Science and Natural Language
by Mark English
I once watched a nature documentary about a group of lions in the wild. At one stage a lioness and her cubs found themselves separated from the group. After a period of time during which she almost starved and her cubs were killed, she finally managed to rejoin the group. The other lions certainly recognized her and seemed to welcome her back. They sniffed her body. Who knows what they were thinking – if anything. But the point that struck me was that there was a story here that we as language users could conceptualize and communicate and which these creatures were utterly cut off from. They were tied to the present, and so couldn’t (presumably) even conceptualize time past, much less communicate facts about it.
Narrative is at the heart of language and at the heart of human psychology and culture. We define our individual selves in terms of a personal narrative or set of narratives; and our social and political views could be seen to be a function of how we see ourselves in relation to the broader community, of how our personal narratives intersect with our evolving culture and the cultures with which it interacts.
Political rhetoric is all about appealing to the basic values and hopes and fears of an audience and telling a simple story. In fact, if the current US presidential election contest is any guide, the stories are getting simpler and simpler. (About how voting for us is going to make everything right again or at least keep us safe and voting for them is going to lead to Armageddon.)
Of course, there’s something very suspect about these sorts of stories: their function is to not to describe things and events accurately but rather (in the case of personal narratives) to justify, or (in the case of political rhetoric) to change behavior. And all these narratives are language-dependent in one way or another: language and narrative have a very strong affinity.
Narrative is just one of the forms that linguistic communication can take, and there are many different kinds of narrative, each serving a different kind of (usually pragmatic or practical) function.
Science – like art and literature but in a different way – goes beyond the pragmatic and practical. It is concerned with a particular kind of understanding: understanding for its own sake. (Sure, scientific understanding is a means to many ends but it can also be conceived of as an end in itself.) And scientific activity, though it inevitably occurs within a social and so within a linguistic context and employs natural language directly (especially in its referential mode), typically goes well beyond the scope of natural language, drawing on mathematics and other invented codes and formalisms.
This obvious fact says something about how the world beyond the human, social world is, and also something about the limitations of natural language. However the world is, it is not such that it can be adequately described and explained in natural language.
This is a sobering thought but, looked at in evolutionary terms, it is hardly surprising. Language evolved over many tens of thousands of years to deal with immediate social and pragmatic problems, not scientific ones. In fact, science as we know it only really got started less than 3000 years ago and only matured into its current form in the last few hundred years.
Of course, science depends in many respects on language and on the kinds of referring, abstracting and symbol-manipulation (or morphosyntactic patterning) activities which natural language involves. The capacity for complex language changes the nature of thinking in radical ways, and there is clearly a link between, for example, natural language and artificial languages (like mathematics and logic). For example, the variables of formal logic look a lot like pronouns and its predicates look a lot like verbs or adjectives, and there are many other parallels.
Yes, certain non-linguistic animals can count and maybe subtract in an intuitive kind of way. They also enact certain processes which could be represented in terms of formal logic. But building and using explicit abstract systems can only be done by humans, and I think these formal systems are modelled to a large extent on natural language.
Even ordinary natural language involves a high degree of abstraction. You only need to look at common nouns like ‘tree’ or ‘dog’ to see that. So-called abstract nouns just take the process further (and often further from reality, as it happens). It has even been suggested (by Noam Chomsky) that language evolved primarily as a means of thinking rather than as a means of communication.
Be that as it may, it’s clear enough that without language there would have been no science and no mathematics. This is not to say that linguistically-based cultures necessarily give rise to scientific activity. In fact, throughout history the vast majority of human cultures and civilizations have risen and thrived and disintegrated or merged with others without ever producing anything remotely resembling modern science.
The British biologist Lewis Wolpert wrote a beautiful book called The Unnatural Nature of Science. I won’t try to deal with his specific claims here, but arguably science is unnatural in the sense of running against the grain of most of our innate patterns of thinking. Curiosity – which in a basic form is present in some other animals (after all, it killed the cat) – is one of the few natural drives against which science is not set.
