Concepts and numbers

 Posted by on 7 February 2005 at 12:01 am  Uncategorized
Feb 072005

One of the principles of the Objectivist epistemology is that in order to properly form and utilize concepts, the human mind needs to label them, i.e. to use words. So what happens when a language system doesn’t have words for concepts as seemingly basic as numbers?

The Piraha tribe of South America provides an interesting answer. According to the article, their language has no words for numbers larger than “one”, only approximate quantities like “few” and “many”. In fact, their word for “one” is more accurately translated as “about one”. So, how do they fare in basic counting tasks?

As it turns out, not very well:

In one typical test, the researcher [psychology professor Peter Gordon] set out a group of one to 10 nuts and asked each participant to place an equal number of batteries — used because of their availability and size — on the table. The participants performed perfectly when matching sets of up to three batteries, but at four batteries the accuracy rate dropped to about 75 percent, and by nine none of the Piraha got the right answer.

The accuracy level dropped even more dramatically when Gordon showed the participants the group of batteries for only a moment before covering them — which required the Piraha to remember and recall the number of objects. On this task, the accuracy rate dropped to 75 percent at three objects, and few participants correctly matched anything more than six objects.

Gordon concludes,

[T]he example of the Piraha tribe shows that language may have more sway over numerical concepts than many previously imagined.

“The lack of number-words seems to preclude the ability to entertain concepts of exact number,” Gordon says. “There may be other ways to learn and represent exact numbers, but in the normal course of human learning, language is the route we take.”

It’s interesting to see how such a basic principle of Objectivist epistemology plays out in real life.

But that still leaves the burning question, what exactly does “about one” mean?…

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