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The Language of Nature

by Steve Talbott

I

To judge from some of the ancient creation narratives, the world arose as a visible manifestation of speech. "In the beginning was the Word". First there was formlessness and chaos, and then the divine voice flashed forth like lightning in the darkness. "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light". The world began to assume visible, comprehensible form.

Whatever we may now think of the old visions of creation, we can remain sure of one thing: without the speaking of the Word - without language - we would have no science with its striking power to illuminate the world. This observation may seem trite; no one will deny that we must use words in order to achieve and record our scientific understanding, or to pass it on to future generations. But once we stop to reflect upon the fact that science is always a science of speech, a remarkable thing begins to happen. We find ourselves transported to a richly expressive realm of scientific meaning that is as far removed from cramped, traditional notions of science as the first day of creation was from the primeval chaos.

The truths capable of revolutionizing our understanding can sometimes be so close to us that we fail to notice them. So it is with science and language. The crucial point is easy to miss: it’s not only that we humans happen to need words in order to talk scientifically about a world that in its own right has nothing to do with language. Rather, it’s that our need for words testifies to the word-like nature of the world we are talking about.

I realize that this last statement will provoke surprise and skepticism in many readers of our day. And yet, as long as there has been science, leading scientists have routinely referred to the "language of nature" - not, perhaps, with a clear notion of their own meaning, but with an evident comfort and sense of rightness about the usage. There is good reason for this. After all, the whole point of our language, our speaking, is to characterize something other than our own speech. When we say "atom" or "energy" or "mass", we are speaking about something. We seek to elucidate an aspect of the world. To the extent the meaning of our scientific descriptions is not at the same time the meaning of the world, the descriptions fail as science. As scientists we are always trying to speak faithfully the language of nature.

In slightly different terms: the world is in some sense a text waiting to be deciphered - which is why we can in fact decipher it into a scientific description. As with any text, we expect the world-text to make sense, to hold together conceptually, to speak consistently, to justify itself to our reason. These are demands we can bring only to whatever is word-like.

The intimate relation between the meaning of our words and the meaning we find in the world may be so obvious as to seem almost trivial, yet its implications are so profound as to have mostly escaped the notice of working scientists. If we took the fact of the world’s speech seriously - the world speaks! - there would be none of the usual talk about a mechanistic and deterministic science, about a cold, soulless universe, or about an unavoidable conflict between science and the spirit. Confronting the many voices of nature, we would inquire about their individual qualities and character, we would look for the direction of their expressive striving, and we would struggle to grasp the aesthetic unity of their various utterances - all of which is to say: we would listen for their meanings. The necessity for such inquiry is implicit in a world that speaks and also in the scientist’s employment of speech to translate the world text. What I wish to suggest is that, by turning a deaf ear to a resonant world and even to our own speech, we underwrite many of the limitations and contradictions of the science we have today.

As for what I mean by speech and word-like, I hope this will emerge with greater clarity over the course of this essay. Suffice it to say for now that everything word-like presents itself as a perceptible exterior bearing an inner and partly conceptual meaning (Barfield 1977)1. The meaning of words is never found in the mechanisms or physical causes of their production. No chemical analysis of the ink on the page, no physical analysis of the act of writing, or of the speech apparatus and the air-forms it produces, can by itself give us the inner content of the words. That’s because meanings and concepts are immaterial; they are not tangible or otherwise sense-perceptible things, which is what I will indicate by saying they are inner. One could also say: meanings are always contents or expressions of consciousness. When we find a written text meaningful, we rightly assume that it is the product of conscious activity, and we ourselves can know the meaning only so far as it lights up in our own consciousness2.

Most of us have had experience successfully reading the meaning of texts and hearing the meaning of speech, and therefore in this practical sense we already understand words as bearers of meaning. And just as we find our own speech vitally supplemented by physical gestures of every sort - gestures that are themselves outward bearers of inner meaning - so, too, all of nature presents us with word-like gestures. What I will be asking of you as a reader is to bring all this meaning - your experience of it, and not a definition of it - as vividly as possible to consciousness.

