What do heresy and empathy have in common

Heretics might not be that bad after all.

Our understanding of how things work is based on a well-established belief system that is usually taken for granted. A set of basic assumptions is placed beyond doubt and everything else, including normal science, is built on that. But what if those assumptions are not the most productive ones? Or if they turn out to be internally inconsistent or in conflict with some other theory that we also like to believe?

For empathy, or more precisely, cognitive empathy, one of the possible definitions is the ability to take on the perspectives of others. In a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, physicist Lisa Randall made a brilliant connection from here to the scientific method, the ability and practice of taking on alternative perspectives, including foreign cultures, different schools of thought and alternative basic assumptions. This is exactly what heretics do: doubt the obvious, confront the established beliefs and assumptions.

Citing professor Randall again, we have very serious observational constraints. She referred to perceiving the fourth dimension, but at our current technological sophistication, access to how the brain works is almost as limited. Explaining communication, a function of the brain, therefore heavily rests on assumptions that are entirely belief-based. Since such assumptions are not falsifiable, they can not be “right” or “true” in any sense. They are not facts, they are models or ways of thinking about stuff.

Some examples of those established beliefs or myths, used for making sense of why communication works, that we usually do not question:

  • Language is a system of conventions that we follow when speaking
  • The reason why other people understand us is that they know the same conventions
  • Words have meanings
  • Words have equivalents in other languages
  • Language contains a set of basic elements that can be combined to form utterances
  • Sentence structure is hierarchical
  • Language of the law (or military commands or flight control) is precise
  • Languages can be learned in the classroom
  • Our linguistic abilities decline with age

As George E. P. Box has famously said, all models are wrong, but some are useful. The next few posts will be about these beliefs and how they can be turned into more useful ways of thinking about communication. Doubting the basics in such a way is certainly fun as a thought exercise, but may also be beneficial in practical applications, which I’ll try to point out for each of the topics.

Not surprisingly, the alternative set of beliefs I advocate is based on thinking about communication not as a process of encoding and decoding thoughts, but as uncertainty reduction. Or replacing the composition myth with a discrimination myth. Or simply letting go of the most basic myth that words can be used to convey thoughts. If not for other reasons, these alternatives might be worth considering at least because they are much simpler than the established ones. And, coming back to the heading of this post, for being a good person and understanding the perspectives of others.

Next week, I’ll start the list of things to question with basic units of language – words, sentences, etc. Do they really exist? Why is it good to believe that they do, and why is it good to believe that they don’t?

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