A Linguistic Overview of This Century's Advances in Physics
What does Physics have to do with Linguistics and Anthropology?
If we all stay in our nice, neat little academic boxes, we can continue going deeper and deeper into a single thing -- but we won't be a part of the move to hook up again, to bring things back together holistically. Like Benjamin Whorf, I have a long-running simultaneous interest in linguistics, modern physics, and Native America, all stretching back over 25 years.
As with him, my interest in physics is simple: language and culture manifest in reality, so linguistics and anthropology must explain its concepts in terms of reality, even though it's the background. Over the 20th Century, our background has changed: physicists' conception of reality was transformed in profound ways. No longer are simple Newtonian particle explanations full and sufficient -- waves and fields and quantum realities must also be made available to the explanation.
Most academics feel like learning their own field is tough enough, and to attempt to understand the likes of Einstein, and all that math ...! And with all these neat consciousness issues floating around -- what's a self-respecting anthropological consciousness researcher to do!
I'd like to present four brief but solid examples that have happened during this century. A warning for any linguists encountering this material: the following does not present our discipline in a rosy light, outright implying that the only reason physicists were able to steal fire from our camp was that we were sleeping and not paying attention to how valuable our gift was, letting it slip through our fingers and mix with our drool. If physics in this century is seen as the veritable Queen of Science, then linguistics has been the unwitting queenmaker.
Where'd the notion of the atom come from?
It's interesting that the question is not closed -- that at the same time in this century that physicists started noticing that an atom was not really a 'thing' in the classical sense, but best described by the qualities of its vibrations, structural linguists also began noticing that, for certain purposes, a [b] sound is better described according to its bilabial, stop, and voiced qualities than by a discrete letter 'b'.
Here, then, is an example of
the constant dialogue between language and reality. And the historical impetus
is very strong: the sneaking suspicion that, as linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf
put it, nature and language are inwardly akin.
Describing the Subatomic Realm
But let's step back from our introduced word-trance called 'a-tom' for a moment and consider what Werner Heisenberg faced early in this century as a quantum pioneer: Although the atom has been considered the smallest 'thing' because it can be divided, the atom actually exists entirely in its radiations, and there is no 'thing' there radiating.
Although physicists talk about 'electron-s', the plural is imaginary since one electron is indistinguishable from another -- in fact, we still don't know a century later whether there is just One Electron in gazilllions of manifestations or actually gazillions of electrons. In such situations, then, fundamental scientific terms like 'same' and 'different' lose all meaning because neither imparts any real information.
Language is discrimination and discrimination is meaning. If you can't discriminate between two electrons, then there is no meaning in words ascribed to their difference.
The toughest part about describing the atom, in other words, is conceptualizing it within ordinary, noun-oriented Western languages suited best to talking about 'things', since there are no 'things' in the subatomic realm.
And a grand methodology begins
to emerge: when the phenomena being studied are of such characteristics that
the language you are using no longer describes the phenomena effectively --
CHANGE THE LANGUAGE! And that sets us up for the next incident of fire- stealing
Staking the Claim on Relativity
Relativity had been around for nearly three hundred years before Heisenberg and Einstein heard of it in their Humboldtian educational training in Germany, and even in physics it is still about language, though mathematical languages like Euclidean geometry instead of full-blown human languages -- a special case of language, you might say. In light of the crucial role given to language by Heisenberg above, a fundamental principle had to be established in order for work in physics to proceed. The language you use gives a limit to what you can describe.
In a way, while Heisenberg opened the question and pointed out the absolute necessity of doing something about it quickly, Einstein pointed out a direction for people to go -- change the language being used for research and description when the occasion warrants it.
As Whorf later stated, "A change in language can transform our appreciation of the cosmos." Because of this fire-stealing, Einstein changed the world in an irrevocable way for us all.
Did Whorf know Einstein? It would be too neat, wouldn't it? I've wondered myself for 25 years -- and just within this past month I have been informed that Einstein and Whorf indeed had at least one face-to-face conversation with each other. I'm still hot on the trail of this one.
