Tag Archives: Language

“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language’s Components

Above I have sketched out some of the components of language. Using this diagram, let me discuss two topics.

Learning Another Language

We all start learning new languages by learning new vocabulary. Next we may add some grammar. But a large vocabulary and rich grammar are not enough. As you can see, to really have fun in another language, there is lots more to learn which is not often in text books.

Poor accents, for instance can be the result of the learning not paying attention to rhythm, stress, and intonations which are all rule bound in languages — and vary between dialects and ideolects of that same language. Next, add gestures and posture and a native speaker may begin to understand you even better. Add rhyme, alliterations and more, and you are cruising for fluent. Finally, understand the history of a language, the etymology of words and various uses over history and your have entered the native speaker’s linguistic playground.


The action and phonology aspects of language are fantastic at communicating feeling and emotion. Written poetry, not using these two parts of language, is handicapped and poets must rely on style, rhythm and phonetics to try a make up for that loss but are inevitably susceptible to a larger degree of subjectivity — something poetry readers can deeply enjoy. Depending on its use, however, subjectivity is both a weakness and a strength in poetry.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The History of The English Language

History_of_EnglishI created this diagram to help me learn this material better and hopefully it helps others who learn like I do. I created it after consulting several sources on the history of English Language: my main information source was The History of English.

Here are some links to help explore items on the chart:

Question to readers: Any corrections, suggestions or thoughts?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Is All religion bad? An Ethical Dissection

What are Ethics?

People disagree on ethics — and for very good reasons. To clear up the disagreement, the wrong move is to try and figure out the “right” ethical theory — arguing endlessly about the truth of your system and the foibles of others. Instead, understanding how our minds work may reveal far more useful information.

Every Ethics 101 course classifies the majority of ethical systems into:

    • Deontological Ethics: methods matter
    • Consequentialism Ethics: consequences matter
    • Virtual Ethics: attitudes matter

Our brains seem to contain all three of these behavior calculators (and more). Depending on situations (triggers), the brain uses one calculator, at the exclusion of others, or uses two or three but weighs them each differently. We are complex creatures. We are not what we think we are. It is this phenomena that leads us to all our wheel spinning when discussing ethics.

Is All-Religion-is-Bad?

Another wheel-spinner is the debate of whether “all-religion-is-bad” or not.  Massimo Pigliucci discusses this issue on his post criticizing a 3-Quark daily post (remember, the site where I was banned — it is safer to criticize them from your own blog.)

Massimo criticizes the pro-religion go-free-card position often promoted by 3QD authors, but also lambasts many blogging atheist who loudly exaggerate that “all religion is bad”. Massimo interestingly points out that typically those atheists’ arguments are based on an ironic illogical jumping between contrary ethical platforms to rationalize their claim — a fault of theists too he emphasizes.

The hyper-pseudo rationalist atheist will claim that:

False beliefs always (eventually) lead to bad consequences.

Did you catch that? They just told us that “false beliefs” [a method or attitude, depending how you view beliefs] should not be used. That is the Deontological or the Virtue Ethical calculator going off. But when you read posts by these anti-religion atheists, their judgement that bad beliefs are always bad is based on the consequences of those bad beliefs — they tell us all the horrible things religion do.  That is their Consequentialism calculator weighing in.

The 3QD article pejoratively creates the phrase “undergraduate atheists“, which Massimo concedes may be appropriate since such atheists have:

“… simplistic, scientistic, anti-intellectual streak of self-professed “rational” thinking that too many atheists quickly and shamelessly engage in.”

And he broadens the criticism saying:

“We talk a lot about supporting critical thinking in the skeptic/atheist community(es), but we aren’t necessarily that good at cleaning up our own sloppy reasoning.”

I love Massimo because he is clear writer, very bright and does not pull punches. So if you disagree with him, it is easy to figure out where you disagree!

I won’t go into all the subtle nuances of this argument about “Is ALL religion bad” — please don’t clutter the thread with those rants because that is not the purpose of this post and would ironically indulge in the very error of thinking I am trying to illustrate here. Namely, that we [theists, atheists: all of us] are often deceived about how our minds work, and that this confusion then causes us the spend millennium in useless debates.

