language: importance and necessity

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Ace_NoOne
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language: importance and necessity

Postby Ace_NoOne » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:26 pm UTC

After having been bullied into reading Ender's Game (bullying has never been more welcome), I've come across one paragraph in the book that made me think.

For those who haven't read the book yet*, I guess it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that the "buggers" (what a brilliant term for hostile insectoid aliens) are apparently** communicating through telepathy.

Anyway, at one point it is said that due to this telepathy, the buggers never had to develop any sort of language or symbols for communication.

In my opinion, that's a rather stupid reasoning.
Disregarding the fact that telepathic communication would also require - or even constitute - sort of a language, language (in whichever form) is not only used for direct communication. Instead, it is also used and required for indirect communication - which includes the storing of knowledge.
Imagine if we all could communicate by telepathy and didn't have any symbols to represent our mental concepts - how would we pass on complex knowledge to later generations? The only way to do that would be to rely on fellow beings' brains to retain and pass on that knowledge.

Am I missing anything here?
(I hope I've made myself clear; ironically, the concept and reasoning are much clearer in my head than they are here in writing... )


* to quote Vaniver: "Go, and do not stop running until you have found a bookstore that possesses one. Purchase it and read."

** I haven't finished the book yet - though I probably will have in about two hours. That is a very sad thought to me - especially since Speaker for the Dead won't be delivered for another 2-3 weeks.

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Postby Belial » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:30 pm UTC

Given the premises you're working from, you're absolutely right.

I have probably said too much.

(edited to remove slight almost vague spoilers)
Last edited by Belial on Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:35 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Ace_NoOne » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:32 pm UTC

Uh-oh.
I should finish reading the book before reading any more replies in this thread...

However, isn't my premise the same as the humans'?
(For the record: Ender is just being transferred to Command School; p. 253 in my version of the book.)

Thanks for now.

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Postby Vaniver » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:35 pm UTC

Woo! Quoted!

Imagine if we all could communicate by telepathy and didn't have any symbols to represent our mental concepts - how would we pass on complex knowledge to later generations? The only way to do that would be to rely on fellow beings' brains to retain and pass on that knowledge.

Am I missing anything here?
Unfortunately, yes. This is fairly explicitly covered in a later book. I'll summarize it, behind the quote:
The queens do not have the same sense of time and history that humans have. For us, there's a very clear difference between the past and the present, because the past is something you read about or remember, and the present is something you feel. For the queens, they're pretty much the only sentient entity they know- there are other queens, but while they have different personalities, they can transfer memories (I believe, it's been a while since I read the later books) effortlessly. There's a line in there where a new bugger queen questions Valentine about the purpose of writing histories- doesn't everyone remember it? Valentine replies no, we don't all remember it, and our memories change. The queen's memories change as well, but the queen doesn't recognize that she ever felt differently than she currently does. In a way, they're like Socrates- they don't write anything down because they have no desire to be constrained by what they thought before.

But, the explanation is specific. It would be useful to have a way of learning about your past without having to know another telepath (find the Worthing Saga, also by Card, or think about the impact of 'cellular memory' from the Dune series by Frank Herbert)- but, what is the benefit of that, and what is its cost? The benefit is that if you have a queen raised away from other queens (unlikely, since I believe they can impart all they need to right after the new queen hatches), they can regain the knowledge through reading that wasn't transferred. The cost is that you need to develop a set of symbols, learn that set of symbols (and, if the queen raised elsewhere doesn't know these symbols, the library of knowledge is worthless), and maintain a library of all the pertinent knowledge. Given the amount of sense data the queens receive, that library will probably be far too large to construct, for such a minimal benefit.

Think about it this way- a hunter notices something about a patch of forest, and marks it on the trees for future hunters. But, if all future hunters have access to the first hunter's memory, why bother to come up with a symbolic (and thus imprecise) representation of something when you have the real thing?
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Postby Belial » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:37 pm UTC

However, isn't my premise the same as the humans'?


Hmm. Actually, you're right. Unless the race in question had some way of recording telepathic impressions.
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Postby Vaniver » Mon Apr 02, 2007 7:44 pm UTC

I should add: this depends on the speed of telepathic transfer compared to the speed of writing and reading.