Perhaps it's just as well Whorf died young so that he didn't have to endure personally what happened to his ideas. The Whorf Hypothesis Hoax perpetrated by academics effectively prevented generations of grad students from reading Whorf and realizing that the so-called scientific foundation of the social sciences had crumbled. While Einstein's version led to nuclear weapons, Whorf's led to perhaps the most interminable squabble ever seen in halls of academe.
What I do want to emphasize, however, is the mathematical quality of Native American languages that Whorf was pointing to. A colleague once chided me for being credulous when I talked about Native American languages being better suited for quantum physics than our own. After all, sez he, our own physicists utilize an ancient tradition of mathematics -- which we don't see in Native America, now do we?
But let's back up: WHY do our physicists need to use mathematical languages in order to conceptualize the quantum realm? Because there are no things there, and our languages need things in order to hang noun phrases on in order to make sense; we can't make or talk sense about the quantum realm in English, German, French, etc.
But mathematical languages do
not have 'things' -- they are more verby, with processes and transformation
in the foreground, so they can be used to deal with quantum concepts. And
that's exactly what most Native American languages are structurally as well,
except in a qualitative instead of quantitative way. So if they have that
already as their daily language, perhaps they're not as deficient as my colleague
An Innocent Beginning to a Detective Story
Well, why risk becoming embroiled
in the academic firestorm which had been swirling around Whorf for decades
already in the late '70s? Better to let the idea fly or crash on its own:
and, the truth be known, it received much more positive treatment from academics
than did the original by Whorf -- which had been by that time demoted from
a principle to a hypothesis and then straight- jacketed in Newtonian assumptions
by non-scientists who assumed that's what science was, thereby trivializing
Whorf's insights into simplistically winnable logical arguments in English.
While the social sciences were deep in debate ...
It is my own private theory
that David Bohm, pleased with the reception of his Implicate notion by the
academic world, was nonetheless now faced with a deeper question: given how
shabbily academe had treated Benjamin Whorf, declaring his ideas including
linguistic relativity wrong, was it possible that Whorf's description of Hopi
cosmology was actually accurate? How could they receive such opposite treatments?
Three times they tried to sychronize with Indian time so that there were equivalent blank spaces on calendar slots for a meeting with select representatives of Native America, and finally on the fourth time it worked.
Although no Hopis per se were present at the first Dialogue, plenty of Algonquian-language speakers were there, and when the topic of Whorf's conception of Hopi cosmology with its manifesting and manifested orders came up, representatives from Mikmaq, Cree and Blackfoot said that although they couldn't speak for the Hopis, that's the way THEY did it. In scientific terms, this is called 'independent verification,' since Whorf stated this only about the Hopis and never mentioned Algonquians in this regard. So while this does not 'prove' the Hopi point per se, what it does is point to a wide-spread areal feature covering many language families in the Americas that do exactly what Whorf said happens in Hopi -- a phenomenon even larger than Whorf knew at the time.
And, more importantly, Western scientists at the Dialogue specifically stated their agreement with the Native Americans that their indigenous languages -- which they say they can normally speak all day long and not utter a single noun, which refer to relationships and processes rather than things -- are better suited than are our usual Western languages to talking about quantum reality, a realm indigenous peoples aren't even supposed to know about, much less claim to have thousands of years of experience with under a different name (more like 'animateness' or 'spirit').
Though most linguists were still sleeping, at least two were this time awake and participating as a century of fire-stealing came full circle.
Coming around full circle.
What is this gift, this most valuable possession, that linguistics has, which is so prized by physicists? As a particle physicist once told me, "If physics had to deal with meaning as well as everything else it deals with, it could no longer be a science." Meaning. Whorf referred to "the quest for that golden something called meaning."
Language and culture have a unique status in research since the objects of their study exist both in 'outer' society and 'inside' the individual at the same time. As Heidegger said, we consitute our language while we encounter it already constituted.
Linguistics, unlike 'hard science', as that name implies, has always had to balance form and meaning in its equations -- and it is exactly the meaning part that other sciences are so envious of, and why they try to steal our fire. Western science has only awakened to the need for meaning during this century, while indigenous science has been aware of it for millennia -- it never went out of fashion.
Since, as astronomer Sir James
Jeans once said, the universe is looking less and less like a great machine
and more and more like a great thought, today questions of meaning, consciousness,
spirit and quantum realities are becoming the most scientific issues of all.