Language often constructs our perception of reality. As the philosopher and writer William H. Gass once said, “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.” Or so they try.
Jason Silva says in the video below, “The use of language, the words you use to describe reality, can in fact engender reality, can disclose reality. Words are generative… We create and perceive our reality through language. We think reality into existence through linguistic construction in real-time.” Terence McKenna says, “the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.” Deepak Chopra also has said, “Language creates reality.” Noam Chomsky has said, “The structure of language determines not only thought, but reality itself.” Desmond Tutu has said, “Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” Michael Hyatt has said, “The language we use creates the reality we experience.”
But I think there is also a deep paradox in this. I believe that the world is not made of words fundamentally, but rather that we’ve made the world made of words. There are no “words,” as such, in the world naturally. Human language did not exist prior to 2.3 million years ago, and yet reality still existed. We can’t look out onto nature and see words magically appear. Even the DNA that Silva says is encoded as an alphabet is a human construction. We made DNA into words, into letters. Language is a representation of reality, a symbol of reality, pointing to reality. And this can be exceptionally useful in innumerable ways.
But language is not reality itself. If we want to know reality itself, we must go beyond language, beyond words, beyond symbols, to the direct percept, to the direct knowing of what is. When we look at a tree, many of us think “tree” and leave it at that. How we’ve reduced such a magnificent structure of trillions upon trillions of atoms, chemicals, forms, branches, curves, leaves, colors, textures, insects, life, smells, movements, breathing, and photosynthetic miracles into a word of four letters! We don’t really see the tree. No, we are usually blind to that. We see four letters, t, r, e, e. We know the word, not the thing. We know the symbol, not that to which the symbol points. If we knew the tree, really knew it, it would shock us to the core with awe and reverence, it would knock us off our feet, we would be humbled to the depths in the presence of this masterpiece, this divinity, this Love, this God. We might even see it burning in fiery glory. But we don’t see that. We see four letters and walk casually on by. Or we cut it down.
The best language can do is point to reality, but we often take the language to be reality itself. We make of it an idol, thinking we know reality, but we don’t know the reality to which it points. We have not looked. We have not seen. Heaven not only lies about us in our infancy, but even in this very moment! Now! But we don’t see it. We’re blind to it. We become blind to it, upon our growing up, and it could be a large part through our learning of representative language. Don’t get me wrong; we accomplish worlds through the use of language. It is perhaps humanity’s greatest tool ever invented that allows us to construct skyscrapers and edit genes. It is how I’m communicating with you now. But our language does not disclose reality. For that we need to look at reality itself, and reality will disclose reality.
And this is beyond all language, and cannot ever be encoded into language, any language, for reality transcends the realm of linguistics. Reality is translinguistic. This is why the greatest sages of history have said that only in silence can the Truth be known. Rumi is often quoted as saying that “silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation.” Thomas Merton wrote, “nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Or as Joseph Smith wrote, “Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience… Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”
If we seek to find God or Reality through language, we’ll never find it. That may help guide us towards it, but eventually we’ll need to look for ourselves.
One thought on “Does Language Construct Reality, or our Perception of Reality?”
I’ve had that very thought about the reality of a tree vs. the concept of a tree and how the gap between concepts and reality have led to the devaluing and destruction of nature. You express it beautifully. Thank you.