Dour commentary on the inevitable failures of communication

Ironic, isn’t it, that this blogger, who tries hard to write clearly, admits to the impossibility of writing completely clearly. “[W]e habitually underestimate the difficulty of communication,” writes David Deutsch in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World (Viking 2011) at 254. “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood,” wrote the philopher Karl Popper (at 404). Eight pages later Deutsch repeats that: “no idea can be represented entirely explicitly.”

This intractable problem consists of more than an inability to choose the right words or sentence structure. Indeed, its source is deeper than the fuzziness that surrounds every word. The difficulty also stems from the cognitive distortions our brains are subject to and the physical impediments of hearing. Deeper still are the tacit assumptions, pieces of background knowledge that the speaker and listener do not share and do not realize they don’t share.

At the epistemological level, we don’t know what we know, so how can we convey a bit of it accurately, let alone receive it faithfully. All cognition is creation, so when someone says something, the other person creates the message. No brand or stamp reproduces the idea exactly. Repetition helps communicators converge on the bones of what is being said; a form of error correction.

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