This is just how things are. And if you want (not everyone does, of course) to have an understanding of the wider world in which we find ourselves, the world which both underlies and transcends the world of our social experience, you will have, not to leave natural language and natural language-based thinking behind – you can’t do that – but rather to recognize its inherent limitations and so the necessity of adopting other codes and modes of thinking. Unfortunately such codes and modes just don’t come naturally to most of us and have to be painstakingly learned, usually in a formal educational context and over a quite long period of time.
It is probably best just to accept the phenomenon of natural language as we find it, in all its variety and in its various aspects, and not make judgments about which aspects are more or less important. Certainly, it is a multi-faceted phenomenon which can be fruitfully approached and studied in a range of very different ways. The question as to whether some linguistic functions might be somehow more central (or primary) than others is problematic. Language is as language does, and there seems little point in trying to privilege one function over another.
What about forms? Here I have some strong – but not really worked out or developed – intuitions about the centrality of narrative.
I think it is very suggestive that when you are learning a language narrative texts are the most helpful. It is surprisingly easy to read a story in a foreign language, probably because our brains are primed for this sort of thing and project us forward into the narrative, setting up expectations which in simple stories are usually confirmed. Static description, by contrast, is harder to read. Balzac wrote novels, but they were full of description. Unlike Stendhal, say, Balzac described everything, and there are no prior expectations about, for example, how exactly a room might be furnished. You also need a wider vocabulary to deal with this kind of approach. My suggestion here is that perhaps the narrative mode is indeed primary in some sense.
Also worth noting in this connection is that narratives are often fictions – including the self-narratives we weave about our own lives. Sometimes these are quite out of kilter with reality, and could be reasonably characterized as ‘false’; but, strangely, even if they are plausible, they are never ‘true’ exactly. Unless one believes in an all-knowing God, there simply is no one true or truest narrative or interpretation of a person’s life. Similar things could be said about other kinds of narrative which are not overtly fictional, such as general history. An historical account can be false (i.e. can get things wrong) but can’t be ‘true’ in any clear and objective sense.
This is at once an obvious and a radical idea, and even a shocking one in relation to our personal narratives. It shocked me when I first cottoned on to it, as previously I had always implicitly assumed that there was a true story of an individual life more or less in the way that there is a true account of how stars are formed (or any scientifically-describable phenomenon). This contrast brings out, I think, a fundamental difference between scientific and other kinds of understanding.
Science has always had an uneasy relationship with natural language. Typically, in scientific circles, natural language is not trusted. Scientific understanding is rarely based on natural language alone, and scientists gravitate to technical language and (where appropriate) mathematics. They are, like anyone engaged in complex joint activities, dependent on natural language, but they remain wary of it. Many scientifically-oriented thinkers could be characterized as revisionists with respect to natural language which they typically see as frustratingly vague or ill-behaved. (As indeed it is for most scientific purposes.)
Communicating science to non-scientists is notoriously difficult. Popular science books are said to lose thousands of potential readers per equation, so they are often exclusively language-based. But in areas like physics, for example, such books are of little value in conveying the actual content of current theories. Stories and metaphors can take you only so far.
This is a somewhat depressing note on which to end, so let me throw in (for what it’s worth) a final thought. Imagine there are superior beings who can observe our universe, whether from within it or from outside it (whatever that might mean) doesn’t matter. My question is, what would interest them most: the physics (i.e. the underlying mechanisms); or, to use Balzac’s phrase, the human comedy (bearing in mind that ‘comedy’ had a broader meaning back then)?
For us physics is difficult, even mysterious. But for them it would be as easy and boring as, say, basic arithmetic is to us. Who is to say that these superior intelligences might not be more interested in the crazy and totally unpredictable contingencies of cultures such as ours – in our human stories – than in what the scientifically-minded amongst us are inclined see as the deep and serious stuff?