Drawing a Blank

Fish swim, and their capacity for swimming makes no sense without water. Birds fly; their entire structure and functioning testify to the sea of air in which they live. And we humans speak; we navigate a sea of meaning. As the bird and fish necessarily evolved in relation to their environment, so did we. Our speaking was made possible by the world’s meaning. This meaning is no more an arbitrary and subjective invention of our own than the ocean is an arbitrary and subjective invention of the fish.

No one will deny that we experience meaning everywhere in nature. To sit in a quiet glade with the sun streaming through the trees; to endure the shattering power of a fierce thunderstorm; to enjoy the early greening of spring or the warm, rich colors of autumn; to stand beside a quiet pond or the rapids of a stream; to climb toward the summit of a high peak; to watch the unfolding drama of a sunset; to lie down and gaze up at the stars - every setting we encounter comes to its own meaningful expression within us. Everything speaks an inner language.

But our long-standing habit is to write this experience off as something wholly manufactured within ourselves - the speech, we are inclined to say, is our own, not nature’s, subjective, not objective. And since whatever lacks objective value hardly seems worth bothering about in our quest for an understanding of nature, we have little incentive to attend to our experience of the stream or storm and even less to discipline this attention so as to discover scientific value in it. As a result, the experience really does fade into a kind of subjective vagueness, and increasingly we find ourselves drawing a slightly disturbing blank whenever we do try to appreciate the natural world in its own, qualitative terms. Jan Hendrik van den Berg presumably had something like this blank in mind when he wrote:

Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty .... It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment. (van den Berg 1975)

Few of us can altogether disclaim the experience of those tourists. Even many who are capable of more refined attention to nature will, I suspect, sympathize with my own plight: when I venture into the wild, something in me recognizes many "stunning" and "enchanting" things, and yet these things don’t speak to me with any clarity. I am continually drawn to them, sensing that they should speak to me with a force much greater than I am capable of receiving, but I am largely dispossessed of whatever understanding of their language humanity may once have had.

As for science, the problem of incomprehension seems to disappear only because nature’s speaking is more or less explicitly disavowed and therefore not attended to. One doesn’t even bother to get out of the bus. It’s enough to mount some instruments at the windows so that they can "observe" nature for us. This habit of inattention was asserted as a matter of principle almost from the beginning, when Galileo banned qualities from his science. Tastes, colors, and odors, he claimed, are "mere names" that "reside only in the consciousness". External reality manifests nothing but shape, number, and movement, which, it happens, lend themselves to mathematical treatment (Galilei 1957, pp. 274-77). To rid science of qualities in this way, preferring quantitative demonstrations alone, was to push along the straightest path toward the elimination of meaning from science.

If, as I have suggested, nature is a speaking and science is one sort of translation of this speaking, then the decision to turn a qualitatively deaf ear to nature’s voice ought to be writ large in our scientific language. And so it is. In fact, language can show us with striking vividness the character of the blank that nature has become for us.

How to Ignore Meaning

In my primary school days it was still the common, if widely resented, practice for students to diagram sentences. The diagram offered a way to display as clearly as possible the grammatical structure of our language. Given the sentence, "William hit me", you could show the relation between the subject ("William"), verb ("hit"), and direct object ("me") with the aid of a few lines:


| \ William | hit \ me -------------------------- |

Words that modify other words are placed on slanting lines beneath the words they modify, so that the sentence,

The large, black dog bit the postman.
yields this diagram:

| \ dog | bit \ postman ----------------------------------------------------------------- \ T \ l \ b | \ t \ h \ a \ l \ h \ e \ r \ a \ e \ g \ c \ e \ k

Prepositional phrases ("in the leg") can be diagrammed to show the relation between the preposition ("in") and the object of the preposition ("leg"):


\ i \ n \ leg ------------ \ t \ h \ e

And since the whole prepositional phrase modifies another word ("bit" in the sentence below), we can diagram the complete sentence,

The large, black dog bit the postman in the leg.
in the following manner3:

| \ dog | bit \ postman ----------------------------------------------------------------- \ T \ l \ b | \ i \ t \ h \ a \ l \ n \ h \ e \ r \ a \ leg \ e \ g \ c ------------ \ e \ k \ t \ h \ e

