Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Language of Uncertainty

Part 28 of Prisoners of the Real

As harbingers of a new and more holistic consciousness, speculation in reporting, prose and fiction – all creative challenges to the dogmatic fallacy of a rationalism that confuses theories with clear and irreformable laws – help to replace "objectivity" with "relativity" in social thought.


Until recently physics, the natural sciences and, to a large extent, the behavioral sciences have restricted our vision to space-time concepts. In particular, the comprehension of all relations through the exclusive use of space concepts has manifested itself in our destructive materialism. But Albert Einstein's development of the special and general theory of relativity raised questions concerning the elimination of the psychical element, reasserting the observer's "frame of reference" and redefining the world as a four-dimensional continuum in which the absolute character of time, central to classical mechanics, gives way to the space-time continuum.

Since Einstein's breakthrough the scientific community has been rocked by a variety of new theories involving space-time possibilities, fundamental energies, self-organizing biogravitational fields, and the relation of consciousness to gravity. Perhaps the most revolutionary of the new theories is that consciousness is the hidden variable in the structure of matter itself. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics have thus brought science back to ideas explored two thousand years ago by Parmenides, and subsequently refined by the philosophy of Berkeley, the astronomy of James Jeans, and the work of Whitehead. The ultimate basis of being, they imply, is not sensory material but rather an ideal principle of form.

Along with the return of the doctrine of harmony, the boundary between the observer and the observed has been profoundly altered. The theory of relativity ushered in a fresh understanding of the structure of space and time; more recently, quantum theory has revealed that every measurement in the atomic field requires an act of intervention.

The implications of this new view of reality are extraordinary: quantum theory has established that the process of conceiving any experiment is an experience of an observer who is also a participant, inseparable from the world in which the experiment occurs. Anticipating Heisenberg's "uncertainly principle" more than a decade before immutable facts were replaced by mere possibilities, Alfred North Whitehead noted that each entity originates by including "a transcendent universe of other things." In the 1970s quantum physicist John Wheeler further developed this notion of unity and interconnection. The laws of energy conservation are not immutable, he found; instead, the point-like events of space-time spontaneously break down. Wheeler's "mutability principle," which transcended the conventional laws of physics, led him to conclude that, "There may be no such thing as the glittering central mechanism of the universe."

Quantum theories represent a dramatic conceptual leap in the exact sciences, moving humanity toward a new synthesis of science, philosophy, and spirituality. We are rediscovering that mind is essential. It is both creator of matter and a function of it. As Wheeler conceived it, the universe may be continuously "brought into being" through the vital act of participation. This new concept, Wheeler noted, "strikes down the term 'observer' of classical theory, the man (sic)who stands safely behind the thick glass wall, and watches what goes on without taking part. It can't be done, quantum mechanics says."

The concept of relativity has also led to a revolutionary new concept of culture and language. It begins with the understanding that knowledge categories depend not only on biological factors and absolute knowledge but also on cultural factors. And culture in turn is interrelated with language, whose latent content is the intuitive science of experience.

According to Edward Sapir, whose linguistic research profoundly influenced the study of indigenous cultures, "human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society." In other words, language is not an incidental means of solving problems in "the real world." Instead, that world is "unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." According to Sapir, "We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."

Sapir defined linguistic expression as a self-contained creative symbolic organization that refers both to non-linguistically acquired experiences and to experiences defined through the formal completeness of the language and "our unconscious projection of its explicit expectations into the field of experience." Each newly acquired word is immediately categorized through the pre-existing linguistic organization. Categories such as plurality and singularity, mass and individual, subject and object, at first derived from experience, are later imposed upon experience through the linguistic system.

Most linguistic communication, in fact, is not the result of thought but rather experience in the symbolic mode of expression through habitual language grooves. Put another way, experience is not so much linguistically determined as habituated through the process of bundling together groups of experiences and giving them the same name.

Based on Sapir's theories, Benjamin Lee Whorf subsequently developed the hypothesis that "linguistic patterns themselves determine what the individual perceives in this world and how he thinks about it. Since these patterns vary widely, the modes of thinking and perceiving in groups utilizing different linguistic systems will result in basically different world views." Whorf’s hypothesis refutes the idea that everyone uses the same physical evidence to create the same picture of the universe. On the contrary, Whorf argued, it is our language rather than nature that suggests how we organize the spread and flow of events.

In English and other Indo-European languages, for example, sentences are a combination of parts, basic grammatical units such as nouns, adjectives and verbs. Each one can be separated from its properties and can involve active or passive behavior. This is fundamental to occidental thinking, the basis of our division of matter and form, as well as mass and energy in physics. In contrast, Indian languages such as Hopi or Nootka don't have parts of speech or separate subjects and predicates. Events are signified as a whole. Rather than saying that "a tree fell," Hopi use a single term, "fell (occurred)."

Looking deeper, English nouns referring to physical things are either individual or mass. An individual noun is one that can be defined by a concrete outline – a bottle, for example. When a mass noun such as water has an indefinite boundary, it must often be defined through an individual noun that denotes a body type or a boundary – for instance, a glass of water or a stick of wood. The definition of mass nouns can be further clarified as substances. But substances can't be discussed in an individual sense. Thus, in dealing with commonly used mass nouns, most Indo-European languages require definitions involving a 'formless' item plus a 'form.'

Plurality in numbers is described in two ways – the real and the imaginary. English conceives of 'ten cats' as a real plural. 'Ten minutes' is also real. Imaginary plurals, on the other hand, are based on the concept of cyclicity. Time is always manifested as a cycle – a day, a month, a year, and so on, and each cycle is a single object, pluralized on this basis. Although awareness of time is immediate and subjective, the habitual grooves of these languages transform the experience into something quite different. A length of time is seen as a series of quantities, like a grove of trees. Whorf called the quantifying of imaginary elements – things that aren't concrete – "objectification."

Indo-European languages also objectify phases of cycles such as summer and winter, using the binomial formula of formless item plus form in most cases. Phase nouns occur within the generalized concept of time, and can be either individual or mass, either "a summer" or simply "summer." However, if it wasn't objectified, summer would be a subjective experience of cyclic phase similar to an earlier phase in the ever-becoming-later continuum. Therefore, a binomial formula is used to apply the concept of formless and form to the idea of time. Summer becomes a quantity of time, and is itself a quantity – two summers, or a day of summer.

The verbal tense system of European languages further influences and emphasizes thinking about time. Past, present and future are visualized as points on a line of time. This concept is inconsistent, however, with the experience of time as a totality of consciousness felt as either earlier or later in the ever-becoming later continuum. Sensations, all those things experienced immediately, are called the present. The world of memory is called the past. And the realm of uncertainty, hope and foresight is known as the future. The present tense has another function as well, the "nomic." This deals with generalized statements of truth, such as, "We see with our eyes."

Next: Language Grooves & Quantum Potentials


To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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