Monday 31 October 2022

Beetle in a Box: A Thought Experiment

By Keith Tidman

Let’s hypothesise that everyone in a community has a box containing a ‘beetle’. Each person can peer into only his or her box, and never into anyone else’s. Each person insists, upon looking into their own box, that they know what a ‘beetle’ is.

But there’s a catch: Each box might contain something different from some or all the others; each box might contain something that continually changes; or each box might actually contain nothing at all. Yet upon being asked, each person resolutely continues to use the word ‘beetle’ to describe what’s in their box. Refusing, even if probed, to more fully describe what they see, even if not showing it. The word ‘beetle’ thus simply meaning ‘that thing inside a person’s box’.

So, what does the thought experiment, set out by the influential twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his book Philosophical Investigations,  tell us about language, mind, and reality?

As part of this experiment, Wittgenstein introduced the concept of a ‘private language’. That is, a language with a vocabulary and structure that only its originator and sole user understands, all the while untranslatable and obscure to everyone else. The original notion of a private (personal) language was in being analogous to what a person might use in attempting to convey his or her unique experiences, perceptions, and senses — the person’s individualised mental state. However, one criticism of such a personal language, by reason of being mostly unfathomable to others, is in its not holding to the definitional purpose of a working language as we commonly know it: to communicate with others, using mutually agreed-upon and comprehended guidelines.

Notably, however, the idea of a ‘private language’ has been subject to different interpretations over the years — besides in expressing to others one’s own mental state — on account of what some people have held are its inherent ambiguities. Even on its surface, such a private language does seem handicapped, inadequate for faithfully representing external reality among multiple users. A language unable to tie external reality to ‘internal’ reality — to a person’s ‘immediate private sensations’, as Wittgenstein put it, such as pain the individual feels. That is, to the user’s subjective, qualitative state of mind. Yet, the idea that people’s frames of mind, subjective experiences, and sense of awareness are unknowable by others, or at least uncertainly known, seems to come to us quite naturally.

Conventionally speaking, we become familiar with what something is because of its intrinsic physical characteristics. That ‘something’ has an external, material reality, comfortably and knowingly acknowledged by others in abidance to norms within the community. The something holds to the familiar terms of the ‘public language’ we use to describe it. It conveys knowledge. It denotes the world as we know it, precipitated by the habitual awareness of things and events. There’s a reassuringly objective concreteness to it.

So, if you were to describe to someone else some of the conventional features of, say, a sheet of paper or of an airplane or of a dog, we would imagine that other people could fathom, with minimal cognitive effort and without bewilderment, what the item you were describing was. A ‘private language’ can’t do any of that, its denying us a universally agreed-upon understanding of what Wittgenstein’s beetle-in-the-box might actually be. To the point about effectiveness, a ‘private language’ — where definitions of terms may be adversely arbitrary, unorthodox, imprecise, and unfamiliar  differs greatly from a ‘public language’ — where definitions of terms and syntactical form stick to conventional doctrine.

Meanwhile, such a realisation about the shortcomings of a ‘private language’ points to an analogy applicable to a ‘shared’ (or public) language: What happens in the case of expressing one’s personal, private experiences? Is it even possible to do so in an intelligible fashion? The discussion now pivots to the realm of the mind, interrogating aspects such as perception, appearance, attention, awareness, understanding, belief, and knowledge.

For example, if someone is in pain, or feeling joy, fear, or boredom, what’s actually conveyed and understood in trying to project their situation to other people? It’s likely that only they can understand their own mental state: their pain, joy, fear, or boredom. And any person with whom they are speaking, while perhaps genuinely empathetic and commiserative, in reality can only infer the other individual’s pain while understanding only their own.

Put another way, neither person can look into the other’s ‘box’; neither can reach into the other’s mind and hope to know. There are epistemic (knowledge-related) limits to how familiar we can be with another person’s subjective experience, even to the extent of the experience’s validation. Pain, joy, fear, and boredom are inexpressible and incomprehensible, beyond rough generalizations and approximations, whether resorting to either a ‘private’ or public language.

What’s important is that subjective feelings obscurely lack form — like the mysterious ‘beetle’. They lack the concrete, external reality mentioned previously. The reason being that your feelings and those of the other person are individualised, qualitative, and subjective. They are what philosophy of mind calls qualia. Such that your worry, pleasure, pride, and anxiety likely don’t squarely align with mine or the next person’s. Defaulting, as Wittgenstein put it, to a ‘language game’ with consequences, with its own puzzling syntactical rules and lexicon. And as such, the game’s challenge to translate reality into precise, logical, decipherable meaning.

All of which echoes Wittgenstein’s counsel against the inchoate, rudimentary notion of a ‘private language’, precisely because of its lacking necessary social, cultural, historical, and semiotic context. A social backdrop whereby a language must be predictably translatable into coherent concepts (with the notable exception of qualia). Such as giving things identifiable, inherent form readily perceived by others, according to the norms of social engagement and shared discourse among people within a community.

Shape-shifting ‘beetles’ are a convenient analogue of shape-shifting mental states. Reflecting altering ways our qualitative, subjective states of mind influence our choices and behaviours, through which other people develop some sense of our states of mind and how others may define us  a process that, because  of its mercurial nature, is seldom reliable. The limitations discussed here of Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ arguably render such a medium of communication unhelpful to this process.