Or consider the following sentence, in which I have added a few new features, including a conjunction linking separate clauses - and, before reading further, try to make a guess of your own about the grammatical correctness of my diagram:

The meaning of a sentence lies as much between the words as in the words.


| meaning | lies ------------------------------------------------------------------- \ T \ o | | \ m \ b \ h \ f | /\ u \ e \ e \ sentence | / \ c \ t ----------- | \a \ h \ w \ a | \s \ e | as \ e |--------- \ n | \ words | ---------- | | \ t (It | lies) | \ h ------------------ \ e | \ i \ n \ words ----------- \ t \ h \ e

Unlike most of my classmates, I loved to diagram sentences. There was pleasure in grasping a relatively straightforward, unequivocal truth about words at the level of their structural arrangement. What I didn’t notice at the time was that in the act of tracing the diagrammatic structure of the sentences I was not attending in any full way to their meaning. Ask yourself: in trying to judge the structural correctness of the sentence diagram above, did you find yourself deeply engaged with the meaning of the sentence (which certainly deserves to be puzzled over a good bit)? Perhaps not. And if you did, you will certainly recall that your attempt to arrive at the correct diagram was an activity more or less separate from your ruminations about possible meanings.

When you are diagramming sentences, the concrete and particular disappears into the abstract and general. The main thing you want to know about each word - such as "black" in "The large, black dog bit the postman in the leg" - is what grammatical category it belongs to. The meaning of the word scarcely matters; it could be "brown" or "fierce" or "crippled" - or even something with little sense such as "prayerful" or "zodiacal" - and this would neither change the diagrammatic structure nor affect its correctness.

When we are diagramming a sentence, our understanding of it contracts into something precise and demonstrably correct, but our ease and precision of judgment is obtained by eviscerating the sentence of its full and particular content. Our attention is narrowed from the meaning of the words to a highly abstract feature of them. For example, all descriptive words of a certain sort become merely the same thing -- "adjectives". Words of another sort become nothing but "prepositions". Once we have learned the rules for diagramming sentences, we can obtain correct diagrams almost while "running on automatic"; but the meaning of the diagrammed sentences - especially if they are at all profound - is far from automatically fathomable, and it would often be rather arrogant to say, "Here is the correct meaning of this sentence" in the way you might claim a correct diagram.

The operation of abstraction is perfectly legitimate and valuable in its place, but to forget what it removes from consideration - or that by itself it leads us progressively toward an emptying of meaning - is not helpful when we want to understand the words, or the world the words are meant to illuminate. When we crucify the world-text upon a scaffold of grammatical logic, the resulting corpse presents its own fascinations, but these are not the fascinations of the original meaning; they are only a shadow of it.

On Being Wonderfully Precise about Practically Nothing

Diagramming sentences is only one of the ways we can reduce a full-fleshed text to a skeleton that we can nail down with greater exactitude. We move in the same direction when we reconceive a text as information (in the technical sense given by communication theory), as a logical or mathematical structure, or as an algorithm. But every effort of this sort brings us up against a general truth of overwhelming significance for our science and for any resolution of the perennial conflict between science and the humanities. Warren Weaver was getting at this truth when, in his introduction to Claude Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication, he wrote that strict, mathematically defined information on the one hand and meaning on the other appear "subject to some sort of restriction that condemns a person to the sacrifice of the one as he insists on having much of the other" (Shannon and Weaver 1963, p. 28). More generally: in all use of language, precisely delimited, unqualified understanding tends to be purchased at the cost of content, or fullness of meaning, and fullness of meaning tends to be purchased at the cost of precise, unqualified definition4.

