Posted: May 29, 2016 1:32 am
by don't get me started
Igorfrankensteen, I see what you are saying about a mechanistic view of the world, and your take on start and stop makes a lot of sense. However, we have to remember that natural language is the product of the crooked timber of humanity, so the way that language chops up reality may or may not accord with the actual facts of the matter pertaining in the real world.
I’ll explain what I mean here.

In a classic paper, Vendler (1957) looked at the cognitive structures that underlie English verbs. He categorized them as follows:

1) States
These are words like love, know, and believe. These are deemed to be unvarying, unintentional and without any internal structure. They are not perceived of as being dynamic or goal oriented. Thus we do not say ‘I am believing in god’ or ‘I am loving my son’.

The other three categories are built around the combination of two features, durativity and telicity. Durative refers to events that take time, that are perceived to unfold over a certain time period. Telic events are events that move towards some goal or endpoint that brings about a change of state.

2) Activities
These are events which are durative but not telic. Discuss is an activity. It takes time, but has no internal structure. It is happening from the moment it starts until the moment it stops, but no conclusion or goal is implied. No matter if it lasted a minute or an hour, we still discussed.

3) Accomplishments
These are events that are both durative and telic. They take time and stop when they have reached a certain point. ‘Run a mile’ is seen to take time to accomplish and once the runner has passed the mile mark the action is complete, but not before. Even if he continues running after reaching the mile mark, he has still run a mile.

4) Achievements
These are telic but not durative. That is they are seen as happening instantaneously, and bring about a change of state. Start and find are examples of accomplishments. We cannot say ‘I am finding my keys. The transition from not having found to having found is instantaneous and complete.

This system is encoded into the language, but it throws up some problems when we consider the world from a mechanistic rather than purely human-cognitive point of view.
The verb ‘kick’ may be seen as an achievement. That is, it is perceived as taking no time. ‘He kicked the ball’ is an instantaneous action, even though high speed cameras could capture the duration of the kick (If we defined ‘kick’ as the moment a boot came into contact with the ball until the moment contact ceased- other definitions are possible.) The high-speed camera may reveal that the kick lasted a certain number of milliseconds, but humans do not attend to this aspect and collapse the action to zero time duration.
Consider the durative nature of ‘he was waiting for 20 minutes’ compared with the non-durative nature of ‘he was kicking the ball for 20 minutes’. The former refers to a single continuous event (It is an activity), while the way that we interpret the latter is to say ‘he kicked the ball repeatedly for 20 minutes’, not that it took 20 minutes from the moment his foot contacted the ball until the moment contact ceased.

In a further example consider the verbs of visual perception in English. The verb watch is an activity. ‘He was watching the movie for 5 minutes’ shows continuous watching. The event is bounded only by its onset and termination. Whenever one stops watching is immaterial to the fact that one has watched. The verb ‘see however is an achievement. It is perceived as instantaneous and has telicity. If one says ‘I saw the movie’ it means that you perceived the movie in its entirety and a change of sate has ensued (You now know that Darth Vader is Kaiser Sose’s son or somesuch It is no coincidence that ‘I see’ means ‘I know’ in English). Even though it is understood that the process involved took time, this aspect is entirely dissatended to by speakers. To all intents and purposes the event took place instantaneously.

So, as Locke famously stated ‘Languages are not so constructed as to the rules of logik’. A mechanistic view of reality does not always match the peculiarities of the way we express that reality to one another.

The Vendler paper can be found here.

For another good read on the mismatch between human cognition and the scientific reality of the world I’d recommend:

Uncommon sense: The heretical nature of Science by Alan Cromer