The boundaries of language

By on Nov 5, 2008 in Physics |

This is a reply to a blog post called “Is astro-physics hindered by our language?” by Nate Lanxon. It is indeed an intriguing question, and it is certainly not limited to astrophysics.

The following scenario came into my head that lead to this thought. Let’s say an English speaker heads to Japan and wants to tell a Japanese speaker, for whatever reason, that he is happy. Saying “I am happy,” means nothing to a Japanese speaker, just as saying “Shiawase da naa,” would mean nothing to our English speaker.

So instead, he simply smiles widely. The emotion is conveyed and, more importantly, it’s understood. And without uing the languages we’ve developed for ourselves.

To stretch the point even further, I’d argue that the smile would be meaningless to a being from another world. The point here though, is that language and facial expressions are the same in that they are subjective reference terms.

I would go on to say that the only truly objective language that could be shared across the universe is mathematics. Any sentient being must have the ability to count. Even if you have two beings that are completely alien to each other, they should be able to agree how to count. From counting, the whole of mathematics then flows, the only hurdle would be the notation.

I think of the word ‘infinity’. To me, infinity isn’t a thing; it’s not a tangible object. Rather, it’s a word we’ve slapped on something that doesn’t exist, so we have a way of talking about it as if it did. Now I don’t believe in physical infinities. I don’t like to think the singularities at the centres of black holes have an infinitely huge gravitational pull. I’m not suggesting the gravitational pulls are not there — obviously — or that they don’t function exactly as they appear to function, but that we’ve slapped a word around them that’s blurring our understanding.

Some physicists do believe in “singularities“, they accept the infinities in our theories. I’m not one of them, I side with Dirac who I believe is to have said: “if you have singularities in your theory, then your theory is wrong“. However, by virtue of the mathematical language we have, infinities do exist, in the abstract and in logic. In fact, there are many proved theorems that wouldn’t exist without the idea of infinity (e.g. the number Pi is defined as an infinite sum, and Pi is very much involved in real world objects). There are observations of nature that agree with mathematical theorems, which in turn rely on infinity.

That means one of two things; either the concept of infinity does have some presence in nature, or that the language we’ve formed which encompasss that idea is merely a good representation of nature.

There are so many potential explanations for how black holes work, but I wonder if one of the things we’re causing problems for ourselves by using, is terminology and language. ‘Infinity’, ‘dimensions’, ‘wave-particle duality’… all terms we’ve wrapped around ideas or observations. What if our understanding of these words and the concepts and scenarios they represent, are standing in the way of us better understanding the actual, non-tangible, ‘things’ themselves?

Wave-Particle duality is indeed another intriguing example. This is a phenomenon that came out of the mathematics, we had no physical intuition for wave-particle duality, the physicists of the time, simply followed where the mathematics took them (something of an intellectual relay race). Although once the mathematics yielded a testable result, the theory was indeed confirmed to agree with observations of nature.

The newest breakthroughs of mathematical physics: Quantum Theory and String/Brane theory, really give me impression that we’ve hit the limit of what we can understand with the mental language we have. By “mental languge”, I don’t just mean our spoken languages, I mean our physical intuitions of the world around us.

There have been geniuses in maths and physics who have leapt beyond logic and come up with a new law (or two) that we now depend on. It would be interesting to be able to understand the cognitive abilities that lead them to those revelations. Indeed, all academics I know often solve a problem when they stop thinking about it and let their subconscious do the work.

Also, perhaps this question of language is a case of different tools for different jobs. There will be different ways of thinking and communicating that are best for particular types of problems.