When we drive language as far as we can toward the pole of precision and definitive, yes-or-no certainty, we arrive at formalisms such as mathematics, grammar, and logic. In the case of pure logic, the withdrawal from meaning or content is so extreme that the logician conscientiously refuses to speak of the "truth" of his logical propositions. Instead he refers to their "validity" - their internal consistency without reference to any content of the world. And so Bertrand Russell, one of the pre-eminent logicians of the twentieth century, once remarked of mathematical logic that it "may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about" (Russell 1981 pp. 59−60). Einstein expressed the same thought this way:

The skeptic will say: "It may well be true that this system of equations is reasonable from a logical standpoint. But this does not prove that it corresponds to nature". You are right, dear skeptic. Experience alone can decide on truth. (1954, p. 355)

Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. (1954, p. 271)

Mathematics and logic as such are not about a what - not about the world’s actual and particular phenomena - but rather provide empty templates for thinking about the world in a certain way. But we still have to do the thinking, and we cannot bring the world into this thinking while remaining solely within the self-contained and reassuring purity of the templates. The world breaks every fixed template into which we try to pour it. Referring back to our diagram: if we can substitute one adjective for another without affecting the correctness of our structure, then we have to acknowledge that the diagram fails us badly as an adequate explication of our speech; it cannot distinguish between any of our meanings. Words hopelessly overflow the expressive power of the diagram.

Despite the fact that formally manipulable quantities and the content of observation have very different character, they are intimately woven together by the scientist, even if the weaving does not often receive critical attention. This is both necessary and proper. But it is vital to understand the differing tendencies of the fabric’s warp and woof, and to recognize the unbalanced extreme to which the prevailing bias toward the quantitative and formal will lead us if it is not countered by something working at cross-purposes with it.

At least in the case of sentence diagrams we still have the meaningful text alongside the abstract grammatical structure indicated by the lines of the diagram. We can refer back to this text and relate our abstract construction to it at any time. We can re-enflesh the formal skeleton. Often in the "hardest" sciences the world-text - the phenomenon we began by trying to understand - disappears entirely behind multiple layers of theoretical construction5. Not only are the mathematical threads in our tapestry of cognition far the most highly regarded, but "observation" has come increasingly to consist of the gathering of quantitative data, so that our tapestry begins to look like all warp and no woof.

Science deeply colors our experience of the world today. Is it any wonder that van den Berg’s tourists should draw an unhappy blank when gazing upon the Alps? We have learned through long habit to discount the speaking content of nature as a vagary of our own detached consciousness, superfluous in relation to the mathematical grammar that, we are sure, must be the potent, if incomprehensible, essence of what lies all around us.

It would be healthier if we could begin questioning our scientific inheritance. It is hardly impertinent to point out that if, in the interest of precision, we narrow our technical language down to an empty formalism, then we are not discovering the world to be meaningless; we are insisting that it be meaningless. There can be discomfort and threat in any confrontation with a speaking presence, and perhaps we should open ourselves to the possibility that much of our satisfaction in the unqualified rigor and precision of our science is really the satisfaction of curling up within the secure refuge of speechless quantity and logic, without having to venture too far out into the complex, soul-gripping presentations of the phenomenal world.

Minor Refinements or Wholesale Revision?

The conflict between the official banishment of meaningful, qualitative language from hard science on the one hand, and the inevitable reliance upon it on the other, has led to a strange sort of schizophrenia. Physicists today employ mathematical constructions so neatly cohering and so universal in their logical coverage that some researchers, such as string theorist, Brian Greene, have wondered aloud whether they are closing in on a finished "theory of everything", while others have publicly debated "the end of science". Yet many of these same physicists are driven by their work toward a kind of rootless, unrestrained, almost childish speculation about the nature of things. I will offer illustrations in a moment. But to see what is going on here, first consider a familiar case.

At a time when scientists were learning to observe and measure very high velocities, Einstein was led to the startling and unexpected theory of relativity. But if, in a scientific gathering today, you were to cite this theory as an example of the susceptibility of science to wholesale and fundamental revision, you can be sure that some of your listeners would respond by saying, "Einstein did not prove Newton’s prevailing formulas to be wrong; he merely showed them to be approximations in need of further refinement - extremely minor refinement under those conditions Newton was able to survey. Relativity did not so much negate Newton as confirm his results and extend them to cover more extreme conditions. The ’correction’ is trivial under most normal circumstances".

And this is true! At least, it remains true as long as we reside within the narrow, quantitative terms of our scientific laws or "grammar of nature". But this is to ignore what was in fact a revolution in our understanding. The revolution becomes apparent as soon as we try to hear the meanings that alone enable our grammatical refinements to speak of the world. Physicist David Bohm reminds us that

while the laws of relativity and quantum theory do in fact lead under special conditions to small corrections to those of Newtonian mechanics, they lead more generally, as is well known, to qualitatively new results of enormous significance, results that are not contained in Newtonian mechanics at all. (1971, p. 133).

