Wittgenstein, Language, and Law

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world. All I know is what I have words for.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus

What do you imagine when I say “horse”? You think of a creature that has four legs, can run fast and is used by humans for different purposes such as riding or racing. When someone is talking about a horse, there is almost no possibility that we may think about an animal which looks similar to a horse but has six legs and two heads and can fly. Nevertheless, the fact that we would not think about such a creature does not mean that this creature does not exist. Of course, there is almost no possibility that such a creature exists in this planet, however, theoretically, it may exist. One day, we may discover this animal and would say “this seems to be some kind of horse”, and starting from that discovery, when someone says “horse”, we will have a second thing to think about.

I would like to have another approach to this word here. How about a photo of a horse? If I show a photo of a horse, what would you think? Would you visualize a photography studio because I showed a photograph to you, or would you visualize a horse or its environment in your mind? If you are not a professional photographer and do not have special interest in the technical details of photographs, you would normally visualize the horse in the photo in your mind. Yes, it is not a horse. It is just the image of a horse. It is actually a piece of paper with some colours on it; the photograph. And another question: What would you think if I show a picture of a horse drawn by an artist? As is the case with the photograph, if you are not an artist or have no special interest in visual arts, you would normally visualize the horse in the picture as a “horse” in your mind – you would not visualize a rabbit, or a pigeon, or a whale or the special drawing techniques applied by the artist of the painting (unless you are an artist or have special interest in paintings). Yes, this one too, is not a horse. It is just a piece of paper on which an artist put some colours and drew some shapes. Of course, it has an artistic value – when I say “a piece of paper”, I do not intend to degrade its value, I am trying to define a thing as it is, and in this case, it is indeed a piece of paper that has an artistic value. My point is, even a thing that represents something else may induce thoughts about the thing it represents, but not about itself. A photograph of a horse makes us think about the horse, not the photographer. (As I mentioned before, there will be exceptions. Despite generalization may lead to inaccurate results, for present purposes, I have to analyze this issue with the help of generalization.) A picture of a horse makes us think about the horse, not the picture itself. One may argue the opposite, but if opposite was true, we would not respond to images. For example, the picture of something nice would not bring us joy, because we would think “it is just a picture”. If commercials can have some effect on people, it is because we think about the thing shown in that commercial and desire that thing. If we were just thinking about the cameras or the actors, the actresses, or the script of the commercial, we would not think about the product which is the subject of the commercial.

As Wittgenstein put it, the limits of our language are the limits of our world. The patterns of our thoughts are always same and confined within the borders of our language. Our response to the words and images is shaped and limited by our language. It does not mean that the language is something that constantly brings limits to our capacity of thinking and interpreting things; however, it determines what we can and will think. Within the limits of the language, we match words with images, images with images, and words with words. A word may trigger the visualization of an image or another word in our minds; likewise, an image may trigger the visualization of a word or another image in our minds. However, these connections between the words and images are pre-set. We cannot modify these connections very easily as we want. Because we are constantly trying to identify things with words, and as we use them more and more, the connections between the words and images are getting stronger and it gets more difficult to detach the image from a word and to use the word for a wider context. This may not seem to be a problem to many people, as we take this fact for granted or even do not realize or think about these limitations. Nevertheless, in my opinion, in today’s world where we stand at the verge of a futuristic civilization where strong artificial intelligence and inhabiting other planets are possible, we must try to overcome the limits of our language as the language may not respond sufficiently to the developments of this futuristic life. We still did not experience a strong AI that can perfectly imitate a human brain’s thinking process; however, at least, we can think about it. And we are almost 100% sure that it will be possible one day. And at that time, we will have to review many definitions and terms in our language as they may not respond well to the realities of such a breakthrough in the history of humanity.

At this point, we face a dire need to review the legal language in order to be able to regulate the issues of the future effectively. Previously, I wrote about the possibility of the legal system of a human colony on another planet. In that analysis, I examined whether the legal principles in our planet can be applied effectively to the people living on another planet. Therein, I concluded that the legal principles we have can be applicable to a great extent; nevertheless, certain concepts of laws may need special attention. For example, I discussed the possibility that the understanding of equality may be different on another planet due to the unique conditions of that society. In such a case, the word “equality” on that planet is likely to mean something different (maybe not too much, but to a considerable extent) than the word “equality” on Earth. Accordingly, when the people of different planets would like to meet and negotiate on some issues, they may not understand each other well. This example may seem too futuristic, or even funny, and accordingly, it may not seem very important today. Nevertheless, we are already experiencing a shift in the meaning of many words due to the great advancement in technology. 20 years ago, there were no mobile banking applications that allow people to reach banking products through their mobile phones very easily. In many cases, people had to visit a brick-and-mortar bank when they need to do something with the bank. The word “banking” meant something more tangible at that time. Today, many banking products are accessible online. We can send money, apply for a loan, or pay our credit card bill in an instant with the mobile banking applications. Now, the word “banking” represents something more than a tangible service; something online, something digital. As the meaning of a word changes, the laws governing the area represented by the relevant word also need to change and improve. Accordingly, today’s banking regulations must respond to the intricacies of the digital banking.

Another example would be artificially intelligent robots. Still, we could not achieve the “strong AI.” The AI we are using in different sectors and contexts are not a perfect recreation of human intelligence; nevertheless, we believe that, in the near future, the strong AI will be achieved and used in many areas of our lives. At some point, the strong AI may develop to such an extent that we may not easily distinguish between the judgements of a human mind and the judgements of an artificial mind. And at that point, we are likely to be thinking about the rights of these machines. If they can think like a human, act like a human, and speak like a human, then maybe they should have rights like humans. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” When a machine has reason and conscience, at that time, we may be saying “All artificially intelligent machines are created free and equal in dignity and rights.” However, will the word “free” or “equal” here represent the same meaning as it does in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

I will continue this discussion in the next article.

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