Blending Confusion: ethical delusions & the myth of religion

As a final caveat, in such conversations, what adds insult to injury of our foolishness is, as I have written often, the illusion that we know what “religion” is. Further, people continually forget the nature of language and that “religion” is a created word used in many different ways. Religion is not something out there waiting to be discovered — anathema to Plato fans. Thus, we don’t understand our own ethical declarations, nor our own use of language, so how can we even begin to adress the question of this post intelligently.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language Families


Dividing up Languages

Linguists divide up the world’s languages into families. Above is a map showing the world’s top ten language families and below is a table showing their subgroups. I ranked the top 10 languages by the number of present speakers as of November 2013. My data was taken from Ethnologue and map from wiki.  Looking at Ethnologue: here are the language families (there are dozens) and here are the number of speakers. The map and table shows the name of the family, the percent of world speakers for whom it is their native tongue and then the number of individual languages in that group.


Jumping Language Families

Trust me, for any of you who can speak fluently more than one language fluently, you have never studied a “foreign” language, until as an adult, you have learned a language outside of your mother language’s family group.  For instance, my mother language is English.  I first studied German, then dabbled with Greek, then learned to speak/read/write Hindi & Urdu.  At that time, I thought my language skills were pretty broad.  But all those languages are Indo-European.  And when I landed in Japan, I quickly found out what “Language Family” meant.  In Japanese I had to twist my linguist brain into completely new knots.

Choosing the Top Ten

I arbitrarily chose the top 10 languages and arbitrarily chose what qualified as “top” by the number of speakers (not land covered).  If my arbitrary choices excluded your favorite language or seems to minimize it, then tough luck I’m sorry. Also, for sake of size, I left the Americas off the map because the only top 10 language family there is Indo-European.  Remember, as of today there are 7,105 living languages — hard to include them all.



Filed under Linquistics

Foreign Languages: 10 benefits

Having  been immersed in several very different religions has given me insights that are often hard to communicate to folks who have either never embraced a religion as an adult or who have only embraced one religion. I feel the insights of knowing more than one very different language are similar. Having learned a few foreign languages in depth, I have always felt they have affected me in deep ways which are almost impossible to communicate with monolinguists or even with people who may know more than one language but who have never learned a second language as an adult. I hope this doesn’t sound snobby, because I feel the same phenomena can happen in many fields.

Today I read a short, fun article in PsyBlog which lists 10 “superb psychological advantages of learning another language” and offers links to research backing each point.  As my diagram below shows that I can only relate to four of these supposed benefits:


Here are my comments on the benefits I have definitely felt from learning a foreign tongue:

  • 3, 4 and 10: Little difference is dialects of English or slight accents of foreign speakers stand out incredibly clear to me now.  Choice of words and nuances are much more amplified now than when I was not fluent in other tongues.  All this has improved my own language.
  • 9: I remember this strongly when I reached a certain fluency in Urdu —  in contrast to German (a cousin of English) where I felt no real shift in “ways of seeing”.  But when I learned Japanese, the different views were dazzling.  These differences in “ways of seeing” are very hard to successfully communicate to monolinguists.

Question to readers:  How about you folks?  Have you had similar experiences moving between religions or languages?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Cut by a Mandolin

woman-playing-a-mandolinThe mandolin is a string instrument in the lute family. Lutes (and thus mandolins) have 4 courses or pairs of strings.  Each pair is identical but inevitably generating slightly different frequency to add a tremelo or richness to the tone as compared to only a 4 string equivalent.  Each pair tuned in perfect fifths and plucked with a plectrum. Mandolins evolved in the 1700s in Italy and descended from the mandore which was seen in the 1500s — probably used in King Henry VIII court (remember, I am watching the Tudors). For your entertainment, here is a link to a mandolin performance of a piece by J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750).

Yesterday at my clinic, a patient came in complaining that she cut her finger on a mandolin. Fascinated, I wondered how she could have possibly plucked her mandolin to hard as to cut herself?  But she had, when I walk into the suturing room, I found that she had avulsed the tip of her finger and it was bleeding profusely. After I stopped the bleeding with some foam, I then asked her if she was plucking her mandolin with her fingers because I figured that a pick (a plectrum) would have protected her.  She said she was using a large potato!