Likewise, referring to relativistic effects upon mass, Richard Feynman writes:

philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate laws [such as Newton’s]. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only by a little bit. (Feynman, et al. 1963, p. 1-2. Emphasis in original.)

One wonders only why he says "philosophically" and not "scientifically". Is science really incapable of giving us a "picture of the world", so that this picture must be left to the philosophers? In any case, if we want to understand the world, and not merely define more accurately certain regularities of its grammar, then we must grant that Einstein’s was an altogether different world from Newton’s, requiring a new way of conceiving the fundamental elements of space and time. To say that the changes Einstein introduced to our scientific understanding were "minor" is like taking the sentence, "The large, black dog bit the postman in the leg", changing "black" to "invisible", and then asserting that the change in the sentence is minor - or indeed nonexistent, since the diagrammatic structure remains the same.

A science that can deceive itself in this way is a science that can all too easily say, "Our knowledge leaves no room for the human ’soul’ or ’spirit’". And it’s true that the identification of science with empty formal structure leaves no room for soul and spirit. But it leaves no room for anything else, either. One can agree only with the first half of physicist Steven Weinberg’s remark in Dreams of a Final Theory:

The reductionist worldview is chilling and impersonal. It has to be accepted as it is, not because we like it, but because that is the way the world works. (1992, p. 53)

Weinberg should rather have said, "...because that is the way my preferred language works - the only language I wish to accept as scientific". This language can seem impersonal and chilling only because we have reduced it to a grammar that necessarily ignores whatever understanding we might gain of the world’s meaningful content6.

Deep Math and High Speculation

Once you have sacrificed meaning in order to arrive at your well-behaved grammatical abstractions, there is no way to recover the lost meaning from the abstractions alone. This is why physicists today, despite sharing an admirably exact mathematical grasp of the "fundamental laws of the universe", give us the most amazingly different worlds when they try to imagine the reality from which these laws were abstracted - the reality that actually embodies the laws and lends them meaning.

So it is that the journal Scientific American can advertise one of its publications by asking, "Is there a copy of you in another universe, reading this sentence?" And, we are assured, "the most popular cosmological model today suggests that the answer is yes". The advertisement goes on, however, to note that physicists disagree in how they understand this notion of parallel universes, with some seeing the different realms as "wildly dissimilar", displaying wholly different laws, and others seeing them as near-copies of each other. Such speculation leads the Scientific American writer in the familiar direction taken by so many scientists when they try to explain themselves to a popular audience - namely, toward language that is almost mystical: there is, the advertisement tells us, "another possible plane of reality (one where you are most definitely not alone)".

Don’t feel badly if you’re mystified about this other plane of reality; so, it seems, are the scientists who sell books by employing such language. Their divergent speculations would make the most levitated medieval metaphysician blush. These speculations go far beyond parallel universes and tend to arise whenever researchers try to explain what sort of world their equations are about. Are nature’s laws founded upon absolute randomness? Can time flow backward? Are there wormholes that take a shortcut through spacetime, linking two different times? Is there a shadow universe sharing gravity, but no other forces, with our own universe? Can we know the "real" world at all? Does observation create reality? Does consciousness create reality?

The ground under our feet becomes still more unstable when we consider how even the most basic terms of routine scientific explanation are more or less blank. It was no high confession, but a simple recognition of the obvious when Richard Feynman remarked that "we have no knowledge of what energy is" (Feynman, Leighton, and Sands 1963, p. 4-2). Much the same is true of all the basic terms of science referring to the phenomenal world: gravity, light, heat, space, time, and so on. The language and methods of physics simply don’t aim at discovering a meaning or content for these terms.

