Helen Keller

Helen Keller

In a ”which came first, the chicken or egg” sort of way, have you ever speculated, as you think with words, about what your conscious sense of self would be like in the utter absence of words? In other words, is consciousness dependent on language, or is language dependent on consciousness? This question has long been of special interest to me, mostly due to my work with intelligent birds, such as crows. But more importantly, how do we problem solve a set of civilization-threatening anthropogenic issues that include a mass extinction crisis? It requires that enough people can be on the same page to even be willing to define the problem. Can we understand how others think based on how we think? And we think that we think with words, don’t we?   It can creatively take us deep into abstractions, and wondrously into the most complex maths and sciences that demystify the cosmos for our children's children voyages.  And it can generate unimaginable hells.

Shakespeare and Descartes speculated about it. As did socialist Helen Keller, deaf and blind, who had no real language until she began inventing one, first through gesticulations, called “home signs,” with a childhood friend her own age.  Helen mastered Braille with her lifelong companion and teacher, Anne Sullivan (Johanna Macy), who also taught her to speak well enough to get a college education and hold lectures, with help from the likes of Alexander Graham Bell. 

I'm emphasizing Helen Keller to point out how consciousness percolates forth despite a complete absence of language, and when a language then is creatively problem-solved into existence, how it becomes a tool for that consciousness to achieve her goals.

Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate for people with disabilities, amid numerous other causes. The Deaf community was widely impacted by her. She traveled to twenty-five different countries giving motivational speeches about Deaf people's conditions.[32] She was a suffragettepacifistradical socialist, birth control supporter, and opponent of Woodrow Wilson. In 1915 she and George A. Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization. This organization is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. In 1920, she helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Keller traveled to over 40 countries with Sullivan, making several trips to Japan and becoming a favorite of the Japanese people. Keller met every U.S. President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including Alexander Graham BellCharlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. Keller and Twain were both considered radicals at the beginning of the 20th century, and as a consequence, their political views have been forgotten or glossed over in the popular mind.[33]

Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909 to 1921. Many of her speeches and writings were about women's right to vote and the impacts of war; in addition, she supported causes that opposed military intervention.[34] She had speech therapy in order to have her voice heard better by the public. When the Rockefeller-owned press refused to print her articles, she protested until her work was finally published.[29] She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency. Before reading Progress and Poverty, Helen Keller was already a socialist who believed that Georgism was a good step in the right direction. --(Wikipedia)

Of course, all our modern languages include the nonverbal stuff, which theoretically had been evolving within the hominid groups that eventually became homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago, of eventually inventing words or other symbolic means to communicate and intentionally cooperate towards common goals, often as dictated by the pressures of survival. Much of that likely evolved, and more importantly, persisted, after the last Ice Age, over 10,000 years ago, as agriculture, domestication and the beginnings of civilization took shape. We see the birth of our relative take on language through the vocalizations, pointing, body language etc observed among many social animals, such as chimps, crows, meerkats, and prairie dogs. Our current languages have been shaped a lot through the “winners” of various conflicts and wars, many of them religious, over millenniums. The modern German spoken in Europe today grew into significance after the Vatican-protesting Luther translated the Bible so that ordinary citizens with a basic degree of literacy could read it.


Too many “special self interests,” for example, argue against taking responsibility for climate change, getting in the way of those who understand the critical severity of it from the scientific evidence, and what steps must now be taken before it’s too late for our children.

Just due to one such idiot, currently in the White House, many Americans now think “fake” when they hear or see words like “news” or “scientific evidence.” As much as it’s deserving, I’m not using the word “idiot” ad hominem against Trump. The ancient Greek society that invented the word “democracy” employed the word “idiot” to refer to those who, for whatever reason, lacked social responsibility and political awareness.

In his groundbreaking 2008 research paper, The Dependence of Language on Consciousness, Lund University (Sweden) professor of cognitive semiotics, Jordan Zlatev, wrote, “...my argument is that consciousness is an essential precondition for language: for its existence, its use and its acquisition: a strong form of dependence indeed. ... Non- withstanding, consciousness as such is more basic than language, and determines language to a greater extent than the contrary." 

Dr. Zlatev has explained that he was deeply influenced by French existential philosopher, Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty (1908-1981),who, in his 1958 book, Phenomenology of Perception, wrote: "For we have the experience of ourselves, of that consciousness which we are, and it is on the basis of this experience that all linguistic connotations are assessed, and precisely through it that language comes to have any meaning at all for us."

We've only in the past decade or two had the tools to study and model how the brain actually functions, as a whole and while it's working. Deep brain imaging technologies, and the computer power to model complex systems, are growing ever more precise with each passing year. Last year, a team at Columbia University published a neuroscientific hypothesis, Piercing of Consciousness as a Threshold-Crossing Operation, which is drawing nearer to a theory, for human consciousness. It seems that "aha!” moments awakened us. 

“The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness, meaning that even though our brain is processing them, we are not aware,” explains Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, a Principal Investigator at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and the paper’s senior author. “How some of that information bubbles to the level of consciousness, however, remains an unsolved mystery. But now, we’ve found a way to observe that moment in real time, and then apply those findings to our understanding of consciousness itself.” 

Hammering the evidence home, Dr. Shadlen stated, "Some people think that the nitty gritty of neuroscience is far from the highfalutin stuff that a philosopher would consider. But rest assured, explaining these concepts — whether it’s ethics, consciousness anything else — in terms of neuroscience isn’t explaining them away. Instead, I would argue that it is helping to bring the biological study of the brain closer to the philosophical study of the mind.” 

All this is critically important in terms of ASAP managing our inherent cognitive issues -- like confirmation bias –which seriously fuck with our moral compass.  These issues, which so much in all religions and economic theories reinforce, are now directly threatening civilization. 

Coincidentally, exactly at this moment, while typing the first draft of this article from my Copenhagen home, I have the flat chatter box on as white noise. The 5 PM Danish DR2 TV News (Sept. 22) just came on and something instantly caught my attention. In response to a journalist's question about global warming, a ten year old child from within the politically far-right Indre Mission cult of our tax funded, Lutheran State Religion, said, translated, "The Bible teaches that the world will come to a burning end, and only the worthy will go to heaven." This is the mimicry and mirroring feature to language. It has an evolutionary biology basis, and, as you can see from that boy’s answer, it can be dangerous.

One last bit of science, the knowledge of which can help that boy above -- and the rest of humanity -- take better conscious control over our conditioned "idiot" thinking and behavioral patterns.  To a degree dependent on function, our brain's 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) are under constant morphological change for life, due to what's called neuroplasticity.  Simply put, every single thought, every behavior -- conscious and unconscious -- stimulates each involved neuron, each one often connected to thousands of other neurons etc at the synapses, to mechanistically either reinforce or inhibit the perpetuation of those signals, including by creating new connections to reflect the disciplined work necessary to change a "comfort zone" dysfunctional thinking and behavioral pattern.  That's an oversimplification of some very complex biology, but if the day after you've read this article you remember any part of it, well, that's neuroplasticity at work for short term memory.  Here is an article that shows how this knowledge, which is accumulating rapidly, is applied in the real world.  

For someone like Trump… and I can’t help but be reminded also of what has been uttered by GOPs at the recent Brett Cavanaugh confirmation hearings...in my opinion it is far too late, for it requires at least the will to want to better oneself.

In our anthropogenically threatened world, we should chose our words as consciously as possible, and wisely analyze how we respond to the words we take in.  That's what the scientific evidence indicates.

In contrast to Helen Keller, consider what sort of consciousness -- or lack of -- produced the following words:

Trump Tweet 1  Trump Tweet 2       

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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