“What?”, I said, “Why a potato?”

She replied, “Yeah, I was making dinner.”

I said, “You were using your mandolin to make dinner!”

She said “Yes, I use it all the time to cut things.” It took another minute or so to realize that this was the mandolin she was using.  I laughed!

This misunderstanding illustrates how we can hear only what our mind is steeped in. I am watching the Tudors where I have been thinking about medieval musical instruments — but she was talking about a potato slicer.

Question to Readers:  Is it just me? Please tell me that you had never heard of the food slicer called “a mandolin”!


Filed under Linquistics

“Identity”: a fiction?

Japanese point at their nose to indicate themselves. (source)

Japanese point at their nose to indicate “me”. In the West, “self” lies in the chest — we point to our heart.  No one points to their brain or their feet!   Is there a self?(photo source)

Philosophy of Language

Unshared language is a common conversation-obstacle. But unshared philosophy-of-language is the largest barrier I find when discussing any philosophical ideas.  People are often tricked by words. People don’t really understand how language works. But like sex, politics and religion, people are indignant to be accused of not understanding language. “After all,” they think, “I do it, so I obviously understand it!”

The largest language confusions center on definitions and “abstract nouns” – in contrast to “concrete nouns”. Today I will start a conversation about the abstract noun “Identity”. After the discussion, I’d love to hear if I changed how you think about the word “identity” — or if I made you reconsider language in general.

“Identity” : a recent concept

Indentity ConanOBrien_PointingToSelf“Identity” is a relatively newly constructed abstraction. Yet people use the word like it is just plain ‘ole common sense — a word that has existed forever. “Identity” has snuck into our culture pretty unnoticed with people thinking it has been with us as long as clothing. Yet Ngram shows us that “identity”, as a word, only started to became popular in the 1960s.

Yeah, I know, this ngram thing is sloppy of course. “identity” is used in mathematics, computer science,  criminal investigations, sexual politics and many more ways.  So I can’t assume I am looking up what I imagine I am investigating with ngram. I wish I could weed out those other uses from the ngram stats.  But there you go — until I get funding for research, you’ll have to put up with this amateur, arm-chair blogging. 🙂

Here is some more evidence for identity’s recent incarnation. See this wiki article on “Social Identity Theory“. Tajfel and Turner introduced the concept in the 70s and 80s.

And to add weight to this low-level evidence, here are ngram take-off dates of other Identity phrases and their wiki links:

    • “identity”: 1960s (ngram)(wiki)
    • “Identity”: mid-1980s (ngram)
    • “collective identity”: 1960-1990 (ngram)(wiki)
    • “Collective Identity”: 1970-1990 (ngram)
    • “social identity”: 1960s  (ngram) (wiki)
    • “Social Identity”: 1970s (ngram)

Capitalizing Abstractions

Note the lag time for abstractions.  It takes time for an abstraction to be honored with capitalization. But if you want to make an abstract noun look even more real — more substantial — give it a capital letter. And sure enough, ngram shows us here that “Identity” really took off in the mid-1980s (a twenty year lag).  Capitalizing is so powerful in English.  Look at the word “god”, for instance.

All about Me!  (source)

All about Me!


I have had arguments with theists and atheists alike that center on the issue of “identity”. And both groups assume they understand exactly what identity is — just like they understand what a car, a dog, a table and a tree are. But with only a little inspection, we see that people use the word very differently. And that should not be surprising — it is a made up concept — an abstract noun. But it is a useful concept — well, until you are fooled by it. Remember, abstractions are just tools, not real objects.

Fact-or-FictionSo, is “Identity” real or fiction? To head off any reader who will only read the title of this post and fill the comments with reactive defenses, let me show you my conclusion: “Identity” is neither real or fiction. Well, it is fiction if you think it is real, and it is real if you don’t understand how people are invested in protecting ideas, words and belongings. But we have the word “invested” and it doesn’t have that soul-like essentialist illusion of existence — it carries a more transient understanding. I like that word.  But that is another post.