The theory of everything, it seems, comes perilously close to being a theory of nothing, or, at least, nothing very meaningfully understood - exactly what you’d expect when the theory’s glory and substance are taken to lie in its purely grammatical or formal lawfulness. If the physicist’s speculations about the nature of the universe sometimes seem bizarrely untethered, it’s because there is not enough reality in the parameters of this science to constrain interpretation - which is one example of the general fact that there is not enough reality in a formal grammar, or in a formalism of any sort, to constrain our understanding of the content expressing itself through the formalism. If we employ a reduced scientific language inadequate to express the world’s reality, we will have a science with fantastic and unstable content reflecting undisciplined fancy more than reality.

And this science, dominated in its meaningful aspects by untethered human fancy, is the same science, so we are continually told, that has displaced the human being from his cherished place at the center of the world!

On Perceiving the World as a Machine

There is, however, one reality principle in the hard sciences, and it rules with a vengeance. It is found in the uncompromising (and perfectly healthy, in its place) demand for devices that actually work. What the researcher proposes does not become a part of science until it leads to an experimental apparatus that suffers predictable change under a specified set of circumstances. This technological imperative, with its useful and often striking consequences for our daily life, accounts for much of the popular conviction that science must have succeeded in connecting us to reality.

And so it must in one way or another. Our science brings us very real manipulative skills. But the skills enabling us to manipulate a thing are not necessarily the skills yielding deep insight into its nature. In fact, in a world of speech and expression (consider your relations to family and friends), manipulation tends to work directly against understanding. In concerning ourselves with the mechanistic logic we can lay bare in an object, we are throwing a veil over its distinctive expressive character. The following reflection may help to clarify the point.

If you wanted to create a manageable, bounded, relatively self-contained realm embodying your conviction that the world is driven and controlled by a kind of formal necessity - by a pure structure of logic - you could hardly do better than to invent the computer. The entire history of technology has converged upon this apotheosis of mechanistic thought, often referred to by theorists as a "logic machine". Strikingly, the machine’s program logic is now taken to be the machine, or at least to be what really counts in it. This is all too natural, given that "today’s computers have been designed to follow strictly a formalism imposed independent of their physical implementation. The properties of the materials that implement the computation are hidden by careful engineering" (Zauner and Shapiro 2006). And so the same, high-level computational behavior can be designed into devices of radically, almost unrecognizably, different physical nature. This physical nature begins to seem irrelevant. It is not for nothing that computer scientists, preoccupied with their pristine algorithmic structures, often refer disparagingly to the clumsy and recalcitrant "world of atoms" in contrast to the light, lucid, and manageable "world of logical bits".

And now it is this machine, its externally imposed formal purity unsullied by the peculiarities of its material embodiment - a machine whose admired logic therefore gives us virtually no understanding of the physical device we marry the logic to - that has become our reigning model for understanding the physical world. We imagine the world’s lawfulness to stand in the same relation to the world as software stands in relation to the computer - but this is a relation in which the lawfulness can tell us almost nothing about the intrinsic character of physical reality!

Along this path the way is open for an ever more complete withdrawal from the world’s self-expression. Whatever the wonders we have produced within the closed system of technology, they do not testify to the disciplining of our understanding by physical reality except in a highly impoverished way. The magic of the digital machine is that by squinting at it and looking in just the right way, we can drop the material device from view altogether and see only the clean, universal, eternal pattern of lawfully articulated logical bits that we ourselves have impressed upon the machine. This logic certainly does not picture for us the inherent lawfulness of copper, silicon, glass, and all the rest. Despite this, we are ever more inclined to view the natural world through the mental grid (or chain-link fence) constituted by our logic-machine-ideal, and we thereby reinforce our impossible desire for a universal grammar of nature that somehow explains and determines everything that happens (Talbott 2003; Talbott 2004).

Of course, it requires only a little spilled coffee to remind us that the materials of the computer have their own substance and presence and sometimes maddening behavior not at all accounted for by the light and lucid "governing" laws we have programmed into their physical structure.

Descent Toward Primitive Animism?

