Let's see what all the fuss is about.
Professor Lapin and his assistant were very excited at the prospect of building a lexicon for a previously unknown language. They had only recently discovered the lost tribe of Leporidae and today they were to begin recording the meanings of the words in their language.
The first word to be defined was "gavagai". They had heard this word being used whenever a rabbit was present, so Lapin was about to write "gavagai = rabbit". But then his assistant interjected. For all they knew, couldn't "gavagai" mean something else, such as "undetached rabbit part" or "Look! Rabbit!"? Perhaps the Leporidae thought of animals as existing in four dimensions, over time and space, and "gavagai" referred only to the part of the rabbit present at the moment of observation? Or perhaps "gavagai" were only observed rabbits and unseen rabbits had a different name?
The possibilities seemed fanciful, but Lapin had to admit that they were all consistent with what they had observed so far. But how could they know which one was correct? They could make more observations, but in order to rule out all the possibilities they would have to know more or less everything about the tribe, how they lived, and the other words they used. But then how could they even begin their dictionary?
Source: Word and Object by W.V.O. Quine, 1960.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 139.
Doesn't seem like such a big deal, does it? To me, this lack of anything interesting is unsurprising. It's exactly what usually comes from the technical world of analytical philosophy. You can see my Philosophy 101 post for a few more details on that school of thought, but let's just "show" rather than "tell" how quickly it can go down the rabbit hole, so to speak, into a dense, jargon-filled analysis of the minutia of language. Don't worry though, since this blog is intended for a general audience, I'll try to hop over those difficulties and get to a general summary of the ideas as quickly as I can.
First, here's a tiny bit more background to set the stage. When I blogged about Quine, I wrote about my first encounter with analytical philosophy, which happened back in college after I had made it through some introductory logic and medieval philosophy courses. I said how: "I was really excited then to finally qualify for a more senior-level course in contemporary analytical philosophy. I remember thinking about how many holes that I, as an uneducated kid, had poked in the theories of Plato and Augustine and Anslem and Aquinas, and I couldn't wait to see what the field had figured out over the 1,000 years since that time. I don't remember exactly what I found in that course, but it must have been something like this:
How are we to adjudicate among rival ontologies? Certainly the answer is not provided by the semantical formula "To be is to be the value of a variable"; this formula serves rather, conversely, in testing the conformity of a given remark or doctrine to a prior ontological standard. —W.V.O. Quine
I dropped the class after a few weeks, abandoned my plans for a minor in philosophy, and began taking other electives from a wide range of fields. What I didn't know then (but have since discovered on my own) was just how much philosophy had turned in on itself once the is-ought stumbling block that Hume had outlined became accepted as unbridgeable. With facts and values separated, science took over the discovery of facts, and artists and religions kept up their endless debates on values. These so called Two Cultures of C.P. Snow came to be watched from the sideline by a philosophy that had once ruled them both."
So here we have in this thought experiment a perfect example of how one major school of philosophy turned in on itself. Check out just a bit of the academic discussion on this. (You can skip to the next dashed line when you can't take it anymore.)
Radical translation is a thought experiment in Word and Object. It is used as an introduction to Quine's theory of the indeterminacy of translation, and specifically to prove the point of the inscrutability of reference.
"The linguist has no idea if the term 'gavagai' is actually synonymous to the term 'rabbit', as it is just as plausible to translate it as 'one second rabbit stage', 'undetached rabbit part', 'the spatial whole of all rabbits', or 'rabbithood'. To question these differences, the linguist now has to translate words and logical particles. Starting off with the easiest task, to translate logical connectives, he formulates questions where he pairs logical connectives with occasion sentences and going through several rounds of writing down the assent or dissent to these questions from the natives to establish a translation. Any further translation of logical particles is however impossible, as translation of categorical statements (for example) relies on the translation of words, which in turn relies on the translation of categorical statements.
So far the linguist has been able to (1) Translate observational sentences (2) Translate truth functions (3) Recognize stimulus analytic sentences (4) Recognize intrasubjective stimulus synonymous sentences. To go beyond the limits of translation by stimulus meaning, the linguist uses analytical hypotheses, where he hypothetically equates parts of native sentences to parts of sentences in his own language. Using this, he can now form new sentences and can create a complete translation manual by trial and error through the use of these sentences and adaption of his analytical hypotheses where needed.
The whole of analytical hypotheses cannot be evaluated as true or false, as they are predictions that can only be judged within their own system. As a result, all translation is fundamentally undetermined (and not just underdetermined). This indeterminacy is not meaningless, as it is it is possible to construct two separate translation manuals that are equally correct yet incompatible with each other due to having opposing truth values. A good translation is possible, but an objectively right translation of exact terms is impossible."
Let me try and translate that for you. Because all words may have some subjective meaning tied to them for each individual, we cannot know for certain that we are talking about the exact same thing whenever we talk to someone, in this language or another. At least, I think that's what Quine and his fellow analytic philosophers are trying to say. According to them, I can't know for sure!
There is so much more jargon I could share with you on this, but the point was actually made clearer in an unrelated passage from this week's Scientific America blog post, The Singularity and the Neural Code, where British neurobiologist Steven Rose explains the difficulty the singularity movement will have in decoding how our brains think. The article tells us, "decoding neural signals from individual brains will always be extraordinarily difficult because each individual’s brain is unique and ever-changing. To dramatize this point, Rose poses a thought experiment involving a “cerebroscope,” which can record everything that happens in a brain, at micro and macro levels, in real time. Let's say the cerebroscope records all of Rose's neural activity as he watches a red bus coming down a street. Could the cerebroscope reconstruct what Rose is feeling? No, because his neural response to even that simple stimulus grows out of his brain's entire previous history, including a childhood incident when a bus almost ran him over."
So what Quine is saying with this thought experiment is that even when we try to talk about something as simple as a "bus" with another person, we can't know *exactly* and with *certainty* what the other person *completely* means when they say "bus", because all terms everywhere have been built up from translations in one form or another. This may be true, but does anyone really give a fuck?
(Don't judge that word. You don't know what it means to me.)
I've already covered multiple times how our knowledge can only ever be probabilistic, yet we pragmatically move on in the world. Now, we have to recognise that our knowledge of words is only ever approximate too. But in my Response to Thought Experiment 23: The Beetle In The Box, I wrote something that gives us some comfort about this ever-so-slight fuzziness in our understanding.
No one can know exactly what it is like to be another person or experience things from another’s perspective (look in someone else’s box), but it is generally assumed that the mental workings of other people’s mind are very similar to our own. From the perspective of an evolutionary philosophy, this is highly self-evident. For other philosophers to claim that our internal thoughts and feelings are ineffable, unknowable, and "private" from others in society, is to deny the billions of years of evolutionary history that we share, during which time the (essentially) same bodily structures were created everywhere in our species as we evolved to survive in the shared environment we exist within in this one universe. As neuroscientists unravel the functions of our brain structures, we don't find infinite varieties of beetles (or non-beetles) crawling around in our heads; we find 99.5% similarities in our molecular sub-structure. We are not so alone in our minds...even if other's thought experiments can sound awfully confusing at first blush.
So with that, I'm now going to go celebrate Easter with some shinrinyoku. Don't know what that means? It's from this lovely article about the 11 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don't Exist In English. "Shinrinyoku” means "forest bathing", to go deep into the woods where everything is silent and peaceful for relaxation. It's just the thing to go and forget about the technical ramblings of an analytical philosopher who is practically unconcerned with the real world. Aaaaahhhhhh.