I should have said the distinction ceased to matter. Is that better?

The distinction "ceased to matter" for whom, and why? No, I don´t think that´s better. I think the distinction still matters.

For the users, the speaking community (they're the ones to whom their language matters - the linguist is just being nosy ;)). Because of those real effects we've agreed about.

I think we're coming at this from completely different angles. In what sense do you think this distinction matters, and for whom? :cheers:

I don´t agree that "the distinction doesn´t matter for the users". Think about "Santa Claus": users that believe it has a physical referent act differently towards the word than users that believe it´s a fictional character. Both groups have those "real effects" we've agreed about, but those effects are arguably different for each group. The same could be said, ceteris paribus, about "gods" or any other issue. So I´d argue that the distinction is important for users (given that the speaking community is divided in groups with different behaviors related to those words), and therefore is important for linguists (given that they try to accurately model those different behaviors).
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#34  Postby petwo » Nov 23, 2010 3:29 am

Why doesn't science have words for the nonexistent? Usually all you get for hypotheses is some adjectives that describe something already known to exist such as alternate or parallel universes, other or separate realities. Science seems to respect imaginative thinking but there is no rush to seek out an etymologist.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#35  Postby katja z » Nov 23, 2010 8:06 am

seeker wrote:
I don´t agree that "the distinction doesn´t matter for the users". Think about "Santa Claus": users that believe it has a physical referent act differently towards the word than users that believe it´s a fictional character. Both groups have those "real effects" we've agreed about, but those effects are arguably different for each group. The same could be said, ceteris paribus, about "gods" or any other issue. So I´d argue that the distinction is important for users (given that the speaking community is divided in groups with different behaviors related to those words), and therefore is important for linguists (given that they try to accurately model those different behaviors).

Again, good points. I feel the bolded bit is the crucial one. I was thinking about cases of consensus (as there usually is a broad consensus in a community about how the world functions, I'd say probably in a majority of communities over human history), but you're right that these can't be taken as the ultimate norm and situations where opinion is divided written off as a quirk.

Still (and sorry for being a bore), historically, when these concepts - for gods, say, or the soul, or whatever - appeared, their referents were thought of as existent by those who used them. At least, that must have been wthe case for a lot of those words, although we then stumble on the whole problem of imaginary entities that can be invented at the drop of a hat, for fun (such as in children's stories), and hence to the question of fictional narrative, which seems to be just as omnipresent as language itself ... :grin:
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#36  Postby Zwaarddijk » Nov 23, 2010 12:01 pm

petwo wrote:Why doesn't science have words for the nonexistent? Usually all you get for hypotheses is some adjectives that describe something already known to exist such as alternate or parallel universes, other or separate realities. Science seems to respect imaginative thinking but there is no rush to seek out an etymologist.

But science does! You can easily find scientific sources mentioning things such as aether. It's a word that was greatly common in science once. And it still can be used in, e.g., models that just are used to show problems with aether theory.
Science also has given us words such as phlogiston, caloric, ... which can still pop up in models (generally models made to discredit the theories they represent, so basically not something you'd run into beyond beginners' books or courses).

A more modern innovation is the tachyon, a kind of particle most don't believe exist. Higgs bosons (ok, it's sort of a compound word, but not a noun modified by an adjective, and its meaning is not transparent) haven't been experimentally verified to exist yet and are therefore also borderline cases. (At some point, all bosons were hypothetical, although it turns out the hypothesis was right.)

At one point, the atom belonged to a class of words which it was unsure whether it referred to anything real. And now, we know its name is mistaken - in a sense, "atom" is a deceptive designation, as they can be divided.
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#37  Postby seeker » Nov 25, 2010 5:41 am

katja z wrote:Again, good points. I feel the bolded bit is the crucial one. I was thinking about cases of consensus (as there usually is a broad consensus in a community about how the world functions, I'd say probably in a majority of communities over human history), but you're right that these can't be taken as the ultimate norm and situations where opinion is divided written off as a quirk.