If telepathic transfer is faster than writing and then reading, and not limited to one-on-one links, then there's no reason to write.

If telepathic transfer is faster than writing and then reading, but limited to one-on-one links, whether or not writing is better than the transfer depends on the population. If there are just two of us, there's no reason to write (except saving it for posterity, but that's not very valuable). If there are X of us, such that it takes more time to transfer by telepathy than it does by writing it once, printing a copy for everyone, and having them all read their copies, then it makes more sense to write.

If telepathic transfer is slower than writing and then reading, then it will probably be better to write.
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Postby Yakk » Mon Apr 02, 2007 8:49 pm UTC

Writing is storage as well as communication.

I can record a thought in writing, and then look it up later.

Saving for posterity is quite valueable: the records of previous philosophy, stored in Christian monestaries and amoung the Arabs, where a huge part of what lifted Europe out of the dark ages.

Once you have writing, instead of being limited in knowledge to what you can meet personally, you can extract all of the knowledge worth storing in a cheap inanimate form. And paper is cheaper than brains. :)

Humanity uses symbols to make thinking easier. Using specialized symbols, I can create extremely profound mathematical statements that are extremely hard to express via English. Such specialized symbols, tailored for a problem domain, allow for huge mental efficiencies.

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Postby Vaniver » Mon Apr 02, 2007 8:58 pm UTC

Writing is storage as well as communication.
And storage is tremendously valuable for humans, for the reasons you point out.

But, if we assume the speed of telepathic transfer is quick enough, and minds have no storage limit (both of these are fairly silly assumptions, but they're the situation in the sci-fi novels being discussed), and the population of actual sentients is small (or geographic concerns are rendered unimportant by the ansible), then storage is not an issue. That's the situation the buggers are in, so language isn't as valuable to them.
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Postby cmacis » Tue Apr 03, 2007 8:23 am UTC

What is good in the later novels is how the queen copes with talking to beings that were not fundamentally herself. Dammit, I nearly gave away the fundamental point to speaker for the dead. I'll have to go white quote on this.

When the queen talks to the trees or the humans the words sometimes change, even the language can change (Miro heard his native Portuguese while Val heard American, not Stark) but the meaning comes across. Ender hears the same thing but with different words while his brain tries to fit the meaning to what it heard.


I think that, for us at least, language is necessary to thought. However, this is near enough an untestable hypothesis.
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Postby Yakk » Tue Apr 03, 2007 1:08 pm UTC

Yes, with infinite intelligence and infinite non-language based communication abilities that move information around, you don't need language.

Just as with infinite strength, you don't need a lever.

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Postby Vaniver » Tue Apr 03, 2007 1:51 pm UTC

Just as with infinite strength, you don't need a lever.
Hey, I didn't write the books, I just read them :P
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Postby A neutral shade of black. » Tue Apr 03, 2007 2:00 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:Writing is storage as well as communication.


But largely irrelevant if you have a brain in a vat that's capable of storing everything and instantly doling it out to every agent.

Imagine this: an alien species does not communicate ideas, but feelings. This means they don't need a language that's anything like ours - "pain" doesn't need a name to be "pain." If you can transmit what reaction A makes you feel like, you don't need to give action A a name - "speaking" of it would be done by communicating a sense of what action A makes you feel like.

Now, different individuals would feel differently about action A, but the buggers don't have individuals, bar the queens. They're essentially a single brain (the queen) with many bodies (the drones). If we assume that all information is passed upwards to the queen and then back down to each drone (IIRC it does, but I could be wrong; in any case, information is shared at FTL speeds - this is what the ansible is based on), thus keeping all the drones synchronised (they have no memory of their own, being nothing but a physical extension of the queen - as suggested by the fate of the bugger drones at the end of the book), then there will never be a need for any kind of written language whatsoever. Drones aren't individuals, and every queen stores everything she's ever experienced via her drones.
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Postby cmacis » Tue Apr 03, 2007 2:07 pm UTC

How about the Descaladores? Could there be intelligible language in their dna transmissions?

You could encrypt data within DNA, but would it be that you would have to read the sequence rather than make the organism from it?
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Postby Yakk » Tue Apr 03, 2007 3:42 pm UTC

Yes, you can use DNA as a piece of paper.

