The Miracle of Communication

I am a convert to Christianity, out of an aggressive form of postmodernism which denied any subject-independent reality.  In other words, my world’s only mine and your world’s yours, and how dare you tell me anything about the way my world is!  I thought we are really locked into our own separate worlds, and never the twain shall meet.

Such an extreme version of postmodernism ran into a problem: communication.  Somehow, people who have never had unmediated access to each other’s experiences of world, figure out a way to share ideas and describe experiences in ways the other can understand.  And this happens all the time.  It’s not even considered particularly remarkable.

Never one to abandon a good theory in the face of some initial evidence, I considered my options.  Perhaps communication is illusory.  All that I can really say for sure is that you are emitting sounds according to certain patterns or apparent patterns, which could be meaningful to me in a certain way if I were the one emitting them instead of you, or rather if you were someone like me with my experience of the world.  But I am not emitting those sounds, and you do not have my experience of the world.  So perhaps the sounds emitted are accidental and meaningless to you, or perhaps they are meaningful to you in ways which bear no relation to their meaning to me.

This happens on occasion, in fact, when someone mis-hears a short utterance, for example, and both parties think communication has happened when really what the listener “heard” bears no relation to what the speaker said.  On the other hand, there are swift mechanisms to identify and correct the misunderstanding, and any spoken or written exchange of sufficient length, provided it is not intentionally ambiguous (like poetry), quickly resolves these difficulties.  The notion of all communication everywhere being doubly meaningful, in one way to the speaker and in another independent way to the listener, is so fantastically unlikely as to be ridiculous.  And while I was stubborn and pig-headed, I was also honest enough to admit that this did not seem likely.

Indeed, communication seems to me today even more amazing than it did then, when I was simply left unable to give an explanation for one of the more common human experiences on the basis of my doctrinaire postmodern commitments.  People start without language, unable to speak, although with the ability to acquire language.  But what a learning curve!  Over the course of a couple years, simply by listening to people and watching people, they learn a vast array of labels for things seen and unseen.  Within a few more years, not only do little humans learn a vast array of nouns, they also learn verbs and actions, and adjectives (and even a few adverbs!), and how to string these all together with a fluency which an adult learner will only achieve after many years of laborious effort.  And thus we acquire our native language (or languages, in multilingual environments).

And then we use it confidently expecting that people we meet will know what we mean.  And, in fact, people do understand what we mean most of the time.  This is despite the fact that the words have a range of meanings.  Despite the fact that there are individual idiosyncracies to language, so that the way I speak is not the way you speak, and the words I choose are not the words you would choose.  Despite the fact that I speak based on my experience of the world, which you have no direct access to, and you understand it on the basis of your experience, which is inaccessible to me.  Of all nouns, it’s the unseen ones that really get me: how do we even know what feelings and emotions are?  How do I know that what you call pain I call pain?  Medical professionals acknowledge, even as they ask patients to “rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10,” that there is no comparative pain scale across patients, and yet we talk about pain as if we knew what it was.  Even your perception of what a color, say blue, looks like to you, is entirely cut off from me.  I will never see color through your eyes.  The interpretation of language is risky business, so it would seem, and yet it happens all the time and largely effortlessly.

And the interpretive difficulties of ambiguous meanings, individual speech patterns, and mutually inaccessible inexperience bases seem tough enough, when the transmission conveys all the right words, but even that cannot be taken for granted.  One person speaks, and some of the syllables get mumbled on the way out, or get drowned out by a passing car, and yet the listener understands.  One might think that written communication has this advantage over spoken, that the words are all transferred from writer to reader verbatim, but even that is not so.  Handwritten texts often suffer from slips of the pen, so that where the rest of the word should have been is now a blot of ink, or the ink fades over time, or the paper gets torn or spilled on, so that the words are no longer legible.  Typewritten texts are more discrete, all or nothing, except that people commit “typos” all the time, dropping letters, transposing letters, adding erroneous letters, and sometimes omitting whole words or substituting a random word which happened to be on their minds.  And written texts allow words to be taken out of context, so that the reader is not familiar with the environment in which the text was composed.  And yet readers understand, in general.

All of this is not to say that communication does not break down.  My wife can testify how frequently my communication breaks down!  But even when it does, there is a mechanism for clarifying, or for starting again and explaining the same thing in different words.

And it’s not as if communication were unimportant.  We all need to communicate in order to survive, to get our basic needs met.  This starts even before language, when babies have basically one means of communicating, crying.  But it doesn’t stop.  And even more important that physical life is spiritual life: God uses communication to show us the way to experience his redemption.  It’s called revelation, and it is vital to God’s plan to redeem the world.  If Christ had come, died, and rose again, but had not breathed a word about God, sin, repentance, or salvation, who would now believe in him?  Communication’s importance is seen even in the name for the second Person of the Trinity, God the Word.  But given the very real challenges that any communication must overcome, it seems to me that the miracle is that communication ever succeeds.

And yet it happens all the time, among all sorts of people, and we all take it for granted.  Even though no step in the communication process is fool-proof or infallible, either the production of sounds or shapes, the transmission of them, the reception of them, or the interpretation of them.  And indeed, all of these processes are “lossy,” meaning that errors in them are not infrequent, but abound.  And even so, communication is usually taken for granted.

How does it work?  Well, as a new convert I became convinced that God is the one who enables communication, and I still think that basically correct.  But God in general uses means to accomplish his purposes.  And one means he uses to enable communication is redundancy.  While we think we say just what is enough, in fact we say so much more than is necessary that even if you take away a few words here and there, what is said can still be understood.  Our expressions are frequently such stock phrases that a missing word can be filled in, though every trace of it is gone.  If part of a “damaged” word is heard or seen, the rest can usually be guessed, or if no part is available, there may be a few nearly synonymous options to fill in the gap.  Even if enough words are missed that the sentiment cannot be precisely determined, its gist is typically apprehended, and often sufficient.  Only rarely, in common communication, does the presence of absence of a word significantly change the meaning (although the word “not” remains critical, of course).  That is why good poetry, which has less redundancy, depends more on the correct reception of each and every word.  But redundancy compensates for fallible means to enable a robust system of communication.

And I think that’s amazing.  It isn’t what convinced me of Christianity’s truth, but it did open a window for me onto a larger real world, one I later realized was made by God and is being redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God and his perfect communication to humankind.

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