Edit/addendum: I came to realize upon reflection and after receiving feedback from others that one could easily come away from reading this thinking me a postmodernist. While I did already make claims here that should serve to guard against this (for example, the claim that there is an objective reality that we are trying to understand and describe with language), I want to briefly clarify in case I die before I have time to write another piece on these matters specifically: I do believe that there is objective reality and objective truth and that language is a useful tool for describing it—I am merely pointing out here the difficulty of doing so. I do not believe that all reality is subjective or relative. I believe that the use of language to convey truth—not simply to wield power or further ambitions—is a noble and valid, if challenging, pursuit.
I confess that this article’s title is clickbaity. I admit that the claim is an exaggeration—but only a mild one. What is true is that questioning human language cracks open a topic of near infinite depth. Far from doing this topic justice, my goal here is simply to sketch the barest basics of an approach to language that revolutionized the way I look at speech, ideas, and the human experience. If you are where I was a handful of years ago, you might be at the beginning of an exciting period of unlearning.
To sum it up succinctly, the reason why almost nothing we say is literally, exactly true is this: human language, though bordering on the miraculous and magical, is deeply flawed and primarily estimative rather than exact, and while our attempts to map concepts onto the unfathomably complex structures of both objective reality and the subjective human experience are valiant and useful and at times incredibly precise, these attempts almost always fall short of perfectly describing the truth. This estimative nature of language might seem unimportant or even obvious, but a deep look at just how imprecise human language truly is and a fuller understanding of this imprecision’s implications can lead to a radical reevaluation in how we think, how we speak, how we understand others, and how we perceive the world.
There are certainly things that we can say that are completely and literally true, primarily in the areas of math and pure logic. The sentence “2 + 2 =4” is as true as any statement could possibly be. The sentence “Given that if A then B and that A is true, B is true” is also true. However, as soon as we stray away from these most abstract and basic of claims, problems arise.
Language is essentially an attempt to map words onto the common things/actions/feelings we experience in life so that we can more readily understand the truth and structures of our experiences and then communicate our experiences/thoughts to others. In order to do that, we place things into categories. This sorting of all kinds of things into conceptual boxes that we can use to communicate works very well, but unfortunately, no two things are exactly alike. Thus, placing observed “things” or actions or concepts into categories is almost always a rough estimate, a flawed endeavor. For instance, we all know the essential, basic meaning of the phrase “playing guitar,” but I assure you that to describe both my 16 year-old self (when I first picked up the instrument) and Jimi Hendrix circa 1969 as both “playing guitar” is, at best, an incredibly generous association/category grouping on my end and, at worst, just plain wrong.
Our minds use pattern recognition and simple labeling/pointing-at-what-we-see-and-experience in order to define basic concepts. Perhaps a child sees a basket of oranges, and he asks his mother what they are, and she says that they are oranges. For functional language acquisition, the learning and defining process requires little else. In some ways, this simple pointing-to-a-thing-and-naming-it process is the purest (and, strangely, most accurate) form of defining terms. However, at higher levels of language, words are usually defined primarily by other words, and the fact that we must use other words to define words is an obvious and major problem (insofar as it leads to an infinite regress of words and their definitions and, eventually, back to the original “pointing strategy.”)
Most common nouns, for example, cannot be defined with perfect specificity. The sentence “I have five oranges in my kitchen” seems simple and well-defined enough. But no two oranges are exactly alike. The word orange is used to describe a broad category of fruits that grow on (another category of) tree. There are multiple varieties of sweet oranges (as distinct from bitter oranges, another category) that have arisen from evolution/genetic mutations. Humans could have come up with different words for each type of orange, but we did not—we call many varieties of orange simply “orange” in colloquial speech. One potential hope for a perfect definition of the orange would be to define it by its genetic code, a most literal definition, but even genes vary from tree to tree and genes are always subject to mutation. There is no precise point at which an orange would cease to be an “orange” and become something else. Is an orange that is attached to its tree still the same thing once it is removed? Is a peeled orange still an orange? What about an orange that is peeled and then crushed, leaving a pulpy mass and juice running across the table? If the orange mutates and the mutated orange had green skin, would we still call it an orange or would we call it by a new name such as green orange or gorange? If the orange mutated to the point that it tasted savory instead of sweet and tart, would we still call it by the same name? If the orange mutated and became poisonous for humans to eat, would we still call it an orange? If my friend said that she had five oranges in her kitchen and I ate one and found out it was poisonous, I would feel quite mislead (and that is partly because teleology, the actual or perceived use of an object (which, in this case, is for human consumption), plays a major role in how we define words and speak in typical conversation.) If my friend said she had five oranges in her kitchen and I went into the kitchen to find five oranges already peeled and the peels discarded, I might be disappointed if I had hoped to use the orange peel as a garnish, but would she have been wrong to say that she had five oranges in the kitchen? From the sentence “I have five oranges in my kitchen,” we certainly have a rough estimate of some true fact about the world, but we don’t know what kind of oranges they are, how big they are, what color they are, what they look like generally, what they smell like, if they are whole or not, etc. The only way to truly describe the state of affairs is to point to the things and say “I have those,” because even the most nearly identical oranges are not identical—they are merely similar objects tossed into the same imperfectly defined concept bin. And so far, we have only broken down one word of the sentence: oranges! What about the verb, “have”? Does she mean that she has convenient access to the oranges, or does she mean that she has an ethical right to do with them as she wishes? If she does mean to describe her ethical “ownership” of the oranges, on what is that right based? Is that ethical right legalistic and defined by some set of laws or is it based on her or someone else’s intuition? Was the right granted, and if so, by whom? Does that right—or any right, for that matter—even exist? What if her roommate bought the oranges and their agreement on food sharing were not precisely defined? Is she sure she still has the oranges, that they are still in the kitchen? And what about the word “I”? Does she mean that her physical body has access to the oranges, or is she referring to a past or present mental state or “mind” that perceives some ownership of the oranges? As you can see, there is almost no limit to the philosophically valid questions one can ask about the sentence “I have five oranges in my kitchen.” (“Five” is the only word that is close to safe from our querying assault, which brings us back to math as one of our only hopes for absolute accuracy and truth.)
Give that the use of “oranges” could be misleading for the above reasons, we could perhaps hope to produce a truer sentence by speaking more generally and saying something like “I have five pieces of fruit in my kitchen.” That would reduce some of the potential for the word “oranges” to overshoot our ability to be specific. But surely we are going in the wrong direction by speaking less definitely. If truth is defined as describing reality exactly, then we must be as precise as possible in order to have any hope of saying something true. To illustrate further: we could say “I have five things in my kitchen” or “An entity has five things in a place,” but there comes a point where statements are so indefinite that they only contain “truth” in the most legalistic sense due to the near total lack of any meaningful information being conveyed.
This dissection of the term “orange” might seem insane, and I grant that on some level it is. Colloquially, the sentence “I have five oranges in my kitchen” is clear enough to be wonderfully communicative and useful in a casual context. But that’s not the point of the exercise. The point is to show that even our most basic thoughts expressed through language are not entirely clear or specific.
Other classes of statements are much easier to dismantle, and one such class is value judgments. When someone says “The Fellowship of the Ring is a good book,” what do they mean? It is possible that they mean that the book stands as a shining example of literature when measured against an objective standard for what literature should be. But what is that standard, and who has defined it? It is likely that the speaker means that the Fellowship of the Ring is, for a variety of reasons, a good book in his/her opinion. But does he mean that everything about the book is good? Is every sentence good or enjoyable? Did he even enjoy the notably non sequiturous chapter about Tom Bombadil? Does he mean that the general effect of the book on his life is good? Does he mean that the quality of the language was good or rather that the overall meaning or message was good or helpful? What if the book was not immediately pleasurable or “enjoyable” to read but led to a positive net effect on the reader’s life for other reasons (such as its meaning/message), or vice versa? An obvious retort to this line of criticism is that the speaker did not say that the book is “entirely good” or “entirely good for all readers.” But if the book has a mixture of good and bad traits, then surely we can acknowledge that a statement like “The Fellowship of the Rings is good,” even if we take it to refer to the speaker’s subjective opinion, leaves much to be desired in terms of actually communicating the truth.
Statements about what happened in the past and those predicting the future form another mountain of typical sentences that cannot be trusted. We can never be entirely sure that what we believe happened in the past actually did. We can be reasonably sure about what happened, but we can never be certain about either evidence (after all, the evidence could be faulty or it could have been planted!) or our notoriously fallible memories, which cannot even perfectly recreate the events of this morning. Similarly, someone might be reasonably sure about what will happen in the future, but we cannot predict the future with 100% confidence. We can be near certain but never completely certain. So, even statements like “Starting in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt enacted the New Deal to stimulate the American economy” and “The sun will come up tomorrow” cannot be said to be perfectly true because there is some doubt, however infinitesimal it might be, about their truth. In this moment, they cannot be perfectly proven to be accurate.
Other than mathematical statements and similarly abstract logical claims, the only statements that could be completely true would be statements that perfectly describe the state of the physical world (or perhaps statements that perfectly describe a present mental state/subjective experience, but the subjective element of these perceptions leads to more problems.) Statements about value, the past, and the future will always be somewhat vague, subjective, and/or uncertain, and that leaves accurate descriptions of the physical world as the only kinds of statements we could possibly hold to any standard of total, perfect truth. And yet, one could argue that the entire point of using language is to avoid having to perfectly describe or recreate the physical world or subjective experiences, both of which are currently (and, in some sense, perhaps intrinsically) impossible to do. We can’t perfectly recreate the physical world or what we experience in order to show or explain it to others, so that leaves us with the pointing-at-things strategy, which leads us to categories. We break things down into categories via words so that we can describe things in shorthand. Language merely “points to” the actual world and gives a shorthand description of what is going on. The only perfect description of the oranges in the kitchen would be an exhaustive, atom-by-atom mapping of the exact state of being of the oranges (and even that could never really work, because everything, even in physics, is always changing.) So, almost by definition, our descriptions are never perfectly or exactly true because the purpose of language is to create shorthand references to describe the unfathomably complex things we experience. As separate conscious entities with limited knowledge, we cannot perfectly describe the world we live in nor our own mental states, but language, in all its brilliance, gives us a way to roughly communicate not only to others but to ourselves (for it is the experience of most humans that we think primarily in language) what we see. In many circumstances, this flawed shorthand is more than enough to break down and communicate what we need to. However, great harm occurs when we are not aware that A. our language is merely just that—flawed shorthand—and B. that we should never take anything we say or think as perfectly accurate or literal.
Language is, largely, labeling and categorization, and we use labels and categories to describe things and convey information and express feelings and desires. We employ language to point at things in the world and label them in order to bring order to the chaos of everything that exists and occurs. We have become quite skilled at this “pointing at reality.” Our complex language is exponentially more useful and more beautiful than the grunts and gestures of most animals that, expressive though they are, can only hope to suggest very broad feelings and ideas such as “THAT HURTS/IS BAD” (a yelp) or “What’s that?!” But even our rich language abilities can only paint a vague picture of reality. Truth can be defined in many ways and in many different contexts, and with this article’s title, I was careful to say that almost no sentence we say is “exactly true” rather than “true.” Surely, there is much true information in the sentence “I have five oranges in my kitchen,” and of course the goal of most speech is not to describe reality with absolute perfection. But if a sentence only tells us part of the truth, can we really say that it is true?
In much of every day speech, this lack of exact specificity does not matter. We can explain simple ideas that serve their purposes just fine. However, seeing that language is imperfect is critical to begin to unlock the secrets of the human mind and the flaws in our thinking and reasoning. After all, we primarily think—and certainly reason—with language, and we must humble ourselves by taking a long look at our own limits and those of others in order to make sure our reasoning and conversations get us closer to the truth rather than farther away from it. In the oranges example, perfect accuracy might not matter, but when it comes to conversations about love or politics or God, conversations to which each participant brings many years of unspoken, convoluted personal narrative and psychological storyline and bias, the flaws in our language, the gaps that our imperfect words leave in our thoughts, provide much fuel for gross misunderstanding and harm. We must always bring to the table an awareness of the inherent flaws in our abilities to think and reason and speak and write so that words, imperfect as they may be, do not lead us into further delusion but instead help us to see and hear and understand more clearly, both in the short term, over the course of the growth of each human mind over a lifetime, and in the long term, as our species seeks to better understand ourselves and reality as a whole.