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Postby Rose34 » Tue Apr 03, 2007 6:38 pm UTC

Yakk wrote:Yes, with infinite intelligence and infinite non-language based communication abilities that move information around, you don't need language.

Just as with infinite strength, you don't need a lever.

The issue with Ender's Game has more to do with a lack of individuality. Each queen usually feels very competitive to the others and so as soon as they are able (and after having all of the first queen's knowledge) they leave and set up their own colony. For all practical purposes, there is only ever one individual. They communicate instantly and I don't believe it's in a conversational format, they just know everything that is being communicated, it's only when they communicate with humans that the humans have to put it into language, or pictures. If you never met another person, or never had a separate consciousness from what few people you did meet, why would you feel the need for language? Even for math and science, and developing technology. You wouldn't have to have that much larger of a storage capacity. Those humans who work with numbers have to at least know where to look for information and formulas, and have to be able to see the connections before they can do that. There are savants who can do ridiculous calculations in their head, how much more advanced would you have to be to be able to comprehend high level physics in your head? Especially if you could combine your brain with someone else's?

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Re: language: importance and necessity

Postby bbctol » Tue Apr 03, 2007 7:33 pm UTC

Ace_NoOne wrote:Disregarding the fact that telepathic communication would also require - or even constitute - sort of a language,

How? As I remember, the buggers didn't really "communicate" at all, they're thoughts were simply one, and hence they moved as one.

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Postby Ace_NoOne » Tue Apr 03, 2007 8:45 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:Woo! Quoted!
What's with the excitement - I didn't know there was an xkcd Fora Citation Index... ;)

Vaniver wrote:
Ace_NoOne wrote:Am I missing anything here?
Unfortunately, yes.
Why unfortunately? It's actually quite fortunate that I am/was the ignorant and Mr. Card remains a genius.

Vaniver wrote:This is fairly explicitly covered in a later book. I'll summarize it, behind the quote
Could you say which book that is? Because I don't dare to read your spoiler without having read that book first...

bbctol wrote:
Ace_NoOne wrote:Disregarding the fact that telepathic communication would also require - or even constitute - sort of a language,

How? As I remember, the buggers didn't really "communicate" at all, they're thoughts were simply one, and hence they moved as one.
Well, with regard to the buggers, you're right (I didn't know about the whole Borg-like hive mind at that point yet).
However, in a way, the issue of "telepathic communication" doesn't really apply to the buggers at all. That's because one queen and its drones constitute can be seen as a single individual, so there would be no (high-level) communication between those entities. (Yeah, there are a few ways to contest this statement - just bear with me here... )

So if you think of individuals communicating via telepathy, telepathy is just another medium, just like written or spoken words are.
That's because a direct communication of thoughts - that is, without the intermediate steps of en- and decoding (cf. the famous Shannon-Weaver model of communication*) - is most likely not possible under this premise. That in turn is because (speaking only from a human and thus very limiting perspective) mental concepts are formed through the processing of the input, so they cannot simply be "beamed" into another being's brains for storage. (Which is also the reason why, sadly, our mental capacity will not be extended with USB memory sticks anytime soon.)
I'm afraid elaborating on this would lead us off-topic though...


* Certainly not the best source, but Wikipedia was not very useful in this case.

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Postby Vaniver » Tue Apr 03, 2007 8:57 pm UTC

Could you say which book that is? Because I don't dare to read your spoiler without having read that book first...
I would if I remembered the specific name. It's in one of Speaker of the Dead, Xenocide, or Children of the Mind.

mental concepts are formed through the processing of the input
Right, since 'sense data' is distinct from actual colors.

Well... if one assumes that all bugger sense organs are the same, and all the drones minds are wired the same, then the same pattern of electricity that we'd call a "thought pattern" would transfer from one to another. But, that's a silly assumption, and it makes little sense to send over when the retina senses when you have what the visual cortex interprets.

I think we're quickly moving into the realm of hand-waving when it comes to explaining the telepathy as it is in the book, which suggests to me that realistically, it wouldn't destroy the need for a language.
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Postby Ace_NoOne » Tue Apr 03, 2007 8:58 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
Could you say which book that is? Because I don't dare to read your spoiler without having read that book first...
I would if I remembered the specific name. It's in one of Speaker of the Dead, Xenocide, or Children of the Mind.
I'll just read 'em all, and then come back to revive this long-dead thread... ;)

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Postby elminster » Tue Apr 03, 2007 10:53 pm UTC

My opinion is language sucks badly, far too imperfect.