The displacement of meaning by our grammatical fixation helps us to understand the curious ambiguity in our modern sense of alienation from the world. On the one hand, we imagine a kind of iron-clad necessity imposed by universal physical laws. But because these laws are helpless to determine the world’s actual content, our sense of deterministic enslavement is hardly absolute. There is very much an opposite feeling: the typical human complaint in the scientific era has been one of meaninglessness, which is a kind of hopeless non-determinism. That is, the scientific account of the world lacks enough significant order, enough pattern and coherence of the speaking sort, enough sense and intention - in sum, enough textual meaning - to provide a context for our own meaningful existence. The problem is not so much that we are cogs in some inexorable machine suborning us to its own purposes, as that our science would allow this machine no purpose at all, no definite character. And so we become lost atoms moving senselessly in the void.

Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Weinberg gives unwitting expression to the complex nature of our alienation when he writes that we are the "more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes [after the Big Bang]" and that we are all "just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe .... The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless" (1977, p. 144).

Yes, the more we reduce our comprehension of the universe to a mere grammar, the more it seems pointless. But we can’t really have a purely grammatical - an altogether empty or pointless - understanding of anything; we cannot have understanding without a content that somehow speaks. When we try, we end up supplying our own content, however crude and unrecognized. This is why Weinberg, despite his belief in an explanatory lawfulness utterly devoid of meaning, naïvely ensouls this lawfulness with his own meaning: the universe by his account is farcical and hostile - which is a far cry from being pointless.

Because Weinberg is not actually looking at the world’s expressive qualities, his assumptions about their character are little more than a kind of animism in scientific dress; his inhospitable animating spirits of farce and hostility reek more of sour professor than of genuine demon.

Those who do look at the world may see elements of farce or hostility in limited contexts, but they certainly see a great deal more.

[Still to come: Parts II and III of this essay.]

Notes

1. I take purely conceptual content - thought without words, to whatever degree we are capable of such thought - to be word-like in a higher sense than the perceptibly embodied concept (or word). I could have chosen to speak in this essay about the "concept-likeness" of the world, but given the intimate connection of thought and language, together with the modern inattention to pure thought, it seemed more immediately understandable to take language as the starting point.

2. I use "consciousness" in the broad sense, so as to include those so-called subconscious contents not yet known, or fully known, at the self-conscious center of our being.

3. These traditional grammatical categories, however, are extremely loose and such diagrams are poor cousins of the much more rigorous and formal, ongoing effort to articulate mathematically strict grammars.

4. Owen Barfield briefly refers to the polar relation between accuracy and fullness of meaning in Speaker’s Meaning (1967, pp. 35-39). But his earlier work, Poetic Diction (1973, first published in 1928), can be read as a book-length study of these "polar contraries", without, however, referring to them as such. And his rather difficult text, What Coleridge Thought (1971), deals with polarity as a central theme. I am deeply indebted to Barfield for my understanding of the notion of polarity, and therefore for the entire content of this essay.

5. James Lovelock writes in Gaia:

Unfortunately, most scientists live their lives in cities and have little or no contact with the natural world. Their models of the Earth are built in universities or institutions where there is all the talent and the hardware necessary, but what tends to be missing is that vital ingredient, information gathered first-hand in the real world. In these circumstances it is a natural temptation to assume that the information contained in scientific books and papers is adequate, and that if some of it does not fit the model then the facts must be wrong. From that point, the fatal step of selecting only data which fit the model is all too easy, and soon we have built an image not of a real world, which might be Gaia, but of that obsessive delusion, Galatea, Pygmalion’s fair statue.

Lovelock adds that personal contact between the model builders working in city-based institutions and universities, and those relatively few who explore the world, "is rare and information passes through the terse limited phraseology of scientific papers, where subtle, qualifying observations cannot be included along with the data" (Lovelock 1987, pp. 136-37). See also Holdrege 2006.

6. The usual way to describe the relation between scientific laws and observed phenomena is to say that, in order to explain the phenomena, we need not only laws, but a specification of the "initial" (or "boundary") conditions. But this scarcely brings out the crucial requirement. The initial conditions must tell us, not merely "where things start", as if these things could be taken for granted; rather, we must first gain the things themselves as real content. And this descriptive task turns out (see "To Explain or Portray?" below) to be the central work of science.

References

Barfield, Owen (1977). "The Rediscovery of Meaning" in The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Barfield, Owen (1973). Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press. Originally published in 1928.

Barfield, Owen (1971). What Coleridge Thought. Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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© Steve Talbott
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