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Sunday, September 18, 2016


Driving is an activity that has fascinated me from the start. I would be driving on the road, keeping a reasonable distance from the car in front of me, changing to the lane on my left, slowing down to make a right turn, or stopping and starting at a stop sign. All the while I wonder, why does not car crash into mine? Why does everyone drive with respect to others? Why do I? More baffling perhaps, how do we know? Why do we trust each other not to suddenly accelerate or decelerate or jerk to the left or right or blow through a stop sign or red light? Obviously, some people have done these things, but it is an amazing rarity in the larger context.

Yesterday, I was making a left turn. The oncoming traffic slowed and stopped for a pedestrian crossing. A gray Ford something drifted into the middle of the intersection, blocking my way. After a second and a half, the car pulled up closer to the SUV before it, leaving me enough room behind it to make the turn. I was struck by how this exchange between me and that driver, with whom I didn't even have eye contact through the glare on the windshield. It was only after I made the turn that it struck me. 

We read each other's mind. 

That person in that car saw me waiting in the left-turn lane and, for a moment, we were both thinking the same thought and knew it. "Please pull up a bit, so that I can pass." 

It would be presumptuous to say that this is a human ability. Just like I have always thought that it is presumptuous and narcissistic to assume that consciousness is unique to humans. 
A separate but related question. What would it be like if we didn't have language? 

Sure, we could still communicate, but not nearly as much. How much though --- if we had no language and had to smell each other instead? 

[Movie trailer voice] In a world, where people have no words to talk or write to each other, and have to use no verbal means to express needs, wants, demands, requests, orders, pleads, and desires.

Such a world would seem absurd and laughable to us now, but there must have been a time when humans lived without language, a time when we "talked" to each other with our eyes, faces, hands, body, and, if we're desperate, a grunt or two. What was it like?

Perhaps, when thoughts got too complicated to express with looks and gestures, someone drew a picture.

Abstract thoughts and symbols are always considered a human specialty, but there is no genetic codes for them. It's not a physiological characteristic like the opposing thumb or upright walking. They are an ethereal ability that may not develop without early learning. There is nothing written in our body to guarantee that we can think in symbols for real and imagined objects and actions and emotions and ... an intangible thing known as causation.

And yet, I have a suspicion that language also broke something in us. A crack opened between thoughts and feelings, between knowledge and experience, between learning and instinct.

Without complicated sounds and symbols, we can tell each other how to make cars and agree on laws and morals, and we can also, more easily, lie to each other. 

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