I think one of the truly fundamental discoveries that's not been found yet, is better transfer and storage(if needed) of information.

For example, within a normal super computer, the slowest connection is the networking connections (Super computers today are generally upto 65535 nodes, all connected), that's done with 1Gb/s Ethernet usually.

Science and education is kind of a super computer, knowledge gets found out, distributed and used to gain more knowledge. The benefits of this happening faster is almost unimaginable, think about knowing all the positive things you know now at the age of 10, and what you'd know by 20.

Now lets say for example, you can near enough fully replicate the information transferred (Like watching a tutorial video) from most mediums by a video (disregarding other senses atm) at say 2Mb/s.
And still, its highly ambiguous and such as normal english.

We know for a fact that our sences and detect MASSIVE amounts more data than this at once, although we cant remember it all. Although alot of it is quickly forgotten, you look at billions of things during the day, yet only remember a few vague things in comparison to the whole experience.

Once we get a technology to directly simulate the brain into knowing this information (ie, Nanobots) and some kind of external memory (If needed and this would only be a completely controllable access, no direct links to brain, simply like an external reference, just quicker and faster access times), the teaching would be incredibly fast, things like well documented knowledge could be included (would need global board of approval, although would contain undisputed things and attempt to steer clear of controversial knowledge)

Although there's obviously LOADS of issues to be dealt with before anything like that could be publically made. But it would be the next great, and possibly greatest progression in human history... i believe anyway, since its one of the fundamental things behind progression.
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Postby Rose34 » Wed Apr 04, 2007 12:32 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:Well... if one assumes that all bugger sense organs are the same, and all the drones minds are wired the same, then the same pattern of electricity that we'd call a "thought pattern" would transfer from one to another. But, that's a silly assumption, and it makes little sense to send over when the retina senses when you have what the visual cortex interprets.

I think we're quickly moving into the realm of hand-waving when it comes to explaining the telepathy as it is in the book, which suggests to me that realistically, it wouldn't destroy the need for a language.

Transferring the thought pattern is exactly what is most logical. If the communication is instantaneous, there is no reason to think of a representation for a color, transfer the idea/representation of the color, then have the other individual decode it. In this model, we are saying that the other individual actually shares its mind, this would mean that on contact, all of the electrical patterns/ thoughts are transfered instantaneously. They do not give information back and forth, they simply think together.

Continuing in quotes for those who haven't read the books

I believe that this is what the idea of the ansible is, there are two atoms, which, no matter how far separated, anything that happens to one, happens the the other. So it is the electrical impulses in the brain which are shared during Card's telepathy. The actual forming of thought on a biological level.

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Postby Vaniver » Wed Apr 04, 2007 2:26 am UTC

Rose, you might be correct. But...

If the thought patterns of one person are instantly broadcasted to whomever they choose, it isn't so much a "message" as the broadcaster 'thinking in your head'- as you put it, thinking together. But, the books don't really present it that way, and so I'm reluctant to use that as an explanation of this telepathy. It might work for other telepathy, but... if we're trying to design another system of telepathy, I'd prefer not ignoring the problems with faster-than-light information transfer :P
As well, it doesn't deal with the fact that you will *not* be able to line up brains neuron-for-neuron and have a transfer between them; it would make little sense for the bugger brains to all be identical (if so, why would the queen who started the peace between queens need to murder her children until she found a different, peaceful one?), and it glosses over how the bugger can communicate with non-buggers, such as Ender.

