The Matrix of Words

January 30, 2015

Words are all around us. We speak words, hear words, write words, read words, think words, and dream words. Held together by grammatical rules, words are the fabric of our language — and what a powerful tool this is. To be a positive force though, language has to rest on properly defined words. If the meaning of words gets corrupted, language can quickly lead us astray.

A definition is a statement describing the meaning of a word or symbol. In mathematics definitions are not all that exciting in themselves, because they are merely introducing new “language” for existing concepts. For example, the term natural numbers is just a new name for what we can describe as the set of numbers we use for counting. However, such well-defined terms serve as thinking tools, which enable us to think about more complex issues and to derive new insights.

The situation is different though when it comes to our natural language. We use many words that represent complex issues, but most of the time we only have a somewhat intuitive understanding of their meaning. We don’t have much trouble with words that map to physical things, but words that describe concepts are often less clear once you start thinking about them, e.g. “society”, “justice”, or “sports”.

The reason for this is that we acquire our natural language very differently than the language of mathematics. Instead of defining the meaning of words from the ground up, we usually learn words by example of others using them, and we attach meaning to them with reference to direct or indirect experiences. Just think of a benign word like “school”. What this word means to us probably doesn’t have much to do with a rational definition, but with personal and even emotional associations, such as the value of education in our family, or our personal experience in the specific schools we’ve attended. Generally, our definitions of words have largely been primed by our environment: our parents, our teachers, our peers, the news and entertainment industry, etc.

Just like in mathematics, being able to express complex concepts with a simple word is a tool to think and communicate about complex matters. It enables us to do wonderful things, but it also involves the danger of constructing a tall building on a shaky foundation — leading us further astray with every story — if the words we’re using are ill-defined.

This is important, because words and their implicit definitions have tremendous power over our thoughts and eventually actions. For example, consider the term violence: different definitions of what constitutes violence will result in very different views on which actions are morally justifiable and which are not. Perceiving something as violence puts one into the role of the victim with somebody else being the initiator of the aggression, and opens up the use of force as self-defense. It all hinges on the definition of violence though where the moral line gets drawn.

Every ill-defined word has the potential to misguide our thoughts, even if the consequences are not that far-reaching as in the example above. In this way words really are the matrix we’re living in: control over the meaning of words is control over thoughts and actions. Therefore manipulating language has long been the tool of choice for inflicting irrational beliefs onto others.

Fortunately we can submit the matrix of words to rational scrutiny anytime we choose to do so by making our implicit understanding of words explicit. It takes some courage to question the essence of the concepts that we use to form complex thoughts about ourselves and the world around us — revealing our implicit assumptions, faulty logic, and emotional biases. But it also provides clarity and an improved understanding eventually. It’s a wonderful opportunity for deep connections with yourself and with others.

During this process it’s important to remember that there are clear criterions of what constitutes a valid definition. The purpose of definitions is to create meaning by putting the thing to be defined into context, as well as to clearly delineate it from other similar things. Will Durant says it more poetically when paraphrasing Aristotle in The Story of Philosophy:

Aristotle drops an object into the ocean of its class, then takes it out all dripping with generic meaning, with the marks of its kind and group; while its individuality and difference shine out all the more clearly for this juxtaposition with other objects that resemble it so much and are so different.

If a definition fails to accurately differentiate the thing being defined, i.e. the same definition could apply to other distinct things as well, it’s a bad foundation to build your reasoning on and will most likely lead to faulty conclusions. The same applies to definitions that are self-contradictory, or that do not comply with the empirical reality of what’s being defined.

Let me give you two more examples to further illustrate my point.

Consider the following statement: “The state should pass the minimum wage law to ensure a fair pay for low-skilled labour.” In this statement there are at least five words that we should take under scrutiny: What’s a state? What’s a wage? What’s a law? What’s fair? What’s low-skilled? There’s a journey through ethics, political philosophy, and economics right here. Without properly defining and understanding the meaning of those words, there’s no point in considering the statement as a whole.

Let’s look at another example: “All children in this country should get a decent school education for free.” Again, we can pose several questions that only seem trivial on first sight. What’s a country? What’s a decent education? What’s school? What’s the meaning of free? Depending on your understanding of these terms your evaluation of this statement as a whole will vary greatly, ranging from uncontroversial to nonsensical.

That’s what I mean when I refer to words as the matrix we’re living in. Your thoughts, and eventually actions, will take a completely different path depending on the meaning you attach to specific words.

I want to end on the notion of responsibility that comes with the power of words. It’s the responsibility of all of us to be aware of this power, and to question and to educate ourselves about the meaning of words others speak to us, as well as the words we speak to others — every day anew.