We make assumptions, based on looking in the box at our metaphorical beetle (the thing or idea or sensation inside), that will uncover a link: a connection between internal, subjective reality — like the pain that Wittgenstein’s theorising demonstrably focused on, but also happiness, surprise, sadness, enthrallment, envy, boredom — and external, objective reality. However, the dynamics of linguistically expressing qualitative, individualised mental states like pain need to be better understood.

So, what truths about others states of mind are closed off from us, because we’re restricted to looking at only our own ‘beetle’ (experience, perception, sensation)? And because we have to reconcile ourselves to trying to bridge gaps in our knowledge by imperfectly divining, based on externalities like behaviour and language, what’s inside the boxes’ (minds) of everyone else?


Anonymous said...

All I saw was a beetle in a box I probably lack deep thought Bob L

Corinne Othenin-Girard said...

My private language or inner language or Endophasia experienced a tremendous parthenogenetic proliferation, to come back to your "beetle in a box" when I went through total speechlessness, called Aphasia. When your outer speech, Exophasia, is coming to a stand still, your Endophasia makes up for that, that's what I experienced. So I didn't experience my private language as handicapped. Of course I couldn't prove it to anyone, Endophasia is private. And it's effectiveness to express it in exophasic terms was at that stage, with total aphasia, equal zero. And also Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798-1874) composed the song "Die Gedanken sind frei" about the freedom of thought, because no-one can guess them. And hopefully they will always be free.

Martin Cohen said...

Thanks Keith for this post on an issue that I have also wondered about, You write: "if someone is in pain, or feeling joy, fear, or boredom, what’s actually conveyed and understood in trying to project their situation to other people? It’s likely that only they can understand their own mental state: their pain, joy, fear, or boredom"… and I've seen doctors and psychologists raise this kind of issue too - if someone says that they are feeling depressed - do we really now what they feel? But I think this is the wrong approach to the issue - picking an obscure, difficult to define state. Better is to take something straightforward - like someone picking up a pebble, say, and trying to describe it to someone. I think that we all know that even if they used unfamiliar terms like "my pebble is moochkin" we'd get there eventually. We'd say "what do you mean by moochkin"? They's say (perhaps) "it's a colour", :the colour of a dandelion" etc etc… Even if their whole language is unfamiliar (like those of Amazon rainforest tribes) we know communication is possible. Though denotation, metaphor, comparison…

Keith said...

Thank you, Corinne, for your firsthand account of personal experiences and reflections on endophasia and aphasia, as well as those of the larger affected community. I believe you revealed to Pi’s readers, through real-word anecdote, what Wittgenstein was reaching for through the complex metaphors of a beetle, box, and private/inner language. I appreciate you sharing your experiences and insights; an entirely different take on the subject matter covered by the essay.

Corinne Othenin-Girard said...

Thanks Keith for your article and replying to my comment.
A ‘private language’, you say, can’t do any of that, like describing the features of a sheet of paper or of a dog. But it doesn't have to.
Inner or private language differentiates itself from the outer speech. It is inaudible. If you ask the 'inner language' to express itself, you ask it to translate itself into the outer language, ergo to make it public. Therefore the inner language is made outer language. It's no more private.
(Electroencephalography (EEG) is able to measure neurophysiological activity during inner language linguistic tasks.)

Corinne Othenin-Girard said...

Private language (which expresses inner thoughts, feelings and experiences, understandable by only one person, and which can't be used for communication) can't exist, after Wittgenstein (privat language argument). I want to have a look at Wittgenstein's argument, in looking at what Wittgenstein did. Wittgenstein had Francis Skinner as his Amuensis for 7 years. Wittgenstein dictated his philosophical thought-processes. But where did those thought-processes come from? After Wittgenstein there is no private language. The book Ludwig Wittgenstein: Dictating Philosophy
To Francis Skinner – The Wittgenstein-Skinner Manuscripts shows Wittgenstein how he was engaged in battles with his own mind. "Accordingly, these manuscripts can be perceived as signalling devices to alert the reader to range of Wittgenstein's agonised inner processes."
Why did Wittgenstein negate the existence of the inner or private language?
"Perception", a word that he used often, is not possible without a inner or private language. Perception would not be perception, without some sort of a language, to make that perceived thing or object integrated, identified and understood.

Keith said...

You’ve presented much of interest, Corinne. And, therefore, much to ponder. Yes, Wittgenstein did seem to personalize his thoughts on inner sensations and the adequacies and inadequacies of (an inner) language to capture all that with the aim of sharing with others what’s going on in one’s mind. Among many other points you touched on, “perception” caught my attention. I think it’s a complicated word in many respects, especially in context of, say, George Berkeley’s pithy remark, “Esse est percipi” — to be is to be perceived. That’s, of course, an essay unto itself.

I’ve always been fascinated, however, with the remark’s relevance to todays quantum theory, all these centuries later.

I’m referring to the role of conscious observation in collapsing so-called wave functions, which mathematically describe all the possible states of an object, bearing on what ultimately becomes real. As the visionary quantum physicist put it, “No property is a property until it is observed.” Or, in the words of the brilliant physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose, “Almost all the interpretations of quantum mechanics … depend to some degree on the presence of consciousness for providing the ‘observer’ that is required [for] the emergence of classical-like world.”

In my opinion, there’s a germaneness here to Wittgenstein’s explanation of the role of perception.

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