Given the pervasive disensus along human history (e.g. religious conflicts), I think that those different stances towards the existence of referents are usually a relevant issue.

katja z wrote:Still (and sorry for being a bore), historically, when these concepts - for gods, say, or the soul, or whatever - appeared, their referents were thought of as existent by those who used them. At least, that must have been wthe case for a lot of those words

It´s interesting to see how some "words for the nonexistent" have evolved from initial words that were used to name very concrete referents, and then became less concrete after a process of generalization and recombination with other concepts. For example, I´ve readen that the greeks first used the word “psyche” to name breath, then to name "the last breath before death", then to name “life”, then it was related with “intellectual faculties”, and then it was imagined as “something that can be separated from the body”. Plato (in Phaedo: 65, 68, 106) said that the psyche brings life to the body, that it rejects its opposite (death), and that it is therefore inmortal. Also, he said that the philosopher trains himself to move away from his bodily needs by focusing on his intellect, and that this is a preparation for death, when his psyche will remain alive without a body. Here we can see how this word came from an initial concrete name, but then it was recombined with other relational frames until it became a “word for the nonexistent”, as one of the effects of this relational recombination. Skinner wrote an interesting article about the concrete beginnings of some mentalistic words:
The origins of cognitive thought.
http://www1.appstate.edu/~kms/classes/psy5150/Documents/Skinner1989.pdf
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#38  Postby katja z » Nov 25, 2010 8:27 am

:nod: Very true. I should have thought of the shift from concrete to abstract meanings myself. :doh: :oops:

Add to this the tendency - reasonable in most cases - to assume that if we have a word to name it, then it must really exist ... and voilà. ;)
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#39  Postby seeker » Nov 27, 2010 7:07 pm

Zwaarddijk wrote:
petwo wrote:Why doesn't science have words for the nonexistent? Usually all you get for hypotheses is some adjectives that describe something already known to exist such as alternate or parallel universes, other or separate realities. Science seems to respect imaginative thinking but there is no rush to seek out an etymologist.

But science does! You can easily find scientific sources mentioning things such as aether. It's a word that was greatly common in science once. And it still can be used in, e.g., models that just are used to show problems with aether theory.
Science also has given us words such as phlogiston, caloric, ... which can still pop up in models (generally models made to discredit the theories they represent, so basically not something you'd run into beyond beginners' books or courses).


Petwo has proposed a clear distinction between what we could call “constructs which refer to observed things and events” versus “constructs which refer to fictions” (i.e., “naturalism” vs “supernaturalism”, “derived constructs” vs “imposed constructs”). For instance, minds (in a Cartesian sense), souls, gods, self, and Superman are all constructs that don´t have separate existence independent of our imagery and verbal behavior (e.g. verbal stories, comic books, movies, fantasies, etc.).
I think that Petwo´s distinction is a useful one, but Zwaarddijk is right that we must include other not-so-clear examples: a category for “fringe constructs" (which are, at present, in between or of debatable status), and also (I´ll add) a category for "useful fictions" (constructs that, although clearly fictional, serve some legitimate human purposes).
The “fringe” constructs are useful conjectural explorations in science. In the history of science some constructs have changed from "presumed real" to "presumed fictional", and viceversa. Even today, there are many controversial constructs, about which some people would claim that they refer to observed things and events, and other people would claim that they refer to fictions. For example, quarks and leptons and bosons and curvatures in spacetime are considered “observed things and events” by most physicists (although they are not directly observed), while gravitons and Higgs bosons are considered unobserved hypothetical particles (but it´s also considered very plausible that they refer to real natural things), and superstrings are considered unobserved hypothetical things, also plausible, but for now without evidence. See for example Michael Shermer's book “The Borderlands of Science” (2001).
On the other side, language serve many purposes, not only the naming and description of existent things. A radical opposition to “words for the nonexistent” would imply a rejection of a great part of poetry, literature, painting, comics, and movies. We wouldn´t have Homer's Odyssey, Star Wars, or Sherlock Holmes. Also, a radical opposition to "words for the nonexistent" would imply a rejection of a large part of mathematics. And also, it would imply a rejection of a number of psychological, ethical, and sociological concepts that seem to be useful for the regulation of human behavior.
By the way, here´s an interesting (and perhaps controversial, because it opposes the usual perspectives of both theists and atheists) article named “Can an atheist believe in God?”, that explores some plausible non-realistic meanings of the word “God”: http://www.thedivineconspiracy.org/Z5230X.pdf
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Re: Words for the Nonexistent

#40  Postby seeker » Dec 01, 2010 5:27 pm

Here´s another interesting area of research that is related with this thread:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_science_of_religion
McCauley and Cohen (2010) Cognitive Science and the Naturalness of Religion.
http://tinyurl.com/387xwzf
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