Incommensurability

Recently (yesterday, as a matter of fact) I received a comment here from a physicist named Travis, who wanted to point out a couple of errors he perceived in my article on Animist Language.

I don’t know Travis; he doesn’t know me. But I’ve waited for him (or whoever would do the work that he has finally done for me) for a long time. I honestly can’t believe it’s taken him this long.

Often in describing the benefits of non-civilized animist languages, I’ve used (inspired by Dan Moonhawk Alford‘s work on “quantum linguistics”) the ability to describe quantum mechanics well as a proof of a language’s ability to describe the world accurately, with integrity. English can’t really do this; many animist languages can. But as Travis points out, the language of mathematics describes quantum events more effectively than any other language out there.

I’ve never felt truly comfortable with using quantum mechanics to support my observations about language. I don’t fully understand it – I have, at best, a layman’s approximation of the theory. I certainly can’t speak with any authority on it, and by using it I fell into the trap Travis mentioned – I have appropriated it for ends unintended by the scientific community. Really, it has always served more as a rickety rope bridge for folks raised in modern scientific culture to reach the place I want them to see, even if only for a moment: the place of a truly, completely, living world. Quantum physics seemed to suggest something more magical going on than that conventionally held by the “common sense” of modern civilization.

But the reminder that mathematics so successfully describes quantum events leaves me with a problem. As a language, mathematics so fully objectifies its subjects that it barely even needs them anymore. What does one plus one equal? How can you answer that without knowing what “one” I mean? “One” what? Well, you can answer me, quite easily, without knowing “what”. And as Einstein said, “to the extent mathematics is true, it does not refer to reality…to the extent it refers to reality, it is not true”.

I wish to ever-improve my ability to speak about reality in a truthful, life-generating way.

This brings me to a fundamental problem. We have, before us, an incommensurability between the countless substantive models of animist inquiry (what you might call non-civilized science) based on an assumption of a living and person-ing world, and modern scientific models based on assumption of a dead, mechanical world (of which quantum mechanics makes a good example). Incommensurability means, according to Thomas Kuhn, (thank you Wikipedia) “the proponents of different scientific paradigms cannot fully appreciate or understand the other’s point of view because they are, as a way of speaking, living in different worlds”.

Kuhn, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, wrote

When paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look into new places.

Combine this with Karl Popper’s observation (paraphrasing here) that “truth” doesn’t mark the result of scientific work, but rather that “the search for truth” fuels the work itself, and you have the likely story of what happened and will continue to happen to us as inquiring beings.

How do we evaluate “truth”?

When we change the world we experience (because of our beliefs about the world), we change what questions we ask, what we see as “real”. This change in attention and questions changes our language itself.

For what does language embody, but a set of directed attentions and questions about the world?

The language of mathematics doesn’t seem to produce more observant, successful, human-habitat-preserving thinking or behavior than any other modern language. Obviously for what it specializes in, it does quite well.

I submit that a language worth having, worth speaking, worth hearing, not only produces accurate (reproducible) observations, but also observations which encourage attention on that which increases the survivability and fulfillment of humans and their more-than-human community.

As far as I can tell, modern scientific language, and the technologies it  births, has accelerated the destruction of life and sanity more than any other force in history.

Therefore, to Travis, and to all the quantum physicists out there I have offended, I humbly apologize, and give you your quantum physics back.

Written by Willem