It's a cool idea, and leads to a good story, but there's a reason he does hand-waving to explain it.
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Postby Belial » Wed Apr 04, 2007 3:27 am UTC

I always took it as the drones and the queen being a single mind, and all of the drones' sensory experiences being transmitted to the queen, and some aspect of the queen's mind (even if it's a very low-level reflex or subconscious part of the mind) controlling the drones thoughts and actions....that way you don't have the "thinking in someone else's mind" issue, because there's only one mind involved....
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Postby Vaniver » Wed Apr 04, 2007 3:29 am UTC

I always took it as the drones and the queen being a single mind, and all of the drones' sensory experiences being transmitted to the queen, and some aspect of the queen's mind (even if it's a very low-level reflex or subconscious part of the mind) controlling the drones thoughts and actions....that way you don't have the "thinking in someone else's mind" issue, because there's only one mind involved....
Well...
That's true for the queen and her colony. It doesn't explain the queen-queen communication, or the queen-human communication. The queen-queen communication is what I read the original post as talking about.
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Postby Belial » Wed Apr 04, 2007 3:41 am UTC

Well, for queen-queen communication, you'd just need a specialized section of the brain that's differentiated from the "your own thoughts section" and be able to interpret activity in that area as "communication" rather than "thinking" and you'd be set.
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Postby Vaniver » Wed Apr 04, 2007 4:24 am UTC

True. It could even replace the language sections of human brains... but, it would require some sort of symbols, since you can't transmit "these million neurons fired in this pattern" and have the receiver recognize "Oh! Pachelbel's Canon!"
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Postby Pathway » Wed Apr 04, 2007 8:29 am UTC

I always took queen-drone communication as being analogous to human brain-human thigh muscle communication. The quad muscle acts out the brain's will as desired. All that's different is that the bugger queen's brain is capable of more multitasking, and the drone has evolved to be a perfect extension of the queen's will, and so the queen keeps complete control over all the buggers.

Queen-to-human communication could just be a subcase of queen-to-queen. Queens and humans operate on the same level (despite the intelligence gap). They're both autonomous creatures. So all we need to do is find some generalized solution for queen-to-queen that doesn't involve bugger anatomy.


And we do this by

Okay, I admit it, I could have put that last bit inside the first quote tags. But Vaniver's way is more fun.

Assuming the telepathy is a result of reading brain patterns, and given evolutionary pressure to be able to interpret bugger ones (we're told the first hive queen killed many of her competitors as they were born until one was born that could cooperate with her), the bugger queens would eventually become able to identify patterns common to thinking buggers, as some extension of their ability to interface with and dominate bugger drones.

This doesn't yet explain how buggers could read human thoughts, because the buggers actually couldn't at first. It took two invasion fleets for them to realize they were even dealing with autonomous, intelligent beings whom they were murdering by the thousands. After that, every hive queen understood human thought patterns fairly well as a result of the knowledge-sharing the bugger queens went through.


Maybe? Perhaps?

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Postby Ace_NoOne » Wed Apr 04, 2007 11:48 am UTC

elminster wrote:My opinion is language sucks badly, far too imperfect.
I think hardly anyone will disagree with that - the question is though whether there can be anything more efficient, as the need for prior processing (encoding, transmitting, decoding, storing) is quite a bottleneck.
And I don't think we'll be able to eliminate that bottleneck without quite a big leap in evolution, whether natural (think "ascension") or technological (think "mind machines"), as (most likely no two brains or mental concepts are the same.
In that regard, this discussion could even go into the "What pole?" direction...

PS: Damn you guys for having read all the books yet - I feel so excluded by this long list of "classified" postings... (On the other hand, I'll still have the joy to read them stories! :P )

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Postby A neutral shade of black. » Wed Apr 04, 2007 11:54 am UTC

Ace_NoOne wrote:I think hardly anyone will disagree with that - the question is though whether there can be anything more efficient, as the need for prior processing (encoding, transmitting, decoding, storing) is quite a bottleneck.


Problem: language is inadequate.
Proviso: language cannot be ameliorated.

Solution: remove all agents capable of communicating.

Problem solved. \o/
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Postby Ace_NoOne » Wed Apr 04, 2007 11:59 am UTC

I'd definitely agree with that - humanity takes itself way too seriously anyway... (An issue that I think is touched on in the book as well.)

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Postby cmacis » Wed Apr 04, 2007 1:18 pm UTC

The queens couldn't talk to all humans remember. They had to study one intensely (Ender as the fleet commander) and found his pattern too alien for them to trap as they trap a worker/drone. They tried calling a soul from the outside to be an intermediary so they could trap him, but Jane had too much of Ender's pattern to be trapped and enslaved herself. So behind the scenes the Queens send a thought through Jane to Ender, which may pass through his philolitic network according to the connections he makes.
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