Anyway, use any word you’d like but don’t let the words fool you. I  will be posting more on “Identity” later — I just needed this intro.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Expats & the UnChurched

This post is inspired by cartoons and comments on David’s Hayward’s blog “NakedPastor“. David is an ex-pastor and an unchurched ‘Christian’ who uses his art to illustrate how he wrestles with being an expat [1].

Religion & languages hauntingly share many properties such that, understanding the sociological, philosophical and evolutionary properties of one, helps to immediately and deeply understand principles in the other. Many of this site’s posts revolve around this theme and I hope to one day integrate my thoughts on this issue.  Perhaps due to my rich, deep, personal familiarity with religion and language I am observing the deep insights of  “consilience” — E.O.Wilson’s notion that all knowledge must be united at a deep level [2]. Or, more cynically, maybe this is merely the cognitive illusion of a mind that tries to vainly connect everything it touches. Either way, below is one more piece of speculation on the possible intimate connection between religion and language.

Some people intentionally leave their mother country because their newly adopted country offers something better for them. Yet amongst these expats, some have a great amount of difficulty learning to adapt to their new foreign home — they don’t learn the language, the gestures nor the customs. They tend to stay isolated or largely relate only to their own ethnic communities.

On the other hand, a smaller proportion of expats drench themselves in their new culture: learning the foreign language well, adopting many customs to some degree and having native friends with whom they interact using almost exclusively the local language, customs and values.

Religious believers may demonstrate a similar pattern when they leave their churches, synagogues, mosques or temples for complex, painful reasons.  These folks are leaving behind something they once considered highly undesirable.  After leaving, some of these religious expats will fully enter the world of nonbelievers but some, may still be more attached to what they left than they realize and stay while staying isolated from their former community of believers also don’t feel comfortable mixing with nonbelievers– they end up living in a self-created purgatory.  Like cultural expats misfits, they are critical of both cultures. They are often hoping to one day find a perfect congregation or denomination where they will again fit in, or they just give up and awkwardly exist in their new no-man zone.

Both the language example and this religious example contain two types of people — those who immerse themselves and those who remain isolated.  I wonder if these two types of individuals are the result of temperament differences. Perhaps some folks are more adaptive risk takers than others. Perhaps some folks are broader in their ability to find pleasure and happiness. Perhaps some people are more parochial by nature and though they feel an important need to leave a homeland or faith, due to their temperament they will have great difficulty creating an integrated new life.  Of course we all may virtuously rationalize our lives in non-temperament terms, but I wonder how much we really understand ourselves.


  1. “Expat” = (wiki) short for “expatriate”: a person residing in a lengthy time in a foreign land. Often confused with a non-existent word: “ex-patriot” and with connotations expat does not have. An expat can still be a patriot of their motherland.  [etymology: ex- “out of”, patrie- “native land”;  patris (Gr) “fatherland”, patros – “father”.]
  2. See another post on the notion of conscilience, here: “Meta-thought and Theology“,


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Chimps time travel too

Over the millenium, humans have mustered their meager intellects to desperately prove themselves unique and superior to all other animals. Most people, indeed, don’t even like to think of themselves as animals.

I wrote against that anthropocentric claim here:  “What makes us Unique?“.

But supporting the “humans-on-top” view, Crus Campbell, at his excellent blog “Genealogy of Religion“, claimed that:

“Making and keeping promises is a hallmark of human behavior
–Cris Campbell”

But I object: Promises are made with language. How do we know that animals don’t signal [a language] some sort of contracts [promises] with each other? He also claims that:

“[Chimpanzees can not] self-cue memories without external prompts.
–Cris Campbell “

Well, I just ran across this article in The Conversation that says:

More recently, studies of the chimpanzee “mind” suggest they can mentally “time travel”, like humans, by reliving past events and imagining or conceiving of what might happen in the future.

Unfortunately, just as Cris did not support his grandiose claims, this article did not source these “studies” either.

Oh well. But I remain suspicious of those that try so hard to make it obvious that humans have gone beyond being an animal.

Question to Readers:  What do you think?  Can you site studies?

PS: Chris’s blog will be improving in November — stay tuned.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion