Telepathy and the Language of Thought

Synchronicity is one of the editors here at the Skunkworks. Not long back, a member of that Facebook group I monitor (for research purposes) linked an article by Rupert Sheldrake, “Rationalists are wrong about telepathy”, and, yesterday (30 November 2021), The Anomalist drew our attention to a post at UFO Conjectures, “Telepathy and Consciousness“.

Telepathy as such is, shall we say, a complex issue. Sheldrake’s article points to what seem instances of precognition, thinking of someone just before they telephone or email, for example. Popular culture is familiar with Zener card experiments, or aliens’ telling an abductee telepathically, “Don’t be afraid…Don’t be afraid…”.

This latter example echoes in a way what one member of the group commented on the Sheldrake article thread: “We already engage in telepathy—the projection of our thoughts to another brain. Speech, signals, written text, we’ve mastered it”, and it’s this conception of telepathy, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind, I want to address here.

What’s curious about the comment (that “we already engage in telepathy…”) are the assumptions that underlie its mistaken claim. Surely, communication by means of some sensuous medium (speech, gesture, writing…) is not telepathy, which is, in some regards (namely, that under consideration here, the projection of articulate thought (speech) into another’s mind), precisely communication by some other as-yet unidentified means.

But what telepathy as thought here and the comment share is the idea that thought or ideas precede or are otherwise independent of language. It’s precisely this assumption that I understand to motivate the comment concerning “speech, signals, [and] written text” as “the projection of thoughts” into another’s mind, if not brain: one brain communicates a thought to another—by means of some (presumably shared) semiotic system.

This philosophy of language, that language represents independently pre-existing ideas or objects, belongs to the European Enlightenment and seems to be the default, popular notion of language and its operations. It is depicted in the illustration of the communicative circuit familiar to students of linguistics.

A has an idea, thought, or concept that they translate into some sensuous sign (here, speech) that B hears and translates back into thought. The problem is however that, since the advent of a science of language (called philology in the Eighteenth Century), this theory of language has been superseded.

It was Herder (1744-1803) and Hamann (1730-1788) who pressed the thesis that human thought is dependent on language. This position was shared and developed by Humboldt (1767-1835) and, perhaps most famously, by Ferdinand de Saussure, who explained the relation of thought and sound by means of the illustration, below:

A is thought and B is sound; both without the other are amorphous or, more precisely, unarticulated. Vocal sounds, unless they are are recognized as linguistic types (signs), by themselves are mere gibberish; thought (concepts) unrelated to signs have no identity. Saussure envisions the relation between thought, sound, and articulate language as that between the atmosphere and the surface of water, which gives rise to waves, whose formation arises from the conjunction and interplay of these two elements and is nothing in itself. (As Saussure so famously maintained: language is not a substance).

The indivisibility of thought and language reaches its most extreme statement in the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

If we take these developments in linguistic science seriously (notwithstanding the protestations of Jerry Fodor) then the possibility of that kind of telepathy discussed here vanishes: the purely mental transference of articulate thought between two people depends upon their sharing a language.

What’s important here is not so much telepathy in general, but that reported to occur between human beings and putative extraterrestrials. As Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously remarked, “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” How much less so an unearthly interlocutor? It does not follow that, given the possibility of telepathy in general, images or emotions or other nonlinguistic, inarticulate content might not be shared (the aliens could quite rationally subject human subjects to Zener card experiments…), just that no understandable thoughts per se could be exchanged. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: if a Zeta Reticulan were telepathic, we couldn’t understand what it was thinking.