6. Language and Information



We can imagine investigating human language in the same way we did with the alien (See 4.) even though the brain is harder to decipher than a modular electronic system. We know where the generative speech centers are, at least roughly. We also know where the sensory systems are in the brain, where we decide what’s out there. We can identify fiber tracts which carry information and more generally convey activity back and forth between various neurological systems. We have then for human beings a basic understanding of the brain as a producer of linguistic behavior. The question then becomes: What if any use is this? Does this tell us enough about linguistic processes to be of value?


Typing the sources of information for verbal behavior is informative because as it turns out, there are only a few types unless we think that there are little miracles occurring in our nervous systems. If the nervous system is closed at the physical level, if there are no inputs from beyond the physical world then we can classify the information sources into two types, those that are produced by immediate sensory information and those which are the result of internal operations not immediately caused by external stimuli. The distinction is between direct responses to external sensory stimuli –which are probably rare-and everything else.


Concentrating on the information in the response, or at least on the type of information in the response can be illuminating even if we don’t know the exact source of the information. This again does not provide meaning or reference, it is about information and information alone doesn’t necessarily tell us anything of importance. (See 4.) But if we know the source of the information we can characterize in a general way the nature of the linguistic behavior that it is producing. Most of the information generating the linguistic behavior of human beings is produced by internal processes not immediately related to their current sensory experiences –adults don’t walk around talking about what they see, feel, smell or hear for the most part. Most of it is generated by internal processes of various sorts that we don’t understand very well. But any element of linguistic behavior can be typed with respect to its information source. There are no exempt words or concepts, whatever is said has an information source, a neurological cause that explains in some sense why it is said. Moreover, if we can say what we are thinking about something, if we can relate our thoughts verbally, then these thoughts too are amenable to the sorts of analysis suggested by an information based approach to linguistic behavior.


 Much of what is expressed verbally will be the results ultimately of what has been internalized verbally, especially if the subject is essentially a verbal phenomenon. Thus for example, most philosophical discourse will be the result of the internalization of either visual or audio communications that the producer was previously exposed to. But the same can be said for political discourse or for any speech that is not immediately connected to the perceptible. Much of it will be talk about talk, the information relayed will be from the auditory cortex perhaps reprocessed and reformulated in the motor systems responsible for producing syntax.


            Any manifestation of knowledge or even of thought itself can only be the result of biological processes. An element of cognitive behavior is the result of physical processes, i.e., information based neurological processes. If we can think about it, talk or write about it, or even draw pictures of it in the sand, the behavior that is produced is necessarily the result of action potentials driving neural networks in the brain. There are no exceptions, talk about ‘being”, “the good”, “neutrinos” or “consciousness” is all the result of neurological processes generating information which drives networks that produce behavior. There is a fundamental fact about epistemic systems regardless of if are talking about robots, or biological systems like human beings: complicated behavior patterns are information driven. This is a little realized aspect of intelligent behavior that is the result of the fact that the behavior itself is complicated. Speaking, writing, even pointing out things in the visual field are all complex sensory-motor activities. But any example of intelligent behavior must be controlled by information flow in the generative systems. There are many muscles and neural systems involved in producing any element of volitional behavior; these are all controlled by complicated information laden patterns of activity in the central nervous system.


            The information content of an element of behavior is always there, whether or not it is of interest is another question.  If the referent of a word is easily determinable, if we can for instance ostensively define the word, then the internal processes that produce the related linguistic behavior may only be of interest to specialists in cognitive psychology or neurophysiology.  But if we really are unsure of what we are talking about, if the referent of the word is unclear or unknown, then the processes that produce the information responsible for generating the word may be of interest.